LONDON: In a statement made last week, Elizabeth Barker, executive director of the Frick Pittsburgh, apologized for the offense caused by the reasons she initially gave for the postponement of an Islamic art exhibition at the renowned museum.
“My words gave the offensive and utterly wrong impression that I equated Islam with terrorism and that I saw Jews and Muslims — communities with millennia of peaceful interconnection — as fundamentally opposed,” she said in the statement.
The announcement to postpone “Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art,” described by the museum’s press release as invoking “the rich history of the Islamic world and the shared human experiences that bind us,” was made 10 days after the Oct. 7 onset of the Israel-Hamas war.
In an early statement, Barker had told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “When war broke out in the Middle East, we were as heartbroken as everyone, and we realized that we were about to open an exhibition that a forgiving person would call insensitive, but for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic.”
She had also expressed concern over the safety of museum staff and a wish to better contextualize the exhibits and engage more fully with the local Muslim community.
Members of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Pittsburgh were critical of her reasoning.
Christine Mohamed, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, said: “It’s disheartening to witness such insensitivity when blanket statements are made about an entire religion, particularly when they have the potential to incite harm in the Pittsburgh Muslim community.”
Adam Hertzman of the Jewish Federation Greater Pittsburgh told Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station, WESA: “Equating Islamic art and Muslims in general with Hamas is certainly biased and is certainly something we’re against.”
Arab News spoke to two academics from the University of Pittsburgh to get their perspective on the issues.
Raja Adal, associate professor in the Department of History, said: “In some ways, the museum’s response was playing into the hands of extremists who want precisely this kind of division between what is Islamic Arab on the one hand and what is Jewish Israeli on the other.
“An exhibition like this is an opportunity to push back against extremists who are creating this violence. The solution to this conflict will certainly not be military, but it’s probably not just political either. A lasting solution requires us to stake out ground for mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s humanity. Discovering each other’s humanity through knowledge or beauty matters. For somebody who has grown up on one side of this conflict, seeing beauty on the other side can be transformative.”
He takes some positives from the discourse that has developed: “I think the museum director has gone through a whole learning process, and it is a forthright apology.”
Yasmine Flodin-Ali, assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies, told Arab News she had been very surprised at the announcement to postpone the exhibition.
“The event was already being advertised in early September when I started here as new faculty, and I was planning on giving it as an extra credit opportunity for my students. I teach ‘Introduction to Islam,’ and at the end of my course this semester, we have a whole week where we talk about Islamic art.
“When the exhibition suddenly disappeared from the website without explanation, it was very strange. I called the museum because I had a feeling that unfortunately this was related to the war.”
She was told it was simply a question of scheduling conflicts.
When she subsequently read the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article, she said she was upset because the postponement was being linked to the Israel-Hamas war and the fifth anniversary of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting tragedy, in which a Pennsylvania man with white supremacist, anti-Semitic and bigoted views shot 11 congregants at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, critically wounding two others and injuring five responding police officers.
“The thing that was sad about that was that part of the reason why the shooter targeted the synagogue was because it did a lot of refugee assistance, including refugees mostly from Muslim countries. I heard that the community really rallied together, and a lot of local mosques raised money for the synagogue. It was a time of togetherness,” Flodin-Ali said.
“It was also offensive because it made it seem as though the Jewish community in Pittsburgh would be offended by art, which I don’t think is the case. So far, I haven’t found any evidence for anyone asking them not to put the exhibition on. There was a lot of pushback and a petition that went around.
“But I appreciate their (the museum’s) latest statement. I am glad that they are bringing it back next August and that they finally arrived where they did. But to be honest, I think it was because of public pressure.”