At a ‘Catholic’ college, the writing’s on the wall

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The Article

This Is Not ‘Folkloric Islamic Calligraphy.’ It’s A Symbol Of Muslim Power

King’s University College, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario, treasures its 2007 Race Relations Award from the City of London, Ont. It’s proof that the Catholic liberal arts college’s unusually vigorous efforts to encourage multicultural diversity on campus are working to plan.

Although it is still “proudly and fiercely Catholic” (in the words of King’s principal Gerald Killan), the college has already allocated at least two prayer rooms for its growing population of Muslim students. That’s perhaps column fodder for another day. Today’s concerns King’s recent acquisition, with funds provided by donors in the Muslim community, of a vivid green neon artwork of Islamic provenance entitled Kian. It presently occupies a very public space on King’s exterior wall and—according to one’s ideological perspective—either adorns or insults the College’s mission.

Kian’s creator, Jamalie Hassan, is a third-generation Lebanese-Canadian. She designed the calligraphic installation specifically for King’s public face. Hassan says “kian” translates as, depending on whether you see it through a Persian, Arabic or Celtic lens, “benevolent monarch,” “soul or essence,” or “ancient soul.” The King’s Web site http://uwo.ca/kings/news/stories/2007-KIAN.html furnishes details of the artist’s project concept, including a high-minded quote from the late Arab-American cultural pundit, Edward Said, from whom Hassan takes her philosophical inspiration.

If one accepts Hassan’s version of the Kian’s provenance and symbolism—and King’s wholeheartedly did: Principal Killan described it to me as “folkloric Islamic calligraphy”—the installation presents as a charming cultural bridge, aesthetically linking East to West, Islam to Catholicism and ancient kings to modern King’s (University College).

But principal Killan’s explanation is problematic. The claims that religious symbols may be “folkloric” reflects a decidedly Western trope. Muslims cherish their dogmas far more than modern Christians do. Indeed, Islam has no “folklore,” only religious tradition. According to Islamic scholars I spoke with, Hassan has been disingenuous in her description of her creation’s origins, and King’s willfully naive in accepting and displaying it.

For the last 10 years, retired King’s psychology professor Heinz Klatt has devoted himself to the study of Islam. He was shocked by the appearance of Kian on the King’s wall, because he recognized it immediately as a tughra with the word “kian” superimposed on it.

The tughra, Klatt explains, is essentially a sultan’s signature: It “contains the name of the sultan, his filiation and a programmatic statement ?It is a powerful Muslim statement of dominance over Christianity, symbolizing Islamic triumphalism, imperialism [and] expansionism.” He compares Hassan’s calligraphic conflation of the word “kian” and the tughra with the word “peace” superimposed on the hammer and sickle.

Gordon Nickel, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia., concurs with Klatt on the installation’s provenance: “[The design’s] resemblance to the tughra—and to nothing else, really—is clear.” He wonders why the artist does not refer to the tughra in her commentary. The tughra, he adds, is particularly associated with strongmen, such as Suleyman the Magnificent and subsequent Ottoman sultans who menaced Europe for centuries.

One is also struck by the prominence accorded Edward Said in the promotion of the artwork. As anyone who follows the Middle East knows, the U.S. scholar regularly railed against Israel and the West, which he saw as engaged in an ongoing neocolonial campaign against the Arab world. As Nickel notes, “Said was hardly a disinterested party in [any] discussion of religious and cultural diversity ? I’m curious to know why Said should have become a Catholic college’s guide of choice for the difficult questions which diversity raises.”

Indeed. Why invoke one of Christian civilization’s most censorious critics as a moral authority rather than—here’s an apparently radical thought—Pope Benedict, profoundly steeped in knowledge of Islam-Christian relations and someone whose doctrinal eminence, one might think, is rather more relevant to the mission and self-presentation of a college that is supposedly “still proudly and fiercely Catholic.”

King’s intends to relocate the kian/ tughra to an inner courtyard, and there is talk of its being mounted alongside Jewish and Catholic symbols. This may sow further discontent. For if religious diversity is the goal, why privilege only the Abrahamic lines? Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists—and hey, atheists!—believe in their truths too, no? Diversity! It’s all good!

When an institution forgets its raison d’etre, it will give way to the certainties of those that remember theirs. The handwriting is on the wall at King’s—in more ways than one.

 

Barbara Kay
Latest posts by Barbara Kay (see all)

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