Louvre opens Islamic art wing amid cartoon row

A look inside the new 100m euro (£80m) wing, with its 'floating carpet' roof

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The Louvre Museum in Paris is opening a new wing dedicated to the art of Islam. It has taken a decade and nearly 100m euro (£80m) and comes to fruition amid tensions between the Muslim world and the West.

This is the most significant and innovative architectural extension to the Louvre since IM Pei shook the venerable institution with his glass pyramid in 1989.

At the time, there were many who argued that his structure would destroy the classical beauty of this palace of art. Now, of course, it is among the most popular attractions in Paris.

Opening this weekend in the neo-classical, 19th Century Visconti courtyard of the Louvre, the new Department of Islamic Art has a undulating glass and metal roof, resembling a floating carpet, under which will be displayed the largest and most significant collection of Islamic art in Europe.

The new extension of the museum has generally been welcomed, but comes at a very sensitive time in relations between the West and the Muslim world.

The gallery, partly funded by the French government, is a statement which underlines its desire to be in the forefront of engaging with the Arab world and the Middle East, in all areas, from culture to politics.

The biggest single donor, is Prince Waleed Bin Talal,of Saudi Arabia. His 17m euro (£13.5m) donation has helped to make the gallery possible. It has been a decade in the making and, when I spoke to him, he told me why he was willing for his foundation to contribute to this project:

Vase in Islamic art department Art spanning 14 centuries is on display

"Since 9/11, it is the duty of all Muslims to explain to the West what real Islam is like and how peaceful the religion is."

The gallery is being unveiled at a time when the West's relationship with Islam is as tense as it has been for some time. At least 80 people were arrested last weekend in Paris, when French Muslims demonstrated outside the US embassy protesting against the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, which was made in the US.

Since then, France's satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has published cartoons portraying and lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims who planned a demonstration on Saturday were told by police that they were forbidden from gathering. Add to this, the decision by the satirical magazine to print another 70,000 editions, all featuring the cartoons.

Start Quote

If we ask people in the street, not many would be aware that the Islam gallery has opened, they won't know about it”

End Quote Marwan Mohammad Collective Against Islamophobia spokesman

Mindful of the context, when President Francois Hollande attended a VIP gathering to mark the week of the gallery's opening, he said: "The honour of Islamic civilisations is older, more vibrant and more tolerant than some of those who pretend to be speaking in their name today.

"It is the exact opposite of the obscurantism that annihilates the principles and destroys the values of Islam by spreading violence and hatred."

But there is some question over who this gallery is aimed at. Marwan Mohammad is a writer and spokesman for CCIF, the Collective Against Islamophobia. During a walk around the multicultural area he grew up in, he said: "If we ask people in the street, not many would be aware that the Islam gallery has opened, they won't know about it.

"There is also an Islamic cultural centre near here, funded by the government, but no one attends, because it doesn't relate to them. The gallery displays a vision that is Orientalist, and not inclusive of the Muslim community".

According to Mohammad: "President Hollande sees Islam only as a cultural element and history, but not as a real, living culture in its midst".

Not surprisingly, the Louvre is keen to focus on the art, the culture and the civilization they want to present in the gallery; a civilization which is plural and not seen only through the prism of religion.

Lectern and lamps
  • October 2002 - President Chirac proposes new Islamic art department
  • July 2008 - ground breaking
  • 2,500 works of art to be exhibited in new gallery
  • 4,600 sq m in new gallery
  • Louvre holds 18,000 pieces of Islamic art in its collection

Sophie Makariou is the director of the gallery and the head of its new Islamic Art Department: "This huge world was built by a lot of different people and they used various languages. Arabic, of course, which was the first language of the Islamic world, and later we can say it was really an imperial language in the Islamic world, and then later Turkish languages."

Among the 2,500 objects in the gallery, there are mosaics from the Damascus mosque and a delicately carved ivory box from 928, and a 15th Century Mamluk porch.

This gallery was really former President Jacques Chirac's idea. He said he wanted to highlight the contributions of Muslim civilizations to Western culture.

Chirac, who vigorously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, constantly pushed for the idea of a "dialogue of cultures" to break down the misunderstandings between the West and the Muslim world.

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