Islamic windows on the west

By Davina Patel

Davina Patel

Davina Patel

Marwan Bassiouni’s powerful photographs capture the diversity of Islam in the Netherlands. He talks to Davina Patel.

‘New Dutch Views#1’, The Netherlands, 2018. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

‘New Dutch Views#1’, The Netherlands, 2018. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

The photographs show views of Dutch streets and countryside, seen through the windows of mosques. The focus is on the outside, western, world. The photographer, Marwan Bassiouni explains, ‘For me it was a way of finding a formal way of expressing that will to question not Islam but the western view of Islam. The images are all based on a perspective, a point of view.’

In his exhibition and book, New Dutch Views, Marwan’s focus is less on Islam as a religion than on how it is represented. He speaks of a ‘subtle racism’, which denies Islam’s diversity. ‘You know we can’t put all Muslims in one box, yet we are doing it,’ he says. After connecting to his faith, Marwan decided to create a project that counteracts negative stereotypes, challenges people’s perceptions and celebrates the diversity of Islam.

All photography has a message, Marwan maintains. ‘Photography can be in good or bad hands. It is often in the hands of big political economic forces. There’s no innocent photograph. As George Orwell said: “All art is propaganda; on the other hand, not all propaganda is art.” The same can be said of photography.’

Half Egyptian and half American, Marwan was born in Switzerland and travelled between Egypt and America from a young age. ‘A lot of people see these two cultures as in conflict with each other,’ he says. ‘But for me it’s just family.’

‘New Dutch Views#3’, The Netherlands, 2018. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

‘New Dutch Views#3’, The Netherlands, 2018. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

He grew up with many negative ideas about what was happening in the Middle East, as it was shown from a western, American perspective. As Islamophobia rose across Europe, with record numbers of hate crimes targeting the Muslim community, he began to see the media’s role in fuelling prejudice. ‘I started to question what types of information we see. That led me to be interested in political subjects.’

He discovered photography when he was 23 and working for a human rights NGO. At about the same time, he also discovered Islam. ‘I started to have an interest in spirituality, in our existence and in really understanding the world. I feel only religious practice can deal with these types of existential questions on a psychoemotional level.’

Marwan cites the 11th century theologian, Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, as an inspiration and spiritual teacher. ‘He wrote all his books to share his knowledge about the religion, the unseen and jihad (the inner personal struggle with one’s self). His writings were rich in insights and lessons on how to improve one’s self. He was preoccupied with the purification of the heart and the inner dimension of Islam. How to become a better human being while adopting an Islamic (and cosmological) world view is something I was very much interested in.’

Marwan says that the more he studied Islam the more the way he took photographs changed. He started to look into sacred art and to question the form and impact of his images. ‘The more I understood the Islamic concept of beauty and excellence, which is called ihsan in Arabic, the more I was inspired to make work that really celebrates creation. With New Dutch Views, there are almost no shadows. I’m trying to almost scan the surfaces so the picture is focused on the subject matter and has that emotional connection.’

New Dutch Views is his first solo exhibition. He sees it as ‘the first chapter’ of a bigger project. ‘My plan is to go to all the western countries that have enough mosques and take pictures through their windows. I want to create New French ViewsNew British ViewsNew American Views and so on.’

‘New Dutch Views #24’, The Netherlands, 2019. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

‘New Dutch Views #24’, The Netherlands, 2019. From the series New Dutch Views, 2018-2019. ©Marwan Bassiouni, Courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos- Amsterdam.

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