She's an Iranian exile herself, so I'm willing to believe she knows something about the culture she's critiquing with her work, as well as the risks she took in having it displayed.
She said that by photographing gay Iranian exiles in masks of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and Ali, his son-in-law, she had wanted to expose a “hypocritical” attitude towards homosexuality in countries such as Iran, where men can be hanged for homosexual conduct.I can see where people could think the masks were unnecessary, that she could have taken more traditional portraits of the men, but I've seen some of the photographs in ARTNews and the masks are not gratuitous. Without the reference to Muhammad, there's no distinction between them and other photographs she has made of Dutch gays, and certainly no illumination of the social phenomenon she set out to illustrate in the first place. Similar to depictions of Barack Obama as Jesus that comment on an attitude toward his campaign; not at all similar to defecating on a religious icon, which doesn't illustrate anything except an artist's lack of wit (you're supposed to grow out of poop jokes by the time you're old enough for art school...).
Overlooked by both art critics and those who believe in free speech: it's obvious that if the men's faces were visible, she would have put THEM at risk of being killed by family, neighbors, or activists who see the work (in contrast, the models in the infamous "Sex Toy Last Supper" go about their business with no worries). The artist chose to exercise her right to comment freely on a society, and she did it in a responsible manner.
The museum that was to originally display the work didn't even wait for a "request" from Muslims before it censored them--the masked men could not be included in the forthcoming exhibition because “certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive”. Even still-lifes of FLOWERS are going to offend SOMEONE. No one refuses to display scat-on-Christianity art because it's offensive (I wouldn't--I'd refuse because it's lousy art). If you're afraid of losing your building or other artwork to homemade explosives, come out and say so!
Wouter Bos, the deputy prime minister, seemed to take a stand for freedom of speech, saying: “In a democracy, we do not recognise the right not to be insulted.” The left wing de Volkskrant newspaper, by contrast, praised the museum for its “great professionalism” in excising the images.Another museum has agreed to display her photographs; we'll see what happens.
(Aside: I have an urge to propose an installation I'll call "art that offends no one." It will be an empty room with blank white walls. Someone will be offended by my use of the color white.)