The relationship between art and faith can be stormy as the protests over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and Jerry Springer: The Opera have shown. Susan Roberts looks at new efforts to calm troubled waters.
Abid Hussain was born in Birmingham twenty-seven years ago and has lived there ever since. 'I love the place,' he says convincingly.
He's been Arts Council England's Diversity Officer for the West Midlands for the past four years. And it's perhaps the city's strong racial and cultural mix that has spurred him into his ambitious new project, a website exploring the relationship between different faiths and the arts.
'What we wanted to see was what religion had to say about the various art forms,' he says. 'Within the arts sector, we have a really good knowledge of ethnicity but sometimes people disengage from the arts not because of the colour of their skin, but because of their religion.'
A practising Muslim, he started to develop www.faithandthearts.com about two years ago. The subsequent controversy over the BBC's screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera, protests over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed and the heated debate around the religious hatred bill confirmed the importance of dealing with sensitivities over faith and its portrayal in art.
Too often media coverage concentrates on the views of a minority within a religion, he says. Jerry Springer: The Opera triggered a ground swell of well-articulated protest from moderate Christian groups but the strident and extreme line of the evangelical group Christian Voice hogged the headlines.
When nuances are ignored, everyone loses out - artists, art managers, audiences and the general public. There is, he says, always a fuller picture - within Islam, for example, just as much as in other religions.
'Different traditions have different beliefs about different art forms depending on the kind of Muslim you are. In the Sunni tradition, music is discouraged. But in many Sufi schools of thought the heritage is really strong and music is a way of worship.'
The new site has just been launched thanks to his efforts. When Arts Council funding looked limited, he raised extra money with the support of consultancy firm ABi Associates, Fund House Consulting and Working Broadband GB.
'I am passionate about my religion and passionate about the arts,' he says. 'I come from a very personal perspective but I really realised the benefit this would have for audiences with people like myself who do take their religion into consideration.'
The aim is twofold: to increase general understanding of different religions and the way they engage with the arts, and to take art to wider audiences by developing this understanding. This has to be a key aim of Arts Council England, which is the country's main distributor of government and Lottery funds for the arts.
At the moment the site is fairly skeletal. It offers a guide to seven UK faith communities - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari and Sikhism - and explores the impact of these faiths on programming, audiences and venues.
Seven contributors have written papers, people who, like Abid, are passionate about the arts and about their religion. Beverley Saunders writes about Judaism. She talks about the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' views on art: he likes the novelist Iris Murdoch's observation that it 'unselfs', releasing the viewer from the prison of his cares.
She explains that Judaism does not allow the use of the word 'God' in printed non-sacred text, referring to G-d instead. She also talks about practical concerns for arts programmers – the dietary requirements of certain audiences, for example.
'I'm really hoping that the website will be embraced by the arts sector,' says Abid. 'It's saying to them if that if you increase your awareness of these communities you can engage with them better.' Contributors note simple things too often ignored, times sacred to different religions, for example.
They also discuss ethical issues around funding. The Rev Frances Biseker discusses Christians' views on Lottery money: the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have no problem in accepting it. The Methodist Church debated the issue for some time but now leaves the matter to individual churches. The Salvation Army will not knowingly benefit from Lottery funding.
Abid aims to add to this basic body of work with case studies and further articles. He hopes that it will become a mini encylopaedia, his version of the web's Wikipedia that is constantly developed and enlarged by contributors.
The level of the initial response has taken him by surprise. He expected the main audience to be artists, art organisations and programmers booking venues. But in fact, he has cast the net far wider than he expected. Not just the established art sector, but vicars, volunteers and a host of people organising arts events around the country have emailed with suggestions, additional information and details of events.
He sees it becoming a resource for all practitioners, on a national level or in local churches, mosques or synagogues. 'I want the site to be owned by the people who use it.'
Over the next few months, he says, the website will become more interactive, including events listings and introducing information about the Baha'i and Jain faiths.
'It's for people in the arts to see that people in faith communities are doing fantastic things and reaching audiences that they might not normally reach,' he says. 'We want people to have the information to ask informed questions. For every Jerry Springer, there's a fantastic project happening in a rural church.'
• Visit Faith and the Arts website