Last month, the New York Times Magazine carried a lengthy profile of an Egyptian media entrepreneur who has started a Muslim version of MTV. Here's how the reporter describes Ahmed Abu Haiba:
At the age of 42 he is tubby and, as a sign of his deep faith, has a large zabiba — a dark smudge on his forehead born of rubbing his head repeatedly on a prayer mat. And yet he is not a conventional man and certainly not a conventional Muslim. Today he looks more like a hip-hop mogul, with a black knit golf cap on backward and a suit of all black. And a pink tie.
Plenty of hip hop. You won't find me watching it. Unless of course they feature some Islamic hard rock. Perhaps a band calling itself Aqida (Creed). When it comes to music, I'm rather fussy.
There's also plenty of folksy stuff from Yusuf, as well as Sami Yusuf (no relation). And entertainment of the "Dr Phil" variety. My mum should subscribe.
Abu Haiba is apparently part of a bigger culture war going on in the Arabic-speaking world. The wars take on a particularly political flavour given that so much of the Arab media is controlled by dictatorial governments imposed by governments of countries that would never tolerate such dictatorship. The result is the imposition of a kind of Islam that despises the development of an indigenous culture open to outside influences.
Under whatever guise, and in spite of long and storied musical traditions, there is a significant history of restrictions on music across the Islamic world. In the 1950s, according to the scholar Jonas Otterbeck, the Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Vice in Saudi Arabia banned music and singing, linking them to immorality and Sufism. In Afghanistan, the Taliban famously banned music and went as far as to kill musicians. In Lebanon, Nirvana was banned in the late 1990s after being linked to Satan worship. Between 2000 and 2005, 80 percent of the issues raised by Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians concerned the need to take an Islamic stand on culture and media. And then, in November of this past year, the American pop singer Beyoncé was scheduled to play a concert at an elite resort on the Red Sea. The promotional ads for the concert — featuring Beyoncé in all manner of suggestive costumes, including a half-unitard covered in flames — inspired one Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian named Hamdi Hassan to declare her concert an “insolent sex party” in a letter written to the Egyptian Parliament. The Beyoncé affair, in turn, prompted a great drama in the press, pitting Beyoncé’s defenders against outraged detractors. The concert went on anyway, but not before inspiring an “Against Beyoncé” Facebook campaign. The group attracted about 10,000 members.
Yet these same forces are condemned by their backers for being "extremists" and "Wahhabists". I mean, what the ...?
And so you have young entrepreneurs like Aby Haiba struggling to see outside the imposed cultural square, only to find himself even more inside of it. Still, at least he is trying.
“The voices speaking for Islam today are extremists,” he went on, with his own sort of evangelical zeal. “We see an angry man throwing a stone at an embassy more often than an Amr Khaled.” ...
“4Shbab is changing the way young people look at Islam. I know we can change people at the far end, the Salafists or jihadists. Some of the people who listen to us now used to not listen to music at all!” ...
... “Imagine ‘Big Love’ or ‘The Wire’ with Islamic themes,” he said. You could see the optimism and excitement in his eyes. “I think in a short time we will be at the top of the charts. You see, Islam is like a big bus. You can be standing at the door, or you can be at the steering wheel. My plan is to be at the steering wheel.”
Should we imagine?
Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf
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