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Battling over the public sphere: Islamic reactions to the music of today

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Battling over the public sphere: Islamic reactions to the music of today
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  Battling over the public sphere: Islamic reactionsto the music of today Jonas Otterbeck  Published online: 1 November 2008 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2008 Abstract  This article analyses discussions about music in the new public sphere of the Arab world. First, it focuses on what states do to control musical expressions andwhat functions religious actors have in that control. Four cases are looked into: SaudiArabia, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. Then the article discusses theologicalarguments, in the public sphere, about music. The theologians are divided intothree positions: moderates, hard-liners and liberals. It is argued that structuralchanges of the public sphere  —  especially with regards to new media and consumer culture  —  have caused a heated debate about music and morality. While hard-linersand moderates engage in a discussion about the legal and the forbidden in Islam,liberals stress the importance of allowing competing norms. Examples of extremist violence against musicians is discussed and contextualised. Keywords  Consumerculture .Music.Islam. Newmedia.CensorshipThe moral implications of music have come under discussion again in the Arabworld 1 during recent decades as the  ‘ soundscapes ’  of everyday life have changed.Video clips with the latest songs flood the TV-channels of the Arab world. Directorsconsciously balance on the limits of the accepted spurring debates in media and onthe Arab street on morality, sexuality, the purpose of art but also the  halal   and the haram  of music and musical instruments. At the same time, a consumer-orientedyouth culture, borrowing from global cultural flows, changes local conditions. New Cont Islam (2008) 2:211  –  228DOI 10.1007/s11562-008-0062-y 1 With the Arab world, I refer to North Africa, the Arab peninsula and the Arabic speaking countries east of the Mediterranean.J. Otterbeck ( * )International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER), Malmö University, Malmö, Swedene-mail: Jonas.Otterbeck@mah.se  styles in music, sub-cultural dress, consuming patterns of music and a new use of music in every possible device and place, 2  bring about an interesting, heateddiscussion about the public sphere.As a reaction to changes, some states and local authorities have taken actionagainst heavy metal musicians, female singers, music videos, and public concerts.Islamist and conservative Islamic organizations or individuals try to disturb and break up concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically. Moderate Islamic scholars call for moderation and discussion, condemningthe violence and hard-line attitudes, but at the same time ask musicians to be morerestrictive when it comes to provocations and sexuality. Some liberal Islamic scholarstry to create space for music while others urge for a competitive Islamic counter popculture.Since the possibilities of disseminating ideas through media and coming intocontact with media have increased manifold the last two decades, all public actorshave to reconsider their strategies when trying to reach out to the general public. Thesituation creates a new kind of public sphere outside the control of the different states. Commercial Satellite TV channels challenge the states ’  possibilities of controlling broadcasting to their populations. Further, dissident usage of new media 3 ,in contrast to state radio and state television, to reach the general public causes muchannoyance to many states since this type of media is almost impossible to monitor,as Eickelman and Anderson aptly write:  ‘ Viewpoints suppressed in one mediumalmost inevitably find an outlet in others ’  (Eickelman and Anderson 2003:5).When considering the consequences for Islam, this new public sphere challengesand renegotiates authority and creates a forum for a plurality of interpretations. Thespread of literacy, the creation of a consumer-oriented broad middle class, newmedia and global cultural flows are all phenomena shaping the new public sphere(Eickelman and Anderson 2003). Due to different circumstances, music has becomea symbolic question in the debate about this new public sphere.The aim of this article is to expose the main Islamic arguments of those involvedin the discourse on music, and to understand the contexts of different interpretations.I will start by outlining how states have reacted to different aspects associated withmusic. Then I will dwell on other actors, their use of different media and their interpretations. Finally, I will present an analysis of the discourse trying to connect the analysis to the media of the Arab world and the spread of consumer culture. 4 2 It is rumoured that al-Azhar students downloaded the  adhân , the call to prayers, and Qur  ’ anic recitationand used the sound clips as signal for their mobiles. It became so widespread that teachers banned its use.Another example is that in early November 2007, The Islamic Jurisprudence Council chaired by Saudigrand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh issued a fatwa claiming the use of Quranic recitation as ringtones for mobile telephones is un-Islamic (the madina.com 2007). 3 Eickelman and Anderson (2003:8f) discuss what they call new media referring to new electronictechnology like phones, faxes, computers, new printing techniques etc. in contrast to conventional print and broadcasting. 4 Since this article is a part of a major research project in progress, I would like to draw the readers ’ attention to the fact that I have relied, on several occasions, on reports given in the media without havingthe possibility at this stage of fully checking the accuracy of all the information. I have, of course, tried my best to double check the information.212 Cont Islam (2008) 2:211  –  228  Music and the state To my knowledge, no general ban on music or musical instruments exists in any of the countries of the Arab world. The ban on music and musical instrumentsorchestrated by the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan (Baily 2001) 5 and before that, theIslamic revolution in Iran (Youssefzadeh 2004) 6 has only one comparable case in theArab world, that of Saudi Arabia during the middle of the 20th century (see below).On the contrary, the states in the Arab world can be said to be permissive when it comes to music in general and several countries have a flourishing music industrythat both the population and government is proud of, like Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and,indeed, Saudi Arabia. Musicians are at times turned into national icons (aselsewhere) like in Egypt where, for example, Umm Kulthum and Muhammad Abdal-Wahhab are more or less synonymous with national high culture (Armbrust  1996).Further, the rich folklore and classical music traditions of the Arab world are moreoften hailed than attacked (Danielson et al. 2002).Still, censorial authorities in the Arab states are active in censoring music, the keyissues being public morality, decency, and political critique. For example, theEgyptian Press Law of 1980, especially article 48, stresses the inadmissibility of specific political critique when the country is in a state of emergency (Mostyn2002:26; al-Zubaidi 2004:40). Egypt has been in a state of emergency since the emergency law (158) was passed in 1958. It has been amended several times and thestate of emergency remains (al-Zubaidi 2004:40).Several states demand licences for the production of music. But prior censorshipis difficult since much of the market is not controlled, as international intellectual property laws are not honoured. In the urban centres in several of the Arab countriesyou can obtain pirate copies of the latest commercial music from Europe, Americaand the Arab world readily made for you as you wait. At times you even find storeswith a good selection of metal, hip-hop, independent rock, etc. Basel Qasem,director of IRAB Association for Arabic Music, estimates that 25  –  50% of the totalrecord sales in the Arab world is piracy, but in some countries it is almost 100%(presentation at Freemuse ’ s conference on  ‘ Freedom of Expression in Music ’ ,Beirut, October, Qasim 2005). Furthermore, the states cannot control what is produced in other countries.Even if the market could be efficiently controlled, the introduction and spread of new media makes control of the dissemination of music virtually impossible. This isalso acknowledged by some state officials like UAE information minister SheikhAbdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan who in 2000 predicted that by 2005 censorship lawswill become thoroughly useless because of the spread of Internet (Mostyn 2002:34).What remains is the control of the use of music and the battle over its usage in the 5 The issue of music was not uncontroversial before the Taliban regime, and the practice of music was part of a moral discourse and in some areas like Herat musicians lived under severe restrictions (Baily2001:31ff; Mostyn 2002:116). 6 The Iranian state has slowly changed its policies and is much more liberal today than ten years ago, but still all music must pass the censorship authorities (the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry) and certainrestrictions are still adhered to. The most restrictive law being that a female singer is not allowed to singsolo; she has to be part of at least a duo so her voice can not be easily separated as the female voice isarousing to men, by definition.Cont Islam (2008) 2:211  –  228 213   public sphere. What kind of music is allowed to be performed or listened to bywhom and where?At times, the call for censorship is voiced by Islamic scholars claiming that Islam, public morals, or tradition is threatened by a certain piece of music, artist or trend.Depending on the context and the specific laws of the countries, the scholars can usedifferent ways of trying to ban or restrict what is disliked. Below follow someexamples. The Saudi Arabian case Saudi Arabia, during the 1950s, had the most extreme form of restrictions any Arabcountry has seen up until now. The committee for the Advancement of Virtue andElimination of Vice (AVEV) 7 in Saudi Arabia banned music and even singing.Instruments and gramophones were either confiscated or demolished. By attendingmusical gatherings you risked being beaten up by AVEV (Grove Music Online2005a, b). This was legitimated by Wahhabi scholars who saw music as connected with immoral behaviour, illegitimate ritual healing and Sufism (which Wahhabismwas, and still is, highly critical of). When King Ibn Saud was succeeded by Sa ’ ud,his eldest son (1958), and when Faisal, a younger son, became prime minister andlater king (1964), AVEVeventually lost jurisdiction over music and singing (Mostyn2002:180f). According to Saudi Arabian academic Mazin Motabagani from AlMadinah Centre for the Study of Orientalism, the first   ‘ legal ’  wave of popular musichit Saudi Arabia in the early 1960 ’ s (personal communication, Beirut, October, 2005).Censorship in general is practiced according to the 1982 royal decree on the pressand publications. According to Reporters without borders (2005a),  ‘ any criticism of the government, the royal family, heads of state of friendly countries or religiousleaders is liable to prosecution and imprisonment. ’  Censorship is ordered by severaldifferent bodies like the Ministry of the Interior and the information minister, but also by individuals in their capacity as members of the royal family. The GrandMufti of Saudi Arabia has the authority to demand censorship on, for example, journalism (Reporters without borders 2005b). The Internet, which the public wasintroduced to in 1999, is closely monitored and sites are regularly blocked, but skilled Internet users know how to get around these blocks. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (2005), the number of banned Internet sitesreached 400.000 in 2004.When it comes to music, the state regulates recordings and live performances.During the 1990 ’ s Saudi Arabia managed to develop a successful music industrywith several superstar singers. But the industry is gendered; only a few femalemusicians have been given licences to make recordings. However, according toethnomusicologist Lisa Urkevich, female musicians have a huge market for live performances at celebrations, wedding parties, etc. playing to all-female audiences(Grove Music Online 2005b). If the female side of a party is to have any music, it has to be played by female musicians or female DJs due to the gender segregated 7 An alternative translation is  “ The committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ” .214 Cont Islam (2008) 2:211  –  228  society. Another arena for women ’ s music (and dance) was in connection withhealing rituals, the zar ritual in particular. However, Wahhabi theologians havedeemed this practice un-Islamic and immoral because of its use of music and of  ‘ magical ’  rituals and have persecuted the practice for decades (Doumato 2000: 217).At times, Islamic scholars have proclaimed fatwas accusing musicians of other countries of blasphemy. In March 2001 an over 80 year old Saudi cleric, Hamoud bin-Aqla al-Shuaibi, issued a fatwa claiming that Kuwaiti pop star Abdallah Rowaishid had put the opening chapter of the Qur  ’ an to music. It proved not to be true and Kuwaiticlerics rushed to Rowaishid ’ s defense commenting that al-Shuaibi was not evenqualified to issue a fatwa. Al-Shuaibi, who died shortly after the fatwa, lived inBuraidah, north of Riyadh and well-known for its many Islamists but also for its manysecular intellectuals (BBC news 2004; Al-Homayed 2002). Oddly enough, Kuwait  ’ s parliament had, earlier in 2001, banned Lebanese male singer   ‘ Assi al-Hellani due tosimilar charges and due to pressure from Islamist groups (BBC news 2004).Other groups might also intervene. Hardline Islamists at Saudi Universities attack(verbally and physically) those who listen to music, a situation criticized in 2005 inthe national paper Al-Watan by Hamzah Muzeini, professor at King Saud university.For this critique he was tried and convicted by a Sharia court. The ruling was later nullified by King Abdallah, who disliked the trial (Committee to Protect Journalists2007). According to Saudi journalist Rabbah al-Quwai ’ i some hardline sheikhsencourage youths to gather and ritually burn instruments and books in public(Human Rights Watch 2004).As a matter of curiosity, in Saudi Arabia a specific ban on Christian massimplicitly forbids Christian psalms and hymns. An amusing detail is that   ‘ Jingle-Bells ’  is one of the few Christmas carols allowed in Saudi Arabia as  ‘ there isabsolutely nothing religious about it  ’  (Mostyn 2002:136). Egyptian censorship and Al-Azhar Several different bodies, for example the Central Department of Censorship of theMinistry of Culture and the Department of Censorship of   ‘ artistic literary works ’  (al-musannafatal-fanniyya)oftheSecuritypolice,performcensorshipinEgypt.Thesecurity police can be said to act in a parallel juridical system due to the state of emergency that Egypt is in. Music needs a recording licence to be published (Mostyn 2002:154). Themusic, the lyrics and finally the performance is evaluated by the censors. At timesartists are asked to change, for example, lyrics to receive a permit (Abu Shadi 2005).Still, most censorship is done after the issuing of music. The threat of censorship is thusever-present for local artists who cannot always predict if a certain song or compositionwill evoke a censorial body ’ s wrath when it is sold or broadcasted. This leads to self censorship and caution. The situation is similar in several other countries for exampleLebanon, Morocco, Palestine (see Mostyn 2002: 87).One of the most active censorial bodies is the Islamic Research Council 8 (IRC, inArabic: Majma ‘  al-buhuth al-islamiyya) of al-Azhar University in Cairo (see Lübben2004:194). Al-Azhar was given the formal right to become involved in censorship 8 This organization is also named Islamic Research Academy in English.Cont Islam (2008) 2:211  –  228 215
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