The Situation of Musicians in the Arab World

Speech by Mr. Bashar Shammout, at the 1st Freemuse World conference in 1998

Music in the Arab Islamic world has been discussed for centuries and it has been debated among conservative Moslem societies whether it should be permissible or not. Some fundamentalist Moslems do have an aversion towards music as it is associated with the taste of pleasure and luxury, two elements of life which somehow stand in contradiction with the principles of modesty in Islam. The dominance of religion in the Islamic world led to the paradoxical situation that on the one hand music was forced to become unpopular among certain fundamentalist societies – as it is the situation today in Afghanistan, and on the other hand it was naturally very much able to emphasis many mystical and spiritual elements of Islam and reaching by that a high level of development in its musical structure – Qur’an chanting and Sufi music in particular. However, neither the “Sunnah”, the theological soul of Islam, nor the Qur’an itself have clearly and precisely prohibited music as a cultural element in Moslem societies.

By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the situation of Arab musicians started to change when two major factors influenced many societies in the Arab and Moslem world, especially in Egypt in the second half of the last century. The first was that music started to get involved in the political struggle against colonialism and the second was that colonialism itself made the Arab world become exposed to modern European civilization and to its values of art and music.

An important milestone was set by the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1869. The social acceptance of the musician as an “Artist” in the modern western sense of understanding started then. Music teaching in private and public took place as well as theatres performing the latest works of local musicians. However, until today the influence of religion on music is still sensible, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Algeria and of course Afghanistan. Muhammad Abdel-Wahhab, one of the most leading and most respected Egyptian composers who died 5 years ago, was insultingly attacked by Moslem fundamentalists after publishing one of his compositions in the late 1980’s in which he raised the question of human existence. Other musicians lately in Algeria had to pay with their lives!

The other major and more limiting control on Arab musicians is that Arab governments and regimes today, as many others in the third world countries, have recognised the influence and power of arts in general, and music in particular as a carrier of direct political messages. Most Arab musicians have to pass the stage of political state censorship as well as to accept the idea of self censorship regarding religious issues, before being able to enjoy any kind of professional rights. Commercial musicians and those who run along with the official political line of the ruling system can usually survive and might even become wealthy and powerful. Others, like Marcel Khalife, an outstanding Lebanese composer and singer who became very popular in the 1980’s when he committed the major part of his art to the political struggle of the Arab and especially the Palestinian People, is now living in France away from any kind of political censorship and mental self censorship.

Personally, I had once to pay the Jordanian intelligence service a visit in 1994 to explain my involvement in a music group called El-Fajer, which was performing political songs in the late 1980’s in Kuwait.

To ensure the functionality of the state control Arab governments usually set up a direct link between copyright protection, as one of the major professional rights, and censorship. In most Arab countries such as in Jordan the word “copyright” remains, despite official regulations, practically a “foreign word”. Only in some countries of the Arabian Gulf, musicians, artists and journalists can enjoy a well functioning copyright protection which is carried out usually by the Ministry of Information, however in combination with a strict, mainly political and moral/religious censorship.

Politically independent, and on economic basis functioning copyright institutions such as the European GEMA, SACEM or BIEM in the music business or equivalent in other media sectors do not exist in the Arab world. There are several trade unions and institutions of journalists and artists that have a rather political character, and therefore are again directly controlled by the governments themselves.

In the Palestinian territories the situation is even more difficult. The terms “Palestinian Art and Intellectual Creation” have for many years been understood as politically engaged artistic works and intellectual productions. This was and in many ways still is due to the political reality of “occupied” Palestine. No professional rights, no freedom of expression, only a tough strict censorship practised by the Israeli Military forces. A friend of mine, a Palestinian musician, had to spend 6 months in Israeli prison after he was caught at a checkpoint during the Intifada transporting with him hundreds of recorded cassettes of his music calling for freedom and struggle against Israeli occupation.

Now that some Palestinian territories are being controlled by a local national government, Palestinians are becoming more and more aware of the necessity of the establishment of a functioning regulation to protect their intellectual property, giving them freedom of expression without having to pass through censorship. The fear is big that censorship in Palestine will follow some examples of other Arab states. An open discussion in Palestine with this context (workshop is planned for January 1999) could be the first of its kind in the Arab world and might lead some other journalist and arts associations to follow. Artists and musicians and also journalists are in real need, more than ever of a powerful lobby of their own to protect their professional rights and interests while being able to enjoy the freedom of expression and thinking.

Mr. Bashar Shammout, Recording Engineer, Bertelsmann, Germany/Palestine.


1st Freemuse World Conference On Music and Censorship

The 1st Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in November 1998. Among the participants were musicians, reseachers, human rights activists and journalists from all over the world.

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