Silence is death – Censorship in the Arab world

31 October 2005

‘Freedom of Expression in Music’ conference in Beirut posed many questions but did it reach any solutions?

By Trevor Mostyn for The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Plato recognized music’s ability to threaten people and society while Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars have at times described it as a source of sin. A conference in Beirut this month on the censorship of music produced some interesting revelations about man’s love and fear of this beautiful art. The Taliban, for example, invoked the following hadith to justify the banning of all musical instruments in Afghanistan: “Those who listen to music and songs in this world will on the Day of Judgement have molten lead poured into their ears.”

And when the GIA militant Islamist group kidnapped the Berber singer Lounes Matoub in Kabylia – they eventually killed him – they told him, “You are the enemy of God. Because of you and your songs, Kabylia is wallowing in darkness.”

Even in Lebanon, an extremely liberal country by most standards, the musician Marcel Khalife was accused in 1999 of blasphemy for singing a song “Oh my father. I am Yusuf,” based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. The story of the biblical Yusuf and his brothers, from an aya in the Koran, drew hostile attention from Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority. Nevertheless, as an Iranian speaker noted at the conference, in 1987 in Qom Ayatollah Khomeini published a fatwa allowing the sale of musical instruments. This move angered the major grand ayatollahs and the fatwa has been regularly challenged since his death.

The “Freedom of Expression in Music” conference was held in Beirut’s Gefinor Rotana Hotel and organized by Freemuse (the world forum on music and censorship founded in 1999 by an idealistic Scandinavian couple, Marie Korpe and Ole Reitov), in collaboration with the Heinrich Boell Foundation and Irab.

Reitov noted that exceptions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, such as “defamation” and “the protection of national security” are manipulated by dictators and religious fundamentalists to censor artists. The event included many such musicians from Lebanon, the U.S., Iran, Palestine, Syria and Morocco. Curiously, no representative of Rotana, one of the biggest producers of modern music in the Middle East, was present, a fact which some speakers saw as an example of corporate indifference. Much of the focus was on modern youth music such as rap, heavy metal and Hip-Hop and the fusion of these styles with Arabic, Kurdish and Berber music. Many of those who attended the conference spent a late night out at a rock concert given at Beirut’s Nova Club by a speaker, Moe Hamzeh and his band The Kordz.

Although the conference was addressed by Egypt’s former chief censor, the issues were by no means restricted to state control. In fact, it was widely agreed that the most pernicious form of censorship is corporate censorship – the exclusion of artists by production companies – not least in the U.S. and that some of the best music has flourished under state censorship. The Iraq war has created an atmosphere in which films that extol war are broadcast in the U.S. today while songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan that campaign for peace are not.

Censorship from Islamic sources is also a major factor. Famous Iranian singers are unwilling to perform in Iran where women are forbidden to sing solo. Their voices must be accompanied by men’s on the grounds that they arouse dangerous passions in men. One speaker, a young Iranian woman journalist, fell foul of the regime after she reviewed a book which claimed that the Prophet Muhammad allowed women to give concerts. The article, in a right-wing newspaper, led to demonstrations in Qom against her as well as the writer. All books were gathered up and destroyed. She was arrested and toughly interrogated but was eventually released. She spoke to the conference under a pseudonym.

Another Iranian woman singer described an album she had made entitled “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil,” prompting an amusing dialogue between the Black-American rap historian Davey D, who was shocked that Iran was considered at home in the U.S. as an ‘Axis of Evil’ country. The three Iranians countered that they were supposed to consider America as “The Great Satan.” Perhaps both epithets will, in time, be used by American and Iranian musicians as bridges of understanding to positively describe new styles of singing.

The Pakistani modern musician Salman Ahmed showed a film in which he tried to persuade traditional clerics in a Pakistani madraseh that his music was not sinful. He even sang verses of the Koran to them, accompanied by his guitar.

“I researched with scholars,” he said, “and discovered that no verse in the Koran prohibits music. [The clerics] invoke a hadith which only allows the duff (drum) to be played. However, most of Islamic tradition has come to us through Sufism which believes in cultural expressiveness through poetry, music and dance, attempting to reach God through love. The puritan Taliban view is alien to most people. People who want to ban music are a minority but conservatives have taken power in the media.”

In the madraseh he told the clerics that the prophet David had been given the gift of voice. “When he sang the mountains swayed. I told them that there is melody throughout the universe, from our heart-beat to the sound of the azzan. How can there be no room for this in Islam? The leading talib told me that I was going to go to hell. I quoted verses from Iqbal [the Urdu poet]. I argued that Islam is a religion of reason and knowledge and that we must free ourselves from ritual. So I was curiously touched when the talib suddenly said to me, ‘Salman, I don’t want you to be angry with me.’ And then, once the mike was off, he sang verses from the Koran, beautifully. I said ‘Why the change? You are singing but for two hours you condemned singing’. He smiled at me.”

Algeria has seen some of the worst acts of terror censorship. The Algerian writer Tahar Djaout explained the catch-22 situation in which Algerians found themselves, “Silence is death and yet if you speak you die. If you keep quiet you die.’ Before he was slaughtered by the Groupe Islamique Armee the popular Kabyle singer Matoub Lunes had responded to this, saying, “I want to speak and I don’t want to die.” In extreme contrast, in neighboring Morocco heavy metal and rap are popular and the Moroccan singer Reda Zine showed the conference an extraordinary film of an all-girl rock band interfacing with an audience of cat-calling youth on a strobe-lit dancehall.

The argument of Ali Abou Shadi, who had combined his role of Egyptian censor until 1996 with running excellent film festivals in Ismailiya and elsewhere, was crystal clear. For the artist, it is better to focus on one censor, one entity, rather than be allowed self-censorship where he or she will tend to exaggerate the censorship. With a good censor a deal can be struck; negotiations can be made. He had spent years fighting to defend the rights of song-writers and singers. Shadi believes that if amendments to the law go through in Egypt, all but eliminating censorship, far fiercer controls will replace the censor under pressure from increasingly militant Islamists. Some speakers were worried that a weak censor would overdo the censorship in order to protect his job but Shadi believed that self-censorship is more likely to lead to unnecessary caution.

Both in Morocco and Lebanon heavy metal musicians has been accused, absurdly, of Satanist rituals after rare incidents in which children of influential figures have died of drug overdoses. Mai Ghoussoub noted that after killing a down-and-out, the 18-year old David Palliser claimed in the U.S. that he was acting out the brutal lyrics of Eminem. In her critique of censorship Ghoussoub quotes Eminem: “Slap hips, support domestic violence. Beat your bitch’s ass while your kids stare in silence.”

And asked the conference to decide whether even this should really be banned, the implication being that banning is rarely the solution.

The issue of social censorship, particularly in the Middle East, was reflected in the Syrian Mohamed Malas’ haunting film, “The Passion,” in which a young woman’s love of singing first loses her daughter, then leads to a false accusation of adultery and, for her, a tragic and violent fate. However, there were also moments of humor.

The Bahraini singer Khaled ash-Shaikh has had many of his songs banned in Bahrain but told the conference, “When Sheikh Hamad met King Husayn, the latter noted that I was well-known in Jordan. “Yes,” replied the Bahraini ruler, “He sings nice songs which criticise the government. Do you want to hear them?”

In the 1920’s a representative of American Protestantism described jazz as “the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds.” Black American music was manipulated – and its context misunderstood – by the white slave-owners who, explained the black-American rap historian Davey D, saw black soul music as merely quaint, failing to recognize its serious, secret and agonised message. Mai Ghoussoub noted that even at the height of her popularity Billie Holiday was forced to enter the theater by the servants’ entrance.

Although Western manipulation of Islamic societies since 9/11 is creating a reaction of intolerance, most speakers did not feel that this is where the long-term trouble lies. Lyrics created by independents have been bought up by the big corporations who now control output which they have generally dumbed down. Most speakers believed that the danger for modern musicians lies in the artist’s inability to challenge the power and the wealth of the big corporations and that here the world music industry may now be facing the most insidious period of all.

Trevor Mostyn is a writer and journalist on the Middle East and a founder of the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED). His last book, “Censorship in Islamic Societies,” was published by Saqi in 2002. He wrote this article for The Daily Star.

Re-published with permission from the author and The Daily Star

The Daily Star, 31 October, 2005:

‘Silence is death – Censorship in the Arab world’


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