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Art as Humanity: Islamism and Music

This is a cross-post by Sam Westrop

In late August, the Al Maghrib Institute, an extreme Wahhabi group, is hosting a seminar on “entertainment and recreation in Islam.” The seminar will include a discussion on “how to advise someone to stop listening to music.”

The Al Maghrib Institute is based in Texas but also has branches in the UK. In 2008, the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attended seminars by Al Maghrib in both London and Houston. The Institute’s Director, Mohammad AlShareef, claims that Jews control the media and are “cursed.”

Why is a group that radicalizes young Muslims and warns about “Jewish” control, then, so concerned with the effect of music?

In early 2013, before Al Qaeda-linked Islamists were driven out of Timbuktu by French and Malian troops, the Islamists, citing Sharia law, had banned all music. After the liberation of the city, one of the first signs of freedom from Islamist rule was the broadcast of music by the local radio station. One inhabitant, speaking to the BBC, said, “Music is a pleasure for us. We can now dance and do whatever we want. We can walk together with women, we can shout, we’re the young people of Timbuktu, this is what we like doing.”

In 2001, during the American invasion of Afghanistan and the destruction of the Taliban regime, the writer John Bailey noted that, “spontaneous outbursts of music greeted the liberation of the towns and cities … Once music was heard coming from a local radio station, people knew that the Taliban had lost control over their area.”

Music has become a symbol of freedom from Islamist rule.

Among Islamist groups in the West, there is much debate over the permissibility of music. A considerable number of preachers advocate an interdiction. Muhammed ibn Adam al-Kawthari, a British Islamist preacher, who is a frequent speaker on university campuses, has stated:

[Music] has been decisively prohibited in Sharia …Yet there are individuals that are not ready to believe that it is Haram [forbidden]. … Music is a direct ploy of the Non-Muslims. One of the main causes for the decline of the Muslims is their involvement in useless entertainment.”

The Muslim Council of Britain, run by representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Bangladeshi group Jamaat-e-Islami, has warned against compulsory music lessons — citing verses in the Quran that portray the playing of musical instruments to be as corrupting as “wine drinking.”

Mahmood Chandia, an Islamist lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, claims that music is a way in which “Jews” spread “the Satanic web” to corrupt young Muslims.

In the face of such conviction, then, why do some Islamist groups encourage and even promote music?

In 2002, American Islamists, supporters of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, established a band called “Soldiers of Allah.” Although the group has since disbanded, according to The Times, its “music and lyrics remain popular on the Internet.”

In 2010, in Bulgaria, one broadcast music video included the lyrics, “Oh Osama, annihilate the American army, Oh Osama, raise the Muslims’ honour. In September 2001 you conquered a power, We all pray for you.”

In 2011, The Times reported that intelligence agencies had identified music as a “tool for indoctrination” and that the music of various hip-hop artists is employed as a way of radicalizing young Muslims with songs that appeal to listeners to fight the Western “oppression” of Muslims and call for the creation of an Islamic state.

Within the Muslim world there are similar inconsistencies. When the Taliban, for instance, took control of Kabul in 1996, its members immediately enforced an complete ban on owning any kind of musical instrument “other than the frame drum.” According to the academic John Baily, under the Taliban, the “disembodied audio cassette, tape waving in the breeze, became the icon of Taliban rule.” Musical instruments were “destroyed and hung from trees in mock execution or burned in public in sports stadia.”

The Taliban has not always, however, enforced such an absolute proscription: during the 1980s, while fighting the Soviets, a number of tapes containing songs recounting the exploits of jihadi fighters were distributed to Taliban fighters. One recording included a forty minute epic song about a heroic battle against Soviet troops in North Afghanistan.

The Palestinian terror group, Hamas, has chosen to utilize the power of music, rather than enforce its prohibition. In 2005, Hamas published a music album entitled Gaza Victory News. The album’s cover showed a masked Hamas terrorist alongside an Israeli soldier’s boot in flames.

The album included songs by the Yassin Band, named after the late Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. The songs employ Western instrumentation, including drum machines and violins. The lyrics included the text: “We liberated Gaza … It is returned with blood.” One Gaza resident, interviewed by Agence France Presse, said, “Hamas is the strongest party, so it makes the best music.”

Hamas does not look kindly, though, upon similarly themed “liberation” songs when other, non-Hamas, musicians join in. In 2005, Hamas enforcers violently attacked a group called Palestinian Rappers, who were reciting a song called al-Hurriya [Freedom] in front of a small crowd in Gaza.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the theocrat who established Iran’s Islamic Republic, once told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that, “Music dulls the mind, because it involves pleasure and ecstasy, similar to drugs.” Fallaci asked Khomeini of Bach, Beethoven and Verdi, to which he responded, “I do not know their names.”

Here, for Islamists, might lie the difficulty: Music is an expression of the individual, which Islamists believe must be suppressed in favour of absolute subservience to Islamist values. British Islamist preacher Muhammad Al-Kawthari has noted, “One of the harms of music is that it distracts one from his Creator. It serves as a temporary means of pleasure and satisfaction, which makes one forget who he really is and why he was created.”

Salman Ahmed, a Pakistani musician, said that he received death threats from violent Islamists in his country because “we’re competing for the same crowd.”

It is not just the Islamists who have been wary of the humanizing effect of music. Lenin once said that he “cannot listen much to music…It excites my nerves. I feel like talking nonsense and caressing people who, living in such a filthy hell, can create such beauty.”

Although the promise of transcendence — free from, as Khomeini described, the distractions of “pleasure and ecstasy” — must be appealing to Islamist groups, some seem to have realized that music provides an opportunity for a more effective propagation of their message. So why do some Islamists choose to use music as propaganda while others ban it completely?

The answer might lie in examining different Islamist groups’ approaches to modernity – that is, to what extent can Western methods by adopted and exploited in order to promote the Islamic ideal? One might also ask, for example, why Turkey’s Erdogan wears a tie while Iran’s Ahmadinejad did not; or why some Western Islamist groups will use the democratic processes, such as libel laws, to attack their critics while others regard such means as sinful.

Ultimately, perhaps, there is little difference between absolute proscription and selective censorship – both, essentially, are systems of control. Truly free expression only serves to embolden and liberate the individual, at great risk to the all-consuming higher ideal.

Why else, for instance, would the Taliban so fear Malala Yousefzai, the young Pakistani girl who addressed the United Nations last week, that they shot her in the head simply because she desired an education? For the Islamists, a young girl with a book presented a far greater threat than the bombs and bullets of their ideological adversaries.

The eminent European philosopher Emmanuel Kant regarded “art as evidence of humanity”. Attempts by Islamist ideologues, then, to proscribe or exploit music, are done out of fear for its enlightening effect upon the individual. Islamists do not just fear the consequence of free expression upon the society they wish to control so tightly; they fear humanity itself.