The Tyrants' Muse: The Persecution of Music and Musicians in the Islamic World

At a recent conference on ethnomusicology held in the U.S., I met an Arab researcher.  His paper on traditional Arab music was indecipherable and full of postmodern jargon.  After he finished his presentation, he confided to me in private, "We have to be careful what we say about music -- the fundamentalists are everywhere."  And they certainly are.  The tyrannies that control the Islamic world are at war with music and musicians, and they seem to be winning.

Jonas Otterbeck, a Swedish expert on the status of musicians in the Islamic world, writes, "States and local authorities have taken action against heavy metal musicians, female singers, music, videos and public concerts. Islamist and conservative Islamic organizations ... try to disturb and breakup [sic] concerts, demand censorship on recordings, or call for the punishment of individuals for being blasphemous. At times musicians are killed or attacked physically[.]"

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they tried to ban all music based on a Hadith (saying of the Prophet) that states, "Those who listen to music and songs in this world will on the Day of Judgment have molten lead poured into their ears."  And so, inspired by the Taliban, a radical Islamic group kidnapped the well-known Algerian Berber singer, Younes Matoub.  Before they killed him, he was told, "You are the enemy of and your songs[.]"

To insure that this banning or strict state and religious control of the arts is secure from the intrusiveness of new technologies such as satellite TV and the internet, in February 2008, 21 information ministers from Arab countries agreed on new restrictions for satellite TV.  Their charter states that broadcasters should not damage "social peace and national unity and public order."  Only Qatar abstained, as its autocratic and non-democratic government is home to the notorious Al Jazeera station, staunch enemy of the West, Israel, and liberal democracies.

Such an environment of fear allowed for the arrest of men like Saudi journalist Rabbah Al Quwai'i, who protested in print against Muslim extremists who burn books and musical instruments.  He received death threats, his car was smashed, and he was arrested.  The grounds for his incarceration were "destructive thoughts."

Less violently but perhaps more absurdly, last year the Saudi government announced that there should be no music or dancing when young girls graduate from school.  And for those who thought that when King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, there would be greater artistic freedom in the kingdom, the Saudis have canceled their summer film festival.

In Egypt the government censors and the Islamic authorities provide licenses for musicians and performers that significantly restricts their artistic freedom in countless ways.  But this cannot guarantee the safety of Egyptian musicians.  The most recent example was the brutal assault of 23-year-old Ramy Essam, the famous anti-government protest singer of Tahrir square, who was attacked by police and soldiers and tortured with an electric detonator.

On May 18, 2010, Elton John, pop star and renowned gay activist, was set to play a concert in Cairo.  When the authorities heard that he had said that Jesus was gay, they canceled the event.  Unlike many pop stars, who endorse the craziest of causes, Sir Elton is very clear about the realities of life in the Islamic world.  He has said, "Try being a gay woman in the Middle East -- you are as good as dead."

This year the Iranian government adopted a new censorship rule that bans love poetry that is secular, while also making the musical use of traditional Sufi love poems difficult for musicians to record or perform in public.  This strikes at the heart of the Iranian musical tradition, which has been immersed in Sufism and Sufi mystical poetry for centuries.  The Iranians also have a rule against female soloists.  Female voices must make Iranian men very, very upset (or excited).

Before their resounding electoral success, the Islamic government of Turkey promised musicians continued freedom of artistic expression. However, they seem to have made a major exception when it comes to Turkish citizens of Kurdish culture.

Singer Ferhant Tunc received a 25-day jail sentence for comments that he made during a performance.  Other performers like Pinar Sag and Mehmet Ozcan were sentenced to ten months in prison for comments that they made during performances.  Three members of the Kurdish band Koma Aheng got ten months each for comments that they have made.

In the case of Pinar Sag, the Istanbul branch of the Contemporary Lawyer's Association have accused the state of "judicial terror," which is not a bad way of characterizing the rule of sharia law in the modern world.  In countries like Saudi Arabia, judicial terror is a way of life.  If the average Turk thinks that his new government is not headed in that direction, then he is living in a dream.

So where do Arabs and other Muslims turn to when their tyrannical governments have uprooted the wellsprings of their music?  Israel, of course.  The rallying cry of the Syrian opposition to dictator Bashir el Assad is a song called "Zini Zini," written by the Israeli singer-songwriter Amir Benayoun.

Benayoun is an orthodox Jew whose family moved to Israel after the Algerian war of independence, during which Arab nationalists assassinated the great Algerian Jewish musician Sheikh Raymond Leyris (father-in-law of French pop star Enrico Masias) and which some say triggered the Algerian Jewish migration to Israel that caused Benayoun's parents to emigrate.

Since the early days of the state, Israel has had a thriving Near Eastern and Arabic musical culture.  Some of the most famous classical Arab musicians from Iraq and Kuwait were Jews.  When they came to Israel in the 1950s, many of the best got jobs with the Arabic orchestra of Israeli state radio.  One of the most famous was Daudi Al Kuwaiti (David the Kuwaiti), whose broadcasts of Arabic music on Israeli national radio during the sixties and seventies were listened to by millions of Arabs across the Middle East.

Israel's annual oud (Arabo Turkish lute) festival is a draw for those musicians from the Islamic world who know that the only free musical country in the Middle East is the state of Israel.  Israel also allows Arab protest singers to write and sing about "the occupation."

Israeli archives are full of Arab and Near Eastern music from Israel itself and all of the neighboring Islamic states.  It is also a world center for the free practice of ethnomusicology.  If the Arabs lose their broadcasting and other musical archives -- which is a distinct possibility, given current trends -- the Israelis, like the Irish monks of the middle ages, will preserve Arab and Islamic music for them in their archives and concert halls until the time when their Arab cousins reclaim their common Near Eastern cultural heritage.  On that day, the musicians of the Islamic world will finally be free.

But do not despair.  There is a silver lining to this story.  The Saudis adamantly defend the broadcast of the song "Jingle Bells" on their airwaves, for their religious authorities have ruled that the song contains no hint of Christian religious symbolism.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.  He is a contributing editor to the New English Review.

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