23. December 2008 09:00

Muslims embrace performing arts to heal cultural rifts and reach out to their people

The Danish cartoon affair was an important milestone in Europe’s ongoing integration of its fast growing Muslim population. The fallout from this affair, along with other events such as the July 2005 bombings in London, has increased the urgency of achieving a long lasting accommodation between Europe’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Examining the role performing arts have among Muslims in both Europe and the Middle East is providing clues for understanding changing attitudes and how bridgeheads between the various communities might be constructed. A recent workshop organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) discussed performing arts amongst Muslims, focusing on how pop songs, film and theatre were helping convey messages and challenge established beliefs and attitudes among Islamic communities in both Europe and the Middle East.

The workshop took the Danish cartoon affair as its cue, arising in October 2005 when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims considered this action blasphemous, and the event highlighted the growing cultural tensions between secular and religious movements in general, particularly Islam, accentuated by modern communications and the role of the Internet as an instant global publisher. Indeed the controversy was amplified into a worldwide issue for relations between the Muslim and Western worlds largely because the cartoons were republished both electronically and in print in a number of countries.

At the ESF workshop, anthropologist Peter Hervik, from the Malmö Institute for studies of migration, diversity and welfare in Sweden, pointed out that the cartoon affair accentuated previously existing assumptions in Europe that Islamic and Western values were irreconcilable. Hervik warned that not just the media or public, but also scholars, have been guilty of “exercising” this assumed incompatibility in their use of terms and images. Even the terms Islam and Islamist themselves had become associated with cultural extremism rather than pertaining to a monotheistic religion originating from Mohammed. Meanwhile amongst the Diaspora, that is Muslims in the West, Islam had become a cultural identity as well as a doctrinal religious body of knowledge.

This led to another assumption commonly made in the West that Islam and performing arts are mutually incompatible. It is true that Islamic religious authorities are wary of performing arts, particularly as practiced in the West, so that the relationship between Islam and art as a whole has been ambivalent, according to Karin van Nieuwkerk, convenor of the ESF workshop. “In particular the strong emotive and sensory power of performing arts makes it a very sensitive matter in the eyes of religious authorities,” said van Nieuwkerk.

At the same time though the emergence of new media and increased public access to the Internet have provided new opportunities for disseminating so-called “pious arts” and creating an Islamic cultural counterpoint to Western productions. It was emphasised at the ESF workshop that the Internet and modern communications enabled cultural traffic between Islam and the West to flow both ways, with each influencing the other. Such mutual interaction has taken place ever since the dawn of Islam over 1500 years ago, occurring also in the fine arts, with European artists such as British 19th century potter William Frend De Morgan drawing inspiration from Islamic designs.   

Similarly the Islamic world has welded Western artistic innovations into its own cultures and that is happening today with rap, pop, hiphop, soap operas and other performing arts. Rap especially has been embraced by Islam in several different contexts. It has been adopted by Muslims in Europe to stamp their cultural identity and counteract negative stereotypes emanating from some Western media and cultural outlets. “They turn it into a sign of pride and call for a shared cultural or ethnic identity. It evokes a kind of cultural nationalism,” said Tom Solomon, associate professor of ethnomusicology at the Grieg Academy, University of Bergen in Norway, and a participant at the ESF workshop.

On the other hand within Muslim countries, rapping is being used as a tool of revolt, in the case of Turkey for challenging the secular state.  “Rappers in both contexts express oppositional identities in which Islam is a basket that can be employed in various ways to create Muslim subjectivities,” said Solomon.

Naturally the workshop also considered the sensitive issue of gender in art, also raising the related issues of modesty and flamboyance on stage. These are difficult issues, currently being confronted by Muslim scholars, striving for a new balance between performing art, culture, gender, and religion. “It is a sensitive issue for religious scholars to deal with, how to stage body when performing, especially if the intention is to create pious art by women,” said van Nieuwkerk. “Also for the performers themselves balancing popularity and piety it is a matter for constant reflection.”

Jeanette Jouili, who specialises in Islam and art at ISIM, the International Institute of Islam in the Modern World at Leiden in the Netherlands, discussed the tensions between modesty, success and staging the body for Muslim performers in Europe.  She pointed out that female performers have to be extra vigilant in the way they perform, and restrain from excessive movement during their act.

The ESF workshop also discussed the differing attitudes to music by Islamic scholars. Jonas Otterbeck, assistant professor for Culture and Society at Malmö University, identified the different position on music of ‘hardliners’, ‘moderates’ and ‘liberals’, and discussed the works of scholars belonging to these three groups. Whereas the moderates try to educate people, liberals stress the importance of personal control, while hardliners promote discipline of the individual by hisba, that is commanding of good and warding evil by hands, tongue or heart.

The ESF workshop has set the stage for a larger debate on Europe’s strategy towards integration of its Islamic communities, with a follow up conference planned to build on its achievements.

The ESF workshop Islamization of the cultural sphere? Critical perspectives on Islam and performing arts in Western Europe and the Middle East was held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in October 2008.

For more information please click here.

Media contact:

Mr. Thomas LauE-Mail

Science contact:

Professor Karin Van NieuwkerkE-Mail