Of Many Things

After 9/11 fear of Islam and of Muslims took deep hold of the American psyche. The echo chamber of our 24/7 media feeds this hostility, but as M. J. Rosenberg pointed out in a blog post last week, there is also a network of defense intellectuals and conservative funders that has been fomenting fear and hatred of Muslims (http://huff.to/o4EMXj). Without them, the summer of 2010 might have lacked major protests over the so-called ground zero mosque or legislative campaigns against Shariah law.

By chance I recently encountered what may be the best antidote to Islamophobia, Rock the Casbah, by the journalist Robin Wright, an account of the anti-jihadist cultural and social currents running through the Muslim world. To those who ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” Wright’s answer is: everywhere—in countries from Morocco to Indonesia—and in every medium: in hip-hop music, among pink-hijab feminists, among poets, dramatists, comedians, satellite sheikhs and YouTube imams.

In one field after another, Wright’s stories demonstrate that the world’s Muslims, especially the young, want to be part of the new global village. Most of all, they reject jihadism, violence and extremist interpretations of their faith. Even as they seek to seize their rights and dignity from authoritarian rulers, they also want to find their own way as Muslims in the modern world.

For me, the eye-opening essay was Wright’s chapter “Hip-Hop Islam.” I am no fan of hip-hop, but I can’t ignore its popularity as a musical form. Wright acknowledges, moreover, that rap has had a hard time escaping the violent, sexist, street-gang culture from which it arose. While they too have grown up amid violence, Muslim hip-hop artists are using the music to spread a message of nonviolence. “Hip-hop,” she writes, “is the counter-jihad in a nimble cadence.” The Palestinian group DAM sings:

Keep asking for a life full of equality.

And if someone asks you to hate,

say no.

I am the child of today, the trans-formation of tomorrow.

The Somali-born rapper K’naan, Wright reports, has become a “rapper-philosopher.” In “Take a Minute,” he explores how redemption may be found in the most desperate of situa-tions. Meditating on the selfless examples of Mandela and Gandhi, he sings:

Tell ’em the truth is what my dead homies told me,

I take inspiration from the most heinous situations,

Creating medications out of my own tribulations.

Dear Africa, you helped me write this,

By showing that to give is priceless. 

Muslim hip-hop is a success because poetry is still a valued mode of expression in Arab-speaking lands. One of Wright’s heroes is the Saudi poet Hissa Hilal, who came to prominence on a televised poetry slam, “The Millions’ Poet.” Dressed from head to foot in a highly conservative black niqab, she shocked an approving audience with radical criticism of the intolerance of Muslim clerics:

I have seen evil from the eyes

Of the subversive fatwas

In a time when what is permitted

Is confused with what is forbidden.

Challenging the imams’ support for suicide bombers, she declaimed:

When I unveiled the truth,

A monster appears from his hiding place;

Barbaric in thinking and action,

Angry and blind;

Wearing death and a dress

And covering it with a suicide belt.

If you read one book this year on Islam, let it be Rock the Casbah.

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