The answers required
Last week’s article started off with an anecdote. I’d recommend you to mental-paste it here before you proceed.
In May, I ended up attending a conference on religion and theology here in northern Europe. In one session, a researcher offered her analysis on Islam and music. This researcher, with a very white persona complemented by tattoos sneaking around her neck, piercings embellishing her brows and a sliver of green streak in her hair, focused her work on Persian metal bands. In the presentation, she spoke about how the Persian self-exiles she’d interviewed had felt persecuted by the Iranian regime. She also informed the audience that these interviewees led bands that were anti-regime, and even satanic. Today, they were performing in concerts in Germany and Norway. They, as she implied, were free now.
In one slide, she snuck in a certain pointer that she didn’t even read out while presenting: music is haram in Islam. Sure, she could have missed the point out of nervousness. However, this is very unlikely. Before I engage on that, it is also interesting to note that the audience, about 90 percent of whom were white, non-Muslims, also seemed convinced on this claim to the extent that they didn’t require any elaboration or discussion on it. Anyways, she did eventually engage on it at the end. The conclusion to her study was that given that the Iranian regime had a negative attitude towards metal/satanic bands, it was proven that Islam was against music.
When she ended her presentation, I had a few questions for her. First, I asked her for sources that confirmed music was haram in Islam. She couldn’t answer me and was instead amused that I’d even question this claim. We will return to this in the conclusion of this article. I further asked her how a certain political government’s reaction to a particular sub-genre of music could be used to make a sweeping generalisation of over 1.5 billion people. Her answers were unconvincing and hurried. But they stank of Islamophobic rhetoric.
In the previous week’s article, I wrote about how the game is rigged. And it is. The game here has a certain constructed perception of Islam and Muslims with glaring features carried forth first by the crusaders who purified lands and souls, the colonists who differentiated and defined what a human was, and then by orientalist observations of the savages. The features are obvious: Islam is unusually tyrannical (compared to other religions), doesn’t understand/appreciate human rights, is especially bad towards women, is very restrictive towards all forms of entertainment, has a magical power over its believers, Muslims are emotional, gullible, violent, oppressive, narrow-minded. Etc.
The key to succeeding in this game is to confirm the above. It sells. Hence, art installations, projects, books, shows, research that confirm the above narrative gets the attention of the crowd, the generosity of donors, and the appeasement of the politicians. Books become best sellers, videos go viral, individuals become celebrities.
Returning to the presenter, she later informed me how her project was fully funded. That, she had been presenting her work in other conferences as well and it had been well-received, and she was excited about converting her dissertation into a book. All this when her work was founded on obviously problematic assumptions.
There is also another interesting observation that comes out of such interactions. These assumptions about Islam and Muslims are taken as facts. Which means that if one complicates or problematises them, their motivations are questioned. So, one becomes an apologetic for, say the Taliban, if one insists that western modernity is not the only one form of modernity. Or, if one emphasises that racism, and immigrational angst contributes to one’s indoctrination, one is appealing to the narrative of ISIS. This becomes especially obvious when speaking about the hijab. As a brown, Muslim man, the assumption of misogyny, precedes me. So, when I’d try to convince my interlocuters that the donning of the hijab is in fact an agent act for a large proportion of the Muslim women, I am seen as a man pushing for and justifying the subjugation of women.
With time, I have grown more and more pessimistic about changing the narrative. No matter how hard one tries, its only answers and confirmations that are fashionable, which eventually stick. Anything else, as I suggested in the previous column, is noise. The presentation that has been the main case study for this column got its applause and compliments not because it was methodologically precise or analytically rigorous. Instead, it got its acclaim because it confirmed things that are essential for the understanding of the world as per its audience. It confirmed biases, and (over-) simplified actors and institutions. That’s the essential criterion. At least when it comes to researching on Islam and Muslims.