The Power of Pop Culture [British Council]

November 22, 2011

The following is a guest post from Dr. Hussein Rashid, a member of the Our Shared Future Advisory Board. Dr. Rashid took part in our recent panel discussion, “Across the Atlantic: Islam, the West and the Repercussions of 9/11.”

During our panel discussion last Wednesday, we ended up talking about the question of cultural production and whether it is actually a sign of societal acceptance. I think there is a strong debate that must be had regarding the production and consumption of things like music and television. However, I am more interested in what artistic creation can tell us about how Muslims see themselves in the US or the UK. For me, the key issue is one of crafting a national narrative. That narrative is shaped and reflected through popular culture.

Playwright and political commentator Wajahat Ali draws a distinction between two types of artistic production. The first he calls “for us, by us.” This is art that is created by Muslims for Muslims. Some of it may be didactic or theologically centered, but generally it’s art that is created absent any engagement with a broader cultural context and engagement. The second he dubs “by us, for everyone.” He sees this as a production that may be deeply embedded in and reflective of a Muslim experience, but that also speaks to broader audiences, and intentionally so. It is an art that engages the cultural setting in which it is created, so that we can point to a play like Ali’s “Domestic Crusaders,” and see it as a play about Pakistanis, about Muslims, and about Americans.

These two ways of looking at art are important in understanding how national narratives are constructed. Popular culture becomes an important way of contesting who is “in” and who is “out.” If Muslims are not engaged in crafting popular culture, they are missing an important way of engaging in the national narrative.

As H.A. Hellyer suggests in his policy paper that was the basis of our recent discussion, in certain parts of Europe the question of Muslim belonging is very much about crafting national identities. So, for example, the French hijab ban was not about defining what Muslims could do, but about defining what is means to be “French.” This definition is one of negation, that looks at the actions of others and defines “Frenchness” against those actions, rather than positively arguing what is means to be French. While I am simplifying his argument here, the core idea is that without knowing what a national identity is, how can individuals engage in crafting it?

What emerges, then, is a downward spiral of art being produced for limited consumption that does not engage in crafting a national narrative. The national narrative is further impoverished by forcibly rejecting voices that seek enter the public sphere. The result is increasing alienation amongst all parties.

In many respects, I think the tendency in the US to constantly reinvent the national narrative every generation makes it much easier for cultural engagement to have an impact and to be welcomed. I mentioned, on the panel, Ali’s play, the books “Love, Inshallah,” “I Speak for Myself,” and “The Butterfly Mosque.” In addition, there are projects like “The 99,” and musicians such as Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco, that are actively engaged in crafting our national narrative. In the UK, I have seen projects like Khayaal TheaterDialogue Productions, and Arakan Creative lead to similar engagement through story-telling.

I also believe that in any democratic society, the oppositional voice is just as important. A debate does not happen when all parties agree. From Britain, I see groups like Fun^Da^Mental playing this role, and in the US, The Kominas do the same. All of these voices must be heard for healthy intra- and inter-community debates on how Muslims belong.

While I think we can argue about how effective these cultural interventions are in increasing the acceptance of Muslims, I do believe they are important to initiating the debates that would otherwise not occur.

Guest posts on our blog are written by individuals with whom we collaborate externally. We publish them to stimulate discussion and debate by exploring ideas. The opinions expressed in them do not necessarily reflect the official position or views of the British Council.

Source: British Council

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