muslim voicesA chaikhana is a Central Asian teahouse where poets and performers — men and (unveiled) women — sing verses and recite prose in a conversational atmosphere with fellow patrons. In New York, last month’s Muslim Voices festival recreated a chaikhana to showcase Urdu writers from Pakistan, performances of Lebanese zajal (dueling poetry with audience response and affirmation), and West African jaliya, an hereditary bardic tradition from Mali that has produced many world music stars.

Media coverage of conflicts in the Muslim world often produce a perception that Muslim culture is a contradiction in terms: a suppression of expression, rather than its celebration. But the chaikhana revealed not only the depth of Muslim culture but its breadth as well.

The polyvocal atmosphere evoked by the chaikhana served as an organizing principle for the entire Muslim Voices festival, which was hosted by the Asia Society, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and New York University’s Center for Dialogue in June. The festival featured hundreds of artists from over 25 countries, who presented Muslim culture through films, music performances, lectures, theater, dance, arts installations and a policy conference.

The energy invested in creating a diverse lineup paid off in both the volume and eclecticism of capacity audiences. Highlights included a kickoff concert by Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour, a Kuwaiti adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III (that situates the drama in an oil-rich Gulf kingdom), and a dance theater performance about a Javanese prince who led Indonesia’s first revolts against Dutch colonial rule.

According to curator Zeyba Rahman, the festival’s goals were “to reach out to the mainstream cultural community in the [New York] metro area. And for the Muslim community to sit side-by-side with the mainstream American community, experience this together, and to learn more about the culture and artistic expression of their neighboring countries.” Rahman added that this latter aspect “never happened before. Usually [local Muslims] go to events from their community, from their region; they don’t cross over. This is an opportunity for them to experience their brethren cultures.”

Resonating with Obama

In inaugurating the festival, Imam Shamsi Ali, leader of New York’s largest mosque and originally from Indonesia, chanted the scriptural verse: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” Quranic reciters from Bangladesh and Ghana joined him in the invocation.

When work began on Muslim Voices three years ago, the curators could not anticipate one event that would take place far from New York: the president of the United States reciting the very same verse in a watershed speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, only one day before the festival commenced. “The cosmos smiled on us,” remarked Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and another curator.

Fresh off Barack Obama’s landmark speech, Muslim Voices provided occasions to assess the opportunities and challenges presented by Obama’s diplomatic efforts. The festival underscored many of the president’s messages, such as understanding the diversity of the Muslim world and increasing efforts to refocus U.S. relations with Muslims on shared values and “cultural diplomacy,” while at the same time acknowledging obstacles of the past.

The presidents of the three sponsoring organizations did not let this “symmetry,” as Melillo termed it, go to waste. In an op-ed published June 5, which appeared in daily newspapers in Egypt, Lebanon, Taiwan, and Detroit, the organizers wrote: “It is time for U.S. citizens to commit themselves to working alongside the Obama administration to turn a new leaf in relations with the Muslim world.” The authors encouraged a global approach that does not end in the Middle East, noting that the four largest Muslim populations are in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: “cultures with millennia-old histories of coexisting with other religions and cultures.” Rahman later added that Muslims in these nations comprise 60% of the Islamic world. This became a recurring motif during the festival.

The program also coincided with particularly tense moments for America’s interests across the Muslim world. Violence in Pakistan threatened to turn into a civil war. Israel’s prime minister appeared on a collision course with the United States over the peace process with the Palestinians. And in the festival’s second week, protests over Iranian election results brought instability to levels unseen in that country since the Islamic Revolution. As such, many critiqued Obama’s oratory as mere rhetoric in a time that demands action. But the course of events during “Muslim Voices” showed the surprising power of words themselves to become forceful agents of change.

Words and Deeds

At one sold-out Muslim Voices forum, Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan, a frequent Middle East commentator on national television, noted that while many media pundits — including himself — took issue with elements of Obama’s speech, popular reaction in the Muslim world was mostly positive. Aslan keyed in on a number of terms that had never before been spoken by an American president. Among these were Obama’s acknowledgment of the deleterious effects of “colonialism” on relations between Muslims and the West, including the CIA-led coup that toppled a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. In addressing historical grievances long ignored by Americans, together with his articulate understanding of the heterogeneity within Islam, Obama is far better attuned to the realities of the Muslim world than his predecessors.

Recent global developments amount to “a rapid individualization of faith,” Aslan said. While non-Muslims often ascribe authority to radicals, like Osama bin Laden, Islam is rather “a diverse, eclectic religion that never had an orthodoxical center…a cacophony of voices and ideas, competing for 14 centuries for dominance, for authority, which has never come.” The desperation of “puritanical” extremists — from the Saudi royals to al-Qaeda — reveals an uncontrollably open competition for religious authority, most of which takes place over the Internet, in Aslan’s assessment. Just as Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation, which was by no means monolithic or peaceful, the digital age releases an unlimited range of virtual voices who seek to reform Islam: from Osama bin Laden’s crackly recordings to “Queer Jihad,” an online gay Muslim phenomenon. In this view, Obama’s outreach recognizes the possibilities presented by a widening spectrum of Muslim cultural expression.

The interplay between the diverse programming of the festival and the president’s emphasis on pluralism was not lost on attendees. After the chaikhana, Najma Sultana, a retired doctor and Indian-American, related the performances to Obama’s Cairo talk. “His speech generated a fountain of goodwill,” she said, “[but] I’m not saying it is a fait accompli.” Sultana referred to past Obama speeches, in which “he said that there is no black America, white America, old America, young America, there is only the United States of America. That should be the theme of the world. That is what his speech achieved.”

Beyond Politics

Unlike at many interfaith or dialogue-based events, the intractability of political issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not drown out the festival’s aesthetic ambitions. For instance, Muslim Voices featured acclaimed Palestinian musician Kamilya Jubran, an Israeli-Arab citizen who now lives in exile in France. Jubran plays the oud, a Middle Eastern lute, updating the structures of classical Arabic composition with unique sonic variations and personal expression.

“I don’t have a banner, I don’t make political statements,” Jubran said. “I make art. I think making art is such a creative, human way to resist.” Jubran’s emotionally intense style of performance was enhanced by simple, often abstract video projections behind her, across which swam streams of English words that corresponded to her songs’ Arabic lyrics (Jubran sings verse by contemporary Moroccan, Iraqi, and Palestinian poets). There were, however, no explicit references to the political conflict in her set.

“It is interesting to perform for people who don’t understand the language,” Jubran commented. “The message is musical. Even if I sing in front of people who understand Arabic, but who don’t understand the musical idea, I face the same problem: The message will not pass. The obstacle is a matter of artistic comprehension, delivery and exchange.”
Jubran expressed hope that events like Muslim Voices and President Obama’s speech demonstrate that Muslims and Americans are capable of dynamic interactions. “It is great to have such changes happening … a remarkable change, not only for America, but a good lesson for the whole world.” Jubran admired Americans’ ability to reassess their views and their government’s policy.

“The fact that there is Obama gives us hope,” she continued. “Hope for another idea of what Muslim culture is, the Other is, the Other we don’t know, who we suspect, that was presented to us as an enemy. Suddenly there is an effort to present another face … [Obama] said, ‘don’t be slaves of the past.’ This is strong — not only for us, but for Israelis, for everyone, because there is a present and future in our hands. We are lucky to have someone who comes and says those sentences.”

Toward the end of his talk, Reza Aslan summarized the prospects of Muslim-American dialogue with an appeal: “If not now, when? If not Barack Hussein Obama, then who?” Najma Sultana, the retired doctor, echoed Aslan’s words. “If we squander this milestone, history will not forgive us.” She paused. “When the conflict is over, this” she pointed to the exiting, eclectic chaikhana crowd, “will be our model. This nurtures our compassion.”

Ethan Pack is an independent journalist and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His articles can be read at

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