2008-12-06

Offending muslims is pretty much like offending everyone else

I've been talking to a Muslim friend of mine about the two recent controversies involving Quranic verses being used as lyrics for popular music: first the removal of a track from video game Little Big Planet, then Busta Rhymes' supposed quotation in a recent remix. I asked her about whether the use of Quranic material in music is forbidden in Islam or not, and she told me, totally obviously in hidsight, that it's entirely dependent on the context.

Because, honestly, offending Muslims is not radically different from offending anyone else. Muslims are not only diverse but for the most part thinking human beings who understand things like intention and effect, and can understand perfectly well where a supposed offence comes from and what it means.

There's in fact plenty of Quran-quoting pop music even in the heart of the middle east. Literally Islamic pop music exist just as much as literally Christian pop, without any problematic connotations whatsoever except to some extremist cliques. British-Azeri artist Sami Yusuf sells millions and millions of albums of western-sounding pop with a deeply Islamic message. Even borderline use of the Islamic message to further political goals is largely accepted without much grumble: for instance, there's plenty of Hamas Anasheed which in social position is probably vaguely the equivalent of gang rap and has a kind of Hollywood-cinematic-synth sound, yet has very obvious Islamic lyrics.

Why is this accepted? Because these people are Muslims. They're doing it out of faith. They're not wantonly associating the message with drinking and sex and racist stereotypes, like Busta. Or (as it were, not) using it as a soundtrack to mindless gaming, like Sony. It's honestly not that strange, and I'm sure people of all faiths have similar relationships with their holy books.

So why is there this tendency in the media to portray Muslims taking offence at something as somehow exotic and irrational? It always has to be portrayed as a "religious ban" on a certain expression, and the exotic-sounding words "haraam" and "halal" end up in a lot of the coverage. There seems to be an undertone that there's no rational reason for the anger, that it's arbitrary just like not eating pork is arbitrary. That way, it can be straightforwardly dismissed as something "they" do.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the now infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons. Almost uniformly, the outrage that many Muslims felt over these cartoons was attributed to the Islamic ban on pictorial representations of the prophet, despite the fact that such a ban is far from universal and that Islamic art history has a long tradition of Muhammed paintings. Devout muslims have, and still are, depicting Muhammed with religious chastisement and discussion as the only potential result, but Jyllands-Posten's publication was something else entirely: an acknowledgedly racist newspaper, printing cartoons with the explicit intention of denigrating Islam, with the effect of futher marginalising the oppressed Muslim minority in Denmark. Of course Muslims were angry! I was angry too. So why the need to relate it to the exotic and supposedly arbitrary?

And of course this latest controversy is not as "bad". Neither Busta or Sony have had the intetion of insluting Muslims, however insensitive they might be, and therefore it's not raised much of a furore. In fact, my Muslim friend tells me the Sony delay has been highly praised on Islamic message boards, which opens up the possibility of it being merely a deft marketing move. And Busta's sort of passive, unintentional stereotyping is not nearly as worthy of anger as the very prevalent active racism against "Muslims" that we see everywhere, and the vast majority of Muslims recognise it as such. Seeing as they are in fact thinking human beings, just like the rest of us.

3 comments:

Gavin said...

It might interest you to know that, like many NYC rappers, Busta Rhymes is Muslim. I think some of the controversy is over insensitivity to Arabs in particular.

Stani said...

well, people will always look for something to be 'angry' about. Some of the time it is just an excuse for extremists to take to the streets and cause some carnage or destruction. in my country, muslims believe you can say stuff to denigrate christians, but if a christian says the same about islam, thne there has to be a fight, lots of killings and destruction. in my opinion, people should just learn to respect other people's views without fighting themselves.

Birdseed said...

Well yeah, I don't necessarily disagree with that. Violence is pretty much always an overreaction in these cases.