NYU Center for Dialogues Founder and Director Mustapha Tlili opened the conference by welcoming participants, observers, and guests to this important gathering of artists, producers, presenters, community leaders, scholars, and policy figures. Inspired by the rich variety of artistic production in the Muslim world today, he said, the conference will consider how the arts and cultural exchange might re–invigorate America’s relationship with the Muslim world. He asked the “Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas” co–organizers to join him in making introductory remarks.
Karen Brooks Hopkins, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), recognized Senior Project Advisor Zeyba Rahman and thanked the BAM staff. She described their collaboration in organizing the Muslim Voices conference and festival as an extraordinary journey and a microcosm of the struggle for world peace in its engagement with issues of religion, economics, and politics as well as the arts. She closed by expressing her hope that the conference would look at cultural diplomacy as an undervalued tool for creative exchange between people.
The third Muslim Voices co–organizer, Vishakha Desai, President of The Asia Society, began by noting her happiness that The Asia Society had become part of this unprecedented endeavor. The ten days of the festival component of Muslim Voices — celebrating the rich and varied arts of the Muslim world through performances, talks, and exhibits — is a great feast for the eyes and ears. But this conference provides a critical intellectual component that takes the festival experience to another level, much like The Asia Society’s own work, which searches for the nexus of policy, intellectual, and emotional experiences to create global understanding. Desai thanked the conference participants, the Muslim Voices partners, and the New York Muslim communities for making this extraordinary event possible. Referencing President Obama’s June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo, she asked all to consider what needs to be done “at home” in the United States to extend a hand to the Muslim world.1 She concluded with the hope that the conference would be characterized by a robust discussion of these and other issues.
Tlili thanked Brooks Hopkins and Desai and began his opening statement, which described the conference as taking place at a particularly opportune moment. He had met Brooks Hopkins three years earlier at the NYU Center for Dialogues conference “Who Speaks for Islam? Who Speaks for the West?” held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.2 Disheartened by the Danish cartoon crisis, which reached a peak shortly before the conference convened, Tlili and Brooks Hopkins wondered how the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the NYU Center for Dialogues could work together to harness the power of arts and culture to change American perceptions of Islam, Islamic civilization, and Muslims. (They later brought in Vishakha Desai and The Asia Society, which has been a key partner.)
At the time the initiative was born — when tensions were spilling over into violence and extremist rhetoric was being spouted on all sides — envisioning an initiative dedicated to introducing Muslim–world arts and culture to an American audience seemed unlikely to be popular with either side. The organizers could never have imagined that the conference would take place in the wake of President Obama’s historic speech calling for a “new beginning” in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Indeed, President Obama’s speech provided the ideal opening statement for this conference, asking how arts and culture can contribute to establishing a new and healthier relationship between the U.S. and Muslims around the world — a relationship based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.”
Tlili thanked those in the American academic, cultural, and funder communities whose commitment, conviction, and support made this conference and the Muslim Voices festival possible. For too long, the American people have lacked opportunities to discover the rich cultural prism of Muslim expression and ideas, and have seen American differences with the Muslim world framed not in terms of diversity but as a permanent global conflict. Over the next ten days, more than 100 artists and performers will present music, film, theatre, visual art, and poetry from Afghanistan, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The “Bridging the Divide” conference aims to open the hearts, minds, and imaginations of the American public, media, and policy community to the artistic riches of the Muslim world, and encourage them to see Muslims in their own communities and around the world not as threatening strangers, but as fellow citizens who are the inheritors of one of the greatest civilizations in history.
The power of culture is the power to transform perceptions. But recognizing that the power of culture has its limits is a crucial precursor to recognizing its potential. The sufferings of Palestinians in Gaza and camps around the region, the fear of Afghans for whom the sky has become the source of lethal bombs, the pain of three million displaced Pakistanis, the exhaustion of Iraqis longing for peace, and the frustrations of Iranians who see expansion into the nuclear arena as a matter of national dignity are real and acutely felt grievances in the Muslim world. Ten days of music, art, and cultural engagement is no substitute for policies that could work to ameliorate these difficult political situations. Muslim Voices can, however, open the door to a set of new perceptions, centered on the idea of the Muslim world as a rich space for world–class artistic production. This shift in perceptions can in turn foster an atmosphere of respect conducive to addressing harder political issues.
Tlili suggested that the United States’s immigrant history has given it a rich tradition of fusing global cultures into a compound American identity, and reaching out to the world through cultural exchange. With the Obama administration extending a hand to the Muslim world, the U.S. is once again embracing this tradition and placing renewed emphasis on cultural exchange, dialogue, and understanding. By sharing the rich scope of Muslim–world arts and culture with the American people, Tlili expressed his hope that Muslim Voices can move us one step closer to achieving this goal.Back to the top.