Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas consists of a ten–day series of cultural performances, exhibitions, and scholarly conversations in New York City under the aegis of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Asia Society, and New York University’s Center for Dialogues: Islam–U.S.–the West. The initiative celebrates the extraordinary range of artistic expression in the Muslim world, bringing together Muslim artists, curators, scholars, and public speakers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East — as well as North America. Performances range from the traditional — calligraphy, storytelling, and Sufi chanting — to the contemporary — video installations, Arabic hip hop, and political cartoons — allowing New York and, more broadly, American audiences the opportunity to experience and learn about the cultural diversity and multiple perspectives that characterize the Muslim world, both in the past and today.
Muslim Voices has been conceived of quite differently from its most noteworthy predecessor, the World of Islam Festival held in Britain in 1976. Against the background of a crisis in oil prices that had increasingly disturbed the lives of ordinary people from 1973 onward (and the harsh caricaturing of Arab “oil sheiks” then rampant in popular culture), the festival described itself as “a unique cultural event . . . in concept and in scale. . . . No less than an attempt to present one civilization — in all its depth and variety — to another.”1 It was an outstanding collaboration between museums, universities, and performance centers and had the salutary effect of making its audiences aware of the rich cultural depth and historical importance of Islam as a world civilization.
But softening the Arab government leaders’ suddenly scandalous reputation for greed and lavish expenditure by displaying indisputable evidence of a historically rich Muslim culture was less of a challenge than the one we face today. A skeptical and frightened American public is told by today’s media that the heads of state of Muslim countries are their allies in the struggle against international terrorism. Yet the public is still suspicious of Muslims more generally. What is needed, and what Muslim Voices seeks to provide, is a clear demonstration that the creative leaders of Muslim societies throughout the world bear no similarity to the cave–dwelling preachers of jihad whose slightest communiqué is erroneously treated by the news media as a fundamental expression of Islamic faith.
Though Muslim Voices shares with the Festival of Islam a deep appreciation for the historical antecedents of today’s Muslim societies, the emphasis of today’s initiative is less on Islam’s past grandeur than on the contemporary artistic sensibilities of Muslim peoples around the world. It seems to be difficult for Americans who have come to fear Muslims—as opposed to simply resenting the high cost of gasoline as in the 1970s—to remember or believe that at some time in the past, Islam may have had a rich culture that produced artistic masterworks and made original contributions to science, medicine, and philosophy. Difficult but possible. By comparison, violent expostulations by self–proclaimed leaders like Osama bin Laden, terrorist attacks against civilians in a score of different countries, and a widespread, and in many ways understandable, Muslim reluctance to accept American military actions as measured and rational responses to a legitimate security crisis make it much harder for many Westerners to accept the Muslim communities of today as normal groups of people, concerned, like everyone else, for their families, their livelihoods, their cultural values, and their identities.
Ironically, the proponents of terrorism in the Muslim world, despite their hollow claim that they are speaking in the name of Islam, are almost without exception wedded to the most stultifying minority interpretations of Islamic tradition. Aside from chanting the Quran, reciting poetry, and listening to unaccompanied male voices sing militant songs, there is scarcely any manifestation of art and creativity that they find religiously acceptable. They tolerate no photographs, no television, no movies, no musical performances, no dance, no theater, no female personages, and certainly no freedom of oral or written expression.
Thus the artistic world of Islam stands as an open refutation of the absolutist religious philosophy that triggered today’s crisis. This will be all the more true when artists and performers from the Muslim world present their uncensored creative visions to audiences of Muslims and non–Muslims in New York City, the cultural capital of the West, and there find an enthusiastic response. Every round of applause bestowed on a Muslim performer by a New York audience strikes at not just the negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims so prevalent in American culture, but also at the perception within the Muslim world that Western ignorance and hostility — Islamophobia, in short — is paving the way for a triumph of obscurantism and rigidity.
Muslim Voices has high aspirations. It seeks not just to expose American audiences to brilliant examples of contemporary Muslim creative culture, but beyond that, to reaffirm the value of artistic exchange as a means of lessening fears, building intercultural bridges, and blunting the force of arguments that pit a “global war on terror” against “Islamic jihad” as the only path to the future.Back to the top.