COMMENT: Defeating despair with art —Saleem H Ali
My dear compatriots, listen to the news but don’t get addicted to tales of turmoil. Flip the channel to watch a drama or venture to a theatrical performance or an art exhibition to see how human creativity can triumph over the Taliban
About five years ago, I visited Kinshasa, capital of the “Democratic Republic of Congo”, on a research trip during the height of the country’s civil war.
Darkness enveloped the city as our plane landed at Kinshasa airport. This is a country where only around 15 percent of the population has access to electricity. The university in the city, once the largest in Africa, was in utter disrepair and most of the library’s books had been looted. The once modern hospital was being used as a military barrack. The currency had been devalued to such an extent that when I exchanged a hundred dollars, I had to carry a backpack full of equivalent notes to my hotel with an armed escort.
The situation seemed hopeless; yet what amazed me most was how the streets of Kinshasa were still abuzz with the sound of music from battery-operated tape recorders. The citizens of this city, more than 6 million people, did not let despair overcome them. Small theatre troupes were performing alfresco and street art flourished under the faint glow of kerosene lanterns.
Pakistanis are going through a time of great political and economic challenge as well, though still mild compared to the horrors that the Congolese have endured over their civil war that has taken some 4 million lives since 1998.
Pakistanis at home and abroad seem glued to their television screens and the most lucrative business enterprises appear to be news channels. Yet at this time of great challenges, we must never relinquish our love of art and culture. In some ways we encounter a more difficult problem than the Congolese since our adversaries are killjoys who want to deprive us of art, music and any form of recreation as a coping strategy. Their nihilistic ideology is a perversion of religion and it is absolutely essential that Muslim scholars speak out against this draconian vision of life offered by the extremists.
I am writing this article from another Muslim country that still has very conservative traditions but one that has managed to find some semblance of balance between the old and the new.
Earlier this week, I attended a concert by famed Latino pop star Enrique Iglesias in Doha to celebrate the commencement of students graduating from Qatar’s sparkling new Education City. The concert was presented with modesty befitting a Muslim state — Iglesias didn’t take off his shirt or do sensuous dance moves as he usually does — but everyone was able to enjoy the unifying power of music. There were ladies in hijab and gentlemen in robes with rosaries in their hands who rocked gently with the beat.
It is heartening to see many conservative Muslim countries beginning to find their way in reconciling traditional modesty and modernity. While many paradoxes remain in such societies regarding other issues of human rights, developments in Qatar are encouraging. The country has opened the world’s largest museum of Islamic art and is supporting Muslim artists and performers worldwide through various grant programmes.
All too often, conservative clerics, even within Qatar, warn of “slippery slopes” about any allowances for revelry that may corrupt Muslim youth. However, it is high time that we not consider the slope to be heading downwards but rather an incline. Art and culture are not a threat to Islam but rather a means of rejuvenating the vitality of Muslim pluralism.
No doubt Islamic societies will always have certain parameters for artistic expression. New genres of expression such as calligraphy were in fact generated by such parameters. However, as media of artistic expression evolve, Muslim societies must also be willing to creatively reconsider these parameters within the spirit of ijtihad. The arcane attitude of some Muslim clerics towards the use of cameras and videotaping fails the test of basic logic or ‘aql’, which Islam has always called for.
Pakistani artists have won accolades worldwide for their eclecticism and tenacity of purpose. During my last visit to Lahore, I went to a performance of Tom, Dick and Harry, directed by famed theatre producer Shah Sharabee. It was a marvellous bilingual production and despite all the threats of bombings and shootings, several hundred people showed up to support this brave artist and his team. There was security, of course, but it still took some courage to brave the odds of a “dhamaka”.
Similarly, the Pirzadas and their team went ahead with the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore last year, despite a bombing aimed at disrupting their work. If artists and our public can show such courage to support creative activity, surely our politicians with their battalions of bodyguards can also show courage to stand up against radicalism.
Security must be provided to artists at all costs. Islamic scholars must also make it absolutely clear that there is no place for targeting artists even if some theologians may disagree with some aspects of artistic presentation. The Wafaq-ul Madaris should also be urged to offer an educational programme, particularly in the NWFP, about the history of Islamic art and tolerance of artistic expression.
Just as the Congolese used music as a means of lifting their spirits from the daily sorrow of their lives, the Pakistani masses must not abandon art. So my dear compatriots, listen to the news but don’t get addicted to tales of turmoil. Flip the channel to watch a drama or venture to a theatrical performance or an art exhibition to see how human creativity can triumph over the Taliban.
Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net