SIPA lecturer Hisham Aidi is the author of a new book called Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. Published on March 4 by Pantheon, the book delves into the role of America’s cultural diplomacy and how different states are trying to use music to shape Islamic politics and discourses. At SIPA, Aidi teaches the course Conceptual Foundations of International Politics. His interests include the politics of globalization, race, and social movements. He recently spoke with SIPA News.
Why did you choose to focus on music for this book?
Rebel Music looks at Muslim youth movements in Europe and the Americas and the role of public diplomacy and cultural policy. I examine a range of secular, Islamist, liberal, and conservative movements that have arisen in response to War on Terror policies.
I thought music would be an interesting lens through which to understand these movements — first, obviously, because music is generally used by youth to express identity, politics, and to interpret the world. But also because there is a rich debate within the Muslim world about the permissibility of music. I thought music could give us a snapshot of these movements’ relationship to religion, their attitudes to American culture, and their relationship to the nation-state they’re living in. Also, in the last decade, governments have begun using music for public diplomacy, integration, and de-radicalization, as it’s called. That’s another reason why I look at the relationship between cultural policy and efforts at integration. I conducted interviews in France, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Brazil, and the United States.
Can you elaborate a bit more on how governments are using music to counter radical Muslim discourses?
Around 2003, think tanks in Washington — RAND and the Nixon Center — began releasing reports arguing that the roots of extremist violence are ideological and theological, and calling for an Islamic reformation. The argument made was that the U.S. should support Sufism, so-called “folk Islam,” against Islamist groups like the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. This, by the way, is a very old idea that goes back to the 18th and 19th century when French and British colonial thinkers argued that Sufism was more compatible with liberalism and modernity. This notion would re-surface in the early 2000s, and influence policy. In 2004, the National Security Council launched a program called “Transforming Islam From Within.” The U.S. invested $1.3 billion in this initiative to help promote “moderate” Islamic practices, and began funding organizations, schools, community centers, and publications across the Muslim world, from North Africa to Pakistan. The Blair government in Britain would also adopt a similar policy, setting up the British Sufi Council to counter more conservative Muslim organizations.
I look at other regimes in other parts of the world — Algeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan — and their efforts to promote Sufism and Sufi practice to counter conservative Islamist movements like the Salafis or the Taliban. And at the heart of this policy of promoting Sufism was music. In Pakistan, for example, Pervez Musharraf set up the National Sufi Council, a Sufi university, and began organizing conferences on Sufism and holding music festivals. The idea was that you can use [Sufi] music to disseminate Sufism and a more liberal discourse.
How is the U.S. government trying to reach Muslim people living in the West?
I talk about this in the chapter called American Banlieue. [Banlieues are the immigrant-heavy suburbs that ring French cities]. The U.S. is in effect trying to help integrate minorities in Europe, particularly Muslim communities, and trying to introduce the American model of integration.
Thus American embassies are providing assistance to NGOS and groups in the banlieues, workshops are being held to explain how affirmative action works in America, and so on. These efforts began after 2005. After the French riots of 2005, American officials were worried about the civil unrest and ethnic tensions in Western Europe due to immigration and the rise of the right – they feared racial tensions could balkanize France and make her a weaker ally.
And what’s interesting is that the WikiLeaks cables that probably caused the most anger in European capitals were those where you had American embassy officials talking about how European states are intolerant, how they mistreat their minorities and how they are unable to integrate them.
The diplomatic cables also showed that the State Department had after 2005 launched a program, which the French media would dub the “Marshall Plan for the banlieue,” to help integrate European minorities and to improve America’s image in Europe. There were all types of public diplomacy initiatives taking place again from direct financial assistance to NGOs in the European urban periphery to tours and trips to bring European Muslim young leaders to the U.S. and so on.
Was the U.S. government successful?
If the aim was to improve perceptions of the U.S. among Europe’s minorities, there are signs of success; attitudes toward America did improve, from the mid-2000s onwards, as these programs were set in place and when Obama came to power. In England, for example, scholars have argued that the Bush-Blair policy of backing Sufism did encourage local Sufi leaders to push back against the Salafi movement.
But there is also criticism — from scholars who think it is not the role of government to push for theological change, or to create an “official Islam.” There was also a right-wing backlash against American interference in European politics. In France, newspapers were running stories on how the CIA was active in the banlieues, reaching out to minority leaders, and in so doing infringing on France’s sovereignty. These efforts have been less successful in Muslim-majority states, where perceptions of the U.S. are still negative because of American hard power – the soft power initatives can’t distract from problematic U.S. policies and alliances.
To what extent are these initiatives new or original?
These soft power and public diplomacy efforts to Europe and the wide Muslim world are not new — they’re actually based on Cold War initiatives.
In the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department launched Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe in Berlin to try to court Muslims living under Soviet rule and to counter Soviet propaganda about racialism in the American South. So there is a historical precedent, but what I argue in my book is that during the Cold War, the U.S. was reaching out to minority communities in adversary states. Today American diplomacy is courting — and surveilling — minority populations in allied states like France, the U.K., and Holland, and that’s troubling trans-Atlantic relations.
— Valle Aviles Pinedo, MIA ’14