Mightier than the sword

Chitra Kalyani
9 Min Read

Russians of the Cold War era have been replaced on screen by Muslims and Arabs sporting beards and toting guns.

Following 9/11, Muslims and Arabs are 40 times more likely to be portrayed in negative roles, rather than positive. These detailed facts, along with several others, have been cited in the research paper presented by former US Ambassador to Netherlands Cynthia P. Schneider in a lively, thought-provoking lecture at the American Embassy in Cairo last week. Art provides a powerful vehicle for “cultural diplomacy, argues the 34-page paper co-written by Schneider, Kristina Nelson and Mohamed Youssry entitled “Mightier than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the US Islamic Relationship.

Hip-hop offered the post-9/11 world the same outreach opportunities as jazz during the Cold War era, Schneider said. It provided a common language and also an avenue for debate.

The voices of hip-hop come from many countries, from the late Tupac Shakur in America, YAS in Iran, Emmanuel Jal in Kenya, and, closer to home, Sudanese refugee camps in Cairo. Despite their different backgrounds and culture, all artists speak a “common language.

“People identify with the struggle. It doesn’t matter where you come from; we all have the same story, Muslim American Ali Shaheed Mohamed of “A Tribe Called Quest is quoted as saying in the paper.

With roots as far back as Malcolm X, hip-hop presents – in the context of the Muslim and American world – an underexploited common culture that questions authority.

Tapping “the power of dissent as a component of public diplomacy,

Ozomatli, an American hip-hop group known for its participation in anti-war performances, went on a successful tour last summer sponsored by the US state department, said Schneider.

The ambassador compared Ozomatli’s tour to the influence of jazz in the Cold War era, where Russian audiences admired the free expression of musicians who represented the US, but were not apologists for American racism.

Following the Cold War, funds for patronage of arts and culture were cut down as there was no perceived need for such programs in the absence of an enemy. However, Sept. 11 signaled a chasm in the US and Muslim worlds, which could potentially be bridged through arts.

Thanks to internet and satellite television, Muslim and Arabs themselves receive negative portrayals of themselves, creating what Schneider calls a “doubly negative perception.

Perception of Muslims in the media “has the potential to be doubly positive,

Schneider, a faculty member at Georgetown University since 1984, told Daily News Egypt.

“Muslim views towards America were shaped not by what they think of Americans, but rather by what they think Americans think of them,

Schneider’s paper revealed. Even “sophisticated consumers of culture assumed that popular American media represented public perception.

Creators of Fox TV-series “24 were “astonished to see how influential it was, Schneider said, highlighting the finding of think-tanks, academics and viewers alike. Following the criticism received for their portrayal of terrorists as Muslims, the makers “consciously tried to change the texture of their characters.

“Hollywood engagement is another project through which filmmakers in the West aim to produce “varied and nuanced portrayals of Muslims and Islam through film and television. Part of the engagement involves developing an online resource center with biographies that would inspire real-life characters.

But Hollywood is not the only media arena going for reformation.

Noting that Egypt submitted The Yacoubian Building – a movie covering sharp political criticism and the taboo topic of homosexuality – to the Academy Awards, Schneider found a “paradox in which pride in the film must have overcome unease about the subject matter.

Yet, selecting Oscar nominees is a task conducted by a selected group (The Catholic Institute) who may not represent Egyptian consensus any more than commercially-driven art represents American sentiment, Schneider argued.

Truth be told, the popularity or influence that American jazz pianist David Brubeck and jazz producer Willis Conover commanded cannot be compared to Ozomatli’s following. At present, Ozomatli’s turns of phrase pale in comparison to the popularity and impact of Shakira and her gyrations, both of which were met with greater ado at a performance at the pyramids last year.

The Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra was another musical performance that had the honor to be presented at the pyramids. The American Embassy counted the program in February this year among its top successes, whereby local musicians interacted with the orchestra through a workshop.

Audience member Hisham Gabr expressed appreciation for instances of American cultural interaction with Egypt such as the jazz performance in Cairo. “What’s more important here, the musician and composer nevertheless argued, “is for Americans to see what kind of arts we have.

This is the direction we need to focus on.

Limited funding, responded Schneider, restricted exchanges from the Muslim world to the US.

Travel restrictions, the emotional complexities of being searched and questioned, difficult access to the embassy, let alone the country, riddle passage to the US from the Muslim world – a salient but under-acknowledged reality not fully confronted in the paper.

“One way is to help artists from the Arab world have residencies in the US [and vice versa], reads a quote under a section promoting an increase in funds.

A pariticipant in in a workshop convened by Schneider in Cairo last year stressed the need for Americans “to move beyond simply reacting to 9/11.

The paper acknowledges “difficulties of procuring visas for visitors from the Arab and Muslim world, adding “the administrative burden has become even more daunting for people wishing to co-ordinate exchanges.

Without the presence of such a body, “it is difficult to imagine how the full potential of exchanges, residencies, and partnerships can be realized.

In response to Daily News Egypt’s query regarding overcoming the problem of mobility, Schneider offered an immediate solution: “Internet.

Co-author Nelson agrees, citing an instance when Palestinian artists unable to meet in person conducted a jam session using Skype, a popular online video-conferencing software.

While opportunities for artists to go to the US may be limited, Schneider sees potential for sustainable cultural interaction whereby American expertise help in making art from the Muslim world profitable.

Rather than “parachuting in for occasional programs, or funding “top-down approaches, where American style might be inapplicable to the local context, Schneider suggested supporting and collaborating with localinitiatives.

Al-Hurra (“Freedom ), the US state sponsored Arabic-news channel, can be seen as an example of what not to do. The paper reveals “the total funding for global cultural programs and exchange amounts to just over one month of Al-Hurra’s budget.

Since local media would be more palatable to audiences in the Muslim world, privatizing programs on Al-Hurra “might improve their credibility and reach larger audiences.

Individual or group rather than institutional interactions could alleviate fears that the West was breeding dissent, allowing the Muslim world to positively present itself, and be positively presented in American media.

In this world of “doubly positive perceptions, the “demonized are “humanized, as Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka imagines, and “it is the people who talk..rather than the leadership talking between themselves. s

Share This Article
Leave a comment