A very intriguing article that takes an excerpt from Hisham Aidi’s, “Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Culture,” that looks into the attempt by the US and European governments to instrumentalize hip-hop for the purposes of pushing “counter-extremism” messaging.
Hip-hop propaganda: How the U.S. enlists rap music to fight “jihadi cool”
Excerpted from “Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Culture”
One of the odder phenomena of the last decade is hearing national security elites, terrorism experts, and career diplomats discuss the finer points of “flow,” “bling,” and the “politics of cool.” American and European terrorism experts have increasingly expressed concerns over “anti-American hip-hop,” accenting the radicalizing influence of the genre. Noting that Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based Islamist group, uses “jihad rap” in its recruitment videos, Harvard scholar Jessica Stern wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The first- and second-generation Muslim children I interviewed for a study of the sources of radicalization in the Netherlands seemed to think that talking about jihad was cool, in the same way that listening to gangster rap is in some youth circles.” Others have advocated mobilizing certain substyles of hip-hop against “jihadi cool.” In Europe, hip-hop is being enlisted in a broad ideological offensive to counter domestic extremism.
As in America, some of the biggest stars on the European hiphop scene are Muslim, the children of immigrants and/or converts, a number of whom have been embroiled in controversies about freedom of expression, national identity, and extremism. Britain became the first country to deal with the issue of “Muslim hate rap” when, in 2004, the song “Dirty Kuffar” was released online by rap group Sheikh Terra and the Soul Salah Crew. The video, splicing together images from Iraq, Palestine, and Chechnya, praises Osama bin Laden and denounces Bush, Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon, Hosni Mubarak, and Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdallah as “dirty infidels.” The track drew the attention of the Home Office and Labour MPs, who saw the lyrics and imagery as advocating violence. In 2006, Aki Nawaz of the popular hip-hop techno group Fun-Da-Mental released an album, All Is War, with a cover depicting the Statue of Liberty hooded and wired like an Abu Ghraib prisoner, and a song (“Che Bin Pt 2”) comparing bin Laden to Che Guevara. Two MPs called for his arrest.
Realizing the influence of hip-hop, when in April 2007 the Home Office introduced Prevent, an initiative to stop British Muslim youth from being lured into violent extremism, it made sure that hip-hop figured prominently. Muslim organizations in Britain would receive Prevent funding to organize “Spittin’ Light” hip-hop shows, where American and British Muslim rappers with “mainstream interpretations” of Islam would parade their talents. The initiative was directed at younger Muslims, who may not have been associated with mosques or other religious institutions. Prevent’s advocates claim that art can provide Muslims with “an acceptable outlet for strong emotions.” Given Prevent’s involvement in the arts, leaders of cultural organizations—wooed by the American embassy and the British government—are unsure of whether to accept state funds.
“Art is inspiring, art can create conversations that we can’t have in real life, and Muslim artists should be allowed to speak about anything,” says Hassan Mahmadallie, a theater director and officer of the Arts Council of England. “But Prevent is in effect putting limits on the speech of Muslim artists, funding only those the government considers ‘good’ Muslims.”
Other European governments are worrying about hip-hop and extremism. In Germany, state officials are trying to indict rapper-turned- Salafi Deso Dogg for the lyrics of a nasheed that allegedly inspired a twenty-one-year-old Kosovar to fire at a busload of American servicemen in Frankfurt in March 2011. In the Netherlands, the government is at a loss over what kind of rap to support. In 2007, there was a controversy surrounding the Dutch-Moroccan star Salah Eddin and his video “Het Land Van” (This Country Of ), in which he describes being Muslim in an increasingly conservative Netherlands and lists what he likes and does not like about the country. Among other things, he does not like racial profiling and the red-light district—“this land that sells women behind window panes.” The rapper first appears clean-shaven in a plaid shirt; as the video progresses, his facial hair grows longer until, by the end, he is wearing a scraggly beard and an orange Guantanamo jumpsuit. The uproar was not only about this content, but about the fact that Salah Eddin had received a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Culture for the video’s production. Voters complained that their tax money was underwriting radicalism. Government officials felt duped: they had given Salah Eddin the grant thinking he was “moderate,” but he turned out to be “radical.”
European officials (along with U.S. embassy officials) are scrutinizing hip-hop practices in their cities’ immigrant neighborhoods, trying to decide which Muslim hip-hop artists to legitimize and which to push aside. The debate over hip-hop, Europe’s dominant youth culture, stands in for a much larger debate about race, immigration, and national identity. With many of the biggest stars being Muslim, the disputes over which Muslim hip-hop artists are “moderate” or “radical” are also disagreements over what kind of Islam to allow into the public space. This debate is playing out most poignantly in France, the country with the largest Muslim community in Europe, the second-largest hip-hop market in the world, and a place whose traditions of laïcitéaggressively restrict expressions of religion in the public sphere.
By the late 2000s, American and European policymakers began expressing doubts about the neoconservative policy of supporting Sufism in Europe. Policy advisors began redefining the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” In 2006, the CIA issued a report titled “Muslim Brotherhood: Pivotal Actor in European Political Islam,” praising the movement’s “impressive internal dynamism, organization and media savvy” and stating that “MB groups are likely to be pivotal to the future of political Islam in Europe.” And while acknowledging that “more pluralistic Muslims—accuse [the MB] of hindering Muslim social integration,” the report argued that “MB-related groups offer an alternative to more violent Islamic movements.” This would become the view of the Obama administration, which lifted the travel ban imposed on Tariq Ramadan because of the scholar’s familial links to the Brotherhood. In January 2009, U.S. officials invited German Muslim activists to visit the Virginia-based International Institute for Islamic Thought, a group founded in 1983 by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers (and raided by the FBI in 2002).
The Obama administration’s move to reengage with more conservative European Muslim groups would create rifts within the American government. As journalist Ian Johnson writes, efforts to talk to the organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood “created the strange spectacle of the legal arm of the government trying desperately to prosecute these groups while, at the same time, the diplomatic arm held them up as models of integration.” American willingness to engage with Muslim Brotherhood– affiliated groups would rankle European politicians as well. In 2007, for instance, the U.S. Consulate in Munich supported the creation of an Islamic academy in the Bavarian town of Penzberg. The Conservative Party, then in power, opposed the project because the school was tied to Milli Görü¸s, a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood. One reason German politicians resented the Americans’ support of this organization is that by the mid-2000s, German (and Dutch and Belgian) leaders were beginning to see the Sufi movement Gülen as an alternative to both Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood– affiliated groups.
The Gülen movement has a strong presence in Germany’s Turkish community and administers two dozen schools in Berlin alone. What strikes most observers is that this Sufi organization has a social services and urban-renewal mission, usually characteristic of Islamist groups; yet unlike the latter, Gülen does not aim to “Islamicize” or purify society, but to integrate Muslims into the larger society. “We don’t go out to convert. All we do is serve—we step in where services are needed,” says Nihat Sarier, who heads the Platforme de Paris, a Gülen center in a northern Parisian suburb. “In this neighborhood, we provide Turkish and Arabic translators in public schools to help mediate between parents and teachers. French schools don’t provide translators, so we assist the state. The Gülen movement is never in contradiction with the host state.” Cash-strapped European states have welcomed Gülen assistance—and some officials are hoping that with the rise of Turkey, this rare Sufi movement, committed to urban development, can counter Salafi separatism. Critics, however, doubt whether this Turkish movement, which claims to be apolitical and pursues a “strategy of silence” when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, can help with counter-radicalization. Gülenists have access to capital and believe firmly in education and civic engagement, but they don’t have the anti-establishment, anti-imperial message, and comprehensive self-rectification programs of the Salafis.
By 2008, unlikely coalitions began to emerge between security officials and left-leaning intellectuals calling for an engagement with Salafi groups. Scholars like Dutch anthropologist Martijn de Konning argued that Salafis, in their separatism and rejection of liberalism, are not any different from ultraconservative Christians or Jews; yet while the latter are granted a space in Western societies, the former are continuously persecuted and maligned, which often leads to further radicalization. Moreover, the ascendancy of Salafism is the result of Britain and America’s continued partnerships with Saudi Arabia, and continued Saudi dissemination of their ideology. European security officials, in turn, see the (non-jihadi) Salafis’ influence and street credibility as an asset in the battle against violent extremism; and it’s necessary to grant Salafi activists the political space to speak out forcefully against American and British foreign policy, because that can enhance their credibility in denouncing violence. The lead proponent of this view in Europe has been Robert Lambert, director of Scotland Yard’s Muslim Contact Unit, who draws attention to the Salafi community of South London and its alliance with the Metropolitan Police. The positive role played by mosques and Muslim community leaders in protecting property and restraining youth during the London riots of August 2011—which happened to take place during Ramadan—seemed to support the view that Islamist intermediaries can maintain social peace.
Similar thinking has now taken hold across the Atlantic, partly due to the ideas of Quintan Wiktorowicz, an American social scientist who wrote extensively about Salafi movements in the Middle East before becoming a resident scholar at the U.S. embassy in London, studying radicalization among British Muslims. In Britain, Wiktorowicz interviewed hundreds of Islamists, and under his counsel the U.S. embassy launched the “Reverse Radicalism” project, funding myriad NGOs and community centers in an effort to build a “counter-narrative” to jihadi Salafism. Wiktorowicz, as National Public Radio would report, brought into his anti-jihadi coalition individuals that the British found too extreme. In 2010, he returned to America and took a position at the White House as a member of the National Security Council and advisor to John Brennan, the counterterrorism czar. Wiktorowicz would echo Lambert’s thinking that there should be a political space for “nonviolent extremism”—that is, Muslim leaders who reject American policies and even liberal values while denouncing jihad against the U.S. In 2011, he introduced a program to counter violent extremism called Community Partnership, which drew on the Prevent program in Britain. But unlike its British inspiration, the American program did not openly back some Muslim institutions against others; rather, the aim was to identify “credible” voices within the American Muslim community and build an “Alliance of Youth Movements” as a bulwark against extremism.
The debate continues over how to deal with Salafism. In the U.S., Salafism nowadays has a tiny presence, but security officials are still trying to groom Salafi dialogue partners, as they may be best placed to teach young Muslims that violence against the U.S. government is not permitted by Islamic law. Law enforcement is cultivating leaders like Yasir Qadhi—who as a young firebrand in the 1990s denounced Sufis and Shia as heretics, but today runs the AlMaghrib Institute in Texas and describes himself as a “pacifist Salafi” who is trying to build a community of “indigenous Salafis” in Texas akin to the orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn. Qadhi is trying to develop a theology that balances loyalty to Islam with allegiance to America for young diaspora Muslims, who invariably ask, What does Islam command you to do when your people are dying at Western hands? He teaches his students that it is imperative to uphold the law of the land, urging his young followers to vote, pay taxes, but not to serve in the military, given the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. He denounces “neo-imperial” American policies, but tells students that “offensive jihad”—spreading an Islamic state by force—is permissible only when ordered by a legitimate caliph, or global Muslim ruler, who does not exist today, and that joining militant groups at war with America constitutes treachery and a breach of contract with the American government, which allows Muslims to worship freely. Qadhi is emerging as an example of what American officials describe as a “moderate Salafi.” This young Muslim-American cleric encourages political participation but still retains Salafism’s distinct language of self-rectification and quietism: he is fond of saying that change cannot come from militancy but “begins in the heart and in the home, and it shall eventually reach the streets and shake the foundations of government.”
Partly to influence the debates taking place among Muslim-American youth, in July 2013, Congress amended the 1948 Smith- Mundt Act, long known as the “anti-propaganda law.” The Smith-Mundt Act was passed at a time when Congress suspected that the State Department was staffed with Communists, and prohibited websites and media outlets financed by the U.S. government—like the Arabic-language TV channel Al-Hurra—from broadcasting at home to prevent the government from aiming propaganda at its own citizens. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act repealed this prohibition, allowing government information produced for foreign audiences to be disseminated within the United States; thus programming produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and other entities controlled by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) can now be carried by local radio stations.
Scholars and journalists quickly warned of the perils of domestic propaganda. And the Washington Post broke a story of a “counterpropaganda” program run by the Pentagon that targeted a Somali-American journalist in Minneapolis by flooding his website, United Somalia, with comments by readers opposed to Al-Shabaab. “The Pentagon is legally prohibited from conducting psychological operations at home or targeting U.S. audiences with propaganda, except during ‘domestic emergencies,’ ” explained the Post, adding that Defense Department rules also forbid the military from using psychological operations to “target U.S. citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any circumstances.” The defenders of the Smith-Mundt amendment, in turn, would argue that their law only covers information programs produced by the State Department and the BBG, not the Pentagon or the CIA, who are subject to different laws. To Muslim-American leaders, this was not reassuring.
When Obama assumed office in 2008, cultural diplomacy initiatives toward Muslim communities continued, but the Bush administration’s aggressive attempts to mobilize Sufism and provoke an “Islamic Reformation” were shelved. Yet by mid-2013, perhaps in response to the sectarianism unleashed by the Arab revolts, the U.S. government again began taking a more active role in shaping Islamic discourse. Not only was the “anti-propaganda law” amended, but in July 2013 the State Department created an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives to engage with “religious actors,” and then in September—days after Al-Shabaab launched a horrific attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi—the U.S. and Turkey announced the creation of a $200 million program to battle extremism, called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience. Critics from London to Islamabad promptly expressed concern that through “engagement” the U.S. government would be taking sides in religious debates, defining who is “moderate,” and funding groups that it would not support at home.
In Europe, the upheavals in North Africa, the Syrian civil war, and the pushback from Saudi Arabia have emboldened Salafis in Belgium, France, and Germany. “The Salafis have completely overtaken the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe,” says Michael Privot of the Brusselsbased European Network Against Racism. “The center is weak—and that is a problem. In the 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only alternative, and the Brothers worked with Salafis for years, but then lost control of them. The Saudis had their own Marshall Plan for Europe, and they won all the cultural battles, and today, in 2013, they’re still winning.”
In the UK, the alliance that had formed in the mid-2000s between liberal Muslims, secular feminists, and conservatives opposed to multiculturalism, who think Salafism—quietist or activist—undermines social cohesion and impedes the integration of Muslims, mobilized again, irked that the U.S., which had cracked down on Salafism at home, was now urging engagement with Islamists in Europe. In June 2011, after a prolonged political battle within the British cabinet between Nick Clegg, the Liberal deputy prime minister who saw nonviolent extremism as a bulwark against extremism, and Prime Minister David Cameron, who argued that ideologies of nonviolent extremism—like Salafism—pave the way for violent extremism, the new Prevent program was unveiled, reflecting the prime minister’s view. The new Prevent defined “extremism” broadly to include groups considered nonviolent but whose views fail to “reflect British mainstream values.” The government then proceeded to cut funding to youth programs such as the Brixton-based Street UK because of their affiliation with Salafi mosques. Critics warned that this new Muslim policy would only drive extremist groups underground. Indeed, a few days after the release of the new Prevent program, yellow posters began appearing in parts of East London, plastered on lampposts and bus stops: “You are entering a sharia-controlled zone—Islamic rules enforced.” “No Gambling.” “No Music or Concerts.” “No Porn or Prostitution.” “No Drugs or Smoking.” “No Alcohol.”
“We Shall Overcome”
American embassies were implementing “diversity management” programs just as David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel had declared multiculturalism was dead. Referring to a cultural event she organized in Denmark, Deborah Maclean, a public-diplomacy officer at the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen, explains: “We wanted to encourage these youths to realize that it is okay to be different.” European officials take offense at the implicit criticism that Europeans cannot deal with difference, and that they are overwhelmed by an urban crisis that has never reached American proportions. American politicians can now take tours of “sensitive” European neighborhoods. After one such junket, in May 2008, to the northern Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, congressional aide Kevin Casey laughed and told the French press, “You think this is the ghetto, come see the Bronx—I’m going to take photos of this to show my friends.”
French journalists have expressed anger at this exercise of American “soft power,” saying that the “head hunting” for future Muslim leaders constituted “direct interference” that was infringing on French sovereignty and undermining the authority of French institutions. In April 2010, when the American ambassador Charles Rivkin, a former Hollywood executive, brought actor Samuel L. Jackson to visit a community center in the banlieue of Bondy in northern Paris, and Jackson, addressing a group of youths, compared their struggle to the hardships of his childhood in segregated Tennessee, French media resented the comparison. Another awkward moment came at the unveiling of a painted mural for Martin Luther King at the Collège Martin Luther King in Villiers-le-Bel, another restive Parisian suburb, when a group of African and Arab children stood around Ambassador Rivkin and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
The State Department’s outreach to Muslims, conceived in response to Europe’s “nativist surge,” seems to be further inflaming the right, who see Washington’s rap-infused initiatives as infringing on their sovereignty and are even more chary of their Muslim compatriots’ allegiance. In April 2008, the daily Le Parisien ran a frontpage story on alleged CIA initiatives in the banlieues. Today headlines are more likely to refer to the NSA’s activities. If European Muslims are often accused of being loyal to their land of origin or to some transnational Islamic movement, now they are suspected of being a fifth column of the United States (just as religious minorities in the Muslim world are). French right-wingers speak of a Muslim “Trojan horse,” comparing the State Department– sponsored trips taken by young French Muslims to the U.S. to the Soviet-sponsored trips of the 1920s and 1930s that took French intellectuals to Russia to experience the benefits of socialism firsthand. Overheated as such rhetoric may be, it seems true that the U.S. counterinsurgency initiatives in Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan now have a kinder, gentler corollary directed at Western Europe’s urban periphery.
The irony is that despite the uproar from journalists and politicians, the Muslim youth who are the targets of these initiatives are quite appreciative. If the aim of the “minority programs” was to create positive impressions of the U.S., the effort is working. European-Muslim activists appreciated the brutal candor of the Wikileaks cables. In France, in particular, perhaps because of the country’s contentious alliance with the U.S., positive opinion of the U.S. has risen sharply since 2008. And young Muslims are aware of the delicate politics involved in accepting American offers. Widad Ketfi, a twenty-seven-year-old blogger who participated in an embassy-sponsored program, told the Times that she knows she was targeted by the U.S. embassy because of her Algerian-Muslim background, but added, “What bothers me is being the target of the French state.” And while they resent the NSA surveillance and importation of American policing methods to European cities, Muslim activists and entrepreneurs think their relationship with the American embassy can help leverage better concessions from their governments. “We can ask the Belgian government for assistance, no response,” says Ibrahim Akrouh, a lawyer with the Brussels-based Movement Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia (MRAX). “But if you get help from the U.S. embassy, then Belgian officials will respond and offer support.”
Given all the governments and social movements now offering assistance in the European urban periphery, deciding whether and from whom to accept funds involves some risk. Since the financial collapse of 2008, the American embassies and the Gulf states have emerged as the funders of last resort. In 2012, Qatar decided to invest fifty million euros in the French banlieues to promote entrepreneurship; but after an outcry from the National Front, whose leaders said the money was intended to “Islamize” French youth, the Qataris decided to scatter the funds to include Paris proper and not just the periphery. Accepting money from the American embassy can lead to a loss of credibility as well. “If you take money from the U.S. embassy, then you can’t show up at a political rally protesting American foreign policy—people will call you an American puppet,” says Sami Waqas, who runs a youth center in Berlin. “But then again, if the U.S. embassy thinks you’re moderate, then the local authorities will think you’re moderate and leave you alone.”
Others cringe at the label “moderate.” For many Muslims, the term is a top-down marker that basically means compliant, and movements that have an appeal among Muslim youth know they can lose their credibility as soon as they are embraced by local authorities or by a particular embassy. In January 2011, before the second Prevent program was released, British commentators were debating “moderate Salafism,” and the Guardian produced a short documentary about how British Salafis monitor extremism in their midst. Abdulrahman, a soft-spoken Salafi leader from Luton, turns indignant when the interviewer praises his moderation. “Why are you calling me a moderate Muslim now?” he says. “Is that name not just temporary until we do your daily work for you, and remove the evil of al-Muhajirun [a militant group banned by the British government]? And then you’re going to go back to calling us what? Extremists? Fundamentalist Muslims?” In a very respectful tone, he asks, “Why are you now labeling us moderate Muslims? ’Cause I still believe in the death sentence, I still believe homosexuality is incorrect morally, I still believe that the hand should be removed for the one who steals. So am I really a moderate Muslim, really?”
From “Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Culture” by Hisham Aidi. Copyright © 2014 by Hisham Aidi. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.