Caption: A woman walks past a wall of graffiti in Indonesia Credit: Budi Nusyirwan on Flickr Flickr URL:

Art Can Combat Islamophobia

“It’s important for mainstream Americans to hear Muslim voices,” says Omnia Hegazy, a singer-songwriter. Hegazy is not talking about political commentary, debunking Donald Trump or how some Muslims try to explain away the horrors of Daesh; she is talking about artist voices. With her acoustic guitar and bluesy lyrics backed up by a rock and roll band, Hegazy regularly upends stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women. Over and over at concerts people tell her “I didn’t know people like you existed!” But she does, and so do other artists like her, bringing music, joy and human connection to audiences nationwide at this critical juncture.

Caption: A woman walks past a wall of graffiti in Indonesia Credit: Budi Nusyirwan on Flickr Flickr URL:
Caption: A woman walks past a wall of graffiti in Indonesia
Credit: Budi Nusyirwan on Flickr
Flickr URL:

Muslim musicians and artists are undervalued tools in the battle against bigotry. Arts bring people together at a time when it seems our world is splitting apart. They engage us differently than politics and public policy, connecting people consciously and subconsciously, with words and without. Propelling protest or building community, enraging audiences or bringing comfort, the arts infiltrate at a level that can only be defined as human.

At the very worst, engagement may be deadly, as seen in the inexcusable reaction to rude caricatures in France’s theretofore-inconsequential publication Charlie Hebdo.  But arts usually bring out the best in artist and aficionado: creativity, partnership, curiosity and aspiration.  Arts encourage us to see beyond stereotypes and threats with the potential to transform an irrational fear of Islam (aka “Islamophobia”) into rational inquiry. When you are swept into the heartbreak and joy of a story that’s not your own, you may suddenly see your sister instead of a stranger.  

It is increasingly apparent that art about Islam, by Muslims or sourced in Muslim-majority societies, interrupts the cycle of ignorance that others a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and politically and religiously decentralized minority population.

Across the country, in museums, concert halls, and college classrooms, arts are already catalyzing social transformation with exhibitions and programs rooted in diverse Muslim cultures. Hegazy, of Egyptian Muslim and Italian Catholic heritage, was one of several artists that performed and gave workshops at Middletown, Connecticut’s Wesleyan University during its 2014-2015 Muslim Women’s Voices (MWV) series.  

MWV was part of a groundbreaking grants program called “Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement,” funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and facilitated by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Six higher education institutions nationwide won the opportunity to develop and document interdisciplinary collaborations on their campuses and surrounding communities, aimed at expanding awareness, knowledge and understanding about Muslim societies.

Wesleyan’s project included performances and classroom discussions with Algerian-Canadian hip-hop artist Meryam Saci, Brooklyn rapper Maimuna Youssef (aka Mumu Fresh), Lebanese American writer, performer and teaching artist Leila Buckand Tari Aceh, a music and dance troop from Northern Sumatra.

“We explored the work of extraordinary artists from around the globe,” explained Pamela Tatge, then Director of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. “Each one brought a distinct set of personal experiences, embedded in a particular place, society and cultural tradition. We invited audiences into a journey, celebrating the complexity of Muslim women today, and the historical and cultural contexts from which they have emerged.”

Empirical knowledge springs from encounters with the arts. Students that spent time with artists on campus felt the stories performers told were the most powerful part of the program. Through these narratives, students became more aware of their own biases and began questioning long-held beliefs.

At LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York, the enormously successful “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity” brought narratives of real Muslim New Yorkers onto the stage.  This Building Bridges project was devised theater: the script emerged from interviews with five millennial American Muslims who came of age post-9/11. LaGuardia’s Performing Arts Center commissioned Ping Chong + Company to turn those interviews into a play that was in turn, performed by the people who had been interviewed. The New York Times reported that the performers, seated on stage at music stands, are “a chorus of voices gently demolishing the notion of Muslim culture as monolithic.”

“Beyond Sacred” audiences at the racially and ethnically diverse LaGuardia Community College connected viscerally to the stories of discrimination they heard from the Muslims on stage. “I guess I have been blind to the [identity] crises [of] other ethnicities,” said one black student in the audience. “This has changed my overall concept of race and ethnicity in America.”

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, where most of the news coverage of Muslims is about young Somalis being recruited into Al-Shabaab or Daesh, Augsburg College and The Cedar Cultural Center teamed up to produce concerts featuring Somali musicians. In the process they discovered that years of civil war and cultural extremism imposed by the Arabian Peninsula had devastated Somalia’s rich musical traditions.  Thus, “Midnimo,” which means “unity” in Somali, evolved into more than a concert series as Somali musicians took the opportunity to begin reviving their nearly extinct heritage.

On one of several Building Bridges panels hosted at The Cedar, Somali-British songwriter Aar Manta did not mince words:

“I love my religion and religious radicalism did not destroy our culture.  This is not religious radicalism. It is cultural radicalism.”

Culture plays at least as large a role as politics in shaping people’s lives and value systems. Manta pointed to influence from the Arabian Peninsula that came in the form of economic subsidies, and imposed a foreign culture on his East African homeland.

Gathering quantitative statistical analysis of this work presents hurdles. The art forms used in Building Bridges programs nationwide were varied, student participation in cohorts and surveys was inconsistent, and campus based Institutional Review Boards were sometimes reluctant to allow researchers to delve into students pre- and post-experience beliefs about Muslims. Nevertheless, the San Francisco-based consulting firm WolfBrown, which specializes in addressing the complex challenges facing the nonprofit sector, came aboard to help assess the program.

To gather data on desired outcomes WolfBrown used pre- and post-experience surveys complemented by structured, in-depth interviews between research fellows, students, administration and artists. Anecdotal accounts show clear inroads of understanding, an appreciation of bias faced by Muslim students, and that people consistently enjoyed good performances regardless of their religious or cultural affiliation.

Building on the success of the first round, a second round of competition for the DDFIA Building Bridges grants “Building Bridges: Arts, Culture and Identity,” Is now underway.

Museum exhibitions are also highlighting the theme of identity with regard to art and Islam. Myriad exhibitions feature historic pieces from Muslim-majority societies; some connect the past to the present.

“Pearls on a String” opened at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore last fall and closed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on May 8. The exhibition attempts to humanize the artist and artistic process across time and geography.  As she conceived the project Walters Art Museum associate curator Amy Landau wanted the project to address the question, “Who is behind the art?”

The exhibition focused on the three individuals: Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak, a writer in 16th-century Mughal India, Muhammad Zaman ibn Haji Yusuf, a painter in 17th-century Safavid Iran, and the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I, an 18th century patron of the arts. It is their approach and ambition vis a vis the arts that audiences today may understand. We see and read about Mughal King Abu’l Fazl Akbar meeting with clergy and scholars of Islam and other faiths. We see some of Shah Sulayman’s book collection of the Gospel and Torah. And we see how Sultan Mahmud used the arts to promote his vision of a technologically advanced empire.  

Looking at the artwork and interpretation in “Pearls on a String” a viewer could imagine artists and patrons discussing the long-term impact of their efforts. “Our works point to us,” one of them calls out from the past, “So gaze after us to our works.”

Landau reported that attendance at the Walters Art Museum more than doubled while “Pearls on a String” was on display, accompanied by family programs and lectures.

Audiences have flocked to New York’s magnificent Metropolitan Museum of Art that in 2011 reopened its Islamic arts galleries under the heading “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” Rather than present Islamic Art as a singular, monolithic creation, the Met took eight years to reorganize its nearly 12,000 objects into geographic regions, reflecting the diversity of the many cultures that share Muslim-majority populations. While the meta-culture for all of this visual art was Muslim, the people were multi-confessional and so were the artists. Teacher guides and curricula are provided by the museum to sustain learning about art and culture of these societies in classrooms nationwide.

“Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place” was at New Jersey’s Newark Museum through May 15, raising questions of connection. Iranian Jewish families touring the exhibition noted “how familiar some of the objects in the exhibition looked to them: rugs, jewelry, ceramics-objects of everyday life,” said Linda Nettleton, from the museum’s education division. “They talked about the basic similarities they recognized in the teachings of Islam and the teachings of Judaism.” A volunteer docent from Peru who initially didn’t feel a personal connection to the exhibition began learning about Islam through conversation with curators and visitors. She began to make associations between Islam and her Christian faith. Ramadan reminded her of Lent. Both traditions emphasize the social responsibility to give charity. Local imams also stepped in to lead tours and translate Quranic passages that were sewn or carved into the artwork. A free weekly film festival accompanied the exhibition, deepening visitors’ appreciation of complex cultural and inter-religious relationships among populations in the area.

Arts have a particularly positive impact on young people who may have not yet cemented their biases. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan currently features “From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” running through January 2017. Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, told Newsweek “The conversation that’s taking place in the country I think has opened people up to ask questions and seek more balanced answers that aren’t based in fear. The arts are this kind of natural incubator for communication.”

“The way forward for us as a society really is to find imaginative pathways to connect to each other,” says Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for the Doris Duke Foundation’s Building Bridges, which is also funding From America to Zanzibar. “That connection is what gives us the vibrancy and resilience and makes us who we are here in the U.S.”

Increasingly it becomes clear that the artists, architects and poets of the past have lives and ethics in common with their descendants, generations hence. They had their share of war, earthquakes, political tumult, and inexcusable evils, too. Art from the past reminds us of an essential connection, both behind and before us. Arts assist us in recognizing the continuum in which we live, in which we function, and into which we’ll give our legacy. In fact, archaeologists depend on artistic artifacts to shed light on our shared human past. So will it be into the future.

For Rahman, “Positive artistic experiences build a sense of fraternity, inspire people to think, and also to rethink the positions that each one of us holds.” Arts help people access inner transformation. That is especially important now, with people growing increasingly anxious about potential threats from “Muslims” and Islamophobia on the rise.

We should take the arts seriously because they can bring people together at a time when it seems our world is splitting apart. This is why additional efforts, funding and attention to this transformational tool must be undertaken at academic and cultural institutions. Artistic interventions should be considered with an eye toward sustainable outcomes and scale of impact. What about an encore of the 2013 Afghan National Institute of Music’s US tour? How about touring a film festival with works that might touch tens of thousands of people? What about expanding digital content on contemporary art from and by people of Muslim-majority cultures? The arts are fertile ground for adding complexity to the American conversation about Islam and Muslims. That conversation may draw some national media attention away from the ever-present negative alternative.

The volume of fear is getting louder at a pace that’s hard to match with conventional articles, dialogue and lectures. The arts provide a short cut. They are an avenue of light down dark streets of despair and bigotry, a call for emotional elevation, an antidote to antipathy. Arts are a path to Rumi’s field where there is no right or wrong.

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing

There is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

In that grass “the other” does not exist.

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  • About the autor
    Anisa Mehdi

    Anisa Mehdi is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, a writer and a flutist. Her acclaimed National Geographic documentary "Inside Mecca" is available on Netflix. Anisa writes for, and consults to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. She is vice-chair of the Abraham Path Initiative.

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