Islamists via A Tribe Called Quest

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)‘, Steve Biko (Stir it Up) and ‘8 Million Stories‘ by A Tribe Called Quest.

Islamists have made the news for very different reasons over the last week.  Broadly speaking, Islamism can be taken to mean the promotion of Islam as a political, not just religious, system.  Islam is seen as governing every aspect of human life: the personal is political.  Such groups generally promote the institutionalisation of shariah law.  Some also propound pan-Islamic ideals such as the resurrection of the caliphate.  There are many, many variants, from moderates to jihadis.  Unfortunately in the west there is a tendency to associate the term with the latter most of the time, obscuring the pluralism of Islamism and the reasonable perspectives of some who fall under its rubric.

I don’t know much about Islamist music (if there is any), or even Islamic music (my loss, no doubt).  So accompanying this post is one of my favourite groups with Muslim members (tenuous, I know): A Tribe Called Quest.  A Tribe Called Quest fall under the broad category of hip-hop.  They don’t however have a lot in common with the present-day artists that spring instantly to mind with that tag.  You could consider them hip-hop moderates.  Their songs don’t deal with gang violence, they aren’t known for displaying overt markers of affluence (read bling) and their videos don’t feature scantily clad gyraters.  Instead their beats are low-tempo, their rhymes smooth and laid back and their lyrics sensitive.  They even throw in shout outs to Muhammad (or maybe they’re to member DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad).

Results in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections came out this week.  It was good news for the grand daddies of the modern Islamist movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Their political party offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won 213 of the 498 seats contested.  Another Islamist party – the Salafist Al-Nour party – came in second with 123 seats.

Victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in these elections was widely predicted (Al-Nour’s success came as something more of a surprise).  Before Mubarak’s downfall the Brotherhood was illegal and its candidates had to stand as independents.  In the June 2010 polls those independents did not win a single seat.  Official turnout for those elections was said to be 14 percent; analysts believe it was as low as 10 percent.  The current elections, held over seven weeks, had a turnout of around 60 percent.

The relationship between Islamism and democracy is a fascinating one, and it will be interesting to see whether democratic legitmisation ‘normalises’ the Brotherhood, or whether they ‘Islamise’ Egypt’s burgeoning democracy (or both).  The first session of the new parliament was held on Monday and it was an entertaining start.  While members of the public danced on the street outside to celebrate their first freely (although the degree of freedom is disputed) elected government in over six decades, things got increasingly unruly inside with lawmakers attempting to pledge allegiance to the revolution or to Islamic Law rather than to Egypt, a bitter dispute over the election of the speaker and a lot of yelling.

One final point of interest is that, unlike previous Islamists elected into power (think Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon), the United States is taking some very tentative steps toward engagement with the Brotherhood.

It was revealed last week that things did not go as planned for a shadowy group of Bangladeshi Islamists whose plan to depose the elected government was foiled.  Up to 16 serving and retired military officers were involved in the coup attempt.  All but one has been detained.  Two of those arrested have said they have links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamic organisation banned in Bangladesh by the current government in 2009.

Islam is the state religion in Bangladesh but the current government made a controversial amendment to the constitution last year re-establishing secularism as one of the four pillars of the state.  While the state’s success fending off the threat was bad for the plotters, it isn’t exactly good for the Awami League government which comes off looking besieged (a similar attempt was made in 2009).  The fact the threat came from the military is particularly concerning. Analysts believe radical Islamism in the Bangladeshi armed forces is widespread and growing.

The ever more prolific Boko Haram struck again in an ugly series of bomb attacks and armed assaults in the city of Kano in Nigeria’s (largely Muslim) north last Friday.  Over 200 people were killed in the attacks which appeared to target police.  Two days later the group bombed two empty churches and a police station further south and attempted to rob a bank.  Two days later again Boko Haram reportedly attacked another police station, this time with hand weapons and grenades.

It turns out the name Boko Haram is not a nod to prog rock but translates to “Western education is forbidden”.  Some believe the group has links to transnational Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or Somalia’s al-Shabaab.  Others think its gripes are less ideological or pan-Islamic and more local and economic.  It is difficult to know because the group does not have stated demands.  It has been suggested that beyond a small group of hardcore Islamists in the group’s northern heartland, the name Boko Haram is used by any number of diverse groups, including criminals, for a variety of ends.

Boko Haram is not even Nigeria’s biggest problem at the moment (that honour probably goes to the tussle over petrol subsidies).  And no one is yet talking about the prospect of Islamist forces taking over Nigeria.  But Boko Haram is at the very least a scary manifestation of the divisive identity politics that continue to weigh the country – a country that is Africa’s most populous and that has incredible economic potential – down.

Campaign music: 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls

Soundtrack for this post: ‘True Colors‘ by Cyndi Lauper and ‘American Girl‘ by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

A couple of weeks ago an ad attacking Republican presidential nominee candidate Mitt Romney appeared.  Then, pretty quickly, all trace of it disappeared.  The ad was pulled because it used Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors‘ without her permission.  She accordingly had “her people” remove it.

Republicans can’t seem to keep their mitts off the works of unsympathetic musicians: last year Tom Petty had to get confrontational to avoid now pulled-out candidate Michele Bachmann using his ‘American Girl‘ during her campaign launch.  Do these people even vaguely listen to the lyrics?  (By people I mean the candidates’ aides).  ‘American Girl’ is…well, it’s not very patriotic.  It opens thus:

Well she was an American Girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that there was
A little more to life, somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

Other artists are of course happy to have their work used by Republicans (or anyone else).  Would you vote for a man whose campaign theme song is from Kid Rock’s oeuvre?  If so, Romney’s your man.

More on the use of music in electoral campaigns in future posts.  I’ll even try to find some positive instances.  Other than perhaps Bill Clinton’s use of ‘Don’t Stop’ nothing’s springing to mind, so please do make suggestions.

Burma, Iran and Pakistan via Queens of the Stone Age

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Goin’ Out West‘, ‘Go With the Flow‘, ‘Leg of Lamb‘ and ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ by Queens of the Stone Age.

There’s been an unrelenting parade of good news streaming out of hitherto pariah state Burma/Myanmar over the last twelve or so months.  In November 2010 a widely discredited election was held and, days later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention.  Many figured her freedom would be limited and short-lived.  But in the last quarter of 2011 there were a number of surprising developments.  President Thein Sein, seemingly responding to the concerns of the Burmese populace, put the kybosh on a Chinese plan to produce hydroelectricity for Yunnan province by damming the Irawaddy.  Then in October around 200 political prisoners were released from the country’s jails.

Burma observers are much too cynical to imagine such moves don’t have an ulterior motive, and the motive generally agreed upon is a desire to move away from Burma’s utter reliance on China.  Burma is ‘Goin’ Out West’, as in this Queens of the Stone Age take on the Tom Waits song.  West in terms of making concessions to tempt – or allow – Western countries to soften and/or remove sanctions; and west in its immediate neighbourhood, by looking to India to balance China (the Chinese hydro snub was closely followed by a state visit to India).  This new turn has likely come from the realisation that a great line in this song, “I’m gonna do what I want, and I’m gonna get paid”, just ain’t true.

The reason Burma gets the ‘good’ mantle this week in particular is because the positive announcements have just kept coming.  Pessimists have pointed to the parlous states of relations between the central Burman administration and various ethnic minority rebel groups as reason for caution about Burma’s progress.  If anything, things had deteriorated in this arena (they were already pretty bad) since the change in government.  The announcement just over a week ago that the government had signed a peace pact with the Karen rebel group was therefore particularly significant, particularly when combined with other developments – all of them happening just this week: more political prisoners released, the United States to reinstate diplomatic ties and Aung San Suu Kyi’s registration to run in April by-elections.

Although a cover, ‘Goin’ Out West’ is, to me, a prototypical Queens of the Stone Age song with its driving rhythm, angular guitars and swagger to burn.  The subject matter also fits in well with their macho-druggy desert aesthetic (refer ‘Go With the Flow‘ – both song and video).  I think of Queens of the Stone Age (Queens to their friends) as the thinking male teen’s dream band.  They scratch a particular itch, often associated with pubescent masculinity, to lose yourself in mindless, relentless, heavy head-bangery.

Speaking of mindless machismo…Iran and Israel/American continue to ramp up their stand off.  Things are tense now, but they could get really bad after the Europeans meet on Monday to rubber stamp their Iranian oil embargo (in response to Iran’s nuclear program).  We will then see how genuine Iran was when it threatened to retaliate by closing the Straight of Hormuz.  That threat has been described as a kamikaze one, a concept that doesn’t really work at the country level.  The stand off is also proving damaging on the domestic front for Obama.  All in all, it’s looking to be a lose-lose.

I don’t know about you, but all these protestations that no one’s about to attack Iran are starting to make me nervous. The Queens song ‘Leg of Lamb‘ is not easily interpreted, but talking as it does of head cases, truth freaks with lies and not wanting to follow the laws of man, it seems fittingly downcast and cynical.  Oh and it has the line “It’s so hard to win, when there’s so much to lose”.

The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ is another wonderfully enigmatic song, shrouded in Machiavellian secrecy and distrust.  Pakistani politics is similarly murky.  At the moment it is like a grizzly car wreck: ugly and totally compelling.  Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared in the country’s supreme court this week in the latest installment of civil-military wrangling that has beset the country since its independence.

Pakistan’s military has historically opted for straightforward coups rather than the current judicial theatrics.  Following last year’s ‘memogate’, wherein President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly sought US support to forestall an impending military coup, perhaps they are looking for more sustainable and internationally acceptable modes of dominance.  Many believe the current pressure will force the government to call early elections.  Military man and former President Pervez Musharraf is lined up to run in those elections, and has announced an alliance with popular ex-cricketer Imran Khan.  Mysterious memos, shady dealings…the art of secrecy is alive and well in Pakistan.

Obama’s Dream Endorsements

Soundtrack for this post: ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart‘ by Al Green, ‘The Seed (2.0)‘ by The Roots ft. Cody ChesnuTT, ‘Pretty Noose‘ by Soundgarden

According to a story broken by The Tennessean a couple of days ago, Obama (or his staff) aims to count around 40 musicians or bands among his declared supporters for re-election later this year.

My first thought on seeing the list was that it had to be bogus.  For one, I haven’t even heard of a good portion of the artists (Sara Bareilles, Bruce Hornsby, Jewel Kilcher, to name just a few).  Secondly, the majority of those I have heard of seem like odd choices, not just because of questionable musical merit (Train?  The guy from Maroon 5?  Really?) but also questionable relevance.  Surely Gwen Stefani, the Counting Crows and Ricky Martin are well past their heydays?  And people who still care about Jack Johnson were never going to vote Republican were they?

These sources for skepticism can however be relatively easily accounted for.  Coming as I do from a country with compulsory voting, it is easy to forget the utility of tools (sorry Jack) for mobilising naturally sympathetic but not necessarily motivated vote sources.  The fact I’m not American could also help explain the apparent abstruseness of the list.  Genres like country and contemporary soul don’t have nearly as much extra-US penetration as hip hop, pop and rock.

There’s some ambiguity about the status of the list which could also explain some of the more esoteric inclusions.  Although described as a wish list, it is clearly a practical document rather than an intellectual exercise.  As such it is constrained by reality: it appears most inclusions have agreed to be on board for Obama 2012, or can be reasonably expected to be so.  So while we could all probably agree we’d prefer Lupe Fiasco over B.O.B. or Cat Power over Regina Spektor, that’s not really the point.

One way in which the list certainly does conform with what you would expect to come from a campaign team is that it attempts to cover all bases.  There’s hip-hop with cred (Jay-Z), hip-hop without cred (B.O.B.), hip hop turned pop (Fergie and from the Black Eyed Peas), R&B (Chrisette Michele and Alicia Keys), contemporary soul (India Arie and John Legend), blues (Robert Cray), country (Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry), alt-country (Wilco), hard rock (Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell), indie (Vampire Weekend), stuff for the oldies with and without a real interest in music (James Taylor and Josh Groban respectively), music for particularly idiotic tweens (Jonas Brothers), Latin pop (Marc Anthony), show music (Bette Midler and Audra McDonald) and, of course, a Hindi language a cappella group from Pennsylvannia (Penn Masala).

So a broad range of tastes is covered, major ethnicities ticked off, and Ricky introduces some balance, sexual orientation-wise.

The full list is available here.

Anwar, Bainimarama and Assad via Jonathan Richman

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Pablo Picasso‘ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, ‘I’m Straight‘ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, ‘You Can’t Talk to the Dude‘ by Jonathan Richman and ‘Let Her Go into the Darkness‘ by Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman’s opus is a varied one, but his songs are instantly recognisable. They all feature most if not all of the following characteristics: his distinctively nasal and Boston-inflected vocals, sparse and simple melodies, beatnik language and laid back instrumentation.

His songs also contain myriad insightful social commentaries. One of his most loved (and covered) songs – from the period when the Modern Lovers was his band – is ‘Pablo Picasso’.

Some people try to pick up girls, and get called asshole

this never happened to Pablo Picasso…

…Well he was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not in New York.

It’s a take on exceptionalism. People make allowances for talent, for greatness. A great painter could act like a sleaze with impunity because he was a great painter, while the rest of us plebs are forced to act civilised. I bet a lot of dictators employ that sort of logic too.

Except of course the women Picasso screwed over undoubtedly did call him an asshole, so Richman’s critique is really aimed at New York arts snobs lionising the artist instead of just the art. So ‘Pablo Picasso’ lambasts exceptionalist justifications for cruelty and the indifference of people to cruelty which does not directly affect them, especially when it has positive by-products. Well, that’s one, politically applicable interpretation anyway. And then there’s the guitar solo.

Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges this week.  Whether Anwar is ‘good’ or not is open for debate (more on these labels in future posts), but few would deny that his acquittal – representing as it does either a healthier than previous distance between the courts and government, or a recognition on the government’s part that removing political opponents by throwing them in prison is not on (or both) – is good for Malaysia.

Anwar is now deemed “straight” and is free to pursue his goal to “take his place” a la the 1976 Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers doozy ‘I’m Straight’.  ‘Straight’ in Anwar’s case should be taken to mean ‘straight with the law’, not straight in the sense meant in the song, or implied by the initial charge.  The Hippy Johnny of this saga is Prime Minister Abdul Najib Razak.  Najib is leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, of which Anwar was a member when he was Deputy Prime Minister from 1993 to 1998.  UMNO is the foremost force in Malaysian politics, and has been so since the country gained independence in 1957.  Anwar hopes to challenge its supremacy by highlighting corruption and appealing to non-Malay constituencies.  Elections are due in 2013.

Frank “I’m your Venus, I’m your fire”  Bainimarama could be forgiven for expecting a designation better than bad this week, with the news that he lifted Fiji’s emergency regulations, in place since 2009.  Sharp on the heels of this positive move however, Bainimarama introduced a bill allowing people to be detained for two weeks for a range of offences, again tightening the screws on the Fijian people.

Commodore Bainimarama took control of Fiji in a coup in December 2006, six months after successful elections and the formation of a representative government.  In the intervening five years he has introduced strict media limits, repeatedly postponed promised elections and alienated his neighbours (he expelled Australia’s ambassador in 2009) and the international community more broadly (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth).  Seriously, as Jonathan would say, ‘You Can’t Talk to the Dude‘ (from 1992’s I, Jonathan).

Meanwhile in Syria, things are getting ugly.  President Bashar al Assad delivered a hard-arsed, televised speech this week, his first in months.

Many saw the arrival of Arab League monitors in the country in late December as cause for real hope.  In fact, violence has only increased since then.  One writer has said that this failure has left the Syrian people, fully aware they will receive no R2P-type foreign assistance as Libya did, feeling utterly alone.  The Arab League may be monitoring, and the rest of us observing, but while we watch we ‘Let Her Go into the Darkness’.

The boyfriend leading Syria into the darkness would be considered by many to be Iran.  A majority Sunni country, Syria, via the Alawite ruling class, is a close ally of its majority Shia neighbour.  Should the Assad regime be toppled, it would be expected that Syria would flip its allegiance to the dominant Sunni country in the region, Saudi Arabia.

World Politics Blues

This blog is for people interested in global politics and in music.  For people who can’t help humming ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale‘ whenever Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram makes the news (as they have again today, for killing at least another 15 of their Christian compatriots yesterday).

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