The world of entertainment and sport is one arena where religious and ethnic barriers, and stereotypes, tend not to hinder appreciation of an artist’s talent. Do we know or care about the religious proclivities or practices of Omar Sharif, Snoop Dog, Mos Def, Cheb Mami, Zinedine Zidane, Amir Khan or, if permitted to be all-inclusive, David Beckham? Have they managed to transcend or render unimportant their ethnic and religious backgrounds for the worldwide public?
This question about the role of Muslims in the arts—whether they are successful in reaching mainstream society and normalizing Muslim presence in various European countries—was the focus of a panel that we organized on last week at the Copenhagen Eid Festival.
Held during the anniversary of 9/11 and amidst hourly updates on an American pastor who intended to burn the Qu'ran, the festival—including a photography booth and the panel, entitled "The Arts of Integration," sponsored by the At Home in Europe Project—began on an inauspicious note.
Did we figure out if there is a Muslim cultural scene? Do we know whether the arts are an unobstructed pathway for Muslims to be accepted in mainstream society? Does Allah make you funny?
Needless to say we left the festival with more questions than answers, but highlights included a Dutch academic, a French documentary filmmaker, a German writer/journalist, and an American stand-up comedian/jazz musician from the American comedy troupe Allah Made Me Funny. They all share the experience of having had a faith identity imposed upon them, and have used their various artistic forums as a vehicle to demand accommodation and a place in their societies.
This point was poignantly highlighted by the German panelist, Hilal Sezgin; although she sees herself as a German writer, she is often labelled as Turkish/Muslim. The Dutch panelist, Miriam Gazzah, pointed to her research on Dutch Moroccan youth who prize Moroccan music and do not want to share it with wider society. Why should they? It’s their way of developing a sense of belonging and accommodation along lines which are uniquely theirs, but which do not make them any less Dutch.
Preacher Moss of Allah Made Me Funny spoke of humor and its ability to cut across barriers: your religion or ethnicity does not matter—if you are funny you will make the audience laugh. Karim Miske’s three-part documentary on the history of Islam in France over the last century actively ensured that the individuals portrayed were diverse and the descendants of family who had been living in France for a very long time.
The overarching message from the festival was the need to challenge prejudice through whatever means you have. Creativity is one way but the end result must be to ensure representation, engagement, and interaction of all. In the words of the Persian poet Khayyam, “A hair divides what is false and true.”
I left the event with the lasting image of a blonde Danish woman singing to the crowd in fluent Punjabi, dancing the bhangra whilst two Sikh men played the drums. Who says Copenhagen doesn’t do diversity?