Religion and Afghan Star

I don’t watch American Idol, but I think that if I lived in a foreign culture, that country’s version of the show would be a great place to learn about that particular society. This rather amazing Guardian story on Afghanistan’s Afghan Star television show gives readers a glimpse into a society that we generally only hear in the news when it relates to war, terrorism and international politics. As a reader noted, how often do we hear about the regular people from Afghanistan, the ones who have put up with multiple invasions, governments and a bleak future.

Religion is touched upon in the article, but not to the extent that would give readers a real sense of its nuances and cultural contradictions. For example, the show appears to be a big hit in Afghanistan, a country where music was banned just a few years ago:

Three years later, Afghan Star, the country’s equivalent of Pop Idol, was launched by Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s leading independent television company. By the time the third series came around last year, the show had become a national phenomenon, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that some entrants were risking their lives by taking part. Women contestants, in particular, have been the object of much anger among religious conservatives. But the prize is considerable: as well as fame, the winner receives £5,000, which is 10 times the average salary.

The Taliban outlawed music for five years. Now hopes are high that this hit show can unite Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups and help bring an end to conflict. Daoud Sediqi, who presented the first three series, once said that the show’s aim was “to take people’s hands from weapons to music”. Sediqi — who rebelled against Taliban rule by secretly repairing people’s video recorders — wasn’t exaggerating Afghan Star’s huge influence. The final was watched by 11 million people, a third of the Afghan population, all voting for their favourite singer by mobile phone; for many, it was their first taste of democracy.

You get the sense initially from the article that music and pop culture is going to unit the country and that everyone was behind the cultural influences of this hugely popular television show, but then you read this paragraph that seems disconnected from the earlier portions of the article:

Sadly, most Afghans are not so open-minded. Setara, a single woman who lives alone (something that is almost unheard of), has much to fear. Although there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting music, many Islamists disapprove of music and dance as incitements to licentious behaviour. Already the show has received a warning from the Islamic Council, for “misleading the people”.

As another reader noted to us, the article provides an excellent opportunity for launching into an explanation of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban cultural revolution, but it fails to ask the most basic question: why was music banned by the Taliban?

A nice follow-up question would be why do the Muslims there object to music and dancing in particular. One answer given in the article is that it is an incitements “to licentious behaviour.” Is the matter simply related to sex, or are there deeper religious reasons particular to their tradition? Prohibitions on music and dance aren’t exactly foreign to Puritan traditions in Western cultures, and even the Reformed tradition’s John Calvin was known to oppose public dancing.

I had similar questions with regard to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interview with the Iraqi heavy-metal band Acrassicauda. The musicians noted that while Saddam Hussein was in power, they were bothered some, but were generally allowed to go about performing their music discretely.

After the invasion, things became more difficult in terms of their safety and now the band members are in the United States. Was it the mere lawlessness that ensued after the invasion that made living in Iraq impossible, or were there religious reasons making it more difficult for performing artists when the secular Saddam was not in power?

Print Friendly

  • Dave

    I suspect that disapproval of music and dancing under both Moslem and Christian conservative regimes is that they are too Pagan. Folk veneration of Pagan gods often involves music and dancing.

    Speaking of which, may you all have a Happy Equinox. ;-)

  • danr

    “Religion is touched upon in the article, but not to the extent that would give readers a real sense of its nuisances and cultural contradictions.”

    I can’t decide if you intended to say nuisances, or it was a Freudian slip and you really meant to say “nuances”. Strangely, it works either way.

  • dpulliam

    I definitely meant nuances. I apologize for the mistake.

  • Jerry

    Danr made the statement I was thinking about.

    The following site states my understanding that sexually arousing music is prohibited:

    The music that Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him prohibited was the one that the infidels used to play which involved sexual activities by the women. It was part of the pagan Arabs’ custom, and Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him wanted to prevent Muslims to be anywhere near that type of music, because it was a sinful music; a music that led to sinful activities.

    But, once again, two minutes with google turned out information that would have made the news story better and which therefore should have been included. Sigh.

  • Maureen

    There’s a hadith that Mohammed banned all “musical instruments, flutes, strings” as well as crucifixes and other non-Islamic stuff. It goes on and on. But considering that the man also hated poetry and had poets assassinated, are you surprised?

    The really surprising thing is how important music and poetry have remained in Muslim societies, despite their bad position in the hadiths and the Koran.

  • Herb Brasher

    The Afghans are poets and romantics from their hearts. If I am not mistaken, Farsi poetry and literature, is more extensively embedded in the culture than the Western variety.

    The thing about Hadiths is that they are often self-contradictory; besides music is in the soul of every human being, so it will exert itself, no matter how much it is repressed.

    In general, there is no real story here. This is just typical Afghan singing–no cultural revolution taking place.

  • Herb Brasher

    “. . . is more extensively embedded in that culture than the Western variety is in ours.” is more like what I wanted to write, though still not expressed very well. No time to polish it though.