the democracy of sound project: number three (echos of syria)

sufi

This is the third installment of the Democracy of Sound Project – an initiative begun by The Hum, as an attempt to use music as a means to combat the rise of racism and xenophobia, as well discrimination and bigotry of any kind – be that based on gender, culture, sexual orientation, social and economic position, or any other distinction. The project is a response to the terrifying spike in Right-Wing ideologies which currently cast a cloud across the globe. Much of this – particularity in the cases of the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result, is a direct consequence of the promotion of fear, with the strategic use of racism and xenophobia, by the political class. This hatred is being sewn. It is the product of lies. It is anti-democratic – a means to divide us, and a vehicle for the worst among us to reach their aims – political authoritarianism, and economic supremacy. The project is an attempt to activate collective steps toward undermining this global rise in bigotry, and to see it for what it is. It is an effort in Direct Democracy – to recognize, offer space to, and promote the voices the Right-Wing seeks to silence or oppress – people of non-European cultural, ethnic, or religious background, heritage, or origin, women, queer people, and anyone else who might find themselves in their cross hairs.

The project is built from a very simple idea. Democracy is founded on mutual respect for the value of each member of a society. At its core, it is the belief that each individual has equal rights, and an equal value of voice and agency, when participating in decisions which effect the whole. Fear and hatred are mechanisms used to suppress the expression of free will or voice within a population – they deny the mutual respect and understanding that is necessary for democracy to function. We live in a global society. Whether apparent or not, we are all connected. The access that one person has to democracy, regardless of where they may be – within our own society or culture, or beyond it, effects the integrity of each respective democratic operation within which we participate. It is an application without borders. Though difficult to observe, the promotion of fear, racism, and xenophobia within one social body, toward the people of another, undermines access to democracy within both.

Because music acknowledges no borders – it travels freely, is a way for people to express themselves and speak to others, and has a long history of undermining racist and xenophobic operations, the Democracy of Sound Project departs from a simple belief in its political potential – in its ability to promote the core values at the heart of democracy – mutual respect and understanding. It is an offering of the wonders of the human spirit during these dark times – an optimistic effort to balm the negativity and anger we all feel. Rather than simply fight, it is an effort to build and rebuild the foundations from which democracy grows.

Every week, for the duration Trump’s presidency, and longer if necessary, I will post at least one piece of music – a video or sound file, made by someone, or a group of people from a culture, background, social position, religion, gender, or sexual orientation other than my own – which is effectively the same as that of the current president of the United States. Through music, I will champion the voices which Trump fears and hates, and wants others to fear and hate in his quest to destroy democracy – a simple attempt to offer access to them, and chip away at his ground. As I struggle to flood the world with song, with voices that deserve to be heard and understood, those equal to each of our own, I hope that each of you will share these posts, and make more of your own. That you will help and join me in this fight – that you make this project your own.

I explored the ideas at the root of the project at length in its first installment. If this is your first encounter with the effort, I hope you will take the time to read it.

Because, across the post 9/11 age, the West has been constantly peppered with details designed to make us fear the Islamic world – to lump it together as a single abstract mass, it seems a logical place to dedicate time – particularly in light of Trump’s recent attempts at a Muslim ban.

When regarding the current Western political climate – the terrifying normalization of hate speech, xenophobia, and racism, it is hard to ignore the presence of anti-Islamic rhetoric within the larger mass. It’s equally difficult to sift through the knot and make sense of it all – to simultaneously see the localizations and larger view – the true sources and objectives, and their place within the larger arc of time.

Though I’m resistant to veer off topic, there are inherent dangers in allowing the contemporary context full autonomy from the past. Distance can open essential insights, particularity when that old truism about history being damned to repeat, rings ever more true. In recent years, as we have witnessed a rise in power and voice offered to the Far-Right, many of us have cast our eyes back to a period when similar rhetoric dominated the public mind – that era of Fascism leading up to the Second World War. The similarities are often haunting. Then, as it is now, it is crucial to recognize the connection of incidence to whole. There are few hermetic events in history. To presume that a given circumstance is unrelated to those beyond its own time, or the borders of the region in which it occurs, is a mistake. For a moment, we should take rest from the present, and indulge ourselves in aspects of that past.

At the end of the 19th century, more than half of the world’s Jewish population lived within the Russian Empire. Though rarely discussed, beginning in 1880 and stretching into the 1940’s, there were thousands of attacks on these peoples – pogroms, instigated by both the state and local populations. Their intention was to force migration – a purge. One – the Kiev Pogroms of 1919, within which somewhere around 70,000 Jews were massacred across Ukraine, is particularity relevant. It triggered a mass migrations of Jews, many of whom found their way to Germany. The simple fact that the Kiev Pogroms and others like them, with the larger consequences to which they contributed, remain largely unacknowledged, opens a window into glaring omissions from the standardized history of years leading up to the Holocaust. As the Western powers struggled to contend with the atrocities committed during the Second World War, they blurred their own complicity within the cause and effect – leveling blame on a single, and overly simplified source.

Prior to 1945, antisemitism was largely a cultural norm within Europe and America – as Islamophobia is today. Like the Russian Pogroms before, as Hitler rose to power, his rhetoric of hate was almost entirely met by silence in the West. It wasn’t as out of place as we’ve been retrospectively led to think. History has been altered. Though his authoritarian and militaristic tendencies were worrying to many, if you look for it, there’s plenty of documentation indicating that his antisemitic rhetoric resonated with the standing beliefs of the majority of the free world – our leaders alike. They were of little concern. Jews had been stripped of their humanity – despised, hated, and unwanted by nearly all.

The standardized history of the Second World War almost always begins with the economic despair suffered by Germany during the Wiemar period – the harsh results of the Treaty of Versailles. These conditions remain important because they offer a window into how periods of economic struggle feed power to the Right-Wing – something we are witnessing today. What is largely lost, are certain elements which become crucial in understanding our own time – the contribution and effect of immigration within that political climate. What was then Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in their former homelands – Russia, is now simply others. During the 1920’s and 30’s, as Germans citizens struggled to survive the harsh sanctions imposed at the close of the First World War, they witnessed a hard working people – immigrants from a culture they had been conditioned to hate, often excelling and prospering far more than themselves. The use of antisemitism by the Nazi party was a means to capitalize on and gain power though a sentiment widely held by the populous. They didn’t invent it. It was collective resonance – political strategy, harnessing existing hatred – exasperated by an economic downturn, rather than sewing it from scratch. We need only substitute different cultures into that slot – Mexican, African, Muslim, Polish, and others, to see the mirror today. There are other similarities still. As we listen to the contemporary political rhetoric – it’s attacks on the media and other forms of rational and intellectual critique, lest we forget, as Germany swung to the Right, the Jewish people were often associated with the educated liberal elite. Their intellects were an ever present threat to those who sought power and authoritarian control – their cultural difference a perfect vehicle for the promotion of fear. Two birds with a single stone. (It’s also worth noting, over the course of the last year, Jewish American journalists have received hundreds of documented threats on their lives and well being from supporters of Donald Trump.)

Here we are again. In the grips of an economic crisis that stretches ever on – the worst since the Great Depression, and in some cases (particularity Greece) contributing factors eerily resembling the punishing conservative policies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. As it feeds the vile voice of the Right-Wing – often echoing the Fascism of the past, we should all cast our eye on history and attempt to learn. Though the authors have made it difficult to find, immigration – with the fear of another, has long furthered the mission of those who seek authoritarian control. Now as the indirect consequence of two wars, fully acknowledged to have been started on the basis of lies, we are faced with one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has seen since 1945. Once again, a people – suffering millions trying to save their own lives, have been systematically stripped of their humanity and coated in fear.

Though a politically instigated fear of Islamic people has been wide spread for many years, it is currently reaching it greatest fervor as a response to the refugee crisis spreading from Syria – millions of people flooding into the West, bearing a culture we have been trained to fear – who, like Jews before them, have been subjected to a systematic, and often politicized denial of worth.

The Syrian conflict is more complex than most on the outside understand, but is ultimately fairly simple from an ideological vantage point. It is a multi-pronged civil war, being fought by a number of groups with radically conflicting interests. It began in 2011 as part of the larger movement of the Arab Spring – calls for democratic reform by activists against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad who had taken power in 2000, following the thirty year reign of his father Hafiz al-Assad. Rather than listen, the army was deployed against protesters. Soon after, the country descended into full civil war. As infrastructure and stability weakened, seeing an opportunity, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and ISIL fighters, bred in the vacuum following the United States led disposition of Saddam Hussein, began to spill across the border from Iraq – effectively creating a conflict that has ripped the country apart. The war is being waged by multiple factions of the Right-Wing vying for power – Assad’s government against Islamist groups, and the Left, fighting for democracy – attacked by and attacking both.

With its sprawling humanitarian crisis, the Syrian war is a very important window. It offers insight into an achingly long history of failed global political policy in the hands of Capitalism. As with what happened in Germany and Russia, the internal realities of Syria are connected to decisions and actions made beyond those borders, and well before this time. The West, through direct action or apathy, has played a heavy hand in creating the current circumstance in the Middle East. Those circumstance have come to effect all of our lives. It goes around and round. Despite the black holes in our knowledge, we are all bound.

Like other conflicts currently waging in the region, the war in Syria is linked to a long history of Western intervention in the Middle East. Over the last three quarters of a century, such instances have gifted us the circumstances suffered by Palestine, The Islamic Revolution in Iran – with its subsequent effects, those circumstances long suffered by the Libyan and Lebanese people, Saddam Hussein, the current realities in Iraq, long standing instabilities in Pakistan, the spread of Wahhabism, the sustaining of military rule in Egypt, the lack of stability in Yemen, and the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan – which subsequently gave shelter and support to Al Qaeda, which in turn gave way to Isis. The list goes on and on. Each circumstance knocking into the next, and equally our own.

The current situation in Syria has displaced almost 12 million people. 4.8 million have fled its borders, while 6.6 million are internally displaced. This represents over half of the population before the outset of the war. This reality is beyond conception. Take a moment to set the numbers aside. Wherever you are, imagine yourself, your loved ones – friends and family, with half of your country, set in the same shoes. Imagine the death and destruction you have witnessed – which has forced you to leave your beloved homeland – your ancient culture. Now imagine, after risking life and limb to save yourself and those you love, with no other option, being greeted not with hope and empathy, but by more hatred, rejection, and fear – by a Right-Wing whose rhetoric is terrifyingly similar to the one you have fled. When describing a political initiative which attacks the arts, persecutes difference, capitalizes on fear, pursues the consolidation of wealth and power, undermines public education and basic freedoms, attempts to oppress women and control their bodies – which seeks a militarized religious order of authoritarian control, am I describing a Right-Wing party in the West, the regime of Assad, or ISIS? Divorced from specific actions, while examining basic elements of political philosophy and objective, it becomes hard to tell. All work together, through their independent actions, to deny humanity and democratic rights. The Right-Wing, in its many guises, has gifted us the situation in the Middle East, and with it the worst humanitarian crises recent history has known. It has left nothing but death and destruction in the wake of its path. This can not pass unchallenged. We can not allow it progress further or to win – to use it for profit and gain. It’s logic is absent and absurd. As with the world’s peoples, our histories are linked.

Islamic people make up roughly a quarter of the world’s population – crossing countless distinct cultures. Because so few people in the West can attach any understanding to these many cultures, only viewing them through the lens of Islamic extremism offered by the media – which represents the smallest possible fraction of the whole, presenting an alternative to the distortions seems like a good place to start. Given that we are faced with a humanitarian crisis which is spurring mass immigration of untold consequences – equally giving power the Right, it seems that the only way forward – the only way to prevent the sins of history from being repeated, is to try and open a window into a small sliver of Syrian culture – to let their voices ring out into the world – to hear them and love them for what they are.

Sometime in the late 90’s, I was introduced to the music of Syrian Sufis. As their ecstatic sounds drowned my ears, I fell in love. The experience was strange and new. I knew nothing of this culture. As a staunch atheist, being so moved by a devotional music creeping from so many unknowns, came as a shock. It broke down walls, melted my brain, and consumed me in joy – transcending everything and sending me scrambling for more. It was the beginning of a long love affair with the many musics of the world – particularly those attending to the higher realms of the spirit, which, despite superficial differences, often inadvertently illustrate how connected we are. In the case of the third and fifth videos below, it is worth noting the remarkable similarities to another spiritual music – the American tradition of the Sacred Harp.

While an important part of Syrian culture, Sufism crosses the two main branches of Islam – the Sunnis and Shias. It can be used as a tool for opening a larger cultural view of Islam. It is the mystical branch of the religion – attending to high spiritual concerns, rather than the direct applications of the teachings of Mohamed. It is also particularly threatened by radical Islamic extremism, who view it as an opposition to their intentions. Many of the world heritage sites destroyed by ISIS in Syria have been Sufi shrines – placing its practices and history at particular risk. I can only hope these sounds find a way into your heart, and with the people and cultures from which they spring, they are something we collectively value and choose to protect.

-Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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