the democracy of sound project: number four (behind the gates, the cries of yemen)

This is the fourth 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 The day before this is your first encounter with the effort, I hope you will take the time to read it.

The day before yesterday we witnessed the Trump administration unveil a second travel ban targeting the Muslim world. After the first was quickly struck down by the courts, this one has been designed to be more legally resilient – omitting explicit designation of religion, but is equally a lens into the bigotry at the administration’s core. While there are a number of ways to understand the two travel bans – fear mongering, scapegoating, political distraction and subterfuge, racism and xenophobia, there is little question that they are unequivocal attacks on the fundamental principles of democracy. Every person on the planet has the right to express personal agency and to choose their own spiritual concerns – regardless of where they come from or what those choices may be (as long as they do not harm others). This is not simply a matter of common sense or decency. It is dictated by international law – specifically (but not limited to) The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The US is bound to this treaty. It requires states parties to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law. Not even George W Bush, who started two wars on the basis of lies – forced to respond to 9/11, was foolish enough to lump a religion which represents roughly a quarter of the world’s population – crossing countless distinct cultures, into a single mass. Before venturing further into the contemporary context, let’s find some common ground.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all part of the same monotheistic tradition of Abrahamic religions. They are inherently related on a number of levels – the most important of which being that they worship the same god. Both Islam and Christianity are effectively decedents of the Jewish faith. Perhaps the most widely accessible analogy can be found within Christianity – Protestantism and Catholicism. While both worship the same god, they employ radically different beliefs in practice, orientation, interface, and philosophy. The same might be said of the Abrahamic religions, as well as the divisions within them. What is crucial to recognize, is that they all draw on the teachings of Moses and Abraham – both of which are largely focused on moral and ethical law and example. In other words, all three religions prescribe to roughly the same ideas regarding how people should behave toward each other.  

The differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism stem from the seeds planted by two fundamental concepts – prophecy, and the fallibility of human beings. Withing the framework of the three Abrahamic religions, a prophet is someone who had direct contact with God – carrying his message to the larger body of humanity. All three religions recognize the same early prophets. The Christian Old Testament is directly drawn from various parts of the Torah – the Hebrew Bible, while these teachings and narratives tend to only be referenced within the Quran. Within Islam, many of the most important texts relating to the early prophets are believe to be lost – the scrolls of Moses and Abraham being the prime examples. While the religion acknowledges the importance of these figures and the principles of their teachings, the Quran is generally interpreted as stating that the writings held by the Jewish people are flawed, and thus should not be fully considered nor discounted – the Quran holds all necessary truth. In other words, though slightly more heretic, the Quran is regarded in a similar way to how Christians regard the New Testament – the final word of God, which can be informed by earlier teachings.

The divergence between the three Abrahamic religions begins roughly four hundred years before the birth of Christ, with Malachi – the last prophet in the Jewish age of prophecy. Malachi (among other things) speaks of the coming of god, while other parts of the Torah speak of the coming of a messiah. These points are important for a number of reasons. Though grossly oversimplifying, Malachi represents a seal in Judaism’s willingness to recognize further prophets. This means that in the eyes of Jews, Christ could only be a false prophet, the messiah – the savior and liberator of the Jewish people, or God in human form. Most Jews prescribed to the first, while a slim number of others believed him to be the messiah – ultimately growing into the Christian faith. The concept that he was the son of God, or represented the coming of God which Malachi spoke of, was not introduced until much later – subsequently becoming the central debate of The First Council of Nicea – some three hundred years after his death. It was only then that this concept was fully addressed and formalized – though the character and degree of his humanity remains a central debate through the Renaissance, forming the foundation of Catholic Humanism.  Regarding the past pragmatically, given that the Christ did not lead the Jewish people freedom – they remained a oppressed and displaced people for millennia, and neither Judaism nor Christianity acknowledge the coming of further prophets, you can see the obvious questions (regarding who he was) that Christ introduced for both faiths – the very thing that gave way to Council of Nicea, and forced it to resolve.

Islam applies a very different regard to the ideas mentioned above. While Muslims also believe in the coming of a messiah – the Al-Masih, they do not believe that the age of prophesy ended with Malachi. It continued until the arrival of Mohammad, roughly six centuries after the birth of Christ. Mohammad is not understood to be the son of God or a messiah by those who practice Islam. He is regarded as a prophet – someone who had direct contact with God and carried his message to the people. For the record, they give equal distinction to Christ. Laying at the core of Islam is fundamental (and very logical) regard for human error and fallibility. In the simplest terms, beyond the slightly different content offered within each respective prophet’s messages, the question is not the legitimacy of the bearer, but rather the purity of God’s words. In the view of Muslims, prior to Mohammad, God’s message was altered and flawed by human intervention – thus the need for more prophets. Given that Christ’s words and teachings where not written down until decades, and in some cases centuries after he died, it’s easy to understand the argument. This is the fundamental prescription within the religion – its seed. Until Mohammad – who is is said to have been illiterate before being granted the gift of the written word by divine intervention, no prophet wrote down God’s word directly. His message – to be transmitted through the prophets, was flawed by the mediation of others.

I am not a scholar, but I did study the history of the Abrahamic religions fairly extensively as an undergraduate student. There is no question that I do the subject a great injustice through oversimplification. It goes without saying that each religion, with all the respective subsets of belief, encompass a great deal more, and are applied with a profound sense of seriousness and belief. That said, simplification does have its uses. We’re talking about three religions which all believe in the same god, and draw on consistent texts to establish a structure of morality. The differences essentially draw from who is seen to have delivered God’s message, respective regard for the degree of importance of each text, and how the relevant texts are interpreted. These minor differences have given way to countless wars, persecutions, and genocides over the past two millennia – none of which fall within the basic moralities prescribed by the prophets that all three recognize. When you step back from it, it seems absurd – so much so, that you have to wonder if there is something else going on.

The persecution of difference is a political tool. It is a mechanism to consolidate power. This was as much the undercurrent of the Crusades during the middle ages, as it was for Stalin, Hitler, countless others, and Donald Trump today. It’s a well tried method, and it works. We must remember that we are talking about three religions, the adherents to which account for over half of the worlds population – 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 Billion Muslims, 14 million Jews. If we look at the numbers of people who seek to oppress or persecute others – political leaders and militants, the number is in the thousands. In other words, these evils come from the tiniest sliver of the world’s population – promoting their own aims at the expense of the whole. This must be seen for what it is – freed from the lies and understood as an attempt by this minority to steel agency and power. The idea that half of the world’s population hates and fears each other is not only false, it is absurd.

To indulge briefly in context and history. For the 1400 years that they have coexisted, the Abrahamic religions have been in uneasy balance – each perceiving the threats of the next. That said, outside of territorial wars, and those fought over internal difference – Catholic vs Protestant, Sunni vs Shia, most direct persecution of difference has historically been at the hands of Christians. Until the Arab–Israeli War in 1948, Jews were usually on the receiving end, and until roughly the same period, Muslims generally displayed a remarkable amount of religious tolerance – understanding the connections between the three religions and allowing them to be practiced freely. There are exceptions to both, but we speaking generally. Though much of what we are witnessing today stems from decisions made during the colonial period – the drawing of borders and political alliances within the Middle East made during that era, the direct corollaries begin within the Post-War period – the establishment of Israel being a major contributor, but equally the poorly managed end of the colonial period, a rising dependency on oil, and relentless Western political meddling in the region – often supporting oppressive regimes. Though the West didn’t create the radical right-wing forms of Islam which strikes fear across the globe, its political and economic policies during the Post-War period have largely created the context which has allowed them to grow and take hold. The Christian West has nearly always persecuted the difference displayed by the Islam. Promoting instability in the Middle East, while supporting dictatorships who oppress their people, must be understood as part of long legacy – one which has simply evolved and become more explicit today.

Like most countries in the region, this is easily displayed by Yemen – one of the six on Trumps new travel ban, and the focus of this installment of the Democracy of Sound Project.  The lands which are now Yemen cradled one of most important cultures in the ancient world – the Sabaean Kingdom, which oversaw much of the important trade in the region. It’s Greek designation roughly translates to Happy Arabia, because of its good climate and disposition to agriculture. It was one of the first geographies to embrace Islam – beginning during Mohammad’s lifetime, but continued to host prominent Christian and ancient Jewish cultures until the second half of the Twentieth Century. It eventually became a coveted commodity for both the Ottoman and British Empires, as it was the original source of the entire coffee trade. Though parts of Yemen did fall under British colonial rule, beginning in the 16th century an number of wars were fought which drew most of its lands into the Ottoman Empire, which at its height encompassed much of the territory surrounding the Meditation, Black, and Red Seas, before contracting across the centuries into modern day Turkey – a process which concluded in 1922 – the current republic being founded in 1923. Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1911, with full independence achieved in 1918 – though parts remained under British rule as late as 1967. Much of the country’s last century has been wrought by conflict and civil war. The first two decades were spent in steady fighting with British forces and their Saudi Arabian allies. Beginning in the early 60’s, largely the result of divisions drawn during the colonial period, Yemen entered into a cycle civil wars and authoritarian governments which have plagued it ever since – destabilizing the economy and opening a power vacuum which has opened the door for radical islamists.

The current sociopolitical reality in Yemen is hard to deconstruct, but it is closely interconnected with the larger body of affairs within the Middle East. There are a number of crucial factors beyond the conditions created by a century marred by civil war. Yemen has had a strained relationship with Saudi Arabia since the early 19th century – wars being fought, and borders which continue to be contested. In addition to territorial tensions, there are a few crucial features to regard. Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative religious monarchy. It is in no way a democracy, and is the root for Wahhabism – an ultra right-wing belief system within Sunni Islam, and the seed for most of the radical fundamentalism which has spread across the region in the last few decades. This is why Saudi Arabia rulers have offered very little support for the fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS. The philosophies of those groups are largely consistent with their own. Within the context of Trumps travel ban, it’s worth remembering that Osama Bin Laden was a high ranking member of Saudi society and a number of the hijackers who committed the atrocity of 9/11 were from that country – yet it’s been largely ignored within the last fifteen years of discourse regarding the threat of international terrorism. The answer for this is simple. The current Saudi Arabian power structure is tied to Western economic interests – part of a long legacy which props up anti-democratic leaders who are willing to play ball – particularity regarding the trade of oil and arms. It’s also a crucial ally because Western meddling in the region has gone so horribly wrong in the past, that it is one of the few reasonably stable countries remaining.

One of the crucial problems with lumping the entire body of Islam into a single body, is that it prohibits understanding the internal agendas and dynamics of the region. Within most Islamic countries, the governmental application of law is concurrent with Islamic law. There is no separation of church and state. Religious doctrine – specifically how it is interpreted, establishes how the rules of the society are set. From a Western perspective, this contributes to a perception of unity, while failing to acknowledge the many internal conflicts within the region, why the occur, and their effect on larger global concerns.

Like Christianity, Islam has countless subsystems of belief – differences stemming from interpretation rather than explicit doctrine. Discounting the subtler divisions, where Christianity has the Orthodox church, Catholicism, and Protestantism, Islam has the Sunnis and the Shia. The division between them traces to the death of  Muhammad in 632. Sunnis represent the large majority of Muslims – roughly 90% of the total global population. Their practices are based on what Muhammad said, did, agreed or condemned. The Shia, though very similar, also regard the teachings and authority of Muhammad’s immediate descendants. Many Sunnis, believing that the Quran – God’s word spoken through the prophet, to be absolute, consider the beliefs of the Shia to heretical – leading to nearly a millennia and a half of conflict and persecution (in both directions).

Across both sides of Islam, the origins of radical conservatism are almost always economic. Because Islamic countries are generally autocratic, particularity with the rise in dependency on oil – ballooning coffers, the distribution of wealth within these societies has become increasingly polarized during the Post War period. In direct and indirect ways, this has consistently been an aggregator of the growth of religious fundamentalism in the region – leading us to role of Iran.

Iran is one of the only dominantly Shia countries in the Persian Gulf. Prior to 1979, when the Iranian revolution was instigated by radical Shia Islamists, the country was ruled by Mohammad Reza – the Shah of Iran, who was generally very pro Western, and sympathetic with American and European interests. The Iranian revolution was a direct consequence of his growing wealth from oil profits, against the economic despair of his people. As a result of the revolution, in 1980 Saddam Hussein (who was Sunni), fearing an uprising from the long suppressed Shia majority in Iraq, launched a war against Iran. Because the Shia Islamists who ran Iran were unwilling to adhere to Western interests – as the Shah had, the West provided support and weapons for Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime – entering into complicity with the atrocities that occurred over the course of that eight year war. Shortly after the war with Iran concluded, he invaded Kuwait – the full consequences of which continue to domino and unfold. The Western support for Iraq’s atrocities, ultimately further isolated Iran. Again, the full consequences remain unknown. What is crucial to recognize, is that members of Shia Islam are generally an oppressed minority within dominantly Sunni countries, occupying a much lower tier of society, and particularly within hyper conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, are regarded as heretics. This should give you some insight in the Saudi Arabian regard for Iran – often perceived as a challenge to its conservative Sunni regime. This isn’t helped Tehran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders – something Saudi Arabia believes is happening in Yemen.

There is no question that Yemen has been a hotbed for radical conservative Islamic groups for decades. The second major terrorist attack by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda – the suicide attack on the U.S. naval vessel USS Cole, which resulted in the deaths seventeen people, occurred there in October of 2000 – while it has long been known as the location of training camps for the group. Unlike Afghanistan, where the Taliban gave shelter to Al Qaeda, the situation in Yemen was not initially the result of governmental sympathy, but rather the lack of control and stability which had resulted from decades of civil war. There are undeniable concerns within its borders, but radical Islamic beliefs are only held by a tiny number of the population. Most of these groups come from other countries – particularly Saudi Arabia, capitalizing on the power vacuum. It is however, considerably more complex.

Yemen is a country which has a fairly high proportion of both Sunni and Shia peoples. The government, which is Sunni, has long been autocratic and viewed by many to be deeply corrupt. In 2004 there was a Shia uprising by a group called the Houthis – attempting to overthrow the government – claiming it was a means to protect themselves from continued persecution and inequities. The Houthis are very similar to other Iranian backed Shia groups such as Hezbollah, and are deeply opposed to American and Israeli interests in the region. What makes the situation in Yemen so complex, is that Western interests can not support a group who is sympathetic with Iran, and is opposed to their interests – even though they are also fighting Al Qaeda. On the other hand the Yemeni government – technically a US ally, during their attempts to fight off the Houthi threat, have joined forces with Al Qaeda who are also Sunni. This has been further complicated by the fact that Saudi Arabia views the rise of militant Shia groups as an extreme threat and a proxy for Iranian aggression, has joined forces with the the Yemeni government – shelling border regions relentlessly, killing countless innocent civilians in the process. To make matters worse, the bulk of these bombs have been sold by the US and bear their markings. In addition to US bombings targeting terrorist cells in the country, this has given the impression that the United States is waging a war against the Yemeni people – stoking radical extremism of both sides of the fence.

In a nutshell, Yemen is a cluster fuck. It is profoundly complex – some aspects dating back 1400 years, others evolving over the last century, while some are very new. How it hasn’t spiraled into a situation as bad as Syria (the subject of last week’s installment) – creating a massive refuge crisis, I have no idea. What is important to recognize, is that the circumstances within that country are entirely connected to things which have occurred outside its borders – some of which are the direct result of actions by Western countries. We all bear some of the blame for the suffering which is occurring. We must do our best to understand the situation, not loose sight of it, while never failing to empathize and do everything we can to protect and offer shelter to those who suffer in the hands of this crisis. These are not radical people – few are, unless forced to be as a means for survival. The people of Yemen are victims of forces they can not control.

When I read the countries listed on the latest installment of the travel ban, I thought back to a morning roughly two years ago. I was still living in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. On my way to work, I stopped at my local corner shop (featured prominently in the video for The Notorious B.I.G’s Juicy). The store was run by a Yemeni family who I saw and spoke with almost every day. As I entered, everyone was in tears. There had been an intensive bombing campaign against the town they were from – either Saudi or US, I’m not sure. They were unable to get in touch with friends and family, and were terrified for their well being. I stayed and spoke with them for as long as I could – realizing that I knew almost nothing of what was happening in their former home. It struck me as strange. There was a war waging, my country was involved, yet I had heard almost no mention of it. I couldn’t imagine how these people felt – their new government – country they loved and were grateful to call home, taking part in the bombing of those closest to their hearts.

That morning illustrated how connected we are, and how hard that fact is to observe. It unveiled a subtle break down of democracy. My government – an extension of my agency, was waging a silent war in which people, no less worthy a safety and well being that I, were unwilling victims. I was complicit with actions that I could not fully endorse – the possible injury or death of the innocent –  the friends and family of people I spoke to every day. Our differences – the place we were born, the color of our skin, faith, and culture, seemed tiny next to tears and beating hearts. With my thoughts resting on the these unknown people, in a country which I knew almost nothing about, the ideas behind this project first took seed. Against our similarities – our shared humanity,  borders and division began to appear absurd. The fact that I was unable to know these people – to speak to them, to understand their circumstances, culture, and pain – that an abstract barrier lay between us, was eroding my strongest held ideal – democracy.

In this light, I bring the sounds of the Yemeni people into your lives. With luck, the text I have just offered will open the door. That is all it could hope. The culture of Yemen is ancient – far older and more complex than most of our own. There is endlessly more to explore. I hope my slim offering will be only the start – that you will keep this people and their country in your thoughts and heart. That you will keep a watchful eye on the atrocities that continue to transpire. That you will remember that within a democracy, whether in agreement or not, we are all complicit with the actions of those who represent us. That you will be reminded that those who Trumps travel ban targets, have already suffered far worse than almost any of us. They are victims of circumstance and geography. They are human like all of us.

Most of the music you will find below is housed within fairly recent video shot in the country, but I would also like to draw attention to a wonderful collection released a few years back by Dust to Digital called Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen. It was assemble by Chris Menist from his collection of recordings made during a different era in Yemen’s history. The result is astounding. I highly recommend listening below and picking it up. You can read a little more about it here. I hope you enjoy. Until next week, I leave you for now.

 

-Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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