Why the Middle East Needs More 'Arab Idol'


Mohammed Assaf, winner of the American Idol spin-off, Arab Idol, returned home to a an ambivalent welcoming at the Refah terminal on June 25.

According to the Guardian, roads throughout Gaza and Ramallah were jam-packed through the night after the winner was announced on June 22. Assaf stole the Beirut-based competition over finalists Ahmed Jamal from Egypt and Farah Yousef from Syria.

Streets were flooded with fans celebrating "Palestine's first superstar" and its "new place in the popular culture order." In the midst of the celebration, the crowd could not ignore a looming sense of angst and unrest.

The original excitement and solidarity expressed by the Palestinians fizzled into controversy over the weekend. According to the New York Times, Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, was openly opposed to the reality TV series which it "deemed inappropriate because of its romantic songs and unveiled female singers and presenters in ornate, Western-style dresses."

Religious leaders, such as Mohammed Salim, disapproved. According to the Guardian, Salim warned in a sermon that "voting for songs and immorality, evil and sin is not only forbidden, it is a crime against the cause of our people."

This polarized reaction to Arab Idol reiterates the complex role that pop culture plays in the Middle East. To be certain, both Assaf's fans and Hamas understand that the Middle Eastern singing competition stands for something larger than a talent show. In the Middle East, pop culture serves as a mirror of Western values and as an outlet for political and social struggles. It is the youth's expression of hope for change and unity, and it represents a clash between the old and new Muslim values of tradition, on one hand, and liberal progress on the other. 

"A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer," Assaf said, according to an article in the Guardian. Young people in the Middle East are looking to catalyze change through peaceful methods and artistic expression, and they are using pop culture as a tool to achieve their goals. 

The Arab Spring is an example of how young people have, in fact, been successful in using culture and art to promote desired political and social change. Rap music and social media were two successful mediums upon which Muslims relied to relay their messages. 

Pop culture has often been a vehicle for change in America, for example, during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Now, according to the Huffington Postmany Muslims are using music as a way of "speaking out against inequality and injustice."

Last March, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted “Mic Check: Hip-Hop From North Africa and the Middle East.” According to the New York Times, the event featured rappers from Tunisia, Egypt, Mali and Palestine. They preached revolutionary messages in peaceful terms.

Some of the performers were Arab Spring activists who rapped about self-determination. One Palestinian rapped support for the resistance movement; “They all have tanks, but we have stones/They demolish our homes and kill our children,” she declared. “Oh Palestine the free, oh Gaza the brave/Zionism shall be defeated,” he sang.

In addition to music, young Muslim people have relied on the power of social networking to promote change. Through sites like Facebook and Twitter among others, activists have gained the support to overthrow unjust political leaders and help shed light on "the underground communities that exist and are made up of their brothers, and others willing to listen to their stories." According to the Huffington Post, social media gave young people a way of discussing repressed political issues freely, without "fear of retribution from the top." 

Pop culture performs the important function of giving Muslims the voices to promote their visions for the future of the Middle East, visions that often conflict with the traditional values of older generations. Their songs are the expressions of political and social grievances and the cries for peaceful change and progress — a new guard. The overwhelming number of young people who welcomed Assaf home from Beirut as a hero sends a message of optimism for the future.

As the Arab Spring has already revealed, change is constantly rolling over the Middle Eastern landscape. In time, the voices of this young generation expressed through pop culture will witness the reforms they wish to see become a reality.