Islamic Values At Stake During A Theatre Performance in Kabul

I write this with immense sadness and anger.

In the 11th December 2014 terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a theatre performance at the Istiqlal High School, a Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that the theatre show was “desecrating Islamic values” and “propaganda against jihad” (see source). Ironically, the play was titled “Heartbeat: the silence after the explosion”, which was a condemnation of suicide attacks, according to a BBC report.

Heartbeat: The Silence After The Explosion (Image Source: Tolo News)

Many of my friends were involved in the theatre production, including the musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music founded by Dr Ahmad Nasir Sarmast. Fortunately for most of the performers, they escaped unscathed from the explosion that went off in the middle of the auditorium during the show. Sadly for Dr Sarmast, he was hit by shrapnel in his head, back and leg and had to be rushed to the emergency hospital, together with other casualties. In the Daily Mail reported by AFP, Dr Sarmast who was still recovering from deep shock told the reporters, “This was an attack on culture, an attack on education.”

This set of beliefs that sees culture, entertainment, and the arts as an ongoing threat to Islamic values is not new. It was most evident during the Taliban period when all cultural activities were banned. Whether the attitude that has prevailed in post-9/11 Afghanistan today is a residue of Taliban’s fundamentalist beliefs is hard to discern. But as aforementioned, such strong beliefs that the Islamic value are at stake is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, the banning of certain forms of entertainment has been observed closer back home in Malaysia. According to this blog (see link), music concerts have been banned since the 1980s, including musicians and singers such as Battle of the Bands, Chicago, Megadeth, Beyonce, Inul Daratista, Namjoo, Lamb of God, Kesha, and many more. Different reasons were cited, some of which were inappropriate lyrics, offensive body art/ tattoos/ dressing/ hairstyles, and perceived antisocial behaviours, especially from heavy-metal band members.

On a more academic note, Zulkiple bin Abdul Ghani discusses the various definitions of haram (forbidden), halal (lawful), and the contentious debates even within the Muslim community in Malaysia and Iran, in a paper titled “Entertainment in Muslim Media: Unsettled Problem?” (see link). He states that the concept of al-din — the comprehensive way of life — sees no separation between secularism and religiosity. Religion, he argues, is not separate but integral to every facet of a Muslim’s life. He furthers this argument by claiming that there are no specific passages in the Qur’an that condemn the “practice of aesthetic pleasures”, but these verses have been cited by the antagonist camp:

1. Verse 59-61 of surat al-Najm:
“Do ye then wonder at this recital. And will ye laugh and not weep. Wasting your time in vanities”.

2. Verse 64 of surat al-Isra’:
“Lead to destruction those whom thou canst among them, with thy (seductive) voice; make assault on them with thy cavalry and thy infantry; mutually share with them wealth and children; and make promises to them. But Satan promises them nothing but deceit”.3. Verse 6 of surat Luqman:
“But there are, among men, those whose purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning) to misled (men) from the Path of God and throw ridicule (On the path): for such there will be a humiliating penalty”.

As there are no agreements on both camps, they often look to other authoritative sources, more specifically the hadiths, or the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), for guidance, which remain unsettled among the two camps. A result of this is the formation of nashid (religious) groups that sing and disseminate Islamic messages. One notable example was the establishment of Raihan in October 1996 by Warner Music in Malaysia. This group comprises five talented men, whose first album puji-pujian (the Highest Praise) won four awards at the Malaysian Music Industry Awards (MMIS) in 1998. They had been criticised in latter years for associating with a female singer on stage and performing slow-stepping dance. Raihan’s defence was as follows:

They defend themselves by arguing that the accusations are untrue because they always take into considerations the unlawful practices and they will always adhere to the teachings of Islam. Further, they argue that slow stepping dance like the movement of the body from left to the right is allowable as Muslims have always practiced during the zikr (rememberance of God). (Zulkiple, p. 61)

Zulkiple concludes with a tentative statement that unless the Muslim community resolves these issues “conclusively”, the community will still not enjoy “a degree of sivil [sic] society” (p. 61).

In a different article (see link), Paul Stenhouse details Malaysia’s Islamist goals. I am not sure if this is the religious decree or religious-cultural policy that shapes Malaysia’s political governance, but Stenhouse carefully lists out some of the policies written out in the International Religious Freedom Report 2009. The top three are as follows:

  • The Malaysian Government maintains an official list of 56 sects of Islam it considers ‘deviant’ and a threat to national security.
  • The Government may detain Muslims who deviate from accepted Sunni principles and subject them to mandatory ‘rehabilitation’ in centres that teach and enforce government approved Islamic practices.
  • Muslims generally may not legally convert to another religion, although members of other religions may convert to Islam.

Stenhouse goes on to highlight one incident in 2009 when the Government refuses to release 10,000 bibles containing the word “Allah”, referring to the Christian God. He observes:

Two years ago the Malaysian Security Ministry banned the use of ‘Allah’ in the Malay editions of the Catholic ‘Herald,’ a weekly newspaper which also appears in English, Chinese and Tamil. The reasons given for the ban were ‘security’ and alleged possible confusion amongst Muslims which ‘could harm the public order’. The ban ignored the fact that the Catholics in the region had been using the word ‘Allah’ referring to God, for centuries. And that more than 600,000 of Malaysia’s Catholics live in Sabah and Sarawak, and for many of them Malay is their native tongue. (see source)

By legislating the word “God” conceptually and semantically, I think the Malaysian Government had claimed hegemony over religious and cultural discourses. In a similar way, by planting a suicide bomber in the middle of a theatre and music performance in Istiqlal High School in Kabul, the Taliban are claiming power over Afghans’ cultural/religious lives. By putting this side by side, I am not putting the Malaysian Government on the side of the Taliban, but I am trying to understand from a non-Muslim’s perspective why, and how, acts of atrocities such as this can be performed at all. Is this a form of religious extremism manifesting itself in intolerance and violence? Or is this a cultural misunderstanding of core religious identities?

Contrary to Zulkiple’s standpoint, I am not seeking to universalise the Muslim communities and make them agree on a standard set of “values”. This would not be possible — and it should not be done, since there are many divisions and sects even within their own Muslim communities. I use the word “communities” in the plural sense, intentionally. Branching out from Sunni Muslims, for example, we already can identify sects (or schools of law) such as Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali. and Zahiri, while Shia Muslims are split into Isma’ili, Zayidi, Emami and Ghulat sects (see link). There are ideological differences to begin with. Even with Stenhouse’s document on Malaysia’s Islamist goals, I am reminded of the Taliban spokesperson’s message when he alleges that theatre was “propaganda against jihad” and that it was “desecrating Islamic values”. Immediately, I return to a naive, but important, question that needs further clarification and deeper probing: What, exactly, are Islamic values?

Seriously. What are Islamic values?

Are there Islamic values that differ from, say, Christian values?
Is this a fight against Western values? If so, what are Western values?

If they (and maybe, to some extent, some of us as well) generalise and assume that there are single, unified characteristics tied to a set of values (religious, or otherwise) with us all speaking the same tongue and behaving in the same way, then there would be no necessity for jihad since life would have been a breeze. If the Taliban believed that they needed to struggle and put in effort to strive “in the path of God” (22:78), then let the struggle be within themselves, for it is in the “greater jihad” — of the heart, the tongue, and the hand (see link) — that they come closer to the Almighty.