Artists and Musicians Are at the Heart of the Interfaith Peace Movement Circling the Globe

The other day a journalist writing a feature story on local developments among Muslim and Jewish community leaders asked me if Levantine Cultural Center were among many examples of an international movement. Often history recognizes movements and revolutions long after they impact the Zeitgeist, so I hesitated to jump on his bandwagon. Clearly he was building his story on the phenomenon that major Muslim-Jewish initiatives were gaining ground, not only here in Los Angeles, but in other parts of the world. Why would I want to quell his enthusiasm for a good story?

But the fact is that the election of Barack Obama was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg insofar as a paradigm shift is concerned. While Muslim-Jewish engagement is the flavor of the month, Arab/Muslim and Jewish musicians and writers have been in conversation with each other for years. Artists and writers, of course, do not create in an intellectual vacuum. Instead, they reflect the philosophical values of the cultures in which they work. They also innovate. Middle Eastern musicians fuse their own world music traditions with rock, hip hip, electronica and other western forms. Writers read each other across all manner of borders and boundaries, because no writer wants to feel him- or herself limited to a national identity. Music and literature, even while grounded in specific cultural markers, has always been international in scope. The same is true for filmmakers who hope that their movies will be seen in countries around the world.

To be sure, there are many fascinating volumes of comparative religion that illuminate the historical conversation between Islam and Judaism, and Christianity. Over time, there have also been many conversions back and forth between the three Abrahamic faiths, such that one should be cautious about any claim to having been faithful to one's ancestral religion. My preferred phrase for individuals and families who travel and intermarry with other cultural groups is cultural commuters. Muslims have married Jews, Jews have converted to Islam and sometimes back to Judaism, and every family will find a Christian somewhere in their history. Almost every one of us is, or has been, a cultural commuter at one time or another. This is particularly true for immigrants to this country, who straddle at minimum two cultures and languages (an Iraqi Kurd, a Lebanese Armenian or a Iranian Israeli, for instance, straddles three).

There is, to be sure, a growing international movement of younger people who refuse to be limited by their national-religious identities. Musician-historian Mark LeVine documents the Middle East youth generation in his new book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Comparative religion scholar Reza Aslan tunes in to this new generation in his book No god but God, the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and with his web site, BoomGen. Poet-translator and literary critic Ammiel Alcalay has for years been documenting the Jewish and Arab poets who refuse to be limited to either identity--"Jew" or "Arab"--particularly in his book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.

Two Iranian heavy metal bands now touring the United States are Hypernova and Tarantist. An entire generation of Arab American hip hop artists--many of who have been captured in the recent documentary Slingshot Hip Hop by director Jackie Salloum-- are merging English and Arabic lyrics within the hip hop, rock and reggae lexicon. And in Israel/Palestine, there are nearly 200 nonprofit organizations and NGOs that base their mission on bicultural coexistence, envisioning a shared future for Jews and Arabs that in some ways is already bypassing the narrow definitions of national identity that demands fealty to an outmoded idea--that people can be governed justly by the dominant ethnic or religious majority, or by a nation-state preserved by militaristic patriotism. (Visit to learn about some of these initiatives.)

Levantine Cultural Center was founded on the firm belief that we are all multiple, we are all complex--and that national identity cannot subsume the truth about our individual family histories and just how much we have in common with each other--whatever might be written in our passports. Every country in the Middle East/North Africa is an ornate quilt of majority and minority cultures, representing diverse faith traditions and a mix of "eastern" and "western" values. Muslims and Jews and Christians should not be narrowly defined by their religious affiliations nor their passports, for we are only limited by the labels we ascribe to ourselves.

If there is indeed an international interfaith movement that embraces peace and coexistence, it is one that reflects our innate understanding that we cannot allow the voices of extremism to rule our emotions. Just as the election of Barack Obama reflects the American movement toward the middle--away from the last eight years of neo-con rhetoric and toward a centrist government--the international peace movement characterized by a new generation of artists and writers shows that most of us desire moderation. We wish to be in conversation with each other. To stake out a rigid national or religious position is to allow the most extreme elements of society to represent us all.

Instead, the programs and purpose of Levantine Cultural Center recognize our natural tendency to live in a larger human community, one in which we are free to express ourselves beyond all boundaries and limitations, and where we acknowledge cultural commuters--like Barack Obama and perhaps ourselves--as harbingers of freedom.

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