Listening to South Asian Muslim teenagers in British cities, one can understand how Islamic faith and American hip-hop music coexist. Searching for music that reflects their own experiences with alienation, racism and silenced political consciousness, many teenagers, even quasi-religious groups, turn to the urban music of black America. Despite the recent popularity of a pop-orientated variant of nasheed devotional music, the acts with the largest followings are not Muslim nor do they focus on overtly Islamic themes. Rather, the teenagers offer a litany of popular culture icons - American hip-hop and rap artists including Jay-Z, the late Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Young South Asian Muslims throughout Britain have widely adopted and thoroughly adapted symbols and styles of African-American urban culture. Slang combining northern English colloquialisms, Bengali and American gangsta culture infuses daily conversations.
Social ills - drugs, gangs, unemployment - are common in British cities, and racial tensions can run high. A collective sense of identity emerges from this common urban experience, across different national settings - hence the transatlantic currency of the hip-hop movement, and presence of Islamic references in hip-hop culture. Seeking to validate the impulse that lies behind the popularity of this music, but direct its expression in more positive directions, a number of artists have recently experimented with Muslim versions of hip-hop. As Abdul-Rehman Malik, an observer of the UK's Muslim music scene puts it: "They're searching for a cultural and political expression that they can marry to their religious beliefs." The fusion is sometimes a tough sell, however - not least of all because of persistent debates within Islam as to the permissibility of music.
Beginning with the group Mecca2Medina in London in 1997, the Muslim hip-hop movement has grown with impressive speed even as it struggles to achieve mainstream recognition within both the Muslim community and the wider hip-hop scene. Many Muslim artists cite passing references to Islam in mainstream hip-hop, and in their minds, the natural extension is to bring a religious identity front and centre.
For some, hip-hop is also a vehicle for engaging world politics. Figures like Fun-Da-Mental frontman Aki Nawaz attracted controversy for the 2006 album All is War, which some viewed as glorifying terrorism. The music of another edgy act, Blakstone, features aggressive and confrontational lyrics. While well-known American rap and hip-hop artists such as Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco express a Muslim identity, they do not make religion or politics an explicit focus of their music so as to avoid discomfort or rejection by the music industry. Many Muslim hip-hop artists, such as the female spoken word duo Poetic Pilgrimage, complain about persistent racism, even within Muslim communities in the West, contending that their work transcends ethnic and racial barriers.
These developments become more significant when one considers the demographics of Islam, with some 70 per cent of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims under the age of 30. Embracing hip-hop could be a fad or signal young Muslims' growing affinity with leftist values. Islam, however, has never fit comfortably on a political spectrum defined in conventional terms of right and left. The Islamic world view is socially conservative in most of its mainstream forms, but the centrality of social justice in Islam has always meant that Islamic parties share some common ground with the left - even where the politics between them are contentious.
Today we see sparks of growing cooperation between Islamists and leftists in the Middle East, although so far this speaks more to a realisation by opposition leaders that it's politically expedient to play down differences. This marriage of convenience extends to Islamist-leftist engagement on the global level, with both sides regarding the other warily even as they make common cause. A common anti-war stance has provided space for coordination between Islamists and the global justice movement. For example, the Muslim Association of Britain, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, organised the huge 2003 anti-war rally in London in cooperation with anti-globalisation groups.
While these new arenas of Muslim politics do not yet represent mainstream political Islam, it's significant that the actors and networks largely bypass the established "old guard" of modern Islamism. In other words, young Muslims, dissatisfied with the failure of conventional Islamist groups to deliver results, may be searching for alternative avenues of political expression and mobilisation - iPods firmly in hand.
Peter Mandaville is an associate professor of Government & Islamic Studies at George Mason University. © Yale Global