By Rasha al Aqeedi
The Arabic version of TV’s popular amateur music contest “The Voice” has hardly avoided political-related controversies. To be fair to the Arabs, their edition is a bit more diversified than other international ones. Based on pan-Arabism through music, The Voice Arab brings together more than 20 nations whereas others are set by geographical borders instead of transnational language thus largely avoiding accusations of favoritism and biases. But that changed this year in France when Manal Ibtissam rendition of the late Jewish Canadian artist Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah” in her angelic vocal cords. Seconds into the song only and one of the judges pressed on the “approval” button that turns their chair allowing them to see the face behind the voice as the program’s customs goes. The judge saw what audiences at home had seen already, a bright blue-eyed young woman in a modern head cover. By the final minute of her performance, Manal sung in Arabic; paraphrasing “Hallelujah” to “Ya illahi”; Arabic for “My Lord”. It was evident that Manal was Muslim. In a country like France where display of personal religious symbolism is generally frowned upon, Manal was celebrated and accepted. Her message of tolerance and unity was well received. However, in a country like France that has burdened a heavy share of loss caused by self-proclaimed Islamist terrorism, her appearance was also debated. Hence it should come to no surprise that France’s far right wing went after Manal. It should also come to no surprise that they found what they sought: Manal had hit the wrong tone on a sensitive issue; a mistake that millions of Muslims – particularly Western Muslims – fall into regularly.
When terrorism struck the French City of Nice in July 2016 causing the death of more than 30 civilians, Manal took to Facebook to sarcastically state that it is logical to take your IDs when carrying out a massive attack. She then used a hashtag “you do not fool us”. Less than two weeks later when ISIS affiliated assailants slaughtered two priests at a Normandy Church, Manal wrote “our government is the real terrorist”. The young singer claims today that her statements were misunderstood and taken out of context, but it remains a discourse uttered by many and repeated at every terrorist attack.
Armed attacks that target civilians are unfortunately frequent. The motives behind such attacks, however, differ. In the mass shooting that often occur in the United States the reasons are vague and are believed to be psychological. In other attacks, extremist groups claim responsibility and state their motives explicitly: sacred Jihad against infidels and revenge for oppressed Muslims. The latter is a reoccurring theme in France. While the debate continues over what attack designates a “terrorist” classification, it is normal to hear voices that presume the incidents are staged by governments, intelligence agencies to distract the populations, pass on certain agenda, or other aims. Such conspiracy theory loving, populist leaning voices are not new. One example is the infamous “9/11 Truthers” who believe the tragic events on September 11th 2001 were carried out by the CIA. The “Truthers” are not necessarily defending Al Qaeda, but their sheer distrust in their governments compel them to go against logic. They are mostly American citizens with enough free speech to make such statements. One might ask, in this case, why Manal’s Facebook statuses were so controversial. If non-Muslims can accuse state actors of plotting attacks, why can’t Muslims?
The context of radical Islamist terror is different; a fact the vast majority of mainstream Muslims still do not comprehend.
In the aftermath of almost every radical Islamist terror attack, ordinary Muslims resort to a defensive mode. The reasons are multi-fold, ranging from fear of backlash manifested in existing Islamophobia which sees mosques targeted and Muslims attacked on the streets in some cases, to complete denial that “true Muslims” could carry out acts so horrific. The reactions portray the media, governments, and even families of victims as arsonists targeting the Islamic faith as a whole, pinning the responsibility on a religion and not individuals. They often seek holes in the official story to prove some conspiracy or government affiliation. Intelligence agencies and Israel’s Mossad are the most common assailants accused and not the terrorist organizations that openly – and proudly – claim responsibility. The main issue with this defensive mode is the timing: it comes as the victims’ blood remains warm, and usually before expressing sincere solidarity and grief with the families. Reactions to Muslims’ defensive mode range from annoyance to anger; the vast majority of those killed in these incidents are non-Muslims; the attacks are taking place in Europe and not the Middle East; the assailants are in fact Muslims and not Christian or Jewish. The attack was a coward act of terrorism that demands instant condemnation and silence for those lives lost; not a government plot to defame Islam.
The backlash against Manal’s comments was severe enough for the young vocalist to announce via video message that she was dropping out of The Voice. The many who believe Manal has been dealt injustice due to her display of identity appear unable to comprehend the pain that comments which unintentionally exonerate – not justify- terrorism cause to the families of the victims and the social fabric of the country. Had a Non-Muslim made similar comments they too would have been in hot water. The far right targets Muslims indeed. Hence its name “far right”, and hence it has not yet succeeded in becoming a mainstream political position in France despite the re-occurrence of terrorist attacks.
Manal Ibtissam is not in any way radical, and is quite far from the distinctive fundamental Islamist identity. Her social media platforms portray a young woman in love with life and music. She plays the piano at railway stations, airports, and cafés for bemused audiences. Her choice of attire reveals a free woman happy in her own skin. She lives a life most likely envied by millions of girls her age across the Middle East. Manal’s sin is that she adopted the expert role on her own social media, and gave a wrong opinion in an emotional moment in a time where the delete button hardly erases anything on the internet.
There is a moral in the “moment of silence” in tribute for a lost one. Silence is perhaps the best form of expression when tragedy strikes, especially given the ambiguity surrounding terrorist attacks which give even the top experts a run for their money.
Was Manal handled unfairly by The Voice? The only true judges remain the families of the victims and those who lived the horrifying moments of the attacks. Solidarity with the victims and immediate, direct condemnation of terrorist is an obligation all citizens owe their country. When the far right, a movement that openly calls for uprooting Islam entirely from society, displays more empathy and humanity than a happy young woman who adores music, it is perhaps that mainstream Muslims review their choice of words.