By Rasha al Aqeedi
The Arabic variant of TV’s popular amateur music show “The Voice” has seldom avoided political-related controversies. To be fair to us Arabs, our 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 geographical borders – not transnational language – define contestant choices in other countries. The Western versions have thus largely avoided accusations of favoritism or biases, but that changed this year in France with Mennal Ibtissem’s rendition of the late Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah”. Seconds into the song 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 show’s custom goes. The judge saw what audiences at home had seen already, a bright blue-eyed young woman in a modern hijab. By the final minute of her performance, Mennal sung in Arabic; paraphrasing “Hallelujah” to “Ya illahi”; Arabic for “My Lord”. It was evident that Mennel was Muslim. In a country like France where display of personal religious symbolism is generally frowned upon, Mennel was celebrated. Her message of tolerance and unity was well received. Yet 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 went after Mennel. It should also come to no surprise that they found what they sought: Mennel had hit the wrong note 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 killing more than 30 civilians, Mennel 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, Mennel wrote “Our government is the real terrorist”. The young singer claims that her statements were misunderstood and taken out of context, but it remains a discourse adopted by many in the aftermath of every terrorist attack.
Armed attacks that target civilians are unfortunately frequent. The motives behind such attacks, however, differ. In the mass shooting that occur in the United States the reasons are vague and 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 or 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 insiders. The “Truthers” are not necessarily defending Al Qaeda, but their sheer distrust in their government compels them to go against logic. They are mostly American citizens with enough free speech that allows for such statements. One might ask, in this case, why Mennel’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 Muslims do not wish to acknowledge.
In the aftermath of almost every radical Islamist terror attack, a significant number of ordinary Muslims resort to a defensive mode. The reasons are multi-fold, ranging from fear of backlash manifested in existing Islamophobia that vandalizes Mosques and at times targets Muslims on the streets, 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 of supporting the terrorist organizations that openly – and proudly – claim responsibility. The main issue with this defensive mode is the timing: it is uttered before expressing sincere solidarity and grief with the families of the victims. 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 Muslim and not Christian or Jewish. The attack was a coward act of terrorism driven by ideology that demands instant condemnation and silence for those lives lost and not a government plot to defame Islam.
The backlash against Mennel’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 Mennel 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 damage it entails to 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 political majority in France despite the re-occurrence of terrorist attacks.
Mennel 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 content in her own skin. She lives a life most likely envied by millions of girls her age across the Middle East. Her song choices reveal no discrimination by race, religion, or sexual orientation. Mennel’s sin is that she adopted the expert role on her own social media, offering a flawed take during an emotional moment in a time where the delete button is not sufficient to erase cyber content.
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 terrorism 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 time to think twice about word choices.