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Up Front

Politics Demonizes, Culture Humanizes: Arts, Conflict and Security

Cynthia P. Schneider

Security, food, and shelter – all these are essential in post-conflict recovery, but music, film, and media? Of course, the basics make it possible to survive the challenges of turmoil and unrest, but to rebuild requires confidence, vision, and resilience. Arts, culture, and media help provide the inner strength required to imagine and create a secure, tolerant, democratic future.

The enemies of freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity recognize the power of culture, and target living and historic examples, from the Bamiyan Buddhas to music in Mali. Arts, culture, and media all of which foster creative, independent thinking and anchor identity threaten the complete control and subjugation that extremists and totalitarian rulers seek.

The U.S. government has a mixed record in recognizing the power of arts and culture. The private sector, foundations, and NGOs generally have been more forward leaning in recognizing the integration of culture and politics in many of the world’s hot spots.

Afghanistan represents an interesting case in point: arts, culture, and media have received significant U.S. government support, with impressive results. The U.S. government has been a key supporter of independent media, which has emerged as an Afghan success story. The country boasts over 70 independent television stations and 100 radio channels. Sixty per cent of Afghans regularly watch television; ninety-five listen to the radio, and two thirds use mobile phones.

This connectivity to media matters because it produces an informed, critical population who can envision a future different from the conflict-torn past the majority youthful Afghan population has known. In addition, the population has a voice through media to question leaders in the public and private sectors, and hold them accountable.

In Pakistan, as well, media provides a vision of a better future, often through original dramas, such as those featured on HUM TV, whose CEO Sultana Siddiqui will speak at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum (Plenary II: “’Politics Demonizes, Culture Humanizes’: Arts, Conflict, and Security”). Through narratives that track contemporary issues, television dramas promote tolerance, female empowerment, equality, meritocracy, and the value of hard work.

Yet, the basic thrust of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan not only fails to take into account the progressive impact of arts, culture, and media, but sometimes even counters it.  Until recently, the U.S. has advocated negotiating with the Taliban, which forbad all media during its brutal rule. The Afghan government’s regular attempts to restrict media freedom meet with little resistance from the U.S. government.

Integrating knowledge about the power of arts, culture, and media into strategies for rebuilding Afghanistan, and strengthening and stabilizing Pakistan’s society and economy would result in more effective policies.

In Mali, another region in conflict to be discussed in the Forum’s Arts and Culture Plenary, the arts – living and historic- are on the front lines of the battle against extremism. Manny Ali Ansar, Founder and Director of the renowned Festival Au Desert, will share gripping first-hand accounts of the struggle against extremists  who  have expelled Mali’s musicians, attacked historic buildings, and burned manuscripts.

Ali Ansar leads a movement to restore music and the Festival in the Desert to Mali, known as the origin of the blues but now eerily silent. Banning music, according to some Malians, is like banning the air they breathe. For there, music also means stories and news passed on by the griots, or traditional praise singers. With Mali’s high illiteracy rates, music has been the glue of society. Supported by private funders, the Festival in Exile will bring Mali’s music to Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East before, hopefully, returning to Mali by January 2014.

On a separate track, the U.S., together with France, has advocated elections in Mali in July or “as soon as technically feasible”. No doubt, Mali needs a new, democratically elected government. But, if the country is not safe for music, is it safe for free and fair elections?

Maybe a democratic Mali’s supporters in the American and French governments should wait until they can hear the familiar sounds of the griots, and the Afro-pop fusions of the Festival in the Desert before sending people to the polls. In the meantime, they can help foster the conditions of a free and fair election, which do not exist in Mali today.

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