Obama’s “Islam problem”: Music and US-Muslim relations

by Jason Lee Oakes

Barack Obama’s relationship with the Muslim world is complicated to say the least. Having spent part of his childhood in the most populous Muslim country in the world, early in his presidency he gave a speech at Cairo University saying, “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” Nearly two years later, in May 2011, Obama portrayed the Arab Spring as a “historic opportunity” in US-MENA relations (the Middle East and North Asia) based on “the world as it should be.” Following the relatively peaceful overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, in October Colonial Gaddafi was removed from power in Libya with the help of a US- and NATO-backed rebel force.

Despite these encouraging words and events, US-MENA relations aren’t looking so rosy lately. The Arab Spring has turned into a hot, unyielding summer in Syria and Egypt; Guantanamo is still open for business; the Israeli-Palestine conflict continues to fester; controversial actions by US troops have led to rogue attacks by Afghan forces; and Pakistan has turned openly hostile in the wake of the Bin Laden raid and increases in drone strikes. In the last two weeks alone Obama has had to navigate the embassy murders in Libya, region-wide protests set off by a Z-grade propaganda film, an intensifying standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, unusually harsh criticism from Israel’s leaders, an internal report criticizing drone strikes as ineffective and immoral, and accusations of using the Arab Spring for political gain.

Given all of these factors, some analysts believe that next to an economic cataclysm, the next most likely wild card in the upcoming election would be a meltdown in the Middle East. Well-aware of this, earlier this week Obama urged the UN to address the root causes of anger across much of the Islamic world. Further complicating matters at home, a Pew Forum poll this summer revealed that nearly one-in-five registered US voters believe that the president is a practicing Muslim—and you can bet few of them see the “first Muslim president” as a cheering affirmation of their First Amendment rights. Alternately blamed, and less often praised, for events in the region and their impact on the US  by Americans across the political spectrum, the only thing more complicated for Obama than dealing with the Muslim world may be dealing with perceptions at home.

Music as Mediator

If there’s one art form that’s ideal for exploring complicated relationships, it has to be music. Song lyrics routinely focus on the nuances of human emotion, especially desire and disillusionment, in a way that everyday speech can’t capture. Sonically, music is built on multi-tiered and ever-shifting relationships between pitches, rhythm, and other musical parameters–resulting in a “grammar” that’s much more complex and flexible than verbal grammar. In these respects, music is often able to “express the inexpressible.”

With this in mind, below I offer a few examples of US-MENA musical interactions as a means of exploring the complex triangle between President Obama, the Muslim world, and the American public. Unfortunately, I am limited in this task by not speaking Arabic or other languages of the region. Please feel free to contribute more examples in the response section or to send me a message directly!


In the film Obama 2016—now the #2 top-grossing political documentary of all time—director Dinesh D’Souza raises the specter of a president who seeks to redistribute power internationally, shifting resources from white, Western nations to the nations they once colonized. Drawing on fears over Asia’s explosive economic growth and of a shadowy, Illuminati-like New World Order; the trailer of the film (and the film itself) combines Middle-Eastern-style Orientalist melodies with a frantic techno backdrop to symbolize this twin threat.

The song above  is sung by Egyptian music star Shaaban Abdel Rahim. It expresses wariness and, at best, a guarded hopefulness after Obama’s election–a reaction that’s at odds with “dancing in the streets” clichés re: the global reaction to the new US president. But who is Rahim and why does he matter?

Shaaban Abdel Rahim was an impoverished laundry presser whose 300-pound frame, craggy features, and Leisure Suit Larry fashion sense didn’t stop him from rising to fame at age 34 with the  massive success of his song “I Hate Israel” (lyrics written by elementary school teacher Islām Khalīl) shortly before 9/11. Following the song’s success, this seeming anti-pop-star rose to fame and became the best-known and loved singer in the history of sha’bi–a word that literally means “popular,” “traditional,” or “folk” in Arabic, used to describe a genre of music that achieved widespread popularity after the late 1970s.

Ethnomusicologist James Grippo describes  sha’bi as a “politically charged musical genre…commonly associated with Cairo’s working class.” With “a long history of bawdy humor and trenchant social critique, it is frequently characterized as giving a voice to the homeless, the orphaned, the sickly, and the unemployed” (source). Beyond these constituencies, he notes that sha’bi t is the music of the “Egyptian street” and, given Rahim’s fame through the Muslim world, the “Arab street” as well. Despite the more unsettling aspects of some of this music–such as anti-Semitism, most obviously–the Obama campaign would do well to heed musicians such as Raheem. His song about Obama presaged the doubt and dissatisfaction that has exploded across the Muslim world.

This song, with the repeated refrain “My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack,” has become a hit in Pakistan’s tribal region. Written by Khalid Shah Jilani and Maas Khan Wesal, and performed by Sitara Younis, the casual reference to death and destruction in the chorus points to the ubiquity of drone strikes in the region–a pervasive fact of life just like romantic desire and infatuation. But while unrequited love may inflame an individual’s body and psyche, the drone strikes have inflamed the body politic. The Stanford Law School/NYU School of Law report released earlier this week offers evidence that drone strikes rarely reach their intended targets, but do succeed in creating a pervasive sense of paranoia and hostility, and in killing many innocents.

And finally, in perhaps the strangest example of MENA-US musical encounters, there is this Arabic cover version of “I Will Always Love You.” Sung by Syrian pop star Mayyada Bselees, the song is not odd in itself. Instead, what’s extraordinary is Saddam Hussein’s use of IWALY as his official 2002 “campaign song”–broadcast for several days straight on Iraqi TV leading up to his rubber-stamp reelection. Like many Americans listeners, Hussein must not have listened close enough to notice that the Dolly Parton-penned hit is actually a breakup song. On October 14, 2002, Whitney Houston’s label, Arista Records, mailed a cease and desist order addressed to Saddam Hussein. And in a final stroke of weirdness, Osama Bin Laden reportedly loved Whitney Houston’s music and Whitney Houston herself, at one point even plotting to have Bobby Brown killed.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, prefers Beyoncé to Whitney. And you can bet that his administration and the US military won’t be singing the following lines to the Muslim world any time soon: “If I should stay / I would only be in your way/ So I’ll go.”