Marcel Khalife and Blasphemy

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Two days ago, a Lebanese court found Marcel Khalife innocent of blasphemy. He never should have been tried.

Joe Lockard

Thursday, December 16 1999, 12:57 PM

Two days ago, a Lebanese court found Marcel Khalife innocent of blasphemy. He never should have been tried.

For over thirty years Khalife has been at the center of Lebanese music as a performer and composer, creating a voice of passion. Khalife and the oud are a wondrous pair. Smooth, sinuous, haunting.

There has always been an internationalism informing Khalife's work, one that views struggles for freedom in the Arab world as inseparable from more distant struggles. Despite integrating Arab and Western orchestralism, Khalife has long aligned himself against the McWorld forces. Khalife speaks for the progressive camp in Lebanese politics and has sought to elaborate a cultural basis upon which to overcome Lebanon's religio-ethnic divides.

Khalife's 1995 Arab Coffeepot album contained a song, entitled "Oh Father, I Am Yusuf," based on a poem by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish. The song compares the oppression of Palestinians in Arab lands to the biblical Joseph's mistreatment at the hands of his brothers, a story that also appears in the Koran. The song's vague citation of a Koranic verse drew hostile attention from the Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's highest Sunni authority. They charged that citation of the Koran, or even a poet's interpretation of a Koranic text, represented disrespect to a religious text and blasphemy. Given that Sunni authorities are often viewed as relative cultural moderates, this is surprising and indicative of internal shifts. Ironically, leading Shiite clerics, usually thought more conservative, have come to Khalife's defence.

Blasphemy proceedings brought against Khalife in 1996 halted after intervention by then-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Hariri responded to a campaign organized by Lebanese intellectuals, but also to his own worldview as a extremely wealthy businessman that this secular-religious contest was simply unprofitable. Similar charges against another author, Andre Haddad, were also dropped. Instead of public trials, government book-banning and censorship by the Surete Generale have been the preferred means of social control. In October, for example, government censors cut 47 minutes of director Randa Shahal-Sabbag's Civilisees, once a 90-minute film on the civil war.

When Sadeq al-Azm published Critique of Religious Thought thirty years ago and enraged the Moslem and Christian religious establishments, interior minister Kamal Jumblatt invited al-Azm to his office for a lengthy intellectual chat and charges were eventually dropped. Times have changed: the current al-Hoss government chose not to intervene when an investigating magistrate reinstated blasphemy charges against Khalife. These charges can bring from six months to three years in prison.

Renewal of the case brought an outpouring of support for the singer, one that emphasized Beirut's renaissance as a cultural center. Elias Khoury, a newspaper editor and one of Lebanon's best novelists, said "We will never accept Beirut falling back into obscurantism and becoming a city without liberty like other Arab cities.We will not accept such threats to Lebanese culture." Others argued that the Khalife case is inseparable from attacks against Arab writers who advocate a free secular society, like the murder of Egyptian author Farag Fouda and the near-assassination of Naguib Mahfouz in retaliation for his allegorical novel Children of Gebelawi, published some forty years previous.

At a protest in Paris, Adonis, perhaps the best-known figure of contemporary Arab poetry, placed responsibility for the prosecution on Arab leaders "who preach the abolition of freedoms to protect and support their transient political and religious authorities — choking minds to support dying theories." He continued, stating that "those who interpret and present religion often use it to fashion a human in perpetual chains in spite of the fact that religion, in its original meaning, was founded to benefit mankind. They have succeeded in making religion man's enemy in the realms of speculation and inquiry."

In his defense of Khalife, Adonis, who remains invested in a positive vision of religion, approached but failed to enunciate the link between religious and state authority. When Bakunin in God and the State railed against "the collective and historical insanity which calls itself religion," he argued that its eternal mirage enabled governing classes to manipulate civil society, acquire social power, and accumulate wealth. Claims of religious morality are, at bottom, no more than claims over secular power.

The economic and cultural growth of Beirut and further south, in Tel Aviv, have been linked to a concept of an unrestricted, untrammeled flow of capital and market goods. These cosmopolitan economies contain large anti-cosmopolitan elements that use pietism to express their cultural discomfort in the midst of New Economies. When Keynes wrote famously that "Modern capitalism is absolutely irreligious" he understood only its European truth. In impoverished neighborhoods throughout the region, in disenfranchised quarters that supply labor without receiving benefit beyond miserable wages, religion has become a false answer to absent control over the future.

The religious resentments that give rise to blasphemy charges have other forms: claims of divine entitlement, claims of exclusive authority, demonization of opponents, and an intense willingness to embrace violence to make sure that omnipotent God wins. Civil opposition equals heresy; apostasy equals a death warrant.

In his statement from the courthouse steps, Khalife spoke words of accomodation. "The accusation against me stems merely from relating passionately to a Koranic verse which opened my soul to vast horizons in ways no other text is capable of doing. I stand accused because I believed that the spirit of religion is more broad and tolerant than the interpretations by those who appoint themselves as guardians of our faith and morality. I also believed that inquisition courts were things of the past."

Khalife and Adonis are bound for disappointment. Sometimes in an understandable desire to appreciate spiritual qualities, we forget that no social progress ever arrived without blasphemy, heresy and apostasy. To pretend that frauds of religion are truth would be hypocrisy.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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