The news that a Canadian children’s choir had welcomed Syrian refugees by singing a traditional Muslim song went viral last week and provided something of a global feel-good moment. As one of the emotional news reports emphasized, it was an “incredibly symbolic song, having been sung when Prophet Mohammed arrived in Medina after having fled his home in Mecca as a refugee.” The YouTube clip of the performance quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and on social media even people who are known as staunchly secular liberals or progressives enthusiastically shared the clip, often adding that they were moved to tears. One example is Mona Eltahawy, who describes herself as a “feminist writer” and commentator on “Arab &Muslim issues,” and who told her more than 225,000 Twitter followers that her “entire family cried at seeing this: #Canadian children sang an ancient Arabic song of welcome to #Syrian refugees. […] What care and compassion! My God, #Canada!”
But after this emotional reaction, Eltahawy promptly proceeded to add a political take: “It’s incredible! That they would think to sing a song Muslims associate with refuge and in Arabic! Can we clone Justin Trudeau? […] #Canada is back to upstaging U.S. Trudeau could single handedly fight the ugly global right wing surge.”
I agree that there is a political dimension to this – which is actually why I have some reservations about this viral feel-good moment. But before I explain my reservations, it’s worthwhile noting that the story about the children’s choir singing the song to welcome Syrian refugees is apparently not correct.
As a CBC report clarifies, the footage “was filmed during a December concert” of a school choir; the school’s choral director described it as “our own little concert a week-and-a-half ago” and explained that “the idea of commissioning a choral version” of the traditional song “Tala’al-Badru ‘Alayna” had no connection to the Syrian refugees crisis and the Canadian government’s pledge to admit 25,000 refugees by the end of February 2016: “Every year we try to touch different cultures, and a year ago we started planning to do a Muslim-inspired piece.”
So the viral feel-good moment was created when someone decided to post a clip of the performance of this song on YouTube under the title “Welcome To Canada Syrian Refugees” and people misunderstood this as indicating that the song had been performed to welcome Syrian refugees to Canada.
But it is arguably rather astonishing that this misunderstanding created such a widely cheered and shared feel-good moment. At a time when multicultural sensitivities make it controversial to say “Merry Christmas,” when Yoga classes are condemned as “cultural appropriation” and the most respected academic institutions don’t dare to keep a traditional title because some might mistakenly see a sinister connotation and feel offended, it is remarkable that so many people would feel all warm and fuzzy when they are told that refugees – who may or may not be religious Muslims and who in any case flee a war zone where Islamist terrorists justify savage atrocities as mandated by Islamic scripture – were welcomed with a traditional Islamic song.
Moreover, while the song itself maybe popular in Muslim countries, its symbolism is arguably quite problematic in the current context. Mohammed the refugee who fled to Medina was exactly the kind of refugee western security agencies are trying to screen out of the masses of desperate refugees in our time, because Mohammed the refugee became a jihadist.
As acknowledged even in texts designed to convey a completely uncritical narrative:
“The Prophet’s entry into Madina ushers in a new phase for the divine message. Islam gaining fresh followers began to assert its strength and soon started to spread out over the four corners of the Arabian Peninsula […] many important events took place in Madina, which eventually laid a firm foundation for the spread of Islam to the furthest reaches of the globe.”
But of course, Islam didn’t spread peacefully: in Medina, Mohammed became a stunningly successful warlord who laid the foundations for a rapidly expanding Islamic empire. As the military historian Richard A. Gabriel, author of a book on “Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General” has put it:
“The idea of Muhammad as a military man will be new to many. Yet he was a truly great general. In the space of a single decade [i.e. after he fled to Medina until his death] he fought eight major battles, led eighteen raids, and planned another thirty-eight military operations where others were in command but operating under his orders and strategic direction.”
The distinction between Mohammed’s time in Mecca and the last decade of his life in Medina is also at the core of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s most recent book “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.” As she explains in the introduction:
“In the early days of Islam, when Muhammad was going from door to door trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger […] However, after ten years of trying this kind of persuasion, Muhammad and his small band of believers went to Medina and from that moment Muhammad’s mission took on a political dimension. Unbelievers were still invited to submit to Allah, but, after Medina, they were attacked if they refused. If defeated, they were given the option either to convert or to die. (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they submitted to paying a special tax.)”
On this basis, Hirsi Ali proposes a distinction between what she calls “Mecca Muslims” – i.e. the majority of Muslims who focus on Islam’s “core creed” as formulated during the years in Mecca – and what she calls “Medina Muslims:”
“Medina Muslims […] see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad’s teaching, but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it. It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians ‘pigs and monkeys’ and preach that both faiths are […] ‘false religions.’ It is Medina Muslims who prescribe beheading for the crime of ‘nonbelief’ in Islam, death by stoning for adultery, and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled. […]
Medina Muslims believe that the murder of an infidel is an imperative if he refuses to convert voluntarily to Islam. They preach jihad and glorify death through martyrdom. The men and women who join [jihadist terror] groups such as Al-Qaeda, IS [ISIS], Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab […] are all Medina Muslims.”
A positive review of Hirsi Ali’s “Heretic” – surprisingly published in The Guardian – asserts that “[e]ven her fiercest detractors would struggle to deny much of what Hirsi Ali states about the current predicament within Islam.” But this assessment of course vastly underestimates Hirsi Ali’s determined detractors, for whom established facts as e.g. documented in surveys of Muslim publics mean nothing.
I personally think it does make a lot of sense to see today’s refugees who flee the Muslim Middle East as people who are threatened by the legacy of Mohammed’s years in Medina, when he emerged as a supremely successful warlord who was driven by a ruthless determination to spread the faith he had founded and to subjugate those who resisted it. Of course, those who Hirsi Ali calls “Medina Muslims” are also Israel’s most implacable enemies.
If we could openly and critically debate Mohammed’s legacy as a warlord, there would perhaps be much less of the anti-Muslim bigotry that seems to be spreading on social media. For years, it has been popular to try to counter this bigotry by encouraging people to take a quiz to see if they can actually tell apart passages from the Bible and the Quran. Most recently, the New York Times offered one such quiz in response to Donald Trump’s demagogic proposal to bar Muslims from America.
But this is of course just another exercise in political correctness: yes, all ancient religious texts include passages that are by today’s standards bizarre or outrageous. However, one major problem with Islam is that there is still very little willingness to view the Quran not as eternally valid divine revelation, but as a text that has to be understood in the context of the times it was created. The other major problem is Mohammed’s status as “a perfect example of an honest, just, merciful, compassionate, truthful, and brave human being […] far removed from all evil characteristics.” We have the year 2015, and Mohammed is the last warlord and founder of an empire whom we are all expected to uncritically respect and admire just because he also founded a major religion.