The Role of Popular Culture in the Interfaith Encounter: A Soft Power?

Published June 15, 2020 by Dr Lina Molokotos-Liederman

What does the English-Nigerian stand-up comedian Nabil Abdulrashid share in common with the Arab TV shows Exit 7 and Mother of Aaron? They both illustrate the soft power of popular culture and its potential in the interfaith space.

On 9 May 2020, Mohamed Nasir Nabil Abdul Rashid ibn Suleman Obineche (aka Nabil Abdulrashid), a black Muslim stand-up comedian of Nigerian descent from South London, got the Golden Buzzer on Britain's Got Talent (BGT) TV show. Having received the Golden Buzzer, Nabil Abdulrashid has been selected to go straight through to the show's live semi-finals later this year. In his edgy BGT show, Nabil made remarks about his Muslim faith and the discrepancy between his name and his appearance, among other things that he chose to make jokes about.

The presence of stand-up comedians who self-identify as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc. and are open about their faith on stage is not new. Allan Finnegan is a Baptist Minister and another comedian whose stand-up comedy show in BGT's 2020 series featured faith-based jokes. His humour draws on his experiences as a Minister. Shazia Mirza, back in 2000, was one of the first openly Muslim comedians and a woman nonetheless. There are many more Jewish, Muslim and Christian comedians in the UK and international comedy stage who are open about their faith on stage.

Yet, stand-up comedians rarely get a Golden Buzzer in BGT. What is significant and revealing here is that a stand-up comedian, who is Muslim and who brings his faith into his humour and jokes, won the Golden Buzzer in BGT, a show that occupies a special place in Britain's popular culture scene. The fact that Nabil Abdulrashid was so much loved by the show's audience and got the judge's Golden Buzzer is an example of the increasing diversification of stand-up comedy in terms of the performers' (and the audiences') religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds; it also illustrates the diversification of comedy and humour itself.

Joke by joke, show by show, Muslim stand-up comedians are knocking down a commonly-held stereotype, especially in the aftermath of the Muhammad cartoons controversy, that Muslims do not have a sense of humour. To the contrary, Muslim comedians, just as others (Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc.), who are open about their faith on stage, offer an accessible type of humour with highly laughable jokes that are greatly appreciated and enjoyed by mainstream yet diverse audiences. The increasingly diverse ethnic and religious profiles of stand-up comedians, especially comedians who bring their faith and religion into their humour, also illustrate how comedy, as part of popular culture, can become an alternative space for mediated interfaith encounters. As such, popular culture has the potential to play a soft yet powerful role in the interfaith space (see below).

Continuing on the vein of popular culture and interfaith, let's turn to a very different national context, namely Saudi Arabia.

Makhraj 7 [Exit 7] and Umm Haroun [Mother of Aaron] are two TV series produced by the Saudi-owned pan-Arab and Dubai-based satellite network, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC). The shows aired on Saudi television during the holy month of Ramadan May and April 2020, when families break the day-long fast and television viewing is at its peak. Both shows received quite a bit of press coverage both nationally and worldwide, primarily because they touch on religious and cultural taboos in the Arab world including Muslim/Jewish and Arab/Israeli relations, and homosexuality and LGBTQ rights. Both shows trended on social media with mixed reactions. Accusations in the Arab world and from Palestinian critics condemned Saudi Arabia’s engagement in normalizing relations with Israel.

In the comedy series, Exit 7, the main character's son becomes friends with a boy from Israel through an online video game, triggering a family controversy. His father-in-law describes Israel as a reality and says that he would do business with Israelis. Poking fun at contemporary views of Israel in Saudi society, the controversial possibility of a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement is thus put out in the open, literally raising eyebrows. Moreover, when the show's main character casually expresses his virulent hate for homosexuals, his teenage daughter disagrees, arguing that they have rights too.

Mother of Aaron takes places in a village in Kuwait in the 1940s and 1950s when Jewish communities were still living across the Arab world. The show portrays Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace, thus touching on the sensitive historical topic of Jews living in the Gulf and their relations with Muslims. It also features a love story between Mohammed and Rahil, the daughter of the local rabbi. Additionally, the show features an elderly Jewish woman playing the role of a midwife and nurse offering her help to local women and others in the village, irrespective of religious or ethnic considerations. It exposes and brings out into the open a typically forbidden love, that between a Muslim and a Jew. It also adds another layer and reinforces the theme of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and solidarity in the face of life's adversities, such as giving birth and sickness.*

There has been speculation that both Saudi shows are examples of mixing entertainment with Saudi policy as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) reform agenda in light of recent efforts to normalise relations with Israel. The real motives behind the production and airing of these shows during Ramadan remains unclear. Yet, MBC's spokesman Mazen Hayek was quoted in the saying that: "If the choice is between a stereotypical image of the Arab world and one where MBC shows tolerance, mutual living and meetings between religions and cultures, then so be it … At least we would be helping to heal wounds and bring people together."

Exit 7 and Mother of Aaron have brought taboo issues to Saudi audiences via TV entertainment and popular culture. Although they are far from constituting any substantive form of Muslim-Jewish interfaith engagement, they can be viewed as part of MBS's agenda of reform and policy of moderation through highly publicised social reforms that have reached the world stage, including allowing women to drive in June 2019, issuing tourist visas and relaxing dress codes for visitors. But Saudi policy under MBS and his professed agenda of moderation is inconsistent, contradictory and unpredictable, filled with political posturing and double standards. This is evident in the country's "apparent international commitment to tolerance and its officially sanctioned intolerance at home", pushing reforms while at the same time continuing its human rights abuses record.

And yet, these TV shows are tiny and cosmetic but noticeable steps of religious tolerance towards "the Jewish other", faintly signalling traces of long-term cultural, religious and social reform in Saudi society. Using various aspects of culture, including TV entertainment and comedy, both shows can be viewed as soft but powerful tools of cultural diplomacy and social reform, aiming perhaps to gradually change Saudi social attitudes, especially towards taboo and unspoken issues, such as homosexuality and LGBTQ rights, and relations with Jews and Israel.

So what do these examples from two very different countries and contexts, one in the UK, the other in Saudi, share in common? They both illustrate the soft power of popular culture in the interfaith space as a tool that can help "shape attitudes and behaviours with respect to how people understand religious difference and diversity".

Let's shed some light on some of these concepts.

Using Joseph Nye's definition, soft power refers to the potential to influence the behaviour of others through the ability to attract and co-opt using culture, political values and policies, as opposed to hard power and economic or military coercion.

Soft power is connected to culture and this brings us to the issue of cultural soft power, also known as cultural diplomacy. According to UNESCO, cultural soft power is "a form of soft power that strives to foster the exchange of views and ideas, promote knowledge of other cultures, and build bridges between communities. Ultimately, it seeks to promote a positive vision of cultural diversity, highlighting it as a source of innovation, dialogue and peace".

Finally, cultural soft power ties in with popular culture, also known as mass culture or the culture of the people. It "consists of the aspects of attitudes, behaviours, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society". It includes a broad range of categories and genres, including entertainment (such as film and TV), sports and fashion, that have gained popularity in everyday life in a particular society at any given point in time. Popular culture is fluid since it constantly evolves. Most importantly it not only reflects society, but also influences people's everyday life.

So what can the soft power of popular culture bring to the interfaith space? Some research suggests that comedy can have a lasting social impact by representing marginal views and opening spaces for negotiation. But the question of how entertainment and popular culture, more generally, have the potential to influence social attitudes and behaviours remains far from settled. As Nabil Abdulrashid's BGT 2020 show and two recent Arab TV shows illustrate, popular culture, including TV and comedy entertainment, function as alternative spaces for mediated interfaith encounters.

Dr Lina Molokotos-Liederman is a sociologist of religion and an Affiliated Researcher at the Woolf Institute. Her current interests include religion, popular culture and humour. Her research explores the uses of humour as an innovative tool in interfaith engagement.

Please see the Woolf Institute's "Binging Religion" series that explores the relationship between faith and society through the exploration of the Netflix shows: Unorthodox, The Two Popes, Messiah and Shtisel.

* Pointing to the role of video and film in interfaith encounters in the face of adversity is the one-minute video clip "Now they're called heroes and we're all applauding them", created in Israel by the pro-coexistence group "Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?". The video clip shows Israeli-Arabs health workers wearing scrubs and masks. The video ends with these words: "Tens of thousands of Arab-Israelis are partners in fighting the war against Corona. They are also an inseparable part of the state of Israel. Partners in Fate, Partners in Government." The video has gone viral during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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