Culture can't save us, but it sounds sweeter than ignorance

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

CULTURE SHOCK:IT EMERGED LAST WEEK that midranking officers at the US Joint Forces Staff College were being taught in one course that “the United States is at war with Islam”. Not radical, violent Islamism but Islam itself.

The course has been suspended and is being reviewed, but the idea is not all that surprising. The influential neoconservative thinker Samuel Huntington put forward, in the late 1990s, the proposition that the essential conflict of our times is a cultural one, the “clash of civilisations”. In this conflict, “the West is at war with Islam, not just with Islamic fundamentalism”. The obvious stupidity of this notion has not prevented it retaining its currency, both in the US and in much of Europe, where it is an article of faith for the far right.

In this context it was poignant, as well as thrilling, to see a great musician playing in New York, one who is not merely Islamic but Iranian. Mohammad-Reza Lotfi is the great contemporary master of Persian music. His reinvention of the tradition, fusing folk and classical elements, is immensely popular in Iran, where he plays to crowds of up to 10,000 people. At 65, with long white hair and a flowing white beard, he looks like a fierce deity, making him a fine-looking villain for a movie version of The Clash of Civilisations. Except that everything about his music makes a nonsense of the idea that Islam and the West are mutually hostile cultures doomed to existential conflict.

People who talk about the incompatibility of cultures almost invariably haven’t the foggiest notion of what culture is. They imagine it as some kind of static essence, some fixed package of distinctive modes of thought, feeling and expression. And if you think about culture in this way, it becomes easy to work yourself into a hysterical panic: “their” culture is trying to replace “ours”. With Iran as the current bete noire, it can be argued that the tensions between Iran and the West are not just political but express a deep-seated and irreversible cultural hostility.

If you know anything at all about the Persian music that Mohammed-Reza Lotfi plays, however, this whole idea of a static Islamic culture is obviously nonsense. In the first place, the music contradicts one of the standard western perceptions about Islam: that it destroyed and homogenised the indigenous cultures of the countries to which it spread. (The writer VS Naipaul claimed Islam was worse in this respect than western colonialism: “To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn’t matter’.”)

If anything, with Persian music, the opposite is the case. Islamic culture allowed it to fuse with other influences and to spread west into north Africa and east and north into central Asia, India, Pakistan and even China. It’s not accidental that even the words for the long-necked lutes that Lotfi plays, tar and setar, are picked up in the Indian and Pakistani sitar. Lotfi’s setar in turn goes back all the way to the tanbur of pre-Islamic Persia, but the music he plays on it is cosmopolitan. Its forms underlie eastern music in the same way that the blues underlie so much of contemporary western music.

And Lotfi’s playing is just as dynamic as the musical tradition he inhabits. It is personally spiritual rather than narrowly religious. If the tradition contradicts the idea that Islam inevitably crushes the distinctiveness of indigenous cultures, Lotfi’s playing demolishes the idea that the Islamic mentality is hostile to individual expression. The music is utterly individual and spontaneous. A master like Lotfi has a huge repertory of melodic forms in his head, but they are templates for radical improvisation.

The point of the music is to find a path into the unconscious. “Until the sounding of the first note on stage,” writes Lotfi, “this path is a secret to the conscious mind of the improviser . . . All the selections are made without any awareness and this fact makes every performance different. When, during the performance, one becomes too restricted according to the paths learned from the old masters, one has to create a new way.” Innovation, in other words, is built into the act of performance.

The language in which this is understood is that of mystical Islam. There are undoubtedly aspects of what the music means that are closed to the nonbeliever. But they seem less important, as you listen, than the aspects that are entirely open. Lotfi’s improvisations are naked, direct and emotional. They move from simplicity to complexity and back in an arc that takes the listener from yearning to transcendence to serenity.

Which is to say that the experience of listening to Lotfi is not very different to that of listening to a great American jazz musician. And this is not entirely surprising: the Persian music he plays spread through Islam into Mali and thence, via the slave trade, into black American music. You can hear phrases in Lotfi that remind you of the Mississippi Delta. This, in fact, is the way culture really works: everything connects to everything else.

This doesn’t make the current Iranian regime less vile or those in the US who think they are at war with Islam less ignorant. Cultural encounters don’t save the world. But they do make it a slightly less stupid place. Any serious art from any tradition always undermines the cliches of political rhetoric. It reminds us that there is not a war of cultures but a war on culture, conducted by ignoramuses everywhere.