Center for Strategic Communication

by Jeffry Halverson

In the September 10 cover story on Jarret Brachman warns the Obama administration to pay careful attention to al-Qaeda’s new Libyan-born media darling, Abu Yahya al-Libi. He writes:

Whether he’s shown traipsing through valleys, target shooting with his buddies, reciting poetry on a mountaintop, or breaking bread with his students, Abu Yahya seems to have made al-Qaeda ‘cool’ for a younger generation. . . A lifelong student with an easy smile and a gift for gab, Abu Yahya sees the world quite differently. For him, al Qaeda’s fight is not just about unseating Arab governments or pushing U.S. troops out of the Middle East. In this paradigm, al Qaeda is first and foremost an intellectual and religio-ideological insurgency — not just a terrorist group. Its goal is to capture the imagination of Muslims worldwide. . . Abu Yahya’s goal is nothing short of remaking Islam from the inside out, and he does so in a candid, compelling, and inherently populist fashion. In other words, what we know about how al Qaeda does business is about to completely change.

If these ominous predictions prove true, then the Obama administration will need to employ a new strategy to respond to al-Libi’s efforts. Brachman suggests that the administration’s immediate response should be an expansion of U.S. intelligence agencies that includes better funding and staff, especially for the translation and analysis of terrorist communiqués. “We must combat Abu Yahya’s al-Qaeda today,” he warns, “before it takes us by surprise tomorrow.”

But I’m not so sure that pumping more money into the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies for further expansion is an adequate response (although there’s no question that more linguists are needed). That seems like business as usual. It’s been eight years since September 11, 2001.  They still can’t seem to locate that old Egyptian vlogger Zawahiri, or his tall Saudi friend with kidney problems. Perhaps we should think outside of the conventional anti-terrorism box for a fresh approach to responding to someone like Abu Yahya al-Libi.

A good approach would be to support hip-hop.

That’s right.  We should turn to the urban music genre born among disenfranchised African-Americans in the city of New York three decades ago.  It now rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars every year for folks with names like Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, and the Black Eyed Peas. It’s one of America’s most popular exports around the world, including the Muslim world.

In the age of iTunes, a new hip-hop track can be recorded in Chicago, converted to an MP3, and sent across the world to listeners in Pakistan in hours. But before you start sending off your copy of Eminem’s Relapse to your penpal in Ramallah, let me clarify the strategy I’m presenting. I’m not talking about the sort of hip-hop you’d typically find playing at a house party in LA or an underground club in the Bronx. I’m talking about a particular sub-genre called “Muslim hip-hop.”

Given the history of Islam among African-Americans (principally in the form of Elijah Muhammad’s N.O.I. movement and its more orthodox Sunni successors) it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that hip-hop is a popular vehicle for Muslim religious expression. When you also consider that poetry has been one of the most prized art forms in the Muslim world going back to the time of the Prophet, and that drums are one of the few instruments that even ultra-conservative Muslims tolerate, the popularity of hip-hop seems natural.

In its most basic form, Muslim hip-hop is Muslim poetry set to drum beats. Add in the emotional parallels between the plight of African-Americans and, for example, impoverished Algerians living in ghettos outside of Paris or Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the analogy becomes even clearer. The frustration and lyrical protest evident in many hip-hop albums (e.g. Black Star, Public Enemy) resonates among Muslim youth both here in the United States and abroad. I myself have listened to the late Tupac Shakur while sitting in a Cairo internet café.

Muslim hip-hop can be divided into a number of sub-groups. There are Muslims who produce mainstream hip-hop albums that may only contain the occasional religious song or lyrics (e.g. Mos Def, Napoleon, Everlast, Q-Tip). Then there are Muslim artists that are more deliberately “Islamic” in orientation, but their religious lyrics are blended with pop culture and reflect mainstream music trends. This means they may contain the occasional impious curse word or lustful confession (e.g. Brother Ali, Kumasi). Then we have the “pious” Muslim artists (e.g. Native Deen, Loon, Khalil Ismail) that typically exclude curse words or improper subjects (e.g. sexuality).

Within this broad swathe, we’re also going to find a range of quality among Muslim hip-hop artists. On one end of the spectrum we have a multi-millionaire superstar like Mos Def. Then in the middle of the spectrum we have a little known underground artist like Tyson Amir with legitimate talent. And then on the opposite end we have the “garage band” type artists who are truly terrible, but who may find an audience due to their special Muslim niche and the free marketing avenues provided by the internet.

Won’t these artists rap about poppin’ caps into the kuffar?  As with mainstream hip-hop, some artists express controversial positions.  But much Muslim Rap delivers messages that the U.S. can get behind.  Let’s take a look at some lyrics by Muslim hip-hop artist Tyson Amir from his song “Deen Tight” (the music video is here):

I see hip-hop potentially winning the hearts

Of men and women throughout the globe

Hoping our children grow into folks

Who show love and respect

That know themselves

And protect the rights of others

Wanting for themselves what they want for their sisters and brothers

A beautiful thing, man, this dream can come true

Peace spread to the edge of the earth

Ain’t no reason for me to fight you

Instead I invite you

To listen to these words, meditate, and learn

Because for something like this to happen

We all gotta work.

Prior to the election of Barack Obama, the U.S. government was a common subject for criticism and derision among hip-hop artists of all stripes. But there has been a fundamental change since the election of President Obama. For evidence, see’s now famous “Yes We Can” video supporting Obama’s campaign (it has over 19 million views), or the joy expressed in the opening of Brother Ali’s song “Mr. President.”

The idea of hip-hop artists engaging in an outreach campaign to Muslim youth around the world during the Bush administration would have been unthinkable. Not anymore. So if terrorism analysts like Brachman are worried about Abu Yahya making al-Qaeda look “cool” to Muslim youth, then let’s respond with one of America’s coolest exports: hip-hop.

Honestly, do you think Muslim youths would rather listen to Abu Yahya or Mos Def? Would they rather run around in the hills of Afghanistan in a turban, or rock a NY Yankees hat as they drive to a mosque in downtown Cairo? Young Muslims need channels to express their frustrations, emotions, and angst, just like youths anywhere else in the world. Extremists have seized on this fact and channeled Muslim youths toward violence and militant rebellion. Let’s give them a “cool” alternative.

(Editor’s note:  For a related story on another seemingly unlikely art form for reaching Muslim youth, see this earlier COMOPS Journal post)

UPDATE: May 5, 2010 – I corrected the transcription of the lyrics for the song “Deen Tight” by Tyson Amir.