Dax J, Islam, and techno fundamentalism

Much can be said about the furore over Dax J’s playing of a remix of the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) at Orbit festival in Tunisia in April: the incident led to a police intervention, death threats, an epic social media brawl, and a prison sentence.

It almost goes without saying that the Tunisian authorities’ response was excessive, and may have been driven as much by politics as by piety; that those who went online to threaten Dax J’s life should have been targeted by police, not Dax J or the festival organisers; and that many of the comments on social media by both supporters and critics of Dax J were corrosive and tasteless (some comments remain online on Dax J and Orbit Festival’s Facebook pages, although a large number have since been deleted).

However, one thing stands out that perhaps did not get a lot of attention. Among the many comments posted by those Western techno heads who, in the aftermath of the uproar, scrambled to defend Dax J, or to attack his Muslim critics, there was a compelling, apparently moderate argument that emerged on social media against the Tunisian outcry, and with which many of us who love and believe in techno would probably, at face value, agree.

Techno, went this argument, is not just a genre of music; it is a music of Resistance. Techno does not bow down to authority. Techno resists. It has resisted John Major’s ‘repetitive beats’ legislation, the global ‘war’ on drugs, insidious social norms, and heteronormativity. And techno should, in this case, resist the demands of Muslims who object to their sacred music being used in the (hopefully) far-from-sacred context of a techno party.

We are already resisting the conservatives, the police, and authority in general, so why should we not also be resisting Islam? Surely, giving in to the demands of followers of a religion would be weak, and against the spirit of resistance. If Muslims in Tunisia dare to embrace our techno, they can’t pick and choose some aspects of it (the musical aspects) while rejecting others (the ideological aspects). Techno, as a musical form of resistance, as an expression of values, cannot be dissected in this way. Take techno whole, values and all, or leave it.

It feels right, this argument. We want to think of techno as more than a musical genre, and, in many ways, it is. We certainly don’t want to feel that techno should give up its claim to resistance in the face of religious conservatism, or that the aesthetic of techno, freed from its substance, should be loaned out to those who would scorn its politics.

But the unintended irony of applying this argument to defend Dax J’s use of the Adhan should be painfully obvious, for the outrage levelled against him by some Muslims in Tunisia takes almost exactly the same form.

The Adhan, it is argued, is more than a piece of music: it is a sacred expression of one of the five pillars of Islam. It cannot be torn from the foundations of Islam on which it rests. We can’t pick and choose between its aesthetic value and its religious meaning. Take the Adhan whole, including respect for its sanctity as an expression of Islam, or leave it.

What now becomes clear is that we are looking not at a clash between some kind of progressive open-mindedness on the part of techno culture, and a regressive closed-mindedness on the part of Islam. We are looking, rather, at a battle between two fundamentalisms: one of Islam and one of techno. Framed in this way, the only outcome of this battle can be the capitulation of one side and the victory of the other. Take Islam whole, or take techno.

The absurdity of this zero-sum game is further highlighted when the participants on either side are given a second glance. On one hand, we have (presumably) mostly White, mostly affluent (and if my cursory headcount on Orbit and Dax J’s wall mean anything, yes, mostly male) Europeans explaining the ideology of techno, and why any embrace of techno by Tunisians must entail this unsanctioned appropriation of Islamic culture. On the other hand, we have Muslims of colour, from a country with a GDP per capita of US$12,000, in which 15 per cent of people live below the poverty line, some of whom are open and outward-looking enough to be interested in this foreign music form and very much appreciative of what it has to offer them, but insisting that it respects a fundamental tenet of their religious belief system.

In this context, can techno demand that its fundamental values must trump those of Islam’s, that compromise is not possible, and that, if people of religion and colour in a poorer part of the world wish to embrace techno, their values must yield to its? Surely, we cannot allow ourselves to take such an unyielding, fundamentalist stance, and still save our conception of ourselves as a progressive, enlightened and forward-thinking community. But nor can we abandon techno’s claim to resistance entirely. We must find a middle ground. But how?

In abstract terms, techno must resist as a progressive, adaptive force, not as a regressive, fundamentalist one. It must understand that it is not monolithic, that it exists within the context of many and varied social forces. It must be conscious of its position in relation to societies, cultures, and ideologies. It must be reflective in its choice of battles and its modes of engagement. It must acknowledge that, contrary to the views of fundamentalists of any creed, social relations and belief systems are complex and nuanced, and the dynamics between between them must be equally so.

In more practical terms, techno must resist by taking aim not at those aspects of Islamic practice in Tunisia (and elsewhere) that are devotional and expressive, as the Adhan is, but those aspects that are regressive ynd oppressive. These might include, for example, laws and practices that target or disadvantage women or the queer community. Moreover, such resistance must come from Muslims in Tunisia themselves, and should not be imposed upon them by us, from the outside, in the blinkered preservation of our own fundamentalism.

I believe that Dax J grasped this when he responded via his facebook page to the events in Tunisia. These are his words:

I wish to express my deepest apologies to anyone who has been offended by the music that I played at the Orbit Festival in Tunisia last Friday. I am incredibly saddened that anyone would believe that I played a track, featuring a 20 second vocal of the “Call To Prayer / Adhan”, for any reason other than its musicality and the beauty of the vocal.
As a result of this unfortunate and unintentional incident, yesterday in my absence and without notice, I was convicted in the Tunisian courts and sentenced to 1 year in prison. I am currently back in Europe and this conviction in place will expire in 5 years.
I hold the utmost respect for all religions across the globe and I can now understand how my recent actions could have been perceived in the wrong way. We must all take time to truly respect and appreciate everybody’s beliefs in this world to move forward as a global society.
Through this experience, I have gained a greater and deeper insight into the world that we live in. I will continue to create art through music, and I look forward to sharing this with you.

Dax J’s response shows intelligence, sensitivity, and humility. If only more people in our community understood techno’s spirit of resistance, and its limits, so well.