Five months after a marathon race planned for the northern Israeli-Arab town of Umm al-Fahm was cancelled under pressure from religious figures who objected to the lack of gender separation at the event, religious and secular residents of the city are clashing again, this time over an Arabic music performance scheduled for a local community center.
The concert is slated to be performed by Siraj, a group whose members include both men and women. Siraj is known for its performances of classic Arabic favorites from musical greats such as Farid al-Atrash and Umm Kulthum.
The event, scheduled for Saturday, is part of the community center’s cultural programming, which has the financial support of the Israeli Culture Ministry. But after ads for the concert started appearing and tickets went on sale, the local association of imams announced that they opposed the concert, not only because of men and women were performing together, but because men and women concertgoers would not be seated separately.
Sheikh Mashour Fuaz, who has a doctorate in sharia — Islamic religious law — and serves as chairman of an association of mosque prayer leaders — imams — issued a statement on behalf of his fellow imans saying that they were not imposing their position on anyone but had the right to express their opinion about the event. “We do not support events with mixed singing by male and female singers because it contravenes sharia rules and Islamic culture and the customs on which society is built in a city like Umm al-Fahm,” he stated.
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The statement became the subject of vehement debate in social media and led to threats of violence. Religious residents have threatened in anonymous statements to prevent the concert from taking place, while other residents support it going ahead as scheduled. Several leading academics who are residents of the city issued a statement condemning the imam association’s stance and wrote letters of support for the community center staff, urging them to proceed with the event.
Among the academics was Dr. Ayman Agbaria, a senior lecturer in education policy at the University of Haifa, who also issued an open letter to the clergy in support of the concert, basing his argument on Islamic sources. He has said that the controversy over the concert is primarily the result of the outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel in 2015. In banning the group's political activities, he asserted, it has left the public space as the movement's only remaining sphere of influence, explaining why it has returned to taking its tough public stances on morals and customs. In other words, this new clash is less about the relationship between secular and religious than about the crisis within the religious world itself, Agbaria believes. The northern branch of the Islamic movement was outlawed amid allegations that it was engaged in incitement and other offenses.
“A large portion of those supporting the musical performance are traditional or religious people themselves,” Agbaria said. “They represent a different type of religiosity than that which the Islamic Movement is trying to claim a monopoly over. In contrast to the rigid, Salafi stream that believes in the literal interpretation of Islam’s formative texts, a reformist, pluralistic and open stream has emerged that is seeking to challenge the traditional religious discourse of the Islamic Movement and its institutions.”
The controversy over the concert has had a direct influence on local politics in Umm al-Fahm. A few weeks ago, the main political groupings in the city, the Hadash and Balad parties, the Sons of the Village movement and activists identified with the Islamic Movement announced that they were forming a coalition and would run a joint slate for mayor and city council, making the slate the immediate front-runner. On Tuesday evening, however, the groups announced that their coalition was being dismantled over the concert dispute, because Balad, Hadash and the Sons of the Village supported the holding of the concert, while the religious representatives objected.
“There was no other issue leading to the controversy and the rift other than the issue of the concert,” said Riyad Mahamid, a Balad member who had been instrumental in bringing the coalition together. “There had actually been fruitful cooperation, but the secular people on the list couldn’t accept dictates of this sort and so unfortunately we couldn’t continue on together.”
Arguments about mixed-gender musical and cultural events are fairly common in Arab communities in Israel. Sometimes secular, liberal forces prevail and the events take place as scheduled. Sometimes the organizers yield to the pressures and cancel.