Maher Zain's Hip but Pious Soundtrack to the Arab Spring

The superstar uses pop music to praise Islam and advocate for political change in the Middle East

Ramadan 2011 coincides with two significant events for the people of the Middle East. The first—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s appearance in a Cairo courtroom—has received plenty of coverage and was seen as emblematic of a new Egypt in which even the highest officials are accountable to the law. The second event will get less attention in the West, but also comes out of the political movements that have transformed the Arab World in the last seven months: Lebanese superstar singer Maher Zain is set to release his new music video, “Ya Nabi Salam Alayka” (“Oh Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon You”).

Washington analysts have overlooked the political significance of the pop singer, who—like the Bob Dylan of the ’60s—represents a new generation of Arabs: Young people who want a new society and a new nizam (political system) in which Arabs no longer have to choose between modernity and Islam, and where neither Islam nor the West can be used to justify autocracy. The importance of a change of nizam can be seen in the chief demand of demonstrators from North Africa to the Persian Gulf: “al-sha'b yuridu isqat al-nizam,”which means, “The people want to overthrow the system.”

Few artists understand the yearning for change in the Arab World better than Maher Zain. Born in Lebanon but raised in Sweden, Zain studied aeronautical engineering and partnered with an Arab singer/songwriter who had also migrated to Sweden, Nadir Khayat (known as “RedOne”). The two men traveled to New York, where they worked in the city’s music industry with some of its brightest young stars. Khayat played a key role in the rapid emergence of Lady Gaga and went on to become one of America’s top music producers, working with Akon, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson.

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