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Making a Difference Through the Arts

Strengthening America's Links with Asian Muslim Communities

Indonesian children playing gamelan after school. (Yayah Khisbiyah)

Indonesian children playing gamelan after school. (Yayah Khisbiyah)

Strengthening America's Links with Asian Muslim Communities

This Asia Society report, Making a Difference Through the Arts: Strengthening America's Links with Asian Muslim Communities, was conceived as an effort to stimulate new thinking and to identify extant resources that can enhance connectivity between the United States and Muslim communities in Asia. It is addressed to a broad range of constituencies: nongovernmental organizations seeking to initiate or expand their own projects; donor organizations active in economic, social, and cultural development; policy makers charged with considering the role of culture in public diplomacy initiatives; academic institutions seeking to enrich international studies programs; advocacy groups, scholars, and journalists; and entrepreneurial individuals with a passion to make a difference. The Asia Society report joins a growing number of recent studies that make a strong case for the role of arts and culture in expanding links between the United States and nations with Muslim-majority populations—Muslim, that is in any of the myriad ways in which Muslim identity may be expressed in the early 21st century.

Though Islamic civilization arose in the Middle East, more than half of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims presently live in Asia. The cultural contexts of Islam in Asia are as varied as the cultures of Asia themselves. In many contexts, Islamic practices and beliefs have syncretized with local forms of spirituality and culture to create exuberant tradition-based languages of art that are strikingly contemporary. These languages range from readily accessible forms of indigenous popular culture to cultivated and highly sophisticated genres of music, dance, theater, painting, and poetry. Other forms of local artistic and cultural creativity that display strong markers of place include handcraft, fashion, film, and cuisine. All of these creative languages embody forms of cultural knowledge that can be "translated," explained, and widely shared as a basis for developing cross-cultural connectivity.

This report offers examples of the diverse ways in which stakeholders in cultural development and exchange initiatives in and with Asian Muslim communities have built successful projects by drawing on culturally grounded knowledge and strategies. The panoramic range of projects, the impressive degree of imagination and innovation with which they have been designed and carried out, and the vital role they serve in fostering cultural pluralism and cosmopolitanism among both Americans and Asians makes these projects—and the people and organizations behind them—worthy of careful attention.

The Asia Society team that researched, wrote, and compiled this report has been fortunate to undertake its work in a political climate that has been supportive of cultural exchange initiatives with Muslim-majority countries. President Barack Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo reset the tone of American diplomacy and sent a signal that the United States is serious about building stronger ties with the Muslim world. An April 2010 White House conference on entrepreneurship in Muslim-majority countries reinforced that message. Nonetheless, the political atmosphere that frames American relations with Muslim-majority nations and regions remains volatile, underscoring the fragility of cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy.

This Asia Society report complements a 2008 paper produced by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Mightier than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the U.S.-Muslim World Relationship, which focuses primarily on the Middle East. A number of the Asia Society report's findings and recommendations parallel and underscore those conveyed in the Brookings paper—in particular, the urgency of reaching out to young populations and the vast potential of new media and social networking platforms to do so. At the same time, the present report's focus on Asia rather than the Middle East, as well as the professional expertise of the principal investigators in the world of not-for-profit cultural organizations, academe, and international foundations, has led us to frame the challenges and solutions in a different way than the authors of the Brookings paper.

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