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An Open Challenge From A Gay Muslim Filmmaker

By Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Gay Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma crossed several dangerous lines when documenting his 2010 hajj pilgrimage to Mecca on his iPhone for the newly released A Sinner in Mecca.

Though it’s discouraged by Saudi law to film inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque and other sacred sites where Muslims complete their holy pilgrimage, more worrisome for Sharma were the region’s harsh laws regarding homosexuality.

“There’s a level of subversion here, and divine intervention as well,” says the India-born, New York-based director, who openly identified as homosexual in his earlier film, 2007’s A Jihad for Love.

In the documentaryA Sinner in Mecca, Sharma explores the effect of Wahhabism — a puritanical strain of Islam fostered in Saudi Arabia — on the centuries-old pilgrimage while challenging his own faith in the face of adversity.

Sharma, whose previous documentary followed the lives of gay Muslims around the globe, spoke about the risks, rewards and blowback already generated by A Sinner in Mecca.

Q: The hajj is a difficult journey for most Muslims, both physically and spiritually. What compelled you to document yours?

A: The purpose of this film is to mount an open challenge to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. For me, it’s not a film about Islam and homosexuality. I’ve done that before.

I think the export of Wahhabism has been the biggest Saudi project for the last century, and they have transferred it to every corner of the Muslim world. Communities have become increasingly conservative. The horrific ideology of ISIS and al-Qaida would not exist without the Saudi Wahhabi doctrine. This is what they’re teaching children in schools. This is at the root of all the problems in the Muslim world, in my humble opinion.

Q: Your film features footage that someone else sent you of a man being executed by Saudi authorities allegedly for being homosexual. It’s a type of horror we associate with terror groups. Was outing this type of barbarism your point?

A: Yes. It’s ridiculous that in the 21st century, they’re allowed to carry out beheadings on a routine basis. It’s amazing the rest of the world does not say anything.

Q: You’d already openly identified yourself as gay in your previous documentary, yet the Saudi government granted you a visa to enter the kingdom for hajj.

A: I never thought the Saudis would give me a visa. As you learn in the film, I go on the hajj with a Shia group, which I do deliberately (to conceal my identity), even though I’m Sunni.

I think I slipped through the cracks because they were issuing millions of visas at the time. If they had been looking, it wouldn’t have been hard for the Saudis to know who I am.

Q: Most Muslims learn early on that the hajj is at the heart of affirming your faith. Did you feel conflicted since it was a religious journey, but you were also making a film?

A: For me, it’s the toughest journey I’ve taken in my entire life. It’s clear I’m going as a pilgrim, but there’s also the filmmaker half of my brain telling me there’s no way you’re not going to document the most important journey of your life.

Your religious self wonders if you’re doing the right thing. Does it take away from being completely devout if you are also constantly filming? I had to deal with that conflict.

I felt I came out much stronger from the experience and that I made the hajj for thousands of gay Muslims who are probably too afraid to go. It was an enormous task to take on, but I came out the other end a better Muslim.

Q: Some might assume you’d come out of a journey through this very conservative region, and its strain of Islam, denouncing your religion.

A: Islam may have turned its back on me, but Islam is also who I am. It’s very hard to cut off your right hand and say I’ll only function with my left hand from now on.

Faith sits together with every part of my being, and I don’t know any other way to be than Muslim.

Q: Now that the film is making its way into the world, are you concerned about your safety?

A: “I’m getting an enormous amount of hate mail and threats already, and the film is just a newborn. It’s barely out there in the world.”

A lot of it is from my website (ASinnerInMecca.com), and the trailer on YouTube has gone completely viral.

The threats I’m getting are from people with no idea because they’ve not seen it. If you see the film, you get to see it’s very respectful toward Islam, and it’s a direct challenge to Saudis. The film makes that distinction.

Yeah, I’m terrified a little bit. I did not expect so much hate in the early life of the film. I thought it would happen later.

Q: There are spokespeople out there _ former Muslims who’ve denounced their faith because of various life experiences. You could have easily been one of them.

A: Here’s the difference between someone like (author and spokeswoman) Ayaan Hirsi Ali and me. She has turned her back on Islam and is out to attack it, and gets a lot of mileage out of doing that, especially from the right wing in this country.

I strongly feel if anything is to change in Islam, it’s going to come from the believers.

Q: You also catch flack from Islamophobes, so essentially you’re walking this tightrope between extremists and haters of all stripes.

A: It really is precarious. The very Muslims I’m seeking acceptance from are attacking me because I’m a gay man and because I made this film.

As a Muslim, you are taught from a very young age that you do not mess with Mecca, and I’m doing exactly that.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Parvez Sharma photographed with the Kaaba behind him. (Photo courtesy Haram Films/TNS)

Coachella Goes Boom(er) With Classic Acts Steely Dan, AC/DC

By Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has always been considered a bastion of cool for the young and hip.

Passes for that annual desert festival sell out months before the lineup is even announced. Nocturnal electronic dance music fans brave the daylight to hear their favorite DJs, and everyone who’s anyone wants to be seen in the VIP area. (Hello, Kanye and Kim.)

So what, exactly, are classic rock staples Steely Dan and AC/DC doing at the top of the bill opening night Friday?

Simply put: the wow factor.

To create buzz around the festival — and to ensure it continues to sell out — promoter Goldenvoice needs to offer a few surprises in the lineup each year, concert industry experts say. Two years ago, for example, promoters brought the Stone Roses back from a long hiatus (to mixed reviews).

“The concern is that, one day, you won’t be selling out before the lineup is announced,” says Kevin Lyman, a veteran Southland promoter and founder of the Vans Warped tour, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. “But until then, you’re in a great position to wow everyone with a curveball. To get everyone talking. That’s what AC/DC does.”

The difference this year is that neither AC/DC nor Steely Dan appears to be in Coachella’s DNA. This is a festival with its roots in alternative rock and dance music; AC/DC is straight-up hard rock, and Steely Dan is a pastiche of rock, jazz, and pop (“Genuine Dad Rock” is how one fan described Steely Dan’s sound on the Coachella website’s chat board).

Probably the only comparable act to headline Coachella was Paul McCartney. But as an ex-Beatle, he’s in a class by himself.

It’s a bold or misguided move, depending on whom you ask. Executives with Goldenvoice, a unit of sports-entertainment giant AEG, declined to comment for this story, but the promoter’s track record speaks for itself.

Since launching 16 years ago on the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Coachella has emerged as the nation’s most successful music festival. It was expanded from one to two weekends in 2012. Both weekends grossed an estimated $78 million last year.

About 200 rock, rap, dance, and R&B acts will perform on multiple stages this weekend and next — and smaller bands will be playing countless corporate-sponsored pool parties and other private events throughout the Palm Springs area. The business spinoffs keep multiplying; this year, fashion brand H&M has even launched its own line of Coachella-inspired attire.

But upping the ante in unexpected ways is critical at this point for Coachella — which must meet especially high expectations to continue its success.

One benefit of booking older-skewing acts may be the expansion of Coachella’s audience. According to the festival’s website, the vast majority of attendees are under 45.

Adding acts that may attract baby boomers with more discretionary spending power could increase sales of concessions, especially as the festival devotes more space to bars and gourmet food outlets.

Compared with other festivals, including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Outside Lands, Coachella is known for its high-end appeal and high prices. General admission wristbands go for $375, while its myriad VIP packages go from $900 well into the thousands.

As for extras, one can pre-purchase VIP parking closer to the grounds and a four-course meal in the Rose Garden for $225. And if traffic is simply too bourgeois, book a private jet as part of your special experience.

Still, for the Coachella fan who needs to eat ramen to save up for the fest, having a few legendary bands on the bill might help justify the expense.

“If younger means less affluent, when you talk about seeing AC/DC in a reserved seat situation, it can get really expensive,” says Charlie Walker of C3, the promoter behind Lollapalooza in Chicago. “This is a way for them to experiment.”

For AC/DC, whose members are almost all in their 60s, playing a festival with rapper Azealia Banks and EDM titan Kaskade helps the band reach a demographic that might otherwise think twice about the metal music of their parents.

“For the artist, it’s a matter of trying to broaden your audience,” says Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor in chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. “Coachella has so much cachet to it, that even the heritage baby boomer rock acts can see the benefit in playing it.”

Other top destination festivals will feature classic rockers at the top of their shows as well: Lollapalooza has McCartney, Bonnaroo has Billy Joel, and San Francisco’s Outside Lands will headline Elton John.

Not everyone’s psyched about Coachella’s reaching into the AARP catalog of rock.

“I want to see them, but I feel like it’s almost inevitable that they’ll conflict with someone I want to see more. I’m not going to pass up someone I’m genuinely stoked for… just to take a romp through the nostalgia fields,” wrote one commenter on the festival’s site.

AC/DC singer Brian Johnson downplays the buzz — good and bad — around his band headlining Coachella’s opening night.

“Kids have been spoiled with so many things online, but I think…seeing bands live is still exciting,” he says. “Still makes your hairs go up and get goose bumps. Not just us — any band that comes on and they’re good.”

Photo: Coachella via Facebook

Islamic State’s Soft Weapon Of Choice: Social Media

By Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times

Wedged between tweets last week about Britain’s economy, kilts and “The Simpsons'” Groundskeeper Willie was a Twitter message in Arabic that included the hashtags “#Scotland” and “#ScotlandDecides.”

But a link within the tweet’s 140 characters wasn’t referring to Scotland’s independence referendum. It instead led to a hostage video on YouTube, since removed, of British journalist John Cantlie reading a scripted message from his captors, the Islamic State.

This sort of bait and switch is one of many Digital Age tactics the militant group has deployed in its otherwise bloody campaign to create an Islamic caliphate across the Mideast. For the Islamic State, social media is a soft weapon that’s helped it build the appearance of omnipresence, despite its small numbers in the real world.

Whether developing its own Android app or amassing Twitterbot armies to publishing a high-design Web magazine that glorifies the lifestyle of its fighters, there are few digital platforms the group hasn’t infiltrated.

“The savviness of the IS campaign belies that notion of (the terrorist as) cave dweller,” says Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist with Rand Corp. who wrote reports on militant recruitment. “That said, there’s something they’re capturing about the appeal of going back to the old days of fighting. The deep-seated notion of fighting an age-old fight. They have managed to capture that zeitgeist.”

Taking full advantage of its current ability to control the message and image, the group is portraying itself as a militia with many sides.
Videos posted on various YouTube accounts show bearded fighters tending to children and aiding the infirm. Others feature shots of well-groomed fighters, trekking through the desert together in a show of camaraderie.

“They are able to leverage a variety of different messages that can appeal to a number of different people,” says Helmus. “They not only have campaigns showing beheadings, they have campaigns showing their humanitarian efforts, their governance efforts, showing (militants) handing out ice cream cones.”
For potential recruits raised in front of Xbox consoles, the Islamic State says its making its own video game and released a trailer modeled after the violent and vice-filled “Grand Theft Auto.” It also offers its own promotional wear, which can be bought in online gift shops. Islamic State hoodies, bandannas and baseball caps (“We Are All ISIS,” reads one slogan) are part of what some are now calling a “global terror brand.”

Though the group is pop culture savvy, it’s the Islamic State’s primitive garb and barren desert backdrops in videos and magazine stills that promise a connection to a simpler (albeit mythical) time. The images dovetail with the notion of returning to a more pure form of the faith, an idea inherent in the particularly rigid strain of Islam that the Sunni extremist group follows.

The al Qaeda splinter group’s changing name — Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, IS — seems about the only aspect of the terrorist organization that hasn’t been branded as carefully as a new Apple product.

A media arm of the organization reportedly coordinates its digital campaigns. When Facebook or YouTube identifies and shuts down an Islamic State-sponsored account, several new ones pop up in a virtual game of whack-a-mole.

“No one else in extremism is using social media as effectively as the Islamic State right now,” says J.M. Berger, editor of INTELWIRE.com and author of the recent study “How ISIS Games Twitter.” “I am sure many are watching what they do with the intention to emulate it.”

Berger adds that social media “essentially supplements the old shoe leather method of recruiting, which still happens and is very effective.”

Whereas al Qaeda’s early recruiting efforts largely took place in hidden chat rooms that one had to know about to join, the Islamic State reaches potential followers, including English speakers, who might stumble on its messages through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.

“You don’t necessary have to be following a jihadi in Syria to be exposed to the Islamic State,” says Helmus. “You could be following someone for perhaps religious reasons and hear their messages. All that serves to make it feel more powerful, more successful. It gives the image the crowd is in it, it is a cause worthy of joining, and you’re going to win.”

The CIA recently calculated that 20,000 to 31,500 Islamic State fighters are in Syria and Iraq and that 2,000 Westerners have joined its ranks in Syria alone.
One of them might be a failed rapper from London.

The British intelligence agency MI5 believes it’s identified the masked, English-accented man responsible for the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Far from the image the West once had of the terrorist in training– an impoverished boy growing up hungry in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan– this particular recruit reportedly came from a million-dollar London home likely equipped with Wi-Fi, computers and handheld devices. He may have been drawn to the Islamic State by the very same sites and applications he used to try launching a music career.

Other Islamic State recruits from the West have been identified by government security agencies as coming from well-to-do European families and middle-class American households — all places where the dream of a caliphate shouldn’t particularly resonate, all places where disenfranchisement from peers and connectivity through social media is part of daily life.

The man suspected by MI5 once sought attention by uploading his own amateur rap videos to YouTube. He posted under different monikers and on several social media sites, including SoundCloud. On his Facebook page last year, he reportedly wrote of his alcohol abuse and crack addiction. When the world didn’t pay much heed to the wanna-be rapper in a low-slung baseball cap, it appears he went looking elsewhere to make his mark.

The Islamic State did what he couldn’t. It made people pay attention through the vast tangle of the Internet. It was noticed above every other photo-posting, video-streaming, friend-amassing tweeter and Instagrammer. And that kind of multiplatform power can make a kid — or a militant group — appear more popular and powerful than they actually are.

AFP Photo/Jm Lopez

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