In 1982 British punk band The Clash released a song that still—after over 30 years—gets numerous daily radio plays. The song is “Rock the Casbah,” and just this mere mention of the title has the chorus pounding away at the inside of your skull. You can’t help it; you know you want to sing along with me:
First, the song’s lyrics are clever, funny, and memorable. But they’re also highly offensive to some listeners. But if the lyrics aren’t enough, watch the video above again. I’ll break it down.
The video begins with a man in traditional Arabian Peninsula garb wandering around. He spots The Clash through binoculars rockin’ out by a pumpjack, which is, ostensibly, in Texas. Somehow he’s transported to an obvious American highway where he hitches a ride with a Hasidic Jew driving a Lone Star Limo (Ok, we’re definitely in Texas now), jamming out to The Clash on the way to their destination. At some point they stop by a gas station, get liquor, eat hamburgers, and do some street dancing. They finally make their way to a Clash concert, where, drinks still in hand, they steal tickets from a scalper and crash the show.
The video is goofy and low budget, and it’s seemingly innocent… until you put it in context with the historical basis of the song and its lyrics.
In 1979, following a revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran, the incoming Ayatollah purportedly banned rock ‘n’ roll music in Iran because it offended Islam. A staunch conservative, Clash singer Joe Strummer wrote a satirical song, basically telling the Ayatollah to fuck off. The song purposely mocks Islam and is meant as a direct accusation against the sensitivities of an entire people who are offended by rock music on Islamic grounds.
Despite knowing the cultural differences between languages, it appears Strummer went out of his way to confuse them, as if he was lumping all Middle and South Eastern people together, adopting Hindu words, Turkish words, Arabic words, and even Hebrew words. It’s that last one that is the most striking. Using Hebrew words to make an accusation against Islam is pretty offensive to Muslims. When I lived in Lebanon, I had to be very careful not to use Hebrew or Yiddish loan words, even though they are very common in American English. When Strummer sings, “He thinks it’s not kosher,” he’s purposely trying to piss off Muslims.
The chorus is no better. The line “Shareef don’t like it” is an obvious jab at the Ayatollah, but it can easily be interpreted as “Sharia don’t like it”—in other words, fuck your Islamic laws.
Verse two begins with “By order of the prophet,” which identifies another target of the band’s accusations: The Prophet Muhammad. This verse also mocks Sharia law by pointing out that even Muslims will play rock ‘n’ roll no matter what the prophet says. The implication is that the prophet isn’t very powerful.
The third verse mocks Islamic prayer rituals and posits that most Muslims would rather be at a Clash concert than listening to the Adhan. This is probably not true, and this accusation could potentially be the most offensive one to many Muslims.
Finally, the last verse has the king ordering his air force to drop bombs “between the minarets” (so as not to kill the true Muslims) and kill all the bad Muslims who listen to rock music. This is a rather painful jab at both the Ayatollah and Sharia. Thankfully, the jet fighters tell the Ayatollah to fuck off and turn the radio to the rock station.
“Rock the Casbah” is a direct assault against Islam and its leaders.
But somehow it’s a celebrated song in the West. This, despite a politically correct movement to condemn cartoonists who draw Muhammad. You’d think we’d see a little consistency; if you’re going to criticize cartoonists who might only be drawing the prophet to make a point about free speech, then you should criticize The Clash and the hundreds of radio stations, movies, TV commercials, and cover artists who play “Rock the Casbah” because the song was written explicitly to piss off Muslims.
Don’t get me wrong; I love “Rock the Casbah,” and I’d condemn anyone who tried to get the song banned for the sake of someone’s feelings. I just can’t seem to get over this contradiction. We love one medium used for the sole purpose of offending someone, while condemning another medium used for the purposes of free speech or political statement.
On an aside, this post should not be taken to mean that I support last week’s anti-Muhammad biker rally in Arizona. That was a pretty block-headed move. Taking a protest against Islam in general to the doorstep of a random Mosque is only marginally better than the Westboro Baptist Church protesting a US soldier’s funeral. But then again, I don’t condemn them because free speech is a beautiful thing. Without it, how could we Rock the Casbah?