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Undergrad researcher examines music as an instrument of peace

Portrait of Bryan Tom
March 31, 2012

When Bryan Tom first came to Tempe from Tucson, he had no idea that he would end up spending a year studying the music of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Tom, an ASU undergraduate student in the Barrett Honors College, was primarily interested in China and had set his sights on ASU because of its Chinese Language Flagship Program.

As part of a State Department grant, Tom learned to speak Mandarin and studied abroad in Shanghai for a year. Upon his return, however, Tom’s interest in learning about other cultures led him to ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

The center serves as a hub to promote interdisciplinary research and education on the dynamics of religion and conflict, both nationally and globally. It aims to advance knowledge, deepen cross-cultural understanding, and promote a more peaceful world.

Both units are part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Lasting peace requires more than negotiations among leaders,” says Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. “Researchers working with the center study a wide variety of approaches to promoting peace.”

Tom participated in a project called “Finding Allies in the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse.” Directed by religious studies professor Mark Woodward, the project focuses on Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe to map the role that Muslim social, cultural, religious and political movements play in defeating Islamic extremism. Tom contributed by studying the role that music plays in promoting anti-extremist messages.

He found two basic types of music. Music with a “top-down” approach that has been commissioned by a government or non-government organization is very popular and easy to find. These organizations pay artists to write lyrics with themes that fit their goals. 

“A top-down approach is when an organization attempts to spur social change using top-down measures,” Tom says. “Essentially trying to change people’s attitudes through national policy, large-scale talks or through international organizations and institutions.”

The other type of music, known as the grassroots movement, is initiated by individual artists and was more difficult for Tom to find.

“Small organizations and neighborhood communities banding together in an attempt to spur social change” is how Tom describes grassroots movements.

Tom says that both types of music express counter-extremist themes, but the top-down lyrics tend to be more direct, whereas grassroots music provides more of a way of thinking than a straightforward message.

One leader of the grassroots approach is Ahmad Dhani, an Indonesian musician and songwriter.

“He was an individual that started independently in efforts to spread the word of peace through his music and gathered followers along the way,” Tom says. For example, his song “Laskar Cinta” means “Warriors of Love,” and is described as a “musical fatwa against religious hatred and terrorism.”

Diana Coleman, a graduate research assistant at the center and Tom’s mentor, said that his research was important to developing more knowledge on music in Islam.

“Ethnographic research overseas revealed a number of popular musical movements that were explicitly counter-extremist,” Coleman says. “More research was needed on this topic so Bryan provided background research on current debates about the permissibility of music in Islam.”

She explains that through his research, he tracked current trends of expression in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Europe, which included both traditional music and emerging genres like Muslim punk and rap.

“Grassroots music operates as a counter-extremist force in the Southeast Asian setting, and fits into the popular culture dimension of the overall project,” says Coleman.

Once Tom’s data was collected, the research team created surveys. These were distributed during Woodward’s recent travels to Southeast Asia, where he was conducting research for the overall project. The study involves site-based teams living in Europe, Africa and Asia, and includes researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropologists, religious and Islamic studies scholars, sociologists and political scientists.

“Since 9/11, the question [has been] ‘where are the moderate Muslims?’ This project is one of the first systematic effort to answer that question in key regions across the globe,” Coleman says.

In addition to focusing on Muslim movements that challenge violent extremism, researchers at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict study a variety of topics including international affairs; politics and gender; religion and generosity; and religion, science and the challenges of transhumanism. Both graduate and undergraduate students conduct research with faculty.

The center also sponsors an Undergraduate Research Fellows Program in which students have the opportunity to take a special seminar with the center’s director. The seminar includes students whose interests range from Arabic studies to economics to political science to humanities. The program also provides internship opportunities for students to work with faculty on their research projects.

Undergraduate students receive extensive mentorship and build relationships with both graduate students and professors. Tom says the center is like a small family and everyone continues to remain close even after the fellowship is over.

“I’ve stayed in touch with quite a few of the people from the research program and have that connection base now,” he says.

Coleman praised Tom for his personal enthusiasm towards his research and his colleagues.

“Bryan delved into the research for the Allies project with the same enthusiasm he brought to working on micro-loans, feeding the homeless, driving to Tucson for a younger sibling’s birthday or sporting event and interning at the Arizona legislature,” Coleman says. “Bryan is steeped in life, all around!”

Tom will graduate in December 2012 with a major in economics and minors in Mandarin and mathematics. He hopes to pursue a career in foreign relations. He said his dream is to work for the U.N. within their economic and social policy division or to become a foreign policy advisor in Asia.

When he came to ASU, Tom didn’t think the study of religion would be a big facet of his undergraduate education. He says his work with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict opened his eyes to issues he had never thought about before.

He has held internships with the State Department and USAID, working in economics.

“It’s amazing how much you have to take culture into context when shaping economic policy. The terms of agreements change based on people’s religious backgrounds. A lot of this comes from the moral values they grew up with,” he says, citing attitudes about debt as one example.

He is currently a Fulbright finalist. If he receives the funding he will return to China to study migrant labor.

He adds: “The center’s fellowship program really helped provide the framework for my research methodologies and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities it provided me.”

Story by Samantha Womer, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development’s Research Matters