Thursday, August 07, 2008

Muslim metal headbangers versus the Islamists

Ok, so a bit of a tangent from Science & Religion, but there is an interesting new book out, Heavy Metal Islam, which talks about the popularity and cultural significance of heavy metal and rock in Muslim countries. The interesting observation is that these musicians are competing with the Islamists for the same crowd. This book has chapters on different countries, and Mark LeVine spends considerable time on the rock and metal scene in Pakistan. In fact he singles out Junoon and their brand of Sufi-rock (ha! yes, Sufi-rock) for shaping much of the current rock scene in the Muslim world. Junoon is in a semi-break-up mode (most of the music on the website now is by its founder and lead guitarist, Salman Ahmed, who also runs a sufi-rock website), but at its peak (mid-90's), it was very good and very creative. And yes, I did attend several of their concerts (both in Pakistan and in the US), including their first one in Karachi in...oh...I think in 1990. So, here is an article by the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Mark LeVine:

Heavy metal has had a more powerful and controversial appeal than perhaps any other element of Western culture that has taken hold in the Muslim world. It might seem strange that a genre of music long associated with sex, drugs and even Satan worship should be popular in Muslim countries. But heavy metal can't be reduced to the "hair" or "glam" metal epitomized by one-time MTV staple bands such as Motley Crue or Quiet Riot. Instead, the much harsher sound of death, doom and other forms of extreme metal are winning a growing following across the Muslim world.

This is partly because the subjects these and other extreme metal bands deal with - death without meaning, the futility of violence, the corruption of power - correspond well to the issues confronting hundreds of millions of young Muslims today, the majority of whom live under authoritarian governments in societies torn by inequality, underdevelopment and various types of violent conflict.

And here is the connection with the Islamists:

The characteristics that make metal increasingly popular across the Muslim world are the same qualities that have long made Islamist movements popular as well. And in a region with the world's highest percentage of young people (in many countries more than half of the population is under 25 years old) there is a huge constituency for the kind of community and solidarity that both metal and Islamist movements offer. In Morocco, for example, only two groups could bring 100,000 people into the streets: the rock band Hoba Hoba Spirit and the semi-illegal social-political religious organization, the Justice and Spirituality movement.

Certainly, the region's various religious movements have a far larger base of support than rock, metal, hip-hop or other forms of pop music, despite pop music's rapidly growing fan base. But with festivals in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai attracting tens of thousands of fans, and a growing list of music video channels catering to the youth demographic (Pakistan alone has upwards of a dozen 24-hour video channels), there's no doubt that rock music is playing an increasingly important role in shaping the identities and attitudes of young people around the Muslim world.

and of course, many of the motivations are the same and they are competing for the same crowds:

Salman Ahmed, a Pakistani rock star and founder of the genre of "Sufi rock," agreed, explaining that one of the reasons he's received death threats from hardcore Islamists in his country is precisely that "we're competing for the same crowd." As important, however, is his revelation that many of the mullahs who publicly lash out at his group, Junoon, ask him for autographs and admit to knowing the words to his songs when no one else is around.

Most interesting, more than a few times, it has turned out that today's twenty- or thirty-something Islamists were yesterday's teenage metalheads. And the transition from one subculture to the other was often not as jarring as one might imagine; nor did it involve a move from the fantasy violence of extreme metal to the real violence of al- Qa'eda, as apparently occurred when a metalhead from Orange County, California named Adam Gadahn converted to Islam, joined al-Qa'eda and became the infamous "Azzam the American," appearing in numerous propaganda videos for the group.

At its base, a growing cadre of both metalheads and the progressive-minded young Islamists are searching for alternative yet authentic identities to those offered by sclerotic and autocratic regimes and a monochrome globalization.

Ultimately, the best exemplars of Middle Eastern metal and of activist Islam share many attributes: they look critically at their societies, refusing unquestioningly to buy into the myths and shibboleths put forward by political or spiritual leaders; they are positive and forward-thinking rather than nihilistic or based solely on resistance; they create bonds of community that stand against state-sponsored repression; and they reveal the diversity of contemporary Islam.

Read the full article here. And of course, here is a sample from Junoon (this is from a concert at Central Park in the late 90s, and the song is a reinterpretation of an old Sufi poem):


Don said...

They sound pretty good. Next up, you should post a translation of those lyrics so I can know the words to what I'm listening to.

Don said...

Also, did you know that Salman Ahmad is performing with Pandit Chatterjee on the tabla at Smith on November 16th?

Salman Hameed said...

Next up, you should post a translation of those lyrics so I can know the words to what I'm listening to.

Oh crap. Hmmm...may be some parts of it after Saturday (yes, yes, almost done with the Islamic creationism chapter...)

Also, did you know that Salman Ahmad is performing with Pandit Chatterjee on the tabla at Smith on November 16th?

Great! I didn't know that. Will definitely check it out.

Matthew said...

I'm trying to imagine Slayer being popular in the Islamic world. And failing. Search for "Slayer" & "Disciple" on youtube, etc...

I'm pretty sure that record was insta-banned in most countries. (Ironically, it was released on September 11, 2001, too....)

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