Islamism and Heavy Metal
Today’s influences of metal music working it’s way into Islam culture.
Very interesting read.
Today’s post is a guest blog from Mark LeVine, Professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal
Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Three Rivers Press/Random House)
By 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.
As one of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene, the Sorbonne-educated Reda Zine, explained to me when I first met him: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”
Middle Eastern metal isn’t merely an outlet for youthful frustration. It offers fans a sense of community, “affirming life” through its seemingly morbid focus on death, creating a space outside of government control to express identities that don’t conform to those sponsored or desired by undemocratic regimes and conservative religious establishments.
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.
Historically, Islamists and metalheads have been on opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum. Conservative religious establishments have supported and even encouraged crackdowns against the metal scenes in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran. In Egypt’s case, the Grand Mufti actually called for the death penalty for the hundred-plus metalheads arrested in 1997 in the region’s first full-blown “Satanic metal affair,” if the accused didn’t repent from their “apostasy.”
In fact, Middle Eastern metal was one of the first victims of such strategies of “repressive tolerance,” as the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse labeled the phenomenon. The charges have been risible; evidence included Chicago Bulls caps (the bull horns were said to represent Satan) and ashtrays in the shape of pentagrams (in Morocco, no less, where the pentagram is on the nation’s flag). But their impact was powerful. Indeed, musicians’ reactions to the Satanic metal incidents tell us a lot about how deep the authoritarian culture is embedded in particular countries.
In Lebanon and Iran, however, such episodes did little to dampen the enthusiasm for metal. In Morocco fans actually fought back, staging mass protests, playing concerts in front of courthouses, and pressuring the government until the verdicts were overturned. Indeed, heavy metal is responsible for perhaps the Arab World’s only successful civil protest movement in recent memory.
In recent years, most governments (with the exception of Iran and Saudi
Arabia) have grown more tolerant of their countries’ metal scenes, although the price of greater freedom to play metal has often been a growing de-politicization of inherently subversive subcultures. Some governments even co-sponsor metal festivals (with an even bigger stake being taken by Arab and Western multinational corporations, who have equally little interest in encouraging dissent.) This is occurring at the same time that governments are intensifying crackdowns on other movements, particularly against young activists from Islamist groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Morocco’s Justice and Spirituality movement.
Pitting two seemingly opposite poles of youth culture against each other is a time-tested strategy to divide and rule, but it’s worked well in this case because the memory of religious support for the crackdowns against them is still fresh in the minds of most metalheads. Indeed, the few times I’ve managed to bring metalheads and young Islamists together in the same room it has been the metalheads who’ve squirmed in their seats, anxious to leave, while the religious activists — many with the same biographies (college educated or MBAs, fluent in English and/or French, working in the IT sector) — were happy to stay and talk.
What is increasingly clear is that heavy metal is playing an important and potentially crucial role in a region still dominated by undemocratic governments that routinely arrest and even torture people for expressing political or social views that deviate from the prescribed norm.
Perhaps this is why the emerging generation of Islamist activists has become far more tolerant of their metal-loving peers than were their elders. With everyone facing the same struggles against authoritarianism, an increasing number of religiously motivated political activists has figured out that, in the words of a 25-year old Muslim Brother in Cairo, “Only when I’m ready to fight for everyone’s rights can I hope to have mine.” In fact, most every religious activist I’ve met under 40 has answered an emphatic “Yes”
when I’ve asked them if one could be a metalhead and a good Muslim at the same time.
This belief is supported by the reality that the majority of metalheads I know consider themselves good Muslims; many even pray five times a day. As the teenage musician sons of jailed Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour put it, “We love to go to the mosque for Juma’ (Friday afternoon) prayers for three hours and then go play black metal for four hours.”
Perhaps one reason for this dynamic is that the experiences and practices surrounding metal culture fulfill many of the same needs as religion. Sitting next to Reda Zine when he first told me why he loved metal was a young Iraqi Shia religious scholar, Sheikh Anwar, known as the “Elastic Sheikh” because of his willingness to combine western and Islamic ideas to better serve his Baghdad flock. As soon as Zine finished, he exclaimed, “I don’t like metal; not because I think it’s haram (forbidden), but because it’s not my kind of music. But when we get together chanting and marching, banging our fists against our chests and pumping them in the air, we’re doing metal, too.”
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.
Mark LeVine is Professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal
Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Three Rivers Press/Random House)