Rock the Mullahs – Can heavy metal music help transform the Middle East?

Pink Floyd’s album The Wall takes on a whole new meaning when brought to life by an Arab metal band in Lebanon. Imagine 100,000 teens—Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Druze—headbanging in sync, pumping their fists in unison, screaming, “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!” even as another civil war, waged by their parents, threatens to tear their country apart yet again.

Welcome to the new Middle East, a region where, by some estimates, nearly half of the population is under the age of 25. This is a highly literate, politically sophisticated, technologically savvy, and globally plugged-in generation. It speaks English; it knows its way around the Internet; and, according to historian and part-time metal head Mark LeVine, it wants to rock.

LeVine, a professor at University of California, Irvine, has spent the last few years headbanging his way from Morocco to Pakistan and almost everywhere in between. The premise of his book about the Middle East’s underground music scene, Heavy Metal Islam, is simple. “To understand the peoples, cultures, and politics of the Muslim world today, especially the young people who are the majority of the citizens,” LeVine writes, “we need to follow the musicians and their fans as much as the mullahs and their followers.”

Follow them he does, and with all the dogged determination of a seasoned Grateful Dead fan. In Cairo, he rocks with Hate Suffocation, “the best death-metal band in Egypt, if not the Middle East and North Africa,” dancing along with a gaggle of screaming girls dressed in tight jeans, torn Iron Maiden T-shirts, and Islamic headscarves: Muhajababes, LeVine calls them. In Beirut, still “one of the world’s cutting-edge locations for dance music, hip-hop, and alternative rock,” he jams onstage with perhaps the biggest hard-rock band in the Middle East, The Kordz, as they rip through a set in front of thousands of Lebanese kids still reeling from the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Iran, he watches a gang of teenagers gathered illegally at a park for an impromptu rap battle in Persian, the beats echoing through someone’s mobile phone. When the dreaded basij, or morality police, show up, everyone scatters.

The danger of arrest, even execution, is real for these young metal heads, and not just in Iran. In Egypt, more than 100 people were arrested when pictures surfaced of a heavy metal concert where fans seemed to be carrying an upside-down cross. “Devil worship!” the Egyptian police cried, rounding up kids as young as 13 and throwing them in prison. In 2003, Moroccan authorities arrested 14 heavy metal musicians and fans and charged them with “shaking the foundations of Islam” and “attempting to convert a Muslim to another faith” with their music, as though heavy metal were a religion.

Yet these musicians and their fans continue to thrive in such authoritarian societies precisely because, as LeVine notes, this is the first generation to arise in the Middle East that has managed to tap into the promise of globalization. For example, when the pioneering Iranian heavy metal band O-Hum (Illusion), which blends hard rock and traditional Persian melodies with lyrics swiped from the famed 14th-century Sufi poet Hafez, released its first album, the album was, predictably, rejected by Iran’s Ministry of Culture. Iran’s draconian censorship laws allow the government to ban any music it deems offensive or un-Islamic. If a song has “too many riffs on electrical guitar” or if the musicians display “excessive stage movements,” then the CD is confiscated and the band prohibited from any public performances. But rather than surrender their album to the Ministry of Culture, O-Hum uploaded their songs on to the Internet and allowed fans—not just in Iran but throughout the world—to listen to the album for free.

The mullahs rightly fear the heavy metal scene in Iran because it reflects the mood of a volcanic youth culture fed up with religion and desperate for alternative ways of expressing itself. A member of Iran’s most popular metal band, Tarantist, tells LeVine, “Metal is in our blood. It’s not entertainment, it’s our pain, and also an antidote to the hypocrisy of religion that is injected into all of us from the moment we’re born.” One of the patriarchs of Morocco’s heavy metal scene, Reda Zine, puts it this way: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”

But can music contribute to cultural and political transformation in the region? It’s hardly the first time the question has arisen. Where Tom Stoppard, looking back at Eastern Europe’s revolt against Communism in Rock ‘n’ Roll, answered yes, LeVine is not so sure. The problem, as he sees it, is the failure of the politically active heavy metal scene and the more progressive yet entrenched Islamist opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to make common cause. Indeed, the two are more often in competition with each other, with the Islamists, many of whom have struggled for decades against their authoritarian regimes, fiercely antagonistic toward the young, politically minded metal heads who seem to enjoy a level of freedom that the Islamists could only dream of. A band like Hoba Hoba Spirit, Morocco’s insanely popular rock/reggae/African/post-punk rockers, can draw 100,000 kids to one of their concerts, whereas members of Morocco’s chief Islamist opposition party, the Justice and Spirituality Association, are prohibited by law from congregating in groups of more than three people. While Egypt’s most famous political prisoner, Ayman Nour, rots in a prison cell for his work promoting democracy, his teenage sons, Shady and Noor, are free to preach a watered-down version of their father’s message to thousands of Egyptians through their popular metal band, Bliss.

The animosity between the Islamists and the metal heads is partly a result of a generational divide and partly a matter of their differing political and cultural agendas. (The metal heads are hardly interested in building an Islamic state.) But the truth is that these two dissident groups who seem to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum have more in common than one would think: Both have similar aspirations to build a freer, more democratic society, and both have had their political views shaped by the same sense of despair and lack of opportunity that exists throughout the region.

And yet there seems little chance of a convergence between the two, though not because of an inherent conflict between religion and rock ‘n’ roll. As a Muslim sheikh in Lebanon proudly declares, “We’re doing heavy metal, too.” Rather, it is because the Islamists seem not yet ready to expand their political ideals to include activist kids who prefer Ozzy to Osama, while the metal heads are not yet willing to apply their music (and, more importantly, their credibility with the youth) to help the Islamists challenge their governments.

That is too bad. Because as we learned in Eastern Europe, music has the power to express ideas (especially subversive ideas) in a manner that mere words cannot; it can serve as a net to gather disparate elements together under a single identity and with a single purpose. LeVine imagines a day when the mutual mistrust between the metal heads and the Islamists will transform into cooperation, when they will fight the power together as one united oppositional force. But reading Heavy Metal Islam, one cannot help feeling that day is far away.


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