Looking for heavy metal in the Muslim world
From an author, linguist (of seven languages including Arabic and Persian), historian, journalist, musician and professor (of Middle Eastern history/culture, and Islamic studies - at the University of California-Irvine), Mark LeVine visited Pakistan recently, this year.
For research purposes regarding contemporary, Pakistani music and its significance on the general public (for his latest book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and Resistance Among Islam's Generation Next), LeVine had extremely insightful views and observations concerning Pakistan's current music set-up. In an interview with Instep, Mark shared his experiences and candid sentiments about contemporary music and it precarious status in the Muslim world.
By Sonya Rehman
Instep: Could you elaborate on what the basis for your research was on?
ML: My main reason was to understand the development of popular music and its relationship to the rest of society in Pakistan, especially heavy metal and other forms of hard rock.
One of my main areas of research is the conflicts that often occur between rock/metal musicians and conservative religious forces. In Pakistan this is a key issue, as conservatives (or radicals, as the case may be) have threatened to attack, and in some cases carried out attacks on stores that sell popular music, or venues that allow live music, etc. So I wanted to see how Pakistani musicians were coping with the situation and what could be done to help them.
Instep: What prompted you to get involved in a project such as this one?
ML: For me, music, especially seemingly marginalized music in the Middle East/Muslim world like heavy-metal or rap is actually a great prism to understand the larger dynamics of oppression, censorship, authoritarianism, etc. in society. 'Metal-heads' to me are a canary in the coal mine for testing the level of democracy and a functioning public sphere more broadly.
As goes heavy metal, so goes Pakistan, one could say. What I found, was extremely complex, confusing, paradoxical and ultimately hopeful. Yes, the Salafis are attacking artists and purveyors of popular culture/music - but at the same time, the vast majority of Pakistani's love popular culture and love their rock n' roll. I mean, in Pakistan there are almost a dozen music video channels and the music scene in terms of quality and originality is the best in the Muslim world, as far as I'm concerned.
Instep: Which Pakistani musicians did wind up meeting on your trip here, and what were their personal sentiments regarding this issue?
ML: I met Mekaal Hasan, Haroon, Arieb Azhar, Ali Rooh, Mizraab, Aaroh, Karavan, Akash, a few underground metal bands, and of course Salman Ahmed, who was a big help.
Basically, most of them don't want to be directly involved in politics these days because while they don't like the present government much, they feel it has at least allowed a flowering of popular music – which stands in sharp contrast to what the Salafis want to do.
Also, as many mentioned, it's not like the so-called democratically elected governments of Bhutto and Sharrif were any less corrupt or violent or oppressive than the present.
In fact, from a musician's perspective, Musharraf is better. What this shows me is that Musharraf's strategy of giving artists more room to work has been quite smart because now they have a stake in the system. So now it seems the government is not a major issue.
The main threat is the Salafis. Also important is that the music industry in Pakistan is so DYI. With the increasingly inexpensive recording technologies at peoples' disposal, any band can record a CD-quality demo, do a video for a couple of thousand dollars, send it to the local music channels, and if it clicks, they're famous.
This really changes the environment regarding censorship-related issues.
Instep: That's true, in Pakistan the music scene is very DYI – what's it like for Western artistes abroad though? What do foreign musicians need to do to 'get famous'?
ML: You know, I don't work with Western artistes anymore except through the world music artistes I work with. I think in terms of the recording technologies, yes, the same thing is happening - and it's amazing and represents a real democratization of the music industry.
But the difference is with the videos. It still costs a lot more in terms of labour to shoot a video…and then the idea of just sending your video to a music channel unsolicited, and knowing it'll be aired - seems a bit far-fetched. But that's the way it works in Pakistan.
Instep: Okay so honestly, what did you think of our country's music scenario?
ML: Well, there's certainly some cheesy pop music, but no worse than the Arab world or Iran. I think in terms of rock - not metal specifically, but rock and hard rock, Pakistan's is by far the best scene in the world right now to my ears, because it is so hybrid, it so effortlessly blends together the best of the rock tradition and of local Pakistani styles. From qawwali to classical Indian, and to tribal music. And bands in Pakistan even sing metal in Urdu, which is unheard of in the Arab world!
Instep: From your travels for research purposes, have you ever happened to encounter any band/musician that is a 'worst case' example of oppression in the Muslim world?
ML: I haven't met any musicians who've been killed or tortured in jail, although I'm certainly aware of people to whom this has happened. I guess Iran has been the worst, in that most every Metal-head I met (who had long hair) told me stories of being beaten, arrested and the like by police or Revolutionary Guards ('Basij') just for walking down the street with long hair.
In Egypt and Morocco I know many musicians who were arrested, and perhaps roughed up a bit, and in Lebanon I've met musicians who were brought in for questioning by the police because they were into metal music.
Instep: How can orthodox religion and heavy metal/rock reach a 'settlement' in your opinion?
ML: Well, probably 'orthodox' religion can't come to terms with metal, just as it can't come to terms with anything else besides its own interpretation of its religious tradition. That's the same for Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism, as for Islam.
But the reality is that all religions are very complex and diverse. That's why there is Christian metal, Islamic Hip-hop, etc. In terms of metal in the Middle East, the reality is that the Salafi types will never accept it unless they can use it as a tool for propaganda - in other words, if some metal kids wrote a death metal song supporting Al-Qaeda or something. But a whole new generation of Islamists has emerged that is much more culturally open and less concerned about policing people's musical habits than they are about fighting authoritarian regimes. Not to mention that many musicians are themselves religious, and, as one Egyptian Metal-head described it to me with a laugh, will "go to Juma prayers on Friday and then go play black metal for four hours", with his band.
As one young leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said to me when I asked him if one could be a good Muslim and a good Metal-head, he said: "We want to confront the regime - not to impose Shariah or wage jihad against the West or Israel - but to bring real democracy and social justice to Egypt and the region as a whole." He then continued, "Here's the thing I know: If I fight just for myself and my rights, then I'll never get them. Only if and when I'm ready to fight for everyone's rights can I hope to have my full rights as a religious Muslim in Egypt."
This is a radically different approach to politics than has traditionally existed among Islamists in the Muslim world, who haven't been too interested in the rights of other oppressed groups in their societies, particularly those that don't follow their conservative views on religion and morality. It's also an invitation to dialog which many secularists, especially artists, have been slow to accept. But that's a dangerous strategy because sooner or later authoritarian governments always go after artists, and they'll need all the allies they can get.
"I think in terms of rock - not metal specifically, but rock and hard rock, Pakistan's is by far the best scene in the world right now to my ears, because it is so hybrid, it so effortlessly blends together the best of the rock tradition and of local Pakistani styles. From qawwali to classical Indian, and to tribal music. And bands in Pakistan even sing metal in Urdu, which is unheard of in the Arab world!" - Mark LeVine