Heavy Metal Islam
This is not the Middle East that you know. Not the images we see on the national news and cable shows. Picture an eighteen-year-old Moroccan who loves Black Sabbath and Cannibal Corpse. A twenty-two-year-old rapper from the Gaza Strip. A young Lebanese singer who quotes Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
In Heavy Metal Islam (2008) Mark LeVine explores the incredibly vibrant alternative music scenes sweeping the region and bringing with it a new movement of peace and change in countries as diverse as Morocco, Iraq and Pakistan. Through interviews with musicians and fans, LeVine reveals young Muslims struggling to reconcile their religion with a passion for music and a desire for change. These are the risk-takers and revolutionaries, as much on the front lines of the culture war as the suicide bombers and Al-Qaeda martyrs.
Heavy metal, punk, hip-hop, and reggae are each the music of protest, and in many cases considered immoral in the Muslim world. This music may also turn out to be the soundtrack of a revolution unfolding across that world. A college professor and musician (who brought together latin rock sensation Ozomatli with Moroccan world music star Hassan Hakmoun on the Grammy winning 2005 Street Signs), Mark LeVine has direct access to the major players in the Islamic rock world, and to the region’s most important religious and political activists, and is able to reveal the change that’s taking place through the young people and the music community. Cutting through the governmental censors and religious restrictions, LeVine reveals a youth culture hungry for change and willing to risk freedom and even life for it.
Among the surprising observations are: rock, metal and hiphop festivals regular draw hundreds of thousands of fans each year across the region. Heavy metal and hip-hop have become central arenas for the struggles for social and political freedom across the Muslim world. Below the media radar, young religious and secular activists are using their shared love of metal and hip-hop to help break down the barriers that less than a decade ago saw senior officials call for the death penalty for metalheads, during a wave of “Satanic Metal affairs” across the region.
Iranian metal bands, driven underground, have attained wide popularity, despite a public ban on their music, Jordanian and Saudi fans of the Israeli death metal group Orphaned Land have had the band’s logo tattooed on their bodies. Many leading metal and rap artists in the region have MD, PhD, MBA, Law and other advanced degrees and are among the most politicized artists in the world. The teenage sons of jailed Egyptian presidential contender Ayman Nour, use their love of heavy metal to cope with their father’s imprisonment, and have become among the best metal musicians in Egypt.
Peshawar, the Taliban-infested capital of Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier Province, is home to a vibrant rock scene and the country’s best record shop. You haven’t experienced heavy metal till you’ve witnessed Iron Maiden play their anti-impieralist anthem “Trooper” in Dubai, in front of a crowd of 20,000 screaming Muslim metal heads, less than an hour’s flight from Iraq. The same forces that have led Ossama bin Laden to claim authority to issue fatwas have led young artists and activists to challenge the Quran’s supposed ban on most forms of music.The internet is considered the driving force of the emerging Muslim public sphere, but it is the real communities created by young musicians, fans and activists that are most fiercely pushing the boundaries of free expression and association across the Muslim world, despite the risks of arrest, imprisonment, and worse…
Why, despite governmental attempts to control and censor them, do musicians and fans keep playing and listening? Partly, of course, for the joy of self-expression, but also because, in this region, everything is political. The result is a revealing tour of contemporary Islamic culture through the evolving music scene in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Launching in tandem with an album produced by LeVine for EMI Music and a documentary now in production, HEAVY METAL ISLAM is a surprising, wildly entertaining foray into a historically authoritarian region where music just might be the true democratizing force.