Mark LeVine's Heavy Metal Islam.
Mark LeVine's Heavy Metal Islam.
Reading between the lines.
July 28 2008 1:43 PM

Rock the Mullahs

Can heavy metal music help transform the Middle East?

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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.