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.
Reza Aslan is the author ofNo god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.