Arabia's metal scene

Cannibal Corpse, Slayer or Iron Maiden - anyone? Mark LeVine, author of Heavy Metal Islam, on what he learned from the region's music fans.

Fans during the 5th annual Dubai Desert Rock Festival in Dubai, UAE, March 7, 2008. Zak Hussein/PA

REF al13AU-HeavuyMetal 13/08/08
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I was not a metal fan growing up. Sure, I had been into the great late 1960s and early 1970s groups from which metal had emerged - Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. But I came of age at the moment that MTV took over, and the brand of metal that grew up with it - "hair" or "glam" metal, epitomised by groups such as Mötley Crüe, Poison and Quiet Riot - seemed more about debauchery than building on the foundations of the ur-generation of heavy rock.

Indeed, while most of my friends either moved into hip-hop or tried to be the next Eddie Van Halen, there was something about the music of those seminal bands which drew me backwards in time: towards the blues, classical music, and, while I couldn't at first put my ears on it, what I gradually realised were the Arab roots of rock 'n' roll. The more deeply I delved into music, the more I understood the powerful links between black American music, hard rock and music from around the Muslim world, especially the Middle East and Africa. That same realisation also drove me to spend a decade getting a doctorate in Middle East studies.

Yet despite working with many Middle Eastern artists as a musician and researcher, I was shocked when I first heard about the metal scene while celebrating a friend's birthday in Fes, Morocco. If there could be such a thing as a Heavy Metal Islam, I thought, then perhaps the future was brighter than most observers of the Muslim world imagined less than a year after September 11. What quickly became clear, however, was that Muslim metal artists and their fans could teach us a lot about the realities of the Muslim world today: the imagination, openness, and often courage of the artists, fans, and many other young people I met across the region, from bloggers to religious activists, points to just how much more heterogenous and complex Muslim culture is than the peddlers of the clash of civilizations would have us believe.

Hair and glam metal never quite caught on in the Middle East. Instead, the harsher sound of death, doom and other forms of extreme metal won a growing following, with bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Death, Slayer and Iron Maiden banging heads across the region. The subjects they deal with - death, the futility of violence, the corruption of power - correspond well to the issues young Muslims confront today.

One of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene, the Sorbonne-trained Reda Zine, said, "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal." When you grow up in a region dominated by war, occupation, and political and social systems from which you feel marginalised, Britney Spears and Haifa Wehbe are just not going to cut it. More than a few Lebanese and Iranian friends have told me stories of how, growing up, blasting metal and hard rock on their headphones was one of the only ways they could drown out the sounds of war outside their windows.

The bleak urban landscape that shaped Black Sabbath's sound in late 1960s Birmingham, England was a product of the first pangs of global economic restructuring that would soon produce the angry sounds of punk and hip-hop in the de-industrialising cities of the UK and US. Less than a decade later the economic forces associated the "Washington Consensus" model of development, and heavy metal, had both arrived on the shores of the southern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Just how positive a force the music could be first jumped out to me when I attended the Dubai Desert Rock Festival in March 2007 with one of Egypt's leading metal musicians. As upwards of 20,000 fans streamed from all over the Muslim world and beyond into the field for the festival, my friend stared at the scene in amazement and said, "Finally, a real metal community". Coming from a country where metal artists and fans have largely been marginalised from mainstream society, the ability to "headbang" freely with throngs of fans from most every country in the Arab world and beyond was incredibly liberating. As the lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, told the crowd, "I know Dubai is the melting pot. Everybody is here. We have people from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Lebanon, Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, Australia, Wales, America, Canada, Kuwait. We have the whole world, just about, here tonight... And we'll be back."

It wasn't too long ago, however, that the future of heavy metal in the Muslim world looked bleak. In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were several "Satanic metal affairs" across the region, the most well-known of which occurred in Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. Musicians and fans were arrested and in some cases tried and convicted of being Satan worshippers. In Egypt, the 1997 affair pushed the scene underground for most of the next decade. But Morocco's 2003 affair had a very different ending, as metal fans and musicians organised such a popular protest that the verdicts were overturned.

In recent years, most governments have grown more tolerant of their countries' metal scenes, although the price of greater freedom has often been a growing depoliticisation. Government censorship is no longer much of an issue because of the internet (although in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ability to perform live is generally restricted), and most mainstream religious leaders have adopted a live-and-let-live approach to many elements of pop culture as long as they don't put out immoral or irreligious messages.

This is also true of hip-hop, which in recent years has become at least as popular as heavy metal. Much of the hip-hop is rapped in local languages, in contrast to most Arab metal's preference for English. While in the US rap has long had a lurid reputation similar to that of glam metal, the best Middle Eastern hip-hop has generally avoided these themes and focused on social commentary and occasionally political critique.

The main challenge to metal, hip-hop and other scenes is the growing power of Arab mega-entertainment companies such as Rotana, who have the resources and power to take over and homogenise any music scene. While heavy metal has thrived mostly in a "DIY" environment and artists are typically less interested in commercial success than being true to their sound, this could change as the number of bands, fans, and festivals featuring such groups grows.

One of the most interesting things about heavy metal in the Middle East is that the music and the communities it creates fulfil many of the same functions as activist religious (or "Islamist") movements across the region, especially as they involve young people. As a young Iraqi Shi'i scholar said, "I don't like metal; not because I think its haram (forbidden), but because it's not my kind of music. But when we get together chanting and marching, banging our fists against our chests and pumping them in the air, we're doing metal too."

Both extreme metal and seemingly extreme religion are outlets for anger, frustration and often hopelessness at the prospects for a better future. And both practices have the potential to transform these emotions into more positive identities. Indeed, the growing tolerance of metal and other genres by religious (or at least socially conservative) forces reflects the rise of an emerging generation of Islamist activists that has finally figured out, in the words of a 25-year old Muslim Brother in Cairo, that "only when I'm ready to fight for everyone's rights can I hope to have mine." Almost every religious activist under 40 I have met has answered with an emphatic "yes" when I've asked if one could be a metalhead and a good Muslim at the same time.

As the teenage musician sons of the jailed Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour put it, "We love to go to the mosque for Juma' (Friday afternoon) prayers for three hours and then go play black metal for four hours." While many people, including some young metal fans, believe that listening to any non-religious music is against Islamic law, more and more people are becoming familiar with the trained Islamist scholars who convincingly argue that music is not haram as long as it is not encouraging immoral or anti-religious thoughts or activities.

Growing cadres of both metalheads and progressive-minded young Islamists are searching for identities different than those offered by governments that often remain out of touch with the dreams their people and a monochrome globalisation - whether western or Arab-led - that is only interested in commodifying culture for profit. But for the most part, the two groups remain separated by a wide gulf, caused in good measure by lingering suspicion and the mainstream religious movement's support for crackdowns against metalheads in the last decade.

Today, the best exemplars of Middle Eastern metal and activist Islam are responding to their countries' problems by looking critically at their societies and leaders, trying to put out positive ideas, and creating communities that stand against hatred and oppression - whether from governments, extremist religious voices or external forces. Pakistan's supergroup Junoon have, for well over a decade, led a public campaign against corruption in Pakistan and for peaceful relations with India. The Palestinian-Israeli hip-hop group DAM rap their highly charged lyrics in Hebrew and Arabic to make sure the country's Jewish population pays attention to their critique of the status quo. Grassroots organisers of large festivals such as Barisa Rock for Peace in Istanbul and l'Boulevard in Casablanca have sacrificed large sums of corporate and government sponsorship over the years to retain the freedom to educate fans about important and often controversial political and social issues.

Both movements, which remain misunderstood in the Muslim world almost as much as in the West, reveal the diversity of contemporary Islam, reminding us that most generalisations falter on most Muslim countries' historical, political and cultural uniqueness. It's hard to overstate how important it is for the rest of us to understand this reality before the violence and hatred bringing the so-called western and Islamic "worlds" into conflict drown out even the loudest new soundtrack of the Middle East.

Heavy Metal Islam, by Mark LeVine, is published by Three Rivers Press.