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How Heavy Metal Is Working Its Way Into Islam

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How Heavy Metal Is Working Its Way Into Islam

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Music like heavy metal, punk, hip-hop and reggae — often voices of protest — are typically considered immoral in the Muslim world. But this music may also turn out to be the soundtrack of a revolution unfolding across that world, according to one author.

Mark LeVine, an author, musician and professor of Middle Eastern history, talks about the young generation of heavy metal fans in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Excerpt: 'Heavy Metal Islam'

Heavy Metal Islam Book Cover

The first time I heard the words "heavy metal" and "Islam" in the same sentence, I was confused, to say the least. It was around 5:00 p.m. on a hot July day in the city of Fes, Morocco in 2002. I was at the bar of the five-star Palais Jamai Hotel with a group of friends having a drink—and only one drink, considering they were about twenty-five dollars apiece—to celebrate a birthday. Out of nowhere the person sitting across from me described a punk performance he had seen not long before we met, in the city of Rabat.

"There are Muslim punks? In Morocco?" I asked him.

The idea of a young Moroccan with a mohawk and a Scottish kilt almost caused me to spill my drink.

"Of course," he replied. "And the metal scene here is good too." That the possibility of a Muslim heavy-metal scene came as a total surprise to me only underscored how much I still had to learn about Morocco, and the Muslim world more broadly, even after a dozen years studying, traveling, and living in it. If there could be such a thing as a Heavy Metal Islam, I thought, then perhaps the future was far brighter than most observers of the Muslim world imagined less than a year after September 11, 2001.

I shouldn't have been surprised at the notion of Muslim metalheads or punkers. Muslim history is full of characters and movements that seemed far out of the mainstream in their day, but that nevertheless helped bring about farreaching changes in their societies. As I nursed my drink, I contemplated the various musical, cultural, and political permutations that could be produced by combining Islam and hard rock. I began to wonder: What could Muslim metal artists and their fans teach us about the state of Islam today?

And so began a five-year journey across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Pakistan, with a dozen countries in between, in search of the artists, fans, and activists who make up the alternative music scenes of the Muslim world. My journey was long, and sometimes dangerous. But the more I traveled and the more musicians I met, the more I understood how much insight into Islam today could be gained by getting to know the artists who were working on what might seem to be the edges of their societies. Their imagination and openness to the world, and the courage of their convictions, remind us that Muslim and Western cultures are more heterogeneous, complex, and ultimately alike than the peddlers of the clash of civilizations, the war on terror, and unending jihad would have us believe.

It might seem counterintuitive to Americans, whose images of Islam and the contemporary Muslim world come largely from Fox or CNN, but an eighteen-year-old from Casablanca with spiked hair, or a twenty-year-old from Dubai wearing goth makeup, is as representative of the world of Islam today as the Muslims who look and act the way we expect them to. They can be just as radical, if not more so, in their religious beliefs and politics as their peers who spend their days in the mosque, madrasa, or even an al-Qa'eda training camp. In fact, if we think of what "radical" really means— to offer analyses or solutions that completely break with the existing frameworks for dealing with an issue or problem— then they are far more radical than are the supposed radicals of al-Qa'eda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, who are distinctly reactionary in their reliance on violence and conservatively grounded religious and political imaginations.

Reprinted from "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam" Copyright 2008 by Mark LeVine. Published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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