SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Turkey has been ruled for more than a decade by a government led by Muslims who've sought to restore conservative values and behavior to a state that's long been run by a secular military elite. But one Imam is attracting a following among younger Turks for breaking that mold. He leads prayers in a small village mosque by day and by night he fronts a rock and roll band. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports the man now known as Turkey's rockin' Imam has also attracted the attention of religious authorities.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: At 42, Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer has a modest post as Imam for about 15 families in the village of Pinarbasi, near Turkey's Mediterranean coast. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find an Imam attracting attention across Turkey and beyond.
(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)
KENYON: Tuzer points to this online video which shows him calling the faithful to prayer and offering a Friday sermon to a small and mostly elderly audience. On a recent visit to Istanbul, Tuzer told NPR that eyebrows rose over the summer when he teamed up with a guitarist, drummer and bass player to form the band FiRock.
AHMET MUHSIN TUZER: (Through Translator) Rock, Sufi mysticism, psychedelic rock; it's a bit like Pink Floyd, We record sacred songs and originals. We want to embrace everyone, so we don't limit our music.
KENYON: Needless to say, some of the villagers were a bit nonplussed when they were invited to one of FiRock's first concerts, when the band sound favored energy over polish.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIROCK)
KENYON: Tuzer says the villagers don't really know what to make of his music, but they still support him. Since then the band has decided to record an album and the first single, "Come to God" tones things down from FiRock's live performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF "COME TO GOD" BY FIROCK)
KENYON: Turkey's conservative religious establishment, however, grew alarmed. In Turkey, all Imams are state employees paid by the Department of Religious Affairs, known informally as the Diyanet. A Diyanet official in nearby Antalya said an investigation was opened into Tuzer's activities to see if they were commercial, which is not allowed, but also to see if his music comports with the department's values.
Tuzer says he's not making money and there's nothing in his lyrics that could offend anyone. He says the reaction so far is 80 percent positive.
TUZER: (Through Translator) Islam has had a bad reputation and can seem like a frightening thing, but the people who send me messages say we like what you're doing. We need you for the enlightened future of Turkey. I got one letter from an atheist who said I respect what you do and support you. That was a big gift for me.
KENYON: Tuzer is used to testing boundaries. His wife Mara was a Christian when they married. She says she converted to Islam as she learned more of the mystic side of Sufism.
MARA: (Through Translator) The essence of Islam is love, I believe, and as I focus on mysticism, I became more attracted to it and I decided on my own to convert. There was no pressure.
KENYON: Along with the support, there have been some insults and even a few threats, but Tuzer says he believes in his message. Instead of worrying about the rules and restrictions or organized religion, find your own connection with God.
TUZER: (Through Translator) What I believe is that if the Prophet Mohammed was alive today, he would definitely approve of what I'm doing. What I do is try to create good feelings and good thoughts in people's minds. How can this be wrong? I don't think it's wrong.
KENYON: As the attention grows, Tuzer says he doesn't know what the future holds. He's modest but not shy. He says he'd like to record a duet with Madonna, known for her interest in the mystical side of Judaism. And it's still not clear whether any of the faithful in the village of Pinarbasi are aware that their Imam's heroes, in addition to the Prophet Mohammed, include Freddie Mercury and Pink Floyd.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News Istanbul.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)