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Apr 25, 2005 3:44 am


Heavy Metal Islam?



At a conference I attended last week on democracy and globalized Islam I was asked to describe how Muslim ritual and worship has changed from the impact of globalization. The most obvious answer would have been to discuss the almost unprecedented step of Muslim women like Amina Wadud leading mixed prayers at Friday afternoon (juma') services only a week or so earlier, with men and women together following her lead and listening to her and a few other brave Muslim women scattered across the Dar al-Islam deliver sermons that will surely go down in Muslim history as marking an important evolutionary moment in the history of Islam—similar to the ordination of the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, in 1935 in Germany, or the first female pastor in various Protestant denominations.

But while (at least in some progressively minded mosques) a Muslim no longer needs a Y chromosome to lead Muslim men in prayer, the actual ritual of the prayer is not changing that much as far as I can tell. What is being challenged is the authority of the orthodox Muslim ulama, or officially trained religious scholars, whose monopoly on judging what is valid and acceptable Muslim belief and behavior has been increasingly challenged in the last generation from the Left and Right—from the lay terrorist "intellectuals" like bin Laden who have assumed the right to deliver fatwas ordering their co-religionists into jihad, to the members of "Muslim Wake Up," who are advocating a truly progressive transformation of their religion to meet the needs of a globalized world where the best instincts of all religions are continuously under threat by a corporate-led, consumer-driven societal paradigm that, whether in the US or Saudi heartlands, is strangely attracted to what the French scholar Olivier Roy describes as the "neo-fundamentalism" that characterizes Wahhabism and evangelical neoliberal Christianity alike.

But to truly understand the significance of this transformation, especially its progressive side, we need move behind looking at the rather narrow area of how Muslims pray or otherwise formally practice their faith, and instead like at how Muslim culture at large is changing. In other words, we need to explore Islam (and any religion for that matter) not just as cult but as culture too. But not culture the way culture warriors like Samuel Huntington, Bill Bennett and their intellectual and policy-making allies view it—as a stereotypical, slow moving and barely changing entity that houses the collected art, wisdom, and (especially for non-Western peoples) deficiencies of a society. Instead, especially in the global age, we need to see culture as something that is always changing, always in flux and always being performed by people for an audience (whether its people in the next pew checking out how you're praying or how much alms you're giving, or how nice you're dressing for church, to Others for whom the performance of your religious identity is an act of defiance that quite likely could be under surveillance by intelligence of law enforcement authorities. Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that all the world's a stage; this has never been truer than today.

Which brings me to the main point of this posting. If the world is a stage, then it's probably a good idea to follow the musicians as well as the mullahs. Here let's recall the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's crucial but under-utilized definition of religion as whatever is of "ultimate concern" to an individual. Money, sex, power, political ideology, love of God; all can be the basis of belief, rituals and practices that are in basic ways "religious." Viewed this way, for example, we can see the numerous Muslim heavy metal bands, many of whom have been attacked by governments in Egypt, Morocco, Iran and Pakistan for being "Satanists", as being expressions of contemporary Muslim life. Not just Muslim metal heads, but Muslim punks too are adding their (albeit still small) performances to an already densely crowded Muslim marquis. And then there are the Muslim hiphoppers and rappers, whether from Hollis, Queens, Beirut, or more recently Gaza City, are using the world's most popular musical idiom to shout out their faith and defy their political oppressors.

But it's not just the musicians that are worth looking at, although they're among the most fun to watch. On the other end of the spectrum are the Sufi Republicans of the Turkish Nurcu/Fetulleh Gulen movement, who are among the champions of Muslim neoliberalism precisely because it's a direct challenge to an overly powerful and militantly secular Turkish state; or what we can call the "Mecca Mall Muslims" who frequent the expensive Mecca Mall in Amman, Jordan, where women in their abayas can by the latest fashion from Benetton, decide if they want to order Sex and the City on Arabic Showtime over an expensive cappucino at a trendy bowling alley downstairs from an ultra-modern multiplex showing first run Hollywood films. (NB: very few Muslims in Jordan can actually afford to shop at the Mecca Mall, where the coffee costs something close to a day's wages for the city's working class.)

Or we can explore the "air-conditioned Islam" (so-called because it involves sitting in air-conditioned studios to watch famous lay TV preachers while the vast majority of Egyptians bake in the heat) of televangelists like Egypt's Amr Khaled, whose expensive suits, Oprah-like set, Elvis Presley-like magnetism and "wealth and conspicuous consumption are good" brand of Islam is closer in substance to the theology of American evangelicals like New Life ministries than to traditional Muslim teachings of modesty, humility and charity. Or we can watch a much sterner and stricter looking and sounding preacher on the next channel, exhorting viewers against all manner of un-Islamic activities while stock prices scroll across the bottom of the screen in Arabic.

Or we can look at the performance of the (seemingly) self-described lesbian-feminist Muslim TV host and author Irshad Manji, who's book "The Trouble with Islam" has turned her into a darling of the right-wing religious talk show circuit in the US, this despite the fact that most conservatives have big problems with lesbians, feminists and Muslims taken one at a time. Or we can listen to Nadia Yassine, the spokeswoman for the Justice and Spirituality Party of Morocco (whose two million plus followers make her among the most powerful Muslim women politicians in the world) begin a talk by quoting Chomsky and Lord Acton in the same paragraph as part of her arguments as to the imperialist pedigree of contemporary globalization and to the "fact" that Muslim men hijacked her religion almost as soon as Muhammad died and created the male-centered patriarchal norms that still dominate it today. Or we can scroll through the archives of Jihadist message boards and chat rooms and explore how some young Muslims, under cover of the web's (supposed) anonymity, argue over the best way to defeat the Great Satan—presumably still a bigger threat to the Ummah than the newest metal band from Damascus.

All these "performances," whether in print, on CDs or concert/club stages, or on TV, reflect Muslims living their faith, whether it's defined ultimately by playing rock in Casablanca or throwing rocks (and worse) in the Gaza Strip. These cultural expressions are especially important in the Middle East and larger Arab/Muslim world in the era of globalization because in fact the processes most identified with economic globalization—the growth in the world economy and trade, integration of financial markets, the rapid spread of advanced communications technology, the changing dynamics of production and increased investment by multinationals looking for cheap and pliable labor markets—have by and large bypassed the region. Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa are in general characterized by low growth, extremely low computer and internet usage, a lack of foreign direct investment in industrial production, and in general low integration into the world economy outside the oil and related sectors.

In this situation it is culture that primarily defines how Muslims experience and respond to globalization; which helps explain why even fairly well-off Muslims, like most of the 19 9/11 hijackers, still felt oppressed enough by the West to turn commuter jets in cruise missiles. But it also explains why for every young Muslim engineer inspired by Osama bin Laden and his henchmen there's a young Muslim guitar player being inspired by Hendrix and the great Syrian 'oud virtuoso Farid al-Atrash together. Perhaps this is why US soldiers and CIA interrogators have had so much trouble "breaking" detainees with the well-documented use of heavy metal to supposedly scare or shock them into submission. Guess what? Iraqis have heard of heavy metal! And judging from the faded movie posters around Baghdad, they're big fans of Sylvester Stallone too…

Ultimately, if it comes down to a battle between Ozzy and Osamah for the soul of Islam, my money's on Ozzy.


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Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2005

Because reality is always more interesting than mere speculation: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/10/arts/music/10chri.html


Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 4/26/2005

this is very interesting indeed. when i thought of the term 'heavy metal islam' i intended primarily heavy metal artists who happen to be muslim, not specifically religious muslim metal counterparts to the christian metal band Stryper and the more radical and racist white/aryan power bands. but there is such a thing as specifically religiously inspired muslim hiphop/rap, some of which is somewhat progressive, and some or much of whose attacks on the US, jews, etc., make NWA's "f**ck the police" seem conciliatory by comparison. i'm still searching for more examples of metal and punk bands from the arab/muslim world. any leads would be most welcome.

on the issue of whether the musical change evidences a larger cultural change, i think that the christian/white power metal in the US did mark/signify a cultural turn to the right and towards the kind of muscular, violent imagery-laden culture symbolized by the End of Days novels and other examples of some trends of contemporary fundamentalist christian popular culture in the US. in the arab/muslim world, the rise of this type of music indicates the power of globalization and the similar roles socially marginalized music playes in youth cultures across the globe--whether in the US, eastern europe or the middle east. just to cite one example, in the recent beirut protests musicians and artists were crucial to creating the culture of the protests.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/25/2005

..matter. It may not be a battle between Ozzy and Osama, as you put it, if the content of the lyrics of the new culture are substantially in line with Osama. I'm thinking of Amy Grant, and the various other Christian pop and rock (and yes, heavy metal and punk) bands in this country, not to mention the white power metal music: the music is, by itself, evidence of aesthetic change, but not necessarily fundamental cultural change.