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Oct 12, 2005 5:38 am

Heavy Metal Islam and Us

If you were a Muslim artist, who would you fear more: your government, Islamists, or the free market? Judging by President Bush's recent speech at the National Endowment of Democracy, it's the fanatics of radical Islam, with undemocratic governments running a distant second. Yet however logical on the face of it, for the Muslim artists who participated in an extraordinary meeting organized by the anti-censorship group Free Muse last week in Beirut, the near unanimous answer was the market, not oppressive governments or religious zealots. The reasons for their choice offer important insights into what is motivating the unprecedented anger at the West, and US particularly, across the Muslim world today, and why neoliberal globalization has been seen as a threat to the their cultures and larger societies for at least a generation.

Traditionally, it has been states who have been the primary censors of artistic production in the Muslim world. Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and other Arab and/or Muslim states continue routinely to censor music they deem a threat to their country's--more often, the regime's--stability. But as several older artists at the conference reminisced nostalgically, state-sponsored censorship has always been fairly easy to get around. Cassette tapes, CDs, books and videos are small and easy to distribute clandestinely. Like the explicit lyrics sticker on some rock or rap records, official censorship is often a boon to an artist's popularity.

Today, as part of the tentative process of political liberalization, many states in the region have eased up on censoring music. But in response conservative religious forces have put increasing pressure on artists to conform to "acceptable" social norms, or even stop performing publicly at all.

As one of Egypt's chief censors explained, "I asked some of our biggest artists to challenge the law in court in order to overturn it; but they refused, fearing that religious forces would make any replacement law even more restrictive than the present one enacted decades ago."

The power of religious conservatives has led states of the region to go so far as launching absurd witch hunts on artists, particularly heavy metal bands and their fans. And so two years ago the Moroccan government arrested one of the conference participants along with a dozen other artists and fans for being Satan worshippers, even as it approved an American-sponsored Christian metal festival to curry favor with the Bush Administration. (The censors apparently didn't notice that the pentagram favored by Ozzy Osbourne also adorns the Moroccan flag.)

Yet while few Islamists are heavy metal fans, a growing body of religious thinkers are coming out against the idea that music is largely forbidden in Islam. Many, like the Hizbollah-aligned religious scholar at the meeting, are providing detailed theological arguments in support of the right to listen to and perform secular music, even if it's a style they don't personally approve of. And as one of Pakistan's biggest rock stars explained, even in his country's ultra-conservative madrasas, students and teachers alike admit to knowing his songs by heart, even as they condemn them publicly.

However tentative, space for dialog between artists and religious conservatives is opening. Perhaps that is why the one area where the assembled artists were most frightened about their future had to do with the burgeoning presence of "free market" forces across the region. Yet here it's not American (or other western corporations) that are the target of scorn and fear. Instead, it's the growing power of a handful of Arab conglomerates, such as the Saudi-owned Rotana Audiovisual--the self-described "largest producer and distributor of Arab music in the world"--that scare them.

In the last decade Rotana has achieved a strangle hold on creating and disseminating Arab music through its record labels and TV stations. As one Lebanese rock artist and record label manager explained, the company is so rich it doesn't need to follow normal business practices: "Their goal is to own every one and everything so they can force out smaller companies and completely control the business. They pay huge sums to sign even mediocre artists, so that independents like me simply cannot compete, even though for the same money I could produce five times as many artists, foster new sounds and styles, and recoup my investment."

Such practices are extremely dangerous because they stifle the kind of creativity and innovation that scholars and policy makers, particularly in the much-celebrated Arab Human Development Reports, define as crucial to economic and political development in the Muslim world. But it's not just about corporate control lowering artistic standards. With few alternative outlets, Rotana can and does censure artists whose music or politics threatens its business or those of the governments that it works with. And because of the level of its control over production and distribution, artists are finding it much harder to get around Rotana than around either autocratic regimes or close-minded religious forces.

However depressing the prospect of a Rotana-controlled Arab culture, its market dominance is opening new spaces for communication and collaboration between Muslim and Western artists, precisely because both face almost identical problems. As a leading American hiphop journalist explained after listening to the assembled artists' complaints: "In America the corporate media can censor artists far more effectively than the Government ever could hope to. And so few people know about or have heard the 105 anti-war songs done by hiphop artists since the Iraqi invasion; but everyone can sing the 105 songs featuring the n-word and violent and misogynistic language that flood most every radio station and video channel."

Common problems are generating common responses as artists across the globe use increasingly inexpensive technologies to produce and disseminate high quality music, often created and distributed virtually by artists thousands of miles apart. As I experienced first hand recording and performing with some of the artists at the conference, Islam's metal and hiphop artists are as well-versed in Western pop music and technologies as their counterparts in New York or London, but without losing a strong grounding in their own musical traditions. This is producing an innovative artistic culture whose impact is increasingly apparent as American, British and French artists seek out Arab/Muslim artists and producers as collaborators, and even muses.

It's one of the most positive aspects of globalization today that musicians from around the world increasingly scour other cultures for artistic inspiration. In so doing they consciously, yet effortlessly, mix together music styles (and through them, cultures) that even a decade or so ago were rarely brought together. Such culture jamming offers one of the best hopes for building trust and solidarity among cultures in the midst of a globalization increasingly defined by war and terrorism in the first years of the twenty-first century.

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