A couple of years ago, Mark LeVine, the occasionally blogging historian of the modern Middle East, published his latest book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, about the important heavy metal scene in the Middle East and related areas, a work which expanded on one of the examples in his previous book Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil. Both books are important for exploring the many faces of cultural globalization, and, in the case of Heavy Metal Islam, the role played by musical counterculture in debates within Muslim societies, especially among the children of the elites.
The book includes a quote from Moroccan heavy metal artist Reda Zine: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.” The genre’s often harsh lyrics blend well with the cynicism and anger toward society, politics, and the world generally that characterizes much of the Middle East. Whereas in the United States and Britain, heavy metal has been long unmoored from its roots in the economic woes of the 1970′s, in the Middle East it still retains them, and represents not just a form of entertainment frequently criticized by the more conservative establishment, but also a critique of that establishment and the world it governs.
Potential connections between heavy metal and political dissent came through most strongly in the chapter on Egypt, where I learned that Shady and Noor Noor, sons of Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Noor, were both known parts of their country’s heavy metal scene. The “potential” in that sentence is important, however, as in much of the book the artists seemed most interested in protecting their music and expression rather than moving into action beyond the expression. LeVine also frequently sought connections between metalheads and Islamists, with what seemed like little success.
In his conclusion, LeVine illustrates the potential he sees with an account of Istanbul’s Barisha Rock for Peace Festival, a sort of Turkish Woodstock which in 2007 drew around 150,000 fans. His conclusion:
“Luckily, the metal-heads, hip-hoppers, rockers, and punks of the Middle East are no longer alone. They not only have each other; helped by the Internet and an increasing number of international festivals of various sizes, the world is starting to listen to their music and their stories. A real dialogue between cultures and countries is emerging, one that will not be cowed by authoritarian governments, silences by war-crazed administrations, overshadowed by jihadi propagandists, or co-opted by multinational conglomerates. It is being conducted by young people around the world, on their terms, and if they’re lucky, it will be free of the stereotypes, prejudices, and conflicting interests that have doomed their elders’ conversations for generations…
“The fear, the violence, the hatred in the Middle East can seem deafening, but it’s still not loud enough to silence the voices of resistance. A generation after Twisted Sister’s 1984 smash hit, kids across the MENA are screaming, in English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Hebrew, Turkish, and French – online, onstage, and, however tentatively, on the streets – “We’re not gonna take it anymore.” It’s a message that used to resonate with Americans and Europeans. The sooner we rejoin the chorus, the sooner real peace, democracy, and reconciliation will be achieved – not just in the heartlands of the Muslim world, but in the heartlands of the West as well.
You can hear LeVine discussing the book’s topic here.
(Crossposted to my blog)