Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Ten questions for Mark LeVine on Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Three Rivers Press, 2008).

What inspired you to write Heavy Metal Islam? What sparked your interest?

There were three things that sparked my interest to write this book. The first was the shock of the discovery of such well developed metal scenes across the Muslim world. The first time I learned of the existence of such scenes, in an expensive hotel bar in Fes, Morocco, I realized that if the mixture of metal and Islam made me rethink my understanding of Islam and Muslim cultures after more than a decade studying, traveling and working around the Muslim world, it would be an even bigger shock to people who knew far less about them than I did.

The second reason I wanted to write this book was, quite frankly, that I was tired of spending all my time researching, writing and lecturing about war and violence. Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan—it gets pretty depressing after a while. And I knew from my experience that while these stories were important, it was as important to bring out the stories of artists as it was to tell the stories of the people we are used to hearing from: religious radicals, autocratic leaders, and the like. Indeed, even in the midst of violence, dictatorship, and social oppression there are vibrant cultural scenes around the Muslim world whose story is positive and often uplifting.

Most importantly, the many fans and artists whom I discuss in the book force us to understand not just that Islam in its many manifestations is far more complex than we imagined—indeed, one of the surprises in the book is that fans of death metal and their extremely religious peers are not all that different, and in some case are the very same people—but that Muslims aren’t all that different from “us.” And by seeing the similarities between us, it makes “us” question our self-perceptions, who we think we are. Once we’ve done that, real dialogue is possible. So the book is an attempt ultimately to encourage dialogue, especially between young people in the United States and the West more broadly, and in the Muslim world, where young people are by far the largest and most important demographic.

Finally, as much as I’m an academic, I’m also a musician. And it was an incredible experience to travel around the Muslim world meeting up with these great artists, and not just interviewing them, but recording and performing with them, whether in basements or huge festivals. I’ve forged many friendships that will last a lifetime.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The most important take-home message is that there are three intertwined struggles that are sadly continuing along tragically parallel paths. The first and most talked about struggle is that between Western governments and violent Muslim extremists who have declared war against the United States and its allies. That’s the one most people write, report on and read about. The second is taking place within the Muslim world, and surrounds how to reform authoritarian and corrupt political systems, underdeveloped economies, and outmoded religious discourses.

The third struggle is taking place within the United States and European countries, and centers on the debate, which is only now heating up, over how to move Western societies and their governments away from their grounding in a model based on unthinking consumption and towards a more sustainable vision of social organization, and through it, foreign and economic policies. For me, far too few people have stopped to consider how profoundly the third struggle impacts the first two. And the great thing about heavy metal, or hip-hop, punk and other “extreme” forms of music that we are accustomed to here, is that when you look at (and listen to) them in the context of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world, you realize that metal offers an important object lesson for all three struggles.

First, it reveals that the peoples and cultures presumed to be our adversaries, if not enemies, in the war on terror, are often more like us than we imagine. Second, it points to how complex and multifaceted are the struggles within Muslim societies about how best to move toward a more peaceful and democratic future.

And finally, the rise of metal across the Arab/Muslim world holds up a mirror to our own societies. After all, the focus on violence, corruption, suffocating hatred and the willingness blindly to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of corrupt but charismatic leaders is as relevant in the United States and Europe—where metal was born and its extreme narratives were shaped—as it is in the Muslim world, where it flowered not long after. If the music can encourage greater introspection among its young fans in the United States and increased communication and understanding between them and their counterparts in the Middle East, metal might one day be credited with helping to bring the war on terror to a peaceful resolution.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I wish I had the time and space to talk more about a few other countries, especially the metal scenes in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are fairly well developed and quite interesting. More broadly, I wish that I could have spent more time providing a deeper historical background for the events and experiences I was describing, but my editors felt strongly that the book needed to remain focused on the scene as it is today in order to keep the narrative flow and make it as accessible as possible. Judging by the final product, it was a good move, but the historian in me always wants to dig deeper and share that history as widely as possible.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

I would think the biggest one is that something as seemingly American or Western as heavy metal or hip-hop could not be equally “Muslim.” But the reality is that the Muslim world has been absorbing so-called foreign influences from the very first days of Islam, and music has always been at the forefront of such cross-cultural interaction. Indeed, rock’n’roll has been popular across the region since Elvis hit it big, and by the 1960s and early 1970s bands such as Morocco’s Variations (whose members were in fact Jews from the town of Fes) and the “Rolling Stones of Turkey,” Mogollar, were blending together Euro-American rock and indigenous, often religiously influenced music in new and innovative ways that anticipated the category of “world music” that in the 1980s came to identify such music.

But they never thought that were doing anything strange. It was the natural thing to do for musicians. In fact, it’s not just that American/European rock has influenced pop music in the Muslim world. The equation actually works the other way around as well: The “father of heavy metal guitar” is none other than the great surf guitarist Dick Dale, who was born to a Lebanese family and got his famous rapid-fire picking sound, and the modal scales he used that are now so embedded in the ears of every rock fan, from techniques and scales of the ‘oud and from the sounds of his family, who were musicians. Islam is also present in the deepest roots of American rock, from the music of African slaves which eventually produced blues and gospel music. And, since many of the slaves who sang the melodies that evolved into these styles were West African Muslims, their songs and melodies can be linked to the call to prayer and other African Islamic melodies.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wanted to write a book that would appeal to a broad, educated audience especially, but in no way limited to young people (that said, I’m still not sure where young ends and whatever comes next begins). Yet at the same time it was very important for me to produce a work that would be taken seriously as scholarship and would contain both information and analysis that was new, innovative and would be of interest to my colleagues, as well as to policy makers. Finally, I wanted to write a book that Muslims around the world, especially in the countries I discuss, would want to read. It’s amazing how ignorant people are around the Muslim world about their own music scenes, because of how they’ve been marganlized by governments and local media. So my hope was I could help put a more normal face on the musicians and scenes I discussed within their societies, as many of them still feel very ostracized.

Are you hoping just to inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

This book is supposed to be positive. I could have written it with the goal, if not of pissing off people, at least of provoking a lot of arguments or starting polemics with various writers or authorities. But there’s enough of that out there for the moment, I should think (including some of my own work, I’m the first to admit). I wanted to write a book that would work like a great song: it would make you feel good even if the subject matter isn’t always happy, and would stick in your head, and would make you want to hear—or read—more.

That said, judging by a few reactions, it seems that some people get very pissed off whenever you write anything positive about the Muslim world, or attempt to argue that it’s not that different from our own culture. Others get annoyed at the idea that anything useful can be gained in the middle of a war on terror from looking at something as seemingly trivial as heavy metal or hip-hop. But they’re missing the point entirely as these scenes contain important truths about the Muslim world that are crucial to achieving a healthy and peaceful resolution to the myriad conflicts, both between the Muslim world and the West/United States and, just as importantly, within the Muslim world as well.

What alternative title would you give the book?

There was never an alternative title. I knew the first moment I thought of the idea this would be the title, and when I snapped the photo of the young Kuwaiti woman in a hijab and Iron Maiden sweatshirt at the group’s first ever Arab world concert in Dubai back in March of 2007, I knew I was on to something special.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the cover. The production team did a great job, that’s for sure. I had wanted to have at least some kind of huge crowd shot from one of the festivals I’d been to in order to show the scale of the movement, but that would have made it too crowded. But the 16-page photo insert in the middle of the book has enough crowd and concert photos to get the idea across.

Is there a book out there you wish you’d written? Which One? Why?

I wish I could have been in Nietzsche’s head when he wrote Beyond Good and Evil or perhaps Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Discovering these books as a teenager totally changed the direction of my life. He was just so brutally honest and piercing and never backed down from taking intellectual risks, regardless of the cost. He wrote the way Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page played guitar—pure honesty, sometimes a bit sloppy or wandering off in a strange direction, but in the end brilliant and well worth the trip. Of course in the end Nietzsche went insane. Come to think of it, the New York Times Book Review called Heavy Metal Islam “moderately mad” (but in a good way), so I guess after five years and twenty trips to fifteen-odd countries perhaps a bit of Nietzsche rubbed off on me! Certainly it’s hard to imagine heavy metal without Nietzsche—who, let’s not forget, was a fan of Wagner, one of the progenitors of the metal sound, and yet was also extremely critical of his former mentor’s politics, which also embraces the metal aesthetic of brutal (self-) criticism.

What’s your next book?

I wish I could answer in the singular, but I’m in the middle of three projects (at least) right now. One the one hand, I have to get out a compilation album on EMI, Flowers in the Desert, that features many of the artists profiled in the book. This is a very important thing for me because I really want to allow people to hear the music and to help get greater recognition for the bands. A documentary is also in the early stages of filming.

As for books, my history of the Oslo peace process, titled An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989, will be published later this year by Zed Books. It is the first account of Oslo to situate it in the longer history of Palestine/Israel and the larger Middle East going back over a century. I have another book called Struggle and Survival in Israel/Palestine, coedited with UC San Diego professor Gershon Shafir, that is attempting to bring the voices and stories of everyday people from the two communities over the last century to the public without the filter of scholars or politically motivated commentators.

At the same time, I’m cowriting a book for UC Press on public spheres in the Muslim world with my good friend and colleague Armando Salvatore that is attempting to use case studies from across the region to illuminate and in some cases challenge the state of the art in scholarship on public sphere theory, which in recent years has been one of the fastest- growing fields of research in social science scholarship.

Finally, I’m just in the beginning phases of writing a book called Train to Nowhere: the Baghdad Railway and the Birth of the Modern Middle East, to be be published by Verso Books, that will use the history of the Berlin-Baghdad railway as a lens to explore the wider history of the Middle East. I’m very excited about this book because it brings me back into the archives I love, especially in Istanbul, Paris, and Baghdad—if there are any documents left to explore that haven’t been destroyed, looted or illegally taken out of the country by US forces. It will no doubt be very sad for me to return to Iraq given all the devastation that’s occurred since I was last there in 2004, but it will be good to see old friends. And in the end, making or reconnecting with friends in distant places is one of the greatest pleasures of being a scholar.