Tuesday, March 2, 2010

rock & roll jihad

A lot of the people who offer their opinions about the global political economy really know very little about the realities of people's lives or their beliefs. This is especially true when you consider the way in which Islam is often depicted in the mainstream media. The dominant image is the burka, a head to toe covering worn by women that a majority of people in Europe apparently want to see banned--even though in France, the principle country pushing for a ban, women that wear the burka number in the few thousands. The burka is a symbol of the oppressive medieval mind-set that many uninformed people associate with Islam. The word that strikes me that best describes this viewpoint is: monolithic. For it to be true in other religions, all the Christians of the world would have to share the narrow fundamentalism of the US religious right.

Modern Islam is, despite 30 years of the Shia Iranian Revolution, remarkably diverse and indeed pluralist. This came back to me with force when over the weekend I read Salman Ahmad's autobiography, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution. Salman Ahmand is the leader of Junoon (obsessive passion), Pakistan--and South Asia's--leading rock band. For many outsiders, the idea of a Pakistani believer wanting to play rock 'n roll would sound anathema. Not Ahmad. Born into an upper middle class family, Ahmad tells a compelling story of how his religious and social beliefs can be channelled through his electric guitar--much in the same way as U2's The Edge. More to the point, from his point of view, some of Junoon's music matches the best rock 'n roll the world has to offer, in its intensity and commitment.

Ahmad does not shy away from the contradictory politics of Pakistan, lambasting former dictator Zia-ul-Haq for attempting to impose his one-dimensional, Wahhabist vision on the country--a vision quite at odds with the views of the 'Pakistani street'. Ahmad continually reminded me of the tolerance and pluralism that pervades urban Pakistan, even as it is quite conservative--something that is too easy to forget in a world where caricatures are easier to depict in the mainstream media.

Ahmad's book shows how he creatively channels Sufism and the spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz into his music and his life, quoting at one point Faiz's poem 'Speak':

Speak, for your two lips are free
Speak, your tongue is still your own
This straight body still is yours
Speak, your life is still your own
Time enough is this brief hour
Until body and tongue lie dead
Speak, for truth is living yet
Speak whatever must be said

In reminding us of the need to speak the truth to power, Ahmad reminds us of our common humanity and the common challenges that we all confront. Read the book--it is a first-person account of a world that you will recognize, but which is not your own.

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