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In fact, a young Iraqi Shii religious figure with whom I organized a panel with Zine last year explained that while he doesn't like metal as a style, "When we get together, chant, pump our fists, march, beat the drums fiercely, we're doing heavy metal too." What's most interesting here is that unlike metal artists in the U.S. or Europe, who haven't tended to be the most intellectual or activist artists around (think of Metallica joining the suit against Napster), and while hip-hop artists have become largely depoliticized since the late 1980s heyday of political rap, the most important rock and rap artists in the Muslim world are in fact well-educated and very political. Ahmad is a doctor, Zine is about to finish his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, and French-Lebanese rapper Clotaire-K is incredibly well-read and musically diverse. Iran's most famous rapper, Shahkar Binesh-Pajooh, is a professor of urban planning.
These artist-intellectuals mix Led Zeppelin, Santana, Public Enemy and even Ozzy with the great artists and styles of their cultures to produce music that is at once innovative and politically challenging. And unlike the Dixie Chicks (to whom great respect is owed), the risks they take in playing political music go far beyond a Clear Channel radio ban. The Moroccan government arrested more than a dozen local metal musicians and fans two years ago on charges they were satanists; the Iranian government has censored Binesh-Pajooh. But the rewards are as great as the risks, which is why they keep working to bring art, intellect and activism together in the space of great five-minute songs.
Ahmad ended one of our conversations by explaining that despite the official hostility between India and Pakistan, "People in both countries yearn for peace. The Indians saw a reflection of themselves in Junoon as we did in them, and music is providing the soundtrack for the peace process. The politicians and leaders have to pay attention to their young constituencies, since more than half of the 1.5 billion people in India/Pakistan are under the age of 25." He might have added this: the alternative to Junoon writing the soundtrack for the future is likely to be Osama bin Laden and George Bush, a duet we've all heard enough of in the past five years.
Dr. Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and author most recently of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005).
SALMAN AHMAD PERFORMS WITH HIS NEW INCARNATION OF JUNOON AT THE UC IRVINE STUDENT CENTER, CRYSTAL COVE AUDITORIUM, W. PELTASON AND PEREIRA, IRVINE, (949) 824-2419. WED., 6 P.M. FREE. A SCREENING OF THE ROCK STAR AND THE MULLAH AND DISCUSSION WILL FOLLOW.