Salman Ahmad: Rock against extremism

The 'Muslim Bono', is in the UK with a striking message: make music, not war

By Jerome Taylor
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:22

There aren't many rock stars out there who have sold 30 million albums but can still walk the streets of London in obscurity. But then Salman Ahmad is no ordinary musician. Chances are most people in the West won't have heard of his group Junoon. Yet across the South Asian subcontinent, Ahmad's band is legendary.

Over the past two decades Junoon have played to millions of adoring fans across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in an area of the world where western music is often greeted with outright hostility among conservatives.

Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan where Junoon was formed. As legions of Saudi-trained scholars took over Pakistan's madrasas, teaching their students how all forms of art other than the recitation of the Qur'an is haram [forbidden], Junoon's popularity has stood out as one of many examples of how the Pakistani love affair with art continues unabated.

Ahmad, the band's founder and guitarist, could have opted for the life of your average rock star, watching the royalties pile up. Instead he has become a vociferous critic of Muslim extremists who have little issue with assassinating Islamic scholars, let alone musicians.

The 46-year-old is in Britain to try to hammer home an important message as part of a tour to promote his new biography, Rock'n'Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock star's Revolution. He wants Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stand up for the rights of artists in areas of the world where intolerant strands of religious dogma threaten to wipe away centuries of Islamic culture.

Among British Muslims the same arguments abound over what is permissible. One of the reasons rap is popular among a section of young Muslim artists, for instance, is because hip-hop can get around those interpretations of Islam that condemn singing.

But Ahmad wants to tell British Muslims that all forms of music are permitted as long as the message is pure. Last week he travelled to Oxford to speak to the university's union for Pakistani students. On graduation, many of them will eventually return to Pakistan and will have a sizeable say in the country's direction.

Ahmad is holding meetings with a group of influential Muslim bankers as well as touring some London mosques. He is also scheduled to play music at a mosque in Stratford which is run by Minhaj ul Qur'an, a prominent Pakistani Sufi organisation whose leader, Sheikh Tahir ul-Qadri, recently released a fatwa condemning all terrorism and suicide bombings.

"For the last 1,400 years there have been so many rich contributions towards culture from the Muslim community," said Ahmad who, with his ponytail, sunglasses and tunic looks like a Muslim version of Bono or Jimmy Page. "And yet I have always had to confront this minority view, from extremely conservative mullahs, who believe that music is haram."

In a world where the so-called "war on terror" is all too often fought with air strikes, the suggestion that art could somehow help turn the tide against militancy might seem whimsical. But people like Ahmad, himself a practising Muslim, and the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank made up of former Islamist extremists, believe that these "soft" approaches to countering violent Islamism play as vital a role in confronting intolerance.

"What extremists fear – and this is what arts have the power to do – is the opening up of people's minds," says Ahmad. "For people who want to control the social agenda, culture is a threat. When you look at Pakistan, 100 million of the 150 million people there are under the age of 18. The extremists know that and that's their target market. I remember once an imam told me ,'If thousands of kids started going to rock concerts, who would come to my khutbahs [sermons]?'"

For those who might think that Junoon is simply a western secular rock product foisted on Pakistan, think again. Their music is a blend of Led Zeppelin-esque rock, South Asian drum beats and Sufi poetry. The sex and drugs elements of rock'n'roll don't get a look in with Junoon's lyrics, which are closely aligned to the Qawwali devotional songs sung by mystic Sufis – songs that revolve around Allah's love for all things.

It was as a teen while living in New York that Ahmad first fell in love with rock'n'roll. After telling his parents that he wanted to become a rock star, the 18-year-old Ahmad was plucked out of high school and sent to study medicine back in Lahore. He arrived back in Pakistan in 1981 as the country's military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, was overseeing its Islam- ification, turning the nation away from its tolerant Sufi roots and steering it towards a Saudi-inspired religious society of austerity, intolerance and militant zeal. It probably wasn't the best atmosphere in which start up a rock band but Ahmad and his university friends were determined. "We organised a secret talent contest in the basement of a hotel," he said. "Anyone could come along."

Ahmad had been practising Eddie Van Halen's famously complex guitar solo "Eruption" and as he let rip on stage the screaming began. Youth members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic party which was initially a favourite of the Zia regime, had found out about the meeting and stormed into the room. As the women were covered up, one of the cadres went to work on Ahmad's guitar. "They completely Pete Townsended it," he said.

Ahmad went on to become Pakistan's most recognisable rock stars despite heavy resistance from militant clerics. "This extremist view decides, well if the West has it [music], we can't," Ahmad says. "They say that, because you wear jeans, or a ponytail, you must be westernised and therefore not a good Muslim. The way to counter that kind of debate is to to say, 'Hang on a minute; there were Muslims who had long hair 1,000 years ago, playing the oud [lute]. They were devout."

Since 11 September the band has been courted by the international community as some sort of interfaith flag bearers. They are more likely to rock diplomats at the UN Security Council than hordes of screaming fans in Delhi's Nehru Stadium, but that is something Ahmad is willing to countenance if it means he can show the world a different side to Islam.

"A terrorist is given centre stage on front page news every day," he says. "Those trying to do good in the Muslim world have a very limited voice."

Last month the band were asked to play a gig in New York's Times Square for Earthday. A week later, Faisal Shazhad, a 30-year-old Pakistani-American, is said to have parked an SUV laden with explosives in Times Square in a failed bombing which the Pakistani Taliban have since claimed. "The extremist doesn't even have successfully to detonate a bomb and he's an overnight rock star. Morons are being treated like heroes, which really pisses me off," says Ahmad.

What the world needs to do, he says, is be brave enough to confront extremism. "In a darkened room a piece of rope looks like a snake, doesn't it?" he asks. "But when you turn the lights on you see it's just a piece of rope. We need to turn the lights on."

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