In conversation with Pakistan’s leading rock star, Salman Ahmad, from rock band Junoon

With James Crabtree, Managing Editor of Prospect magazine

Wednesday 19th May, 2010

 

Introduction

Chair: James Crabtree

Last year, in an article I was writing for Prospect magazine, I stumbled across a band called Lal, who had written a song that had become an anthem to last year’s protest movements. From a basis of zero knowledge, I then became very interested. Not just in Pakistani music, but also in the interaction between music, social change and political change, and also the way that Pakistan’s media, and the media that’s viewed by its diaspora was changing so quickly. At the time, I’m sure somebody told me Lal, by virtue of this song, had become one of the biggest bands in Pakistan, but its only later I discovered that they’re nowhere near as popular as Salman Ahmad, our guest today.

Salman is the lead guitarist in a band called Junoon, who’ve been around for 19 years – the Pakistani U2 – and so it’s a genuine pleasure to have him here. For a discussion about using culture as a bridge between the West and Pakistan and Islam more generally, he has a particularly interesting background. He was born in Lahore but moved as a young man to New York, having gone to school in New York, having gone to his first rock concert (which was to go and see Led Zeppelin). He has since gone on not only to become a very successful musician but also, along with his wife, to venture into cultural work and also to use the power of this music for political ends doing concerts for the UN and, increasingly, to engage with the issue of how culture and Islam are portrayed today.

 

We will watch a short video of a documentary [from 5:05] in which Salman engaged with some religious thinkers in Pakistan, then I will moderate a short discussion in which we are interested in looking at how the attitudes of young people in Pakistan have changed from the time when Salman was younger to now; the role of arts and culture in combating extremism; and how you can use music as a bridge between Pakistan and the West.

 

In conversation

Salman

Thank you for having me. I want to thank Quilliam and Maajid, who I greatly admire for his courage, in speaking for what the vast majority of Muslims believe in: that you can be a Muslim and live in the modern world, and also that the extremists have been successful in defining a distorted version of Islam and Muslim culture in the 21st century.

My career is not only about writing good songs, but also about having to explain why, as a Muslim. The directors of the documentary (from which we just viewed a clip) got me to go across Pakistan with the question: what’s the role of music in Pakistani culture and Islam? Post 9/11 that culture is symbolic of the divide between the Muslim world and the West, which is a distorted prism through which to look at the world. I’m a practicing Muslim and I feel that my belief inspires my creativity as it has inspired hundreds of thousands of Muslim artists over the last fourteen hundred years. And unfortunately, because of these murderous thugs masquerading as holy men who pretend to speak on behalf of Islam, all that cultural heritage, innovation, and creativity is being blurred by violence and fear.

Chair

The music that you produce is a form of cultural dialogue. Did you find that when you were talking to the religious scholars that you got anywhere with persuading them that your music is legitimate, or were they unwavering?

Salman

When we went into the madrassa and the cameras were off, each one of those kids wanted to carry my guitar in (and to take a guitar into a madrassa is a ‘no no’ normally). They knew each one of the songs. They were asking me to play Junoon songs, but the moment the cameras turned on they went into pre-programmed speak saying that they knew nothing about music and they weren’t supposed to talk to musicians – whatever they were told to say. So a lot of these kids have been brainwashed by extremists.

There’s another clip in this film where we go to Peshawar, where I speak to a fire and brimstone preacher ‘Mullah Electricity’ who, for two and a half hours, argues that what I’m doing is haram (prohibited), that my pony tail is sinful, the guitar is sinful, my sandals sinful, and yet he doesn’t provide a single theological argument for why he considers this to be so. Until the end of that documentary, when everything is done, he says to me, I think you’re angry with me. I said no, I am the journalist with the questions, why should I be angry?

He said, “when you go to London, I want you to sing this”, and lo and behold after arguing against music and singing, he sings perfectly in key. He sings a spiritual verse and shocks all of us. And I said “wait a minute, you just sang perfectly in key, you didn’t just pick this up, you have a trained voice”, and he asked for the cameras to be turned off. He then said that when he was sixteen, he was a singer and a dancer. Seeing my bewilderment, he said “if thousands and thousands of people went to rock concerts, who would come to my sermons?” So it’s a fear of losing you gig, and you can expand that to the world-wide extremist movement – they’re afraid of losing their gig.

Chair

I’ve heard you in other interviews quoting the scriptures and the sayings of the Prophet to push back on these people, so was your decision to call your book Rock and Roll Jihad a conscious decision to try and reclaim that word from the extremists?

Salman

My publisher urged me not to use the word jihad because it would be harder to put this book out, and I said that’s exactly why I want to use the word. Since 9/11 and even before that, language and culture has been high-jacked by extremists. And in Muslim culture, jihad means to strive, to make an effort, to lift one’s self up, a method of self improvement, overcoming your ego. So I think it’s a case of identity theft. And what those terrorists did on 9/11 was not only high-jack those aeroplanes, but they also high-jacked Islam, and they high-jacked the Muslim community. So that now if you’re a Muslim, you don’t want to use the word jihad anymore. And I try to say that you have to celebrate your culture and heritage and stand up to the terrorists. So I feel there’s no clash between rock and roll, which in its best form is a symbol for social justice, freedom and peace, and jihad – which is finding a purpose in life.

Chair

When the video of the girl being beaten in the Swat valley first began to circulate on youtube, it had quite an effect on you and you decided to go to Pakistan to see what was happening. Could you talk about what you found there and what impact that had on you?

Salman

Well this was a video of a young girl being flogged whilst two Taliban were holding her down and fifty other men stood watching. It took place in the Swat valley, one of the most beautiful places on earth. A place I used to visit with my grandparents when I was seven years old, where women could move around freely, where you could play music and cricket, a place of culture. A great many Pakistani films were made in Swat, and to see that, and then see this dark version which is supposedly a ‘pure’, ‘Islamic’ version motivated me to go back to Pakistan, go across the country, talk to people, students, politicians, military men, writers and media people. And one of the TV stations in Pakistan had the c
ourage to run this video, and once it ran, there was instant condemnation by civil society in Pakistan.

People said “we don’t want our daughters, sisters and mothers to be treated like that.” And because we couldn’t do a concert in Pakistan due to the fear of terrorist attacks, I asked the UN Secretary-General if we could do a rock concert at the General Assembly to raise awareness about the three million IDPs who are being displaced by the conflict in the Swat Valley. I am proud to say that that concert would not have happened without the support of the Pakistani-American community and the Pakistani Diaspora, because they’re the ones who funded it. Arts and culture brings a range of people together, and in this sense they are mightier than the sword and that’s why I think we should use art and culture to fight extremism.

Chair

There’s a perception in the West that there’s a problem with Pakistani young people in particular. Did you find that the image of a radicalised youth was accurate, or did you find that this is a misrepresentation?

Salman

There’s no way I would’ve had a career in media had Pakistani youth been radicalised. Because their best chance of being radicalised is not now, but during the 80s. Pakistan was under military dictatorship for eleven years and General Zia-ul-Haq controlled everything, and that was prior to the internet. He controlled the college campuses through Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties and he controlled the media. It was like having the Taliban in power: no music on the radio, no music on TV, nowhere you could play concerts. Yet we started a counter-culture movement in those times and it was that that gave rise to pop and rock music in Pakistan. And today, you have a huge youth population in Pakistan; 100 million people out of 175 million are under the age of 18 and the extremists know that. That’s their target market, and they are reaching out to them with this distorted narrative of Islam. And yet through the centuries the group that has been successful in South Asia is the Sufis. They talk about their message through music, through poetry and through dance and theatre, and that’s what has always won people over.

Chair

Just to use your earlier experiences in Pakistan to put your political message in context, could you tell us what happened to your first guitar?

 

Salman

Well if you come from a Pakistani family you get two career choices: doctor or engineer. And when I told my parents that I wanted to become a guitar player, they sent me to Lahore to study medicine, as I was in New York at the time. And after 6 months in this military dictatorship, we students were about to lose our minds. So we decided to have a secret talent show off campus that was advertised by word of mouth. There were around 60 students attending and I got up on stage and started playing my guitar with my eyes closed. I heard screams so I thought that my peers we’re loving this. But what was actually happening was that the “music police” from Jamaat-e-Islami had found out about it and gate crashed. They began throwing things at the girls and one of them came up on stage and took my guitar and smashed it.

Chair

Also could you please explain who Jamaat-e-Islami  are for those who don’t know?

Salman

Yes, well when I say Jamaat-e-Islami, I mean their student wing. These are religious organisations that have absolutely no civil society following. Throughout their history they have never won more than 5% of the vote in Pakistani elections. So what they do is resort to intimidation and violence to suppress civil society. And their agenda isn’t religious, it’s control and power.

Chair

The situation in Pakistan couldn’t be more different from the one you grew up with a very vibrant media culture with MTV and music video channels. Has that been a positive development? Especially when extremist mullahs also have a platform to preach their brand of social and religious conservatism.  How has that changed for young people from when you were growing up?

Salman

Yes there’s more of an opportunity to get your voice heard now. But we have the war in Afghanistan and there’s a lot of political violence going on and if you want to take a snapshot of Pakistan now, you have to factor in that people are afraid. And yes, if civil society was supported and there was more freedom to talk on the airways, there would be a media tug of war between the talking heads on TV. But eventually the progressive voices would win, simply because there are many more of them and you can see that being reflected not only through the music but also the literature that is being written in Pakistan. So it’s interested that in the middle of this flux and chaos, writers and musicians and artists are expressing themselves. That’s why I keep saying rather than support governments and states and military dictatorships, civil society need to be supported in Pakistan, because social entrepreneurship is what is going to bring about change.

Chair

Regarding your nice phrase “arts and culture are mightier than the sword,” what would that involve, given the way you’re looking at this?

Salman

Well, I have both the Muslim side and the activist rock and roller side in me.  Artists like John Lennon started a peace movement. Similarly, social activism is a core principle in Islam and I think harnessing the power of music and the power of social advocacy to build a social movement from the grass roots up that looks to effect social change is the kind of movement that I’m talking about.

Chair

Do you see this as a peculiarly Pakistani phenomenon – that you have this fusion of modern rock, Qur’anic verses and poetry all brought together, which seems to have found a resonance with this combination of new and old, with the young people in Pakistan. Is that something peculiar to the country?

Salman

In the context of South Asia, India is renowned for the biggest pop culture such as Bollywood, but Pakistani pop culture is more rooted in societal change – women are singers, new bands are coming out. And my inspiration from all the new Pakistani artists out there is Nusrat Ali Khan, and what Nusrat Ali Khan showed was that you could be a traditional Muslim singer and also integrate successfully into the music industry. And it’s not specific to Pakistan. Youssi N’Dour is another name that comes to mind. You also have the Muslim Danish hip-hop band Outlandish. In the States there are a lot of African American Muslim rappers – Amir Suluman comes to mind. There’s a lot happening but the only problem is that the perception of the Muslim community and Islam in the world today is being defined by extremists.

Chair

Taken together do you think this is something that can help to give the broad mass of young people in Pakistan a form of expression or can it actually be used as a form of argument against the smaller number of extremists?

Salman

One of the poets who has great resonance not only in Pakistan but in India as well, is called Baba Bulleh Shah, a 17th century poet. He was in a madrassa, 21 years old, and he was going through the ablution, and he asked his teacher “what’s the point of washing my hands and my feet if my heart is not clean” and his teacher had no answer, so he realised that he had to find his answers through poetry. His poetry is not passive hippy poetry, it’s poetry of action, a faith-base
d community service. In his life time the extremists didn’t give him a burial, they hated him, he was a heretic to them. But who’s living today, being sung by rock and pop musicians? It’s Baba Bulleh Shah. So what I’m talking about is nothing new.

Chair

We’re sitting in the Quilliam Foundation, the leading institution in the UK for trying to find new and imaginative ways for combating extremism, their director is here, so you can tell them how, in that battle, could music and art and culture be used more effectively?

Salman

As an artist up till now, I’ve been forced to talk about issues regarding faith and culture, and how there is a theological colour to the work that I am doing. So when I heard of Maajid’s journey, that he was part of Hizb ut-Tahrir and he spent time in jail and that’s when he found out that this was a distortion of Islam, and that there are other people who are doing the same, that means that the message is getting through. And then a few weeks ago Dr Qadri made a fatwa, a 600 page religious ruling, which said that terrorism is not part of Islam, that there is a zero tolerance for suicide and the killing of innocents. So these voices are getting larger in number and more strident. And so that supports me in a big way.

 

Chair

 

You have an interesting perspective having lived in both Pakistan and America, and so many of the problems between the two nations come down to the perception of anti-Americanism on the one side and American imperialism on the other. How would you think about bridging this seemingly unbridgeable divide between Pakistan and America, in particular, and with the West in general?

 

Salman

 

The previous administration in the US did nothing to help communication. They could’ve reached out to the larger Muslim community and limited this violent extremist minority, but they just saw it as a natural clash between Islam and the West. And I have to say that the media did the same without doing any research. But now with the Obama administration there’s been great progress. His speech in Cairo was a hit song. It resonated in a huge way with the Muslim community, the phrases “mutual respect” and “mutual interest” really resonated with the Muslim world.

Chair

The Muslim populations in the US and the UK seem rather different, and I was wondering if you had any reflections on whether we in Britain have anything to learn from the relationship between Islam and the US?

Salman

It’s the same problem of communication – mutual interest and mutual respect. If the British Muslim community and the mainstream community pursue those principles, then all the paranoia and suspicion would end and people’s ideas could be illuminated.

 

Q&A

As a result of the Times Square bomb attempt, what has been the effect on the Pakistani community in the US and what do you think the bomber’s motivations were?

Pakistani immigration to the US really started in the in 1960s, and up until 9/11 they never really had to explain who they were and what their values were because it was assumed that if you were American, you had the same values and ideals as everyone else. After 9/11 and the various attempted attacks, that changed; especially with the ‘us and them’ rhetoric and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The extremists have also been successful in brainwashing young Muslims.

But why are these kids willing to go to Pakistan and learn this extremist ideology? I think it’s a failure of the Muslim community to teach its kids about Islam and the true meaning of jihad. I think there’s no authoritative voice in the Muslim community to talk about this. I also think there’s a failure in the media to research about the conflict, instead opting to present it as general Islamic terrorism.

 

How do you overcome the negativity towards your concerts and do you find that there are moderate voices that are against the method of using rock music to spread your message?

No. In February I went to Karachi to talk about why I wrote the book, and speaking to the young people there at the colleges I found great resonance in them to find solutions. I found no negativity against pop or rock music, people love music there. And despite all the terrorist attacks, cinemas were sold out for Avatar, they were sold out for a Bollywood movie called My Name Is Khan.

The negativity that’s coming out right now is from young people being frustrated because they cannot pursue or realise their dreams. And some of them get brainwashed and believe that the only way to be a hero is to blow yourself up. There’s no alternative being offered to people, which is why I say we need to support civil society and education.

 

I hope you are not making a distinction between your interpretation of Islam and the Islamist interpretation, because there may be an interpretation that is between yours and theirs which we should not overlook. Also, there is some discussion in Islamic literature as to whether there is good music and bad music. Do you think there is?

I don’t try to promote any interpretation of Islam, but as a practicing Muslim. I feel that Islam gives me the right to make my choices. If I’m not offending or forcing my opinion on somebody else, it gives me the right to live my life the way I see fit.

Regarding your second question, I think there’s a lot of wiggle room for you to find your space in it, whether it’s progressive or conservative. But what the extremists are doing is prohibiting music entirely and that’s wrong.

 

Closing remarks

 

Maajid Nawaz

 

Salman, thank you for coming. It’s an honour and a privilege to have you here. Your visit here comes in the long line of us trying to promote what we call alternative voices, voices that do not subscribe to the Islamist narrative. I think everyone can agree that everyone has the right to their religious interpretation but nobody has the right to force their opinion on others and that’s the true distinction that Salman makes and that we’re trying to make here at Quilliam. So as a think tank we don’t subscribe to any one denomination officially, even though we each have our own views. But as a think tank what we’re trying to say is leave the religious debate to flourish and no one has the right to change the law at the expense of the human rights of others, including the notion that music is haram. If someone doesn’t want to listen to music, they don’t have to listen to music. No one’s going to force it down their ears. Likewise Salman has the right to do what he does and people have the right to go and listen to him. So what we’re trying to do is get rid of the legal side of things where people seek to change the law and make it illegal, like the Taliban did. And in that light, the work we’re doing in Pakistan is trying to develop that social movement you were talking about in universities across the country and speak directly to the students to encourage civil society there to back this sort of initiative. We’ve got a name for the programme, it’s called Khudi, and we’ve got a website set up, it’s called www.khudipakistan.com.