THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUSTIN FOLEY INTERVIEWS HEAVY METAL ISLAM AUTHOR MARK LEVINE
Mark LeVine is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has spent the better part of his life trying to understand and teach about the Middle East and Muslim world. Part of this has been fueled by his interest in music – Mark is both a performer and fan of heavy metal (and other, lesser genres). This interest led Mark to write Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, a book that upends the simple “us vs. them” ideas about the Islamic world that tend to lead to things like war and death. The book’s stories and message have proven so compelling that a CD of the music covered – Flowers in the Desert – and an upcoming documentary continue to tell the story, as does Mark’s website.
I was able to grab an hour of Mark’s time over the phone on Friday. I peppered him with some questions around a topic that has plagued Americans for over a century – “What the hell is going on over in the Middle East?”
If I’m an Internet Troll in my basement who only thinks about the next Agoraphobic Nosebleed split, why should I care about what’s happening half a world away?
Well, if you’re an internet troll, you want to understand what role the internet is playing in this. It has been a very powerful tool, but not the tool that people think it is. There’s really been a misunderstanding about that. In the end, in Tunisia, people had to put their feet on the street in order for real change to happen. So the role of the internet is very hard to delineate, but these events show its the power and its limitation. These days the internet has become a necessary precondition for mobilization. But at a certain point, something more needs to happen.
Just look at what happened in Egypt. The protests actually got bigger after the internet got cut off. So I think the internet trolls could be helpful in helping to figure out what the role of the internet has been here.
You also have to think: in the US, what are people using the internet for? Here it’s online gaming, or social networking, or porn. There it’s to win freedom. It can be a tool for huge change or something much less powerful.
Beyond just the Internet, how is what’s happening there relevant?
People over there are revolting against the same system as the one we’re in. So it’s not something that’s “over there” politically or economically. The governments there are part of the same system as the one that we live in, and that our government has been supporting for over thirty years. Egypt remains a linchpin of that same strategy. And the revolt in the Arab world is a really response to the global financial crisis that started here in the United States with the banks. This economic disaster really, really hurt developing countries. In North Africa, you see food prices going up, jobs becoming scarce. [yawns]
Wait, are you taping this or transcribing it?
Good. Then you won’t have play back my yawns. I’m sorry about that — I’m not bored, but I’ve been up writing all night.
So the events happening over there right now show a level of interconnection that most of us don’t understand.
That being said, if someone’s really apathetic, this might not change their mind. People dying in the street for their freedom… if that doesn’t move you, nothing will.
So is this one big thing that’s happening, or are the different movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and other places better considered as separate events?
No, I think it’s a fair enough summary to see them as connected. All of these people are tired of living under oppressive regimes. And, really, what you’re seeing there actually comes in some ways from despair. There is just so little hope in the future. People are saying, “We don’t care any more, there’s nothing left to lose.”
So if it’s happening all over a whole region — from North Africa all the way over to Syria – then it’s a larger systemic problem. It’s a system with a particular number of autocratic rules and a well-educated opposition movement. It is certainly more than just a couple of isolated incidents. There’s something that’s happening with young people being able to share this things together.
Over here in the United States, we have a population where people are apathetic, less willing to change. But as bad as things are here, you don’t have 40% of Americans living on 2$ a day. Most folks don’t know what it’s like for the average Egyptian to live. But part of this is our own support for this corrupt regime.
I think, I hope, that folks with a conscience will see this and want to do something in their own way. They’ll at least want to help convince our government to change who we’re supporting in that part of the world.
Have you been in contact with any of the bands in Egypt while this is going on, like Hate Eternal?
First off, Hate Eternal changed their name to Scarab a few years ago. So they’re called Scarab.
But it’s been hard to get in touch with anyone because everyone’s on the streets. We had a film crew filming right now, and I’m hoping to be in contact with them soon to find out what they know. I was trying to get over to Cairo myself but wasn’t able to make it happen.
But if you were to go to YouTube and look for any of the videos of these bands like Scarab, Beyond East, Dark Philosophy, or IdleMind, suddenly the music makes more sense. I think about one of the things that one of the founders of the Moroccan Metal movement told me: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.. And when you look at the pictures of what’s happening there now, you can see what that means. I mean, if the music is powerful for people in the US, imagine what it’s like for people over there.
My question is — and this is part of the reason why I’m trying to get there — “How are these experiences going to impact the music that people are making?” If this aggressive music stirs feelings of violence or euphoria, if Egypt becomes democratic, will the relevance of that stuff change because they don’t think that they don’t need this type of music? This is all a while down the road, but will people in a more democratic Egypt only want to listen to Arab pop music? I’m sure that some of these people will look back and say “I remember during the revolution, I was listening to Slayer at night.” On the other hand, the people there may be seeing a much more open system. I wonder, does this lead to a cultural opening?
If heavy music is self-identified outsider music, how is that experience of being an outsider metal head different for people in Cairo or Beirut?
Well, over there being an outsider has a much higher level of risk. It leads to social, economic, political marginalization. It’s a much more serious level of outside identification. In that world the choice to be a metalhead has a much greater level of meaning, it’s much more serious.
How is it the same?
Well, the roots of heavy metal are much more working class. And here I’m not talking about the glam or hair metal that I think really misses the point. But if you go back to Sabbath coming out of Birmingham, at a time when that city was really dying… you had Tony Iommi saying “the place was like shit.” And this is my point – there’s a reason why HM sounded like it did, or why punk sounded like it did or why early hip hop sounded like it did. It’s a reason why this stuff is popular in places where there’s economic hardship. And that’s an important difference that’s more than just “youthful rebellion” in the US or rich Scanadavian teens who are feeding a nihilism.
I mean, in the Islamic world, even if people like black metal, they’re listening to it for the music but not the words. In lots of ways it’s like a lot of hip hop – people don’t like “bitches” and “hos,” but there’s another message they’re hearing. And the music is aesthetically embedded with this stuff.
If you read the book, you do know that there are people who are outsiders. Take the guy Mars from Hate Suffocation: he’s the son of a general, he got exposed to metal by living in Poland while his family was stationed there, he’s upper middle class. But there are people of a certain psychology who get into the music. And in two words, he creates this great band that’s one of the best names I ever heard. It summarizes in two words to the story of Egypt – suffocating from hate. And so he has the courage to display how he feels. It shows how metalheads are willing to put it all on the line in these places.
That’s really interesting, the idea that the music really needs to be aggressive like that. I think of a band like Fugazi, who were both a political/ethical force and artists with a clear vision. What you’re saying is that there was a necessary connection between their aggressive, angry music and the things that fueled their politics. That the connection isn’t a coincidence.
That’s exactly the point that I’m trying to make. You can’t separate it. And that is why the music is so powerful.
Now, it would be quite unfair to say that the connection is airtight. I don’t want to reduce the power behind this music it to just economic or political things. These songs can be listened to by soldiers going into war. Or folks ready to blast it to captive prisoners. Or by someone who is throwing rocks and bricks in a protest. The anger that it reflects, the aesthetic energy of it, can go a million different ways.
In the Islamic world it’s going to be a certain type of kid: politically aware but very possibly working class or poor. And over there, religion isn’t an element. Or I should say – anti-religion isn’t an element of it. These people are no more secular than others, and in fact some are very religious. It’s not a disconnect for them, because music is a very religious thing anyway. So some of them are very religious. Metal – because of its association with Ozzy biting the head off of a bat, metal got a bad rap in the Islamic world. In some places all metal became thought of is satanic (even though that association is meaningless in the middle east). So, as I said, even if they like black metal aesthetically, they’re not singing along for the satanic lyrics.
I mean, it’s one thing for the Norwegian kids in Norway to decide that they’re going to recreate some idea of a past pagan reality, but as you say from Egypt this week, they still have a pharaoh. They don’t have the time to play pretend and recreate their past. In many ways, they’re still living it.
What’s the best Black Sabbath record?
I gotta go with Master of Reality. Bill Ward’s drumming, especially, is so beautiful and complex. Either Master of Reality or Paranoid – I actually have a hard time separating the two of them in my head. And those are actually the funkiest Sabbath record.
No, no, there was a moment in ’72 when Black Sabbath was kind of funky. And that made sense, because they were good friends with Zeppelin. From there, Black Sabbath went much more straightforward and Zeppelin really stayed more with that funk influence. But there’s some amazing grooves on those records that, to me, makes the music still relevant to me. I still really enjoy listening to them.
Mark LeVine lives in California with his family. His Wikipedia page says that he speaks EIGHT LANGUAGES and I believe it. Buy Heavy Metal Islam here.
Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program. Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now. Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com. All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ and monetary policy will be answered first.