Review of “Heavy Metal Islam” and a can of worms

LeVine, Mark. Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. 2008. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Bio of author from back cover of book: “Mark LeVine is a musician who has recorded and toured with acclaimed performers, including Mick Jagger, Dr. John, Ozomatli and Hassan Hakmoun. He is also a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California-Irvine, and holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies. Visit him at www.culturejamming.org.”

Description from back cover of book: “An eighteen-year-old Moroccan who loves Black Sabbath. A twenty-two-year-old rapper from the Gaza Strip. A Lebanese singer who quotes Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” They are as representative of the world of Islam today as the conservatives and extremists we see every night on the news. Heavy metal, punk, hip-hop, and reggae are each the music of protest, and in many cases considered immoral in the Muslim world. This music may also turn out to be the soundtrack of a revolution unfolding across that world.

Why, despite governmental attempts to control and censor them, do these musicians and fans keep playing and listening? Partly, of course, for the joy of self-expression, but also because, in this region, everything is political. In Heavy Metal Islam, Mark LeVine explores the influence of Western music on the Middle East through interviews with musicians and fans, introducing us young Muslims struggling to reconcile their religion with a passion for music and a desire for change. The result is a revealing tour of contemporary Islamic culture through the evolving music scene in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Heavy Metal Islam is a surprising, wildly entertaining foray into a historically authoritarian region where music just might be the true democratizing force.”

My review: Overall, I enjoyed this book and was impressed by Dr. LeVine’s research, insight, and writing style. He has explored and related the rock and hip-hop communities in six different countries of the “Muslim world,” detailing their reasons for their choice and taste in music, the people who support and oppose them, and the varying levels of politicism in their music and lifestyles. LeVine also spoke with religious leaders and teachers in most of these countries, showing that their social goals and motivations for them are often very similar to those of the musicians, but that their different means of achieving these goals and communicating their messages often contribute to mistrust or even hostility between the two groups. I thought that it was a very creative and important gesture for the author to do this, and I appreciate the way he compared and contrasted the two very different communities, exploring ways that they may work together someday, if they can overcome their differences. LeVine, along with many others, believes that the communal sharing of music and other cultural expressions can bring change and eventually build peace in the troubled region, if it is done correctly, possibly following the example of Eastern Europe.

The only real issue I have with this book is its title. Yes, the book is about the performance and consumption of heavy metal (and a bit of hip-hop and other music) in countries with large Muslim, or Muslim-majority, populations, but the connection between heavy metal and Islam itself is tenuous at best. LeVine demonstrates how the heavy metal culture speaks to people living in turbulent and/or repressive social and political situations, but not really how it relates to Islam. In my opinion, it really doesn’t relate to Islam any more than it does to any other religion, race, or cultural group. That’s the main title, and as for the subtitle, the heavy metal musicians discussed by LeVine don’t seem to be involved in the “Struggle for the Soul of Islam” at all, but in the struggle for a more egalitarian and tolerant socio-political atmosphere in which they can be themselves. But then, an eye-catching title like Heavy Metal Islam, especially when emblazoned over a picture of a young woman in an Iron Maiden t-shirt and black headscarf, gets your book noticed, and marketed in places like Barnes and Noble (where I found it), while a title like Heavy Metal in the Middle East might just get you a call number at your university’s library (see a few posts down, hee hee!). In fact, not all of the musicians interviewed by LeVine are even Muslim (some are Christian, Jewish, or even atheist). Of the ones that are, only a few of them are what we would call “practicing” Muslims. I also wondered why LeVine did not address the fact that Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and using vulgar language and gestures, all three of which were done by many of the musicians he discussed (but not by the practicing Muslims mentioned above, I don’t think), and by their fans. One of them even said things that were borderline blasphemous. I had been hoping that he would have asked some of the musicians why they choose to do these things when they are not difficult to avoid. When discussing a statement by a religious metalhead, LeVine says that he spoke of religion and music “without a hint of the internal conflict over their identities that plague so many of their musical comrades.” (99) I didn’t see any discussion of this “internal conflict” in the book, and I would like to.

As stated before, LeVine also spoke with religious leaders, and maybe that’s the reason for the title – showing the dichotomy between the two camps. Although most metalheads are not politically involved, and many of them steer clear of political topics for fear of arrest or worse, most wish for greater social freedoms and less corrupt governments, as do many religious movements in the same countries. When discussing the wishes of the Egyptian metalheads and the Muslim Brotherhood, LeVine states, “it’s not just that bringing these two groups from the opposite ends of Egyptian society together would win the day, it’s that such a process would act like a net, helping to bring other marginalized yet opposing groups together in the common struggle for democracy and economic equality.” (101) Some religious leaders support the more political and less vulgar musicians, saying “You deliver a message we can’t.” (129)

For the most part, I was impressed by LeVine’s treatment of gender issues, especially compared to many other writers. Beginning with the cover picture, he bunks the stereotype that women who wear a headscarf are all the same (either dull, uneducated, servile, and brainwashed, or seductive sirens waiting to be released from their cloth cages). He also discusses the extra obstacles (phobia of “the female voice,” double standards, etc) many women face in becoming involved in the music scene, which are similar to but more serious than the ones I discussed in my own thesis on popular Muslim music in the United States.

I’m not sure I completely understood LeVine’s take on globalization. Sometimes he portrays it as positive (introduction of heavy metal into the Middle East), sometimes as negative (scantily-clad people on TV). It is subjective, of course, and he has his own opinions on which aspects fall into the positive and negative columns, but here it seems to be related to elements that promote activism and grassroots efforts, and elements that promote increased commercialism. He is fair by pointing out that the instruments of globalization in the Middle East often do not come from “the West,” but from corporations in the gulf countries (full post on LeVine’s exposé of Rotana coming soon; I’m sure you’re all wanting to know how the heck the likes of Tamer Hosny ever became famous!), who like to use their big bucks to control what their poorer Arab neighbors watch on TV. I also like his contrast between “project identity” and the much weaker “resistance identity.” (269)

I appreciate LeVine’s relaxed yet professional, colorful, sometimes humorous writing style, and I enjoy hearing his perspective as a musician. As a musician himself, he is able to connect with those he interviews in a way that I cannot, at least not yet. Overall, this was an interesting read and a well-researched and written ethnography.

Now, as for the can of worms. As I was reading and thinking, many research-related issues came to mind, about which I plan to post soon. As a disclaimer, most of these have nothing to do with Dr. LeVine or his book, they just happened to come to my mind as I was thinking about research.

Here’s a review of the book by Reza Aslan.

5 responses to “Review of “Heavy Metal Islam” and a can of worms

  1. Thanks! Did you read the book too?

  2. Hey, If you want to ask any of these questions for Reza, feel free to leave them on our post. Also, we recently did an interview with Mark LeVine. Podcast available on the site. Thanks for the review.

  3. thanks for the very nice review of my book! just came across it. you might want to know that the album is finally coming out, and more information can be viewed at the website for the book and the album, http://flowers-in-the-desert.com. also, the documentary of the book is being filmed and will be out next year.

  4. Thanks for visiting! It sounds like the CD and documentary will be very interesting, and I’ll wait for them!

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