Adrienne Toye paper

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Heavy Metal and the Fight Against Censorship in the Arab World

Heavy metal can be defined as a type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantastic imagery. This genre of music, derived from rock and roll and “glam rock”, emerged in the late 1960s with the establishment of bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and continued to establish a large audience through the years as bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden were formed. The rising popularity of this genre came from an increased requirement for young, white, blue-collar men (usually late teens to early twenties) to have an outlet for their frustration with conformity (such as acceptable behaviour and appearance). Violence has been greatly associated with heavy metal, but extremes such as Satan worship have also been placed hand-in-hand with heavy metal. The heavy metal goers have coined the term “metal heads” as their identification, whose appearances are usually characterized by black clothing, spiked jewelry, metal band t-shirts, long hair and often long facial hair. These appearances have gone further with subgenres of glam metal (eccentric clothing and makeup, such as the band Kiss), or even death metal (an extreme form of heavy metal, heavily rooted in the worship of Satan). There are an infinite amount of heavy metal subgenres, but for the present study I will be touching on heavy metal as a generalized subject.

Censorship, on the other hand, can be defined as the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing acceptable parts. Popular music has been placed under the scrutiny of censorship for many decades, but heavy metal is one genre that has been under the censorship restraint right from the get-go. Censorship has been a large issue in Western society (such as the PMRC in the 1980s), but this issue has been blown into a whole another category when it comes to looking at censorship of heavy metal in the Arab world. Music (in it’s most generalized element) on it’s own has been scrutinized by Islam and even prohibited, so we can begin to imagine the type of censorship that is placed on such an extremely violent, Satan worshipping genre such as heavy metal. Arab metal heads face much scrutiny in their society but have also been questioned, arrested, and even jailed. In the present study, I plan to address where these heavy metal scenes exist, how they have emerged in terms of access, what exactly heavy metal provides for its fans, to explore the reasons for sanctions against the metal heads in the Arab world, as well as reactions from heavy metal fans to this censorship. I also plan to compare this situation to that of censorship issues that emerged in North America in the 1980s, as well as profile specific cases of censorship of heavy metal in the Arab world with the help of documentary films. Censorship, whether direct or indirect, occurs in both mild and extreme cases, and truly affects the lives of these metal heads. I hope to find what the main reasons appear to be for censorship of heavy metal in the Arab world.

Heavy metal scenes are known to exist in the nations of Israel, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt. I also plan to look at a case of heavy metal in Baghdad, Iraq (from Moretti & Suroosh’s film, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, 2007). Iraq does not have a large metal scene, but there is one known metal band to exist in this region whose biography illustrates the extreme of censorship (both direct and indirect).

In terms of the emergence of heavy metal, the rise of the Internet (and more specifically websites such as YouTube) has single-handedly provided most of the access to this genre of music to metal heads in Arab nations. McFadyen & Dunn’s film, Global Metal (2008) provides an insight into issue (at 1:22:30). Metal heads in Dubai being interviewed here state that the Internet was their only means of accessing this music, as famous heavy metal band concerts and record sales were censored to extremes. The metal heads being interviewed state that they are “sorry to the bands,” (for pirating music on the Internet), but it was the only way that they could listen to heavy metal. Global Metal (2008) also established something revolutionary to the music industry – in an interview with Lars Ulrich of Metallica (at 1:23:00), Sam Dunn (anthropologist and narrator of the film) manages to get a statement from Ulrich that the illegal downloading of their music (being the reason why so many of their fans from Arab nations have been able to listen to Metallica) is a positive thing. This statement from Ulrich is revolutionary because when issues of music piracy (such as Napster) began in North America, Metallica lead the movement advocating against music piracy, and actually ended up suing some of their fans in the process. Here is a clip, the issues I addressed above start about 1:40 into this clip.

So what does heavy metal provide for its Arab fans? On one hand, it could be an outlet for youth to express their discontent with the government’s moralistic values that are constantly imposed on them. On another, heavy metal provides an escape for some of its fans. In Global Metal (2008), a fan explains that he chose heavy metal over the army – he did not want to be enlisted into the army, so decided to play in a band instead, claiming that he wanted to “travel the world and meet other people that like the same things that I like.” Aside from an outlet for frustration and an escape, however, there are two themes that turn up constantly when looking at the attraction of heavy metal to its fans: freedom and unity. The concluding quote from Sam Dunn in Global Metal (2008) embodies this concept perfectly:

“Although heavy metal may be part of the process of globalization, something unique is happening. Metal connects with people, regardless of their cultural, political, or religious backgrounds. And these people aren’t just absorbing metal from the West – they are transforming it, creating a new outlet they can’t find in their traditional cultures, and a voice to express their discontent with the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds them in their rapidly changing societies. For metal heads all across the globe, metal is more than music, more than an identity – metal is freedom, and together we are now a global tribe.” – Sam Dunn, Global Metal (2008)

This quote touches on the concept of heavy metal as an outlet for frustration, but ties everything together with freedom and unity (global tribe).

Levine (2008) also gives us insight into an Israeli band’s approach to heavy metal. He profiles the Israeli Oriental death-doom metal band Orphaned Land, interviewing their lead singer, Kobi Farhi. Levine describes Orphaned Land as “one of the most influential bands in the world metal scene”, and addressed that Farhi “believes that his music can help bring peace between Jews and Muslims” (Levine, 2008). Levine also addresses Salem as an extreme metal band that began Israel’s metal scene (receiving wide international acclaim such as making it onto regular rotation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball as one of the ten best up-and-coming metal bands in the world). Levine then goes on to argue that Salem and Orphaned Land “form the two poles of Israeli metal…while Salem was very nationalist and patriotic, for Orphaned Land, music has always been as sacred as land and territory” (Levine, 2008). This profile gives us a look at the non-violent aspects of heavy metal, this time a band is bringing forth ideas of peace and unity in a state with so much conflict.

Tremlett (2003) profiles Morocco’s satanic music trials, giving insight into the reasons for censorship and the types of sanctions that arise out of it. During these trials, fourteen Moroccan metal heads were jailed for “shaking the Muslim faith” (Tremlett, 2003). The metal heads were originally arrested for wearing “anti-Islamic” T-shirts – depicting death and the devil. Sentences from three months to a year were given out after these individuals were apparently found in possession of “a collection of diabolical CDs”, skeletons, skulls and cobras (Tremlett, 2003). The judge at the hearing argued that the fact that their lyrics were in English rather than Arabic were “suspicious”, while one defense lawyer spoke of the trial as a “witch-hunt aimed at pleasing Islamists.” Points from each side were argued about this trial: a conservative Islamic journal argued that these heavy metal supporters were a part of a movement to “encourage all forms of delinquency and alcohol which are ignored by the authorities” (Tremlett, 2003), while another defense lawyer argued that from this, Moroccan youth did not feel at home in their own nation, and that the judicial systems needed people that understood the youth culture from a relativistic perspective.

Music censorship in North America happened in the 1980s and was a widely known case across the continent. This involved the establishment of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in 1985, founded by Susan Baker (the wife of Secretary of State, James Baker) and Tipper Gore (the wife of Tennessee senator, Albert Gore). The intentions of the PMRC were to educated parents on the “dangerous” music that their children were being exposed to, such as objecting to lyrics, music videos, etc. Senate hearings were held, and eventually the PMRC reached an agreement with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to place this now quite familiar sticker on albums with “explicit” content (Lombardi, 1991):

In comparison to the censorship issues in the Arab world, this is a much less extreme form. Not only was the PMRC stemmed from a parent-organization (rather than directly from the government), the result was to just place a warning on albums – not an altogether prohibition of a music genre in a nation.

As we are living in a world that is dominated with social networking (such as Facebook), reactions against censorship of Heavy Metal in the Arab world on social networking sites can arguably be one of the most powerful reactions against it. The Facebook group, entitled “Against Heavy Metal Persecution in the Arab World” fosters 3,268 members and maintains the mission statement “our purpose is to raise awareness concerning the Persecution and Arrest of Heavy Metal Fans and Musicians…” The group acts as a site for Arab bands to be profiled, as well as instructions of how fans can help the spread of its purpose. An interesting asset to this group are its policies (included at the end), which include “no racism” and “no attacks on political or religious figures”. As the Arab world fosters so many different ideologies, it is more than likely that the heavy metal bands that exist within also have conflicting ideologies with each other (in lyrics). These policies are effective because they make an effort to promote unity among these different ideologies – it makes sure that different groups put aside their differences to better the cause of trying to rid the censorship of heavy metal in the Arab world.

Direct censorship is the most concrete form of censorship: a force directly imposing rules on something. There are many examples of direct censorship from both McFadyen & Dunn’s film, Global Metal (2008) and Moretti & Suroosh’s film, Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007). I will first look at Global Metal, starting with a quote from Nir Nakav of the band Salem. Nakav argues that the wrong thing is being censored in Israeli society, stating that “you realize that your reality is scarier than any demon you can summon” (at 1:09:00). Salem has been censored due to his band name’s association with witchcraft and demons, but Nakav makes the point that he is scared to walk down the street and have someone throw a bomb at him, and that he is not scared of a demon attacking him on the street. From this we can conclude that Nakav believes that forces are wasting their time on the censorship of heavy metal when they could be working on the censorship of civil war. Here is a clip from Global Metal (2008) that shows the entire section on Israel, including an interview with Kobi Fahri from Orphaned Land (mentioned above with Levine, 2008)

Dunn (2008) also tried to go to Iran to interview some musicians and metal heads about censorship, but was denied his visa (most likely due to his intentions of his visit), and therefore had to meet the most dedicated ones in Dubai. A clip from the film shows statements from fans about their encounters with censorship, including the complete restriction of the sale of CDs, metal t-shirts, posters, etc., being questioned by the religious police for having long hair and wearing Slayer t-shirts, and even extreme cases where metal heads were arrested, their heads shaved, and beaten because they were thought to be Satanists. A concert was actually held, but only with the rule that people had to remain seated, and head banging was prohibited (an action that could result in being arrested). A fan by the name of Armin makes the statement that the religious police consider heavy metal to be “anti-moralistic”, which is the main force behind all of the censorship in Iran (all at 1:17:30-1:20:40 in Global Metal). Here is a clip

The most extreme form of direct censorship that I came across was that in Moretti & Suroosh (2007) Heavy Metal in Baghdad. The film centers on the only metal band known to exist in Iraq, Acrassicauda (translates to “The Black Scorpion”). Acrassicauda had to “power their amps with gasoline and carry guns to their practice session” (Moretti & Suroosh, 2007). As Iraq does not have much of a metal scene, this film is more about the astonishment that Acrassicauda actually exists in a country with a full out civil war, instead of their talent (they are not as talented as the metal bands mentioned previously in this study). A clip from the film shows the band recalling a concert they played in the former regime under Saddam Hussein – there was a much larger audience at this time, but in order for the band to play, they were required by the government to play at least one song “for Saddam”. The band claimed that the song “wasn’t shit” but that the lyrics were terrible: “Follow our leader, Suddam Hussein/We’ll make them fall, we will drive them insane”. A band member then states “you know, just a bunch of fucking lies and shit…but you gotta do it anyway…like an Arabic saying we got: ‘to stay away from the devil, sing for him’” (all at 0:11:10-0:12:25 in Heavy Metal in Baghdad). This shows the extreme censorship that occurred at this concert in 2002, and the band’s dedication to play music despite the sacrifices they must make in their lyrics. With the growth of the civil war in Iraq, direct censorship still occurred but for different reasons: it was now almost impossible for the band to play shows because of the danger in Iraq. Acrassicauda plays a concert in 2005, but the only venue they could secure was a hotel banquet room, with a showing of less than fifty patrons. The censorship at this concert was direct in that concert-goers had a hard enough time getting into the building because of the way they were dressed (seen as dangerous because of their metal clothing). A fan addresses his frustration with the censorship in Baghdad with “if we cannot find some fun here, so where? Somebody answer me.” Here is a clip that shows a majority of the above

The censorship then proceeds to be indirect: the small turn-out is due to the fact that most of their fans were too afraid to come out of their homes or to be seen associated with the heavy metal music culture, and the show had to be finished by seven o’clock in the evening (to coincide with the city’s curfew). Later on in the film even more extreme forms of indirect censorship are shown: the band was only able to play six shows in five and a half years, their practice space was destroyed in one of the bombings in Baghdad. The band was simply unable to play music because of the war, it was no longer just about rules placed on them by a regime.

To conclude, it seems as though the rejection and censorship of heavy metal music in Arab nations is mainly about moralistic principles that the leaders carry, which conflict with the lyrics and behaviours associated with heavy metal. Indirect censorship (censorship not from political figures) does occur, but it seems as though it is mainly in extreme situations such as the one discussed above in Baghdad. The awareness of these restrictions are growing among metal heads across the globe, and movements are being made to help fight the cause.

Works Cited

Moretti, Eddy; Alvi, Suroosh. Heavy Metal in Baghdad. ViceFilms. 2007.

McFadyen, Scot; Dunn, Sam. Global Metal. Banger Productions. 2008.

Levin, Mark. 2008. Heavy Metal Islam. New York: Three Rivers Press

Lombardi, Victor. 1991. Music and Censorship. (retrieved November 16, 2010)

Tremlett, Giles. 2003. Moroccan judge jails metalheads. (retrieved November 16, 2010)