A Rock and Roll Jihad for the Soul of Pakistan

Sufi music represents spiritual kryptonite to the Taliban -- and it offers a fresh but ancient face of Islam to a West that is wary of invading hordes.
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The Taliban's forerunners stole the show from Salman Ahmad one evening two decades ago. He and a growing army of Pakistani artists and cultural leaders intend to take it back -- and in the process, to rescue their nation and renew the cultural vibrancy of their ancient heritage.

Ahmad's plan was to impress the audience at a talent show at his Pakistani college, by playing a spot-on version of Van Halen's legendary "Eruption." But militant students from the local madrasas managed to rock the crowd even more convincingly, erupting onto the stage, declaring music to be blasphemy and violently sacrificing Ahmad's Les Paul to the gods of intolerance. They even destroyed the drummer's kit for good measure. A little like the Who at their peak, just without amplifiers.

Ahmad was destined by heritage and by coursework to be a doctor, and he dutifully responded. Still, he loved music enough to decide later that guitars rather than stethoscopes would be his instrument of healing. He went on to help create what is known throughout South Asia and beyond as Sufi Rock, as his group Junoon persevered through bannings, wiretappings and intimidation to sell some 25 million records in India and Pakistan. Junoon proved along the way that culture and art can bridge hostile neighbors -- which is exactly what bothered their enemies, who exploit such divisions to maintain their own power.

Sufism represents spiritual kryptonite to the Taliban -- and it offers a fresh but ancient face of Islam to a West that is wary of invading hordes. Sufism is the tolerant, embracing and mystical form of Islam that influenced the Asian subcontinent during a thousand-year period of cultural and intellectual development. It unleashes a spirit of singing and dancing and celebration and unity, a spirit that threatens grim Talibaners at their core.

Mention Islam to typical native-born Americans, and they are likely, intentionally or unintentionally, to conjure up an image of Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. They would be surprised to find that the BBC has called a Muslim, Rumi, the most popular poet in America. Rumi speaks not of struggles against outer enemies, but against the inner jihad against anything that would keep the soul from loving God and others unconditionally. Where modern jihadists seem to be violent incarnations of agitation and self-doubt, Rumi asks the enlightened soul to "feel the artistry moving through and be silent."

The mystical traditions of Western and Eastern religions have powerful common denominators, but Sufism brings its own flavor of pleasure-loving mischief, calling as it does for the soul to become a drunken lover in communion with its Creator ("Junoon" itself means passion or obsession). It is not the stuff of violent wars, but of spirits that seek to place violence in subjection to the liberated human spirit. And it may offer a potion capable of curing the cancer that has staked a claim on a mass of the Muslim world.

The BBC recently examined Sufism's potential to play such a role in Pakistan, and has also noted the rise of Sufism in Iran, which that nation's leaders would obviously see as a threat. Sufism's potential is even expanded by its tendency to express itself in form of art and music that transport and transform the human spirit in ways that will not be subjected to despots.

This form of art is changing us in ways we don't even realize. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the late Sufi qawwali singer from Pakistan, enjoyed legions of fans throughout South Asia and even the West, collaborating with and mentoring artists ranging from Ahmad to Eddie Vedder.

Ahmad says his experience seeing Led Zeppelin perform in Madison Square in 1977 helped call him to a musical career, and that it also exposed him to the cultural collision of East and West (think of South-Asian and Middle-Eastern elements in "Kashmir," "Black Mountain Side" and Jimmy Page's eerie violin bow solos, and their trips to Morocco, and how such influences took center stage in Page's and Robert Plant's reunion in 1995). It's entirely possible that Zeppelin's desire and ability to bridge East and West made them so potent, in ways that would confound critics who initially dismissed them. As Ahmad himself wrote in the Huffington Post in 2007, "The band's music validated the belief of another hero of mine, the great Sufi Ibn al-Arabi, that only through a multitude of sources can universal harmony be achieved."

Ahmad would continue to combine sources and bridge worlds, in a way that put Western instrumentation in the service of indigenous arts. In much the same way, he believes Pakistan does not need to mimic the West as much as it needs to blend influences in a way that reinvents its ancient heritage within our new global context.

But he hardly believes that the arts and culture are sufficient for such a rescue operation: Hungry bellies cannot hear divine anthems. "Education, jobs and peace," he tells me, "are what I keep hearing about when I talk to Pakistanis." He says that Pakistanis must move effectively to deliver such basic services, as the Taliban has been winning converts by playing a Robin Hood role to fill the void that has not been addressed by a succession of dysfunctional governments.

Having served as a UN goodwill ambassador in past years, he now leads efforts to spur a Pakistani renaissance through both culture and commerce -- efforts that begin by mobilizing Pakistanis to seize their ownership stake in society and that encourage the West to play a secondary supporting role.

It is an ambitious and urgent venture, but he has allies who believe he's uniquely equipped to help Pakistanis steal back the stage from the Taliban. "He's been incredibly courageous in rejecting this false assumption that Pakistan would either be a military dictatorship or a fundamentalist theocracy," says Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at the University of Southern California and a colleague of Ahmad's. "That's allowed him to inspire millions of progressive kids in Pakistan."

Soni, a practicing Hindu who is impressed by the Muslim rocker's ability to gain popularity across the contentious Indian subcontinent, thinks of him "like a Bob Marley or a John Lennon -- someone who transcended superstar status to become a prophetic voice."

Ahmad, for his part, appears genuinely humble and self-effacing. "Left to myself," he says, "I'd just jam on the guitar all day" in his home outside Manhattan. But he is not being left to himself, for now, and he is able to summon a passion for the challenge that harkens back to the challenges he overcame to first perform his craft in Pakistan. "This is a great opportunity for Pakistan to reinvent itself," he says excitedly, which is most decidedly an act of putting a good spin on a lousy situation. But that is what leaders of significance do.

"Knowest thou not the beauty of thine own face?" asked Rumi, who is the source of lyrics for many of Junoon's songs. "Quit this temper that leads thee to war with thyself." It is this approach that appears to inform Ahmad, as he seeks to help Pakistanis renew a distinct culture that he sees as their ancient birthright -- a life-affirming culture that he believes cannot be silenced, just as the madrasas students could not silence his own love for music.

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