As the religious right all over the world impinges upon cultural freedom, a BBC documentary follows rock star Salman Ahmed of the Pakistani band Junoon into northwest Pakistan, where the mullahs have banned and silenced all music as un-Islamic
English, and with sub-titles, 48 mins.
Directed by Angus Macqueen and Ruhi Hamid
Produced by Storyville Films for BBC
Screened as part of the Tri-Continental Film Festival at various locations in India
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This extremely focussed and direct film asks us to look at the growing power of the religious right to control cultural events and cultural production. The film is set in Pakistan and follows the rock star, Salman Ahmed, member of the immensely popular and talented rock band Junoon, as he tries to understand why the mullahs in Peshawar have banned music for being un-Islamic. A simple quest and an equally simple question, but the simple, unequivocal answers provided by the mullahs have complex antecedents and rather dire consequences.
Since an alliance of Islamic fundamentalist parties came to power in the northwest of Pakistan , music has been silenced under the imposition of Koranic law in the province. Music shops have been emptied and their owners promised other employment. Traditional singers, too, have faced the wrath of the mullahs in Peshawar , despite the fact that often, their songs are devotional in content.
Ahmed presents himself as a westernised young person but with roots deep in the spiritual soil of Islam. His band sings in Urdu and Punjabi and their lyrics often draw from Sufi and other mystical traditions of the sub-continent. Hugely popular in the cities, Junoon has performed all over the world, blending a dynamic, western, rock consciousness with the melodies and musical impulses of the east. The western influence seems not to be the problem as the Peshawari government has banned not only Junoon, but all music.
Ahmed travels north to ask the mullahs why music itself is offensive to orthodox Islam, citing the many instances of music and dance within South Asian Sufi traditions and the fact that even the Islamic call to prayer, the azaan, is melodic. South Asian Islam has always lived with shrines to saints and colourful festivals where music and dance are intrinsic to the devotional experience. Over and over again, Ahmed reminds the preachers that there are 52 Islamic nations in the world and none of them have banned music. The mullahs are firm: orthodox Islam cannot allow music into its creed. One goes as far as to say that the other countries are not truly Islamic and that, eventually, heaven belongs only to the true Muslim.
Ahmed, armed with his guitar, also visits Pakistani madrassas , religious schools where young boys (often from impoverished families), are sent to learn the Koran. These are, allegedly, the breeding grounds of terrorism as here, the rhetoric of jihad and martyrdom runs high. Many young men in Peshawar know Junoon’s music, and many in the madrassas take to the charismatic Ahmed, but they are dogmatic in their refusal to accept music, even spiritual music, as part of their religious world. They are delighted when Ahmed prays with them as a brother and a believer, but they urge him to give up his profession and turn to something else. They suggest that all musicians should seek alternative ways to make a living since their deeds are an offence to Allah. Ahmed challenges them to show him where in the Koran this is declared but they will not. This, too, is an article of faith.
The film is careful to show us that all of Pakistan is not like this – Ahmed attends a charity event in Karachi where cosmopolitan men and women mingle freely at a posh hotel. There are also shots of a Junoon concert in Lahore , in which young women (albeit seated separately), respond to the music with as much passion as their male counterparts. Clearly, the north-western frontier of Pakistan is subject to more fundamentalist influences, the consequences of increased anti-American feeling as well as the proximity of the Taliban and the monetary power of conservative Wahabi Islam imported from Saudi Arabia .
In 2003, President Parvez Musharraf spoke at a rally in Peshawar urging the mullahs to accept that, among others, men without beards and those that listened to music were also good Muslims. To ensure his survival, the President clearly has to walk a tight rope between alienating the fundamentalists in the country and maintaining the semblance of a progressive state, and it is truly ironic that liberals like Ahmed have to look to a military dictator to safeguard their rights to free speech and expression.
That irony apart, the freedom of the religious right all over the world to impinge upon the cultural freedoms of others has to be challenged.
Sabiha Sumar’s recent feature film, Khamosh Pani (so far banned in Pakistan ) looks at the rise of religious fundamentalism under the reign of General Zia ul Haq, and The Rock Star and the Mullahs fills out that picture. Even though both these films are specific to historical moments in Pakistan and in South Asian Islam, we would be foolish not to extrapolate from them and examine the same impulses, instincts and prejudices in India as well. Incidents of cultural vandalism are on the rise and as we fight state censorship, we must not lose sight of the other enemies of free speech -- religious groups and private organisations that lay claim to cultural purity and propriety.
InfoChange News and Features, April 2005