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In a 1997 crackdown that put its stamp on much of the heavy metal scene in the Middle East and North Africa, police in Cairo arrested 100 heavy metal fans. The arrests followed publication of a photo from a metal concert allegedly showing someone carrying an upside-down cross. One newspaper reported that the house raided by the police was “filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.”
Muslim and Christian clerics were up in arms. Cartoons in newspapers depicted scruffy, marijuana-smoking musicians with T-shirts emblazed with the Star of David who play guitar while being seduced by scantily dressed blond women. The musicians’ critics portrayed them as Zionist agents subverting Muslim society and blamed their emergence on a government that, in their view, was in cahoots with the Zionists in allowing Western culture to undermine Egypt’s social and religious values. Interestingly, this criticism was expressed by many in the underground music community as well. A broad segment of Egyptians, cutting across political, ideological, religious, and social fault lines, accuses the government of failing to effectively support the Palestinians, acquiescing in the Israeli control of Palestinian territories, and supporting unpopular U.S. policies in the region.
Emotions peaked when Sheikh Nasr Farid, Egypt’s mufti at the time, demanded that those arrested repent or face the death penalty for apostasy. In response, intimidated musicians and fans destroyed their guitars and shaved off their beards to avoid the worst. A decade later, many Egyptian musicians remain reluctant to publicly discuss their music or lyrics, even though government policy has become somewhat more relaxed. (The regime of President Hosni Mubarak is currently more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and dissident bloggers than it is about underground music.)
“You can’t get arrested for being a metalhead so easily now,” an Egyptian heavy metal fan tells me. “They can still stop you in the streets, or stop your car if you listen to very loud heavy music. But when it comes to arresting they can’t now unless you have some sort of drugs on you. It’s not that the law is more liberal now. Rather, it’s because the whole media is not so interested to know about us anymore.”
Morocco’s bow to popular pressure and Egypt’s recent shift of focus highlight a lesson most Arab regimes have yet to learn: The velvet glove is often more effective than the baton. The more mainstream underground music becomes and the less censorship it endures, the less socially and politically potent it may become.
But as long as there is discontent to be expressed, there will be musicians eager to channel it. Even if metal and hip-hop lose their bite, LeVine predicts, the “cultural avant-garde of youth culture will naturally search for other genres of music to express the anger, anxieties, and despair that originally made the music so powerful.”
James M. Dorsey (email@example.com), a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about social trends in the Muslim world as well as ethnic and religious conflict.