August 23, 2010 – By Ron Synovitz
Salman Ahmad was a 19-year-old medical student in 1982 when he performed music on stage for the first time in his native Pakistan.
Having just returned from six years in the United States, where he’d earned enough money clearing restaurant tables and delivering newspapers to buy an electric guitar, the future Pakistani rock star began to play a song by the rock group Van Halen at a talent show in Lahore.
Suddenly, Ahmad heard cries of rage in Urdu from a gang of bearded young men who stormed toward the stage. They were an early manifestation of the Taliban: Islamic student extremists affiliated with a local religious party, acting as self-appointed music police.
While some of the extremists threw burqas and chadors over the women in the audience, Ahmad says one bearded student jumped on stage and grabbed his electric guitar — “his eyes filled with a madness that has nothing to do with God” as he smashed the precious instrument beyond repair.
Ahmad tells RFE/RL it was a transformational moment in his life — the moment when he declared “rock and roll jihad” against the “ideology of hate.”
“The Taliban and their brand of Islam is not Islam at all. Islam doesn’t teach you to kill innocent women, children, and men. Islam doesn’t teach you to commit suicide,” Ahmad says. “That’s haram,” or forbidden.
Ahmad says that “as long as the Taliban pursue a strategy of violence, subjugation of women, destroying girls schools, killing musicians,” he doesn’t see how anyone can “reconcile with that sort of mentality and ideology. The ideology of hate, the ideology of terrorism, has no place in Islam, or anywhere else in the world, and I will continue saying that.”
‘Follow Your Passion’
In the years after his precious guitar was smashed by these Taliban forerunners, Ahmad formed clandestine rock bands in Pakistan that would mix Western rock with the mystical music and poetry of Sufism to create a new kind of “Sufi rock.”
He would become part of two of the most successful musical groups in Pakistan and South Asia — joining Vital Signs as a guitarist and then selling millions of albums as the founder of his own band, Junoon.
Ahmad would go on to play in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at crowded stadiums and concert halls in South Asia, the Middle East, China, Japan and the West — performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York.
Sufi Islam has itself come under attack by extremists in Pakistan.
In 2007, when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for raising environmental awareness with his Academy Award-winning documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” Ahmad also would become the first Pakistani artist to perform at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
“The message in my music is of unity, peace, and also the word ‘junoon’ — the name of my band –junoon means passion, to follow the passion in your heart. My passion was following music,” Ahmad says.
He says that even though he studied medicine, “I listened to the whisper in my heart. And the whisper was saying, ‘Follow the path of music,’” he adds. “So my message is that young people who might have the passion to become a writer, or an artist, or a teacher, or a scientist — follow the passion in your heart.”
100 Percent Pakistani
Ahmad says he has had a passion for music since one of his earliest memories as a child — hearing a Sufi Qawwali singer intone about the “oneness of God” during a wedding in his native Lahore.
Ahmad’s quest for unity among people of different backgrounds has its roots in Sufism and in his own family history.
Born as a “100 percent Muslim” and “100 percent Pakistani,” Ahmad’s mother is an Urdu-speaking ethnic Pashtun. She is a follower of Sufi Islam whose family fled west to Lahore in 1947 during the violent partition of British India. Ahmad’s father, from a well-established conservative family in Lahore, grew up speaking Punjabi.
Ahmad — writing in his autobiography “Rock & Roll Jihad,” which was published this year in the United States — says the greatest influences in his life have been Sufi Islam and Lahore’s 4,000-year history of cultural richness.
He says he believes that “an artist’s responsibility is not just to make people happy or just to entertain them, but also to raise their awareness. Whether it was John Lennon, or it was Bob Dylan, or Bob Marley, or Bob Geldof, or in the Muslim world, people like Baba Bulhay Shah — a Sufi poet in the 17th century — Mauwlana Rumi, the great Persian poet Rumi, or Amir Khusro, they were not just poets or spiritual people, they also raised awareness in society. They promoted pluralism and coexistence, and they always spoke out against extremism. What I’m trying to say is that artists have the role to help reform society.”
‘Extremists And Bigots’
It was from 1975 to 1981, when his father took an airline job in the United States and his entire family lived in New York, that Ahmad was exposed to Western rock bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Van Halen.
He says he wanted to share his passion for that music when he returned to Pakistan, but found the country he knew and loved had become “dark” and “suffocated by religious extremism.”
Ahmad blames the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988, for the “war against culture” that led a Taliban extremist to smash his first guitar on stage a decade before the Taliban’s rise to power in neighboring Afghanistan.
While Zia-ul-Haq was “ironically” a U.S. ally, Ahmad describes him as a “religious extremist and a bigot. By supporting religious extremists and bigots who had control of Pakistan for 11 years — in a military dictatorship where you couldn’t play any music on the radio, you couldn’t play any music on the TV, [and] there was gender segregation — he destroyed Pakistani culture and society. He asphyxiated arts and culture.”
For the future, Ahmad is working to get his autobiography translated into Urdu and Pashto so that it can be read more widely in Pakistan. He says he hopes that distribution of the book in Pakistan will help convince his countrymen to support Pakistani arts and culture against attacks from religious fundamentalists.
“It’s really very important that we don’t make the same mistakes again by supporting religious bigots and extremists as head of states, of countries. The way to go forward is to support civil society, writers, doctors, teachers, men of letters, artists, who have a positive vision for Pakistan,” Ahmad says. “Not just Westernized, but a hybrid culture, which is taking both modernity and tradition together. There is no room for bigots, extremists, and terrorists in Pakistan.”
But many religious conservatives in Pakistan are not impressed by Ahmad’s fusion of Sufi Islam and Western rock — or his outspoken interviews about the dangers of corrupt government officials and religious clerics.
During the past decade, an increasing number of mullahs in Pakistan have been declaring that music is “un-Islamic.” That has made the outspoken Ahmad a focal point in the struggle for the cultural future and unity of Pakistan — as well as for Sufi Muslims to continue using music in their religious meditation and worship.
“If there’s extremism in a society, a nation will not unite. A nation will divide. Whether it’s Shi’a-Sunni, or whether it’s Baluchi-Sindhi, or right and left, terrorists have hijacked the culture of Islam and the language of Islam,” Ahmad says. “So we need to win back the culture and language of the Muslim community from the terrorists, who are a minority. People need to unite against extremism.”
Ahmad says his strong faith in Sufi Islam serves as a “foundation that gives him the strength” to question the edicts against music from extremists in Pakistan. He says it also helps him to encourage, through his music, a pluralistic and more modern Pakistan.
“So many times I’ve been given death threats. Two years ago, Junoon performed the first rock concert in Srinagar in Kashmir, and the militants said, ‘If you land in Srinagar we will shoot you on sight.’ But I realized that if I bow down to their threats and their fear, basically they’re winning,” Ahmad says. “So I’ve never given in to them. Obviously I take precautions where I go, but at the end of the day the greatest security is God.”
When he is not touring with Junoon, Ahmad now splits his time between New York and Lahore. He serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and has organized concerts with Western rock stars that have raised millions of dollars for needy Pakistanis.
He and his wife Samina also have founded their own nongovernmental organization, the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative. Based in New York, it is dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and cooperation between East and West. It does so through interfaith dialogue, a global health initiative, and musical education.
RFE/RL’s Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report. To listen to his full interview with Salman Ahmad, see below: