Muslim rocker on his 'jihad' against extremists


Pakistani-born rock star Salman Ahmad says he is using music to fight the cultural battle against Muslim extremism. Currently in the UK, he has been speaking to the BBC's Caroline Hawley about his own personal "jihad".

Image caption,
Salman Ahmad has a huge following among Pakistan's youth

His rock band have been described as South Asia's U2. They have sold about 30 million albums around the world.

And now the pony-tailed, Pakistani-born Muslim rocker Salman Ahmad is in the UK to sell his message of tolerance and non-violence to Muslim groups, and promote his autobiography, Rock & Roll Jihad.

Ahmad is fighting a cultural battle against those he calls "murderous thugs masquerading as holy men".

Extremists are reaching out to the same youth market that he is, he says. But Salman Ahmad believes that arts and culture can play an important role in combating extremism.

"Music has the power to bring people together," he insists. "And that's what the extremists don't want."

Ahmad, who trained as a doctor, formed his band, Junoon, in 1990 after giving up medicine for music - a passion since childhood.

At the age of 18, in President Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan, Salman Ahmad suffered the loss of his precious first guitar which was smashed by extremist students who had stormed into a secret talent show in which he was participating.

"After they'd broken my guitar, they threatened to shoot me if I ever played it again," he says. "I saw radicalisation first hand."

Culture 'hijacked'

Salman Ahmad - a Beatles fan inspired by Led Zeppelin - refused to be silenced.

He now lives in the United States but travels regularly to Pakistan where, he says, today's artists have to perform "like guerrillas".

And he has had his own troubles, even in the US.

He told the BBC he was almost prevented from performing last month in New York's Times Square when the mayor's office was alarmed after an internet search revealed the word "jihad" in the title of his new album, due out on 1 June.

Ahmad, 46, defines jihad as "striving".

"The Muslim community is allowing their language and culture to be hijacked," he says.

"There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and they enjoy music and poetry and dance and laughter, but the picture that goes out in the world is the extremist picture. I wouldn't have been able to sell 30 million records if the extremist view had been the majority view".

He vehemently rejects the hardline view that Islam forbids music.

"I am a practising Muslim and I've studied the Koran," he says, "and I believe my faith inspires my creativity - 1,400 years of Muslim culture has seen artists, singers, and beautiful love poetry."

Salman Ahmad, with his felt hat, necklace, and dark glasses, sees himself as a cultural bridge between East and West.

He has played his blend of Western and Eastern music at the UN General Assembly. He has also performed - under tight security - at a concert in Indian-adminstered Kashmir.

And he has a huge following in his home country, Pakistan, where, in the 1990s, his band were banned from performing after they took a stand against political corruption in a song called Accountability.

"The extremists hate it," he says. "They would like nothing better than to ban all of this. But they can't because millions of kids listen to music and watch Bollywood films.

"I'm saying to the extremists, you don't speak for Islam. You don't speak for me. I say to them: 'If you want to go and blow yourself up it's your choice, if you want to commit suicide, but do not assign any spiritual value to it.'

"My faith tradition has no tolerance for suicide or for killing innocent women and children."

So is he making headway with his jihad?

"The job of an artist is to express what's in his or her heart and to be a mirror for society," he says. "What's important is to keep doing what you're doing, whether you get instant gratification or not."

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