Rap and metal on planet Islam: the booming voice of pent-up Middle Eastern anger.

Author:Dorsey, James M.
Position:Culture and Reviews


NABYL GUENNOUNI, 30, is a heavy metal singer and band manager in Morocco. He also sits on a jury that selects rising talents to perform at Casablanca's annual L'Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens, a six-day extravaganza in two soccer stadiums that has become North Africa's largest underground music festival, with some 160,000 visitors each year. This marks a dramatic change for Guennouni. When he and 13 other blackshirted, baseball-capped, middle-class headbangers tried to organize a music festival seven years ago, the police dragged them from their homes and charged them with wooing young Moroccans into Satanism, with a bonus count of promoting prostitution. Morocco's legal system allows a maximum sentence of three years for such attempts to convert Muslims to another faith.

Egged on by conservative Islamist politicians, who six months earlier had doubled their number of seats in parliament, prosecutors produced as evidence against Guennouni fake skeletons and skulls, plaster cobras, a latex brain, T-shirts depicting the devil, and "a collection of diabolical CDs," which they described as "un-Islamic" and "objects that breach morality." In cross-examination, the government attorneys asked the defendants such questions as, "Why do you cut the throats of cats and drink their blood?" Al Attajdid, a conservative daily, depicted the musicians as part of a movement that "encourages all forms of delinquency, alcohol and licentiousness which are ignored by the authorities." One of the trial judges maintained that "normal people go to concerts wearing suits and ties" and that it was "suspicious" that some of the musicians' lyrics had been penned in English.

During the trial, some of the defendants recited sections of the Koran to prove they were good Muslims. It didn't work. In a verdict that divided the nation, Guennouni was sentenced to one month in jail; the others received sentences ranging from six months to a year. Outside the courthouse, protesters organized concerts, waged an Internet campaign, and criticized King Muhammad VI for presiding over a travesty of justice.

Yet as dark as that moment was for Casablancan rockers, the trial was a turning point that set Morocco on a path to becoming one of the Arab world's more liberal societies when it comes to accepting alternative lifestyles. A month after the sentencing, prosecutors, unnerved by the degree of popular support the musicians had attracted, urged an appeals court to overturn the verdicts. The appeals court acquitted II of the defendants and reduced the sentences of three others. The decision constituted a rare example of successful civic protest in the Arab world.

Weeks after the appeals court decision, Casablanca was rocked by a series of Islamist suicide bombings that killed 45 people. Musicians responded with a Metal Against Terrorism concert that boosted what Moroccans call Al...

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