The Bombs of Dhamma: Pakistan’s Pop Music Scene

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nick Grace
The Weekly Standard
December 10, 2007

Singer-songwriter Imran Raza and guitarist Faraz Anwar hope to bring an unlikely revolution to Pakistan–one guided by Sufi-oriented music inspired by Led Zeppelin and Metallica. The country’s music-averse extremists were quick to take notice.

Raza, 35, was born in Pakistan but raised in the United States. Sporting Dolce & Gabbana designer clothes, a shaved head, and Prada sunglasses, he reflects a Southern California sensibility. A former University of Southern California student who has been writing songs since his teenage years, Raza went back to school in 2001 to study film and poetry in pursuit of his dream of producing a rock opera.

Less than a month after classes began in August, he woke up in his penthouse apartment to the news of 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, Raza more than once heard bigoted remarks about Muslims; since he looked more like a rocker type than a Middle Easterner, people weren’t on their guard around him. Raza says he felt more outrage at the attacks themselves and the Taliban’s brutal rule in Afghanistan than anger at the comments–but both reinforced his desire to work against bigotry.

Two years later, Raza returned to Pakistan to film a short documentary as part of his studies. He discovered a vibrant music scene, for which rock musicians had one man to thank: President Pervez Musharraf, who had privatized the country’s television stations the year before. Suddenly Pakistan boasted 20 channels, 3 of them dedicated to music. The result was an explosion of opportunity reminiscent of the early days of MTV: Airtime had to be filled, and a lot of stars emerged, many of them one-hit wonders.

Raza saw his chance to create a music comfortable for South Asians that would combine Western freedoms and his own commitment to Sufism, which to him is characterized by a mystical and tolerant practice of Islam. “Sufism’s core message,” he says, “is one of pluralistic understanding. It is very complex, and there are different aspects of how it addresses different human situations and relations with God.”

Raza began looking for a musical collaborator. The search took four years, but was finally successful. Faraz Anwar, 30, had won Pakistan’s national music competition at the age of 11, and had become a full-time musician at 14, touring as a guitarist with top-tier acts. Counting his recordings as a session musician, Anwar has sold over 30 million albums–no small feat in a country where music piracy is rampant. Although popular performers had tried to form bands with Anwar, he had always turned them down.

It was President Musharraf who introduced Raza and Anwar. Raza had a family connection with the president–an uncle had gone through officer training with Musharraf. Last May, Musharraf and Raza saw each other at a Sufi musical performance at the governor’s house in Karachi, and Raza struck up a conversation with the president, a fan of classic rock. Raza explained his musical project and expressed an interest in working with the legendary Anwar.

Days later, Raza found himself in Anwar’s modern recording studio in Karachi. Above an impressive guitar collection hung two six-foot posters, one of Jimi Hendrix and one of Anwar. Anwar was initially dismissive–but when he flipped through Raza’s lyrics, a song called “The Bombs of Dhamma” caught his eye. Dhamma is the Pali word for dharma, which Raza explains as “an enlightened state of purified intentions where one doesn’t desire to do anyone harm.” The song proclaims: “I believe in enlightened moderation, the beauty of knowing who you are.” It calls for “Bombs of purity and bombs of joy / Bombs of peace and bombs of love / Bombs of harmony and bombs of compassion / The bombs of dhamma.”

On reading this, Anwar exclaimed in Urdu, “Finally someone has come my way who is on my level!” The two musicians began recording Raza’s songs. The first one they tackled was “Fly with Us,” which mixes South Asian flutes and classical Sufi singing with classic rock. Speaking of the need for “a real reformation,” the song contrasts religious intolerance with the fresh spirit of classic rock, inviting listeners to spurn extremism and “fly with” Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles.

Early in their recording sessions, unmixed clips of “Fly with Us” and “The Bombs of Dhamma” were leaked to the Pakistani media. They were played on the radio. Though other artists had released songs promoting tolerance, Raza’s lyrics were especially direct. Religious extremists got the message and issued death threats against him. Provided a security detail by the government, Raza only became more outspoken. “What bothered me,” Raza said, “is that the mullahs are able to muzzle speech and force others to bow through violence and retribution.”

Anwar went further in a phone call with us from Karachi, challenging the extremists’ theology. “They do not follow Islam,” he said. “They have created something of their own. Basically, they are not educated people, and they don’t even know what the Koran says.”

During his most recent trip to Pakistan, Raza was afforded a glimpse of the celebrity that may be in store for him. Though his local number was unpublished, his cell phone rang incessantly with calls from journalists. One of Raza’s bodyguards began fielding the calls so he could focus on his studio work.

Though Raza and Anwar haven’t yet completed an album, the leaked songs have gained them plenty of attention. In addition, the youth-oriented television channel Aag played a music video of their song “Be Like the Onion”; the response promptly landed it on the channel’s “flaming hot” rotation. Raza hopes to complete an album by the end of 2008. And he still aspires to produce his rock opera centered on the themes of liberty and pluralism.

Pakistan’s music scene has declined in the past five years. Because piracy remains unfettered, musicians rely on live performances for revenue. Concertgoers generally represent the most progressive element of society, young people either hailing from liberal families or rebelling against conservative ones. Musicians tend to be influenced by MTV and Western rock in both sound and look: There are long-haired performers and glammed-up pop stars. They typically perform in venues seating between 2,000 and 10,000. Among music fans there is a sense that social change is needed, but the feeling is diffuse, not connected to any program for action.

The rise in militancy in recent years has hit musicians hard. The Taliban and al Qaeda-led campaign against music stores across northwest Pakistan saw 20 stores bombed in May and 25 attacked in June and July. In October, a bomb ripped through the large Musafir CD Centre in Peshawar. A concert would make an ideal target for a suicide bomber.

In this environment, any live musician performs in an atmosphere of threat. It is unclear, however, whether others have been personally targeted. Raza noticed that the lead singer of a band called Fuzon seemed to have a government security detail, but he too may benefit from a connection to Musharraf.

Certainly Anwar and Raza know the risks. Military affairs analyst Bill Roggio said, “Raza and Anwar show real courage, as their music strikes at the core of the extremists’ message. The Taliban will stop at nothing to silence them.” But Anwar and Raza are undaunted. Said Raza, “Whatever you do in life, you have to do it with sincerity. If that involves risks, so be it.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Nick Grace is a contributor to ThreatsWatch, a website seeking to increase public awareness of national security threats.

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