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"When they see us, they think Rage Against The Machine was for kids" - Aki Nawaz talks with PN about music, free speech, gender and Islam.

Louder than a bomb

Over the summer there was a minor media storm as, in the run up to 7/7, journalists and politicians heard about Fun Da Mental's new album All is War. It's a provocative and challenging album (see review opposite) and the track that caught the media's attention is called Cookbook DIY. We caught up with main man Aki Nawaz and, at his request, tried to ask him some “hard” questions!

PN: The mainstream media have given you a seriously hard time over the album - saying you “support suicide bombing”, printing your picture on the same page as Bin Laden and so on. That must have been tough on you - and also your family. How have you coped with it?

Aki: The album was intentionally made to provoke debate - and for those who are bigoted to the extreme (even though they come across as liberal). I was fully aware that it would touch their sensibilities. Mostly they are consumed by their own misinformed racism and an old (or present) colonial mentality. I am sick of the audacity of this society, which continually attempts to imprison us within its own parameters and conditions of debate. To be debating the same issues which my parents' generation were is proof of this.

My family found it really difficult after a few days and, to be honest, I also did - as the enormity of it was magnified in the “gutter press” and globally. There was no will on their behalf to even give me half a chance [to respond] - they had found their headlines for a few days before 7/7.

I did arrange a lawyer and discussed with the family what to do and not to do should the police arrive. However I also told them that, in the event that I get arrested, they should not stay at home - but demonstrate outside the police station 24/7. I had an army of a two, four, eight, and 10-year old, and they had no problem with that. I wanted to use the same media that vilified me to keep it in the headlines. Too many people are getting arrested and then it all goes quiet.

PN: This album exposes the hypocrisy of western foreign policy and the militarised madness that goes with it. While being able to understand why oppressed communities will stand up and fight back, you have given some mixed messages about the use of violence in general. In your blogged notes about Cookbook DIY you say “All action should always be against the symbols of the state and in accordance with a just cause,” and the BBC quoted you as saying, “I know how the suicide bombers feel, but if they're going to do anything, it's got to be against military targets.”

So, do you believe there is a legitimate role for armed struggle within resistance movements and do you think any violent action can ultimately achieve the changes so desperately needed to redress the asymetric and oppressive power relationships around the world?

Aki: We all have dreams and aspirations of justice and equality, all done in a peaceful and humane way, I would wish this absolutely and it's the root of my struggle, but there is a sick reality out there and history shows that peaceful change comes at a big cost. Is it worth the cost? Is it OK to peacefully watch the slaughter and genocide and await peace because of some worthwhile but naive sense of passiveness? Can anyone justify this stance? Those that wish to stand strong against violent methods should be respected, but those wishing to fight physically against blatant injustice have as much right to do so as those waging the injustice.

The world has changed over the last 70-odd years. It is absurd and repulsive that the old guard can even think it can continue to carry out its policies thousands of miles away and it not have an effect locally.

There seems to be a very bizarre approach to “suicide bombers”. Would it be acceptable if they just planted their bombs and walked away? What is it that drives a person to kill people but also to kill him [or her] self - what does it say? Are they the same as the cowards that drop bombs from thirty thousand feet, then get back to base, get patted on the back, go back home and kiss their wives and children? Wake up the day after and do the same, get medals, pensions and invites to lay wreaths every year?

Most [suicide bombers] are leaving behind beautiful families and children and life - unlike the “legitimate” bomber who we all pay for through our taxes and who usually lives on. Of course it cannot be justified and I am not approaching it from that simplistic position, but you cannot morally say that the wholesale slaughter of innocents by the state is acceptable but the resistance and blowback is not.

If the Muslim countries had the spine to fight back against the “democratic Nazism” imposed on them you would not have one suicide bomber in this context. But given the state of things at the moment, it is better that we say “direct your anger against the guilty ones”. That may save innocents.

PN: I imagine a fair number of our readers would agree with many of the sentiments expressed in the album's opening track - I reject - but can you clarify what you were getting at with the line “Reject your mini skirt liberation” - is this a general critique of patriarchal power (and the way western women are duped into believing they have achieved “liberation”), or is this a comment on the “immoral” values of western women as unIslamic?

Aki: Its amazing how many people find this line offensive and no other lines in the song which are far more important however your (“and the way western women are duped into believing they have achieved `liberation'“), is absolutely the point and right on. Women are being exploited to no end for the satisfaction of male needs.

It is also pointing to the fact that women who are modest or even wear the veil “out of informed choice” are no less than those that wish to display their hardware. The exploitation is equal to the oppression. Even in the deepest jungles of South America, where different religious and cultural customs exist, women are still being dominated, so it's a general problem. It is not as if we were born yesterday and it takes time - a completely unjustified excuse.

PN: In an interview for the BBC earlier this year, they quote you as saying “We [the band] actually appeal more to non-Muslims - lefties, anarchists, skateboarders - than we do to Muslims. A lot of Muslims ask me why I'm using music to make political soundbites, because that is not Halal - it is not permitted in Islam”. Can you explain what you meant and how it relates to your own interpretation of Islam.

Aki: It is true that Fun Da Mental represent something that is outside the conventional parameters of music within the communities. I know that if I was a normal Muslim I would find FDM shocking, but outside of this community, peoples' immune system and sensitivities towards artistic and creative anarchy are far greater - especially in terms of performance. A lot of the non-Muslims are shocked but energised by FDM - they expect a real kind of Gandhian approach (though he was never peaceful - he was at verbal war with the colonialists) and then, when they see us, they think Rage Against The Machine was a kids' programme.

The issue about music and Islam I find fascinating and I have delved deep into it. You have to review history and how music became powerful and was then abused for certain agendas. There is nothing in the Quran that says music is forbidden categorically. However, music as a form or career is not outside the norms of other practices in relation to other forbidden attitudes or practices. It all depends on intention and, as in all things, the true judge of this can only be Allah. Music does have different roles to play and all Islam asks is that you represent yourself for the good and not for the bad. We can debate this, but it would be foolish to attempt to explain it quickly.

PN: As well as being a Pakistani Muslim you are also an old punk - so what are your views on the relationship between the state and religion? Should any state (secular or religious) be empowered to coerce its citizens into adopting prescribed behavioural codes?

Aki: Firstly I am Muslim and I make no bones about it. I am confident about my religion and I have internal and external battles just as much as many other Muslims.

Of course there are lots and lots of issues, I never deny that, but the opportunity to discuss this is usually way down the list. The biggest problem we have in terms of Islam is that we are losing the media war. All the misinformation has been absorbed. It reminds me of the way Africans were portrayed during slavery - their cultures and religions.

The best way for me to deal with this issue is to humbly request that people read and read again and then travel and travel again. Of course some negatives exist inside the Muslim community, but not in the numbers and exaggerated form they are presented. The Muslim world is immense, with different schools of thought and many branches. People should read the books of Ibn Batatu, the greatest traveller ever, and see the changing face of Islam as he arrives in different places.

Most people in the West - and especially Lefties - reject religion but also see it from a Eurocentric position. That is not only naive and ignorant but also arrogant. Common soundbites about “religion causes war” are boring - humans cause war and even in the most non-religious societies they have created war. Wake up to the realities of the world - land, natural resources, wealth, greed, and exploitation are the causes of war, and they are fought by humans not Gods.

PN: The album is due for release, what happens next for you? Other projects, gigs, producing?

Aki: I never plan things long term, especially with the current political climate. I think there is a long battle ahead for me but one that I am not prepared for my children to also fight. I will either get somewhere, or I will leave the country - and burn my passport and citizenship with great pride.

Topics: Culture