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Punk and metal bands riff on conservative Islam

In Indonesia and Malaysia, subcultures lyricize hardline religious views

Street Boundaries, one of Malaysia's most dedicated anti-fascist skinhead Oi! bands. The late Rozaimin Elias, a anti-fascist hero, plays guitar on the far left corner (Photo by Cole Yew)

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR -- Five young men stand in single file on a rickety stage. Behind them, a line of loud, screeching amplifiers transforms their anger into a hailstorm of pounding sonic bullets. Youths stand cheering below the stage, shaking their heads up and down and pumping their fists in the air, mesmerized by the relentless noise. This is not madness, but the powerful effect of subcultural liberation.

The rebellious delights of the metal and punk music subcultures are no longer the exclusive domain of bored white millennials: In Indonesia and Malaysia, which have some of the most active extreme music scenes in the world today, the traditionally anti-conformist metal and punk music subcultures have spun in new directions. After appropriating Western styles and symbols, Southeast Asian Muslims have turned them into mouthpieces for conservative Islamic propaganda.

"We write about jihad because we feel lots of Westerners believe [wrongly] that Islam equals terrorism ... we want the kids who watch us to continue believing their religion," said Samier, a guitarist in Jakarta's Islamic metal band Tengkorak, in an interview with Busuk Chronicles, an online webzine. He added: "Although they like metal, they should not accept [its] lifestyle."

Tengkorak is part of the salam satu jari (one finger movement), a group of Islamic-oriented extreme metal bands that support conservative Islamic organizations such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), a group that has used violence against entertainment venues, liberals and members of religious minorities, and is a key element in Indonesia's turn toward religious conservatism.

The first use of the term "Islamic punk" was in American writer Michael Muhammad Knight's debut novel "The Taqwacores," published in 2003 -- a fictional account of life in an Islamic punk house in suburban America. The book's success kick-started the formation of a real-life Taqwacore movement, with bands and supporters, followed by a low-budget American tour, a documentary called "Taqwacore -- The Birth of Punk Islam" in 2009, and a film called "The Taqwacores" in 2010.

Indonesian punk with the classic mohawk hairstyle, globalized by the first wave of British punk rock bands (Photo by Frans Ari Prasetyo)

But these entrepreneurial Taqwacores are Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans, not the angry young men and women living in Indonesia, a society that embraced Islamic conservatism after the Indonesian Ulema Council issued edicts against secularism, liberalism and pluralism in 2005. "Like the Western Christian Metal scene, it's for people who self-identify as both Muslims and metalheads," said Kieran James, editor of Busuk Chronicles, which is based in the U.K. "They are against the use of satanic symbolism in metal, and feel discouraged when people's faith weakens when they join the scene," said James, who has traveled several times to Indonesia to study the one finger movement.

James added that anti-Zionism is an important part of the one finger movement's beliefs because religion is closely tied to Indonesian politics. However, some Islamic metal bands, including Saffar and Jihad, both from Bandung, Indonesia's second largest metropolitan area, do not promote the movement's extreme beliefs.

The situation in the Indonesian punk scene is similar. Born in the late 1990s in the wake of rapid social, economic and political changes that followed the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto in 1998, Indonesian punk initially adopted the anarchist and leftist themes associated with the newly accessible global punk subculture, turning only recently to Islamic conservatism.

Hikmawan Saefullah, a scholar of punk from Bandung who is currently pursuing a doctorate at Australia's Murdoch University, believes that the Indonesian underground's turn to conservative Islam is a consequence of the lack of a strong leftist presence in the local music scene. "Islam has become a destination for punks and other youths who seek a refuge from the uncertainties of modern life," Hikmawan told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Activist groups like Punk Muslim in Jakarta and Komunitas Punk Muslim in Surabaya -- both of which support mainstream conservative Islamic groups -- felt disillusioned when leftist ideals crashed against Indonesia's harsh daily reality, and were further angered when the "do-it-yourself" punk community embraced commercialization.

A group of young exponents of Punk Muslim sit on the street in Jakarta. (Photo by Hikmawan Saefullah)

Some punks ultimately decided to go hijrah (an Islamic concept meaning "to move to a safer place," in the sense of "fleeing from sin"). Extreme music then becomes dakwah, or an instrument of Islamic proselytizing. More than anything, it is an attractive bridge between anti-conformist youths and mainstream conservative religion. Punk Muslim works with street kids to empower them through weekly punkajian (punk-style religious teachings), setting up art exhibits, publishing free Islamic-oriented punk pamphlets such as the guide "Ramadhan with Punk Muslim" and organizing social charities.

Sean Martin Iverson, a lecturer at the University of Western Australia who has studied the Bandung punk scene, said punk music had adapted itself to cultural realities in Indonesia. "I'm not sure I'd label the turn to Punk Islam in Indonesia as 'radicalizing'; rather, it's part of the mainstreaming of punk in Indonesia, adapting to one of the more powerful political and cultural movements in contemporary Indonesian society," he said.

In part, this "mainstreaming" process could be a consequence of extreme music's strength in Indonesia. "Punk and metal never faced the same level of derision and scorn in Indonesia as they faced in the West," said Jeremy Wallach, a professor at Bowling Green State University in the U.S. "The sheer tenacity of these two music cultures has earned them a modicum of respect from the general Indonesian population," said Wallach, who was among the first academics to study the emergence of metal and punk music in 1990s Indonesia.

In Indonesia, Muslim women wearing <i>hijabs</i> are a common sight in the music scene. (Photo by Frans Ari Prasetyo)

Even Indonesian President Joko Widodo is a self-proclaimed metalhead. In late 2017, the visiting prime minister of Denmark, Lokke Rasmussen, gave him a limited-edition box-set of Metallica's 1986 album "Master of Puppets," autographed by the group's Danish-American drummer Lars Ulrich.

In neighboring Malaysia, where Metallica played for the first time in 2013 (20 years after their first Indonesian concert at Jakarta's Lebak Bulus stadium), the fate of extreme music is very different. Although Malaysia had nurtured one of the oldest extreme music scenes in Southeast Asia since the early 1980s, rock and pop music is still largely considered haram (forbidden) by the nation's conservative Islamic groups, such as the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party). The Pussycat Dolls, a U.S. girl group, was fined 10,000 ringgit (now $2,500) for the "sexiness" of its Kuala Lumpur show in 2006, and the British singer Elton John was almost banned in 2012 because of his homosexuality, which conservative leaders feared could influence Muslims.

Soundmaker in Penang is one of the few spaces where Malaysian bands can perform on a real stage and using a proper PA system. (Photo by Cole Yew)

The witch hunt started in 2001, when the Malaysian authorities cracked down on underground gigs, arresting musicians and fans in a bid to curb an alleged rise of Satanic metal bands. This pushed the Malaysian underground music scene into hiding. Planned Kuala Lumpur shows by mainstream metal bands such as Megadeth, Scorpions and Lamb of God were cancelled in 2001, 2004 and 2013. Today, heavy metal and punk survives only in a small number of halls, clubs and rehearsal studios.

In contrast with their proselytizing counterparts in Indonesia, extreme music performers in Malaysia do not seem to side with any mainstream political or religious agenda. Fear of official retaliation was normal before the landmark May 9 elections that saw the fall of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Barisan Nasional coalition. One daring example is Kuala Lumpur's pop punk band Dum Dum Tak: They released the song "Turun Najib Turun" (meaning "get down, Najib, get down") in 2016 to discreet success. However, the band refused an ensuing interview request with the BBC because they feared that speaking up could have brought problems to their own families.

Besides politics, Islam -- the legally irreversible faith of all members of Malaysia's dominant ethnic Malay community --plays a big role in shaping the bands' identities.

Malaysian black metal band Antaboga, indicated as members of the "Darah Dan Maruah" group, play a show in Penang. (Photo by Cole Yew)

"Islam is never against entertainment: God knows that humans socialize and need enjoyment," said Rammy Azmy, an active fanzine writer and extreme musician from the state of Perlis. "But as a Muslim, I also have to revise the way I love metal, and I now try my best not to write and compose anything that could harm my faith."

Most Malaysian bands and venues support anti-racist, multi-ethnic messages that are in line with the global punk and metal subcultures. However, the music of some ethnic Malay bands includes elements of Malay folklore, sometimes with Malay supremacist overtones. Nusantara metal -- metal of the Malay archipelago -- has followed Western genres such as epic and black metal in mixing local mythology, folklore, and in some cases, traditional instruments such as the gamelan, with metal music.

This trend may have also generated a small movement of bands and fans known as Darah Dan Maruah Tanah Melayu (translated as blood and honor of the Malay land), which marries Nazi symbols, including the swastika, with Malay folklore symbols, such as the kris (or a dagger), and Malay supremacist themes. Unlike international music subcultures such as White Power and Rock Against Communism, Darah Dan Maruah is a self-absorbed entity, with its own private circle and private gigs whose locations are kept secret. The movement is opposed by a strong contingent of anti-fascist skinhead groups and supporters who follow the anti-racist ideals promoted by the global skinhead punk community.

"The use of National Socialist (Nazi) symbols in these bands purely symbolizes their political beliefs," said Wan, a guitarist with Phenomistik, and a former member of As Sahar, a Singaporean extreme metal band that was among the first to introduce Nazi themes in the region. "National Socialist ideals are not the prerogative of white people per se: There are many non-whites who believe in National Socialism and what it stands for, so if you look at that perspective, the usage of these symbols would not be as unusual as you might think; it might even be expedient."

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