The Heavy Metal Witch Hunt Lives On

by Beth Winegarner

3 June 2012

Musician with an electronic guitar enveloped in flames on a black background. Image from

The Forsaken Past

Moroccan leaders expecting to have a similarly chilling effect got more than they bargained for when they arrested 14 metal musicians and fans in February 2003 on charges of “possessing objects which infringe morals”. Nine of the men, all in their early 20s to mid-30s, played in Casablanca metal bands Reborn, Infected Brain, and Nekros. They were sentenced to between three months and a year in jail for their metal affiliations, especially for possessing skeletons, skulls, snakes, and “diabolical” CDs.

Casablanca’s cultural champions fought back. Journalists for the French-language TelQuel magazine skewered the judge for saying, “normal people go to concerts in a suit and tie,” rather than the all-black outfits favored by metalheads. When the convicted men appealed their sentences, supporters—including families of the jailed—swarmed the courthouse in their defense.

Moroccan metal band, Reborn

Moroccan metal band, Reborn

Yousra Atmen, singer for Casablanca metal band Analgesia, was a 15-year-old high school student when the bust went down. At first, she thought the metalhead arrests were just a rumor. “I found it so weird and couldn’t understand. [But] a friend of mine didn’t come to school for a few days at that time. He was a long-haired guitarist of a local band. He told me, later on, that he was arrested for some investigations about the music, and if it had a link with religion.”

Moroccan authorities believed that heavy metal was a “Satanist movement” attempting to convert listeners away from Islam—a crime in the country. “They thought that these people drink blood and do rituals to call Satan through metal music,” Atmen said.

Many noted that the Casablanca arrests came just as Islamic politicians were enjoying a surge in power in Morocco. At first, metalheads and their worried parents were frightened, according to Atmen. But soon, hard rock and heavy metal exploded in the country, thanks in part to the creation of the Boulevard Festival in 2006. The annual event draws local and international heavyweights such as Arch Enemy and Sepultura. The reigning king, Mohammad VI, is a sponsor.

Another key development in Morocco’s understanding of heavy metal was Ahmed Boulane’s 2007 film Les Anges du Satan (Satan’s Angels), detailing the 2003 arrests and the country’s response. Boulane was effective in explaining that heavy metal is simply a style of music, not a religious movement, according to Atmen.

Those arrests are “the forsaken past,” she said. “No one ever talks about it nowadays.”

The Voice of Poland

Islam-dominated countries have by no means cornered the market on demonizing heavy metal. In 2010, officials in Russia’s Belgorod region banned heavy metal concerts in order to protect “the spiritual safety” of the area. A South African rock and metal festival, RAMfest, was relocated from a Bloemfontein venue this spring after emails circulated claiming the festival’s logo—a ram’s head surrounded by lightning bolts and spears—celebrated Satanic and Illuminati ideals.

Over the past decade, Poland has hosted one of the biggest knock-down, drag-out fights between heavy metal and faith. While Poland celebrates freedom of expression, it’s also illegal to make statements that “offend religious feeling”. This law, which many Poles agree is overly subjective, has nailed more than one metal band for doing what they do best.

Norway’s Gorgoroth brought its stage show to Kraków in 2004—a performance dubbed the “black mass”, featuring naked women on crucifixes, sheep’s heads on stakes, and 80 liters of sheep’s blood. Police investigated them on religious-offense charges, confiscating footage of the show. Although Polish officials dropped their charges against Gorgoroth, the band was dumped from Nuclear Blast Records in the furor.

The next target was one of Poland’s own: Adam Darski, who performs under the stage name Nergal as frontman of the blackened death metal band Behemoth. He identifies as a follower of Thelema, the spiritual path pioneered by notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley. Though Thelema is based on Egyptian spirituality and ceremonial magic, it’s often mistakenly associated with Satanism.

That may be one reason why, when Darski took the stage in his hometown of Gdansk in September 2007, he destroyed a Bible mid-set. He said, “They call it the Holy Book. I call this the book of lies. Fuck the shit, fuck the hypocrisy.” He also called the Catholic Church “the most murderous cult on the planet.”

The incident might have gone unnoticed, if not for the ultraconservative Ryszard Nowak, leader of the All-Polish Committee for Defense Against Sects. Nowak had provided Polish political leaders with a list of bands who “promoted Satanism”. He sued Darski over the Bible-destroying incident, invoking the “offending religious feeling” clause. In August 2011, a judge acquitted Darski, defending the singer’s freedom-of-speech rights.

“I’m so glad to see that intelligence won over religious fanatics in my home country,” Darski said in a statement on Behemoth’s website. “There’s still so much work to be done to make things right. The battle is won, but the war ain’t over.”

He wasn’t wrong. By the time of his acquittal, Darski’s celebrity in Poland had grown, thanks in part to his role as a judge on the reality-TV show The Voice of Poland. The fact that such an icon of anti-Catholic sentiment appeared on national television chafed many in the religious community. Shortly after the series premiered in September, the Polish Catholic Association of Journalists stated, “The participation of Adam Darski—a Satanist and outspoken enemy of Christian values—contradicts the missionary nature of Polish television.”

Bishop Wieslaw Mering, head of the Catholic diocese of Wlocawek in northern Poland, got in on the action. In a public statement, he called Darski “a blasphemer, Satanist, and lover of evil incarnate”, and claimed that his role on TV would allow him to “spread his poisonous teachings”. Mering urged Poles to stop paying money to the television channel airing the program.

In the middle of the uproar, Darski appeared on the cover of Polish Newsweek wrapped in a Polish flag, naked from the waist up, and bearing a sword in his right hand. “God. Horror. Fatherland.”, read the cover headline.

Neither the controversy nor the publicity cowed Darski. When Behemoth performed in Warsaw on 1 October, two guitarists from their opening band, Times New Roman, appeared onstage in wheelchairs. Dressed as a priest, Darski pretended to heal and bless them. They rose from their wheelchairs and Behemoth began to perform.

Voice of Poland producers couldn’t take it anymore. After the “healing” stunt, they announced that Darski would not return to judge a second season of the show. Mering called his opposition to Darski—and what Mering described as “promotion of Satanism in the public media”—one of his diocese’s highlights of the year.

ergal on the cover of Polish Newsweek

ergal on the cover of Polish Newsweek

“Taking the Fight to Them”Whether it’s an upstart metal band in Lebanon or a Polish rocker recognized around the world, many of these musicians and their fans have risked everything to pursue the music they love. As Western popular culture makes its way into these countries—hastened by social media—is the tide turning? Will metalheads find ways to perform and enjoy heavy metal freely?

Poland watched closely as the row between Darski and his religious foes played out. Darski lost a job; in that way, the conservatives won. However, cases in which the country’s “offending religious feeling” clause is enforced are rare—and frequently targeted at celebrities such as Darski, according to Brian Porter-Szücs, author of Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland. “In fact, it appears to be unenforceable in practice. More important is probably the way it creates space for right-wing activists to attack their opponents an legal grounds, and this does have a certain chilling effect on public discussion of the Catholic Church’s role in Poland,” he said.

Today, there is a small but growing backlash against the law, led by Polish legislator Janusz Palikot, because it’s so subjective. Palikot has submitted a proposal to overturn it, backed by a growing number of young and urban Poles, according to Porter-Szücs—who added that it’s not likely to pass.

He believes Darski will be able to transform the controversy into bigger success, an experience Behemoth shares with Kaoteon. Ten days after Beirut police released the band from custody, Kaoteon entered the studio and recorded their demo, Provenance of Hatred. That album, and the story of their incarceration, have made a name for the band in Lebanon and beyond, Anthony Kaoteon said.

While some may be able to spin run-ins with political and religious leaders into notoriety, that leaves lesser known musicians and fans vulnerable. Could Morocco’s success in overturning the false link between heavy metal and Satanism work elsewhere—or does it take a thriving metal scene, backed by a savvy population, to force change? And what can musicians and fans in ultra-restrictive nations such as Iran, where all popular music is heavily policed and metalheads are routinely jailed, do to reverse the threats they face?

When I asked Wallach how heavy metal communities could change things, he responded glibly, “Metalheads don’t care what people think.” But that clearly isn’t true everywhere: Mssawir appeared on a Lebanese Geraldo Rivera-style talk show recently to dispute the conflation of heavy metal and Satanism. Afterward, he received emails from parents, thanking him for the relief they felt about their teenagers’ listening habits.

That approach is the right one, said Deaïbess. “We are planning on taking the fight to them. We will be the ones steering the issue. We want to get this ignorant society off our backs once and for all.”

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