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Turkish Metal: Music, Meaning, and Morality in a Muslim Society

Pierre Hecker

(Ashgate; US: Jul 2012)

Books about heavy metal tend to fall into three distinct categories. Enthusiastic works written by fervent metal fans come packed with a visceral punch that stresses the genre’s magnetism, and academic publications offer deep analytical examinations of metal’s social and cultural import. However, sometimes you’ll find a combination of both, where metal’s philosophies and practices are discussed from the perspective of both fan and scholar.


Pierre Hecker’s Turkish Metal: Music, Meaning, and Morality in a Muslim Society is just such a book. It’s erudite and exhaustively researched, but retains a beating heart as Hecker dissects his subject. Hecker’s combination of a doctorate in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and a history of metal fandom, gives him a distinct advantage in examining how metal is construed and constructed in societies resistant to its ideologies.


However, while Turkish Metal is ambitious in scope and academic in nature, what separates it from bone-dry academia is that Hecker retains a relaxed and reflective manner. Taking an ethnographic approach, he draws from 70 interviews, direct observations of Istanbul’s metal community, and abundant documented analysis. This gives the book broad appeal for fans of both metal and the social sciences, and illuminates a scene never before covered in such depth.


Hecker’s overarching goal for the book was to investigate Turkish metal’s potential for “contesting Islamic concepts of morality”, “its relevance within the field of emancipation”, and its “capacity to foster social relations that transcend national, religious and ethic boundaries”. He meets each of those objectives admirably, exploring a raft of aspects linked to metal’s emergence, development, and its ramifications for fans and the wider public in a Muslim society.


Turkish Metal traces the genre’s evolution from the ‘80s to the late ‘00s,  following bootleg, tape trading, and varying underground networks as they negotiated economic, political and social hurdles. But it’s not an encyclopedic history of Turkish metal. Hecker makes it clear that the book offers an account of metal’s ability to “initiate transformation” in a Muslim context, not list very Turkish metal band in existence. Conflict, intimidation, and media amplification of metal’s ‘immorality’ simmer in a nation already rife with secular and religious tensions, and Turkish Metal contains vivid accounts of how Turkish metal fans navigate such frictions to find a sense of identity and meaning in metal—often drawing them into clashes with family and wider society.


Hecker’s observations on Turkish black metal’s appropriation of Christian symbolism, its intersecting tendencies with Norwegian black metal, and public reaction in a Muslim country to the controversy of extreme metal are fascinating—as is his chapter chronicling the moral panic and media misrepresentations surrounding Satanism and metal. Both chapters speak of the stress that longhaired, black tee shirt wearing youths indulging in socially subversive acts has had on wider Turkish society. These themes are no doubt familiar to many Middle Eastern metal fans, but also representative of metal’s continuing conflicts in many nations, secular or religious.


As Turkish Metal points out, a particularly tense issue in Turkish and Muslim societies is the role and status of women. “The female body was and still is the most fiercely contested battleground of Islamic and secularist actors in society.” Hecker notes that patriarchal traditions of morality and entrenched notions of honor and shame are particularly problematic for women seeking to contest dominant masculine concepts in Turkey. But there is hope to be found in Turkish metal. It offers freedom of expression and a step towards liberation, but as women within the scene tell, Turkish metal has the same issues with hyper-masculinity as anywhere else. Turkish female fans and musicians often face the very same gender issues that other women experience in the worldwide metal scene.


These days, heavy metal is popular throughout the Middle East, and many Middle Eastern bands are highly respected in the global metal community. However, to enjoy a band from those locations doesn’t necessarily mean you’re aware of the costs it has paid to play music at odds with social mores. Turkish Metal goes a long way to revealing the backdrop and challenges Turkish metal bands and fans continue to face, and by extension anyone in the metal community from a state bound by traditional religious dogma. However, it’s not just the loudness or aggression of metal that’s problematic.


Like any music scene that conflicts with traditional values, it’s metal’s defiant and unruly culture that provokes. Rebelliousness, blasphemy, sex, drugs and alcohol undoubtedly make up some of the Turkish metal scene’s allure, and as the individual narratives in Turkish Metal attest to, metal serves as a crucial cathartic vent through which to reject and/or critique norms deemed stale and irrelevant.


The prevailing theme emerging from Turkish Metal is that the Turkish metal scene allows individuals to express a sense of autonomy unshackled by strict moral ethics. Metal’s aesthetic and sonic independence is a site for those embracing more secular values to gather round. In that sense, Turkish Metal reaffirms an important and universal truth about metal. Turkish fans have carved out a space for the genre that is deeply meaningful for them, often against fierce opposition. That’s a shared tale for metal fans around the globe, and the common thread that connects us all.

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Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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