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The Heavy Metal Witch Hunt Lives On

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

Around the world, heavy metal has long been aligned with Satanism in the cultural imagination. For metalheads from Lebanon to Poland, the Satanic Panic is very real and far from over.

The first frenetic riffs of Kaoteon’s set shook the Beirut crowd as a handful of undercover police entered the club with automatic rifles.

Cops took the band hostage, locked them in the trunks of unmarked cars, and interrogated them for days, shuttling them from one location to another. A dozen others were arrested at the gig, including fans and bar managers. Their crime? Backing music that leaders believe is a front for Satanism.

“They were after the obscure music we played and the mysterious metal culture we were spreading,” guitarist Anthony Kaoteon told me. “The people running the game in the government are not educated enough to understand their neighbors...At least all of them ignorant bastards can agree on having a common enemy, and that is loud, distorted music played by obscure musicians who don’t buy their bullshit.”

It was 20 December 2003. It wasn’t the first time police in Lebanon had gone after heavy metal, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Roughly 60 percent of Lebanon is Muslim, but its place on the Mediterranean and its period of French control after World War I have contributed to Lebanon’s striking cultural and religious diversity. Its politics, both internally and in relationship with neighboring countries, are complex as a result. The country is home to a relatively free media and adopted Internet technology early.

However, it has also staged at least three attacks on heavy metal culture. The most recent was last September, when Beirut police rounded up eight metalheads. They sought a dozen more, including concert promoter Elia Mssawir, who had the good fortune to be vacationing in Istanbul when the cops came calling. The charges against Mssawir were dropped before he returned home, but those in custody were charged with blasphemy and drug consumption, according to military court judge Saqr Saqr.

“They belong to an organization that promotes insulting religious rites, which is against the law, and of course there are rituals which they practice,” Saqr Saqr told NOW Lebanon.

After 16 years of persecution, Lebanese metalheads have grown used to it. The trouble began in 1996, when a government committee blacklisted heavy metal music for its alleged ties to the 1994 suicide of a high-ranking military officer's son. Nirvana -- blamed for suicides after frontman Kurt Cobain shot himself -- was also verboten. Before the boy’s death, heavy metal plastered the Lebanese airwaves. After, metalheads who ran afoul of police were fair game.

Bassem Deaïbess, frontman for Lebanon’s Blaakyum, spent a frigid night in a Beirut jail in 1996 for the crime of being a Metallica fan. The next day, he was asked: “Do you practice Nirvana? Do you worship the Devil? What would you do if you were given a cat?” (Police in many Arab nations are puzzlingly convinced that Satanists like to hurt felines.) He was relatively lucky; others received beatings or haircuts at the hands of police.

When Deaïbess, a Christian, showed his interrogator the rosary around his wrist, he was accused of wearing it as “camouflage”. After signing papers promising that he would not listen to Nirvana or worship the Devil, he was released -- only to be arrested again in 2007 for operating a heavy-metal-friendly pub in Beirut.

Each wave of arrests has been an effort by Lebanese leaders to distract the public from a political crisis, such as the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005 or increasing gas prices in 2002, Deaïbess said. “I firmly believe that every time the government needs to distract people from important issues, they will start an attack on metalheads. We are always the scapegoat of this rotten society.”

After the arrests in 2002 and 2003, many metal musicians fled Lebanon for good, weakening the scene. “[Arrests] will happen again. The Lebanese metal community is too weak right now to do much about it. I hope we’ll have enough good records that are supported internationally, so that our voice is so loud they can’t shut it out anymore,” Kaoteon said.

Kaoteon (photographer unknown)

The Devil’s Music

Around the world, heavy metal has been aligned with Satanism in the minds of mainstream culture since Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page bought Aleister Crowley’s Loch Ness mansion, or perhaps even since Robert Johnson, whose blues became the bedrock of metal, struck his mythical deal with the Devil. Given their rebellious nature, many metal musicians have embraced the iconography of Satanism -- the inverted crosses, the pentagrams, the fake blood -- in the same way kids dress up as ghosts and vampires on Halloween, for theatrics and to be part of the fun.

At the height of the Satanic Panic in the '80s and early '90s, many Americans believed that heavy metal music could drive listeners to the occult, suicide, or even murder, as in the case of the recently released West Memphis Three. Anti-heavy-metal action in America culminated with “parental advisory” stickers, prompted by the PMRC’s crusade against a blacklist of objectionable music -- much of it heavy metal.

In most places, music fans can’t be arrested for their listening habits alone. But in countries dominated by faith, particularly those with anti-blasphemy laws, officials don’t appreciate the difference between metal’s “Satanic” theatrics and occasional -- but rare -- violence committed by so-called “Devil worshippers.” They’ve used such laws to lash out at metal musicians and fans. For metalheads in these places, the Satanic Panic is far from over.

The most brutal attacks to date took place this March in Iraq, where a dozen or more emo youth were stoned to death after the Interior Ministry falsely connected emo culture with Satanism. But the attackers -- allegedly militia -- weren’t splitting hairs. Anyone who dressed in black or had unconventional hair, piercings, or tattoos was a target. A Mosul heavy-metal musician told the Human Rights Watch that two of his bandmates had been killed in the attacks.

Why would young people champion a genre of music that risks their freedom or personal safety? For most metalheads, this is more than entertainment; they’re part of a tribe, an extension of themselves. “A Jordanian metal musician said that metal was not a style of music you choose, it chooses YOU,” said Jeremy Wallach, co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe, a collection of essays on metal in places such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, and Easter Island. “Heavy metal fans are not casual fans. Social scientists are finally starting to realize how much the role of music has been underestimated in human history, including recent history.”

In many countries, heavy metal has represented everything that conservative, religiously traditional nations hope to resist: globalization, particularly Westernization; freedom of speech and ideas; democracy. Researchers are investigating heavy metal’s place in the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. It was also there for the Arab Spring, Wallach said.

“Metal just fits the anger, even desperation and disgust that so many young people feel -- there really is no genre of music that captures these feelings the way extreme metal does,” Mark Levine, author of Heavy Metal Islam, told me. “Moreover, since until recently it was quite dangerous to take on regimes directly, singing brutally was a good way to avoid directly opening oneself up to attacks by the government for subversive lyrics, since hardly anyone who’s not a metal fan could understand brutal lyrics sung in English!”

It’s no wonder that countries on the brink of profound change might want to rub out heavy metal. Police surveillance and unpredictable arrests -- of even a few people -- can have a chilling effect on a whole nation, as happened in Lebanon. No metalheads understand this chilling effect better than those in Egypt -- the site of the worst such arrests in history.

The Day the Music Died

Young people in Cairo will never forget 22 January 1997. That night, as more than 100 metalheads headed to bed, Egyptian police burst into their homes. Most were regulars at a place called the Baron’s Palace, an abandoned villa turned illegal hangout for the city’s metalheads. After the arrests, one Egyptian paper claimed the villa was “filled with tattooed, devil-worshipping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats' blood on the palace walls,” according to Levine.

While police rounded up their suspects, they also seized “evidence”, including CDs and cassettes, posters, and black t-shirts -- heavy metal or not. Many of these kids (as young as 13) spent at least two weeks in jail, some as long as 45 days. During that time, they were interrogated, fielding questions from “Do you participate in pagan rituals?” to “Do you skin cats?” Egyptian leader Sheikh Nars Farid Wassil demanded they repent or be executed for apostasy. After finding little evidence against them, a public prosecutor ordered their release.

Levine linked the 1997 crackdown to a rise in extremist activity in Egypt, one which the government struggled -- and failed -- to control; radical Islamists attacked tourist spots in Luxor later that year.

Although there have been no major arrests since, metalheads in Cairo remain cowed, perhaps because military police continue to supervise their gigs. Almost none would speak on the record to Levine, an experience I also faced.

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