The Heavy Metal Witch Hunt Lives On

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.

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

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

“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.”