A Muslim imam in a small town in Turkey has been slowly but steadily garnering attention as the front man of a 1970’s-style rock band. His stated aim is the marriage of religion to popular music as a means of propagating Islam. And while his Muslim higher-ups like the message, they do not seem to like the medium. An internal investigation will apparently determine if he can continue to rock the Casbah.
Ahmet Tuzer, a forty-two year old imam, spends his days chanting the azhan – the Islamic call to prayer – from his small mosque in the village of Pinarbasi. It is a village of only fourteen households located on a hillside above the town of Kas on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The size of his flock notwithstanding, he is an accomplished muezzin — the one who sings the azhan — and was previously posted to the historic Sultanahmet quarter of Istanbul that houses many of the ancient Ottoman capital’s most famous mosques.
In addition to his religious calling, the imam has had a long-running interest in singing and in that pursuit draws inspiration from the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. Earlier this year, he met some veteran Turkish rockers in his hometown of Kas and decided to try to marry Islamic verse to fist-pumping guitar chords. He began to write songs with accomplished guitarist Dogan Sakin and the collaboration resulted in the formation of a four-piece outfit named FiRock. In August, the band played its first concert in Kas and an enthusiastic crowd of approximately one thousand people listened to songs that included the band’s first recorded single, “Mevlaya Gel” (“Come to the Creator”).
Tuzer told a Public Radio International broadcast that Islamist radicals have tarnished his faith’s image and that his aim is to show that that’s not the full story:
“’Everything is God. Everyone is God. We believe that, and if I hurt your heart, I believe that I hurt God’s heart. If we love each other, we will be very happy this life and the next life.’
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‘Islam is peaceful. Islam is respect. Islam is law and everything. Islam is moral – ad beautiful moral. We want to live like that.’”
Veteran ax man, Sakin – who is not religious but believes in the group’s message – told USA Today:
“’I felt this would be something beautiful directly from the heart (sic). Without that feeling, I wouldn’t be here. We could play ney and bende (traditional Turkish instruments) but that wouldn’t attract much attention. It would be too traditional and wouldn’t work. But with rock, it’s universal.’”
The same USA Today story reported that all are not thrilled with Tuzer’s efforts with FiRock:
“The image of an imam on stage with seasoned rockers created a sensation in Turkey. But not everyone grooved on their musical message. After the show Tuzer says insults and even threats poured in on Twitter and other social media.
‘The radical Islamist public, they don’t like my music, my stuff because they cannot understand,’ he said.”
Not only did Tuzer’s act bring down the house, it also brought down the heat. As an imam, he is a public employee and subject to regulation by the Religious Affairs Directorate in Turkey. Until last summer, he had not been on its radar screen, but now he most definitely is.
By law, there are rules about what kind of business imams can engage in outside of their professional religious offices. Mufti Ahmet Celik confirmed from his office in Antalya that Tuzer is being investigated for possible violations of those rules for his singing with FiRock. Critical to that inquiry is whether being in a rock band constitutes a commercial activity.
In the interim – and maybe helping to answer that question – the band released its first music video on YouTube and is recording an album. Revenues from that album may buy Tuzer one career and cost him another.