The line between terrorist and revolutionary is sometimes fuzzy. Che Guevara’s guerilla tactics made him unpopular among many in his day, but time has transformed him into a global pin-up. Could the same ever happen to Osama bin Laden? Will his calls for death and destruction one day be seen as the desperate pleas of a freedom fighter? Will his bearded visage be plastered onto merchandise and sold to millions of rebellious teenagers?
These are questions hardly anyone dared to ask in public, until British punk rocker Aki Nawaz and his group Fun-Da-Mental produced their latest album, All is War (The Benefits of G-Had). It is an explosive mix of the kind of politically powerful lyrics that could have MI5 knocking at your door. It is so contentious that Nawaz’s own record label has refused to support it and the distributors decided not to touch it.
‘I’m not just a musician, my political tentacles are up,’ says Nawaz. He is a veteran punk and despite the name, Fun-Da-Mental are many years older than the recent spread of religious fundamentalism. Nawaz began his career in the 1980s as the drummer with Southern Death Cult (better known in a later incarnation as goth rockers The Cult), and then became a hero to many British Asian teenagers who grew up in the 1990s listening to his angry lyrics packed with feelings of cultural detachment and disaffection.
He secured a place as the founding father of British Asian music many years ago when he created Nation Records, a label that gave a home to artists such as Asian Dub Foundation, Natacha Atlas and Talvin Singh when no other record company was interested in them. While these musicians went on to stardom, Fun-Da-Mental stayed true to their radical political roots and have maintained a small but devoted following ever since.
I last interviewed Nawaz two years ago, after the Iraq war began and before the London bombings. A seasoned anti-racism campaigner, he was showing signs of weariness and considered leaving Britain to live in Pakistan and do charity work. Instead of moving abroad, however, he has spent more than a year making All is War. It is his attempt to shake up the system and he admits, with a smile, that he has willingly crossed a line.
The album’s release date was uncomfortably close to the anniversary of the London bombings – not the wisest move – and the media reaction has been unsurprisingly vociferous. ‘Fury at suicide bomb rap,’ proclaimed the Sun, echoed by the Guardian and NME. The BBC went so far as to contact the Home Office to find out whether Nawaz was in contravention of the Terrorism Act.
‘They’re so consumed with finding the bogeyman. I stepped out of the box of acceptability, so they went after me,’ says Nawaz. Most of the fuss has been over two songs: ‘Che Bin’, a track that compares Osama Bin Laden to Che Guevara, and ‘Cookbook DIY’, describing the steps taken by a terrorist in assembling a chemical bomb:
I’m strapped up ’cross my chest, bomb belt attached
Deeply satisfied with the plan I hatched
Electrodes connected to a gas cooker lighter
It’s not easy listening, but to pick out single lines from an entire album for attack is unfair. Some internet blogs have suggested that Nawaz is only trying to court publicity by writing songs about suicide bombing and terrorism. But there is plenty of evidence of Fun-Da-Mental’s musical abilities in All is War, particularly the use of Quwaali singers, dhol drums, and African rhythms, alongside a variety of strong voices and languages.
The songs take a ride across so many different countries and cultures that the finished album is almost a world music compilation. There are some masterful mixes that bear testament to Nawaz’s global journeys from Kashmir to Brazil.
All is War follows the same vein as Fun-Da-Mental’s earlier albums, with dark and melodic sounds laid beneath tough, chanting lyrics. The band’s political tone, however, has shifted away from simply issues of identity and race towards those of Muslim persecution and the relationship between terrorism and war. Producing another truly global album has allowed Fun-Da-Mental to step outside the British experience of terrorism.
‘I was in the Amazon last year, in the middle of nowhere,’ Nawaz says of a recent trip. ‘All the people in the lodge where I was staying told me, “Viva Osama!” – after the Americans had left.’
For someone in Britain to suggest that Osama Bin Laden is anything other than a bloodthirsty terrorist is tantamount to denouncing yourself as a fully paid-up member of Al-Qaeda with a bomb under your mattress. But for many in the Arab world and beyond, Osama is already a hero. It is an uncomfortable truth, forcing questions that western governments haven’t been brave enough to confront. Indeed, new legislation against the glorification of terrorism has put a stopper on any discussion even before it has begun. Nawaz says he is trying to open up the debate, even if it means landing himself in prison.
‘I wouldn’t mind the terrorism laws if there had been a debate before they came in. I don’t think the glorification of terrorism law would have been passed if there had been a debate first. I make it my business to sit and talk with people right across the spectrum, from the hardcore to the liberal,’ he says.
Nawaz has travelled the world speaking to everyone from Islamic scholars and academics to young Muslims in an effort to understand the root causes of the fury that has lead to violence. One could argue that there are few people better placed to understand such anger than a punk rocker. He is a liberal Muslim and has studied the Qur’an and sharia law to try to sift the facts about his religion from the fiction. His conclusion is that terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam is all about politics, not religion.
‘There’s a complete and utter denial of the relationship to this with foreign policy,’ he says. ‘On 7 July last year my son was on his way to King’s Cross. For anyone to think I would condone the attacks on London is ridiculous. I just understand the catalyst. My anger comes from the causes of terrorism.’
His grievance lies with those who he says have hijacked the debate and turned it into something other than a political problem. ‘Parasites’ is a track that describes what Nawaz says is the ‘blood-sucking nature’ of the government and Muslim community leaders who misrepresent the people they claim to protect:
Gold glitters in their mouths
Most of them corrupt
They lay claim to be your countrymen
He wears a crown of knowledge, preaching morality, decency and deceit
This is political poetry at its rawest, and repeats a charge made widely about some establishment figures who have exploited their arbitrary position as spokespeople for the British Muslim community to voice opinions that many fellow Muslims don’t share.
Far from advocating terrorism or suicide bombing, Nawaz says that he wants to create a fresh political debate that addresses the neglected issue of Western foreign policy. He argues that righting the wrongs of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan is the key to ending Muslim resentment, not racial integration. ‘I Reject’ articulates the frustration he feels:
Reject your thieving foreign policies
Reject your elitist congregation
Reject your mini skirt liberation
Reject your concept of integration
His efforts, as he puts it, to broaden the debate with songs like this have been met with only criticism so far. ‘What disappoints me most is the silence,’ he says. ‘Unless we talk about it, things will get worse. Something will happen; someone will blow up the queen. My question is: how do we put the handbrake on?’