Muslim Cleric In Turkey Moonlights As A Rock Musician

Image Joe Parkinson, Wall Street Journal - PINARBASI, Turkey— Ahmet Tuzer's motto could be: I rock, therefore imam. By day, the 42-year old Muslim cleric chants the Azan—the Islamic call to prayer—from a small mosque in the coastal village of Pinarbasi, where he preaches to about 150 people. By night, he preaches the gospel of Led Zeppelin, singing about a different stairway to heaven with his four-piece rock band, FiRock, led by Mr. Tuzer and heavily tattooed metal guitarist Dogan Sakin.

FiRock—whose name is derived from math's "golden ratio," or the divine proportion of things—is soon to release its first album after playing in several Turkish towns. Videos of the band's biggest hit, "Come to God," have garnered more than 50,000 hits on YouTube and have been screened on Turkish TV channels. Mr. Tuzer wears his hair long and his jeans skinny.

Mr. Tuzer, a third-generation imam who took up religious responsibilities at the age of 19, says the band combines Islamic mysticism with the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen to spread a message of peace and tolerance. At home, he headbangs to Iron Maiden's "Fear of the Dark" and Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam." He says there is no contradiction between religion and heavy metal, and he is hoping to attract younger people to the faith by carving out a new genre: Muslim rock.

Ahmet Tuzer performed with his rock band, FiRock, in a music video. 'Music is one of the ways to get closer to the God,' he says. Ahmet Tuzer

"There are many old Islamic hymns and songs, but young people today don't listen to them. Our aim is to wrap these songs into rock, blues and psychedelic music, if necessary, to create a style that the young people like," Mr. Tuzer said. "Music is one of the ways to get closer to the God."

But the man who has become known as Turkey's "Rocking Imam" is also rocking religious authorities here, drawing the ire of conservatives and sparking a debate about how Turkish holy men are supposed to behave.

Turkey's religious directorate, the Diyanet, in September began to investigate whether Mr. Tuzer's activities were "un-Islamic" after he played an August gig in the seaside town of Kas. As one of around 100,000 imams in Turkey—all state employees who work in Sunni run mosques—Mr. Tuzer's actions are governed by a clerical code.

Abdul Kadir Ozkan, a Diyanet spokesman, refused to give details on Mr. Tuzer's case but stressed, "If a public official wants to appear on television or in concert he needs to get permission…We are conducting an investigation."

Mr. Tuzer says he isn't making money from his music and insists there is nothing in his lyrics that could offend anyone. "I'm not singing about Satan, sex or violence here," he says. "Its not death metal!" He plans to appeal if the investigation orders him to choose between the band and his state-financed job preaching the book.
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Ahmed Tuzer prays with locals in the mosque in Pinarbasi. Mathias Depardon for The Wall Street Journal

Minor celebrity status has also brought other unwelcome attention, drawing threats from more conservative Muslims on social media. For Mr. Tuzer, the reaction speaks to a broader question about what it means to be an imam: "The image of Islam is suffering right now, and we need to lead our community. If being an imam means solely acting within a framework of rules and taboos, it's not for me."

Mr. Tuzer is an unexpected contrast to some Western stereotypes of an Islamic holy man. Baby-faced and clean-shaven, he has a fashion sense more in keeping with rock star than with preacher. On a recent day at the village mosque he calls home, he wore white skinny jeans, a red military-style jacket and zip-up leather boots with Cuban heels. He is active on Twitter and Facebook and dreams of recording with Madonna, an artist he says shares his affinities for "spirituality" and "breaking boundaries." The ringtone on his smartphone is George Michael's "Careless Whisper," although his wife says he changes it "at least once a week."

Mr. Tuzer's views on some sensitive religious subjects such as homosexuality could also surprise some. He says his guiding inspiration in the physical world is Freddie Mercury, the Queen frontman and longtime gay icon who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991.

"I try to channel Freddie when I rehearse and perform. I don't think there will be another man like him again—he left a legacy of beautiful values," the imam said.
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Ahmed Tuzer chants the Azan. Mathias Depardon for The Wall Street Journal

Given his small record sales and a thin rock pedigree, it could be tempting to belittle the imam's musical ambitions. But FiRock's lead, guitarist Dogan Sakin, goes some way to compensating for the holy man's lack of chops. Now 53 and graying—but still rocking his hair below the shoulders—the guitarist has for three decades played with some of Turkey's notable hard-rock outfits.

Ahmet and Dogan aren't exactly Mick and Keith.

"If he was a typical imam I couldn't work with him," Mr. Sakin says. Lighting one cigarette from the butt of another, he adds: "I'm a rocker. I like a drink, I don't live up to expectations of a religious life. But it works. He learns from me musically and I learn from him spiritually."

FiRock isn't the first time Mr. Tuzer has tested boundaries in Turkey: When he married his wife, Ana Mara, a Romanian Orthodox Christian in 2000, he was the first state-employed imam in Turkey to wed outside the faith.

She later converted to Islam but doesn't cover her head. The couple has a 13-year-old son.

"My husband has an unusual style," she said as Mr. Tuzer scrolled through videos of his band rehearsing on his smartphone. "But I'm so glad he's doing what he was born to do."

In sleepy Pinarbasi village, the mostly retired locals also appear supportive, if a little perplexed by Mr. Tuzer's mission to fuse religion and rock.

After afternoon prayers on Thursday, Yusuf Acar, the 67-year-old village headman—equivalent to a local councilor—said he was supporting the imam's musical adventure and had even been to a recent gig, which he described as "nice."

"We wish him good luck and we're proud of him, of course," said Mr. Acar, He added that he didn't listen to the imam's music at home as hearing his call to prayer was "quite enough."

With attention for his band growing but his day job now at stake, Mr. Tuzer is mulling FiRock's next steps. The band's new album, "Time of Change," is due for release later this month. Niki Kaiser, a folk artist from Oakland, Calif., offered help to set up concerts in the U.S., although no dates are confirmed yet.

"We want to play all over the world…If the authorities try to stop me, I will fight them in court," he says. "The Prophet Muhammad would have approved of my mission."

—Ayla Albayrak contributed to this article.


Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07