Holy Rollers

Turkey’s Rock and Roll Imam Under Investigation

Turkish authorities are investigating whether the imam of a Mediterranean mosque can continue his rock band, or whether the genre is incompatible with Islam.

Courtesy Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer

ISTANBUL—Is rock music incompatible with Islam? That’s the question facing the preacher of a small village mosque in southern Turkey, who is under official investigation for singing in a band in his spare time.

Religious authorities have launched an investigation into whether Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, 42, can keep his job as imam in the mosque of Pinarkoy, a hamlet of some 80 people near the town of Kas on the Mediterranean coast. In Pinarkoy, Tuzer calls the faithful to prayer over a public address system at his mosque and leads the community in five daily prayers. There have been no complaints about his conduct in his main job, but his hobby has made religious leaders uneasy.

“I have heard that the decision will come in two to three weeks,” Tuzer said by telephone from Pinarkoy last week. Whatever the verdict will be, “I will continue to play music.”

Tuzer’s career as a rock singer took off in August when he performed his first and, so far, only concert with his band, FiRock, in Kas, drawing around a thousand people as well as reporters and camera teams that turned the “Rocking Imam”, as he is now called, into a minor celebrity.

Fuzer cheerfully admitted that the concert was designed “to make us well-known,” but insisted that there was more to his hobby than just PR. “If music reaches people’s hearts and fills them with beautiful ideas, then it is an act of worship,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is or what kind of instruments you play, it’s the intention that counts.”

Tuzer said his band’s music did not contain references to Satan, sex or violence. “We don’t play Death Metal, you know.”

One of his songs, “Come to God”, is about man’s search for religious enlightenment. The video clip for the song shows the band performing against the backdrop of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century church that was later turned into a mosque and is a museum today.

FiRock recorded its first album, “Time for Change”, in Istanbul and hopes to release it in the coming weeks, Tuzer said. “The album will resonate around the world.”

The album’s scheduled release coincides with the expected decision on Tuzer’s future as Imam.

All of Turkey’s 80,000 mosques, including Tuzer’s village mosque in Pinarkoy, are run by the Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet in Turkish, a state agency with more than a hundred thousand employees and a multi-billion dollar budget. Imams like Tuzer are civil servants and bound by the rules of the Diyanet headquarters in the capital, Ankara.

When Tuzer’s musical ambitions became public, the Diyanet sent an inspector to Pinarkoy and Kas to interview the imam and local people. “He even talked to atheists in the bars of Kas”, Tuzer said. He added that he understood the Diyanet’s need to probe his hobby.

It is not the first time Tuzer’s behaviour has raised eyebrows in the religious bureaucracy. While working in a mosque in Istanbul in 1997, he met his future wife, Oana Mara, who was a Christian at the time. Tuzer said he resisted pressure to make her convert to Islam. “I don’t have the right to interfere,” he said, adding that Oana Mara became Muslim three years ago of her own free will. The couple has an 11-year-old son.

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Tuzer said he founded FiRock in May and went into rehearsals for the concert in Kas. Rock music of different stripes is wildly popular in Turkey and can sometimes have political undertones.

When Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd member, performed his “Wall” album in Istanbul in August, he commented on the anti-government unrest that swept Turkey earlier in the summer and was applauded when he spoke of “state terror”.

In 2009, five rock fans waiting outside the entrance to a festival in Istanbul were detained by police after they were seen giving the sign of the horns, a salute of heavy metal fans, near the passing convoy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The signs were interpreted by police as an insult to Erdogan, but the fans were later released.

For Tuzer, things may not be that easy. Mustafa Aydin, deputy director of the Diyanet branch in Antalya province, reminded the “Rocking Imam” in September that hobbies—which would be regarded as normal in other jobs—could lead to problems in his case. “Being an imam is not an ordinary profession,” Aydin said.

While religious experts in Ankara ponder the question of what to do with Tuzer, the “Rocking Imam” and his band plan their next career steps. “We want to play all over the world,” he said. Niki Kaiser, an artist in Oakland, CA, offered help to set up concerts in the United States, he said, although no dates had been confirmed yet. “All this will come after the album has been released,” he said.

Religious authorities in Ankara have not commented on the outcome of their probe, but Tuzer said it was possible that they would ask him to give up rock music. “They may say that if they allow me to go on, they will have to deal with a Jazz imam or a Rap imam next time,” he said. “It would mean they have no control anymore.”

But Tuzer said he would not accept such a result without a fight. “I will take them to court if they decide that way,” he said.