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Mona Alami

Turkey's "rock 'n' roll" imam draws praise and controversy

Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer issues the call to prayer by day and YouTube videos by night

Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer
FiRock
Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer
FiRock performs

In a YouTube video filmed in front of a massive mosque, a man dressed in white jeans and a T-shirt sings passionately in Turkish. What appears to be just another random rock video is not: the band’s lead singer, Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, is also a local imam, and his hobby has triggered much controversy in the country.

 

With his customary tight pants and grungy top, 42-year-old Tuzer looks more comfortable on a stage than inside the Mediterranean mosque where, five times a day, he sounds the call to prayer. 

 

“The residents of my village belong to the older generation. They don’t really understand rock music, but they are still very supportive of me,” he jokes. Interviews with locals from Pinarbasi, Tuzer’s hometown, seemed to confirm the imam’s description. “I think it’s great that our village has an imam like this and that he has a hobby,” said one elderly woman.

 

Tuzer, who says his idols are Freddie Mercury, Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Dire Straits, memorized the Quran at the age of four. “I studied in high school, and after graduation, I was appointed as imam,” he explains. Tuzer’s youthful passion for rock music did not fade away when the state employed him as a cleric. On the contrary, the unconventional imam decided to unite his two passions for God and music in his first single with Dogan Sakin, “Mevlaya Gel” (Come to God), which has attracted more than 42,000 views since it was posted to YouTube in July. His band, FiRock, followed up on this track with several other videos such as “Brothers in Arms,” “The Show Must Go On,” and “Enter, Sandman.” Their next album, Time of Change, will be released next month.

 

The band stirred significant controversy during their August concert, in which Tuzer donned his imam’s robe on stage. While the performance earned him the nickname “the rock 'n' roll imam,” it also prompted an official response.

 

“I was investigated by the Diyanet (the Department of Religious Affairs) after the concert,” says Tuzer. Still, the imam notes that no measures have been taken against him and that the Diyanet, which manages all imams within Turkey’s civil service, has not yet released the result of the investigation.

 

Tuzer is nonetheless used to controversy. A decade ago, while acting as muezzin for a mosque in Istanbul, he married Mara, a Romanian woman who later converted to Islam and is today one of his greatest fans. 

 

But the “rock 'n' roll imam” sees no harm in his music, arguing that it appeals to younger people, intellectuals, and people of different faiths – or no faith at all. “My music is all-inclusive. It talks about God, about the search for one’s identity, in mysticism; everyone and everything goes back to God,” he says. Tuzer complains that he does not understand the controversy surrounding his second career, adding that music can help reach out to everyone and combat negative stereotypes of Islam.

 

“People see frightening images of war in the region and forget that Islam is about respect, tolerance, and love of others. Music can change that perception.”

The "rocking imam." (Image courtesy of Ahmet Tuzer)

“My music is all-inclusive. It talks about God, about the search for one’s identity, in mysticism; everyone and everything goes back to God."