Muslim rockers inspired by Pink Floyd take on Turkey

KAS, Turkey — What do you get when you mix a medieval Sufi poet with one of the greatest '70s rock acts of all time?

A Muslim rock band led by a Turkish imam whose music is an Islamic version of peace and love.

"If I hurt your heart, I believe that I hurt God's heart," says Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, bedecked in the white robe he wears when leading the faithful to prayer in the tiny village of Pinarbasi near Turkey's Mediterranean coastline. "If we love each other, we will be very happy this life and the next life."

But Tuzer's melding of influences from 13th century Sufi poet Rumi and 1970s rock band Pink Floyd is attracting attention from Turkey's religious establishment, which has been expanding its authority over Turkish society under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The mufti in charge of the region's mosque confirmed that the Rockin' Imam is being investigated.

"In the (religious affairs directorate) we have certain common values," mufti Ahmet Celik told USA TODAY from his office in the city of Antalya. "(Investigators) are looking into it to see if there's anything against these values."

Tuzer, 42, is an accomplished muezzin — the one who sings the call to prayer — and had earlier been posted in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet quarter that houses the ancient Ottoman capital with many of its most famous mosques.

Tuzer says he spent the last two years exploring Sufi mysticism and he'd long had an interest in singing, drawing inspiration from the late Freddie Mercury of the British band Queen.

Earlier this year, Tuzer met some veteran rock musicians in the nearby seaside town of Kas, a touristy fishing village where he was born and raised. He decided he'd like to fuse his love of rock music with the beauty contained in Islamic verse and he began to write songs with Dogan Sakin, a guitarist who's played with some of the most well-known musicians in Turkey.

The collaboration begat FiRock, which combines Tuzer's lilting vocals with Sakin's metal guitar riffs. With his long, grey hair and tattooed arms and legs, Sakin looks the part of the veteran rocker. Sakin is not religious but says he believes in the group's message.

"I felt this would be something beautiful directly from the heart," Sakin said. "Without that feeling, I wouldn't be here."

"We could play ney and bende (traditional Turkish instruments) but that wouldn't attract much attention," Sakin said. "It would be too traditional and wouldn't work. But with rock, it's universal."

In the band's first concert in Kas in August, Tuzer took the stage in the long white robe usually reserved for an imam leading prayers. About a thousand people listened to songs that included the band's first recorded single, Mevlaya Gel ("Come to the Creator").

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.

But the band could threaten Tuzer's livelihood. In Turkey, imams are employed by the government's religious affairs directorate, which supervises the country's mosques. Soon after news of FiRock broke Tuzer found himself under investigation by his employer.

Under the law, there are rules about what kind of business imams can engage in outside of their profession as religious figures. Mosque officials are examining whether being in a rock band constitutes a commercial activity.

Meanwhile, the band released its first single and music video on YouTube — getting around 20,000 hits — and is recording its first album.

FiRock's ambition is to show a side of Islam that's often overshadowed by violent Islamist radicals to the detriment of all.

"Islam is peaceful. Islam is respect," Tuzer said. "Islam is moral — and beautifully moral. We want to live like that."

Turkey is a modern society but is polarized between a growing religiously conservative sector that for the past decade have been the power base for Turkey's Islamic-rooted government under Erdogan.

Some Turks who look westward for their music and fashion feel threatened by recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol and dictates about family size — one of the roots of protests in cities across Turkey over the summer..

Sakin says the band wants to help heal the division in Turkish society.

"Why should we be so polarized? We embrace everybody," he said. "What good is it to be polarized for the rest of our lives?"