Rock Star and Activist Salman Ahmad Still Going Strong

The “Bono of South Asia” is still in fine form.

More than two decades after Pakistani-American rock star and activist Salman Ahmad began a musical journey that has preached peace and coexistence while selling tens of millions of albums along the way, he is going strong.

I have interviewed Ahmad for The Progressive, but I saw him perform for the first time Sunday night at a conference here in Washington, D.C. The night was memorable because he reunited on stage with a former bandmate, Junaid Jamshed, after eighteen years.

After both Jamshed and Ahmad left a band they had initially formed, Vital Signs, Jamshed became intensely religious and nowadays just sings religious hymns (though he made an exception Sunday night). Ahmad, for his part, went on to form a band called Junoon (“Passion”) that has regaled the whole of South Asia and countless South Asians globally. Ahmad has been compared to Bob Marley and John Lennon for his social conscience (which has gotten him into trouble with South Asian authorities and fundamentalists a number of times). He has collaborated with musical giants like Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel and Melissa Etheridge. Ahmad currently teaches a course at Queens College while regularly performing around the world.

Junoon has as its hallmark danceable songs with lyrics preaching tolerance and love. To this end, it has used Sufi Islam as a touchstone belief.

“Why Sufism attracts me is that it is a search for knowledge—seeking who you are,” Ahmad told me two years ago. “The whole message of Sufi mystics was knowing yourself, and through knowing yourself, knowing God. When you really see with the heart and connect with God, love for humanity comes automatically.”

In the concert, Ahmad wore his influences on his sleeve, singing Sufi classics that have been famous in the region forever. And the concert ended with Ahmad and Jamshed doing a version of “Imagine.”

But Ahmad is not just busy on the musical front. He and his wife, Samina, have set up a foundation that has recently adopted a Pakistani village in an attempt to make it a model for the rest of the country.

And his activism has a more cutting edge, too. As a Pakistani American, Ahmad has been outspoken against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.

“As a U.N. goodwill ambassador and an artist with a conscience, I want to use this opportunity to register my protest against the indiscriminate use of U.S. drones in the war in Afghanistan," he recently wrote in an open letter to Tim Lenderking, the State Department official in charge of the Pakistan desk. “These drones are radicalizing more youth than Al Qaeda or the Taliban can ever hope to do and are not even considered a game changer in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is more anti-Americanism now in Pakistan than there was during the Bush era.”

Ahmad keeps on rocking on – and rocking the boat.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Elliott Abrams and Bernard Lewis Tutor Paul Ryan."

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