Meet Salman Ahmad of Junoon, a band that has sold tens of millions of albums and driven countless fans mad with frenzy, all the while propagating a message of peace and love. Ahmad has been called the "Bono of South Asia" and has been compared to Bob Marley and John Lennon for his social conscience. Over the years, Ahmad has performed with everyone from Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel to Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan.
And, yet, he's little known in the United States. Even the receptionists at Queens College in New York, where he teaches, didn't seem to know who he was. But at least his students do.
Born in Pakistan, Ahmad was raised as a teen in the New York area when his father, an airline executive, moved to the United States. As an immigrant kid, he had to endure racism. "I put up with nicknames like 'eight ball' (for my dark skin) and 'wacky packy,'" he writes in his book. He became mesmerized by rock-and-roll and formed a band while in high school. In a decision that was to transform his life, his father decided to move back to Pakistan in the early '80s. But the country had changed from the relatively liberal 1970s to an officially decreed puritanical state led by U.S.-backed dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Culture of any sort, including music, was frowned upon. Ahmad became a target of such attitudes. A fundamentalist smashed his guitar during his first college performance.
Undaunted, Ahmad pursued his dreams, and after a number of detours, including a medical degree and almost getting chosen for the Pakistani cricket team, he finally made it big in the late 1980s. Initially, the band he led was called Vital Signs, but he soon left it because he wanted his songs to be more meaningful. So, Ahmad formed Junoon, which means "passion." The band's first huge hit was an upbeat patriotic song called "Jazba-e-Junoon" (The Spirit of Passion), and the rest is history.
Or not quite. He's had several run-ins with South Asian authorities and fundamentalists over the band's attempts to combat misgovernance and foster pluralism and coexistence in South Asia.
As part of its project of coexistence, Junoon performed in Kashmir in 2008 -- the first public concert since a violent insurgency started there two decades ago. Junoon received death threats before the performance from the United Jihad Council, a militant umbrella organization. "As much as you want to sacrifice your life for peace, you don't want to die," Ahmad jokingly says. But the band was undeterred.
"When we went on to play, it was the most incredible illustration of the power of music," he remembers about the concert, which thousands of young Kashmiris attended. "You had the Dal Lake, the Himalayan mountains, and everyone singing our songs. The Jihad Council was nowhere in sight."
Ahmad patiently refutes the notion that Islam encourages violence.
"If you read the Holy Book, the Koran, the verses in it are very clear: If you take one life, it is like killing the whole of humanity; if you save one life, it is like saving the whole of humanity," Ahmad says. "Suicide is prohibited. There are no gray areas here."
Ahmad celebrates the Sufi strain of Islam that has peace and harmony at its core, showcasing the religion's softer, lovelorn side.
"Why Sufism attracts me is that it is a search for knowledge -- seeking who you are," he says. "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."
This message has proven to be enormously popular in South Asia.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive, is the author of the soon-to-be published " 'Islam' Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today" (Praeger).