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Making peace through music

August 02, 2011

My last two columns were angry, and they provoked some angry responses. We’re all angry. These are angry times. One commenter last week pointed to several Western media outlets that he claimed were correctly describing the Oslo killings as terrorism, to accuse me of “nefariously trying to create an issue where none exists.” But an issue most certainly – and most unfortunately – does exist; Western media and publics overwhelmingly, and unfairly, associate terrorism almost exclusively with Muslims. The reader posted his comment two days after my article was published, and four days after I wrote it. Four days is a long time in terms of today’s media cycles, and I believe that those of us who pushed hard and early to insist that Anders Behring Breivik’s actions be called by their true name made a real difference. (It’s also telling to note that most of the media outlets the commenter cited were Canadian or British, not American.)

As President Obama’s timid response to the alarming crisis fomented by the right wing over the American debt ceiling shows all too vividly, it’s at least as dangerous to be conciliatory or sanguine toward extremist elements as it is to challenge them head-on. But there are different ways to challenge extremism. Anger is often justified and sometimes necessary, but it can take us only so far. I’d much rather spend my limited time and energy building bridges than pointing fingers, which is why I’m an ambassador for the wonderful Sonic Peacemakers project.

Sonic Peacemakers is a “peace through music” initiative that features some big names, including the Pakistani singer Atif Aslam, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, and members of the legendary American rock group Guns ‘n’ Roses. The prime movers are Los Angeles-based producer Lanny Cordola and humanitarian and musician Todd Shea, whom many Pakistanis already know well. University of California-Irvine professor Mark LeVine, author of the book Heavy Metal Islam, is also a supporter.

Last week Todd and Lanny came to Seattle, where I live, on short notice, and they brought Atif Aslam with them. I hadn’t met Atif before, and I was impressed with what I saw of his character and his commitment. He was here to play a concert on Friday and, despite rather challenging complications, he arrived near midnight Thursday at a private home to urge Seattle-area Pakistanis to support Sonic Peacemakers. “I’m playing my part,” he told them. “And my question to you guys is, are you playing your part?” This is one of the great questions of our time, because there’s so much for all of us to do.

“Peace doesn’t just happen,” Lanny insisted on Saturday in my backyard, just before he and Todd rushed to a local Pakistan Day picnic and from there to the airport to return to L.A. “It needs to be made. And it starts with each of us. The most important thing about it for me is that music can be used to do tremendous good and inspire people,” added Todd.

“Our three biggest aims are to show the true Pakistan, to spread peace between Pakistanis and Americans, and to give voice to the most vulnerable children,” said Lanny. “I don’t think there’s any higher purpose than helping suffering children.” Proceeds from planned CDs and other projects will support a range of established organizations that are already doing just that in Pakistan.

Todd sees Sonic Peacemakers as also “helping the people of America, especially its young people, because young people are always the agents of change. It’s also about changing hearts and minds here. Each person that buys into this kind of thing becomes a factory of good. And the people that they touch, and the ripples, can be transformative for America.” Lanny is a veteran of the Los Angeles rock scene and a thorough pro, with the connections and savvy that are needed to make Sonic Peacemakers successful on the scale necessary to make a big impact. He’s also a visionary and an eloquent spokesman for what should be possible; just being in his company is good for the soul. He’s prone to quoting scriptures of several religions as well as great minds like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who said: “As a writer or artist, even though I run no state and command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper and out of this vast brotherhood, the nearest to me and the dearest, are the insulted and the humiliated, the homeless and the disinherited, the poor, the hungry, and the sick at heart.”

Lanny has been to Pakistan twice with Todd and loves the country. When American friends ask him why, he tells them, “There’s something there that’s extremely powerful, and there’s a spirit there that I’ve never experienced in America.” He wants to bring together not just the musical but also the spiritual, social, and cultural aspects of the two countries, and he sees many parallels and analogues between them. One of his musical and spiritual heroes is John Coltrane, whose daughter Michele last week graced what Lanny tells me was a “spectacular” Sonic Peacemakers fundraiser near Los Angeles.

“I see parallels between him and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,” says Lanny. He notes other analogues: Iqbal and the great American national poet Walt Whitman, for example, or Edhi and Dr. Paul Farmer. “Each place has those threads,” he stresses. “If you elect to look deeper than the surface, you’ll see the most miraculous things.”

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.