(The Stamford Advocate, a major Connecticut newspaper in the U.S., ran a portion of journalist Malerie Yolen-Cohen's essay on Pakistani Pop star Najam Sheraz in her religion column, Synagogue and Beyond, on February 7, 2009. Here is the original column, with the headline "Muslim Singer is Striving for Peace", in its entirety.)
Stamford Advocate SYNAGOGUE AND BEYOND, a column by Malerie Yolen-Cohen
February 7, 2009
MUSLIM SINGER IS STRIVING FOR PEACE
Mix together the sexy charisma of Tom Jones, the earnest crooning of Yanni, the peacenik strivings of John Lennon, throw in a little Praise the Lord, add clear-eyed tackling of taboo social issues and you've got Pakistani singing star, Najam Sheraz.
Why am I writing about this Muslim guy in my Jewish column, you might ask? Because, frankly, for the moment, at least, I'm really tired of death and destruction, racial slurs and hatred. So for now I'd like to focus on something good; and in this case it's a world-wise Muslim with a platform to denounce extremism and promote peaceful thinking.
I first learned of Najam through my High School pal, Janet Goodman, who writes country music and acts as Sheraz's publicist. "He's trying to change the world," she told me. "Not too grand a goal" I thought, I'll admit, quite sarcastically.
Janet, who lives in Florida, met Najam who hails from Karachi, in that international melting-pot called MySpace. "He wrote that my Christmas song made him cry," Janet told me. "And I was intrigued. A Christmas song made a Muslim cry?"
Janet began to research Najam Sheraz and discovered that he wasn't just a moony-eyed fan commenting from some war-torn country. He was actually a household name in Pakistan and India – who has managed to make music across every genre. With his roots in rock and pop, Sheraz crossed over into religious compositions (his Hamds – or liturgical songs – have sold millions) and official State music (his is the version of Pakistan's National Anthem now in use).
Sheraz is not afraid of controversy, either; he was one of several Pakistani citizens interviewed for the 2005 BBC documentary, The Battle For Islam – how Muslims in 5 countries are trying to win back the soul of Islam from extremists. And a music video made from his new album, "Najam" that depicts teen pregnancy and domestic abuse has created awareness of these issues and is forcing open discussion. ("Despite all of his other achievements," Janet said, "this is what the talks show hosts want to ask him about.").
But it is his quest for tolerance, dialog, respect and yes, love, that caught my interest. "Fire can burn or fire can provide light – it is up to us how to use it," he states on his MySpace page. To this end, he co-wrote and performs in English his peace anthem - "Only Love" – a sort of "Imagine" for the religious set.
Only Love – which exhorts listeners to "forget the past; lets give each other a chance; only love can break the chains" – was performed on April 16th, when the Olympic Torch passed through Islamabad. He sang it again in June at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the 2008 World Peace for Life Concert, urging his audience to know how important it is that we relate on all different levels; spiritually, socially and intellectually. And he was one of the most popular performers in London for the October 25th and 26th 2008 Global Peace and Unity Event, drawing a crowd of 21,000. "The East London crowd was mostly Arab, and when I finished singing, each and every hand was in the air to show the support," Sheraz wrote to me.
How can Sheraz be so outspoken in such a closed society? I asked Janet. "His religious CD's are hits and his voice is on the National Anthem, so I think he can get away with things that others might not," she surmised.
For his part, Sheraz is launching no less than a "No War, Only Love" tour with his song Only Love as anthem, and plans to perform it in both the Western and Eastern worlds in Spring 2009. "My Western friends feel scared of the Muslim culture and Pakistan and have loads of misconceptions," Najam emailed to me. "Because of the war, the distance has increased a lot between the two, if not physically surely mentally. There are 170 million Pakistanis – the majority want to live in peace."
As much as I'd like the Only Love movement to short-circuit hatred around the world, I know it's rather a naive kumbayaish aspiration. "I want your idea to work," I wrote to Najam, "snowball, go-viral on YouTube, change the world. You have your heart in the right place and my only hope is that it inspires others."
"Changing the world is not the motive, but to do the right thing with the best of your capability and promote the goodness is the motive," a humble Najam returned.
I can only say, "from his mouth to G-d's ears."
You can listen to Only Love on his MySpace site.
Janet Goodman Publicity and Booking