Can Dhani Dewa Rock the Casbah?

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Indonesian rock star Ahmad Dhani

Rabbis are an uncommon sight in Indonesia, much less at a performance by the country's top rock star. Yet there they sat, tapping their feet as Ahmad Dhani performed his song "Warriors of Love," at a conference in Bali on religion and tolerance. The 35-year-old Sufi Muslim may have a ways to go before reaching the celebrity-healer heights of Bono, but he is no less ambitious in aiming for the global stage. " 'Warriors of Love' is a song about love and tolerance for people of different faiths," he explains. "We reject the teachings of hate and the extremists who preach it." Some of his backers hope to widen the song's appeal by assembling a multilingual Muslim star cast to render it as a kind of "We Are the World" anthem of global Islamic moderation.

Dhani's campaign for tolerance, however, begins at home, where after a decade of conquering the charts with his band, Dewa 19, he now hopes to wean the hearts of millions of Indonesian Muslims away from creeping extremism. And if most American music fans have yet to take notice, the U.S. security establishment appears to understand Dhani's potential significance. Last October, he addressed U.S. military and government officials at a Defense Department-sponsored conference at NORAD in Colorado Springs, explaining how he rejected the path of his father, a former member of the hardline Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia — and also that of his grandfather, a member of Dar ul-Islam, an outlawed group that once fought for an Islamic state in Indonesia.

"Dhani is the biggest rock star in Indonesia and could be content with that," says C. Holland Taylor, an American businessman who founded the LibForAll Foundation to promote Islamic tolerance, and who accompanied Dhani to NORAD. "Instead he has chosen to help us annihilate the crisis of misunderstanding of the Muslim world that threatens all of humanity." Taylor's foundation is currently gathering pop stars from throughout the Muslim world for the multilingual version of "Warriors of Love."

Saving the Muslim world from extremism is a pretty tall order for a kid who grew up in Surabaya listening to Queen and Casiopea, but who, after seven platinum-selling albums, regularly makes it into the local newspapers for reasons that rock stars often do, such as speculation over the state of his marriage.

Even though his band's appeal may be beginning to ebb, its place in Indonesian hearts is well established: "Most Indonesians have had a Dewa moment," says Rian Pelor, a music writer for Trax magazine. And lately, Dhani has sought to use that influence to promote a message of peace. "The pop generation is the future," he asserts. "Music can reach the masses in a way that Muslim teachers cannot, and we hope to touch the kids in way that will make them think about their faith."

"Islam in Indonesia has the potential to go extreme," says the rock star, who quit a religious school as a child because of its intolerant Wahhabi teachings. "What happens depends on how we deal with the radicals and teach people about Islam."

Dhani may, however, struggle to cast himself as a champion of those seeking a more progressive interpretation of Islam. Muslim academics and students question his credibility to pronounce on religious matters. "The fact that he is a Sufi is already going to be controversial with most Indonesian Muslims," explains Hamid Basyaib, director of the Liberal Islam Network. "We appreciate his message, but don't think mixing art and preaching will work, because it hasn't in the past."

"He is someone who admires Muslim figures but does not appear to have a deep understanding of Islam," says Mega Kharisma, a student at the University of Indonesia. "I doubt people will take him seriously as someone who can speak about religion given his personal problems, which are always on display in the media." Some see his attitude to women as a particular liability. Dhani has told the media, for example, that women should be free to do as they please "as long as they don't refuse," and that while he respects women, he believes the place of a wife "is one level below the man."

Dhani admits he does not pray five times a day, but claims to have a deep knowledge of the religion. "I understand Islam and all of my idols are Muslims who died for their beliefs," he says. "But I believe that religion is private and we have to fight back against radicals who push their agenda on others."

As the singer now known as Dhani Dewa finishes his first ever performance of "Warriors of Love" in English, the Bali assembly of rabbis, Islamic leaders, Hindu gurus and Jesuit priests applaud, and jostle to be photographed with the rock star. He and his bandmates admit this is the first time they have ever met a Jew in person. "It's time to come together," says Dhani. "Even if we have to do it one song at a time."