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Page last updated at 06:28 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 07:28 UK
'The Bono of Pakistan'

Salman Ahmad
Salman Ahmad's band, Junoon, has sold 30 million albums worldwide

By Zubeida Malik
Today programme

He is one of the biggest stars in South East Asia and and his band has been described by the New York Times as ''the U2 of Pakistan''.

Salman Ahmad, lead singer of the Pakistani band Junoon, is in the UK to promote a new album and his autobiography, Rock and Roll Jihad, as well as talking to students about inter-faith dialogue.

Perhaps best known for making a stand against extremism and taking on Pakistan's mullahs and politicians, he says he wants to bridge the gap between the west and Islam using culture and music.

Born in Lahore and trained as a doctor, Salman Ahmad formed his band, Junoon, - Urdu for "obsessive passion" - in 1990.

Even before that he had experienced the direct power of religious extremists. "I was 18 years old, studying in medical school in Pakistan when there was a military dictatorship," he recalls. "A religious extremist came and smashed my guitar at a talent show, and the fact was that he was telling me if you play this instrument you will die''

Now a UN goodwill ambassador, Ahmad has never been shy about speaking out against corrupt politicians. His music has often been censored, even my democractically-elected Pakistani governments. And, strangely enough, it was General Musharraf's regime which encouraged musicians like him.

"Powder keg"

But after 911 Salman Ahmed came to international attention when he started speaking out against the extremists. "The the prophet Mohammed said 'the ink of the scholar is far more precious than the blood of a martyr' and I think that message needs to go out, throughout the Muslim world now.''

Having sold 30 million albums worldwide with Junoon, which features a musical style described as "sufi rock", Ahmad is the biggest rock star in Pakistan. It is, he says, "a country which is rich with with artists and scholars and the extremists are defining the agenda and they shouldn't be allowed to do so''.

With his long hair, dark shades and cowboy hat he looks every inch the rock star. Despite having flown in from New York, there is no hint of jet lag and he is clear about the way to deal with extremism.

''The extremist have hijacked not only language but also the culture of Islam, and jihad for me and for many muslims... is a word that means to strive, to self improve, to lift society up. And I want to steal that word back from the terrorists.''

Although more than 60 per cent of Pakistanis are under 25 years of age the threat of suicide bombers mean that live concerts no longer happen. ''Those are the people we need to reach out to with a positive message of hope, education, economic stability. And I feel if we don't do that right now, that Pakistan is a powder keg.''

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