By Siddhartha Mitter
The first problem you face when trying to catch up with the Taqwacore movement—sometimes, if erroneously, summarized as “Muslim punk”—is that the man most closely identified with it really, really doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“I’m tired of talking about Taqwacore,” says author Michael Muhammad Knight. “I go to academic conferences and people are surprised that I’m not wearing a spiked leather jacket or flipping tables over.”
Knight, currently a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina and the wildly prolific author of seven books—novels, memoirs, scholarship—still can’t escape the resonance of his début cult novel “The Taqwacores,” originally self-published in 2003.
It depicted a scene of Muslim American youth sharing prayer, theological disputes, and loud music amid the beer bottles, skateboards and sundry wreckage of a derelict Buffalo, N.Y. punk house. Women led worship. An electric guitar played the call to prayer. The rebellious kids of immigrants tried to make sense of earnest white converts. The story climaxed in a house concert of Muslim punk bands from all over the country—unruly, absurd, and of course disastrous.
Blasphemous, esoteric, occasionally juvenile, and consistently hilarious, the novel struck a chord, circulating among kids in the Muslim-American world and beyond. A small but insistent Taqwacore, or Taqx, buzz developed, amplified by media coverage, as editors proved unable to resist the outrageous appeal of the Muslim-plus-punk equation.
A group of bands joined Knight aboard an old school bus for a “Taqwa tour” of dingy performance spaces and Muslim-American youth events, not all of which were ready for the experience. In 2008 The Kominas released their debut, “Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay.” Its instant-Taqwacore classics—“Sharia Law in the U.S.A.,” “Blow Shit Up,” or “Rumi Was A Homo”—brimmed with sarcasm and equal defiance toward conservative imams, war-on-terror reactionaries, idiot media and the society’s culture of fear.
Two films followed: Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a 2009 documentary by Montreal filmmaker Omar Majeed and in 2010 The Taqwacores, a faithful adaptation of Knight’s novel by Syrian-American director Eyad Zahra. Both earned notice on the festival circuit. Zahra’s film opened at Sundance, took top honors at a festival in Russia, and won prizes at Asian-American film festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And a book of Taqwacore photos by Kim Badawi captured the scene’s vibe and imagery.
It felt like momentum. But these days, talk to members of the original Taqwacore scene and you’ll hear ambivalence toward the term—if not outright repudiation.
“For the most part, it’s probably better for it to just go away,” says Omar Waqar, the Washington, D.C. area-based leader of bands Diacritical, Sarmust, and Evil Art Form.
Or as Arjun Ray, one of the Kominas’ original members (he left the band a couple of years ago) put it recently on the busy Facebook page Desi Punksss: “Taqwacore is dead. Long live Taqwacore.”
So soon after it crested, is it time to write Taqwacore’s epitaph? And if Taqwacore is dead, what happened to the milieu it was claimed to reflect, Muslim punk? Was the December incident in Indonesia — when authorities shaved punk concert goers’ heads to set an example – the last we’ll see of a once-bubbling movement?
It depends on where you look—and on what baggage of preconceptions you carry when you ask the question in the first place.
“I don’t know if they were exotifying us, but there was definitely some Orientalism going on,” says Waqar. “Taqwacore was never about proselytizing a religious message, nor was it ‘look at us, we’re brown people with Mohawks.’ We were having a legitimate reaction to the climate, to things that were happening around us.”
That climate included the peak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Abu Ghraib abuses and more. “American Muslims were going, what is going on with our country?” Waqar says. “Why are we being so alienated?”
The Taqx bands—in the spirit of Knight’s novel—were using their art to work out a range of conflicts and frustrations. Some had to do with being Muslim in America. Some with being young. Some with being brown. Some with the politics of the moment, and some with age-old dynamics of immigration, assimilation, cultural change.
Islam was involved, but in subtle ways, and not exclusively. But coverage, more often than not, went for sensation. “Slam Dancing for Allah” was a typical headline—in this case, from a 2007 Newsweek feature —occluding any subtlety in the actual reporting.
“People would ask me, ‘Being from Pakistan, what’s it like to be Arab-American and play music?’ Waqar says. When people can’t even get past the difference between South Asian and the Middle East, you don’t want to answer questions.”
In a 2009 op-ed for The Guardian, Kominas bassist Basim Usmani vented his frustration. “There are thousands of bands on every street, and everyone has a shtick,” he wrote. “There are Rastafarian Hasidic Jews, crust-punk Arabs, Afro-punks and Cambodian surf rockers… It amazes me how many people react so strangely to Taqwacore.”
He itemized accusations from all sides: blasphemers, unpatriotic, sectarian, self-hating, race traitors. “The only thing that hasn’t been considered about us is how broke we are.”
“Muslim punk,” Usmani wrote already then, is “a term we’d be delighted to disown.” Whoever picked the headline disregarded this wish. “Blasting the US with Punk Islam,” it blared.
The sense of being sensationalized, and the urge to respond with a great cathartic “Fuck You” was palpable on the Taqx scene early. It was a little awkward, for the media spotlight—from Newsweek to the BBC, NPR to this outlet —had its benefits too. And some Taqx songs or film depictions courted outrage deliberately, in classic punk tradition.
But the music, too, was evolving—another reason why the Taqwacore label began to feel restrictive, let alone the additional media straitjacket.
With their second and third releases, the 2010 EP “Escape to Blackout Beach” and this year’s self-titled album, the Kominas have stretched and diversified, becoming more complete musicians, while moving away, mostly, from the shock-value/agitprop fare. The associated duo Sunny Ali and the Kid plays its own variation of brown-dude garage rock.
Waqar, meanwhile, is working on projects that draw on Indian classical music (he’s a trained sitarist), electronica, dance-punk, Bollywood and Sufi ideas. He calls the blend “Mughal pop.” Meanwhile in Chicago, Marwal Kamel carries on with Al-Thawra, his aggressive, dense, crust-punk venture.
What has changed since, say, five years ago, is that projects like these now blend into a far richer landscape of both Muslim-American and South Asian American artists finding audiences, both inside and outside their communities, for original work. Waqar points to Das Racist, or comedian Aziz Ansari.
“What was happening for us was happening for other pockets, in other places,” says Waqar. “It wasn’t just about Islam but about brown people in general. South Asians are represented now in all types of ways—we were searching for that, hoping for that.”
Indeed, both the bands that came up through Taqwacore and, more importantly, their audience, form part of a fast-expanding North American brown underground. It includes Das Racist and Ansari, comedian Hari Kondabolu, hip-hopper/activist Mandeep Sethi, Toronto MC Humble the Poet (below), Montreal producer Sikh Knowledge, New York’s iconic DJ Rekha, and many more—plus their pals and fans from other backgrounds and scenes.
Islam is just one ingredient in the stew of source material for this crowd, alongside other religions (Hinduism, Sikhism) and myriad musical genres, approaches to activism, and pop culture stances. And as brown punk, hip-hop or electronica finds non-brown hipster converts, all this cultural content seeps into the mainstream.
By that measure, maybe Taqwacore did its job: An injection of unruly, Islam-laced, rollicking content into American pop culture; an absurd but effective contribution to the bigger project of normalizing not just Islam but a whole panorama of second-generation brown identity.
But Taqwacore’s most lasting contribution of all might be the impact it has had inside the community, says filmmaker Zahra.
“There’s a lot more openness in the Muslim community than ten years ago, and I think Taqwacore had a role in that,” Zahra says. He felt this growing openness as he made his film and toured it around the country. He faced a certain amount of hostility for the film’s over-the-top content, but, he says, far more receptiveness and curiosity.
After a screening in Tallahassee, Fla., Zahra recalls, he received a heartfelt message from a young, conservative, hijab-wearing woman he had met in the audience there.
“She had felt compelled to see the film, but she was ready to refute it and hate it. She had to close her eyes a few times at the beginning, but ultimately, she loved it.”
Zahra points to one scene from the film that has landed on YouTube. It depicts Jahangir, the troubled, charismatic leader of the punk house, out on the roof playing the call to prayer on his guitar to the shock of new resident Yusef, who has been raised to consider such a gesture blasphemy. “Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed,” Jahangir says, justifying himself.
Long after the clip’s posting, a busy debate rages on YouTube as to whether the scene depicted is haram, or impure. The discussion veers off into other topics: dress, behavior, and whether Knight is a pathbreaking genius or a dangerous heretic.
This strikes Zahra as something to celebrate. “The cool thing is that it’s just generating a conversation that didn’t exist 15 years ago,” he says.
Omar Majeed, who made the “Taqwacore” documentary, agrees. “It’s supposed to be a conversation starter,” he says. “That’s where it’s effective. If people hear about it—the book, the documentary, the feature film, the bands—or just come across the word on Facebook or Twitter, it’s starting something.”
A variety of blogs, online groups and social media feeds still proudly claim the label Taqwacore or Taqx. The Desi Punksss Facebook community hosts active, rowdy banter on all topics, with punks of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh origin all in the mix.
And although Taqwacore appeared in the American context, where Muslims and South Asians are minorities, in the setting of post-9/11 tension and anxieties over demographic change, it is gaining resonance elsewhere.
Zahra and Majeed say they’ve been impressed at the large response from Malaysia and Indonesia, despite not having shown their films there. On Facebook, a number of Indonesian members have added “Taqwacore” to their screen name. Majeed says he’s heard of underground screenings of his documentary in Syria and elsewhere.
Not bad for a concept that, it can be forgotten, first surfaced in a work of fiction. And whether Taqwacore is dead or has simply mutated, the intersection of Islam, among other brown identities, and music will remain busy and vibrant so long as there are youth around to rebel against the boxes that confine them.
“No one wants to be pigeonholed,” Majeed says. “Taqwacore itself was a reaction against being labeled—as Muslim, brown, too religious, not religious enough. Now people are doing new things with the moniker. That’s happening, and that’s good.”