Muslim Punk Redux
Down in Chicago, I caught a concert by a muslim punk band called “Al Thawra,” and did a short piece on it for Mother Jones. But now that the “Taqwacore” scene’s prime mover, a promising young writer named Michael Muhammed Knight, has come out with several new books, is appearing on NPR, in the New York Times, and being called “one of the most necessary and, paradoxically enough, hopeful writers of Barack Obama’s America,” I thought it was a good time to put a longer version out there. So if you’re interested in the intersection of punk and Islam, the search for identity and religion in the modern world, or what may well be the birth of a new American Islam, read on:
The Rise of Muslim Punk and the Birth of an American Islam
Michael Muhammad Knight and I were sitting at the very end of a long wooden bar on the west side of Chicago. At the other end, the bartender was slurring his words and swearing at his customers. “You don’t know shit about shit!” he said. “Get the fuck out of my bar.”
They did. And while there still plenty of drunk people in the bar, we were not among them. After a while, the bartender stumbled down to where we were sitting and asked in a thick Latin accent (he said he was from Florida) what we wanted. Knight answered.
“Coke,” he said.
I ordered the same, trying to keep with the spirit of the night. We’d come to hear Al Thawra, or “The Revolution,” one of the new bands in the nascent scene known as “Muslim Punk” to outsiders, and “Taqwacore,” to insiders, meaning a hardcore genre center on “taqwa,” which is Arabic for “faith,” or “love of divinity,” and which is about anything but dogma. The genre has lit a fire with those young American Muslims who don’t feel quite accepted in either post-9/11 America or in the larger Muslim world.
“It’s still very young,” says Mark LeVine, author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and a professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at University of California Irvine. “But it’s certainly growing, and it’s certainly going to keep getting bigger. It shows there was a need that was waiting to be filled.”
The story of Taqwacore is a story of rage and anger and lost faith and, oddly, professional wrestling. It’s a fundamentally American story of the search for a new identity, for a new cultural space, and even for a new kind of Islam.
That story begins with a 31-year–old, white, blue-eyed convert named Mike Knight, which he recounted earlier that night: How he was raised by his mother in upstate New York after she escaped his schizophrenic, white supremacist, Hell’s Angel father; how when he was 15 the movie Malcolm X came out and, after reading Alex Haley’s book and seeing the movie, Knight fell in love with Islam; how when he was 17, he moved to Pakistan to attend the Faisal Mosque.
Once he arrived there, Knight was steeped in Islam 24/7. There were people from all over the world, some of whom went off to fight the Russians in Chechnya. “I wanted to go,” says Knight, “but my teacher said I could do more good for Islam as a writer.”
So he came back home instead, signed up for college, and tried to integrate back into polite American society (no easy task while wearing a giant turban and a long white “jalabiyya” around Pittsburgh). But soon, he started reading more about the history of Islam, and discovered that the golden age of Islam referred to in sermons wasn’t so golden after all. For one thing, there were political wars that left 10,000 people dead. “It was like dominoes,” Knight remembers. “You ask one question, then another, then another.”
Soon, his whole faith was in question, and he wondered if he could be even a Muslim. Instead, he attended two-weeks of wrestling school, then decided to go to Egypt to start professional wrestling federation there. But his pen-pal/investor decided to get married instead. Before long he was kicked out of school, and found himself down at a local diner eating piles of bacon.
For several years, Knight wondered if there was room in Islam for all his question and doubts in the faith. These feelings culminated in a novel he sat down to write called The Taqwacores, about a world he wished existed: A house full of young Muslims from different backgrounds, “a massive grab bag of lives and cultures and perspectives,” all having rejected the rules handed down from above, all trying to carve out a space to be who they are, to interpret their religion and culture as they wanted. They loved punk rock, because it’s all about living on your own terms. “There is a cool Islam out there,” one of the characters says. “You just have to find it.”
That was a tough period for Knight. “I didn’t even consider myself a Muslim when I wrote the Taqwacores,” Knight says now. It was my affectionate farewell to Islam.” But soon he started to hear from other young Muslims across America who felt like him: alone, abandoned, washed up on an island by themselves in the wake of some cultural shipwreck.
“It was amazing,” says singer Shahjehan Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, “I had never really identified so strongly with a main character in a book. And the thing that I liked about it is the message near the end that, no matter where you are on the journey trying to figure out where you are spiritually, you’re okay where you are.”
Soon after reading the book, Kahn and a friend decided to start a band. They called themselves The Kominas, and started playing around Boston, and this fall, they will be featured in an exhibit on protest music in the new Grammy Museum. Meanwhile, other young disaffected Muslims who read Knight’s book started bands in Vancouver and Washington DC, and these communities started linking up online. Knight understands all too well why the music caught on.
“The way I see Taqwacore, it’s like a middle finger in both directions. It’s like rebelling against Islam and America at the same time. Because in a way, these kids are not fully American because of the climate today. They don’t fit in anywhere. And I guess the book was saying that’s okay.”
That feeling, that need for freedom, has brought many of these kids together online, and in clubs and in bands, as they try to create a space like the one Knight wrote about, where they can interpret their religion for themselves. Kahn call the Taqwacore scene “a place to express yourself freely where there really is no judgment at all, whether from religion or culture or whatever.”
For Laury Silvers, a professor of Islamic Studies at Skidmore College (and erstwhile punk rocker) that makes perfect sense. “Everybody’s told them that they can’t ask questions,” she says, “or that to be respectful or good is to not ask questions. And these kids have more than asked questions. They have stated their confusion. They scare a lot of people.”
“They’re pretty provocative,” says Ted Swedenburg, a professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “If you had lyrics like that in the UK, there would be a lot more hysterical reaction against it. The Kominas do a song called, “Shari Law in the U.S.A.” If they put that out in England, it would be front page news.”
The point for many, however, is more than just provocation. It’s more about the shared sense of isolation and identity. “It’s formed this community that we never had growing up,” says Khan. “And now we kind of belong to something since we created it.”
Knight braces at the notion that he single handedly created the Taqwacore scene. “I think the book created something in the sense that it gave it a name,” he says. “But what we keep finding is that there are so many of us out there, and it’s just a matter of us and them discovering each other.”
One of those people out there was Marwan Kamel, lead singer of Al-Thawra, who had already been doing the exact thing Knight wrote about The Taqwacores. Sitting in his Chicago studio apartment, bored out of his mind, he just started making music, making Taqwacore, much of which talked about issues in the Middle East, and Syria, where his father comes from. For him, the music was a way to deal with the division between the West and the Middle East.
“There’s this an image of this monolithic Islam that’s held up,” Kamel says. “This ultra-religious, burqa wearing Islam. But it’s not even like that. Most people don’t have exposure to real Muslims who happen to be fucked up people too. We’re just showing human side of it. We are taking their identity crisis and putting it out on the line.”
At the bar, Knight and I have long finished our Cokes when Marwan finally comes in to set up for their show. People start filing into the next room, so we follow.
The space looks like an old garage. The lights are dim, and people are standing around, sipping their drinks, local hipsters and Muslims all here to hear a driving night of metal and punk.
More and more people come in as the first band, Bongripper, moves through their set, a hard-driving, dissonant, slow metal sound that carries a weighty energy. The distorted chords echo in the room and above, ceiling fans turn in time.
When they finish, Marwan and his band mates set up. They open with “Disorientation,” a riff on Edward Said’s book, Orientalism. It’s a loud, hard, lament over the Iraq War and the portrayal of Arabs in the Media. To our ears, it just sounds like pure, sweet, rage.
The room is filling up, and eventually about 40 people are crammed inside. Al Thawra move through their songs, then finally close with “All the Colors of the World” which takes on race in the Middle East. I look around: The music fills the room, hipsters and islamo-punks are all listening, fixed, rocking back and forth the music.
Marwan picks up a long note, leans back , and screams upward. And as the crowd moves with him, I can’t help feel that he’s right where he belongs.
–Frank Bures is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.