Stripped down and laid bare of all cultural referents,Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam is a rock ‘n’ roll road movie. Made by Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed, it feels similar to its frenetic and lionized antecedent Another State of Mind, which showcased and documented the efforts of Better Youth Organization-related bands, like Youth Brigade and Social Distortion, to tour and connect disparate communities in far flung locales during the heyday of early ‘80s hardcore punk.
Yet that analogy doesn’t encompass the full breadth of this film. With stealth, the filmmaker and participants dissect America’s so-called mosaic or melting pot culture in-depth by examining the tale of emergent Muslim-American youth. In doing so, it exposes fervent politics, abundant identity crises, varied social, religious, and inter-generational conflicts, and undeniable mixed cultural heritage.
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam
(US DVD: 9 Aug 2011)
(Soft Skull; US: Feb 2009)
Watching this is like witnessing a subculture exposed to surface tensions. In the current hyper-kinetic news media environment, the opportunity to share experience and form intense commentaries in films like this can also be shuffled aside quickly, in lieu of the next fissure and style. Riot Grrrls. Check. Afro-punk. Check. Queer-Edge. Check. Muslim punk. Check. Move on. We are left with glimpses, traces, and remnants, just a few years later. The Muslim punk movement, somewhat steered to existence by the 2003 novel The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight, feels fresh and inchoate but simultaneously past-tense and fleeting, too.
Featured bands like the Pakistani-American unit The Kominas, who currently blend post-punk rockabilly grooves with Eastern music, continue down their musical path, drawing crowds. Other bands in the film have faded from their sweaty, gritty, and subaltern glory. The folklore of all the musicians – their sense of shared practices, common fuss and foment, the need to question authority freely and explore identities – will resonate and linger for years. Just as fiction and punk music inspired these youth from across North America to grab a van and stuff a confusing America under their belts, films such as this will catalyze and encourage the next generation and preserve and promulgate ideas.
For me, the footage of bands from various ilk—from witty, trenchant, and self-aware hip-hop performers to ‘doom-crust’ sonic shrapnel—does not intrigue me as much as the footage exploring the lives of Muslims carving out a future in America, where citizens often see Muslim youth as potentially problematic purveyors of un-American activities. As The Kominas blurt, in homage to the Sex Pistols and their own outsider status, “I am an Islamist! I am the anti-Christ!” Yet, they never let the irony destroy the song’s identity-politic poignancy.
Sure, in Detroit and New York, tolerance and cohabitation with Muslims may be the norm, but the rest of red state America looks at the tour’s green van (a color associated with Hezzbollah and the Iranian Green Movement), which reeks of DIY lifestyles and hand-painted messages like “Fight War Not Wars”, as an invasive force. Just seeing those glances from passersby, flickering in the camera lens like a poem of paranoia, is reason enough to view enjoy this film. As black philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois predicted, the color veil and racial barriers were not confined to the 20th century. They have crept forward into the new millennium.
Anglo/white America remains reticent in regards to Muslim punks. One venue cancels a gig, even as the bands arrive on a rainy urban corner, carefree and ready to play. Their Muslim brethren do not exactly offer open arms, either. One irate Imam accuses the bands of playing music banned in Islam. In contrast, one rural mosque provides the tired travelers some solace and rest.
In another bout with intolerance, the bands try to rock the Islamic Society of North America’s annual meeting in Chicago. Worried about women in the all-girl punk outfit The Secret Trial Five taking to the stage, and the overall brazen form of the music in general, organizers call in the police, using the powers of hegemony to enforce their own cultural codes. Meanwhile, the looks of the spirited, teenage, hijab-adorned crowd are priceless. The young girls gaze intently, bewildered and puzzled. Some are ecstatic to see punk Muslim women on stage, tousling with history, gender roles, a heavy-handed police presence, confounded organizers, and a future … unlocked.
Besides exploring this manic tour, the storyline also embodies a narrative about the writer, organizer, and provocateur Michael Muhammad Knight. Footage shot at his bookstore readings frame the film, provide ample context, and suggestion multiple strategies at work. The film partly doubles as his biography, tracing his saga and redemption.
As the son of a hellion motorcycle thug with deep racist ideology, he becomes the tolerant multicultural prodigal son, redeeming his family. Once a devout, Pakistani-schooled Muslim who almost fought in Chechyna, he’s a rebel as well, questioning constraints, hypocrisies, and deceptions in all belief systems, no matter what religion, creed, or nation. His presence underpins the whole tour and ideologies.
Some smattering of Muslim punk existed years ago, and the Clash sang “Rock the Casbah” three decades ago, but the new social media landscape and DIY outlets have facilitated the process recently. The powerful film illustrates several related issues too. Muslim punks do share many traits with punk’s earlier participants:
1) Muslim punks subvert cultural norms and attack/explode/deflate stereotypes emanating from both sides—Islam and West—fervently forging a third path, rooted in a translocal media landscape.
2) They serve as breeding ground for a new mix of identities, forged by youth themselves, which allows a sense of freedom and flexibility, especially for women.
3) They stir culture from below, proving that change is often spurred by everyday people, not misguided elites rooted in academics, cultural agencies, and policy centers.
4) They prove that punk is a convergence culture, shaped by pluralism, not middle-class Anglo aspirations alone.
Muslim punks actually undermine the ambivalence and rhetoric of punk itself, which in some cases, especially after the revolution in Iran and hostilities in Lebanon, were sometimes unfavorable to Islam, xenophobic, or racist. They test punk’s true dictum—to extend freedom—and push people to recognize punk as a vehicle of power that recognizes no border or creed. When Black Flag sang “Rise Above”, the song penetrated in permanent waves, but now Anglo-American punks must brace for the changing of the guard. The punk of the future is multi-colored, multi-ethnic, and a motley hybrid. Localized punks remain ready to look at issues pertinent to each and every community; they are not simply satisfied to restate punk legacy.
The bands philosophize, wrestle, and perform with gusto, but in the heart of the muddle and miracle of the tour, Knight’s shadowplay, his own struggle, beckons our focus most. He looks into our eyes and asks how willing are Americans to embrace difference and dissent. The bands proffer the same rhetoric, as well.
Are Americans ready to embrace the integrative pluralism offered by Muslims in America, who desire to live in full light of our forefathers’ ideals – the right to freedom, liberty, and respect? Taqwacore, the Muslim punk movement itself, provides a bitter, hopeful, and insightful soundtrack to American youth unwilling to heed the racial and religious bigotries spun out in the national conversation and political maneuvers. Whether the bands in the film won their battles or not is irrelevant. At least they fought and staked their ground.