Music crashes out of the bookstore like an airplane through a glass window. A young South Asian guitarist jumps around the makeshift stage, a pink plume of hair rising cockatoo-like from the middle of his head. “They call it Partition. But it’s more like Separation,” screams the lead singer, dressed entirely in black. The drummer, hidden behind the jumping guitarist, is sporting his own swirl of hot-pink hair. The crowd loves them. A South Asian girl with a nose-ring shouts along with the band, periodically throwing herself onto the stage, her long hair flailing wildly.
It’s a mesmerising scene, because you’ve never seen anything like it. This isn’t just punk rock; it’s punk-rock-meets-young-Islam; it’s garage music colliding with post 9/11 political consciousness; it’s a pink-mohawk slamming into a black burqa. It’s Taqwacore.
It all started in 2003, when Michael Muhammed Knight, an American Muslim, wrote a book about an imaginary Muslim punk college community. “I’d gone to Pakistan to study Islam but I came back almost having lost my faith. I hated the narrow definition of religion that seemed to prevail there and I was ashamed of not fitting in,” says Knight, now 32. Called The Taqwacores, the book’s name combined the Arabic word for god-consciousness, taqwa, with hardcore, a punk sub-genre.
“The punk movement tells you to never be ashamed. I wrote the book as a fantasy of what would happen if Islamic spirituality met punk radicalism,” says Knight. The novel featured burqa-wearing feminists, gay Muslim punks and an alcohol-swigging Muslim rocker who called the azaan (prayer) with his guitar.
Knight self-published the book and began distributing photocopied versions at local mosques. It soon became an underground hit. One day, he received a phone call from Kourosh Poursalehi, a young San Antonio native who thought the book was non-fiction. “He asked me where the next Taqwacore performance was. I told him the book was made up. So he said he would start his own Taqwacore band,” says Knight.
Punk-rock band Vote Hezbollah was born. Magically, other Muslim punk bands began springing up on MySpace. The movement flourished with the help of the Internet, finally culminating in an America-wide Taqwa-tour in the summer of 2007.
Last month saw the release of the first coffee-table book and documentary film on the Taqwacore movement, and next year a feature film based on the book will come out. “I never dreamt that the book would have such an impact. But I think it caught on because no one had ever spoken to Muslim American kids before,” says Knight.
Twenty-four-year-old Marwan Kamal, whose band Al Thawra combines punk and West Asian music, explains the movement’s appeal. “Growing up in America, you’re always on the outside. Taqwacore made me feel like it was okay to be me. I can be critical of both Islam and America in this space,” he says.
With nearly seven million Muslims living in America, the Muslim-American community is one of the fastest growing immigrant demographics in the country. Yet, second-generation Muslim Americans are struggling to find their niche, caught between an increasingly narrow definition of Islam, the western values of their peers and the climate of fear in post-9/11 America. For them, Taqwacore is the answer to a deepening identity crisis.
“I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. It wasn’t racist but I just never fit in. My parents didn’t let me go out with girls. I felt detached from my peers and at the same time angry with my Pakistani heritage.” says Imran Malik, 25, drummer for The Kominas (The Scoundrels), perhaps the best-known Taqwacore band. The Kominas’ songs — from Wal Qaeda Superstore, which is an indictment of the Saudi oil industry, to Sharia Law in the USA, which slams Bush’s controversial Patriot Act — explore the dilemmas of being Muslim, brown and American.
But the Taqwacorians insist that the movement isn’t religious. An average concert will draw more non-Muslim listeners than Muslims. And some of The Kominas’ most die-hard fans are white girls from the American Midwest.
Kaitlin Foley is a 24-year-old blogger who has taken up the Taqwacore cause with enthusiasm. “I consider myself Taqwacore because I identify with the honesty, and the openness of the people associated with the movement,” she says. Malik agrees. “Basim Usmani, our lyricist, is atheist, while Arjun Ray, our guitarist, is not Muslim. Taqwacore isn’t exclusionary. It’s about being whoever you want to be,” he says.
In Canada, The Kominas inspired three Muslim girls to start their own punk-rock band called Secret Trial Five. Lead singer Sena Hussain, 27, says that Taqwacore has given her a sense of purpose that she otherwise wouldn’t have had. “The fact that young Muslims listen to us makes me feel responsible towards the issues facing Islam. It’s an opportunity to make a difference,” she says.
With the impending release of a Taqwacore feature film next year, it’s inevitable that the movement will soon become even bigger. But this is exactly what Knight and Co don’t want.
He says, “If people think they can make money out of this, it will kill it. I’d hate to go to a Taqwacore festival sponsored by a soft-drink firm. Taqwacore is a rebellion against the existing order, not an institution.”