“Suicide Bomb The GAP!” TeaTime-Mag talks to The Kominas about Taqwacore, the Islamic Punk Rock revolution happening in the U.S.A.
aqwacore, a mixture of Islam and punk rock, must be one of the most unlikely and fascinating subcultures to have sprung out of modern America. The name says it all: Taqwa, the Arabic for “God consciousness,” core as in “hardcore.”
Those embroiled in the Taqwacore movement fly in the face of conservative Muslims – much like their parents, a traditional punk rock requirement – but also against the clichés forced upon them from those outside Islam.
There are many Muslim-American Taqwacore bands in the U.S.A. such as The Kominas, Secret Trial Five, and Diacritical. They inspired a 2009 documentary film Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, and a 2010 feature film, Taqwacore. But it all began with a book.
The novel The Taqwacores, was written in 2003 by the then 25-year-old American white boy of Catholic descent, Michael Muhammad Knight. Knight had converted to Islam at the age of 15, but ten years later was completely disillusioned by the faith’s exhausting religious dogma, and wanted out.
Looking around him at the few Muslim kids he knew who were using punk music as an alternative way to vent their frustration with the system, Knight was inspired to write his novel, The Taqwacores. The book was originally meant as a farewell to Islam, yet in the end, encouraged by the response from his readers, Knight decided to keep his faith.
The Taqwacores novel tells the story of a fictitious group of rebellious Muslim youths who all live in a house in Buffalo, New York. There are gay Muslims, alcoholic Muslims, conservative Sunnis, a Mohawk-sporting Sufi punk, and even a burqa-clad riot girl. The characters drink and have sex, and they also pray. But most importantly: they all love punk.
With his book, Knight unwittingly sparked a cult following. Many Muslim punk bands formed, and, as a result of the book, an entire music genre was born. Knight had given the scene a united voice and identity: Taqwacore.
And not just the bands were taking note. Knight’s novel scaled the walls of esteemed American universities, being taught in courses at Vassar, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Trinity College, Sarah Lawrence College, Canisius College, and Indiana University.
“I think the Muslim-Americans behind the Taqwacore movement are trying to find harmony with their hyphenated identities. It’s all about self-discovery and self-reflection,” Lucy Copp of Pitzer College, California, currently writing her thesis on the Taqwacore movement, tells TeaTime-Mag.
The band, The Kominas (Punjabi for “bastards”), have been featured in the L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian (U.K.) to name a few. The latter said how surprising and pleasing it was “to find a punk band who can still upset all and sundry: punk purists, family, right-wingers, left-wingers, those without a sense of humour – and because they follow Islam – their fellow Muslims.”
The Komina’s inflammatory stock has risen largely because of lyrics and song titles, such as “Wal-Qaeda Superstore,” “Suicide Bomb The GAP,” and “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.”. Yet the irony is evident. The Kominas are very tongue in cheek, and despite rants to the contrary from extreme right-wing American websites like Stormfront.org, they don’t really want to “suicide bomb The GAP.” Surely then, people are taking offense because they just don’t get the joke?
It’s not quite that simple as Imran Malik, 26, of The Kominas told TeaTime-Mag. “Yes we use humour (in our songs), but sometimes we’re laughing with our listeners and other times we’re laughing at them.”
Case in point: The Komina’s music video for their groovy-sounding song “Tunnnn.” The boys sing from the lavatory, take flying leaps into rubbish, and run amok with ketchup, mustard and maple syrup. On the surface it all seems so jolly. But the big American corporate brands Heinz and French’s are clearly displayed, and when they are not singing in Punjabi they sample more serious English lyrics from old Reggae songs or “dub,” about hunger and justice: we think we get the point, why should some people – and countries – be rich while others are hungry.
But there’s more. “Our message is that devotional dub has something to do with Qawwali. The lyrics are kind of ‘funny,’ but it’s an old Muslim poetic device to compare those massacred in Karballah to drunken revelers,” Malik says. He goes on, “though satire is a good tool to get people to notice things, our goal is never to stop at laughing at them.”
So what are the Taqwacore bands trying to achieve? “We are musicians, and are not trying to advocate a belief as much as trying to create something remarkable. At the end of the day the music is more important than the politics,” Malik insists.
“It’s less about achieving and more about confronting” Copp argues, “It’s an ongoing journey – and one more for their own sakes than for anyone else. It’s about resisting the demonized stereotypes of ‘bad’ Muslims and the pious, do-no-wrong stereotypes of ‘good’ Muslims. To them, it’s not that simple. They are the gray area in-between that people don’t understand.”
In the throaty, resonating song and video “Silver,” from The Kominas’ recent EP Escape to Blackout Beach, the band criticize transactions, particularly in terms of the arranged marriage. “Love cannot be commodified” insists Malik, “None of us (The Kominas) agree with the union of lovers being regulated.” It’s an answer the arranged marriage-fearing West would approve of.
But just as we relax, he goes further. “Whether it’s between lovers or arranged by mothers, we should nullify the institution of marriage (completely). Let those in love choose for themselves what companionship they want with no stigmas or interference from others.” It’s extreme, but rational. Few are safe from the Komina’s scathing eye.
Whatever their politics, Taqwacore music is clearly a release for The Kominas and for some female Muslims the movement has been equally liberating. In Knight’s book, The Taqwacores, a woman leads a mixed gender group in prayer – something not permitted in the Muslim world. This scene inspired Asra Nomani, an Islamic feminist, to organize America’s first real-life women-led Islamic prayer to a mixed-gender congregation in 2005 in New York.
Sabina England, a deaf Muslim playwright told The Guardian, “(Taqwacore) means being true to myself, having my own faith, and interpreting Islam the way I want to, without feeling guilty or being looked down upon by other Muslims.”
Through literature, music, and now film, Taqwacore continues to offend and inspire. The San Francisco Chronicle described Knight as “one of the most necessary and, paradoxically enough, hopeful writers of Barack Obama’s America.”
“All the people that are involved with the Taqwacore projects are my friends,” says Malik. “It’s an idea, an aesthetic, that has motivated a handful of talented people. And our work comes from a sincere place. We continue to inspire each other, even if we move away from the initial idea.” He continues, “sometimes somebody saying ‘I feel that way, too’ is enough to make you get up and do something.”