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In Muslim America, a punk scene arises

ROSEMONT, Ill. It had the elements of a classic punk rock show: screaming singers, thrashing guitars and police breaking up the concert. The venue, however, wasn’t a beer-soaked basement dive. It was the ballroom of the Hyatt in Rosemont, Ill., where the Islamic Society of North America was sponsoring an open-mike night during its annual […]

ROSEMONT, Ill. It had the elements of a classic punk rock show: screaming singers, thrashing guitars and police breaking up the concert.

The venue, however, wasn’t a beer-soaked basement dive. It was the ballroom of the Hyatt in Rosemont, Ill., where the Islamic Society of North America was sponsoring an open-mike night during its annual convention.

Hijabs, not mohawks haircuts, dotted the mostly female audience. When police, summoned by ISNA organizers, arrived, the kids erupted into chants of “Pigs are haram (forbidden),” a reference to the Muslim prohibition on pork and a derogatory term for police.

Welcome to Taqwacore, a nascent musical scene that once existed only on the pages of an underground novel by a disillusioned convert. Now, the scene has sprung to life thanks to bands with names like Al Thawra (The Revolution), Secret Trial Five (named for five Muslim Canadian prisoners), and Vote Hezbollah (a joke).

Putting risque and political lyrics to a blend of punk, Middle Eastern and South Asian rhythms, the music has attracted a mostly non-Muslim audience, though it vents Muslim anger about the government, hostile Americans, and conservative relatives who deride the musicians’ fidelity to Islam.

Many Muslims disapprove of the punks’ music and the provocative questions they ask about their religion. The musicians, despite a professed interest and pride in their ethnic and religious backgrounds, have long assumed themselves to be community outcasts.

But during a three-week, 10-city tour that concluded with the crashing of the ISNA event in September, the punks said, to their surprise, that most Muslims welcomed them. For example, officials of a Toledo, Ohio, mosque granted them a place to rest between shows. Teens and 20-somethings danced and clapped their hands at the Hyatt.

“(Muslim Student Association) kids are the ones I grew up hating my whole life,” said Shahjehan Khan, a guitarist for The Kominas (“bastards” in Punjabi). “But that night with the hijabi girls chanting with us, that was unexpected. I think we reached an audience that maybe we weren’t expecting to.”

Indeed, they struck a chord with at least a few young Muslims.

“It was really good,” said one female in a headscarf, too nervous to give her name. “It was weird. I’m glad they got to express themselves.”

Michael Muhammad Knight wrote “The Taqwacores” in 2001 as his “farewell” to Islam. He converted at 15 after reading Malcolm X’s biography later studied at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he hung out with Afghan refugees and contemplated joining the fighting in Chechnya.

But Knight also witnessed racism, poverty and other ills in Pakistan that rattled his faith. He said he resented the rules and rigidity some Muslims emphasized over compassion and inclusiveness.

Disillusioned, Knight penned “The Taqwacores,” about a group of Muslim punks in Buffalo, N.Y. They were slam-dancing seekers who smoked dope, read scripture, had sex, prayed and sang punk praises to Prophet Muhammad _ the ultimate rebel.

It was Knight’s vision of Islam, and he didn’t expect anyone to buy it. But “The Taqwacores” (Taqwa means God-consciousness in Arabic) was ultimately picked up for distribution by Alternative Tentacles, the publisher and music label owned by Jello Biafra of the legendary punk band the Dead Kennedys.

Knight was soon getting e-mails from young Muslims who said they identified with his work.

One e-mail came from Basim Usmani, a Pakistani-American punk in Boston, who formed The Kominas with Khan. Knight and The Kominas became fast friends and started connecting with like-minded musicians on and other Web sites.

Most had similar story lines. They were raised in the U.S. or Canada by professionally successful immigrant parents who belonged to tight-knit ethno-religious communities where everyone knew everyone else. They hated Sunday school, wrestled with identity, and resented expectations that they, like the rest of their Muslim peers, become doctors or engineers and marry someone from the community.

They escaped with punk.

Growing up Muslim in America was no cake-walk in the 1990s, but it became even more tortuous after September 11, 2001, as anti-Muslim rhetoric permeated the airwaves. Even those who weren’t religious were thought to be Muslims because of their names or complexions. Not even punk could help them escape. So they used it to fight back.

“Punk music gives me a way to defend myself,” said Marwan Kamel, a Syrian-American who fronts Al-Thawra, a Chicago-based foursome that blends hardcore punk with Middle Eastern beats.

The Kominas, who will release their first album this fall, come up with songs like “Shariah Law in the USA,” and “Suicide Bomb The Gap.”

“We appropriate the language that’s used against us and turn it around,” said Usmani.

Offensive? Not if you get that it’s a gag, The Kominas say.

Despite having a mostly white, non-Muslim following, the Taqwacore bands are increasingly reaching young Muslims. Iram Soomro, a 25-year-old graduate student at Rutgers University, said she sees The Kominas whenever they play in New York.

“The shows are very energetic and light-hearted, but the lyrics are what make them relevant,” Soomro said.

Despite its anti-establishment stance, the Taqwacore experience has provided some of these young Muslims with an unlikely route to reconciliation with their faith and fellow Muslims.

“I kept on expecting people to throw me out of the house, but nobody threw me out,” said Knight. “People say they understand the conflicts. They’ve responded with compassion. They still call me their Muslim brother. I know there’s a place for me here. I’m not an outsider.”

Khan, who started reading the Quran before the tour began, feels similarly. “Two years ago I was still a very uncomfortable Muslim. For a long time I felt that I was just this bad guy, this bad Muslim, this bad son,” he said. “I’m much more comfortable with being on the journey. I’ve become much more tolerant of myself.”

Having made their mark in the U.S., some of the punks muse about taking their music to traditionally Islamic countries. A few young Muslims from places like Malaysia and Yemen have already e-mailed them.

This month, Usmani returned to Lahore, Pakistan to work on his Punjabi and practice with a band he helped form on a visit last year, The Dead Bhuttos.

“We have a song about how mullahs are thieves, but aside from that all our gripes are social issues,” he said.

Photos of Al-Thawra are available via

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