The documentary “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam,” follows Michael Muhammad Knight, along with young Muslim punk bands his 2003 novel inspired, on a tour
across North American and into Pakistan.
BY ANDREW NORMAN
United Press International
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The movement usually precedes the book. In this case, it’s the other way around.
Michael Muhammad Knight’s “The Taqwacores,” a 2003 self-published novel about a fictitious group of Muslim punks living in Buffalo, N.Y., inspired young Muslim bands like The Kominas and The Secret Trial Five to make punk rock their own.
A new documentary with the novel’s title follows Knight and the bands on their first tour across North American and into Pakistan, where they energize young Muslims and provoke religious leaders.
Combining the Islamic concept “taqwa,” or God-consciousness, and “core” from hardcore, it is a do-it-yourself world full of sweaty singalongs, loading equipment in the back of the bar and drinking in the front.
The film uses Knight’s own narrative to drive the story, from his conversion from Irish Catholicism to Islam in his teens to studying conservative Wahhabi Islam at a madrassa in Islamabad, Pakistan.
That experience spurred disillusionment with orthodox Islam and compelled him to write “The Taqwacores.” The book was published by Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles record label.
A feature film based on the novel is in production.
Knight has written five books this year and will soon release his sixth, “Journey to the End of Islam.” The book describes Knight struggling with his religion while traveling through Muslim countries.
Lately, the 32-year-old Knight has been trying to shift the media narrative from superficial “brown kids with guitars” to something more reflective of the movement’s core — a personal, nuanced Islam.
The documentary “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam,”
follows young Muslim punk bands including The Kominas.
“(Journalists) can’t talk about Islam as something that happens inside the person,” he said. “They can only discuss it in terms of east versus west ‘clash of civilizations.’”
In an e-mail interview, Knight put Islamic punk rock in context, explaining what media misses and why Islamic youth should carry intellectual “crowbars.”
Q: You’re a central subject in “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam,” which offers many alternative images of what it is to be Muslim. What message do you hope people take away from the film?
A: Just that it’s OK to be Muslim and complicated. Muslims need to know this even more than non-Muslims, because so many Muslim kids get an image of Islam that’s so simple and uncreative and offers no room for them to be themselves.
Q: How do you view your role as a spokesman of sorts for a version of American Islam?
A: If I’m a spokesman for any kind of American Islam, it’s the American Islam that shouldn’t have spokesmen. It’s the American Islam that includes everything outside a very narrow super-orthodox approach, whatever that orthodoxy is. So you end up with a very diverse group of people, too diverse to have a single spokesperson. I want to see more voices come out and assert themselves.
Q: Some Americans view Islam as a stagnant, inflexible religion. Why is that a flawed impression?
A: What hurts me is that Muslims see their own religion as stagnant and inflexible and I think that it’s just because they aren’t given a complex picture of Islam. The mosque Sunday school teachers aren’t going to tell kids about the full depth of our heritage, our various movements and thinkers and the infinite ways that Muslims have read the Koran.
No one’s dipping into interpretive materials outside their own little box. So you basically get fed one version of Islam and if you don’t like it, you’re an apostate. That’s also the case with Christians and Jews and whoever; we’re supposed to believe that our religions just fell out of the clouds in mint condition and ignore all of the centuries of human creativity and conflict that went into building them.
Religion is like mathematics or astronomy or literature; it’s a cumulative process. It has evolved. What happens is that religious authorities decide which voice is correct and then pretend that all of the other voices never existed. I feel like Islam is a huge palace with all of the rooms locked, and I just want kids to run down the halls with crowbars and find all the cool (stuff) that we have.
Q: Which of Taqwacore’s complexities do media miss?
A: All of them. I don’t think that a single reporter has ever gone beyond the provocative song titles and actually quoted a lyric. Yes, the Kominas have a song called ‘Suicide Bomb the Gap.’ What is that song about? No one asks. How do the members of the Kominas relate to Islam? There are four guys in the band, four individuals with their own stories and perspectives. One’s not even from a Muslim background.
Because these journalists have such a narrow view of Islam, they don’t know how to understand Taqwacore kids. They assume that a Muslim’s rebellion against the Taliban types must be the result of western ideas and influence, because they know nothing of what Islam in South Asia really looks like: the music, the drugs, everything that you see in Taqwacore.
Q: How should journalists do a better job of covering Islam?
A: Learn the diversity within Islam, learn that there are lots of ways of being Muslim. When it comes to Taqwacore, recognize that all of the ingredients in Taqwacore — apart from the obvious part, the genre of punk rock — exist within the Islamic tradition. The rebellion, the drugs, all of it.
Q: In your search for a personal Islam, is the quest also the destination?
A: The process of finding religion can take up your whole life, because your life changes and your religion will change with it. I’m going to keep reading books and meeting people and experiencing the world. If my Islam stays exactly the same, then I haven’t learned anything.
The story above was selected for publication from work submitted to UPI’s new initiative for aspiring journalists, UPIU.
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