Young Muslims use punk to loosen their religion

Chicago, USA - The notion of Muslims playing punk rock may seem like incongruous cultures -- profanity-laden lyrics following the religion's traditional greeting ("Salaam aleikum"), melodic Middle Eastern strumming punctuates noisy guitar feedback, purple and red mohawks and Arabic-scripted tattoos. But for the second-generation Americans leading this contemporary cultural movement, Muslim punk isn't just an irreverent juxtaposition.

"It makes sense," said 23-year-old Marwan Kamel, a Syrian-American and the lead guitarist for Al-Thawra, an experimental punk band whose name is Arabic for revolution. "You've got this pull from both sides when you're one of the first kids in your family to grow up in America. That's the thing that's so punk about it, 'cause that's what it's all about -- feeling f---ing different."


Al-Thawra and a handful of other bands build communities online and tour across the country under the banner of taqwacore -- a term that fuses the words hard-core and taqwa, Arabic for piety.

The taqwacore scene spans the religious spectrum -- Muslims, mystics and atheists -- all sharing a real, first-person understanding of the effect religion has on their world. After all, these guys were in high school at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Having faced discrimination and the struggles of dual identity, they're now offering up a space for young Muslims to express themselves outside of Islam's traditional settings.

With a rebellious attitude and unabashed criticism of both East and West, Muslim punk highlights the breadth of Islamic practice and piety. For this colorful crew, donning patchwork jackets and taking slow drags from hookah pipes, religion is more personal than institutional or dogmatic.

For the most part, the bands drink and smoke, in excess, despite Islam's prohibition of both. When driving from coast to coast on tour, they're not stopping to break out prayer mats for the obligatory five-times-a-day salat.

But just because they aren't practicing Islam in the traditional way doesn't mean they don't still consider themselves religious Muslims.

"It's infinitely more pious to be true to your heart, because that's where religion really lives," said Kamel, who grew up in the Chicago area, raised by a Muslim father and Catholic mother.

Last week, a few taqwacore bands performed in a space not even tall enough for the musicians' mohawks -- a barely 6-foot-high basement under Kamel's apartment on Chicago's West Side. His band played alongside the Kominas, touring taqwacore rockers from Boston.

The sweaty crowd chanted along with the religious references and politically charged lyrics, written slightly tongue in cheek -- but mostly with tongue stuck out. Their song titles have shock value. The opening act sang a song dubbed "I Pray Every Day Because I Don't Want to Die." The Kominas are best known for their catchy hit "Suicide Bomb the Gap."

"It's about the false dichotomy between East and West, talking about those gray zones," said Kamel. Thousands listen to Al-Thawra and the Kominas on their MySpace pages, with popular songs racking up nearly 10,000 plays thus far.

Muslim in-betweeners

While this generation's immigrant parents remain loyal to their home countries, and Muslims in their 30s and 40s having more fully assimilated into American culture, the taqwacore group finds themselves in between.

"The younger kids are more religious, but also more civic-minded," said Syed Ali, a sociology professor at Long Island University in Brooklyn, who researches second-generation Muslims. "They are very adamant about saying, 'I am a Muslim,' but also adamant about saying, 'I am an American, and I have these rights and no one's gonna screw with me.'"

From this contemporary Muslim-American experience comes their no-holds-barred criticism of both East and West. Band members say their music is a way to show fellow young Muslims that they don't have to limit themselves to conventional notions of religion.

"It's OK to approach Islam on your own terms," said Imran Malik, 25, the Kominas' drummer, wearing a cut-off black T-shirt with a picture of a spiky-haired Muslim kneeling for prayer.

Malik joined the band earlier this year after finishing medical school in Pakistan, where he also played for indie rock and punk groups. While there, the Princeton, N.J., native took the time to consider his own relationship with Islam and came to realize he was an atheist.

Many young Muslims like him connect with the cultural aspects of their religion but not the theological ones. Professor Ali at Long Island University said it's similar to secular Jews in the United States, people who connect to homeland and tradition and readily identify with the group but don't embrace its religious dogmas.

"I don't believe in God, but I see that religion has importance," said Malik. "It means different things for different people, and it's great that we can gather together under the term taqwacore."

Breaking it down

That word is taken from The Taqwacores, a novel about imaginary Muslim punk bands, written five years ago by Michael Muhammad Knight, an American convert to Islam. The countercultural-types that read Knight's fiction contacted him about the made-up scene and have since brought Muslim punk to life in concert venues, bars, hookah cafes and dimly lit basements, labeling themselves with the book's title (also the name of an independent feature film Knight is producing this year).

Real-life taqwacore spans musical styles and levels of religious dimension, band members say.

"I don't know if it's all that Muslim or if it's all that hard-core," said Kamel, whose own upbringing in Islam was more based in family tradition than teachings from a mosque. "Taqwacore is more about earnestness in music and earnestness in religion. Different people are in different places in terms of those things."

At a recent taqwacore show in Chicago, Kamel and Malik sat in a circle with a dozen or so other performers, fans and friends on the dirty floor littered with empty beer cans, clapping along to the loud chords of an electric guitar.

Omar Waqar, a Washington D.C.-based artist performing on tour with the Kominas, belted out a song about the partition of India, its lyrics scrawled in a black composition notebook set next to the stage.

Waqar cites his Sufi mysticism as inspiration, referring to one song as "qawwali," a type of devotional music from Pakistan and northern India. The crowd, most in their mid-20s, chants along, "They call it partition, it's more like separation!" singing out against a political event that took place decades before any of them were even born.

Youth awareness

In America, Islam skews young, with a greater proportion of adherents under 30 than any other major religious group, according to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. These Muslims in their 20s are twice as likely to report instances of discrimination than older ones, but they're also more likely to find support and solidarity from non-Muslim peers, according to the 2007 report.

Taqwacore shows draw audiences beyond the Arab-American and South Asian-American demographics. White kids and black kids who identify with or at least appreciate the Muslim punk message -- openly expressing views on religion, politics and the second-generation experience through music -- happily head-bang in the front row alongside a twirling belly dancer dressed in traditional jewelry.

"It's about being with a bunch of like-minded individuals," Malik said, noting, "We have the same questions, the same conflicts about identity."

Mainstream Muslims seem to more readily embrace hip-hop fusion (as seen in the PBS documentary "New Muslim Cool") while remaining hesitant about the rebellious punk scene. A few years ago, the Islamic Society of North America called police when taqwacore bands played at their national convention in Rosemont, the largest annual gathering of Muslims in the country.

At the ISNA show, girls in colorful hijabs cheered and rocked along with the music, evidence that many young people -- even more traditionally pious-types -- see a place for the punk genre in the Muslim-American community.

Ahlam Said, a 23-year-old activist, remembers watching the punk bands get kicked off the stage at the ISNA conference. At the time, she was involved with the Muslim Students Association at DePaul University in Chicago, where she attended school with Al-Thawra frontman Marwan Kamel.

"Just from the little instances I had with him, he was somebody who really was able to connect the dots around these issues and build solidarity around it, which I think is really important across the line," said Said, who now works for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a community outreach organization in Chicago.


The young Muslim musicians involved in taqwacore have developed a new medium out of remnants of history -- cultural bits of their parents' homelands, Islam in its American form and the legacy of punk rock, a genre that began back in the '70s.

As they tell their stories and mock the stereotypes that mark their upbringing, they push the edges of the traditional box America's estimated 1.4 million Muslims typically find themselves in. And that's what makes it worthwhile, they say.

Aiming to open minds to new approaches to Islam, Malik, a doctor-to-be but a drummer-for-now, said candidly and absolutely: "This is the most important thing that I can be doing with my life right now."