Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The TaqwaTour

My second article on Muslim punk from India Currents

Writing a review of a book or recording is much easier than writing about the reality that produced it—or in the case of Michael Muhammad Knight’s the Taqwacores, the reality the book produced. Knight’s book is full of surprises, but at least it sits there quietly in your hands and doesn’t protest any of your descriptions of it. Real-life Taqwacore musicians are an independent lot, and resist anyone’s attempt to create a pigeonhole for them. The New York Times and the Rolling Stone both said that Muslim Punk was created in response to Knight’s book. Marwan Kamel, whose band Al-Thawra takes its name from the Arabic translation of "The Revolution, explains that the truth is more complicated. “ We were not the first Muslim punk bands, even if we were the first Taqwacore bands. Punk bands have existed in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia since the 80's. The idea of "Muslim punk" isn't that important there, because the vast majority of people are Muslims. As Mike said in a conversation with me once, ‘What do you call Chinese food in China, it's just food.’ So, likewise Muslim punk is just punk for them.”

So what is Taqwacore, if not Muslim punk? I tried at first to answer that question quasi-scientifically, by sending out a generic questionnaire to several bands that identified themselves as Taqwacore. I got some friendly and informative responses, but some band’s reactions varied from suspicious to overtly hostile. “Look, there are plenty Muslims who don’t know s—t about Islam.” replied Saag Al-sistanti of the Saag Taqwacore Syndicate “Just like the back country good ol boys who don’t know s--t about the bible. But they still consider themselves Christian, and they are not put to a 'Christian Litmus Test'..... Are we not Muslim enough? Is that it?” He had my agenda wrong, but he was right that I had an unconscious agenda. I was trying to make Taqwacore represent a new Muslim ideology. Taqwacore is more interested in questioning all ideology than creating a new one. “We (the real-life taqwacores) are really just putting our identity conflict on display for the world to see” says Kamel, “Taqwacore means we can be complicated Muslims and complicated punks... as long as we stay true to ourselves.”

No one wanted to use ideology to divide or unite the “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Secret Trial Five is a Canadian All-female Taqwacore band, whose lead singer, Sena Hussain, is openly gay. I thought she would have felt some solidarity with gay Islamic reformer Irshad Manji, but instead Hussain criticized Manji for her support of “Apartheid states like Israel.” “I know some very conservative Muslims who treat me as a brother, even though I've made all kinds of crazy rebellious statements about religion” says Knight “They humble me with the way that they live their Islam. I've spoken at mosques and Islamic events and have been received with decency.” Real-life Muslims, unlike their media caricatures, often agree to disagree, and tolerate their differences even when their disagreement is strong and passionate.

When Michael Muhammad Knight painted camels on the side of his green bus and began his “Taqwatour” of both Punk Clubs and Moslem community centers, he traveled with five Taqwacore bands that shook up both Muslim and Punk Orthodoxy. Only the Secret Trial Five exemplified the raw angry adolescent energy of traditional hardcore punk. Al Thawra uses sophisticated sampling and mixing techniques that combine drum machines, violins, and middle-eastern instruments with what they call “heavy sludgy crust punk”. The Kominas use dramatic changes in tempo, orchestration, and musical style that create political playlets reminiscent of Brecht and Weil (Only louder, most of the time.) Vote Hezbollah repeatedly point out that their name is a joke, but their song “Poppy Fields” pulls no punches in its criticisms of American foreign policy. It features a gritty Tom Waits-style vocal, and closes with an impressively frantic hi-hat solo. Omar Waqar performed without his former band Diacritical, perhaps because certain members were ambivalent about being exclusively identified as Taqwacore. (There is a long discussion about this issue on his blog.) His style with that band was closer to being heavy metal than anything else, but his numerous other influences defy easy categorization. The evening’s entertainment was thus definitely not for the purist, whether punk or Muslim. Despite the Taqwatour’s deliberately controversial style, however, the mainstream American Muslim reaction was admirably restrained.

Perhaps the most crucial moment of the Taqwatour was their performance at the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Undeniably, they freaked out lots of people. The Secret Trial Five’s blog reports that many walked out when they heard the group’s “scratchy punk vocals”. There was an off-stage argument between the “head dude” and Mike Knight. The police were called, which inspired Knight to lead the crowd in a chant of “Pigs are Haram”. But hey, nobody threw any bombs, or stones, or crashed any airplanes into the side of the green bus. The Taqwatour set up a booth at the ISNA conference and the public reaction was summed up as “a few people looking at us funny…overall a controversy free day.” At the ISNA open mike, the Taqwatour shared the stage with Muslim rappers, beat boxers and poets who used almost as much profanity as they did. There are online videos of the event which show girls in hijabs smiling, screaming, and giving devil-horn hand gestures. The organizer of the event eventually admitted she made a judgment error in calling the police, and that it would have been better to have talked things out. It is not always a peaceful relationship, but the Taqwacore sensibility is an integral part of modern Moslem culture, and not just in America. The Dead Bhuttos live in Pakistan, and record in Punjabi. The Kominas have toured Pakistan. Personally, I’m looking forward to the time when Christian and Moslems parents can sit down together and mutually commiserate over their crazy Punk Rock children. If that won’t shatter old boundaries, I don’t know what will.

(The Myspace pages of these groups can be found through the search engines at www.myspace.com)

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