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Riazat Butt, "Islamic street preachers"

Islamic street preachers

Riazat Butt

From The Guardian

From Boston to Lahore and beyond, the tentacles of taqwacore - aka Islamic punk rock - are spreading. And it's giving disenfranchised young Muslims a voice

There can't be that many female playwrights who are deaf, punk and Muslim, so Sabina England is something of a find. With a lurid Mohawk and leather jacket slathered with slogans, she looks every inch the rebel and has an attitude to match.
Sabina, who says she lives in the "shitty midwest of the United States" or the "HELL-HOLE OF BOREDOM AND YUPPIES", is part of a subculture that, until a few years ago, existed only on paper.

The Taqwacores - a novel about a fictitious Muslim punk scene in the US - has spawned an actual movement that is being driven forward by young Muslims worldwide. Some bands - such as the Kominas - have a cult following. Others, such as Sabina, are virtually unknown. In a brief email exchange, she lays out some harsh truths.You're a playwright. What do you write about?

"I write plays about fucked up people in fucked up situations, because we're all fucked up human beings that live in a fucked up society. People need to quit whining and shut up and realise that we're all freaks, whether we admit it or not."

Where are your ideas from?

"Being a deaf woman from an Indian Muslim family growing up in both England and the US, I've never felt I fit in or belonged anywhere. So I was always forced to be an outsider, and because of this, I'd just watch people and observe their actions and words. I guess a lot of my ideas come from my alienation and anger."

How well known is the taqwacore phenomenon where you are?

"Muslims around here would rather act like a model minority and don't really want to rattle anybody's chain. I really want to move to New York City, if I can get my plays produced there. Unfortunately it seems many theatre companies are too scared to do my works, or think I only cater to Indians and Pakistanis and won't attract white people. But they're fucking wrong, and they can't see beyond racial boundaries. Fucking worthless piece of shites."

What does taqwacore mean to you?

"It means being true to myself, having my own faith, and interpreting Islam the way I want to, without feeling guilty or being looked down at by other Muslims."

What is the future for taqwacore?

"It's gonna get bigger. A lot of Muslim kids are tired of being told what to do, how to think, what to believe in, and how to act, by their parents. There are 'the angry muslim kids' who wanna grow beards and pray five times a day, and then there are the OTHER 'angry Muslim kids' who wanna get drunk and say a huge big 'fuck you' to the Muslim population. Or maybe they just don't care and wanna sit at home and not think about Osama's video speeches about how America is the Great Satan."

How her words would fare with Michael Muhammad Knight, author of The Taqwacores and an unwitting idol to the young and restless, is anyone's guess. Knight, who is 29 and lives in New York with his dog Sunny - "not as in Sunni Muslim" - downplays his achievement of single-handedly inspiring this subculture that has produced artists such as the Kominas, Secret Trial Five, Vote Hezbollah, Al-Thawra, 8-Bit and Diacritical.

"There was a scene already," says Knight modestly, whose next novel will be titled Osama Van Halen. "I just gave it a name. There were kids out there, doing their thing. I don't think of it as a movement, though, just a group of friends supporting each other."

Knight wrote the book to deal with his own issues. He converted to Islam as a teenager and admits he "burned out" from being so religious. "I was so intense. I felt Islam was so black and white and there were no grey areas. These Muslim kids, who are punks, they are in these grey areas."

The kids he refers to have all devoured Knight's work, some taking it literally.

"One kid," he says, "thought the book was non-fiction and thought that stuff in the book actually happened. He got in touch. He said if it wasn't real, that he would make it real." He sounds worried by the suggestion that his book will be a manifesto for Muslim punks. "If the scene develops, I don't want it to be based on my book."

The words stable, door, horse and bolt spring to mind. Some Muslims are deeming his book to be nothing short of a revelation. "When I read The Taqwacores," says Basim Usmani, frontman of The Kominas, "all my reservations about Islam melted away."

Usmani was born in New York and moved around the US when he was growing up. "I had this identity that stretched way further back than these disenfranchised white kids I was hanging out with, but they were the ones who showed me the most respect. I entered America where I was weird and, when I went back to Pakistan, I was weird there too. I was too Pakistani to be American and too American to be Pakistani."

His aggression was ongoing, although he freely admits his rage didn't come from social dynamics. "In Boston I was middle class. In Pakistan, where I am now, I am definitely upper class. But the poverty here is intense and that makes me angry."

Basim first played with Boston-based outfit Malice In Leatherland, supporting horror punk band the Misfits. It was during this time that he heard about Knight's book.

"I read the book and I'm amazed. I send him an email and he called. I saw a lot of myself in it. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a story." Neither he nor his taqwacore comrades confess to embracing the more debauched antics of the novel - which has one character urinating over the Qur'an and then reading from it and a female Muslim veil-wearing punk, performing oral sex, onstage, in front of 200 people.

Understandably, Usmani was nervous approaching Shahjehan Khan, also in the Kominas, about the book. "I didn't know how he would react, he's not punk, but he was cool about it. He read it in one day. You could say it was a catalyst for the Kominas." Their songs are irreverent and un-PC. His favourite track, he says with a snigger, is "I Want A Handjob" - a jibe at Pakistani rockers Junoon (who launched a Muslims For Bush campaign for the 2004 elections).

Usmani left the US just as the Kominas were breaking through into mainstream culture. But he has a new band - the Dead Bhuttos, a variation on the Dead Kennedys (who released their first single through the independent record label Alternative Tentacles, the very label that picked up Knight's book for distribution).

A future project, hopes Usmani, will be a Punjabi version of the Billy Bragg song There Is Power In A Union. "I'd like it to be a song for the Pakistani workers 'cos they don't really have one," he muses.

The Kominas, currently on a gigging hiatus, will tour later this year in North America. "It seems weird to leave just when we were on the brink. If I'd stayed then I would have been playing to sympathetic white liberals. I didn't want that. In Pakistan, people want to rebel against the police and religious authority and punk is the perfect way to do that."

He's put a downpayment on a bus and decorated it with the shahadah [the Muslim declaration in the oneness of God]. "I have no idea how we're going to get it through customs."

Meanwhile, Khan is in Boston mixing the Kominas debut album: "We've put some EPs out but this is our first official release. There will be remixes of our old stuff like Suicide Bomb The Gap."

Khan says he looks like a typical engineer - with glasses and a goatee - and comes from a comfortable, middle-class background. But he appreciates what taqwacore has done for him. "I was like, where has this book been all my life? None of us know where taqwacore is going or what's going to happen. It is a subculture that could influence culture in general. It's nice to be part of something at the beginning."

One of the newest recruits to the taqwacore scene is Secret Trial Five, from Vancouver. Lead vocalist Sena Hussain, 25, took her inspiration directly from the Kominas. "We saw them play and we were all into punk music anyway. We haven't had a chance to rattle some cages, we only got together last summer, but I expect we will. That's the point of punk."

Proposed title tracks include Hey, Hey, Guantanamo Bay and Emo-hurram, a pun on the first month of the Islamic calendar. And, in a male-dominated culture, she thinks they will face challenges from all sides. "It's another thing that drives us," she says, "Muslim women are seen as helpless and oppressed. We want to prove that wrong. I used to sport a mohawk, I don't now, but we will totally play up the punk thing.

"There's so much animosity towards Muslims and we need a dissenting voice to say 'fuck you' to people who pigeonhole us." Hussain, who is looking for a new guitarist, adds: "It's only fitting that we identify ourselves as taqwacore, that's where we got our inspiration from, and I think that's the way the genre will grow - and I hope it does."