Taqwacore Roundtable: On Punks, the Media, and the Meaning of “Muslim”

Imagine standing in a copy shop, running off copies of a book you wrote. You have to distribute it yourself, and you cannot keep up with demand. Sometimes you get paid for the labor of copying and mailing. That was Michael Muhammad Knight before his novel The Taqwacores found a publisher. In 2003, Knight was pushing out an underground novel that spoke to a generation of Muslim-American youth who had no cultural home. There were pot-smoking, praying, Qur’an-reading Muslims, who would edit out sections of the Qur’an because they were “wrong” and no one could explain the text to them. 

Playing with the Arabic word “taqwa” (God-consciousness) and the punk suffix “core,” Knight gave voice a segment of the Muslim-American community. He also earned the ire of large parts of the community who were in denial that these people existed, who felt their power threatened, or who could not deal with the confusion their decisions caused. 

Following is a roundtable discussion on the Taqwacore scene among Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan (both members of the band the Kominas), Kaitlin Foley (radio host and erstwhile Islam blogger), and myself.  

—Hussein Rashid

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Q: When we consider that the contemporary Taqwacore scene was at least partly inspired by fiction, the fact that it exists in real life today becomes even more remarkable. Kaitlin Foley has noted that social networking sites such as MySpace have played a significant role in galvanizing both virtual and bricks-and-mortar support for the Taqwacore bands, as they do for most bands today. How do you all think the fictional and virtual origins of Taqwacore have affected the development of the Taqwacore scene so far, and how might they influence its future development?

Basim Usmani: This is funny, originally I had conceived of an all-Desi punk band called the Kominas before I began jamming with Shahj and before I even knew who Mike Knight was. My impetus was the need to appropriate the cultures around me into something that could be my own. So I wouldn’t feel weird or self-conscious listening to, or reading, or exposing myself to non-Desi elements. I hated being graded for my Desi or Muslimness. The music was born out of frustration, because of dead-end jobs, no prospects, and a huge shadow cast over me from my parents that busted their balls to provide a life for me (which I still suck at). MMK’s work helped reconcile religion into the music, and really elaborated some of the beauty and iconoclasm inherent in Islam, which I wasn’t really comfortable writing about. I wanted a Punjabi Dropkick Murphys, Mike wanted a Qallandari Rancid. Thinking about it, I like the latter better as well. Everything begins as fiction in your head, mashing up concepts and understanding how ideas can fit is important. I think the use of the Internet, quick access to media played a part in that. Not MySpace.

Shahjehan Khan: I would say that social networking definitely gives us the ability to share our ideas quickly and easily. Things may have been different if we were all ten years older, i.e. that would have forced us to look more locally among our communities/cities for musical support. It also would have proved much more difficult to garner the kind of media attention that has become synonymous with Taqwacore (be that positive or negative, I think both are true). People may have been less apt to judge us based on our “principles” and actually focus on whether we created good music/were a good live band… Conversely, the online world has allowed many people across the country and the globe to check us all out, and we have also made friends on MySpace, Facebook etc… that we may not have done so quickly.

Kaitlin Foley: If and when there is a next step, it might be to connect the dots between the fictional and virtual origins of Taqwacore. I can’t say Mike Knight’s The Taqwacores was a genesis for me about Islam but it was an affirmation that self-publishing was a chance to throw out the rule book and create my own. I could play around with social media to find people and ask why a fictional punk scene fascinates kids then shared my own stories with Madison street punks. Some believed me, some didn’t care for hardcore. As far as conversations about TQ in the future, I hope they will be less about identity crises and big picture modern dilemmas and more on the actual music. Maybe the new sound should be deconstructed before social media tackles Islam, Taqwacore, and punk rock all at the same time.

Hussein Rashid: Thanks BU, for the clarification. I seem to recall meeting you and having this conversation before hearing about Mike Knight’s book, but it’s good to have that confirmation. I do think the aesthetic element of your work is often overlooked. One of my favorite tracks is “I Want a Handjob,” precisely because I think it has some of the qalandari element to it. It has reverence for the family of the Prophet, and includes elements of contemporary cultural references with a good dose of sexual language. Like a good South Asian or Persian lyric, it does not have to be devotional, but can incorporate those elements. Even prior to the emergence of Taqwacore I was hesitant to label things “Islamic.” It implies a level of religiosity that may not be present and obscures other intentions and meanings in the music. I much prefer Marshall Hodgson’s construction of “Islamicate,” for things that may be influenced by Islam, but are not necessarily religious. I am curious about KF’s point about identity crisis. I never heard your music in that way. To me, it is a declaration of the multiple identifications that make your identity. It is the opposite of a crisis; a resolution perhaps. SK you talk about being ten years older, but it is fast approaching that time since the music started. Do you think that time has made a difference?

BU: I think that’s a great observation, it isn’t identity crisis. Time has definitely made a difference in terms of being in a band and touring and actually meeting people that are interested in the music we play.

KF: Sure, HR, I’ll expand. What I meant by identity crisis was that Taqwacores resolved what I think is a normal teenage phase when they found people like themselves and some shared world in punk. Maybe BU would say his story would be a goth goes Taqwacore one instead but I think it’s the same either way around—that is, in the end it’s okay the stories are different and any message might evolve with new bands and music. Maybe part of this is virtual and if I had to guess, blogging will have a bigger role in evolving the message. Anyway, I was never on MySpace and I’m not sure what this question asks. The “ask a blogger about social media” is kinda a cliche. I answer questions with social media, not about it. There are other questions to ask about social media and networks than “what’s the scene going to look like?” when it comes to Taqwacore. I can’t tell the future any better than Basim or Shahj can really judge how many people are actually fans of the book and their music.

Q: The virtual aspect of Taqwacore allows for greater international access to the music and discussion of TQ bands. Do you believe that TQ is having an impact outside of the United States? If so, what? Why do you think it is having an appeal? If not, why? Is it the music (the genre being very particular to the Anglophone world)? the underlying thought of treating “Muhammad as punk rocker?” 

BU: What an ignorant question. Anglophone world? Punk is ten times bigger in Kuala Lampur than it ever will be in the UK, France, or Germany. Or America. No, the reason for forming the Dead Bhuttos, and the rush to put a single online was to show, at least cosmetically, that Pakistan was as capable of putting out punk rock as Turkey, Malaysia, Japan, and Lebanon. The USA is good to sell obscure Malaysian and Japanese records in, but it’s not a good place to play this kind of music. We’d do much better in South Eastern Asia, which yes, we get a lot of traffic from online. Tons of people from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia add us. We’ve been covered in the major Malaysian music magazine. I think it makes more sense for us to play in Malaysia then it does to play in Europe.

SK: Many things remain to be seen, but I think it would be a mistake to deny that Mike’s book is having some kind of impact in the world. We get messages frequently from bands/kids/music lovers/thinkers worldwide asking us when we are coming to their neck of the woods. If I’m not mistaken, outside of the US, our Facebook pages’ popularity has Pakistan next in line. Omar’s documentary is currently screening in the UK, so I don’t think anyone is really sure (and I’m not exactly certain how one would quantify this) who is reading, who is listening etc…

HR: Ouch. You are right BU, my question and it was poorly worded. Clearly I know the the popularity of punk, amongst other genres, outside the Anglophone world. I think Mike’s book clearly speaks to a lot of people, but as fiction there is a comfortable level of distance. You are actually making the music, and that’s really the tension I want to explore. It’s one thing to utilize the genre, it’s another to inject it with themes related to Islam. I will be honest and say that I am surprised at how well your lyrical content is taken in Muslim majority countries. With respect to Pakistan, CNN did a piece on Pakistani metal. It seemed to be a highly artificial scene, almost staged for the cameras. The concert footage in Pakistan seemed more organic. What is your sense of the music scene in Pakistan? How does it compare to South East Asia, for example?

BU: There is a much bigger music industry in Malaysia then Pakistan in a traditional sense. Pakistan probably has a lot of money and publicity in its artists, and its more likely there will be press following Pakistani artists around—but thousands and thousands of people attend concerts in Kuala Lampur, and there is already a Malaysian scene for “Western” music, you’ll find Malay skinheads, punks, metalheads, and rappers. Pakistan is mostly a place for ballads, and bhangra.

Q: Assuming international impact, are we seeing transnational connections being made? For example, the UK Asian Underground, the US/Indian Asian Massive [as the MIDIval PunditZ consider themselves to be part of Asian Massive], and the Indian Cyber Mehfil groups are all in communication with one another and often work together on projects. Is there something similar with TQ emerging?

BU: Not yet, just some contact with British Asian geezers like Asian Dub Foundation, Fun Da Mental and Alien Kulture. There are Taqwacore groups in Scotland and London, but no one has contacted us to do a tour. Most of them discourage us about setting foot in Bradford lest we become the biggest pariahs since Salman fucking Rushdie.

SK: See BU.

HR: Isn’t every good qalandar a pariah?

BU: True.

Q: Much is being made of TQ, but heavy metal, if not punk, have been a part of the musical politics of the Arab World for some time (for example, see here). What is different about TQ that it is generating such interest? Is it their origin is in the “West?” Is it South Asian?

BU: It’s the West. The media is having a circle jerk over this idea at the time, because the notion of “Muslim punk” is sexy to them. The way the racist media sees it, they can put MMK in every story as the great white grandfather to this scene of confused, destructive Muslims who’ve turned around from their ‘opressive’ culture. There’s plenty of revolutionary South Asian hip-hop out there. Humble the Poet’s father is a Sikh cab driver, and he writes about working-class life in Toronto, and remembering the 1984 golden temple massacre in India. But instead, CBC TV, the biggest broadcaster in Canada comes to us to cover us. The reason? A white man started all of it. At the same time, the music has been the most underserviced aspect of all the media on us. News stories mention the same songs, and make no note of what they sounds like. They still leave Arjun out of their writeups because he has a Hindu name, and Shahjehan Khan, our guitarist, is constantly referred to as our lead singer.

KF: In response to BU: I think the best approach for getting lost in the message and media circus surrounding Islam is to look at Taqwacore objectively as traditional news does. And many journalists do, usually getting tripped up on the exotica of talking about religion in a public way. This isn’t just a Taqwacore-specific issue, or even one with Islam, but also one of those longstanding ethical dilemmas for reporters and editors—one that makes traditional journalists crazy private about debating the issue and expect to keep doing so until the end of time. Punks and journalists have one similarity in that they are careful outside their respective circles not to lose the reputation and influence they’ve earned. So, there’s a mutual attraction and tension in Taqwacore coverage that leads to what Basim called a circle jerk.

SK: [Essentially] the same story has been circulating for a while, and it is up to us to change it now, to be responsible with this media attention. I think that the next year will be the true test of what TQ is really all about (if anything more than a group of friends). One would hope that more bands are started, I think we would all agree on that.

HR: There seems to be a long history of immigrant South Asians writing resistive poetry in the US and England. As you point out, this poetry gets very little attention. Do you really think it’s about MMK? I do notice he gets mentioned a lot in articles about the Kominas, but all of you associate together quite a bit. Although I am conscious of the myth of a “white savior” in a lot of redemption narrative, what makes you think it’s not an two-fer for the reporter? You are with MMK, so she gets to write about you and him.

BU: It’s likely a two-fer as well. I’m grateful for the association—though the scene, and the people who attend the concerts should be covered more heavily.

Q: What is the gender dynamic of TQ? Much is made of Secret Trial Five to show the gender openness of TQ, but punk is a strongly gendered-biased genre. Is TQ inheriting the liabilities of punk and patriarchal interpretations of Islam?

BU: Yes. Girls come to watch the bands but don’t play in them. It’s too bad.

SK: I don’t think it has much to do with “patriarchal interpretations of Islam,” more just the ‘reality on the ground’ if you will. We have a very sizeable female presence at our shows, but as to why there aren’t more bands, I don’t know… It’s only really been 3-4 years! I would be willing to bet that there are more out there that don’t care to publicize themselves in the way that perhaps we have.

KF: I’d agree with SK that there are more Taqwacore artists who are women out there. There’s a couple in Australia, for example. You just have to look for them because as Shahj said, they’re not talking about Taqwacore all the time. Then you also have artists like Micropixie who are part of the scene even if they don’t exactly label themselves Taqwacore.

HR: SK, my concern is that without pushing the gendered divisions early Taqwacore can inherit a lot of cultural baggage that quickly comes to define the system.

Q: In the MSM, TQ is often positioned as “Islamic Punk,” or “Muslim Punk.” While members of TQ groups are from Muslim backgrounds, are these useful labels? Is the music Islamic or Islamicate? Does the distinction mean anything? That is, does their religious identification become their identity, regardless of their own feelings on the matter? If so, why does hip-hop not get the same treatment, which also emerges from an Islamicate background?

BU: “Muslim Punk” is an awful term. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or any existance after you breathe your last breath. I think the Qur’an is man-made. But I think all art is divine, and that we men have invented these gods and written all these books. In our lyrics, there is a lot of what could be considered blasphemous content. That’s because we own these gods. We are these gods. That is what taqwacore is for me. It’s self-consciousness. It’s knowledge of self.

SK: One can’t get deny The Taqwacores being a novel about “Muslim Punks.” In the first years of the Kominas, Islam was something that we felt like writing about, but so was a Pakistani earthquake (Rabyah), or a Bollywood-style train robbery (Dishoom Bebe). I think that the term “Muslim Punk” may have been accurate initially (I would disagree with BU’s characterization as ‘awful’, seeing as we all used/abused the term to some degree), but has become more of a burden as time has gone on. Any label is usually exclusionary, and artists usually hate them. I most certainly believe in an afterlife, and would call myself a Muslim.

HR: This question of blasphemous content is so interesting, because there is such a long history of these types of lyrics and approaches in Islamicate literature. Iqbal’s Jawab-e Shikwa, while not as direct as some of your lyrics, speaks in the voice of God. That’s blasphemy. The literature of the malamati, the Sufis who sought blame for themselves, is all blasphemous. It is very much part of the tradition, although the form may change. I’m not sure blasphemous content, from a devotional perspective, is really meaningful anymore. It is most assuredly not a marker of belief. However, your declaration of (un)belief is far more important, BU and SK.

BU: I think its fair to say we draw from poetry by Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, and the Qur’an. There’s a lot of lyrics and music that appeal to me though.

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