Taqwacore combines alternative interpretations of Islam with a punk anti-status-quo ethos, probably best known through the U.S. band The Kominas. Dusting off Wendy Hsu's dissertation chapter on artists-led struggles for justice and resistance against Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism, this Norient four-part series deals with the band's experiences as brown-identified, South Asian Americans living in the midst of hate and fear - and could inspire creative dissent and resistance in the near future.
I remember the day I sat down with the Taqwacore band The Kominas for the first time at a diner near South Station in Boston back in 2009. For four hours, members of the band ushered me into the political vortex surrounding their existence. These musicians not only changed the course of my dissertation research. They changed my outlook on the potentials of music in creating social change. They generously shared their experiences as brown-identified, South Asian Americans, living with compassion and love in the midst of hate and fear. The Kominas helped me discern nuances within the liberal and conservative shades of Islamophobia and the murky racial politics surrounding minoritarian post 9/11 identities. Above all, their words and music embody much strength and community love and fuel my sense of justice. Now in 2017, some things have changed but others haven’t. The term Taqwacore has diffused into the cultural ether. Some of the affiliates are still making music but others have moved onto other projects. We have come a full circle to another repressive regime with the new presidency in the United States. The recent history of the culture of hate and fear is more present than ever.
The Kominas, a South Asian American rock band spawned in the suburbs of Boston, is well-known for its association with the grassroots music culture self-labeled as taqwacore. The prefix «taqwa» is a Qur’anic Arabic term meaning «fear-inspired love» or «love-based fear» for the divine. The suffix «core» refers to the punk roots highlighting the do-it-yourself ideology and subversive attitudes central in hardcore punk music scenes. Taqwacore is conceived to reclaim a space for an alternative practice of Islam inflected with the punk anti-status-quo ethos.
Michael Muhammad Knight coined the term in his novel The Taqwacores, a fictional account of a group of college-aged individuals who live in a house together in Buffalo, New York. Each character in the novel maintains a unique lifestyle and a host of ideologies that question orthodox Islam and reinvents the meaning and practice of Islam for him or herself. After the book’s publication, Knight used social media and email to reach out to various punk rockers of Muslim heritage living in North America, forming a network of friends, artists, bloggers, filmmakers, and other enthusiasts around the self-identified label of taqwacore. In this four-part series, I trace the socio-musical experiences of the Kominas through the lens of U.S. racial dynamics, with a focus on how the members of the band navigate themselves as racial and religious minorities in the post-9/11 sociopolitical terrain. In particular, I situate the band’s experiences in two disparate political contexts: the socially conservative U.S. during the George W. Bush administration and the ostensibly liberal terrain crowded by non-Muslim hipsters, indie-rockers, and other multiculturalists.
Anti-Muslim Policies and Liberal Appropriation of Islamic Counter-Culture
Part 1 focuses on the band’s questioning of the conservative anti-Muslim policies and practices. Part 2 foregrounds the band’s challenges against the liberal appropriation of Islamic counter-culture and strategic interventions in liberal and consumerist multiculturalism. Refusing to be boxed in by the category of «Muslim» or «American», «immigrant» or «citizen», members of The Kominas defies consumerist objectification and categorization. Using taqwacore to reframe the ideology of cultural difference to focus on a collective struggle for social justice, the band take a polyculturalist (Prashad 2001) approach in forging solidarity with other racial and religious minority groups.
Part 3 features a close reading of a performance that illustrates the anti-status-quo concept of taqwacore within and around the American Muslim experience. In the final and fourth part of the series, I discuss the band’s articulation of a brown-and-punk identity that the band has forged in solidarity with Latino/a immigrants. The Kominas transforms multiculturalist thinking to mobilize minoritarian politics. This critique ultimately points at the political contradiction between conservative and liberal United States to reveal an underlying race-based logic that is shared by both ends of the political spectrum. Finally, a note about my relationship to this research project. Interpreting sounds and sights of The Kominas’ performance life while participating in the scene as a music blogger and event organizer, I learned the complexities of what Islam means to each of the band members and their taqwacore associates, particularly in the shadow of race after 9/11.
This article is meant as a way to open up the meanings of Islam in a pluralistic fashion. As a cultural outsider, I recount the musicians’ words and experiences of the Muslim heritage and Islamic faith, not with the intention of placing their religiosity into binary categories of «Muslim» or «non-Muslim». Instead, I consider each instance of discussion about or performance related to taqwacore, punk, and Islam, however contradictory it may seem, a productive tension. It is precisely this productive tension that has facilitated the emergence of this complex cultural space known as taqwacore.
Playing in the Midst of Post-9/11 Green Menace
With fans and musician friends, The Kominas are touring the U.S. this summer. To save travel expenses on their cross-country, 15-city tour, they drive a hybrid Honda Accord while towing a trailer. In the parking lot at The Bridge PAI, a local arts space where I’m hosting The Kominas’ performance in Charlottesville, I stand mesmerized by their silver boxy 5‘ x 8’ trailer, decorated with myriad stencils, stickers, drawings, and scribbles, contributed by the band and its cohort. These messages of inside jokes and symbols of idealism readily express aspects of their D.I.Y. Bohemian lifestyle, in solidarity over shared passion and alienation. Admiring the art on the trailer, I see an inter-faith equation expressed as the following: «Allah= Love, Jesus = Love, Yhwh= Love».
One black stencil mark, with a figure of a man pulling his facial skin, reads, «My epidermal shackle» [Figure 1], a lyric from a song written by Omar Waqar, also on tour as Sarmust. Omar has been friends with the members of The Kominas since the «Taqwatour» two years ago in 2007. Standing next to the trailer, Shahj (Shahjehan) recounts to me some of their tour adventures. The story of a racist encounter at a gas station on their way from Atlanta to Virginia struck me the most. A few white American men accosted the band members if their trailer was where they «keep all of (their) hate mail. Shahj told them that they’re a band. The group of men replied, «Oh, that’s cool». Apparently, their animosity diminished after they found out that The Kominas was a group of musicians. How bizarre. Shahj reveals that he feels as if this interaction was race-related. But he expresses that he doesn’t really understand the usage of the term «hate-mail». I think to myself: Could this be an instance of the «epidermal shackle»? Punk anarchy is only «cool» and non-threatening, as long as it’s not related to people who appear to look Muslim, brown, or like a terrorist or an immigrant.
Six weeks after September 11th, the United States government implemented The U.S.A. Patriot Act with the intention to eliminate terrorism and «unite and strengthen America» (U.S. Senate 2001). This act has mobilized laws to enforce the surveillance of terror-related activities. To enact The Patriot Act, law enforcement, military, and intelligence service officers deployed intense surveillance upon non-citizens, immigrants, and individuals of any Muslim, South Asian, and Arab affiliations. A broad range of anti-Muslim exclusions such as racial profiling and hate crimes occurred. Mass detentions and deportations of Muslim and Arab American men as well as «Special Registration’ program requiring Muslim immigrant men to register with the government and submit to questioning» (Maira 2009, 12) took place beneath mainstream media visibility. Vijay Prashad links the post-9/11 condition to McCarthyism during the Cold War. Not a Red Scare, but a «Green Menace». This time, the enemy is Islam. Prashad observes, «All Muslims are suspects by association, but those who had come into even fleeting contact with the organs of Islamic radicalism are fair game for arrest and interrogation. Like McCarthyism, the main agent for social oppression is not the state, but it is private institutions and our neighbors» (2003, 72).
Basim Usmani, the bassist of The Kominas, is not a stranger to this feeling. He enacts this post-9/11 state of paranoia in his song «Sharia Law of the USA». In the studio recording of the song, a looming sense of a war-bound dystopia is created by audio samples from the civil defense films formerly used as public education during the Cold War era in the 1950s. The first sample occurs at the end of the instrumental introduction, following a sustained guitar feedback siren and a bomb-like strike. The musical bomb coincides with a large explosive sound in the civil film audio clip. The announcer admonishes, «Emergency: The United States is under nuclear attack. Take cover immediately in your area’s fallout shelters». Short snippets of another 1951 civil defense audio clip emerge in the mix. These segments are sampled from «Duck and Cover», a wartime cartoon that was used to instruct children to «duck and cover» in the event of an atom bomb attack. Near the end of the section, the instrumental sounds recede and the 1950s announcer’s voice resounds in the foreground of the mix, «It’s a bomb! Duck and cover»!
Racial Profiling of Islam Identity
The racial profiling in the scheme of Homeland Security and other political attention on Islam and Muslim identity, after the events of 9/11, has reorganized racial dynamics in the United States. Sunaina Maira observes that «The primary fault lines are no longer just between those racialized as white Americans versus people of color, or even black versus white Americans, but between those categorized as Muslim/non-Muslim, Arab/non-Arab, and citizen/non-citizen» (2009, 232). In this environment, marginalized identities such as Muslim, Arab, immigrant, and South Asian are often conflated and jumbled up into one ambiguously generalized threat. This recently otherized entity is oftentimes found demonized, romanticized, or fictionalized in press media. In what follows, I will attempt to tease out how this us-versus-them racial binary has seeped through the media discourse surrounding taqwacore and The Kominas, while highlighting the band’s critical response.
Media outlets have preyed on the band’s connection to Islam as a cultural novelty. The press reinvented the notion of taqwacore as «Muslim punk», without delving into the complex inter-ethnic relations and the community’s ambivalence to religion and culture. Over beers and French fries at the South Street Diner, a few blocks away from the South Station in Boston, members of The Kominas shared their frustration with me. They complained about the rampant deployment of shallow, essentialist notions by media sensationalists. Shahjehan explained: «We got to do a lot of cool stuff because of the novelty aspects of it, because of all the media shit. But it’s difficult when that stuff happens right away, then you wonder if people are actually interested in it musically. Because a lot of songs on that album are pretty damned good songs, but if this whole other aspect to it wasn’t there, you know like the Muslim, post-9/11 crap or whatever. People ask what taqwacore is. It’s nothing more than a few kids that talk online. People think it’s like this thing where we all hang out, we all sit around in this house» (2009).
Since the formation of the band in 2006, mainstream media, music and non-music-related, has hovered around the existence of The Kominas while pigeonholing members, friends, and fans of the band. Shahjehan’s grievance begins to elucidate the race-inflected sensationalism of the Islamic religion in the media after 9/11. The Kominas’ cynicism is not unfounded. The media has appropriated the image of the band and their associates under the banner of taqwacore for various rhetorical and political agendas. Mainstream press has exaggerated The Kominas’ affiliations to Islam. An article on CNN.com claims that three of the four members of the band «identify as Muslim – both practicing and non-practicing» (Ansari 2009). Out of annoyance and frustration, Basim sent a message to all his followers on Twitter, «That’s funny. I told CNN we were three atheists and one Muslim, and they flipped it» (Usmani 2009). While Basim identifies with the anti-status-quo spirit of the taqwacore concept, he finds the mass-media-invented term «Muslim punk» repulsive.
«Slam-Dancing to Allah»
In an interview, he denounces the sensationalizing or «sexy» effect of «Muslim punk» in Western media (Rashid, et al. 2009). Media attraction to the idea of «Muslim punk» is based on an assumed contradiction within the term, a contradiction that would only make sense outside of the Muslim (as well as South Asian and Arab) communities. Mainstream media capitalizes on this opposition in order to sensationalize headlines such as: «Allah, Amps, and Anarchy» in Rolling Stone Magazine (Serpick 2007); Newsweek’s «Slam-Dancing to Allah» (Philips 2007); «Nevermind the Islam. The Kominas Are Punk» in the L.A. Times (Abdulrahim 2009); and in the U.K. newspaper The Sun, «Never Mind the Burkas: Rockin’…Kominas in Boston at the Sad Cafe in Lowell» (Iggulden 2007).
The presumed irreconcilability between Islam and punk, I argue, is predicated upon the notion that punk music is «Western», white, or American. Alan Waters, an anthropology professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, makes this very assertion in the Associated Press’ story about The Kominas and other taqwacore-related bands. He said, «Punk rock is very American, and this is assimilation through a back door» (Contreras 2010). This assertion runs the risk of cultural chauvinism because it lays claims on the social practice of playing rock music as being «American». This view not only ignores the historical British roots of punk rock (and its influences from West Indian immigrants in England). It also dangerously reinforces the Orientalist binary between «American» and «Muslim».
But how could a band that plays songs about suicide-bombing the Gap and instigating the Islamic Sharia Law in the United States be assimilationist? Neither Waters nor the Associated Press writer attempts to resolve this tension. In fact, no press has paid any serious attention to the band’s music. What The Kominas, along with its taqwacore associates, calls for is a middle space that allows for a critical intervention in this raciailized us-versus-them rhetoric. This cultural space is vital for the production of alternative understanding, practices, identities, and relationships to and around Islam.
A Reinterpretation of Islam?
It is a discursive space where one could be critical of Islamophobia without being labeled as Islamicist or un-American. It resists rhetorical simplifications and flattening. Borrowing from the anti-authority punk ethos, this cultural space could contribute to a reinterpretation of Islam and U.S. racial dynamics. Just because one castigates the United States foreign and domestic policies doesn’t mean that he or she is a non-citizen or a Muslim terrorist. On the flipside, just because one has a Muslim heritage doesn’t mean that they represents the entire Muslim community and is necessarily an enemy of the state.
With a title similar to the Sex Pistols’ «Anarchy in the UK», the song «Sharia Law in the USA» evokes the now-classic English punk band’s anti-status-quo punk ethos. The song begins with similar lyrics: «I’m an Islamist; I’m the anti-christ», but with less seriousness. Sprightly finger-snapping accompanies the syncopated vocal lines sung with a smooth vibrato. Basim sings these lyrics in the style of doo-wop or Broadway show tunes. His suave delivery elicits an irony between the lines of menacing words. This is not a serious message of hate or threat. The stylistic shuffling between punk raucousness and American show-tune urbanity creates an ironic distance that thwarts the absolutist ethnic and religious ideologies embedded in the surveillance rhetoric.
Masters of punk irony, The Kominas parodies the stereotypical depictions of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab masculinity produced by post-9/11 media. With wit and irony, the vocalist subverts while embracing the menacing image of Muslim masculinity. Juxtaposing Sharia Law as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism with the unexpected context of the anti-status-quo practice of punk anarchy, this song is blasphemous to both fundamentalist Islam and to the anti-Muslim Bush administration. Singing, shouting, and slam-dancing, The Kominas highlights the absurdity of U.S. homeland security policies, at the same time undercuts authoritarian and fundamentalist forms of Islam. This double-edge critique cuts through the ethno-religious binary between US and Islam, or «American» and «Muslim». This ideological binary underpins the epidermal shackles-echoing Omar’s words-affecting South Asian and Arab Americans.
Abdulrahim, Raja (2009): «Nevermind the Islam. The Kominas Are Punk: The Taqwacore Band Spreads Its Socio-political Message with Brash Lyrics and Catchy Tunes», Los Angeles Times, August 12 (accessed September 3, 2010), [Link].
Ansari, Azadeh (2009): «Punk Meets Islam for New Generation in U.S.», CNN.com, August 13 (accessed on August 31, 2010), [Link].
Contreras, Russell (2010): «Muslim-Hindu Rock Bands Part of New Movement», USA Today, January 3 (accessed September 2, 2010), [Link].
Iggulden, Caroline (2007): «Never Mind the Burkas: Rockin’… Kominas in Boston at the Sad Café in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Inset, Taking a Drink Break», The Sun, January 20 (accessed August 30, 2010), [Link].
Maira, Sunaina (2009): Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11th, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Philips, Matthew (2007): «Slam-Dancing for Allah», Newsweek, June 18 (accessed August 31, 2010), [Link].
Prashad, Vijay (2001): Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Prashad, Vijay (2003): «The Green Menace: McCarthyism After 9/11th», The Subcontinental, Vol. 1 No. 1, Spring, pp. 65-75.
Rashid, Hussein; Foley, Kaitlin; Usmani, Basim; Khan, Shahjehan (2010): «Taqwacore Roundtable: On Punks, the Media, and the Meaning of ‹Muslim›», ReligionDispatches.org, February 10 (accessed September 21, 2010), [Link].
Serpick, Evan (2007): «Allah, Amps, and Anarchy», Rolling Stone, October 4 (accessed August 20, 2009), [Link].
U.S. Senate (2001): «U.S.A. Patriot Act», 107th Cong., 1st sess. H. R. 3162 (accessed on September 11, 2010), [Link].
Usmani, Basim (2009): «That’s funny. I told CNN we were three atheists and one muslim, and they flipped it», Twitter, August 1, [Link].
Khan, Shahjehan: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Ray, Arjun: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Ray, Karna: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Usmani, Basim: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.