Taqwacore combines alternative interpretations of Islam with a punk anti-status-quo ethos, probably best known through the U.S. band The Kominas. The second part of Wendy Hsu's four part essay deals with eurocentrism within hipsterdom and the band's struggle against binaries such as «good Muslims» and «bad Muslims».
Problems of the Civilizational Rhetoric
On the main drag in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, groups of 20-somethings parade under the intense August sun. Sporting a hipster style en masse, they were all wearing dark-framed «nerdy» glasses, old t-shirts, skinny jeans, slip-on canvas shoes, and other accessories salvaged from thrift stores or purchased at a local Urban Outfitters chain store. Uniform multicolored checkered scarves wrap around their necks and shoulders. Without a checkered scarf, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Or maybe it had less to do to with the scarf, but more with the wearer of the scarf or the ethnicity of the wearer of the scarf.
Known as «kufiya» (conventional spelling «keffiyeh»), this piece of «ethnic» fabric represents a vague notion of resistance, but only as a sartorial device that displays a fashionable statement within hipsterdom. Formerly worn by rural Arab peasant class in Palestine, the keffiyeh became a symbol of nationalist resistance during the 1930s Arab revolt in Palestine and later became absorbed into European-American leftist couture, as well as street and commercial fashion in the United States since the 1980s. In the mid to late 2000s, the majority of the keffiyeh-clad individuals are typically either unaware or only vaguely familiar with its pro-Palestinian, anti-war associations (Swedenburg 2010). Collectively worn by hipsters, these keffiyehs say one thing: the new hip couture is a piece of the ethnically other «Islamic» world.
In Adbuster, a magazine with interests in anti-commercial and environmentalist interests, Douglas Haddow comments on the commodification of keffiyeh. He claims that the keffiyeh has «become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory» (2008). What intrigues me is the title of the article: «Hipster: the Dead End of Western Civilization». Unwittingly, Haddow’s rhetoric resonates with the «civilizational» discourse that Samuel Huntington used in his well-known, polemical theory of the «clash of civilizations» (1996). In the wake of the events on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush deployed the language of civilization in his declaration of the War against Terror. «This is civilization’s fight», Bush says, is presumably a fight against the «uncivilized non-West» (Palumbo-Liu 2002, 109). This rhetoric reinforces a binary that is rooted in religious, geographical, and ideological differences here and there, «America» and the Terrorist-spawned «Islamic» world, and between «us» and «them».
Haddow has no interest in Bush’s right-wing project for constructing an imperial West. His critique instead points at the contemporary alternative, leftist stream that is tied to the so-called «Western counterculture». He denigrates hipsters for their perpetual consumption habits and apolitical ethos by comparing them with previous Western countercultural movements. Haddow’s critique of hipsterdom is class-based. He targets the fashion and culture industry for its ravenous appetite to commodify hipster desirables. He also castigates an uncritical complicity on the part of the hipsters themselves. I sense an uneasy dissonance in Haddow’s juxtaposition of an «Islamic» symbol and the failure of «Western civilization». Are all hipsters necessarily «Westerners»? What is it like to be a minority within this scene that readily consumes Palestinian or more generally, Islamic imagery as a «cultural» wearable? Unfortunately, Haddow’s assessment overlooks the racial and ethnic dimensions of this cultural phenomenon. The consumerist orientation toward ethnic symbols within hipster culture shows the Eurocentrism and whiteness underlying the ostensibly welcoming, multiculturalist hipsterdom.
At the South Street Diner, I found out that guitarist Arjun and drummer Karna are not of Muslim background. Arjun informed me that he and his brother are of Indian Bengali descent and their mother is Hindu. Their non-Muslim heritage is often overlooked in the press. Occasionally this difference is subsumed under the multiculturalist banner of «diversity». Rolling Stone Magazine’s article describes them as «Hindu dudes», implying a status peripheral to the «Muslim» members. During my interview, Arjun said, «we would always find our points ignored and our «diversity» noted as some kind of brownie badge on the Kominas label. «Fuck that» (Khan, et al. 2009). He spoke about the «cuddly» effects of the multiculturalism intended by liberal press. «The thing is that they use me and Karna to make the whole thing a little cuddly because it’s diversified. «Oh there’s a black dude in the band». Dan. «Oh there’s two Bengali Hindus in the band». «Holy shit these Muslims must be really cool. They are all accepting. This brand of Islam, this revolution they’re pushing for, this is it. This is what’s going to change the religion». «We’re not even a fucking part of that religion» (Khan, et al. 2009).
Arjun’s remark about The Kominas’ «diversified» interethnic and inter-religious membership resonates with Maira’s (2009) observation of the absorption of «Islam as a marker of cultural difference». This cultural process is structured by the logic of multiculturalism and is driven by the ideal of «expand(ing) the rainbow spectrum of diversity» (Maira 2009, 228). It in turn depoliticizes the racial ideologies that govern the exclusion and marginalization of individuals of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab heritage in the United States. Anthropologist Shalini Shankar (2008) notes that the diversity agenda assimilates and displays racial differences while effacing the reality of racism.
«This norm of Whiteness is one on which multiculturalism is premised» (Shankar 2008, 122). Moreover, the celebratory, pro-diversity interpretation of The Kominas positions the band as being «cool» for supposedly promoting a progressive «brand of Islam». The ideological undertone is a binary that distinguishes between «good Muslims» versus the «bad Muslims». This binary demonizes those who are supposedly responsible for terrorism (Mamdani 2004, 15; cited in Maira 2009, 235); at the same time, it claims those non-threatening Muslims as acceptable for practicing good (US American) liberal multiculturalism.
The Kominas refuses to be subsumed under the U.S. rainbow of «good» ethnic minorities. With a name that means «scumbags» in Punjabi and Urdu, The Kominas does not pretend to be exemplary Muslims in accords with any religious and social orthodoxy. Playing on the images of the «bad Muslim», while embracing the abject, a definitively punk ethos, the band enlists Terrorist metaphors in its songs: «Suicide Bomb the Gap», «Sharia Law in the USA» and «WalQueda Superstore». Instead of a liberal consumerist or a feel-good, apolitical version of U.S. multiculturalism, The Kominas exemplifies a kind of critical pluralism. The band challenges the racial status-quo and builds solidarity across various social lines. Acutely aware of the politics of assimilation, The Kominas play with the symbolic meaning of ethnic garments in their visual materials.
Critical Pluralism and a Dissenting Polyculturalism
The Kominas’s critical pluralism is embodied by the band’s visual performance in a photograph taken by documentary photographer Kim Badawi. This photo displays three members of band, each accessorized by a garment that is symbolic of the culture of Islam. On the left, drummer Imran Malik unfolds the layers of his dark blue and gray keffiyeh. In the middle, guitarist Arjun Ray wears a burgundy and white keffiyeh around his neck, while holding a cigarette in his right hand. Arjun stands tall with confidence. To his right is guitarist Shahjehan, with a tightly trimmed goatee, wearing a crimson color short-sleeved kurta (traditional male tunic in South Asia) with detailed gold-threaded embroidery. His attire renders him looking excessively ethnic. Without shoes, he stands nervously. Relative to his bandmates, Shahjehan’s presentation exudes discomfort.
I read Shahjehan’s performed otherness an expression of the unassimilated, of the immigrant. This performed discomfort instantiates Muñoz’s conception of «disidentification», a dynamic cultural process that breaks down and rebuilds a cultural text to perform two opposing but related functions (1999). Shahjehan’s sartorial performance recontextualizes an unassimilated immigrant, a symbol of marginality that is un-hip by the consumerist hipster standard. It at once unveils the exclusionary hipster practice of wearing a keffiyeh; and in doing so, «recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower» immigrant identities and identifications (Muñoz 1999, 31). Staged for a critical effect, this photo as a whole displays tension with regards to the cultural meaning of keffiyeh. Juxtaposing the keffiyeh and the kurta as a way to undercut a hipster fashion orthodoxy, the three actors, in combination, expose the constructedness of the value of hipness associated with the scarf. This photograph reveals the contradictions of the seemingly progressive liberalism embedded in this ethnic chic.
Staging for theatrical effects, the band made a mock advertisement for The Gap clothing company and shared it through their social media channels. This photos displays three members of the band. Bassist Basim standing on the left wear a tall mulhwak and a black leather jacket. With a clean punk rock style, Basim confidently looks into the camera with a bright smile. Standing next to Basim is drummer Imran, with an outfit in the style of The Gap. Imran’s casualness – his smile and relaxed attitude of not looking into the camera – marks him of having a «natural» look. Standing on the right side is Shahjehan. Shahjehan’s deadpan face and kurta make him stand out among his peers, especially with The Gap logo superimposed over his ethnic garb. Performing a slightly nervous and uncomfortable subjectivity, Shahjehan’s staged presence is a symbol of the immigrant’s excess foreignness felt by mainstream, white-centric gaze.
This minority-centered intervention of consumerist multiculturalism, I argue, resonates what Prashad terms as «polyculturalism» in his influential text Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting (2001). In a cultural Marxist approach, Prashad offers a «polycultural» perspective that allows for the «interchange of cultural forms» instead of the multiculturalist view of «the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories» (2001, 67). A polyculturalist worldview focuses on culture as a process, rather than categories. Ultimately, polyculturalists aim at the goal to dismantle notions of cultural chauvinism, parochialism, and ethno-nationalism. During a phone conversation, I asked Basim what he would like the readers of SPINearth, a music blog offshoot from the SPIN magazine, to know about his band. He said to me, very succinctly, we’re all about (forming) solidarity with all people of color, reaching out to those in the wilderness of North America» (Usmani 2009b). Embracing the collective abject of those around the band, I suggest, The Kominas forges a D.I.Y. polyculturalist unity for a palliative end.
In the next two parts of the series, I identify two strands of The Kominas’ polyculturalist production, both located in musical performances. Part 3 will focus on a performance featuring The Kominas’ forging of solidarity with other Muslim American cultural renegades.
Haddow, Douglas (2008): «Hipster: the Dead End of Western Civilization», Adbuster, July 29 (accessed on August 25, 2010), [Link].
Maira, Sunaina (2009): Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11th, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Mamdani, Mahmood (2004): Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Harmony.
Muñoz, José E. (1999): Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Palumbo-Liu, David (2002): «Multiculturalism Now: Civilization, National Identity, and Difference
Before and After September 11th», boundary 2, No. 2 (summer) (accessed August, 26, 2010), [Link].
Prashad, Vijay (2001): Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Shankar, Shanlini (2008): Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Swedenburg, Ted (2010): «Keffiyeh: From Resistance Symbol to Retail Item», The Jerusalem Fund, April 8 (accessed on August 25, 2010), [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.
Usmani, Basim: telephone conversation, August 20, 2009.