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The Burden of the Muslim Rocker

From North America to North Africa, from Pakistan to Palestine, music in the form of punk rock and metal is the emerging medium of protest among young Muslims around the world.

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Neha Sharma Mar 17, 2011
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“There is no middle man or woman in Islam. Nobody has the right to judge how you live your life because ultimately you’re the one who will be accountable for your actions in this life. I agree with Bulleh Shah when he wrote – ”˜you can destroy the mosque, tear down the temple, break anything that can be broken, but never break anyone’s heart because that’s where God lives,” says Salman Ahmad, frontman of Pakistani band Junoon, whose autobiography, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution, was recently released in India. As the founder guitarist of one of South Asia’s most successful rock bands, Ahmad has had to fight against reactionary Islamic forces in his home country through much of his career. And then came 9/11 and its attendant racial profiling and discrimination, opening up another front for him to deal with as a Muslim musician. And things have only got difficult since 9/11, with the Iraq and Afghanistan war, and the terrorist attacks around the world.

Even the use of the word ”˜jihad’ in the title of his book was not without repercussions. Ahmad, who divides his time between the US and Pakistan, was almost disinvited from playing at the Earth Day concert at Times Square this April after the organisers discovered the word in the book’s title. Ahmad’s use of the term was deliberate, to help rid of the notoriety it had acquired in the hands of terrorist and fundamentalist groups over the last decade. The real meaning of ”˜jihad’ is struggle, and in the book Ahmad uses it to explain his own struggle as a musician in a deeply religious Muslim society. As singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge says in her introduction to the book “…when he (Salman) told me about what had happened to him in Pakistan, the story you are about to read in this book, I suddenly felt that my history paled in comparison to choices he made that could have resulted in his death.”
“Rock musicians and extremists have the same target market – the youth,” the 46-year old musician told The Sunday Times not long ago, and his quest through his book, music and through the course in Muslim music and poetry that he teaches at Queen’s College in New York is to get to the young before the extremist. “A minority of thugs masquerading as holy men have hijacked Muslim culture and faith traditions. It’s a sinister case of identity theft and it’s the extremists who have hogged the public sphere and are threatening to marginalise mainstream Muslims. It’s like the KKK speaking for all of Christianity,” he says.

For Boston based Pakistani-American punk band The Kominas, this jihad gets a bit more personal. Guitarist Shahjehan Khan’s Skype profile reads “I love freedom and pork,” – a terse statement of identity, of belonging and un-belonging. Khan is a first generation American. He identifies as a Muslim, eats pork, smokes pot and plays punk rock, which could be deemed as haram (forbidden) by certain Islamic puritans. As an American, he struggles with the evils of racial profiling – the disenfranchising of Muslims and stereotypes which equate Islam with terrorism. In the Seventies, Punk icon Johnny Rotten subverted the political zeitgeist with his nihilistic verse – “I am an antichrist/ I am an anarchist/ Don’t know what I want/ But I know how to get it/ I wanna destroy the passer by” – on ”˜Anarchy in the UK.’ In the year 2008, The Kominas tackled a different socio-political beast with their sarcastic replay – “I am an Islamist/I am the antichrist/Most Squares don’t make the wanted list/But my my! how I stay in style” – on ”˜Sharia Law in The USA’ from their debut album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay. With songs like ”˜Suicide Bomb the GAP,’ ”˜Wal-qaeda Superstore’ and ”˜Rumi was a Homo,’ the album reeked of punk derision, attacking both sides in this battle for cultural identity.

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The Kominas is one in the string of protest bands founded by disaffected first and young second generation Muslim Americans and Canadians whose experiences post 9/11 connected them in some way. Al Thawra – founded by a Syrian American Marwan Kamel in 2007 – describe themselves as “a doom-crust punk band. Our sound is not your run-of-the-mill hardcore sound, as we mix elements of traditional Middle Eastern music; heavy, sludgy, crust punk; and experimental music influences. Our music is somewhat like a bastard child result from of an orgy between Dystopia, Filth of Mankind, Neurosis, Muslimgauze, and Rachid Taha.” Al Thawra ”“ which means revolution in Arabic released their debut album, Who Benefits from War, in 2008. The Toronto based Secret Trial Five takes its name from the five Muslim men who were arrested and detained without charge by the Canadian government in 2006 on suspected charges of terrorism. The all-girl punk band fronted by a Pakistani-Canadian lesbian Sena Hussain, is known for songs like ”˜Middle Eastern Zombies’ about zombies eating world leaders and ”˜Hey Hey Hey Guantanamo Bay’ about freeing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The inspiration for most of these bands came from The Taqwacores (2003,) the now famous book written by Michael Muhammed Knight. A Roman Catholic by birth, Knight converted to Islam in his teens after reading Alex Haley’s landmark book Autobiography of Malcolm X , the moving story of the radical Muslim-American activist. He went to Pakistan to study Islam in a madrasa and nearly joined the war in Chechnya. But by the time he came back to America he had got disillusioned with the fundamentalist aspect of Islam, a disappointment he fictionalised in The Taqwacores. It tells the story of a bunch of American Muslims as seen through the eyes of a Pakistani-American engineering student who lives with them off campus in a punk house environment. The characters include burqa-wearing riot girls, mohawked Sufis, straightedge Sunnis, Shi’a skinheads, gay Muslims and a host of others who ”˜mix sex, dope, and religion in roughly equal amounts,’ in devotion to the punk subculture of `taqwacore,’ derived from ”˜taqwa’ – an Arabic term for consciousness of the divine. The book was written at a time when Knight was being increasingly attracted to the power of protest in punk music, which finds its echo in its pages. “These punk kids had their own punk mythology, I was really drawn to the way that they approached the world” he says. Knight originally published the book himself in a spiral bound photocopy format and gave it away free. After the punk record label Alternate Tentacles picked up the book and gave it a much wider distribution, the book became a rage among young American Muslims looking for answers to their post-9/11 angst. “I think that book was the first shot in the dark, somebody decided to say ”˜hey, I have all these seemingly perverse and controversial ideas and I don’t know if anybody else cares about this but I do’. After reading the book, our debut album was like the second shot in the dark,” says The Kominas’ drummer Imran Ali Malik. Knight’s book gave bands like Al Thawra, a reason to take their music seriously, “Before, we were just goofing around like any typical punk band. The book connected us with bands like the Kominas, who felt like they didn’t belong either – we were caught between worlds, existing in this grey zone, for lack of a better term, the false dichotomy of east and west,” says Kamel.

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In 2007 Pakistani Canadian film maker Omar Majeed got the so called taqwacores ”“ the bands inspired by the book including, Al-Thawra, The Kominas, Secret Trial Five, Diacritical, Vote Hezbollah and Knight himself to come together and travel on a green bus performing across US cities, and later in Pakistan for his now famous documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009). The film explored the tapestry of Islam in North America, from the point of view of both Knight and the travelling Muslim punk rockers and struck an instant chord among young Muslim Americans. “ For those of us that were born into an Islam that seemed to have room only for rigid adherence to the rules, watching The Birth of Punk Islam feels in some sort of inherent way, exciting. A release. Something new, fresh, and unexpectedly comforting in its complete deviance,” an anonymous reviewer wrote on the Taqwacore webzine immediately after it was released “But there is more to the beauty of this movement than simply its `difference’, or even its flippant disregard for rules and general embracing of the forbidden. It is not only that it claims music is not forbidden that made me pause. But to take the notion that whistling, stringed instruments, or female stage presence are all somehow interruptions in our connection with God and turn them so completely around that they become the very channel through which we access God, is where things get interesting. What is this world, where desi Americans plan on introducing punk to Pakistan, only to find age-old traditions of thousands of worshippers smoking hashish at shrines and losing themselves in the praises of the Divine? And why did no one tell me it existed?”

Today, the scene continues to gain visibility. Recently Knight’s work of fiction was turned into a movie. The film-adaptation of The Taqwacores released in the US this October. Directed by Eyad Zahra this spunky adaptation made for one of the star attractions at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Michael’s book synthesises ideas of theology and spirituality perfectly. In one paragraph he is talking about how Prophet Muhammad smashed idols and in the next he is talking about what The Damned were doing while making music,” says documentary filmmaker Omar Majeed of the book’s significance to him. While explaining the premise of his documentary, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk, he drives the point home, “there is no one way to embrace Islam, it is a personal relationship one shares with the creator, how you envision it is up to you. I think that’s what the fundamentalists do, the Taliban is just a group of selective interpretations as the Taqwacores might be and that’s all we can do, interpret things in our own way and try to find our own path.”

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