Thursday, 13 May 2010

Islam, Punk Rock and the most important cultural force of our time...

Islam and Punk Rock are such conflicting concepts; they make Marmite on Chicken look like culinary fusion made in gourmet heaven. However, whilst they may not sit well together, they do make for an intriguing proposition. So the news of a film charting the marriage of these two strange bedfellows being screened in the East End of London (of all places) got me plenty intrigued, not least at the prospect of seeing a Muslim demonstration at the venue. Alas, the street facing the Rich Mix Arts Centre in Bethnal Green was instead occupied by a solitary, 7-foot-tall, stick thin, cross dresser, who appeared to be the off spring of Ru Paul and Pete Doherty, replete with lush beard and a vision in lacy black knickers, leopard print poncho and heels.

‘The Taqwacores: the Birth of Punk Islam’, a pulsating documentary by Pakistani Canadian director Omar Majeed, charting the… err… birth of Punk Islam, premiered at the recent East London Film Festival; known for promoting movies with controversial themes (and for men who wear skinny jeans and tea saucers in their ears). The screening may have flown well below the Asian community’s radar but the film is a little gem and relates a truly remarkable story; one which is perhaps the most significant for our troubled times.

The History
The documentary is based on a 2002 book called ‘The Taqwacores’, by Michael Muhammad Knight, a 33-year-old American of Irish Catholic descent. Knight had converted to Islam in 1993 after reading a biography of Malcolm X (and running into his abusive white supremacist father for the first time). The following year, aged just 17, he travelled to Pakistan to study the religion, often praying for up to 8 hours a day and mingling with Afghan refugees and Chechen fighters. In the late 1990’s, by now bored and jaded, he returned to the US looking for inspiration and promptly found Punk Rock. Struggling to reconcile these two incongruent loves and disillusioned with what he calls the hypocrisy of the Muslim religious establishment, Knight wrote a book titled ‘The Taqwacores’. In it, he imagined a punk rock scene in Buffalo, New York, made up of disaffected young Muslim students struggling with religion and identity crises and voicing their frustrations through Punk.

Initially, the author made photocopies of his work, distributing it among people filing out of Mosques throughout the US Northeast before it was published by a small record company in California. Remarkably, the book’s narrative of jarring, non-conformist Punk rock confronting structured and dogmatic modern Islam struck a chord. The message was taken up by dozens of young Muslims who decided to turn fiction into reality by creating a music movement, now officially called ‘Taqwacore’ (‘Taqwa’ is an Arabic word meaning piety, married to ‘Hardcore’). ‘Taqwacores: The Birth of Punk Islam’ follows Knight on his journey through the US discovering the artists who were inspired by his fiction. Shot over a period of 2 years, the film provides a riveting insight into the genesis of an entire new sub-culture.

What not to do during Ramadan
Determined to spread the message of Punk Islam, Knight and his followers take a converted school bus from Boston to Chicago, in the process getting stoned, praying, stamping on the American flag and singing “I want to fuck you during Ramadan!” The musicians include Boston’s ‘The Kominas’ (Bastards in Urdu), founded by Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan; sons of successful Pakistani immigrants. Also on the trip is ‘Secret Trial Five’, an all female group founded by Sena Hussein, a Vancouver-based Pakistani Lesbian who named the band after a group of Muslims currently held without charge on suspicion of plotting attacks inside Canada.

In Chicago, the group manage to wangle their way into the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, where their unscheduled performances cause a riot with shocked organizers and cops trying to push them out of the convention centre while excited middle class Hijab-clad girls head bang.

In the film’s second act, the artists and Knight travel to Pakistan to explore the roots of Knights’ original metamorphosis and to introduce punk to the country’s increasingly resentful and disillusioned Muslim youth. And of course, they all get completely plastered on high-grade Hashish whilst plotting how to promote their burgeoning musical movement and avoid being turned into minced meat by a suicide bomber.

A two-fingered salute
It’s all one-and-a-bit hours of frantic fun, with darkly comic moments that are often reckless; the politically conscious young Muslims grab every opportunity to give a two-fingered salute to both the secular and religious establishments. Knight is treated with almost religious zeal by the Taqwacores, young men and women with seemingly boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for the Ganja. In turn, Knight plays the perfect foil, becoming a counsellor, guide and of course, bemused observer; in utter disbelief that an idea that took root in his imagination could give rise to an entire cultural movement. Knight’s remarkable spirituality and religious devotion helping to temper the adolescent movement’s chaos and rebellious nature. Director Majeed allows the main players to relate the story as they developed it, providing a wide ranging and hugely entertaining look at how Taqwacore evolved.

The Cultural Force
The Taqwacore scene has now transcended the book and Knight himself, although he remains an integral part in spreading its message throughout America and the rest of the world. The book is studied at several Universities in the US and has been hailed as one of the most important cultural forces in the new ‘Barack Obama world’. It has energized the Liberal Muslim movement in the States, which calls for a renewal of the sense of global community encouraged by the Qur’an, as well as a return to the pluralistic intent of the Muslim holy book. Taqwacore’s growing popularity is also down to the fact that there is no definitive ‘Taqwacore Sound’ as such. Artists are known to incorporate various styles, ranging from punk and techno to Bollywood and hip-hop (the fearless London actor, rapper and MC Riz Ahmed also makes an appearance in the film).

At its’ heart, The Taqwacore movement calls for the rejection of institutionalized religion and all that that entails, from priests and monks and imams and sheikhs to unilateral decrees and cover ups and of meaningless ritual superseding spirituality. It calls for a return to the essence that underpins all religion; a sense of brotherhood and compassion. Whilst increasingly authoritarian religious leaders call for submission, and an ever more dogmatic interpretation of Islam to contend the ‘many and varied’ ills of the modern world, the modern, cosmopolitan and religious Taqwacores demand a return to the pliant and accommodating roots of Islam.

The message may shock and offend but ultimately it is a positive force that should be embraced by all of us, irrespective of our religious beliefs.

- Vijitha Alles

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