When the far right is trying to criminalize your very being,
it’s nice to have a scene that’s all about being yourself.
—Basim Usmani qtd. in Abber 2015
Taqwacore band The Kominas burst onto the American punk scene in 2004, their apparently novel mash-up of Islam and punk attracting mainstream attention as journalists balked at the supposedly irreconcilable identities they represented. Inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s fictionalized invention of “taqwacore”—a portmanteau of “taqwa” meaning “God-consciousness” and “hardcore”—the genre combined two seemingly oppositional forces: punk and Islam (Fiscella 2012). As one reviewer noted, “it’s never pretty when a major world religion tries to get into bed with a rebel culture, and even more so when they’re as polarized as Islam and punk” (Bhattacharya 2016). But, to imagine the Kominas as the origin point of Muslim punk is to erase the historic evolution of the genre. Further, it’s to imagine a Muslim World in which Islam is a cohesive, singular whole, or a world in which “punk” stands alone, shorn of its many-splendored prefixes, eliding the fantastic sonic and social dissonance contained therein.
While mainstream news outlets remark that for the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk bands, the amalgamation of these identities sure is a neat way “to push buttons,” the oppositional identity represented here is neither singular nor spiteful—the stakes are too high, the caricatures too grotesque. What is it about this punk—not crust-punk or Spanish Raw punk or timepunk or gypsy punk or death punk or anarcho-punk or even cowpunk in all its psychobilly, honkytonk glory—that attracts the attention of journalists, coyly alliterative headline at the ready (see above)? Further, what does this punk, beyond taqwacore and the novelty of life imitating art, offer? How can what it produces, both musically and beyond, problematize the ways in which Muslims are othered by a society that flouts nuance, opting instead to characterize Muslims as simply “good” or “bad” while conveniently allowing itself the authority to make that distinction?
At a time when the phrase “Muslim ban” holds actual political weight and, as a 2016 Pew Research poll shows, “almost half of the U.S. population believes that ‘some’ Muslims are actually ‘anti-American,’” the stakes for being (or being perceived as) Muslim in the U.S. are high (McDowell 2017, 63). Further, the “racialized lens” through which “Muslims and those… perceive[d] to be Muslim” are viewed has not just ideological, but violent consequences (2017, 63). This “collapsing of diverse populations into one recognizable whole,” combined with “empowered white supremacy,” in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election has enabled elevated levels of hate crimes against Muslims, including an instance in which a five-year-old child was allegedly physically assaulted by his teacher and taunted by his classmates as a “bad Muslim boy” (Morgenstein Fuerst 2016). The roots of the constructed “nature” of Muslims are evident in W.W. Hunter’s nineteenth-century racializing narrative which collapsed Indian Muslim identities into a singular, essentialist entity ( 1876). The apparent persistence of Muslim essentialization today echoing Hunter’s question of whether Indian Muslim colonial subjects were inherently “anti-British.”
It’s important to recognize this racialization for what it is: an invention of history, empire, and white supremacy. Like the cartographic god trick of seeing everywhere from nowhere, British imperialism afforded itself the opportunity of evaluating every culture from an apparent non-culture. As Cemil Aydin’s (2017) examination of the Idea of the Muslim World shows, the conception of the thing itself is a historic, strategic, political invention—not a “natural” entity whose supremacy somehow unites all Muslims. Aydin lays bare the histories of racialization from which contemporary conceptions of Muslim homogeneity emerge as “colonial rulers’ views of Muslims subjects of a single civilization and race solidified,” an identity strategically “embraced” by “Muslim subjects… for political purposes of their own” (2017, 65).
While colonial racist projects seem outmoded, more contemporary rationalizations of Muslim unity play out like nightmarish pastiches of their nineteenth century predecessors. Political scientist Samuel Huntington’s (in)famous argument—from 1996—that Turkey, as a “Muslim” country, was fundamentally “incompatible with Westernization and modernization” demonstrates this presumed “unitary civilizational identity” (qtd. in Göl 2009, 798). However, such a portrayal is “historically and geopolitically misleading,” there is no “natural” tension or “clash” inherent in what is “Muslim” or what is “modern,” in the multiplicity of ways those constructions may be understood (Göl 2009, 798). This illusion of incompatibility requires a narrow lens—a presumed tension at the nexus of “Islamic and “secular”—or “Muslim” and “punk”—identities. What’s missing here is context. Its omission enables the “naturalness” of these sentiments, which—fomented by overtly anti-Muslim political rhetoric—have resulted in a “soaring” of “anti-Muslim assaults” and “bias incidents” (McDowell 2017, 63).
While the emergence of taqwacore and the Kominas drew attention to the apparent novelty of this unification of Muslim and punk, the combination isn’t new. As Texan punk outfit Fearless Iranians From Hell exclaim on their 1986 track “Blow Up the Embassy,” Muslim punk doesn’t owe an explanation or apology to befuddled outsiders, plainly exclaiming that “it’s none of your fucking business/what I live and die for!” Further, any meaningful examination of the genre must ask: which Islam; which punk? As Hisham D. Aidi recounts in his book, Rebel Music: Race Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (2014), Islamic attitudes toward music differ contextually depending on the “Islam” at hand—deployed alternatively as conservative political tool or brash, anti-establishment protest. Similarly, though “punk is… regarded primarily as a music-based culture… its spectrum is broader and includes style, printed word, cinema, and events” encompassing “significant variations between different regions and time periods” (Fiscella 2012, 569). The sheer breadth of available identities manifested in each respective construction of “Islam” and “punk” result in a bricolage of ideologies and behaviors whose “boundaries are continually contested” (Fiscella 2012, 569).
Embodying this bricolage is the Kominas’ bass player, Basim Usmani, pictured above playing a show at a Chicago venue in 2007 during the filming of the documentary, Taqwacore. Though not fully visible in this image, Usmani’s t-shirt reads “Frisk Me, I’m Muslim”—a confrontational play on the tired “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” slogan. The juxtaposition of identities here is no accident. While the whitening of the Irish in America has resulted in their ethnic roots being deemed innocuous to the point of commercialization, American Muslims like Usmani are subject to the homogenizing narratives of racialization and profiling to which his t-shirt alludes. In a context where “terrorism” indexes a racialized religious identity, Usmani’s shirt, emblazoned with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag (formerly a symbol of the Ottoman Empire) is a self-aware statement about that problematic narrative. Usmani wants the viewer to know he’s Muslim before he can be profiled. Usmani is also punk. Seen here mid-lyric, bass in hand, hair spiked, shorn, and dyed, Usmani is leveraging the oppositional identity punk can offer via his own image. Both these identities bear their own historical weights—neither narrative is neat, and both have been subjected to the warp and wear of
Discussing sartorial politics, Aydin writes about the twin symbolic meanings of the fez in the nineteenth century—as a symbol of “enemy Islam” for Europeans and as marker of “cosmopolitan modernity” for Muslim reformers (2017, 39). Similarly, the tools Usmani and other Muslims involved in punk subcultures use to express oppositional identity read differently depending on their audience. This disunity is part of the point—there is no cohesive message in the scrappy riffs of every Muslim-identified punk band and there is no one reaction to Usmani’s presentation of self. What does a Muslim punk look like? Maybe like Usmani, but also, importantly, maybe not. While this image directly indexes characteristic elements of punk, it also subverts them and reimagines what a punk can look like or what a Muslim can look like. While both of these identities have been conditioned to manifest in certain ways and in certain kinds of people, this image challenges those notions about what “Muslims” are; what punk is; what resistance can look like.
By refusing easy categorization through defying and problematizing identities rendered simplistic in “secular” media, the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk projects challenge the supposedly “natural” opposition of their chosen identities. If it’s not “pretty” it’s because it’s not supposed to be. As the Kominas wryly assert on their 2017 single, it’s “no fun” being persecuted—“being hunted for sport.” As Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in America are targeted, Muslim punk responses to the physical and psychological violence of profiling “confront head-on the White (and Christian) gaze that criminalizes and dehumanizes Brown bodies through” various forms of media including, but not limited to, music which celebrates and mocks their enforced alterity (2017, 63). Far from a unified “resistance,” this disunity and its scope of representation is a poignant expression of the capacity to undermine, subvert, and appropriate oppressive forces in dynamic, nuanced, and inclusive ways which offer constructive, hopeful modes of undermining persistent homogenizing narratives and the racially-motivated violence
If a child can be demonized as a “bad Muslim,” the perverse logic that “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about” is truly nullified—the game is rigged. In this context, where mass judgement is undergirded by powerful political rhetoric and historic racialization, Muslim punk bands like The Kominas offer—or demand—a problematizing of that singular narrative, interweaving complex, presumptively contradictory identities into a cohesive, flawed, human whole.
Abber, Caitlin. 2015. “This Band Explains Why Identifying Muslim Punks is a Reminder of Where They Stand in America.” MTV News, January 29, 2015. http://www.mtv.com/news/2051062/kominas-interview/
Aidi, Hisham D. 2014. “9,000 Miles… of Sufi Rock.” In Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, 70-85. New York: Pantheon Books.
Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Badawi, Kim. 2007. “The Taqwa Tour 2007 in Chicago.” Eye Steel Film. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Taqwa_Tour_2007_in_Chicago_-_Flickr_-_Eye_Steel_Film.jpg
Bhattacharya, Sanjiv. 2011. “How Islamic punk went from fiction to reality.” The Guardian, August 4, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/aug/04/islamic-punk-muslim-taqwacores
Fiscella, Anthony T. 2012. “From Muslim Punks to Taqwacore: An Incomplete History of Punk Islam.” Contemporary Islam 6 (3): 255-81.
Göl, Ayla. 2009. “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly 30 (4): 795-810.
Hunter, W.W. 1876. Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? 3rd ed. London: Trübner and Company. First published 1871.
McDowell, Amy. 2017. “Muslim Punk in an Alt-Right Era.” Contexts 16 (3): 63-5.
Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. 2016. “Tracking Hate: Islam and Race After the Presidential Election.” Religion and Politics, December 6, 2016. http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/12/06/tracking-hate-islam-and-race-after-the-presidential-election/