Oh, how Islam seems to always be the inadvertent focal point of every topic of discussion, media story, personal or group perspective, and just about every other aspect of the Western World’s perception of this planet and its inhabitants! Can I complain? No, I’m fascinated by Islam and any other belief system, group, or trend that affects society and culture, especially when it is vilified; I’m an habitual defender of the underdog, a born rebel at heart, and only real chains will ever chain me. Therefore, where Islam seems to attract the blame for just about anything that goes on in the world, the allure of Islam for me is overwhelming and as I explore it more and more, I am increasingly enamored by the culture, as with any culture that is foreign, inherently good, and different to me. When I met a kid named Shahjehan, a Pakistani-American who practiced Islam, and he told me he had been in a punk band (The Kominas) that had gone on extensive tours several years before I met him, we started talking. When he found that I had a passion for filmmaking, and that I had been in a punk band in high school and still a punk rock enthusiast to this day, and that I was a supporter and defender of all things oppressed, he told me about the documentary that had been filmed about his band and the Muslim punk scene in general. That was two years ago and I started watching the documentary shortly after our first discussion about it. But then I got interrupted and before I knew it, two years had gone by and I had yet to watch the whole thing. But finally, yesterday, I was able to see the film from start to finish, and decided that even though it wasn’t technically a Boston-based independent film, many of the individuals featured in the documentary live in Massachusetts, much of the film was shot in Massachusetts, and the band is based in Massachusetts, so it was close enough.
The documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam follows Michael Muhammad Knight, a young white man from New York with an Irish Catholic background, over a two year span during which the success and popularity of his 2003 novel The Taqwacores, influenced by a combination of both Islam and the punk subculture, sees him traveling across the United States and then to Pakistan as a core member of a tightknit group of real-life Muslim punks much like those he had invented for his novel. According to the documentary, Knight converted to Islam after exploring as a teenager the life and beliefs of Malcolm X. Always a rebellious spirit, Knight infused his passion for Islam with a defiant, take-no-shit, punk attitude and wound up in the midst of a bunch of defiant, take-no-shit, Muslim punks who identified strongly with practicing Islam yet defied the stereotype, much as Knight himself did, of the bearded, turban-topped, camel-riding, suicide-bombing, freedom-hating Muslims that supposedly litter the Middle Eastern desert waiting for a chance to kill an American or two. In fact, the documentary had more to do with Islam finding its place in the contemporary Western world and with Western world contemporary Muslims finding their places in traditional countries and communities than it did with punk rock and how punk rock related to and/or melded with Islam and Muslims. Still, with punk rock as a vehicle, the film proved to be 80 minutes of brilliance and entertainment, and I can’t imagine that a familiarity with punk music and the punk subculture is required to enjoy it; the individuals featured in the film are all very personable, outgoing, unique, and are all the black sheep in more than one community of which they are a part, elements that anybody can identify with.
After we meet the real-life characters, one of whom was my close friend Shahjehan (and I’ll admit, it was strange seeing him featured so prominently in the film, as this was a version of Shahjehan I had never really gotten to know), the film crew takes us across the country on a green bus covered in humorous phrases relating to punk and Islam, many of which mocked the stereotypes of both punk and Islam, as it traveled from Massachusetts to Chicago, where Knight and his companions visited the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Convention after enjoying many-a-pit-stop along the way. Fueled along the way by live punk shows (usually featuring the The Kominas or one of their typical cohort punk groups), one another’s company, and the zealous glee of forming a motley crew sort of family on the bus, the travelers arrive in Chicago and it is there that the veil is lifted, the veil that kept foreign, mysterious, and unknown the true diversity and oft-controversial debates within the global Islamic community, hopefully blowing the minds of any audience members with an ignorance toward Islam. The Kominas sign up for a talent show along with their Canadian sister Muslim punk band, Secret Trial Five, and the otherwise transparent lines dividing the Muslim American youth become glaring, some groups cheering, others laughing, and still others becoming outright offended while The Kominas and, later, Secret Trial Five take the stage. Secret Trial Five’s set is cut short due to their lead singer’s lack of a Y chromosome, and The Kominas waste no time before mocking the convention and its archaic policies.
After the road trip, Michael Muhammad Knight, Shahjehan, and Kominas frontman Basim Usmani travel to Lahore, Pakistan, where the three continue to explore the relationship between the fundamental attitudes of punk rock and the contemporary and traditional attitudes of Islam. By the end of the film, our characters are exhausted, to say the least, and have all undergone drastic personal changes, but have left none of what first bound them together behind. Rather than change their personal beliefs regarding Islam, life, and punk, they have learned more about how their beliefs relate and clash with the beliefs of those outside of the communities in which they are each involved, be it their families, their bands, the punk rock subculture, Islam, and any other microcosmic spattering of unique individuals.
While I watched Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam for a few reasons: 1) because my friend Shahjehan was in it, 2) because I am an enthusiast of punk and punk music, 3) because I am vigilant in my defense of Islam due to its constant vilification in the media, and 4) because I’m on a constant and lifelong mission to see as many films as I possibly can. What I did not consider prior to screening Taqwacore is that I might actually come out of it with a broader understanding of Muslims and Islam as a belief-based community than I had going in. But just that happened: during the film, I realized how narrow and secluded my perception of Islam was and, to a lesser but still shameful degree, still is. It blew my mind that drinking alcohol wasn’t some extraordinarily polarizing issue in the Muslim community, despite having known and met Muslims who drank prior to seeing the film; it was incredible hearing and seeing some of the Muslim characters in the film (real-life people, I repeat) crack jokes about terrorism and the stereotype that they themselves are all terrorists; the multifaceted and painfully divisive perspectives on different issues and beliefs, such as women being permitted to sing and perform; and it was astonishing to see the wide variations in how the Pakistani population react to our characters when they bring their American punk behavior and attitudes to Lahore.
All in all, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam was incredible. Not only was it informative, well-shot, well-edited, and relevant, it was intensely entertaining and intriguing. I found myself watching it as if it were a narrative, eager to see what would happen next – even though I already knew one of the main characters well in his days after the film was completed – and each scene saw my ass creep a little closer to the edge of my seat. It is, aside from the allure of the positive, dynamic look at Islam and the familiarity of the punk backdrop, a very high quality film in every aspect.
In a way, I felt a bit amateurish and elementary watching Taqwacore because of how eye-opening some of the relatively mundane and otherwise obvious “revelations” about the worldwide Muslim community were to me, and felt a little fraudulent because I consider myself to be an aggressive defender of Islam due to the scapegoat nature of the way the religion and culture are treated by the rest of the world, and yet I realized that I see Muslims as more of a “them” in the “us and them” paradigm than I would have liked to think – not that I consider myself as any different, inferior, superior, more civilized, less civilized, or anything of the sort, but rather that I never considered how diverse and beautifully organic the Islamic community really was and is, even though I would have told any critic of Islam that they were as diverse and beautifully organic as any other human group. Still, I felt that sting of surprise when a Muslim character in the film would do something that Fox News would never report a Muslim doing, i.e. something that any loving, unique, normal human being might do. I guess, despite my self-proclaimed “radically liberal” identity, there are still 26 years of subconscious storage in my brain holding onto those “us and them” stereotypes, and films like Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam is perhaps the best weapon the world has against prejudice and discrimination.
From one vigilant defender of all things unfairly vilified in the world to the rest of the world, my strongest recommendations go toward checking out Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. And give a shout-out to my buddy Shahjehan when he shows up on the screen! Up the Muslim Punks!
Thanks for reading!
Paul M McAlarney is a writer for and founder of the BOSTON INDEPENDENT FILM REVIEW.
Paul is an alumnus of the UMASS Amherst and Boston Sociology undergraduate program. While not writing local independent film reviews, Paul is a writer of novels, theater, and the screen, as well as a film director, podcast co-host, entrepreneur, and vacuum cleaner salesperson. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.