Reviews

The Birth of Punk Islam

Omar Majeed

Canada, 2009

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Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 25 April 2010

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Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston

“Taqwacore” is a portmaneau of taqwá, an Islamic tenet that translates into “God-fearing,” and hardcore, in respect to hardcore punk rock. These two concepts seem mutually contradictory, and they’re not fully reconciled in the film Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. But the film doesn’t attempt to resolve the incongruity of its title in as much as it does to pronounce its inherent conflict.

The title derives from Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 novel The Taqwacores – itself adapted into a narrative feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – which relays a fictional Islamic punk rock band in Buffalo, New York. The novel struck a chord with American Muslim youths, inspiring punk rock bands in Texas, Chicago, Boston, and in between. One such artist from Texas wrote to Knight, expressing his admiration for his book, in an action that would catalyze The Tawqacores’ transference into fact. In 2007, Knight, director Omar Majeed, and a bus full of like-minded musicians initiated a road trip from the Northeast to the South, stopping for shows in different cities and at occasional mosques to rest.

Many of the shows the group plays are ill-attended, and some are even canceled outright. In one particularly riotous incident they play an Islamic talent show in Detroit, following a series of more conventional Islamic acts. They debut with Secret Trial Five, a Canadian punk rock band led by an openly gay female. This shocks the audience – women are not to sing or dance in Islamic culture – even though many of the attendant youths are immediately engaged by the fierce refusal to subscribe to the culture in which they’ve been raised. The show is cancelled, but the bands are clearly vitalized.

Taqwacore culminates in Knight’s return to Pakistan, where he studied Islam for three months in Islamabad, with The Kominas, a punk rock band from Boston. The fierceness and tempered hostility of the first portion of the film gives way to a more ruminative tone. Whereas Knight revisits locations that were fundamental in his conversion to Islam, some of his travel mates become anxious. They are in a place in which the tenets of taqwacore are their most potent and resisted.

This visit will produce one of the more rousing performances in the film, in which The Kominas play on a rooftop in Lahore. This performance is as loud and raw as the others in the film, but unlike them it absent of any novelty. In the states, the taqwacore bands exploit their religion in order to drum up interest in their shows – they’ll dress in thawbs and fire confetti off the roof of their travel bus (provocation is, of course, fundamental to punk rock culture) – but in Pakistan they are deprived of context and curious audiences; they are more sincere, more careful. Shouting passionately on that rooftop in Lahore, to an audience of girls cloaked in hijabs and older men whose countenances relay skepticism—this, however modestly attended and alien to an American audience, is what it looks like when a subculture is born.

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