North America’s “punk Islam” scene focus of One World film Taqwacore


The film Taqwacore, which is being screened in the One World festival of human rights documentaries in Prague, focuses on young American Muslims who have embraced rebellious punk rock music, leading to disapproval from some in their community. I spoke to its director Omar Majeed, who is himself Pakistani-Canadian, and began by asking about the origins of the style described in the film as “punk Islam.”

M. M. Knight - 'Taqwacores'
“Punk Islam has been around for a long time, there’ve been punk bands in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in the Middle East, metal is very big in the Middle East.

“But this particular version of it, which we call Taqwacore, came about when this white guy in America named Michael Muhammad Knight…he had converted to Islam as a teenager, he’d kind of fallen out of it for a while, and then he got into punk. Then he decided, what if you took the best parts of Islam and the best parts of punk, what would that look like?

“He wrote this novel called The Taqwacores and he came up with this term. The book was just a novel but it became a kind of inspiration amongst young Muslims in North America…A nascent scene has started to emerge over the last few years and that’s what this film has been trying to capture.”

Generally speaking what are the politics of these groups?

“It varies. And the thing about Taqwacore is that it’s a very wide spectrum. You have people in this community who are very spiritual, you have people who are not so spiritual but are maybe more connected to their roots. You have people who are making music that is very political, about the situation in the Mid East, or political in terms of how Muslims are targeted in the West through Homeland Security and stuff like that.

Omar Majeed
“And then you just have other musicians who are just trying to be funny or satirical, like The Kominas, who are these Punjabi punk rockers from Boston who sing these songs making fun of terrorist stereotypes. They’ll sing songs like Suicide Bomb the Gap or Sharia Law in the USA – it’s typical punk, trying to be rude and provocative to get in your face with their ideas, throwing the stereotype back at you.”

In the film these groups go together on tour around some US cities, then some of them go to Pakistan. Could you describe how they’re received in both countries?

“Well, it’s a very positive film I think in many ways, in that it shows how Muslims can navigate some of their issues, within and outside their community. I think in both places there are different challenges, but ultimately they were received fairly positively in both places.

“Interestingly enough, in America when they go to a Muslim convention the organisers get them thrown out because they don’t like what they’re doing. But they connect to the audience, which is a fascinating moment. It’s a kind of a generational thing. The older generation kind of want to put control on things – it’s the same old story as rock music in the ‘50s or something.

“In Pakistan the challenge was a little different. The feeling was, how can we connect to a culture that doesn’t really have something like an underground in the way that we have here, and building that up organically.

“There as well we had to break through, mostly issues about class and gender, but I think we were able to do that. Which I think shows that there is an appetite for this in the Muslim world.”