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A Muslim meld of punk and piety Add to ...

The hijab-clad girls started rocking out a little, but by then the organizers had already called the cops.

It was early September and the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America [ISNA]was about to wrap up in Chicago. About 400 young Muslims had gathered at a Hyatt hotel ballroom for open-mike night, hyped as a wholesome alternative to the vice-land that every big American city inevitably becomes once the sun sets.

The first few acts - Koran recitation, stern spoken-word stylings - matched the hype. But around 3 a.m., with fewer than a quarter of the original audience still around, an all-girl Vancouver punk band took to the stage. A 25-year-old singer with short black hair and a voice like a bar fight asked the crowd: "ISNA, are you ready to rock?"

ISNA was not. As the Secret Trial Five tore into what would be their first and only song of the night - a screaming frenzy of a track called Middle Eastern Zombies - people began streaming out the doors. The convention organizers went deer-in-the-headlights.

But then something changed. Those remaining began to take to the spectacle, clapping and swaying with the music. By the time a second band was halfway through its set, young women were giddily chanting along with the chorus: "Stop the … HATE! Stop the … HATE!"

That's about when the cops put an end to one of the strangest cultural mash-ups in North American Muslim history.

This is Taqwacore: a furious meld of punk and piety that first stamped its foot on the continent that September night in Chicago. For those who weren't there, a Canadian filmmaker caught the whole Chicago spectacle on tape.

The name comes from the words Taqwa - loosely translated from Arabic, it means God-fearing. The genre is only now gaining recognition, thanks to a tour and an upcoming Canadian documentary expected to be released in late 2008.

"It's a really hard thing to explain to people," says Michael Muhammad Knight, the American Muslim convert and author who invented the genre. "I don't think Western media as a whole is ready for a complicated Muslim voice - they divide the world into good Muslims and bad Muslims.

"But these kids are pissed off about everything."

When Knight talks about his life leading up to the creation of Taqwacore, he says this: "I grew up in upstate New York. I was raised by my mom. My dad was a white supremacist, a diagnosed schizophrenic poet-slash-racist. I met him for the first time when I was 15." He talks as though he's reading a shopping list, as though none of this is unusual.

Taqwacore originated in Knight's head. In 2002, about a decade after he discovered Islam through rap lyrics and Malcolm X biographies, the 25-year-old became disillusioned with dogma. He tried going to college but soon dropped out.

"I was coming to class wearing this Khomeini-sized black turban," he says. "Kids who were sitting behind me had to move; they couldn't see."

Working as a night-shift janitor and feeling his time with Islam might be coming to an end, Knight began writing a novel about a Muslim culture he wished existed. The result was The Taqwacores, a fictitious account of Muslim punks in Buffalo. The prose swerves from mildly offensive to Danish-cartoon-offensive and beyond.

At first, before a punk rock record label published it, the novel existed only in late-night Kinko's photocopies. Then one day, Knight got a phone call from a 15-year-old San Antonio kid named Kourosh who wanted to meet these Taqwacores.

"He thought it was all real," Knight says. "I told him there weren't any Taqwacores. He said, 'but I'm Taqwacore.'"

So the scene became real. Kourosh started a band and named it after one of the bands in the book: Vote Hezbollah. Soon came more groups, such as the Boston-based Kominas, whose achievements include penning the catchiest song ever to work the phrase "Suicide-bomb the Gap" into the chorus.

"I don't think we can predict where Taqwacore is going to go," says Omar Majeed, a documentary filmmaker with Montreal-based EyeSteelFilm who spent part of this year nickle-and-diming his way across the United States with touring Taqwacore bands. "There is dissension amongst everyone who is united under this banner. Some are more religious than others; a couple of members of the Kominas are Hindu."

The one thing they all have in common, Majeed says, is the willingness to challenge everyone, from homophobic Mullahs to warmongering Western politicians.

Like most of the people he filmed, Majeed is the Western son of immigrant parents. He stumbled onto Taqwacore while trying to document the myriad faces of North American Islam.

"[Taqwacore's]connection to Islam is fundamental, but the thing about most religions is that there's a specific to-do list in order to qualify," he says. "What Taqwacore is doing is trying to de-emphasize that."

That's why Sena Hussain feels at home amid the screeching and screaming of her punk-rock life. The 25-year-old front woman of the Secret Trial Five didn't have much of an interest in politically charged music until after 2001, when suddenly everything about being a Muslim in the West became politically charged. With four other friends, she formed a Taqwacore band and named it after a group of Muslim men who were held in Canadian prisons for years on secret evidence.

"It's far from being a religious music, in that it's not at all similar to Christian rock," Hussain says. "It's about Muslims post-9/11, that's the perspective I take. It's very political and satirical."

It's also in its infancy. One of the first times ST5 stepped on stage was last September in Chicago.

If Taqwacore manages to do more than just offend and fade away, Chicago's Riot at the Hyatt will likely go down as the moment the genre stood up and screamed to be noticed.

Two weeks before the show in Chicago, Knight and a few bands splurged on a $2,000 school bus from eBay, drowned the vehicle in green paint and began touring the United States, with Majeed documenting the trip.

"We hung out with black Muslims in Harlem, white Sufis in Baltimore, an Ohio countryside mosque," Majeed said. "Pretty soon, the bus was full."

After two weeks of perfecting mohawks in motel bathrooms, slam-dancing in burkas and playing to tiny crowds in tiny bars, the bands decided to end the tour at the biggest traditional gathering of young Muslims in the country. The Big Green Bus went to Chicago.

It's difficult to find a tour member who isn't secretly (or openly) giddy about what happened at the ISNA convention - everything from getting the gender-segregated crowd onside to getting busted by the cops to ending the night by smashing a guitar on the sidewalk and yelling "Music is Haram!" (Music is prohibited).

But Knight, now 30-years-old and five years removed from the novel that birthed this monster, doesn't see Taqwacore as just a shock show.

"The kind of thing we're trying to do here you could do with Muslim ballet, you know? It's not about just having the mohawk and wallet chain," he says.

"It's about giving people a chance to be complicated Muslims."

 

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