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Basim Usmani: ‘Giving the finger’ to conservative American and Islamist ideology.Kim Badawi/Redux

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

  • Directed by Omar Majeed
  • With Michael Muhammad Knight, the Kominas and Secret Trial Five
  • Classification: NA

'I am an Islamist. I am an Antichrist," sings Basim Usmani, the lead singer of the Kominas, a Pakistani-American band from Boston, putting a new twist on the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. for the post-9/11 era.

He's one of the musicians featured in Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed's documentary, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam . The film follows the history of a hybrid cultural movement inspired by a novel.

The author, Michael Muhammad Knight, was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in upstate New York by an abusive, racist father. Inspired by Malcolm X, Knight converted to Islam in his teens and, a few years later, wrote and self-published the book The Taqwacores . The title is an invented word, combining the Arabic for "God consciousness" with the genre of hard-core punk.

The Taqwacores , about a Pakistani-American engineering student living in a house full of diverse Muslim punk rockers, was Knight's attempt to reconcile his sense of himself as both a Muslim and an angry young American. The book, which has been adapted into a feature film due out this year, has been called The Catcher in the Rye for post-9/11 North American Muslim youth. When some of those kids wrote to Knight asking where they could hear this music, he told them he made it up. In response, some of his readers created the kind of Islamic punk rock he imagined.

In 2007, director Majeed travelled with Knight and several of the bands in a green bus on the Taqwacores Tour. We learn a little about the backgrounds of the musicians, all of whom seem to be "giving the finger" to both conservative American and Islamist ideology. They sing rude, sardonic songs like Suicide Bomb the Gap .

There are other bands including Vancouver's all-woman band Secret Trial Five, whose presence on the bill leads to the most dramatic moment of the film's first half. When the bands manage to get booked at an Islamic Society of North America convention, the short-haired Sena Hussain opens with the protest song Hey Hey Guantanamo Bay . Shortly after, the organizers call the police onstage to send the Taqwacore bands home. As a young Muslim woman organizer explains, the bands violated the organization's policy that a woman should not sing and dance in public.

The movie's rambling second part takes place six months later, when the Kominas go to Pakistan along with author Knight. For the band, it's a chance to visit to their parents' homeland - and for Knight, to revisit the mosque where he had studied as a teenager.

The band members sleep a lot, play an unsuccessful show for a middle-class audience, and ingest copious amounts of hash. Taqwacore concludes with a free open-air concert, in which the band gets a rousing response from a big crowd of locals, who may have loved the empowering themes of the music, the anti-George Bush insults, or the fact that the concert was free.

Knight has a lot to say about Islam and punk, not all of which is insightful, but as a literary artist he's in rare company: He created a work of fiction so convincing that real people now live it.

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