Taqwacore: The Real Muslim Punk Underground For a group of young American musicians practicing Islam on its own terms, life imitates art.
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Taqwacore: The Real Muslim Punk Underground

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Taqwacore: The Real Muslim Punk Underground

Taqwacore: The Real Muslim Punk Underground

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Coming up, a story about a place where Hurricane Katrina met the war on terror: how a Muslim contractor, a solid citizen of New Orleans, fell afoul of law enforcement in the chaos after the storm.

But first, young Muslims across the U.S. have realized the fantasy of novelist Michael Muhammad Knight. His 2003 book, "The Taqwacores," was about a group of punks who practiced Islam on their own terms.

Lydia Crafts reports on the readers who were inspired to pick up guitars and shout out their beliefs.

LYDIA CRAFTS: Taqwacore is a made-up name that combines the Arabic word for God-consciousness and the word hardcore. The novel, "The Taqwacores," sold more than 15,000 copies worldwide. It made its way to Texas, where a teenager of Persian descent named Kourosh Poursalehi read the book and thought the characters were real.

Mr. KOUROSH POURSALEHI (Frontman, Vote Hezbollah): It came together for me like, whoa, you know? I'm not the only one experiencing this. There's other kids out there that are into all these kinds of music.

CRAFTS: Poursalehi took a poem from the beginning of the book called "Muhammad Was A Punk Rocker" and set it to music, turning silent pages into a real-life anthem for taqwacore.

(Soundbite of song, "Muhammad Was a Punk Rocker")

The poem reads, in part, Muhammad was a punk rocker. He tore everything down.

Mr. POURSALEHI: (Singing) Muhammad was a punk rocker. He tore everything down. Muhammad was a punk rocker. He rocked that (BEEP) down.

CRAFTS: Poursalehi sent the song to the novel's author, Michael Muhammad Knight, who in turn played it for Shahjehan Khan, a young musician in Boston.

Mr. SHAHJEHAN KHAN (Musician): For whatever reason, I had a lot of guilt growing up about not doing the right thing, or not being a good Muslim, or a good Pakistani kid. And reading the book was just kind of an assurance that this confusion and maybe disenchantment was like normal, and that other people went through it and that there was nothing wrong with it.

CRAFTS: Khan was also more than a little disenchanted with his American schoolmates.

Mr. KHAN: On 9/12, the day after 9/11, I was a senior in high school at the time, and I was walking to a class or something like that and some random kid was like, yo, what did your people do? And I was - I didn't really know how to respond to that.

CRAFTS: Kahn's frustration with the treatment of Muslims in the U.S. led him and his friend, Basim Usmani, to form The Kominas, one of the first real taqwacore bands.

(Soundbite of a song, "Sharia Law in the USA")

Mr. BASIM USMANI (Vocalist, The Kominas): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

CRAFTS: One of The Kominas' first singles was called "Sharia Law in the USA," which likens Islamic law to the Patriot Act; a comparison Khan says is only half-joking.

(Soundbite of song, "Sharia Law in the USA")

Mr. USMANI: (Singing) (Unintelligible), USA.

Mr. KHAN: We don't have any freaking freedom and so it's just like as if there's Sharia Law in the USA.

(Soundbite of song, "Sharia Law in the USA")

Unidentified Man #1: It's a bomb. (Unintelligible)

CRAFTS: Soon, taqwacore bands from all over the U.S. began finding each other through social network sites, like MySpace and Facebook. They met face-to-face in the summer of 2007, when five bands organized a tour of the northeastern United States. They shared a green school bus with TAQWA painted on the front.

In addition to The Kominas, the bands included Al-Thawra.

(Soundbite of music)

CRAFTS: Al-Thawra's lead singer, Marwan Kamel, remembers passengers in a passing car holding up an offensive sign about Allah. Kamel says music gave him an essential tool to fight back.

Mr. MARWAN KAMEL (Vocalist, Al-Thawra): Just to come out against edges to be like, you know, I'm okay with who I am. It's you that has a problem, that's a very important thing.

CRAFTS: Since the tour, more taqwacore bands have formed. They had a showcase at the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, and two films are being made on taqwacore.

The man who helped start all of this, Michael Muhammad Knight, has been singled out by Muslims and non-Muslims for his views on Islam.

Mr. MICHAEL MUHAMMAD KNIGHT (Author, "The Taqwacore): I've gotten that from all kinds of people. I've gotten that from neo-conservative people on their blogs who say, oh, this is awesome, this guy's challenging Islam. This guy is trying to tear down all that. And I'm not trying to tear down Islam. I'm trying to make Islam possible in my life.

CRAFTS: The taqwacore movement has spread to comic book artists and photographers. And while there are heavy metal bands in the Middle East, punk has not yet caught on, but Knight's confident it will.

Mr. KNIGHT: I think you just got to find what people are pissed about and then talk about that, and say it in a way that people will understand. I think anywhere that people are powerless and angry and hopeless, they need someone to talk about it.

CRAFTS: That's what makes Knight think punk would give young people in the Middle East a voice, a loud voice to express themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Lydia Crafts.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Terrorists win.

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