Allah, Amps and Anarchy
On the road with the first-ever Muslim punk-rock tour
In late august, a creaking green school bus with red camels stenciled on its side rolled up to the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Ohio. Seventeen exhausted, beer-reeking punks, with mohawks and dyed hair, walked up to the mosque looking for a place to rest. "I was surprised -- they totally let us hang out there," says Kourosh Poursalehi, 19, frontman for San Antonio's Vote Hezbollah. "They even wanted CDs and stuff."
Vote Hezbollah (the band's name is intended as a joke) is one of five Muslim punk bands that recently wrapped up a ten-date tour that took them from Boston to Chicago during August and September. The bands, which hail from Chicago, San Antonio, Boston and Washington, D.C., share left-of-center politics and an antipathy toward the president. And all have used punk as a means to express the anger, confusion and pride in being young and Muslim in post-9/11 America.
Twenty-four hours after leaving the Toledo mosque, Boston's Kominas -- Punjabi for "the Bastards" -- are playing in a packed basement in a rundown corner of Chicago's Logan Square. Local punks mix with curious young Muslims -- including a few girls wearing head scarves -- as Kominas frontman Shahjehan Khan launches into the opening lines of "Sharia Law in the U.S.A.": "I am an Islamist!/And I am an anti-Christ!" Nearby, mohawked bassist Basim Usmani -- whose T-shirt reads frisk me i'm muslim -- slaps out the song's bass line while viciously slam-dancing with a dude in a woman's burqa.
"This has been the best time of my life," says Khan, 23, who grew up in Boston, the son of Pakistani immigrants. He's retreated to an alley out back, where the bus is parked, to smoke a cigarette. The bands on tour made contact online, and most met for the first time at their first tour date three weeks earlier. Although they are all children of immigrants from countries like Pakistan, Iran and Syria, they came together in part through the efforts of an American convert, Mike Muhammad Knight. Knight -- who bought the bus for $2,000 on eBay and does most of the driving -- is the author of The Taqwacores, a novel about a scene of progressive Muslim punks. The book, news of which spread online and by word of mouth, inspired both Vote Hez-bollah -- named after a fictional band in the novel -- and the tour's name: Taqwatour. ("Taqwa," which is spray-painted on the front of the bus, means "consciousness of God" in Arabic.)
There are more than a million Muslims living in the U.S., and the youngest generation is still struggling to find its place in America. "Shit changed for all of us Muslim people after 9/11," says Khan. "The best way for me to deal with it was music." The Kominas are one of the more established groups, having toured and released records. Their songs mix punk speed and attitude with Middle Eastern sounds. Their lyrics, often confrontational, are also deeply personal. In "Par Desi," Usmani, who spent part of his childhood in Pakistan, describes getting beaten up by punk skinheads in America: "In Lahore it's raining water/In Boston it rains boots."
Everyone on tour has stories about being harassed for being Muslim. "There's that stigma, 'Oh, he's from Pakistan, he's a fuckin' terrorist,' " says Omar Waqar of D.C. band Diacritical. He was working at an Islamic bookstore after September 11th when vandals threw bricks through the windows. And many band members have also faced criticism from their parents or others in the Muslim community. "All the way from 'music is wrong, forbidden' to 'you shouldn't be singing verses of the Koran in your songs,' " says Khan.
The day after the Chicago basement show, the tour was invited to play at a conference of the Islamic Society of North America. The young audience it drew, segregated into male and female sections, roared with rock-star adoration. But when the female group Secret Trial Five took the stage, organizers had the police shut down the show, because it is forbidden for Muslim women to sing in public. "It was completely insane," says Knight. "The show was positive up to that point, with girls in hijabs singing along."