February 2, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 37°F


Documentary brings rising Muslim punk scene to campus

Chaos ensued when punk group Secret Trial Five performed at the Islamic Society of North America conference last summer in Indiana. The all female group directly violated the Islamic belief that females are not allowed to sing in public. Police shut the event down and threatened to arrest performers for the “disorder.”

Author Michael Muhammed Knight and director Omar Majeed spent last summer filming a 10-city underground punk rock tour, titled “Taqwatour,” featuring Secret Trial Five and four other acts that identify as progressive Muslim.

Knight and Majeed discussed the ideas behind “Taqwacore” on Monday night and brought last summer’s experiences to Ithaca College.

The tour hit major cities such as Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and bands traveled in a school bus that Knight purchased for $2,000 on eBay.

It was inspired by Knight’s novel, “The Taqwacores,” about a community of Muslim punks living in Buffalo, N.Y., and struggling with their religious identities.

“The Taqwacores,” published by Autonomedia in 2005, inspired a movement of young progressive Muslims and bands.

“What I was really trying to examine here is what does it mean to be a Muslim and what defines that,” Knight said.

Knight spoke about growing up in Geneva, N.Y., where he was raised Christian. His religious beliefs began to change as a teenager when he read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and related to its critique of Christianity.

“I’d have it under my desk in religion class,” he told the crowd.

Knight converted to Islam and became increasingly devout, traveling to Pakistan at 17 years old. For a period of time, he said he wore a turban and felt increasingly disconnected from his American peers.

“I’d hear kids talking about drinking and dating, and I thought I was completely against it,” he said.

While attending The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Knight moved away from Islam, instead finding solace in the punk music scene.

“Everything that I lacked as a Muslim I found in punk — individuality, the idea that I am who I am, f*** off if you don’t like it kind of attitude,” he said.

Knight’s and Majeed’s visit was sponsored by the college’s sociology and anthropology departments. Travis Vande Berg, assistant professor of sociology, said the event was inspired by a class he’s teaching this semester, Popular Culture and Identity.

“Both of [the speakers] kind of have stories about what it’s like to identify in some way or another as Muslim after Sept. 11,” he said. “The kind of subject matter there was very sort of non-mainstream Islam, the kind of Islam you don’t hear about and the kind of Muslims you don’t hear about. It gives a good representation of other parts of a religious group that you don’t necessarily encounter on a regular basis.”

The crowd responded well to Knight’s personal story and the presentation, which included excerpts from his book and from the soon-to-be-released documentary. Sophomore Bailey Johnson said he went to the presentation not sure what to expect.

“I was pleasantly surprised because I didn’t think I would find it as interesting as I actually did,” Johnson said. “I guess because I thought it would be about the Muslim punk movement, but just a lot of the things Michael was saying and the passages he read from the book could be applied to a whole number of different types of groups in our generation, which kind of have two conflicting identities.”

Omar Majeed, who is directing the documentary, referred to himself as a “bad example of a Muslim” during the event, joking that he once found himself violating his religious beliefs by reading Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” while eating a ham sandwich.

Vande Berg said he was surprised by some student reactions to the event and its speakers.

“I was talking to some students … about [the event] and they were shocked at the fact that those two guys were Muslims,” Vande Berg said. “That’s not what they thought Muslims looked like, that isn’t the kind of stuff they thought Muslims did. I think part of what [events like this] is about is showing a different perspective.”

Knight said he hopes similar tours happen in the future and is already looking forward to a possible West Coast trek.

“[It] was awesome,” he said. “I’m always surprised when anyone outside the very narrow experience of Muslim punk gets into it. I thought the book and everything was so alienating because there’s so much insider language and insider references that I didn’t think it could relate to people like that.”

Junior Clay Dehaan said he the event gave him hope for the future of punk rock.

“It showed me that punk rock, anti-authority is still alive but just in a different form.”