DVD Review - Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

A band performing in
"Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam"
Michael Muhammad Knight is a journalist. He's Caucasian. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, but he converted to Islam when he was a teenager. Yet, this documentary isn't about that.

It's not about Michael's transformation. It's not about why he converted or how he did it. I almost wish this movie was about that because that would have been a better story. As it stands, this movie doesn't really have one. It captures instead a movement, a movement of young people caught between two worlds, as Michael was. One is the rebellious world of punk rock music. The other is the strict, conservative world of their Muslim religion. Both worlds are embraced, despite both worlds seeming mutually exclusive.

Michael wrote a novel about how the two worlds actually aren't mutually exclusive. His book featured fictional characters who loved punk rock and also loved the Koran. People who read his book who identified with those characters and who were those characters in real life started contacting Michael. That's when the author started meeting actual punk Islam bands. That's when he decided to put those bands on a green tour bus and take them around the country, and that's when this documentary begins.

One of the bands on Michael's tour is a Pakistani-American band named The Kominas. The Kominas formed in 2004. The band was even featured on MTV. We see and hear this band and others perform. They're not that different from any other punk rock band. They say things that are provocative like "Sharia law in the United States" but it's obviously something they don't mean. They claim not to be political, but, at one point, they curse President George W. Bush's name.

Like the bands featured in 2007's Heavy Metal in Baghdad, the Taqwacore bands just want to perform their songs and express themselves, as well as straddle both worlds without any real agenda or even any defined career path. They travel from city to city, from Baltimore to Boston to Harlem. Each time, they give these free, underground shows. There's no sense of the scale, but apparently it becomes a big deal as national media do pick up on them.

We then get some idea with what these young rockers are grappling. Until now, they were simply rebels without a cause. Michael and the bands rail against how the media misrepresent them and lump them all into one group and label them as one thing. Even more egregious to them is the constant associations with terrorists. That upsets them and is perhaps endemic of bigger issues in America.

Yet, I doubt that any of the reporters or media sources covering them would ever try to stop those bands from performing or restricting what they do. That's not the case, however, when the Taqwacore tour takes the bands to Ohio and to a convention held by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The Taqwacores perform at the convention and like something out of Footloose, the organizers tell them they're not allowed to have dancing or even female singers.

The tour eventually leads Michael and the bands overseas to Pakistan, which is home or native land for many of them. Unlike No One Knows About Persian Cats, they don't encounter a great deal of resistance, but they do worry if anyone will come to their show. Some people state that because of religious custom and tradition, punk rock is not readily acceptable.

It reaffirms how much Taqwacore is something of a contradiction in terms. Taqwa is arabic for piety or "god consciousness" and core comes from hardcore punk. It's not a real contradiction, only a de facto one. Nonetheless, it's a necessary contradiction because there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam, and these bands challenge them, and that's a good thing.

Unfortunately, this documentary fails a lot as a movie. Director Omar Majeed only skims the surface in a lot of ways. Aside from Michael, he never really gets to know the bands or the band members in any deep or lasting way. Even when it comes to Michael, we're sometimes left hanging there too.

Majeed also provides little to no context when it comes to certain scenes. In Pakistan, we see Michael in a crowd of shirtless men who are hitting themselves. They hit themselves until extremely bruised and even bloody, and we get no explanation as to why or what significance it has.

Oddly enough, Michael's novel was adapted into a movie, The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra. it was released on DVD prior to this one and does a better job of providing context and story. Normally, I would recommend watching a documentary about something rather than the fictionalized version of it, but, in this case, I'm going to have to do the reverse.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but Recommended for 14 and Up.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 22 mins.


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