American Muslims Reimagined

Tanzila Ahmed
July 26, 2007

With rabid xenophobic and stereotypical depictions of Muslims saturating our media, many Americans are limited to images of women clad in head-to-toe burkhas and suicide-belt wielding fanatics. This leaves little room to consider, say, that kid with a Mohawk at the punk show or the author of your favorite comic book. Contrary to popular images, Muslims are everywhere, and America is no exception.

There are roughly seven million Muslims in the United States, a highly diverse group, covering a range of ethnicities, careers, political leanings and beliefs. Among the US Muslim population are many progressive folks that run the gambit from punk rockers to comic book writers and bloggers. What does being a Muslim, a progressive and an American mean to them?

The Kominas

The Kominas ("Keepin' it Sunni Side Up since 2005!") is a Boston-based Bollywood punk band. Members range in age from 22- to 30-years-old and are a hodgepodge of middle-class, frustrated but fun-loving musicians, chemists, journalists, college dropouts (and graduates) who are trying to find their place in society. With controversial songs like "Mohammed Was a Punk Rocker" or "Suicide Bomb the Gap" they are best classified as "Taqwacore," a new punk music genre combining the Arabic word "taqwa" meaning "piety" or "God-fearing," with "hardcore."

The term was inspired by young Muslim author Michael Muhammad Knight's underground novel, The Taqwacores, which depicted an Islamic punk rock scene. Fiction morphed into reality when Taqwacore became the adopted genre for bands like The Kominas and Vote Hezbollah. This summer, Knight, The Kominas and other Taqwacore bands are joining forces to rock out and play punk on an East Coast tour.

"I was somewhat religious until the time I was 14 and began to have sexual urges," says 24-year-old Shahjehan Khan, The Kominas' co-founder. "I basically dissociated myself from Islam until I dropped out [of college]. A year later, I read The Taqwacores and realized I had done nothing wrong, despite what I felt inside, that 'trying it out your own way' is about as Islamic as you can get.

"If anything, I have gotten closer to my God because of the shifts in my [personal] attitudes, and feeling a part of the faith and its followers rather than an abomination. For me, it's not about empty rituals -- it's not about thanking God all the time, and it's certainly more than not eating pork."

The Kominas formed when Khan and co-founder Basim, who knew each other from the local mosque, decided to create a band. Khan did not grow up on punk music. "Basim got me into it," he says. "The fucker actually made me a CD-R called 'Punk 101.' I grew up on Boyz II Men and Oasis. I'm extremely insecure around punk kids because I have no cred other than a desire not to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer of some kind. I'm glad I've gotten into it, because I can identify with the anger, disillusionment, confusion and lack of regard for authority."

When asked about the Muslim aspect of the band, he says, "Yeah, we write about some things we see wrong within and outside of the Muslim community, but that's just our experience with it. I did the whole interfaith dialogue thing when I was growing up. I went to 'let's be friends and share' camp. Nothing says interfaith dialogue like getting high and hooking up. There are many American Muslims who do it that way, and I respect that. But I just wanted to cause some chaos, mess with people's heads a little by writing tunes like 'Suicide Bomb the Gap.'"

The events of 9/11 not only changed the face of the nation, they had a unique effect on Muslim American youth. Khan recalls the change he experienced. "I grew up basically white, for all intents and purposes. [I] definitely was the only Pakistani in my graduating class. Life was pretty comfortable for a while and then, bam! I hate the cliche, but it is true that 9/11 changed everything for me. Not necessarily in an external way, but I was much more conscious of this other part of my identity."

Like The Kominas, other American Muslims faced similar realizations and challenges. Many have used art or writing to explore their take on faith and identity.

G. Willow Wilson

In the testosterone-dominated field of comic books, G. Willow Wilson is one of few females (and Muslims) who will gain visibility with the publication of two comics, a 160-page graphic novel titled Cairo (out Nov. 7), and a one-shot issue of a monthly comic book titled Outsiders: Five of a Kind (out Aug. 22). Wilson, a 24-year-old American Muslim convert, ex-Goth, chocoholic and Democrat will be on a panel at this year's Comic Convention.

Why comics? Wilson says she loves the medium. "I can't say enough good things about it. I call it 'the beautiful medium' because it's the only genre of storytelling in which the past, present and future are available to the reader as one image. I make use of that in Cairo, a novel about five very disparate characters and a genie whose stories are interwoven against the backdrop of modern-day Cairo. Outsiders is [the] more overtly political of the two, because it deals with the hotly contested Transboundary Aquifer System in the northern Sahara."

Wilson says that her motivation to make comics comes from an obsession with the craft of writing. "I don't like this sudden wave of agenda-based art -- [as a Muslim] I will naturally be accused of contributing to it, but in fiction at least, I'll often promote the views of a character with whom I deeply disagree. My goal is to tell a good story, not to push a particular message."

Despite her endeavors in what may be perceived as a 'progressive' industry, Wilson doesn't see comics as necessarily progressive or conservative. "I fail to see the conflict between hijab (or religion in general) and comics," says Wilson. "It has been explained to me, but I still don't buy it. There are plenty of very reverent, intelligent comics about religion out there. The medium is not by nature anti-religious."

Wilson was in Boston on September 11th, and like Shahjehan Khan, felt a dramatic shift. "In a lot of ways I still don't think I'm over it," she says. "I think it lent a sense of urgency to our entire generation. I don't think it's a mistake that our generation is far more serious and emotionally sensitized than Gen X. I think 9/11 had a lot to do with it. As far as my own writing and life are concerned, after 9/11 I lost all desire to seem fashionably jaded and ambivalent. There is just too much that needs real attention."

Sabahat Ashraf

In the age of the internet, Muslims of similar ideologies across the nation are connecting and creating online communities. Blogger, writer and activist Sabahat Ashraf uses new technologies to their fullest. As a board member responsible for new media outreach at the nonprofit Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) as well as a blogger for ProgressiveIslam.org, Ashraf knows the intricacies of developing communities online.

Founded in 2006, Muslims for Progressive Values is a nonprofit organization that uses blogs, mailing lists and meetups to create a community of people who "self-identify as progressive Muslims, or just consider themselves progressives who happen to be Muslims, or vice versa." Ashraf sees his nonprofit group's role as providing a progressive voice at the Muslim table and the Muslim voice at the progressive table.

With an ambitious mission that includes "promoting and working for the implementation of progressive values, social justice, human rights, economic opportunity [and] separation of church and state," the organization has plans to build membership, develop position papers and curriculum. MPV also holds an annual Malcolm X sermon-writing competition and is planning a family summer camp next year.


In contrast to MPV's many on-the-ground activities, ProgressiveIslam.org is focused primarily on the virtual realm. "It's a collaborative site that spun out of the progressive Muslim gatherings on the web," Ashraf explains. "It has grown into an interesting community of people who like to focus on issues like women's health as it relates to Muslim communities in the United States and globally. [It's also] a place for some of the more fun parts of our community -- the budding 'Muslim Punk' culture, for example."

Muslims have a variety of different political and social viewpoints which makes fostering dialogue between these communities a challenge. In fact, Ashraf says his own politics differ greatly from his father's. But there are some core principles on which they agree. "He's a history and political science scholar and a very observant, religious Muslim. He brought my brother and I up to believe in the rule of law with an accountable government running according to a well-written constitution. And this was while living under a series of military dictators in Nigeria and Pakistan. From him, we learned that it's not just okay, but our duty as Muslims to follow and promote those principles. Too many youth in this day and age think that written laws and constitutions have no place in Islam. And that's part of the problem."

Ashraf's mission is to connect the passion of the younger American Muslim community with the experience and wisdom of the older generation. "One of my biggest frustrations is that the two generations talk past each other and don't learn from each other," says Ashraf. "If we could harness the experience and connection to tradition that our elders have with the fresh ideas and perspectives of our youth, we could make great strides."


Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed is a writer, political organizer and researcher in Los Angeles. She recently graduated with a Master in Public Policy degree concentrating in Asian American policy at UCLA's School of Public Affairs. You can contact her at Taz AT saavy DOT org.


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