Muslim Punk Rock is Nothing New

by Chris Lundry

In an AP wire story picked up by numerous print and online media, Russell Contreras writes about discovering the “new movement” of Muslim-Hindu punk bands (including Boston’s the Kominas). The implication is that we are witnessing a new youth music movement that might serve as a challenge to religious fundamentalism and its extremist outcomes.  It’s a great bit of publicity for the band, but it reflects the author’s lack of prior awareness about the music rather than a description of a breaking music movement.  In fact Muslim punk is nothing new.

Punk rock was invented by New York’s The Ramones, who took a couple chords, played them loud and fast, and added lyrics that reflected their comic books and B-movies sensibilities. After the Ramones played an early show in London, with future members of seminal British punk bands the Clash, the Damned, and the Sex Pistols in the audience, the music and movement quickly bloomed there. It went through the first of many changes, however, as British punk was more political (reflecting the direr economic situation there), and people such as Malcom McClaren linked it to colorful, shocking fashion and art. Musical skills increased on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the United States the bands began to eschew what had become peacock-like fashion for a simpler look and sound that lost some of the pop tinges of of both the Ramones and British punk, and thus “hardcore” was born. Punk rock and hardcore branched out in all sorts of directions: new wave and post punk, straight edge (whose adherents foreswear sex, alcohol and drugs), vegan hardcore, Krishnacore, emo, pop-punk, grunge, crossover and thrash (punk fused with heavy metal), and even so-called Christian punk, to name just a few.

All of this occurred mostly under the radar of mainstream media, until the early 1990s (or, as some state more precisely, 1991, “The Year Punk Broke“). Bands such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana played punk-influenced music that was radio friendly, and hence radio stations played them and they became huge. There were plenty of earlier bands that got some limited radio airplay in the United States, most notably the Clash (albeit far past their prime); in the late 1970s British punk bands were all over the British charts. Most of punk remained underground (although subjected to more outside attention that usual), but plenty of bands formed to play radio friendly pop with a “punk” edge and look, and this genre of music is now well established. It was also around this time that “jocks” stopped beating up “punks” and joined them at concerts.

Why the brief history of punk? Because throughout this entire evolution, punk bands formed all over the world, including Hindu and Muslim countries, and including Hindus and Muslims — nominal and practicing — in the United States, consistent with the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos of the movement (often there was a time lag, but always there were local musical and cultural elements). Maximum Rock and Roll, the standard bearing ‘zine for hardcore and punk (published since 1982, with roots to 1977), published “Scene Reports” from around the world that chronicled bands and the scenes that supported them. Muslims playing punk rock is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is the environment today (or post 9-11) that is new.

Popular and “underground” music has always had an air of rebellion; punk rock merely turned up the volume. Music has provided a space for young people to express themselves and their identities, to question the cultural assumptions of their environments and to push for social change (COMOPS Journal has already published blog posts on heavy metal and rap). Social commentary and criticism has a long history in American music (from slaves’ work songs to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to punk tours such as Rock Against Reagan).

So what about the Kominas and the so-called “Taqwacore”? To my ears half of their music stands close to the radio friendly side of punk, with others a bit noisier (some songs can be heard on their myspace page). Their tunes blend funk and ska, and borrow heavily from their forebearers. “Sharia Law in the USA” is derived from the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK,” for example, and “Suicide Bomb the Gap” echoes the Big Boys’ taste for funk (and Kool and the Gang). Some of their music blends South Asian elements, but this isn’t new (remember the Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” and the Beatles “Norwegian Wood”?).

The notion of Taqwacore is interesting, although this is still American music played in the United States. They may face derision from some Muslim members of their audiences, but they won’t face beheading for apostacy. With the expansion of new media and the ease of global communication, it would be interesting to see if the Kaminas had any influence on bands elsewhere — I’m sure they’ve got fans whose only connection to the band is the internet. What would be infinitely more interesting, however, would be to see how punk bands made up of faithful Muslims are faring in Muslim countries with oppressive social environments and strong pressure to conform. They do exist — I’ve seen them in Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1990s — but it’s much harder for westerners to gain access to their music or to be able to gauge their impacts.

Interesting though this may be from a cultural point of view, the fact is that Muslims punk has been around for years.  It’s doubtful that this latest spurt from the movement signals anything new with respect to resisting extremism or the religious establishment.