To the East End Film festival, for Omar Majeed's 2009 film Taqwacore.
The Taqwacore movement emerges from the novel of the same name by Michael Muhammad Knight, about a bunch of American punks. Life appears to have imitated art, as a small number of Muslim punk bands have emerged in the years since Knight's novel. This film tells (part of) their story, showing bands such as The Kominas, Vote Hezbollah and the Secret Trial Five on tour in the States, and then some of these musicians attempting to play a gig in Pakistan, under the name Noble Drew.
Muhammad Knight is perhaps the core of the film, driving the green tour bus that takes the bands on a rather hedonistic tour of the States, complete with a succession of provocative images stenciled on their tour bus. Entry is by walking over the stars and stripes. Taqwa translates as god consciousness, core is taken from the word hardcore, and looking at Knight I am rather reminded of some of the rather austere straight edge kids I have seen at gigs in London in the past. Only Knight, as we see in the film, seems to do a hell of a lot more dope!
The climax of the American section of the film appears to have been inspired by Michael Moore or Sasha Baron Cohen at their stunt pulling best. The various bands somehow manage to insert themselves into the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Chicago convention, where a stage has been set aside for young people's entertainment. What they get is punk rock, to the fury of the organisers who call police, and the terror of some of the audience. A female ISNA representative complains bitterly that woman should not be allowed on stage, before the scene reaches a truly beautiful climax. A group of hijab wearing American Muslim girls are clearly enjoying the music, whilst two cops demand the bands leave the stage. Muhammad Knight accordingly goes into full provocateur mode, chanting "Pigs are haram in Islam", before the taqwacores are thrown out on their ears.
The second half of the film, as Knight and some of the musicians head to Pakistan, is perhaps less of a success. For those of us brought up on images of Pakistan that centered on either cricket or General Zia's Islamification, the sights of Sufi Islam, Lahore's red light district and gargantuan amounts of dope smoking is a welcome change. It is unlikely though that the Pakistan Tourist Board will be marketing the benefits of cannabis lassi (which certainly looked refreshing).
The reality however is that Pakistan is a deeply divided society - especially in terms of class - and playing punk rock in such a society presents a huge challenge. The Americans efforts to leaflet the masses promoting a free gig are comical, although they do provoke the objections of one angry man (who from his accent appears English) who is appalled at such a gig in a Muslim country. Well the gig happens, and the film pretty much ends there.
The evening itself was brought to a close with a round table discussion chaired by UK film maker Hammad Khan, who has met both Knight and The Kominas. Discussion amongst the five panelists was dominated by what the Taqwacores tells us about race and identity - here I was surprised at just how much 9/11 was mentioned. Was this film, plus The Infidel and Four Lions, evidence that attitudes towards Islam were changing, and that it could be seen as about more than the images of 9/11 or 7/7?
There are several problems with this route. Firstly, as a Greek member of the audience pointed out, part of the film was about asking hard questions about Islam, about denying the authority of Imam's and opposing religious hierarchy. Knight talks of raising a finger to both sides in any clash of civilisations. Views that the panel did not reflect, just as they seemed surprised by the self-evident questions from the audience that punk and Islam, or Anarchism and Islam, do not sit together. At all.
My own question was to query the rather chummy tone that was emerging, by pointing out that in America you can buy an unedited, unexpurgated copy of the Taqwacores. Here in the UK you cannot - as the publishers lost their nerve, feeling the book could be seen as blasphemous by some UK Islamists.
Which is perhaps a problem we never had with punk........