Tanzila Ahmed

July 26, 2007

What are your first thoughts when you hear that someone is a Muslim? Are they of head-to-toe burkha-clad women or suicide-belt wielding fanatics? Rabid xenophobic and stereotypical depictions saturate our media. But what about that kid with a Mohawk at the punk show last night? Could he be Muslim? How about the author of your favorite comic book? Contrary to popular images, Muslims are everywhere, especially here in America.

U.S. Muslims number about 6 million and are becoming thoroughly immersed in American culture. Muslim Americans are also highly diverse, covering a range of ethnicities, careers, political leanings, and beliefs. Among the U.S. Muslim population are many progressive folks that run the gambit from punk rockers to the comic book writers and bloggers. What does being a Muslim, a progressive and an American mean to them?

The Kominas

“A South Asian mother’s worst nightmare,” The Kominas is a Boston-based Bollywood punk band. 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 hardly conventional by any means and are best classified in the new punk music genre Taqwacore.

Inspired by young Muslim author Michael Muhammad Knight’s underground novel The Taqwacore, Taqwacore morphed into an alternative Muslim punk movement. This summer, The Kominas are joining forces with other Taqwacore bands as well as Knight, for an East Coast tour doing what they do best, rocking out and playing punk.

“I was somewhat religious until the time I was 14 and began to have sexual urges,” says 24-year-old Shahjehan Khan, a Kominas co-founder. “I basically dissociated myself from Islam until I dropped out [of college]. A year later, I read The Taqwacore 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 states. “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.”

“As far as the Muslim aspect to the band,” he continues, “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, it in particular had a unique effect on the Muslim American youth. “I grew up basically white, for all intents and purposes (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 challenges and crossroads. Many have used art or writing to explore their take on faith and identity.

G. Willow Wilson

In the testosterone-fueled field of comic books, one frequently sees only the names of male writers printed on the cover of comic books. This year, G. Willow Wilson will be one of few females (and Muslims) that shatter this ceiling 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? “I love the medium.” Wilson responds. “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 more overtly political of the two, because it deals with the hotly contested Transboundary Aquifer System in the northern Sahara.”

Wilson offers that her motivation for comics comes from a persistent 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, because 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’s 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 Sept. 11, and like Shahjehan Khan, internalized the events tremendously. “In a lot of ways I still don’t think I’m over it. 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, and 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

With the age of internet fast upon us, Muslims of similar ideologies across the nation are connecting and creating previously absent online communities. Blogger, writer and activist Sabahat Ashraf knows it well. As a board member responsible for new media outreach at the nonprofit Muslims for Progressive Values as well as a blogger on the group blog ProgressiveIslam.org, Ashraf knows the intricacies well.

Founded in 2006, Muslims for Progressive Values is a new nonprofit organization that uses online communities, 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 planned for the near future the development of position papers, curriculum development and building membership. The organization also has an annual Malcolm X sermon-writing competition and is planning a family summer camp next year.

In contrast to MPV’s public activities, Progressiveislam.org takes on the virtual realm. “It’s a collaborative site that spun out of the progressive Muslim gatherings on the web,” Ashraf explains. “It’s grown into an interesting community of people who like to focus on issues like women’s health as they relate to Muslim communities in the United States and globally on the one hand, and a place for some of the more fun parts of our community–the budding “Muslim Punk” culture, for example.” But Muslims have a variety of different political and social viewpoints, fostering dialog between these communities together can be challenging.

In fact, Ashraf’s politics differed greatly from his father’s, but, he explains, “He’s a history and political science scholar and a very observant, religious Muslim, and 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 OK 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 harness 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.