Slam Dancing for Allah

It's near midnight in a small Fairfax, Va., bar, and Omar Waqar stands on a makeshift stage, brooding in a black tunic and brown cap. He stops playing his electric guitar long enough to survey the crowd—an odd mix of local punks and collared preps—before screaming into the microphone: "Stop the hate! Stop the hate!" Stopping hate is a fairly easy concept to get behind at a punk-rock show, and the crowd yells and pumps its fists right on cue. But it's safe to say that Waqar and his band, Diacritical, aren't shouting about the same kind of hate as the audience. Waqar wants to stop the kind that made people call him "sand flea" as a kid and throw rocks through the windows of the Islamic bookstore he worked at on 9/11. Waqar, 26, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, is a Muslim—a punk-rock Muslim.

Muslim punk rock certainly sounds like an oxymoron, especially since fundamentalist Muslims condemn all music as haram (forbidden). But Diacritical is one of about a dozen Islamic punk-rock bands throughout the country, bands with names like Vote Hezbollah, the Kominas ("bastards" in Punjabi) and Al-Thawra (Arabic for "the revolution"). The bands vary in sound, polish and success: the Kominas' funk-infused Bollywood songs have been on rotation on the BBC, while sounds of explosions and gunfire punctuate Arabic chanting on the MySpace page of Al-Thawra. But they're alike enough to tour together this summer, ending Labor Day weekend in Chicago at the usually staid Islamic Society of North America's annual conference. Muslim punkers call their brand of music taqwacore—a blend of the Arabic word for piety, taqwa, and "hard-core," the English word for musicians who want to be taken very seriously. "The Prophet Muhammad was all about smashing idols," says Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim convert whose 2003 novel "The Taqwacores" is a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement. "And what's more punk rock than that?"

Punk has always been home to the marginalized and angry, led by the Sex Pistols and the Clash in Britain and the Ramones across the pond. But Muslim punk rockers are fighting a two-sided establishment: one side West, the other Middle East. To them, the war on terror is unequivocally a war on Islam, but they're equally infuriated by Islamic fundamentalists and the bloodshed they foment against Westerners as well as other Muslims. "It's not like I'm choosing sides," says Kourosh Poursalehi, 18, who wears a denim vest with a print of Ayatollah Khomeini on the back—for the shock value. "To me they're both wrong. Bush with the war is doing horrible things, but there's not a person in my family who's happy with the Islamic revolution in Iran." These punks are the first generation of American-born Muslims; their parents came to the United States in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They grew up just like most kids their age—playing videogames and listening to music. But in their midteens and early 20s, they suddenly had to come to terms with their dual identities. "It was 9/11 that first made me conscious of my ethnicity," says Shajahan Khan, 23, the son of Pakistani immigrants who grew up outside Boston. The day after 9/11, a classmate asked him what his people had done. "I was like, 'What people? My people from Cambridge or Boston?'" says Khan, guitarist of the Kominas.

Admittedly, these Muslim punks aren't especially devout, at least in the tradition-al sense. None goes to Friday prayers regularly, but they all say they're deeply spiritual. To them, Islam begins and ends with one's personal relationship with God. After a recent show at a Manhattan bar, Waqar felt the urge to pray. "I went into the men's room, got down on the nasty floor and started praying," he recalls. Nothing says Muslim punk rock more than searching for Allah on the floor of a nightclub bathroom.

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Slam Dancing for Allah | World