chapter  7
18 Pages

‘Muslim punk’ music online: piety and protest in the digital age


The presence of young diasporic Muslim musicians in new media is already significant, but also continually rising. The explosion of MySpace and Facebook pages for diasporic Muslim bands is a case in point. It is tempting to stop at this moment, basking in this concrete new media presence. However, presence does not always beget position. And in this case, young Muslim males continue to be othered, exoticized, otherwise marginalized online and offline. The online presence of ‘Taqwacores’, a transnational diasporic punk music scene, serves as a space where these marginal essentialisms are contested. In the face of post-9/11 and 7/7 Islamophobia, Taqwacores’ cyberspaces have been viewed as ‘safe’ outlets for progressive activist Muslims to discuss and organize. Though the Internet’s role in growing Muslim musical youth subcultures is important, it is critical not to let this overshadow the role of these virtual spaces as cocoons where young Muslim males (especially marginalized ones) can creatively and freely express themselves. This chapter explores the continuing circulation of pejorative essentialisms of diasporic Muslim males (especially as ‘terrorist’/demonic ‘other’) and underlines the possibility of cyberspaces to function as meaningful and progressive Muslim social worlds which challenge these essentialisms both online and offline (a case in point for the anti-Islamophobic leanings of the Taqwacores). Almost a decade after 9/11 and some years after 7/7, Islamophobia in the UK,

US and other Western states sadly continues to flourish. Fuelled by the ongoing Anglo-American ‘War on Terror’, Muslims, especially young Muslim males, continue to be othered/marginalized at best and demonized/violently attacked at worst. Furthermore, the diverse cultures and cultural products of diasporic and non-diasporic Islamic cultures are reductively conflated with stereotypical invocations of an imagined, homogenous ultra-Orthodox Islam. This chapter examines the case of one subcultural scene in which young diasporic South Asian Muslim males are resisting these essentialisms through music which they term ‘Muslim punk’. This scene, known as the ‘Taqwacores’, began its life in suburban Boston, USA, but its most critical ‘spaces’ are mediated by the Internet. This chapter explores the online presence of the Taqwacores on social networking/social media sites – especially Facebook and Twitter – to understand

how new digitally mediated collective Muslim youth identities combine piety and protest in deterritorialized spaces within the Internet. Post-9/11 and 7/7, Islamophobia has been on the rise in the West (Ashencaen

Crabtree et al. 2008; Dunn et al. 2007; Malik 2006; Popoviciu and Mac an Ghaill 2004). Muslim men have been specifically demonized as being terrorist/ extremist (Virdee et al. 2006; Dwyer et al. 2008) or uncontrollably sexually aggressive (Hubbard 2005). In Britain, this has also resulted in institutional racism, including a sharp increase in the number of house arrests of Muslim men (Brittain 2009). In the US, violent and sometimes lethal attacks against Muslim men have risen sharply (Curiel 2008). The positioning of Muslims as a dangerous/unwanted ‘other’ has become pervasive, embedded within dominant Western media, political and religious discourses. Notably, Pope Benedict XVI in a speech at the University of Regensburg in 2006 framed Islam as a violent religion in stark opposition to the enlightenment of Western religious traditions.2 This construction of Islam as an essential dichotomous other has real consequences for young Muslims (Malik 2006). Media portrayals, as Poole and Richardson (2006) observe, continue to demonize Muslim males. In April 2009, the popular American TV show ‘Lie to Me’ ran an episode in which a Washington, DC-based mosque was accused of being home to an AlQaeda splinter cell. In the episode, all young Muslim males were sharply essentialized as terrorist/fanatical extremists. This Islamophobic gaze in America continues to retain staying power. As Curiel (2008: xii-xiii) observes, a Gallup poll in 2006 revealed that almost a third of those polled felt American Muslims were sympathetic to Al-Qaeda and a 2007 Newsweek poll showed that 41 per cent of those surveyed believe that ‘Muslim culture glorifies suicide’. The post-9/11 gaze grew to such a level that Mahmood (2002) felt compelled to write an anti-essentialist book entitled Islam Beyond Terrorists and Terrorism. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten controversially published

comics depicting the prophet Mohammed, including clear references to Islam as a religion of terrorists (Brun 2008). The publication of these led to widespread protests by Muslims around the world. Hoskins and O’Loughlin (2007: 154-7) argue that these media depictions of Islam collectively constitute a ‘mythology’, in which Islam and terror become conflated. Writing in the wake of the urban disturbances in the northern British cities of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001, Louise Archer (2001: 81) argues that ‘Muslim young men are increasingly being defined as militant and aggressive, intrinsically fundamentalist, ultimate Others’ (cited in Dwyer et al. 2008: 117). Following Foucault’s (Foucault and Sheridan 1972) theory of discursive relationality, Western Islamophobia has become constituted as a system of discursive statements, relationally networked and maintained through complex hegemonic structures of power. In this discursive system which continues to propagate ‘demonizing

mythologies’ (Gómez-Peña and Peña 2005), Taqwacores, a transnational diasporic Muslim punk subculture, has served as one avenue for young Muslim

men to challenge dominant Islamophobic discourses and forge new identities which go beyond modes of binaristic thinking. Taqwacores’ cyber-spaces have been viewed as ‘safe’ outlets for progressive South Asian Muslims to discuss and organize. Though the Internet’s role in growing South Asian musical subcultures is important, it is critical not to let this overshadow the role of these virtual spaces as cocoons where South Asian youths (especially marginalized Muslim youths) may feel they can creatively and freely express themselves. In this research, respondents were interviewed through online methods,

face-to-face ethnographic interviews and participant observation. A sample of interview participants was collected from Facebook and MySpace groups on Taqwacores, whose membership is published publicly on the Internet. The largest of these groups is ‘Taqwacore’ on Facebook, which has 462 members (at the time of writing) and of which I became a member. Respondents were also recruited through Twitter as well as through gatekeepers in the field. Thirty-seven face-to-face interviews were conducted in eight metropolitan US cities. In terms of the digital ethnographic component of this research, the interactions of members within Facebook/MySpace groups such as Taqwacore (text discussion, uploading of video/audio, etc.) have been observed. Both in offline and online interview work, respondents’ viewpoints on participation in Taqwacores through online spaces have been elicited. Respondents were asked to reflect on issues of identity, social marginalization, religious marginalization and ethnicity. Though membership of Taqwacores can be seen online, i.e. publicly, it remains a sensitive and marginalized subcultural scene. My research into the Taqwacores project has also involved maintaining a

Twitter account through which I regularly send out tweets regarding my research – whether it is material I am reading, videos I am watching, research questions I am grappling with, or hypotheses I am investigating. Through Twitter, I also ‘follow’ individuals involved in the Taqwacores scene and read their tweets regularly. I maintain a project website which includes photographic images related to the project, visualizations and an archive of my tweets.3

Through this process, I quickly realized that youths involved in Taqwacores are using this viral, instant and ubiquitous medium to bring a wide array of individuals both into Taqwacores as well as to keep interested individuals informed of the scene. The scene’s use of Twitter also enables Taqwacores to reach out to groups of individuals who may not feel comfortable attending concerts or events taking place in the scene (or who may face socio-religious barriers). For example, there are many more women Twittering about Taqwacores than you would see at most of their concerts. This use of Twitter highlights specific examples of how Taqwacores is challenging pejorative normative stereotypes of young Muslim Americans. This chapter is especially interested in how particular music websites, dis-

cussion forums and social networking websites are facilitating the growth of the Taqwacores scene. By way of background, I will briefly introduce the punk scene and the Muslim diaspora before examining the Taqwacores scene.