This Band Explains Why Identifying As Muslim Punks Is A Reminder Of Where They Stand In America
Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, the international Muslim community braced themselves for another round of Islamophobic reactions. There was the hashtag campaign #killallmuslims, the anti-immigration protests in Germany, and even the misinformation spread by Fox News about the safety of non-Muslims in certain Paris neighborhoods.
What many Muslims also had to prepare for was apologizing (again) for something they had not done, and repeating the same thing they’ve had to explain for a very long time -- that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the men and women who commit acts of terrorism do not in any way represent the values of Islam. It seems that many people throughout the world are still not interested in hearing that message. But perhaps there's a solution.
Maybe instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, we should try to adjust the sound. And who better to turn up the volume than a Muslim punk band?
The Kominas have traveled all around the world performing their music. They've hit some obstacles along the way, and experienced bias, racism, and Islamophobia in all its ugly forms. They've also grown a fanbase, and inspired a new generation of kids -- some Muslim, some not -- to pick up guitars and scream into microphones for a reason.
MTV News sat down with the Kominas -- Shahjehan Khan, Basim Usmani, Sunny Ali, and Karna Ray -- to hear their story.
MTV: Can you tell us a little bit about how The Kominas came to be, and the ideas behind the band?
Khan: The Kominas started like any other suburban American band, in a basement in Lexington, Massachusetts and at UMASS Lowell. We started with a MySpace page, but I guess we also started with a need to say something about whatever bullsh-t we felt was being said about Muslims, South Asians, and also from a love of our parents' culture (Bollywood, Classical Desi music, etc.). Our first shows were with punk and hardcore bands all over the East Coast.
Usmani: It was self-expression, and born out of the punk-rock mentality of, "If you have one unique idea, you should start a band about it." Over the years our lyrics have tackled the surreal and the pertinent. We've written about bigotry and double standards outside, and within, our own communities, and also written silly songs and set real stories to music.
MTV: Many people wouldn't put "Punk" and "Muslim" in the same sentence. Can you explain a little bit about how these two things met and made sense for you?
Usmani: Many of my older and younger cousins were Pakistani Americans with deep political convictions that attracted them to Bikini Kill, Rage Against the Machine and the Dead Kennedys. So before starting the Kominas, I had cousins deeply into vegetarianism, feminism and activism. The clincher was discovering classic Muslim Punk bands like Fearless Iranians from Hell (Texas), or Alien Kulture (London), as well as the huge scenes that exist presently in Malaysia and Indonesia, and [also] familiarizing myself with other Southeast Asian punk bands from Muslim countries.
Having the [had] opportunity to play in Berlin, Paris, Oslo, and London, I can see why politically minded punk rock still has sway in the various diaspora Muslim communities. When the far right is trying to criminalize your very being, it’s nice to have a scene that’s all about being yourself.
Khan: We have been a band for 10 years. Our first album was a Muslim Punk album, but that is certainly not all we are. What brought us together specifically, I suppose, was Michael Muhammad Knight's “The Taqwacores,” and we met many amazing people through that association.
[ The Taqwacore movement is a genre of punk that gained traction after Michael Muhammad Knight released his 2003 novel, "The Taqwacores." The book has since been the inspiration for two films, including a documentary The Kominas were heavily involved in.]
Khan, cont.: Punk, as an ideal, is no stranger to politics, so there’s actually really no reason the two can’t (and shouldn’t) go together. Muslims are, at the moment, the “bad guys” according to the media, so it’s only natural that people are being fed up with those sorts of portrayals. We have also written songs about identity struggles as South Asians, incorporated Desi (aka South Asian) poetry into our lyrics, and have immersed ourselves in all sorts of interesting art scenes both here and in places such as Pakistan.
Ray: I find it funny that people have difficulty seeing those worlds intersect. In fact, the fact that punk and Islam seem intuitively opposed makes a strong case for the existence of Muslim Punk. You should check out the Taqwacores in Indonesia. The Kominas aren’t nearly legitimate enough for them, and their existence means that Muslim Punk as a scene has matured into a stage of self-reflection.
MTV: Do you feel like your experience growing up in the United States was different from your non-Muslim classmates?
Khan: I don’t think that it [growing up Muslim in the United States] was anything particularly remarkable. My parents gave me a beautiful life. The United States is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-class, multi-anything-you-can-think-of place. I grew up here, I belong here, and I love this place as much as anyone else does.
Ali: I went to a Catholic school from preschool till 6th grade while attending Islamic school on weekends. I hated both for reasons any kid hates school. I didn't feel like I fit in at either but had a few close friends at both.
MTV: How do you feel like your experience changed (if it did) after 9/11?
Khan: I was certainly more “Muslim-conscious.” I remember an interfaith group that I used to attend when I was in high school in which the energy certainly changed after that day. I was asked to explain the actions of “my people” on 9/12 [the day after the 9/11 attacks] in high school. All of a sudden, I was a suspicious brown guy. I was kind of a stoner in high school who didn’t give two sh-ts about anything but, after that day, I definitely couldn’t “not care” anymore.
Usmani: I remember having to bite my tongue a lot; and hearing everyone from teachers, TV hosts, famous comedians, Bill Clinton, talking heads, radio jocks, high school friends, and their parents talk about my family and community like we were vermin. I remember ... a jazz teacher in particular putting his trumpet aside and spending the class airing out suspicions about Muslims and whether we have a low value on human life.
Ray: Even as a non-Muslim I shared some of the most overt characteristics of suspicion, like being dark and wearing a beard. It made me realize how contingent Islam as a religion or a culture was to the gloom of suspicion and distrust that became the pervasive attitude of most of the 2000s. As an American citizen with two academic Indian parents, raised Hindu but with no particular religious affiliations, I am still systematically double-checked at airports.
Ali: I remember being in high school and a friend jokingly saying, "What did your people do," after it [9/11] happened. It definitely gave people more jokes and ammunition to be racist.
MTV: Have you ever felt that being Muslim has impacted the way those in the music community treat you?
Usmani: It definitely impacts the way the press deals with us! It would be remiss of us not to mention that our band is only relevant to the press when talking about Islamophobia, and as a token to prove a point about assimilation. With the exception of very recently, rarely does the Western press want to engage us about our new album (which is coming out in 2015), or comment on our recent music videos. When we play out, if anything, we deal with envy from other bands because we’re four dusky princes who look fantastic on stage together.
Ali: I feel like we've definitely been ostracized in certain music circles, predominantly from white male indie "punk" scenes. Though I don’t believe there is such a thing as a white punk scene in 2015 ... We've been on some big artists' radars (Mos Def, Black Lips, Diplo, MIA, Das Racist, Trent Reznor), without them really promoting us. We're kind of the black sheep that people just want to watch from a distance and see what we're up to but not actually get involved with.
MTV: How has being part of a "Muslim punk band" shaped the way you see the world?
Usmani: In terms of the current state of affairs, with Black Lives Matter (#BlackLivesMatter) protests happening concurrently, and racial divisions finally being paid attention to, to identify as a Muslim Punk is a reminder of where we stand in the context of America. We have a lot of solidarity with other young people of color living in the United States who are challenging institutional and cultural racism in all forms.
Khan: It’s important to note that for a vast majority of The Kominas’ existence, we have had non-Muslim members who are just as vital to the experience, sound, and direction of the band as the rest of us. We’ve played with all sorts of white guys, brown guys, and black guys; people who are non-Muslim Indian Americans, Jamaican & African Americans, Irish-American -- whatever you can think of.
After our first rushes of media attention I started feeling pressure to live up to some ideal of what we were supposed to say, who we were supposed to appeal to, and whether or not we were discussing the right issues or portraying the right message. At this point, it really doesn’t matter what we are being called because I’ve realized that we are all those things (a Muslim band, a Punk band, a Desi band, an American band). None of these identities are exclusive.
MTV: Do you have an example of a time you felt silenced because of who you are and what you stand for?
Usmani: In terms of my own life, the issue is being Muslim and has very little to do with what you do or do not stand for. I am detained for hours every time I re-enter the United States, despite being born in Manhattan and being an American. You would think this has to do with what I say, but my uncle, who is a physician, deals with the same six-hour detainments, despite not having a public profile related to Muslim issues. Systemic racism will affect you regardless of what you say or do.
Khan: On our first US tour in 2006, a bar owner cancelled a gig in Michigan because of seeing something about Islam on the flyer.
Ali: We've had a white "punk" start yelling "False punk! False punk!" while storming out during a show we played at a museum in Indianapolis. It was weird because it was at a museum and the audience was mostly parents and kids.
MTV: What is your take on the global response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo?
Ray: I’m apprehensive about how the “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity campaign will play out in France. France is a country which prides itself on its secular liberalism and its commitment to social welfare, but at the same time has a growing minority of Muslims which have been specifically antagonized by the law.
Khan: One lesson I learned from my father is that there is absolutely nothing in this world that is black and white, good and evil, or any other dichotomy. Especially really evil s---: it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but that doesn’t make it any less evil and awful.
MTV: What would you tell a young person who wants to take a stand against bias and Islamophobia?
Ali: I’d tell them to invest more time in following stories, and see who really gains from Islamophobia. Some of the first people to react to tragedies are also the first ones to stop talking about them and stop digging deeper, and I think that’s a big problem. You are stunned or shocked into believing one narrative and don’t care enough to look any further.