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Punk meets Islam in Whitehorse

It's tough to hide a Mohawk under hijab. It's even tougher to put on a punk rock show in Pakistan. Visiting Montreal filmmaker Omar Majeed tried. The night of the concert, a bomb went off.

It’s tough to hide a Mohawk under hijab.

It’s even tougher to put on a punk rock show in Pakistan.

Visiting Montreal filmmaker Omar Majeed tried.

The night of the concert, a bomb went off.

“The stakes are high there,” he said over breakfast at the Gold Rush Inn on Thursday.

Majeed was raised mostly in Canada, but returned to his homeland for some very “formative years,” attending an American high school in Lahore, Pakistan.

“So I was a Pakistani kid who didn’t speak my own language, going to an American school in Pakistan,” he said.

This struggle between East and West got in his blood.

Then 9/11 happened.

“And for Muslims like myself, that brought out the divide even more sharply,” he said.

Suddenly, people were choosing sides.

And Majeed, as an aspiring filmmaker, started to think about how this would affect the next generation of Muslim youth.

Sick of the stereotypes and generalizations surrounding Islam and his country, Majeed sought out Pakistani comedians, visual artists and poets, hunting for ideas.

Then, he read Michael Muhammad Knight’s book The Taqwacores.

And it changed everything.

Knight is a white New Yorker who converted to Islam at 17 after running off to Pakistan to study in a madrassa.

Years later he penned his Muslim punk manifesto and an underground movement was born.

“I am an Islamist,” sings The Kominas frontman Basim Usmani, rearranging the well-known Sex Pistols’ song.

“I am the anti-Christ.”

The Kominas is a Muslim punk band from the Boston burbs that released its first song, Rumi is a Homo (But Wahaaj is a Fag), in 2005 after imam Siraj Wahaaj made homophobic comments. (Imams are Islamic leaders who often run mosques.)

The Kominas were always punkers, said Majeed. “There are always whispers of who doesn’t belong at the mosque.” But Knight’s book made these people realize they weren’t alone.

“It built a community.”

In his film, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, Majeed follows this community across the US, to the biggest Muslim gathering in America, and then on to Pakistan.

At the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, Majeed’s crew managed to get The Kominas on the bill at open mike night, along with an all-girl Muslim band with a queer singer.

The convention is conservative and when the The Kominas took the stage, the audience of mostly teenage girls in hijab came alive.

Until the police pulled the plug.

“People assume we’re just pranksters doing meaningless stuff,” said Majeed.

“But this movement is about changing the paradigm.”

And two years later, that same Muslim convention started booking rock bands for its young participants.

In Pakistan there’s more freedom and more restrictions.

Muslims in America, like most immigrant communities, work hard to preserve their culture, often at the expense of progress.

But in Pakistan “you don’t need to protect anything,” said Majeed. And it’s full of extremes.

“There is all sorts of music, drumming and drugs at some Sufi temples, and then there is the rich elite who live largely secular lives.”

And Western music is associated with the upper classes, while traditional music is for the poor, he said.

The Kominas were playing as a backup band at one of Pakistan’s music festivals when the bomb went off.

Luckily, no one was killed.

Islam could learn a lot from punk rock, said Majeed.

“Islam - when you take away all the aspects of organized religion that tend to mess up any religion - at the heart, it’s about justice, ethics, community and its about standing up for yourself and questioning authority.”

So don’t listen to CNN, said Majeed.

“And don’t listen to what your imam is telling you.

“The punk approach to Islam is don’t take your Islam from other people - you have to follow yourself.”

Majeed calls himself a Muslim. But he doesn’t pray five times a day facing Mecca.

There’s beauty and truth in Islam, he said.

“But at the same time I can’t endorse certain things that have come out in the name of Islam - the treatment of women, the use of violence.”

But nothing’s ever as simple as we think it is, he added.

“We label and generalize and like to put everything into a neat little box, and that’s the neat thing about punk - it says, ‘That’s just the label, come on, use your eyes - get past it.’

“And that is what both Islam and the West needs a lot of right now,” he said.

The punk scene “has done more for my relationship with Islam than any imam or mosque has ever done for me.”

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam screens tonight at the Yukon Arts Centre at 8:15 p.m. For more on the Available Light Film Festival go to

Contact Genesee Keevil at