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The Scarlet & Black

Knight imagines flexability of faith

Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books including, The Taqwacores, Osama Van Halen, and William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an. An unprofessional backyard wrestler and PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill, Knight sat down with the S&B to discuss his fictional account of an Islamic punk scene.

So just to start off, how’d you come to write The Taqwacores?
I was really really hurt by my experience of religion. I was Muslim, but I think that a lot of the hurt that came to me was from things and people in that tradition and experience. So I was really hurt by religion itself. And it was the punk rock kids who helped me through a lot of it, because I was ashamed, I was alone, I didn’t like myself and the punk rock kids said, “You know, be who you are and don’t apologize for who you are.” So there was this whole ideology of punk that was kind of the antidote to the shame that I felt with my religious experience.

There’s this moment when Jehangir [the mohawked central ‘punk’ character] talks about wanting to be Johnny Cash.Could you say a little bit about what’s going on there?
Jehangir sees Johnny Cash as having this universality; that everybody has access to Johnny Cash, everybody can love Johnny Cash. And there’s a certain amount of white privilege that factors into that because whiteness is seen as generic humanity and maleness is seen as generic humanity. So Johnny Cash, as the white man, can be universally loved in this special way. And Jehangir is brown; he is Muslim; he is punk rock. He represents not only one marginalized identity, but these varying marginalized identities that together put him in such a small corner of the human species. He doesn’t feel like he can talk to anyone, or that anyone can hear him. He can’t have the universality of white-man Johnny Cash. And part of this is what society does to him and part of this is how he places himself.

A lot of struggles in the story seem to be about building community around individualized interpretations and relationships with faith. Do you think this community building is important? Possible?
I think community building is really important because I don’t personally see religion as just being inside yourself. In my own individual experience with Islam, when I had questions and doubts and confusions and I didn’t know that anyone else had them, it just pushed me out. So I stopped calling myself Muslim for some time, because I didn’t think there were Muslims like me. When I found out there were Muslims who were confused, who doubted things and who didn’t meet every item on the checklist of what it means to be Muslim, that actually allowed me to reclaim it. I was able to reclaim myself as a Muslim by connecting with other people. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have my attachment to the religion. So, absolutely, I think that any community is going to have an underground and the people in that underground need each other.

I noticed that Jehangir is sometimes positioned as a sort of Jesus figure and he does ultimately die for his community. Is that something that is intentional?
In the writing of the book there were three things going into my imagination of him. One is, I did grow up Catholic and that’s never going away, whatever religion I call myself. Number two, my three biggest heroes in Islam all died violently as martyrs: Imam Husayn, the profit’s grandson; Al-Hallaj, the Sufi mystic who was actually crucified, decapitated and burned; and Malcolm X. So I did have this very Islamic sense of the martyr. And not just martyrdom, but one person standing against an unjust world, which all three of those people represent. The third thing was that I was actually obsessed with The Great Gatsby at the time I wrote the book. So the idea of someone dying for their hostile dream. And Yusef is the person who is transformed by this figure he narrates.

Both personally and politically, what do you think is the power of a work of fantasy like this? What has come out of it?
Well, William S. Burroughs says writers either write what they have experienced or what they’d like to experience. I was writing what I’d like to experience, I was writing what I’d like to be possible, but at the time I didn’t think it was possible. I think first it just told other people that they weren’t alone and their responses to me told me that I wasn’t alone and then change was possible. I think art can do that in ways that scholarly work usually can’t. There’re a lot of academic reformers. There’re a lot of people who are trying to reform Islam as scholars. They make arguments about what we can do with the legal tradition, or different ways that we can read the Koran, or different ways of interpreting the profit’s life. And they do that as scholars. But I think art is more embedded in people’s daily reality. Scholarship doesn’t show you an alternate reality in the same way.

I’m really interested in this idea you’ve raised of creating your own, shared world. Do you think that music has the power to help people create those kinds of communities?
Absolutely, because music so often draws on shared history. You can listen to any genre of music and see it refer to itself. I moved to North Carolina and started driving around with the country station on and there’s all these country songs that refer to country songs and all these country songs that are about other country singers. There’s this construction of a shared tradition. Before that I saw the same thing in hip-hop, just how much hip-hop is self-referential, how much hip-hop draws upon its own past, so it creates a past, it creates a sense of the past. And punk is the same way. There’s this shared history, these shared signifiers, a shared set of things by which you demonstrate that you’re a part of that world. So, all these symbols and stories of historical figures and traditions pull each other together and that’s how they create themselves and they create a bond with each other. So, on that level music can do everything that religion can do. I mean, it can even give you a sense of ethics. Before I got into punk as music, I got into punk as ideology. Because I didn’t listen to punk music, I hung out with punk kids who had a certain idea of how to treat the world and how to be themselves and define themselves that came from the music they listened to. And before that I found Islam through hip-hop— that was my exposure to Islam, that was my exposure to Malcolm X, was hip-hop. So yeah, music is everything that religion is. And beyond all that, just the immediate experience of shoving hundreds of people into a room and blasting them with the same emotions, the same emotional power, that’s a religious experience. It’s all the same chemicals in your brain.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about why Rabeya [a Muslim feminist] wears the burqa. Is that a signifier? A way to reject gaze?
I think it could be a lot of things. I think it’s her redefining that symbol, changing what it means. Back to making a pro-wrestling reference, when I was a kid the announcers would always talk about how masked wresters were psychologically advantaged because you can’t tell if they’re hurt or scared or angry. The masked wrestler doesn’t have a face, you don’t know what they’re thinking. So, there’s that element. There’s also the punk element of deliberately marginalizing the self, the punk element of scaring people, just putting yourself out in society. But stepping away from the character and thinking about myself writing, for a long time in my religions experience I really did feel that women were off limits to me in very meaningful ways. My particular religious experience did not allow me to see women as whole people and I wanted that. So Jehangir in the novel actually saw her face— he’s the only one— and there’s something mystical about it. He has this access to something that Yusef does not. Yusef’s not there yet, Yusef hasn’t grown to that place yet. So for me kind of writing as Yusef, I wanted to see Rabeya’s face and I wanted Rabeya to be fully human to me, but I still had some growing to do, just like Yusef had some growing to do.

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