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Islam, punk and questions

Hiba Siddiqui struggles with being a Muslim teen in America

November 19, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Hayasaki is a Times staff writer.

SUGAR LAND, TEXAS — The front door shuts with a thud, and Hiba Siddiqui heeds her father's footsteps, heavy from a day at work, plodding across the foyer downstairs.

Time to change clothes, Hiba thinks, peeking her face over the balcony to shout "Hi, Baba!" before rushing into her bedroom, brightened by lime green and tangerine bed covers, splashed with the words "I ROCK." A magazine photo of a punk band called Anti-Flag is taped behind her door.

Hiba slips out of the white T-shirt with black letters that read "HOMOPHOBIA IS GAY," which she wore to Kempner High School, where she is a junior. It's one of a collection of slogans the 17-year-old has silk-screened on T-shirts in her bedroom, unbeknownst to her parents, both Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.

There are other aspects of Hiba's life lately she thinks they might not approve of either, like the Muslim punk music she has been listening to with lyrics such as "suicide bomb the GAP," or "Rumi was a homo." Or the novel she bought online, about rebellious Muslim teenagers in New York. It opens with: "Muhammad was a punk rocker, he tore everything down. Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town."

This much Hiba knows: She is a Muslim teenager living in America.

But what does that mean?

It is a question that pesters her, like the other questions she is afraid to ask her parents: Can she still be a good Muslim even though she does not dress in hijab or pray five times a day? If Islam is right, does that make other religions wrong? Is going to prom haram, or sinful? Is punk?

Hiba loves Allah but wrestles with how to express her faith. She wonders whether it is OK to question customs. Behind her parents' backs, she tests Islamic traditions, trying to decipher culture versus religion, refusing to blindly believe that they are one.

"Isn't that what Prophet Muhammad did?" asks Hiba, raising her thick black eyebrows and straightening her wiry frame, which takes on the shape of a question mark when she stands hunched in insecurity. "Question the times? Question what other people were doing?"

Hiba's hunt for answers has led her to other books too. They line her bedroom wall next to copies of Nylon magazine, one with "Gossip Girls" on its front cover. There's "Radiant Prayers," a collection from the Koran, and "Rumi: Hidden Music," a Persian poet celebrated in parts of the Muslim world.

But lately it is the subculture of punk Muslims -- a young movement that has captivated many Muslim teens across the world -- that speaks most loudly to Hiba's confusion.

One day, Hiba typed the word "punk" into an online search engine and stumbled across a book by writer Michael Muhammad Knight. "The Taqwacores," a 2003 novel -- its title a combination of the Arabic word "taqwa," or consciousness of God, and "hardcore" -- is about a group of punk Muslim friends: a straight-edged Sunni, a rebel girl who wears band patches on her burka and a dope-smoking Sufi who sports a mohawk. The characters drink alcohol, do drugs, urinate on the Koran, have sex, pray, love and worship Allah.

Hiba related to the main character's take on his identity, in which the author wrote: "I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. . . . Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth."

Hiba devoured the book, passing it around to her friends.

On MySpace, she discovered Muslim punk bands that had adopted Knight's book as a manifesto. The bands used their lyrics to turn stereotypes upside down, speaking to a generation of Muslim youth in America who feel discriminated against by their non-Muslim peers, and not devout enough for fellow followers of their Islamic faith.

The punk rockers called themselves Muslims, yet they challenged everything Hiba had been taught about her faith.

She sent online requests to Knight and the bands, asking them to be her friends.

Hiba was 10 when the World Trade Center Twin Towers crumbled.

She learned terrorists crashed the planes. You know who did it? she remembers a Christian classmate, who knew Hiba was Muslim, asking on the bus ride to 5th grade the next morning. The terrorists, Hiba realized, were Muslims.

The jokes began. "Osama's mama." "Go back to your terrorist cell." "What are you going to do, bomb me?" By the time she got to high school, her Muslim friends had started using them against each other.

It all helped her relate to The Kominas, a band formed by two young Muslims in Boston after they read "The Taqwacores." They wrote songs like "Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay" and "Sharia Law in the U.S.A," with lyrics such as "I am an Islamist, I am the Antichrist," in response to fears among American Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Patriot Act.

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