Osama Van Halen
By Michael Muhammad Knight
Soft Skull Press, 2009
A curious thing happened to Michael Muhammad Knight in 2004: he published a novel that engendered an American Muslim punk scene. The Taqwacores (the coinage is a combination of taqwa, meaning “consciousness of God,” and hardcore) portrayed a group of devout misfits struggling to come to terms with their deviance and faith. There was a skinhead Sunni named Umar, whose hands bore straight-edge x tattoos and whose forearm was marked with the star and crescent; a perpetually stoned Sufi named Jehangir, who wore a mohawk and performed the call to prayer on an electric guitar from his rooftop; and Rabeya, a riot grrrl in a burqa who “jumped in front of the microphone at last night’s party decked out in full purdah to cover the Stooges’ “Nazi Girlfriend” through her niqab.”
For 250 pages, they parsed their identities at full volume, glibly mixing booze, drugs, and sex with the Qur’an, mosques, and the Twelve Imams, playing in punk bands and wearing their Doc Martens boots with green laces — a dated detail in line with Knight’s many mentions of the band Rancid (which is now playing acoustic sets, and whose members are pushing forty).
Knight’s apostasy of a novel found a sympathetic audience among some of America’s Muslim teens, and what started out as fiction became an odd reality, as a handful of self-described taqwacore bands formed across North America. Many of them joined Knight on a cross-country American tour in 2006 (see Deena Chalabi’s “The Taqwa Bus,” Bidoun 15). Last year one such band, the Kominas, released a critically acclaimed full-length album, Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay. Now a film version of The Taqwacores is in post-production.
In Osama Van Halen, his new novel, Knight cleverly turns the real-life spawn of his novel back into fiction, and inserts himself, as both author and character, into the world they occupy, the narrative sliding between fiction and memoir. All the while, he indulges himself in meditations on the persona he’s forged for himself: a freewheeling punk-rock provocateur who could have been John Walker Lindh but ended up being invited to conferences on progressive Islam and having his work taught at liberal-arts schools.
Osama Van Halen begins in a van, with the novel’s protagonist, a “skinny skid-row Shiite” named Amazing Ayyub, accompanied by Rabeya. The pair has kidnapped Matt Damon, pledging to kill him unless Hollywood agrees to begin portraying Muslims in a more positive light. (Damon understands their grievance but disagrees with their methods and needles them accordingly, telling them, “You must be aware that the Fifth and Sixth Holy Imams both opposed armed rebellion.”) In short order, Ayyub is abandoned at a gas station, and that story line is never really picked up again; the episodic plot expands centrifugally along the lines of Ayyub’s fictional misadventures and Knight’s real ones, occasionally joining the two.
Early in the novel, Ayyub decides to assassinate a breakthrough Muslim pop-punk group called Shah 79, a quest that prompts a journey to his (and Knight’s) hometown of Buffalo. Along the way, he encounters zombified Muslims at an abandoned mosque in the middle of the desert (he later finds out that a zombie epidemic has been unleashed by Bush’s favorite Islamic scholar, Hamza Yusuf, in order to quash dissent among Muslims). Knight interrupts the story here to recount the surprising popularity of The Taqwacores, and the bands that worship it join up with Ayyub to hunt zombies, play shows, drink tall boys, and make fun of the Muslim Student Association. Ayyub and Knight live in cars, smash shop windows, set off fireworks, have sex with underage girls, compare mosh pits to the Battle of Karbala, and, in a typically obscene coda, drive to Canada in search of a decent hand job.
However the narrative zigs and zags, the image of Knight’s lifestyle is what stands out most: punk-rock Islam, presented in comic-book form at times and in the style of a punk-zine-memoir at others. The cultivation of this style seems to be Knight’s preoccupation, one sounded by the epigraph to The Taqwacores: a poem by the author titled “Muhammad Was a Punk Rocker,” which depicts the prophet as a Galaga-playing, idol-smashing, chain-wallet-wearing, Rancid-listening rebel.
Knight’s thinking hasn’t evolved too much since then. Ayyub has little depth as a character but plenty of tattoos and scene cred; he is pure, dumb negation, despite his ostensible religious faith. Even the Mahdi is imagined as a punk icon with “spiked hair and a spiked jacket and green-laced Doc Martens.”
Knight wants his punks to be “Muslims of their own design,” but it’s unclear how faith functions for most of them, whether they want religious heterodoxy or just to rage against the restrictions of the culture they’ve inherited. Ultimately, his conception of faith is that of a refusenik, and his primary concern is how the rejection of authority shapes a subculture and sustains its members. Knight can’t articulate their desires nearly as well as he can articulate what they can’t stand; then again, the same goes for most teenagers, and Knight is more of a fellow traveler in a scene than an omniscient narrator plumbing the depths of its adherents’ psyches.
You might say Knight’s interest in heresy is akin to the Sex Pistols’ interest in profaning the image of the Queen; the sensational symbolism far outweighs any real threat posed to the social order. What is called heresy is in fact just profanity combined with delusions of grandeur. “Maybe,” Knight admits, “I’ve been into this whole heresy thing to avoid actually having an idea about Islam that I want to stand up for.” Which is itself very punk. One strips things down to three chords; one does not reproduce the symphony. The text of Osama Van Halen is a restless series of dissenting narratives and fragmentary thoughts, an energetic refusal to conform — without a great idea of what to put in place of the standard model.
In the end, it is Knight’s ironic understanding of his own position that redeems the novel. He tries to allay his guilt about the casual misogyny that mars the book by writing that he has received emails from Muslim girls who felt liberated by The Taqwacores — but then admits that he “panicked that if they grew into graduate-level feminists, they’d see through it all.” Osama Van Halen ends with the ultimate authorial act of self-abnegation, the sacrifice of Knight the character to the sword of Rabeya, the burqa-clad punk feminist, who derides his “post-9/11 fantasy camp,” calling him a “sand-wigger,” “Indiana Jones,” and “just another phallocentric orientalist.” Then, with Knight’s forbearance, she swings her avenging blade down on his neck, and we are relieved of the author — though we may still track down the Kominas on MySpace.