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Islam, punk and questions

Hayasaki is a Times staff writer.

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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

For Hiba, being Muslim and growing up in Texas came with its share of confusion, long before Sept. 11, 2001. When she was in kindergarten, she remembers telling kids it was against her religion to say the Pledge of Allegiance. She didn’t know why, she just figured it was. Hiba sensed she should not ask such questions of her parents.

About 170,000 Muslims live in the Houston metropolitan area. Hiba and her family live 30 minutes from Houston in Sugar Land, population 80,000, named after the Imperial Sugar Co. They have a two-story brick home with a basketball hoop, a double-car garage, and a tan minivan out front.

It is the largely conservative hometown of Tom DeLay, former Republican House majority leader, as well as Norm Mason, former chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition. It boasts a thriving oil industry, which employs Hiba’s dad as a petroleum engineer. Her mother is a resident in a psychiatric studies program in New York who flies home on her breaks and weekends.

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Hiba’s school, Kempner High, has 2,700 students, with an almost equal distribution of white and Asian students, including Middle Easterners, and about 20% Latinos and 16% African Americans. The school’s Muslim Students Assn. boasts nearly 100 members and meets every Friday.

Hiba did not start attending MSA meetings until recently. She wears the head scarf during prayers, but when they’re over, she takes it off. She thinks there must be other Muslim students at Kempner High who feel conflicted, like her. That is why a few weeks ago, she decided to run for MSA president.

“I just want to reach out to them,” she says, gazing through rectangle-framed glasses. “And let them know it’s OK to be confused.”

It is a Friday in late May, and voting in the MSA elections will begin after school.

The girls giggle, scrubbing their feet in a large silver sink in the bathroom, adjusting their head scarves in the mirror. They saunter into a science lab across from room 827, which smells like formaldehyde. Biology students dissected pigs today.

Hiba arrives late, carrying her speech typed on a sheet of paper ripped in half, marked up by pen.

“Anyone got an extra hijab?” a girl shouts.

Two girls without scarves pull the hoods of their sweat shirts over their hair. Hiba wraps a tan flowered scarf around her head and sits cross-legged in the third row of girls, as the boys kneel in rows in front of them.

The room falls silent. A boy’s hum rises to a loud chant. “Allahu akbar.” God is great.

After the prayer, the candidates are given 30 seconds to speak.

“OK, um Hiba Siddiqui?”

Hiba rises, and holding her speech, she takes a breath: “Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. So, as female president I hope to accomplish that.”

Polite clapping follows Hiba back to her seat.

The last female candidate gets up to speak. Her name is Shuruq Gyagenda, and she is 17. She recently moved to Sugar Land from Atlanta. The only African American Muslim female student in the room, Shuruq is coolly confident, standing tall in her canary yellow head scarf, long green-printed skirt and high heels.

“Do you all know T.I.P.?” Many students nod, familiar with the Atlanta rapper. “I don’t listen to his music anymore,” Shuruq says, “but in one of his songs, the first verse is: ‘Do it to the maximum.’ And the prophet Muhammad said: ‘Whenever a Muslim endeavors to do something, he seeks to perfect it.’

“They’re basically saying if you want to do something, you have to perfect yourself, from within, and from without. So, if I’m voted president, I will do my best to serve you in the best possible manner . . .”

Her speech receives the loudest applause of the day.

After school, Hiba thinks about Shuruq’s words. Hiba does not feel perfect inside yet. She still has work to do, questions to ask.

At home that evening, the warm smell of roti bread cooking on a griddle drifts into the living room. Hiba crouches on a rug next to her mother, Samina Siddiqui, 47, who is elegantly draped in a lavender and violet-colored shalwar kameez, the traditional trousers and tunic.

They are a mother-daughter mirror, both barefoot, waves of black hair shrouding their shoulders, examining each other through eyeglasses. Siddiqui has just returned from New York for a visit. Hiba tells her about the MSA speeches. She will not learn the outcome of the votes until next week.

Siddiqui admits she seldom discusses Islam with her children. They are smart, Siddiqui says; she trusts they will find their way.

When it comes to Islam, Hiba says, “Sometimes, I feel like scared to ask.”

“Who are you scared to ask?” Siddiqui says.

Hiba pulls back. “Just anyone, like family in general.”

“Oh.”

Hiba tries again, this time bringing up “The Taqwacores.” The book, she tells her mother, is “centered around this one Muslim. He’s kind of like the average kid, his parents want him to be an engineer and he comes from a good family. . . . “

Siddiqui nods.

“And then he goes to live at this house because of school and the house is full of, well, they call themselves Muslims.”

Siddiqui raises her eyebrows.

“And they do things that are,” Hiba pauses, giggling uncomfortably, “they do things that are considered, I guess you could say, bad. But deep down inside they have really strong faith, strong beliefs.”

“I want to read this book,” Siddiqui says.

“It’s supposed to be shocking,” Hiba says. “It doesn’t mean I live like they do. They do things that are inappropriate.”

Her mother looks startled, as if she has just been allowed to peek inside her daughter’s barricaded mind: “Are you confused?”

“Sometimes I feel confused.”

“OK,” Siddiqui tells her. “Talk about that. Talk to us.”

“I will,” Hiba says, feeling guilty for assuming her parents would not listen. “I do want to be more open.”

“Sometimes it gets mixed up, what is religion, what is culture?” Siddiqui tells her. “But I just want you to be a good human being.”

Summer break comes and goes. Hiba travels to Pakistan for three weeks, and then to New York to visit family.

Standing beneath the lion’s cove at the Bronx Zoo a few weeks before the beginning of her senior year, something about her is different.

Hiba lost the presidency to Shuruq and received another position. But since then, Hiba explains, she found herself. Shuruq taught her what it means to be devout.

“When people look at her they see a Muslim,” Hiba says. “I don’t know if I was ready to be the face of the MSA.”

Hiba says she knows now that she is a Taqwacore. But the term born out of Knight’s book has taken on a new meaning for her too. She could never bring herself to rebel like the characters, and despite the reverence she has for the lifestyle, she is not a punk.

“I’m not in-your-face. I don’t have a mohawk,” Hiba says.

“I think a Taqwacore can be anyone who is trying to find their own way.”

Hiba has decided to pick which Islamic traditions to follow. After returning from Pakistan, she started praying five times a day.

She reads the Koran for guidance, remembering a proverb: “Whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks.”

Hiba has spent much time trying to figure out who she is. But in those moments when it is just her and Allah, Hiba knows.

In a sense, Hiba has always known.

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com


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