Punk Is Not a Crime (and Neither Is Islam)

One doesn’t have to sport a mohawk and listen to the Exploited to find this story utterly revolting. Still, since it was picked up two weeks ago, the millions of people who have had their lives touched by punk rock have found themselves not only moved but outraged. Rightfully so.

On December 10th, police in Banda Aceh, capital city of Indonesia’s Aceh territory, raided a local concert. Featuring several local punk groups, the show was held as a fundraiser for the area’s orphans; punks from all over Indonesia had reportedly travelled to attend. None of this apparently mattered to the police, who stormed into the venue with batons swinging. Of the 100 people in attendance, 64 were arrested and taken to a detention center 30 miles outside the city.

There, the 59 men and 5 women had their clothes confiscated: dog collars and chains, spiked belts and tight jeans. They were all given toothbrushes and ordered “use it!” by prison guards. After being taken outside, guards forcibly shaved off their mohawks and long hair; women were given a short bob. They were then bathed in a nearby lake before being subjected to “moral re-education” classes.

The Associated Press quoted one young punk, identified as 20-year-old Fauzan: “Why? Why my hair?” he said, pointing to his head. “We didn’t hurt anyone. This is how we’ve chosen to express ourselves. Why are they treating us like criminals?”

Banda Aceh’s Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, remained unapologetic, claiming the detainees were in violation of the region’s interpretation of Islamic law: “The presence of the punk community is disturbing, and disrupts the life of the Banda Aceh public. This is a new social disease affecting Banda Aceh. If it is allowed to continue, the government will have to spend more money to handle them. Their morals are wrong… This training will be an example in Indonesia of the reeducation of the punks.

Meanwhile, perhaps feeling the pressure of international scrutiny, Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf claimed the punks’ reeducation wasn’t so much for sake of Islam as it was for their own good. Speaking at Indonesia’s presidential palace, he told reporters that “the government needs to think of their future.” Insisting that most don’t have jobs or go to school, he asked “if they don’t work, what will they be?”

This flies in the face of what some of the detainees have told reporters. One anonymous punk from the Medan area of North Sumatra said he worked as a contractor at a bank. “I’ll probably be sacked for not coming into work for a week.” Nonetheless, Djamal has promised the raids will continue until all punks have been caught and reeducated — personal consequences be damned.

At the time of this writing, the Banda Aceh 64 are scheduled to be released on Friday, December 23rd. For their own part, the detained punks have remained defiant

Aceh is somewhat unique in Indonesia. After the 2004 tsunami, newly-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono brokered a peace deal with the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) that allowed for a relative amount of autonomy from the central government in Jakarta. Since then, the region has become Indonesia’s most conservative, embracing what governing politicians call “key elements of Sharia.” Adultery in Aceh is punishable by stoning to death, and residents fingered as gay or lesbian have been caned in public.

Persecution of music, however, isn’t as singular for Indonesian authorities. The 32-year rule of dictator Suharto (backed till the end by the US, of course) maintained a stranglehold on mainstream culture, including disappearances of dissident artists and musicians. When East Timor was occupied by the Indonesian military in 1976, traditional Timorese songs were banned. Bella Gahlos, a Timorese activist who fled the country in the early ‘90s, estimates that “thousands of people have been killed for singing these songs.

By the early ‘90s, not even MTV was allowed to broadcast in Indonesia (Suharto’s censors were notoriously paranoid of what they deemed culturally seditious). Nonetheless, songs from America’s “punk revival” began to seep through the nation’s archipelagic borders. It wasn’t too long until a growing number of bands began to spring out of an already vibrant underground rock community, armed with little more than a righteous sense of rage that had been pent up for way too long. Though still restricted to the extreme fringes of society, the burgeoning punk scene was an enthusiastic part of the revolutionary upsurge that overthrew Suharto in 1998. Says ethnomusicologist Jeremy Wallach:

Almost from the beginning, musicians in the Indonesian underground movement performed songs attacking the corruption of the Suharto government, even when it was dangerous to do so. Thus, although Indonesian punk is as politically divided as its western counterparts, it is not surprising that many Indonesian punks place their movement and their allegiance in the context of the struggle against Suharto.

Punks’ support for that struggle could indeed be dangerous. Rumor has it that during these uprisings there was an unofficial order for army and police to “shoot anyone with a tattoo,” so widespread was the counter-culture’s involvement.

Now, almost fifteen years after the end of Suharto’s rule, the Indonesian punk scene is the most vibrant in Asia and, according to some, among the largest in the world. Its beginnings might have sprouted initially from the import of America’s most mainstream groups (Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid). But since then its roots have deepened, and the movement has blossomed into one both uniquely Indonesian and organically interwoven with a global sub-culture motivated by a strong DIY ethic and profound distrust of authority.

A small handful of bands, like Bali’s Superman Is Dead, have gone on to a measure of international acclaim and signed to Sony Records (even while encouraging their fans to “steal” their albums). Others, like Jakarta-based Marjinal, have made a name for themselves playing entirely in Indonesia’s kampung (poor urban neighborhoods), giving their tapes away for free and teaching street kids how to busk on trains and corners.

Homeless youth are among the most neglected and abused in Indonesian society. Since 2001, Jakarta’s government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on “anti-poverty” initiatives that consist of nothing but hiring out local thugs to round up homeless youth and turn them into the police. Naturally, these types of programs have accelerated with the economic crisis. Given the popularity of the sub-culture among poor and working class youth, punks have found themselves frequently in the cross-hairs of such initiatives.

Mike, lead-singer of Marjinal,told a journalist for Time magazine in 2007 “Music gives these kids a way to survive, to make some kind of living… Punk, to me, is addressing the things that are rotten in society. It tells us that we have the ability to be independent and take care of each other.” It’s a spirit of camaraderie familiar to anyone who’s been in attendance at a local gig, be it in Milwaukee, Prague, Johannesburg or Tokyo.

Little wonder that the global punk community has rallied so fiercely around the Banda Aceh 64. When the Guardian and other major outlets picked up on the story, punk websites blew up in protest and solidarity. Propagandhi, well-known as a fiercely anarchist group for almost two decades (who also paid tribute to Bella Gahlos in 2001) was one of the first to release a statement:

In the past Propagandhi has received letters from people in Banda Aceh and all over Indonesia so any one of these people could be the same people who have contacted us… In the off chance that they might see this post I’d like to say to all the Punks who’ve been victimized by authorities in Indonesia that we, the members of Propagandhi, are supporting you and admire that you have expressed yourselves even at your own expense.

They weren’t alone.A petition supporting the kids and released on Change.org gained over 8,500 signatures in five days. Seattle-based Aborted Society Records has announced a “mix tapes for Aceh” initiative, asking people to donate homemade mix CDs to eventually be sent to Aceh. German band Red Tape Parade have launched a similar campaign, urging their fans to send them not just CDs but ‘zines, records, shirts, pins and anything else for support.

Already, demonstrations and actions by local scenesters have taken place at Indonesian embassies and consulates in London, Moscow and Los Angeles. And in Jakarta, the Bendera Hitam punk collective protested outside the Aceh representative’s office.

Almost as troubling as the events in Banda Aceh has been the reactions of some here in the western world–specifically the anti-Muslim bigotry that they’ve attempted to promote. Mainstream media, including the AP and Guardian, have emphasized the religious fundamentalism of Aceh’s government, meanwhile failing to provide a wider context.

For the most part, there’s been little mention of the vibrancy of Indonesia’s punk scene, its class characteristics, or the long history of harassment its endured, even in more moderate regions. And while questions are asked of Aceh’s governor, there don’t seem to be any questions asked about why the US continues to give support to a government guilty of such flagrant violations of cultural rights.

Instead, the problem is made out to be one of Sharia law, and, in turn, Islam. This has suited the “stop Islamization” crowd just fine, most of whom couldn’t care less about punk rock. Unfortunately, while many of these professional Islamophobes may be on the extreme right of the political spectrum, their ideas have become common currency, even in parts of the punk community.

PunkNews.org, an otherwise apolitical site who have nonetheless done an excellent job reporting in solidarity with the kids in Aceh, have been the most obvious example, albeit briefly. The site’s initial post on December 13th made the assertion that not just Aceh but all of Indonesia was under Sharia — a factual error. The editors were quickly called on it, and two days later they retracted that portion of the post. Even more disheartening, though, was that they linked to Robert Spencer’s reprehensible “Jihad Watch” blog.

Spencer, who many will surely remember from his role in the hate campaign against the “Ground Zero mosque” earlier this year, never misses a chance to smear Islam as a religion of hate. Though he obviously cares not an inkling for the right to cultural expression, he inevitably released a story on Jihad Watch entitled “In Aceh, Sheena is not a punk rocker.

Spencer may be smiling at the supposed cleverness of such a title (I happen to think it’s a bit cheap and obvious). His editorializing, however, is nothing but pure bigoted vitriol:

Aceh is a case study in how creeping Sharia works. It gets a foot in the door with promises of moderation, tolerance, and limited applications… As its proponents gain confidence, enforcement of Sharia becomes more aggressive and intrusive on private behavior, because, in truth, Sharia is a comprehensive system of governance for every aspect of human life, and knows no compartmentalization of public and private behavior… Muhammad’s well-known antipathy toward musical instruments can’t help.

One might wonder which part of his own ass Spencer pulled this argument out of, but it’s hard to tell with his head still up there. He is willfully oblivious to the similarity his description holds with any form of religious fundamentalism, and to how such extreme ideas are more a tool of state repression rather than the root. Look, for example, at how the Christian fundamentalism of John Ashcroft and George W Bush ran perfect cover for the crimes at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

Spencer also deliberately ignores that what we have come to refer to as “Sharia” was, for most of its history, a set of clerical guidelines for living and governing rather than a political dogma. Deepa Kumar, in a recent article on political Islam, distinguishes: “While the clergy insisted that the potent rule society in a way that conformed to Sharia law, they viewed their role as censures of a bad ruler rather than rulers themselves.”

In other words, religious ideologies are bent to political agendas; not the other way round. As for the assertion that Muhammad hated musical instruments, it’s groundless. While zealous sects have interpreted it as such over the past hundred or so years, most mainstream Islamic scholars are in agreement that it was only vulgar songs that were proscribed; what counts as vulgar is open to interpretation. Muhammad was known to have musicians play and sing at his wedding.

The editors of PunkNews.org never responded to an email calling them on the inclusion of the link to Robert Spencer’s blog. They did, however, sever the link the next day. Once again, this is to their credit. However, if a reputable punk site can link to a blog like this without thinking twice, it reveals just how deep Islamophobia runs through post-9/11 America.

What makes this so especially tragic is that there is a brilliant history within punk of fighting bigotry. The very existence of a thriving Indonesian punk scene proves that it long ago ceased being a “white boy thing.” Back here on this side of the pond, there are punkers of every race and creed — from the Afro-punk movement to Chicano and Latino communities to yes, even Muslim punks.

Tanzila Ahmed, a Los Angeles activist and writer, lays it out straight up. “In America, being Muslim is an act of defiance,” says Ahmed. “That’s punk.” Ahmed, or “Taz” as she prefers to be called, runs the Taqwacore Webzine.

For the uninitiated, “Taqwacore” is the name for the movement of openly Muslim punk rockers that has taken hold over the past decade in North America. Since writer Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2002 novel The Taqwacores, the scene has coalesced around bands like Al Thawra and the Kominas. In 2010, director Omar Majeed released the documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, currently making the rounds at festivals around the world.

In a commentary on the site, Ahmed puts her identity, her faith, and the idiocy of both the Aceh “Sharia police” and American Islamophobia, all in perspective:

My baptism wasn’t by lake water but by fire, avoiding the glares of Christian fundamentalists with their barking dogs on the street corner protesting outside my American mosque, or being pulled out by TSA in airport security lines. My Islamic baptism happens when I watch my back for hate-crimes when walking down the street defiantly brown in a white America or when I get told by drunk bigots at parties to go back to where I came from. My boycott these days is of a hardware supply store for not supporting a reality show. That is the American Muslim punk baptism right there.

Taz’s experience — absorbing the sneers of a repressive society bent on shoving you into a box — isn’t unique among punks. And it’s certainly not unique among Muslims. It could justifiably be said that Taqwacore kids bear a double burden. One of the most poignant and enraging scenes in Majeed’s doc is when a Detroit club cancels a Taqwa gig, claiming they’re wary of “the Muslim thing”.

It goes without saying that the righteous indignation that Spencer spewed out against the raid in Banda Aceh doesn’t extend to the kids who have their shows shut down thanks to anti-Muslim bigotry. Neither for the punks thrown in prison in Indonesia’s more “moderate” provinces, squatters evicted from viable homes in London’s St. Agnes Place in 2005 or the countless gigs shut down by cops every year in Europe and America.

For the most part, the response to the arrests in Aceh among punks in the west has dodged this kind of blatant anti-Muslim bigotry. Even before PunkNews.org severed the link to Jihad Watch, people who left comments like “Fuck Islam. If I could put a picture of Muhammed [sic] here I would” were quickly rebuked by several other visitors to the site. Perhaps that’s because the instinct among punks — that repression is repression is repression — continues to ring true. And with it the time-honored suspicion of well-dressed people with cowardly ideas.

In the midst of all this, it’s worth stepping back and asking why, thirty-five years after the Sex Pistols first called Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” on national television, despite so many attempts to sanitize and market it, punk can still be a threat. Indeed, how is it that this culture hasn’t only refused to fade into oblivion, but found its niche in almost every nation on the planet?

Ultimately, it’s because amidst the crumbling economic casualties of corporate globalization there continues to be a vast, pulsing mass of human beings sick of being pushed to the margins. The flip-side of that coin, then, must be that these indignant many deserve to run the world for themselves — be they black, brown or white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist. It’s a dream that throughout history has been called a utopian pipe dream. But then, is there anything more punk than making the impossible possible?

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.