“South Park” Controversy and Wearing America on Our Backs

When Aasif Mandvi, the Muslim-American correspondent on “The Daily Show,” was asked to comment on the threats made against the creators of “South Park” for depicting the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a bear costume, his frustration was not unfamiliar to most Muslims, especially those who are also citizens of the United States.  Even though the character in the bear suit was revealed to be Santa Claus at the end of the show, Mandvi explained to viewers that, yes, insensitive cartoon representations of the Prophet do offend Muslims, including himself, as do ridiculous and reactionary threats made against the creators of “South Park.”  Mandvi then rose to his feet and turned around to reveal a suit with a large American flag printed on the back.  “I don’t like walking around wearing this suit,” he said.

Like many Muslims I’ve spoken to, I do take issue with how mainstream and popular western media is blowing this story out of proportion.  What I find highly significant to point out is how the threats against “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone came from 5-10 individuals who, according to Ahmed Rehab of CAIR-Chicago, “are widely reviled by the mainstream community for their radical and confrontational style including harassing Muslims outside mosques (where they tend to be banned) with outlandishly provocative anti-American rhetoric.”  This is not to say that the threats shouldn’t be taken seriously, but why are media outlets like CNN treating these few extremists as representative of the entire Muslim community?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper called the internet threats against the “South Park” creators “chilling” and even resorted to unpleasantly familiar Islamophobic rhetoric:

A threat against the creators of “South Park,” a warning from a radical Islamic group, right here in America, right here in New York, that they will end up dead because of a cartoon…

Note how Cooper emphasizes on “radical Islamic group” being “right here in America, right here in New York,” as if to promote fear and mistrust of fellow Muslim-American citizens.  He continues:

We live in a country which prides itself on its freedom of speech, in which we can say whatever is in our hearts, in our minds, as long as it’s not threatening to someone else– as long as it’s not calling for violence against somebody else. Now, you might not like South Park the cartoon, you might think it’s offensive, you might decide it’s not something you want to watch– that’s up to you. But the notion that some radical Islamic group in America would make a threat, even a veiled one, against two men’s lives because of it is chilling. And for the people making this threat, that is precisely the point– to chill discussion, to chill debate.

Not only does Cooper fail to mention that the threats came from a few Muslim extremists, but he also speaks about the “radical Islamic group” as if it is a massive and growing terrorist organization seeking to “Islamize” American society.  Cooper is not incorrect when he describes intolerant individuals as people who want to chill discussion and/or debate, but instead of bringing voices from within the Muslim community on his show, he invited radical Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Why?

Hirsi Ali spewed out her usual nonsense, hate speech and lies about Islam, going as far to say that scripture – Islam itself – told Muslims to kill anyone who criticized the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad.  It is absolutely appalling and insulting that Anderson Cooper would exclude Muslim voices on his show in favor of someone whose sole agenda is to fuel fear and hatred of Islam.  At one point, Cooper asks Hirsi Ali why Buddhists didn’t make the same kind of threats when Buddha was mocked on the show.  The implications are disturbing — that there is something inherently violent in the religion of Islam; that people of other faiths are “superior” and never make threats or commit violent acts.  With such inflammatory attitudes and ignorant generalizations, how is Cooper any different from the people he accuses of wanting to chill discussion and debate?

With this in mind, it is crucial to recognize that the stigmatization of Muslim-Americans, which Aasif Mandvi alluded to in his suit display on “The Daily Show,” is not and should not be seen as the result of a few extremists making threats against the creators of the show, but rather as a result of Islamophobia. In other words, it is society’s inability to distinguish between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and the marginalized extremists that generates stigma, fear, mistrust, discriminatory acts, hate crimes, and so on.

This is one of the many reasons why I do not like when some Muslims say, “Islam has been hijacked by extremists,” or “the extremists are giving Islam a bad name.”  These are expressions that we have internalized from non-Muslim politicians, pseudo-experts, and certain social commentators who, no matter how well-intentioned, are oblivious to our experiences as Muslims in the west.  I find it difficult to imagine that “South Park” never received death threats before, but when it’s from some extremist Muslims, it is widely reported in the news.  Would media coverage be the same if 5-10 unpopular Christian extremists made the internet threats?  Would people say, “Christianity has been hijacked by these extremists,” or “They give us Christians a bad name?” to the effect that every Christian is stigmatized and expected to answer for the actions of a few?

In any case, the reality is that many Muslim-Americans are pressured to “prove their loyalty” in the United Sates.  It gets to the point where it feels like we are wearing American flags on our backs (or stapled to our foreheads on some occasions).  And a lot of Muslims have come out to speak on the “South Park” controversy.  Zahed Amanullah, Arsalan Iftikhar, and Imran J. Khan have all published their opinion articles on Guardian, the CNN website, and Elan Magazine respectively (I’m sorry if I missed others).  Wajahat Ali even wrote a brilliant satirical piece on AltMuslim.

However, the question is:  Is anyone listening to us?

Ephemeral

This outer form you call beauty
is of this transient, ephemeral.
This body, this face
is made of dust.
It will all blow away,
each and every particle,
swirling into the wind
like radiant leaves
departing in autumn.

Youth will fade someday,
along with the rest
of these material forms;
even the earth
is just a marble
made of sand.

Know this soul, I pray,
as destiny’s breeze
calls me to fanaa;
remember this smile,
as pieces of me scatter
into floating, evanescent stardust.

I, like you, will slowly vanish
until I am nothing
but a soul risen to promised Elysium.

There, I will find reunion
with You, my hidden Lover.

Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress

A lot of people need to calm down about this subject. Whether it’s among non-Muslims, Muslims, or fascist Islamophobes in Europe and North America, there seems to be a growing obsession with Muslim women and the way they dress.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event as part of “Islamic Awareness Week” hosted by a local university where a panel of three Muslim women shared their personal experiences and views on Islam and modesty. Two of the women wore hijaab (headscarf) and one didn’t, which apparently, I’m sorry to say, seemed enough to draw controversy.

In the Q&A discussion, a young Muslim man said something that made me take pause and then realize how utterly offensive and repulsive his comment was. He argued that the Qur’an is “not spiritual,” but rather “practical,” especially in regards to hijaab because, according to him, “the hijaab is supposed to cover a woman’s neck and I admit, when I see a woman’s neck, I get attracted.” I smiled and looked at one of the panelists, a friend of mine, who also smiled at the absurdity of his comment. I followed up by tossing the panel a question that was set up for my friend to spike the young man’s comment: “I am sick and tired of men telling Muslim women how to dress,” she said boldly. She included both the Muslim men who impose hijaab/niqaab/burqa on Muslim women and the Islamophobes who are hell-bent on banning these styles of dress.

I am familiar with the young man’s views on hijaab and modesty. I used to say similar things myself. I would see Muslim women wearing tight shirts, jeans, and no hijaab, and I would judge them in my thoughts: “Look at how she’s dressed and she calls herself ‘Muslim’?” Then I would gripe to my Muslim friends, both female and male, about how “westernized” Muslim women are becoming. I remember coming across Muslim women wearing hijaab and tight jeans and thinking how hypocritical she must be. And the reason why my Muslim friends and I were so upset about this was because such manner of dress drew lustful and sexual gazes from men. In other words, I believed that, for the most part, Muslim women were responsible for the “uncontrollable” sexual urges of men.

It was always a Muslim woman’s fault. If some ignorant non-Muslim playfully tugged her hijaab in the computer lab, it was her fault because she gave him the liberty to be that free with her. If a man was checking her out, it was her fault because she didn’t choose to wear a long shirt. Unfortunately, I find this sexist mentality to be very prevalent in Sunni orthodoxies, especially among Muslim men. The disturbing thing, in my opinion, is how I thought that everything I believed about Muslim women, how they should dress, and how they should behave was not sexist, but actually liberating because it taught Muslim women how to be “real,” “respectable” women.

Over the years, I learned that it wasn’t about liberating women. It was about controlling them and molding them the way *I* wanted them to be. The way a lot Muslim *men* want them to be: obedient, passive, soft-spoken, sensitive, reserved, etc. In my mind, it was improper and sacrilegious for Muslim women to even flirt with a man, to even make a mentioning of sex, to even have male friends. Why? Because with this sexist, over-controlling, and uber-conservative mindset, it is always about sex.

ALWAYS. ABOUT. SEX.

Why can’t Muslim women be friends with men? Because there is a chance of sex. Why can’t Muslim women laugh or smile at a man? Because one of them might be thinking about sex. Why can’t Muslim women and Muslim men shake hands? Because they might get so turned on that they’ll rip each other’s clothes off and start having sex. Oh my God, if I hear a woman give the azaan (call to prayer), I’ll start thinking about sex because a woman’s voice is attractive and alluring. Oh no, we can’t take the partition out of the Mosques, the women and men won’t be able to keep their hands off each other. As if there’s a high risk of a giant orgy or something. That sounds practical.

And it’s not that sex is a bad thing — it’s not — but when it’s used in this hyper-sexual context to control the way women think, behave, and dress, it becomes something very dirty. Extremely dirty (see the paragraph above). Over time, this made me very uncomfortable because on one hand, Muslims would stress so much on “modesty” and not seeing each other as sex objects, but ironically, that is exactly what we were doing: sexually objectifying each other. The young Muslim man at the event who said he gets attracted by a woman’s neck is talking about her as a sex object, as if her body is so tempting that he cannot resist it, hence she must cover up. It also made me wonder if he had any idea how disgusting and sexual his comment was, considering that the majority of women (Muslim and non-Muslim) in the room had their necks visible? What is he saying, that he is thinking about each and every one of them sexually? And that if his mind is flooded with sexual thoughts, it is their fault?

This needs to stop. Muslim men need to stop examining Muslim women like lab specimens and instead, turn inward and look at themselves. It’s like blaming a rape victim and saying “she was just asking for it” because of the way she was dressed. Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men tell me, “Oh brother, look at the way Muslim women dress these days. They have no dignity, they don’t care about the Sunnah or Islam.” Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men point out a Muslim woman and say, “Look at how she’s wearing tight jeans” or a “t-shirt” or “not even wearing hijaab.”

My response is: So? Let them dress however they want. Look at you, I say sometimes to certain Muslim men, you’re wearing a muscle shirt, you don’t think you’re showing off your skin or that women can’t get attracted? How can you look into a person’s soul and judge them based on what they are wearing? The Qur’an talks so much about humility, yet so many of us are quick to make judgments about a person’s faith, as if we have some authority to do so. I have known Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab and are more religious/spiritual than I am. I have known Muslim women who wear hijaab, but hardly know anything about the Prophet’s life (peace be upon him). This doesn’t mean one is better than the other. The way a Muslim woman dresses should not be seen as reflective of her faith.

As a Muslim man, I tend to stay away from this topic of how Muslim women dress only because I see so many other Muslim men arrogantly giving lectures, writing books, and dictating in Mosques about how Muslim women *should* dress. Where are the lectures, books, and sermons that tell men to keep themselves in check? Why is there this sexist double-standard and attitude that Muslim women cannot be attracted to Muslim men either? Where are the imams and religious leaders who say, “If you’re getting turned on by a woman’s neck, that is your problem because *you* are seeing her as a sex object?” The truth is that Muslim men can have sexual thoughts about Muslim women regardless if they’re wearing hijaab or not, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. If a man feels distracted by sexual thoughts, it is not because of the way Muslim women are dressed, it is because his mind has wandered off in that direction. He should not blame a Muslim woman for his issues, he should turn inward and deal with it himself.

There is nothing wrong with desire and attraction. We are naturally attracted to each other as human beings. It is the way God made us and Islam does not teach celibacy, but rather to fulfill our desires in responsible ways. I am not saying we should see each other as sex objects, I am saying we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that yes, you may see someone in the Mosque or at an MSA event that you are attracted to, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts are “evil” and “impure.” How can we talk so much about marriage in Muslim communities without also talking about attraction, physical and non-physical? There is such a thing as Love and marriage where people find their partners beautiful and attractive, and don’t view/treat one another as sex objects.

We need to stop obsessing over the way Muslim women dress because it continues to lead to many problems that exists in our communities today: awkward and often hypersexualized gender interactions/relations, stigmatization of non-hijaab Muslim women, sexism and misogyny, and even problems in relationships/marriage, among many other things. If we really care about God’s Love and Compassion, then why make others in our community — people we are supposed to consider our spiritual sisters and brothers — feel like “bad” or “deviant” Muslims just because they don’t dress the way *we* want them to?

Why not express our compassion by accepting each other for who they are, treat everyone equally and refrain from making judgments? Isn’t that what humility is about?

The Flying Carpet Fallacy

Talking about Islamophobia in the United States can get tricky.  Similar to discussions about racism, raising awareness about Islamophobia often result in fallacious flip tactics, where the ignorant non-Muslim fellow turns the tables and accuses you of being divisive, confrontational, and even racist.  This reaction occurs, I believe, because such discussions about racism and prejudice not only address social problems that we’ve been largely conditioned to think are “not real,” or “not as prominent,” but also generate the perception and fear that you are trying to create conflict.  And people don’t like conflict, especially about these issues.

I’ve noticed a pattern when talking with certain non-Muslim individuals about this issue (and they may or may not be Islamophobes; sometimes they’re actually well-intentioned, but just misinformed).  You may be talking to them about Islamophobia and the struggles of Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America, but their responses often mystify you because they’re completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about.  They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical, racist, and exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world.”

It goes something like this:

Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week in the banquet room, you should come!”  The colleague, Person B, lights up with excitement, “Awesome!  I Love research, what’s your project on?”  Person A replies, “It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.”  Person B’s smile fades.  “Oh,” he says.  Person A shares a bit of information from her research, but then Person B shifts the focus of the conversation and says something like, “Hey, it’s not as bad as the way Christians are persecuted in Arab countries!”

Before she knows it, Person A finds herself on a flying carpet and sent to some random Muslim-majority country.  It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute, how the heck did I end up here?!  I was talking about–” and then she gets dragged into a discussion that wasn’t even what she was talking about in the first place.  But she is not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, she is sent to an orientalist fantasy of the “Middle-East,” which only exists in person B’s imagination — a flawed imagining of  “Arab countries” that is consistent with the stereotypical and often racist discourse perpetuated about Islam and Muslims in mainstream American media.  Person B is poorly equipped with the knowledge and experience to hold an intelligent discussion about Islamophobia and Muslim-majority countries, and his magic carpet takes you to a place that blurs the distinction between Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Turks, Afghans, and the various nations and regions they belong to.  That is, what he terms as “the Muslim world,” is simply a single entity in his mind, sort of like an “Indian shop” I know in a nearby suburban town that sells Middle-Eastern and South Asian clothing, belly dance outfits, and plays Far Eastern and New-Age music over the radio for customers.  Yeah.

But Person A may also run into Person C.  Unlike Person B, Person C is quite informed about the social and political dynamics of certain Muslim-majority countries and has actually traveled to one or two.  However, he resorts to the same fallacy, but only after showing off his “credentials” first.  Regardless of how intelligent and articulate he may sound, he still makes the error of using comparative arguments to negate the experiences of the initial group (Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America).  This is why Person B and C Love using the flying the carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for you to come back.  The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed.  You may have heard variations of these flying carpet fallacies before when talking about Islamophobia in western media and society (feel free to add to the list):

1.  “Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!!” (real comment)

2.  “However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.” (real comment)

3.  “You cannot be a real Muslim and a feminist.  The true representation of Islam is to kill the infidel and oppress women.  Just look at the Middle-East.” (real comment)

4.  “Try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!” (real comment).

5.  “By the way, in my knee-jerk American way, I have to say, I am so sorry you are discriminated against here, but have you any, any idea how even Pakistani Christians are discriminated against in Pakistan?” (real comment).

6.  “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby.  It’s a damn movie.  I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too” (real comment).

If you encounter Person D, then you’re really in for it.  Person D is the Islamophobe.  Person D hates Person A solely because she is Muslim.  Prepare to be taken to a place where bearded, scimitar-wielding mullahs chase non-Muslims around from dusk till dawn, where a man wakes up early in the morning and then decides to strap a bomb to himself because “the Qur’an told him so,” and where oppressed, veiled Muslim women await their White non-Muslim male saviors to liberate them (depending on Person D’s ideology, the savior for the “Muslim world” may not just be Western civilization, but also Jesus, peace be upon him).  Person D is only concerned about demonizing you and your faith; there is no compassion in his heart.  Person D wants to get under your skin and is so hell-bent on vilifying Muslims that he often comes looking for you, whether on your blog, Facebook page, at CAIR events, or even in your classroom.  If I were to describe Person D theatrically, he’s the guy with the sword shouting, “Fight me!”  There is no point in wasting your time with someone who spends the lot of his time reading hate-literature just for the sake of using that propaganda to argue with Muslims and bully them.

The key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, whether it’s used by Person B, C, or D, is to (1) not get dragged into their orientalist fantasies and (2) bring the conversation home.  One can also refute the fashion in which the said Persons use their comparative arguments and then bring the discussion back to your original point.  Countering this fallacy does not mean that you reject, deny, or ignore the real problems that exist in Muslim-majority countries, whether they concern minority groups or the rights of women.  The point is that comparative arguments by Person B, C, and D are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.

Often times, when discussing race, we hear people say, “Racism exists everywhere, no matter where you go in the world!”  Yes, it does exist everywhere, but that does not make everything “ok.”  The statement behaves as if it is futile to do anything about it and that we should just “not talk about it.”  Similarly, when we talk about Islamophobia and someone responds with a point about minority groups being mistreated, stigmatized, or persecuted in a Muslim-majority country, the implication is that (1) it’s worse “over there” for “people like me” and (2) Muslims should be “more grateful” to “be here.”  If we’re going to talk about Islamophobia in the US, then let’s keep the conversation centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Muslim-Americans.  The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country.  Neither topic is “more important” than the other;  discuss them separately and individually instead of comparing.

Bring the discussion home.  Don’t get on the magic carpet.  Take it home with you and use it for fun stuff.  But be warned, when you emphasize and stand by your point, the person using the fallacy may get impatient, frustrated, and even rude with you.  He may start hurling insults and personal attacks at you (especially true for Person D).

Stay calm and don’t get discouraged.  Because when someone demonstrates their inability to engage in civil and mature discussion/debate, they simply expose how ignorant and close-minded they really are.  It is my hope that in most cases, raising awareness about Islamophobia doesn’t result in personal attacks and racism, but in dialogue and understanding.

Peace.