No One “Hijacked” Islam – Part 2

The Orientalist defines the Oriental.  This is but one way the late Palestinian-American activist and scholar Edward Said described the relationship of power and domination between the West (the Occident) and the East (the Orient); the Westerner (the Orientalist) and the Easterner (the Oriental).  Orientalism is still at work today as White supremacy defines the Muslim, the Arab, the Iranian, the South Asian, the African, the Asian, the Latino, the Native-American, the “Other.”

In my original post (part 1) in November of 2009, I critiqued the way Muslims and non-Muslims alike tried to defend Islam after the shooting at Fort Hood.  Though well-intentioned, many made the mistake of using a very problematic phrase:  “Islam has been hijacked.”  The extremists, they say, are the ones who made it worse for all Muslims.  The terrorists took over the religion of Islam and the only way to save the faith is if “moderate Muslims” take it back.

The problem with this narrative is that it functions to (1) justify stereotyping and demonization of Islam, (2) hold the vast majority of Muslims responsible for “properly” representing their faith, and (3) dismiss the racist double-standards that exist in our society, such as never asking a White Christian to answer for atrocities orchestrated by other White Christians, but always demanding a Muslim to do so.  The label “moderate Muslim” is not only assigned to us by the dominant White supremacist culture, but it also represents the way racist and oppressive systems define who we are.  When we use the term “moderate Muslim,” we internalize the West’s simplified categorization of Muslims.  As Hoda of “The Ruh of Brown Folks” described during an online discussion, “Muslims can be neatly divided into polarizing categories of ‘moderate’ (read: Uncle Tom Muslims who are friendly to US foreign policy and law enforcement officials) and ‘radical/extreme’ (which lumps everyone else together).”

Similarly, the phrase “Islam has been hijacked” implies that militant extremists represent the majority of Muslims when, in fact, they do not.  It also serves as a way to corner Muslims into exhaustively condemning and apologizing for crimes and murders committed by other people.  Imagine if someone approached a White person and asked, “Why haven’t you condemned the White supremacist who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in New York?  Are you an anti-Semite?”  Muslims are asked such ridiculous questions, along with “Do you support Al-Qaida?  Are you a terrorist sympathizer?  Why don’t you condemn Hamas or Hezbollah or the Taliban?”

These questions are asked because Muslims are viewed in a suspicious light.  These questions are asked because in the minds of many non-Muslim Americans, Muslims are not welcome here.  Last year’s Washington Post poll revealed that 48% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam.  While there are those who dismiss the disturbance of these numbers, the anti-Muslim rallies and rhetoric surrounding the incorrectly titled “Ground Zero Mosque”  are just a couple of examples of how rising Islamophobia surfaces in the United States.

But it doesn’t stop at hate speech.  Wednesday’s hate crime in New York where a 21 year-old non-Muslim White male, Michael Enright, repeatedly stabbed a Muslim cab driver after asking him, “Are you a Muslim?” reveals the danger of Islamophobia and how worse it’s becoming.  In light of this recent event, our time to constantly stress on why young White males are not being racially profiled is long overdue.  We should also  heavily emphasize on how “moderate White people”are not expected to condemn or answer for Enright’s attempted murder.  And while we’re at it, let’s mention the White man who flew his plane into an IRS building, as well as the White Christian militia group that plotted to assassinate police officers.

What of Timothy McVeigh, the Crusader language of Blackwater, and even the religious justification George W. Bush used to invade Iraq?  When was the last time you heard someone say “Christianity was hijacked”?  Or, what about the JDL (Jewish Defense League) former Chairman, Irv Rubin, and group member, Earl Krugel, who were arrested 3 months after 9/11 for planning bomb attacks on a Mosque in California and on the office of Arab-American US representative Darrell Issa?  Did anyone say “Judaism was hijacked” by these extremists?

The reality is that the phrase “Islam has been hijacked” is a product of White supremacy.  It is the dominant culture’s way of speaking for us, imposing its definition of  Muslims/Islam upon us, and implanting the idea that we are, indeed, inferior, inadequate, and subhuman.  Once we internalize the racist and hateful messages and start using them, the idea becomes normalized and spreads.  We have to unplug ourselves from the oppressive system and start defining ourselves.  Islamophobia, for instance, does not exist because a small number of Muslim extremist militants carried out attacks and atrocities.  Islamophobia exists because White supremacist culture does not make a distinction between the vast majority of Muslims and the small minority of violent extremists.  As I pointed out in this post, White Christians are not treated as spokespersons for their entire race or religion whenever members within their communities carry out acts of terrorism.

If others do not say “Christianity was hijacked,” or “Judaism was hijacked” or “Hinduism was hijacked,” then why are we, the 1.5 billion Muslims, expected to say that about our religion?  Like any religious group, Muslims need to challenge the problems within their community, but it doesn’t mean they have to conform to how others label us.  It doesn’t mean that we should ignore the double-standards of the dominant culture and never speak out against the demonization of Islam and Muslims.

The idea that a small group of people can take control of our religion is absurd and completely denies the voice that we as a majority have.  With that said, as the vast majority, let’s make it loud and clear:  No one hijacked Islam.

Smoke Screening President Obama’s War Crimes

Last Friday night, my Facebook news feed lit up with updates about President Obama’s support for the hotly-debated Cordoba House Islamic Center in New York. My Muslim-American friends, especially, applauded the President for his “bold leadership,” “preservation of American values,” and “defense” of Muslim civil liberties. Somewhere, amidst all the excitement of expressing how “grateful” and “proud” we should be of President Obama, Muslim-Americans and others forgot about the horror stories of US war crimes and complicities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine.

I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the Obama administration in previous posts and while I strongly support the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan, I remain astonished at the way many of my fellow Muslim-Americans and human rights advocates praise President Obama and stay silent about his policies overseas.

It is clear that the ugly and seemingly endless controversy surrounding the Islamic Community Center (incorrectly termed the “Ground Zero Mosque”) highlights on the disturbing prevalence and growth of Islamophobia in the United States. Due to the hate-mongering initiated by Islamophobic bigots and propagandists, an enormous body of literature, especially on the blogosphere, exists about what has become a nationwide debate. Muslim-Americans, inter-faith leaders, and representatives of anti-racist organizations continue to speak up and condemn the shameful anti-Muslim smear campaign perpetuated by right-wing Republicans and others.

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich recently called supporters of the Islamic Center “radical Islamists” and likened them to Nazis. Gingrich then went on and stated, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.” Equating the entire Muslim population with Nazis and radical extremists is more dangerous than it is insulting, as it undoubtedly fuels the Orientalist perception of Muslims being suspicious, untrustworthy, and the threatening “Other.” Carl Paladino, Republican candidate for the governor of New York, added to Gingrich’s alarmist assertions with the following ludicrous statement: “The Ground Zero Mosque is not about freedom of religion, as President Obama claims. It’s about the murderous ideology behind the attacks on our country and the fanatics our troops are fighting every day in Middle East.” His ignorant comments are reflective of the countless Republicans who have joined the hate choir in demonizing Islam and linking the religion with terrorism.

But this debate is not so clear-cut either. The so-called “Anti-Defamation League (ADL)”, which claims to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people” and “secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike,” released a statement in late July to oppose the Islamic Center’s construction. The announcement prompted Muslims and Jewish representatives from Mt. Airy’s “Shalom Center” to rally in support of the Islamic Center and condemn the ADL’s hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Democrats such as John Hall, Tim Bishop, and Mike McMahon oppose the project, calling it “insensitive” to the “families of 9/11,” as if Muslim-Americans are responsible for the attacks and didn’t die on 9/11, too.

With such ignorance and nationalistic xenophobia during a time when Islamophobia is becoming more and more deeply rooted in the hearts of non-Muslim Americans, it is understandable and correct for Muslim-Americans to expect their President to defend religious liberty. However, when Obama escalates military presence in Afghanistan, widens drone attacks in Pakistan, and fails to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes against the Palestinians, to what extent are we comfortable with praising the President while disregarding US atrocities? That is, have Muslim-Americans and self-proclaimed anti-racist/anti-war/anti-oppression activists become so self-absorbed that we exclusively care about our civil liberties and not the rights of those victimized by the Obama administration’s military campaigns in Muslim-majority countries?

Before discussing his international policies, I want to address what happened on Saturday, a day after Obama made it “clear” about backing the Islamic Center. The President told reporters, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a Mosque there.” Aside from wrongly describing the building as a Mosque, Obama once again revealed his attempts to appease both sides of the debate. Though he “supports” the right for Muslims to build an Islamic Center in the proposed location (which is not at Ground Zero), he refuses to endorse it. One must question why Obama doesn’t endorse the project? If he believes Muslims are not responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the association between “Islam” and “terrorism” is abhorrent, then why refuse to comment on the “wisdom” of building an Islamic Center? Also, why is the Islamophobia surrounding this controversy not addressed? Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah writes:

What the critics are engaged in is collective vilification, delegitimization and incitement against Muslims in the United States and they are doing it deliberately and for political purposes. This is what needs to be recognized and confronted and sadly I do not see the president or any other senior politicians in the United States doing that… Muslims may have the legal freedom to exercise their religion in the US — and they do despite increasing efforts to use laws and regulations to prevent the building of mosques — but what is that freedom worth if they live in a climate of increasing fear, vilification and hatred?

Abunimah also points out that the ADL’s Abe Foxman and even Sarah Palin did not challenge the right to build an Islamic Center, but certainly opposed the idea. Defending civil rights is important, but pretending that Obama has championed the exhaustive and heated debates against Islamophobes ever since this controversy started would be to overlook his vague remarks on Saturday, as well as the hard work of Muslim and non-Muslim activists.

At present, Obama is still upheld as the “anti-war President.” The constant promotion of Obama as someone who “understands” Islam, “reaches out” and offers a “new beginning” to the “Muslim world” replays like advertisement and it serves as a powerful tool to justify and conceal his war crimes. Surely, after citing Qur’anic verses, Persian poets, and Turkish proverbs, Obama must be helping the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan; he’s only killing the “terrorists,” right?

In June, United Nations human rights official Philip Alston urged the CIA to cease its drone operations in northwest Pakistan and accused it of potentially generating a “Playstation” mentality towards killing. In his report, Alston concluded that “CIA personnel could be prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted killings, and could also be prosecuted for violations of applicable US law.”

While exact numbers of Pakistani causalities vary, all reports agree the death toll is high. According to a study published in February 2010 by “The New America Foundation,” between 413 and 709 Pakistanis were killed in drone strikes in 2009, while 278-465 (and counting) were killed in 2010.  As Pakistani-British author and political commentator Tariq Ali states, President Obama has ordered more troops and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, than Bush ever did. Given that no evidence has been provided that these drone campaigns are actually working, let’s ask some human questions: How many of these hundreds are “terrorists”? How does bombing people promote peace and stability? Are people expected to forget the pain and trauma when their family members and Loved ones are bombed?  Is there really no expectation for retaliation?

In Afghanistan, the condition for Afghans, especially women, has worsened under US military occupation. When asked to comment on the controversial “Time Magazine” cover featuring an 18 year-old Afghan woman with her nose cut off, Afghan feminist-activist Malalai Joya stressed that the atrocity occurred under western occupation and that such violence has increased since the US invasion. Joya explained to reporters:

During the Taliban’s regime such atrocities weren’t as rife as it is now and the graph is hiking each day. Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example and cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghan people, especially women, are squashed between three enemies: Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops.

Along with Anushay Hossain, Joya condemned the US media’s exploitation of Afghan women, calling it an attempt to use the plight of Afghan women as an emotional propaganda tool to garner support for an unpopular war. RAWA News claims that Wikileaks published a document in March that outlined the CIA’s strategy to use the condition of Afghan women to counter opposition against the war in Europe and the US. Such images, indeed, provoke strong emotional responses, but if the US media wants us to really care about Afghan women, then what about the US soldiers that raided an Afghan home in February and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies? Will these images be published by “Time Magazine” or are the images only powerful when Afghans commit the atrocities?

Yet despite the predator drones in Pakistan, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the torture and prisoner abuse in Bagram, occupation in Iraq, and the silence on Israeli war crimes, protests against Obama’s wars and complicities aren’t nearly as large as the anti-war protests during Bush’s term. Why? Also, criticism of Obama is often shut down as “hateful,” “anti-American,” and “pessimistic” or “cynical.” As an anti-racist activist, I do recognize the ugliness of racism in our country and how a lot of White supremacists direct their rage at Obama, but my criticism of the President is based on the principles of fundamental human rights and anti-imperialism. It continues to surprise me whenever I encounter people who get incredibly defensive to criticism of Obama. There was one instance when a fellow Muslim told me, “If you hate America so much, then go back to your country! I’m an American, I’m proud of my country and my President!” Not only was I stunned to hear xenophobia from a fellow Muslim, but I also thought about how I heard similar remarks made by the pro-Bush crowd.

Dismissing, vilifying, or even censoring criticism of Barack Obama not only discourages diligent questioning of authority and our responsibility as human beings, but it also works a way to overlook the realities and consequences of US war crimes and complicities in the aforementioned countries. When I am asked, “Would you rather prefer McCain as President?” I find that problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it says Obama was the “lesser of two evils,” and secondly, it doesn’t encourage us to hold our leaders responsible for their wrongs. If we all elected Obama, then wouldn’t it be more productive to speak out against the war crimes instead of smoke-screening them? When someone challenges Obama’s policies, what is the point of getting overly defensive other than seeking to shut that person up? If we believe Obama is the “better President” or the “less racist President,” does that mean we should excuse the people murdered in his wars? Muslim feminist-activist Shaista Patel comments:

With a family in Pakistan, and friends in Northern Pakistan, some of whom have lost their loved ones to the US airstrikes, it’s hard to digest this ‘better’ Obama. I am not appropriating the pain of the people there by sharing this, but I am from there and I am from here too; invested in the hope of my President doing something for us but knowing full well that he’s killing my people across the oceans. We think that better times are here and that we have the support of Obama, a President much better than the last one, which Pakistanis, Gazans, Afghans and Iraqis will tell us is not the case.

Even worse, as I write this now, over 20 million people are suffering from the devastating floods in Pakistan. Mark LeVine of Al Jazeera English wrote a powerful piece yesterday that called for relief boosts in Pakistan and an urgency for Obama to call a ceasefire. Outraged at American and Pakistani officials for pledging to continue war in Pakistan, LeVine writes:

Over the weekend US missiles killed 12 people. Meanwhile, 19 American helicopters are currently involved in the rescue efforts. Precisely what kind of message does that send? “We are not going to give much to help you stay alive, but we will make sure to continue killing you during this time of greatest need.”

What is startling is how the Obama administration spends $12 billion a month to fight the Taliban. Compare that amount to the $460 million requested by the UN to help aid the 20 million Pakistanis. In other words, the money Obama spends on war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is actually 25-times the amount needed to aid Pakistan. When we know our government can help another nation in its time of desperate need, why do we not express outrage the same way we did when Bush was in office?

As Muslim-Americans, Islamophobia is a reality that confronts us at home and it is important for our communities and allies to speak out against it, but at the same time, if we really care about human rights, we should also condemn the war crimes committed by our government. Before we got over-excited about Obama wishing Muslims a “Happy Ramadan,” let us be conscious of the people being killed by US missiles, occupying military forces, and US-funded weapons, tanks and jets in Israel.  I do not deny that Muslim-majority countries are plagued by corrupt governments and aren’t doing enough to help their fellow nations, but since criticism of Obama from our communities is often marginalized, it is important we realize that the US military presence and intervention in the rest of the world is part of the problem, not the solution.

Real “change” means there is always progress to be made. Nothing changes if we stay silent.

Ramadan Mubarak

This post is a couple of days late, but I wanted to take the time to wish everyone a happy Ramadan.  May Allah fill this month with blessings for you and your families.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Muslim holiday, the month of Ramadan is when Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received the revelations of the Qur’an.  For thirty days, Muslims who are able will fast and refrain from food and drink, among other things.  Ramadan is the month of kindness, generosity, and humility.  Fasting teaches Muslims self-control, patience, and empathy for the lesser privileged people in the world.

Ramadan comes at a tragic and challenging time for many Muslims this year.  In Pakistan, over 1600 people have been killed in the recent flooding, while over 14 million people are affected by the tragedy.  The international community’s weak and sluggish response to the floods compared with previous disasters serves as a harsh and cruel reminder of how human beings are not valued equally in our world.  I remember during the Haiti earthquake, websites like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, and even Facebook applications like Cafe World had donation tabs and buttons to provide relief to the victims of Haiti.  In almost every grocery store I went to, customers were asked to donate to Haiti at the check-out counter.  Such awareness is shamefully missing for floods in Pakistan.

According to BBC news, aid agencies in Pakistan “have warned that many more people will die as floods inundate southern areas unless more international help comes.”  I was informed by a relative of mine in Lahore that 10% of Pakistan’s population is directly affected by the flood, while the rest of the country is indirectly affected.   It is admirable and heartbreaking at the same time to hear that Muslim flood survivors in Pakistan are fasting despite the devastation that has struck their homes, villages and cities.

During this month of inner reflection, let us be conscious of our privileges and mindful of those who suffer.  Let us reach out and help in any way we can.  Please donate if you are able to and please raise awareness about what’s happening in Pakistan.  Here are a couple of useful links for those who are interested in helping out.  Please share them with whoever you can.  May Allah give strength and healing to all.  Ameen.

1.  ATP Gives:  What are Good Ways to Help Flood Victims in Pakistan?

2.  Pakistan Flood Victims Need Your Help.

3.  Be a Relief to Pakistan.

Soul Twin

I wait for you.

Like a messianic prophecy
that will someday come true.

We existed together
before creation of the universe,
somewhere beyond ideas of time,
space and matter.

Elements we became,
stardust fallen from the heavens,
risen upon earth
in beautiful skin and bone.

Separate we are,
histories of our own,
yet sharing a dream
that sometimes seems
too far-fetched to understand.

I search for you.

Like mystics possessed by longing
for unity with God.

Deep in the city of my soul,
walking through the remains
of shattered dreams
and haunted memories,
the cold stare of phantoms
remind me of the battles
that were fought,
all of the pain and agony
that was endured.

There are whispers here
amongst the dark ruins,
voices that speak of the One,
a companion who will come
fulfilling a truth forgotten.

The roses I find in the dark
are signs of your presence,
I have not seen your face,
but I know you are here,
existing within me,
where I am also
within you.

Our souls overlapping,
walking, sometimes racing
towards one another;
journey onward, say the voices,
across the oceans,
the fields, the mountains.
Reunion is close,
slowly coming into view
like darkness fading to dawn.
Don’t give up, friend,
follow the signs
for they are rays of light
cast from the Beloved.

I breathe with you
and you with me,
reciting holy verses
to bridge distanced hearts,
like poetry we are,
music in perfect harmony;
Believe –
meld your flame with mine,
we’ll make a firestorm together,
fierce and passionate
like strokes of lightning,
flashing in their wild splendor,
lighting up the skies
for all eyes to see;
and like bursts of hot energy
shooting beams of fiery light,
we’ll strike the earth,
burning and melting the illusions
to set our prisoner-selves free.

We’ll wake from this dream-world,
and become crowned
on the throne of Love
in our transcendent reality.
We’ll enter the garden
and become whole again,
lit by the torch of Angels,
shining ablaze in our immortality.

Feel this union in meditation,
in a place where separation fades away;
only you can understand this magic
that drives the journey through.

Know that when I dance for God,
I am also dancing for you.

~ Jehanzeb