No Justice

Today, the so-called US “justice” system found all ten of the “Irvine 11″ Muslim students “guilty” on misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting a speech delivered by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine  in February 2010. Two days ago, Troy Davis, a black man accused of killing a white police officer, was murdered by the State of Georgia, despite the overwhelming doubt surrounding his guilt.  A day later, activists highlighted on a 2008 case where a white man and confessed murderer named Samuel David Crowe was pardoned by the same Georgia Parole Board only hours before his scheduled execution.  I am utterly disgusted by the racism evident in these cases.

Some are saying these are sad days for the American “justice” system, but the disturbing reality is that racialized and economically disadvantaged people are constantly targeted and victimized by the system. According to a 2009 report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black men had an incarceration rate of 4,749 inmates per 100,000 US residents, a rate more than six times higher than white men (1,822 inmates per 100,000 US residents).  Black women, with an incarceration rate of 333 per 100,000, were over 3.6 times more likely to have been in prison than white women. Amnesty International research, as reported by Colorlines, shows that death sentences are more likely to be handed out when victims are white. This repulsive racist double-standard can be seen in the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, where a white cop, Johaness Mehserle, shot an unarmed black man and only served less than one year in prison.

In the Irvine 11 case, the horrible criminalization of these students only occurred because they were Muslim.  The Islamophobia engrained in mainstream American politics, media, and society only creates a larger obstacle for the students who were non-violently protesting and speaking out against something the US President never dares to do: Israel’s war crimes, genocide, and sexual violence against Palestinians. Sami Kishawi of “Sixteen Minutes to Palestine” contends that another verdict was reached in the Irvine 11 case:

The court’s decision complements traditional American policy towards Israel and its supporters. The excuse that Israel is forever under existential threat has embedded itself within the framework of the Constitution of the United States. First Amendment rights are no longer guaranteed if an individual is tried for being on the wrong side: for not supporting Israel’s policies in the Middle East, its occupation, its abandonment of the most fundamental form of justice, or its perception of public nonviolent dissent as institutionalized death-wishing festivities. So in a very obvious sense, the verdict is that Israel’s interests stand above the right to express, to speak, to engage, and to openly challenge the injustices confirmed by Oren’s words.

It would be a terrible mistake to overlook the connection between US-Israel complicity in the violence committed against Palestinians and the way Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and others are demonized and discriminated against in the United States.  Defending the rights of Muslims in the United States is intertwined with the struggle against the war machine that needs propaganda, racism, and sexism to fuel and justify its imperialist projects.  White supremacy makes it awfully challenging for the white non-Muslim mainstream to identify with the Muslim students who protested Michael Oren’s speech, regardless of how courageous and admirable they are.  Israel, Michael Oren, and the Zionist supporters are the white heroes in this masculinist narrative, where they are depicted as “victims” of the “dark” and “barbaric” invaders.  They’ve asserted themselves as upholders of “democracy,” freedom, and equal rights for all, especially for women, whereas the “dark” male villain is the over-sexed, savage, and destructive one.  Through racialization, the Muslim, no matter how outnumbered or oppressed, is cast as the “dark Other” who is the mortal enemy of the white hero.  As bell hooks describes:

The notion, originally from myth and fable, is that the summit of masculinity – the ‘white hero’ – achieves his manhood, first and foremost, by winning victory over the ‘dark beast’ over the barbarian beasts of other – in some sense ‘darker’ – races, nations and social castes… In our actual lives the imperialist white-supremacist policies of our government lead to enactments of rituals of white-male violent domination of a darker universe, as in both the Gulf War and the most recent war against Iraq. By making it appear that the threatening masculinity – the rapist, the terrorist, the murderer – is really a dark other, white male patriarchs are able to deflect attention away from their own misogyny, from their violence against women and children.

When the entire Muslim community is demonized, the Irvine 11 students are not seen as human beings.  Their “foreign” cultures and religion are “backwards” and “oppressive,” and the only hope they have is for western imperial masculinity to “liberate” them and force them to “assimilate.”  They are “foreign” bodies from societies that behead, torture, veil, molest, and rape men and women, whereas western society is “civilized,” “liberating,” and “free.”  Concealed from this racist socialization is the way Israel and the United States constantly carries out bombing, murder, sexual violence, and economic exploitation against racialized bodies outside and within their borders.  Consider Anushay Hossain’s point about the way Afghan women are used as “emotional tools” in US propaganda to justify its military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The US claim is to “liberate,” but there is nothing liberating about bombing, shooting, and raping Afghan women.

The point here is that US and Israeli war crimes are tied to their domestic State violence and corrupt “justice” systems.  If nations are willing to mercilessly and shamelessly kill, torture, and rape other human beings around the world, then what’s to stop them from targeting their “own” citizens?  What’s sad and quite unsettling about Troy Davis’ case is that he was not a victim of an “unfortunate mistake” nor was his unjust execution an “isolated incident.”  The problem is with the so-called criminal “justice” system itself.  Racialized communities, particularly Native and African American communities, have been long victimized by police brutality and other forms of State violence that is ignored, dismissed, and/or sanctioned by the criminal “justice” system. Troy Davis himself pointed this out in his message to supporters:

There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.

Indigenous women in particular have long fought and still fight the “justice” system’s complicity in the injustice they face. As pointed out by Andrea Smith, Native anti-violence advocates have reported that rape cases rarely reach the federal courts.  Smith elaborates further:

Complicating matters, cases involving rapes on tribal land were generally handed to the local US attorney, who then declined to prosecute the vast majority of cases.  By the time tribal law enforcement programs even see rape cases, a year may have passed since the assault, making it difficult for these programs to prosecute.

Smith also talks about the negative reputation police officers have in Native communities due to countless cases of police brutality.  When law enforcement and “justice” systems are not only suspect of communities of color, but also violent, discriminatory, racist, and sexist against them,  how does it expect to build trust?  I already mentioned the NYPD and CIA infiltrating and spying on Muslim communities in my previous post.  The injustices we have seen in this week, as well as the oppression we are being informed about by brothers and sisters in other communities, should prompt us to challenge the criminal “justice” system.  When cases for Troy Davis, Irvine 11, and others are fought, it is not only a fight against their injustices, but also against the racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc. that infects the system and society at large.  Andrea Smith proposes restorative justice efforts which “involve parties (perpetrators, victims, and community members) in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness.”

While I am saddened, disturbed, and angry by the injustice this week, I took a moment to think about all of the people who went out to demonstrate, to protest, to support, to Love, to cry, and to pray.  As I checked the updates on my phone from work, I saw that other people were doing the same. I noticed all of the people on my Facebook posting status updates and messages of support for Troy Davis and Irvine 11.  When I saw pictures or read reports of people crying after the unjust verdicts, I cried too.  It is that longing and drive for justice that connects us.  The solidarity is heartening and to know that other people feel the same way is important. To know that these people and your friends will always fight is important.

May Allah, the Most High and Compassionate, help us unite our struggles and grant us all justice.

The Hate I Will Never Forget: A Decade After 9/11

I know it’s been more than two months since I’ve written a blog post.  I didn’t even write anything for Ramadan or Eid!  How did that happen?  I had a dream the other night where a friend asked me why I haven’t been blogging (it’s that serious, I guess).  She then quoted something by Michel Foucault and I was quite surprised.  “Foucault?!” I exclaimed dramatically in a coffee shop (not Starbucks, I swear). “You read Foucault?!”  I don’t remember the quote and I doubt it was an authentic one since I haven’t read much of his work, but before our conversation continued, a man in the café recognized me and decided to say “hello.”  He turned out to be one of the racist teachers (yeah, “one of”) I had in high school.  I woke up remembering how, after 9/11, everyone in that class laughed when he shamelessly said Arabs “looked all the same with their mustaches and turbans.”

As today marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, my Facebook news feed has been buzzing with articles that highlight on the experiences of Muslim-Americans after 9/11.  Despite how outspoken the incredibly vast and diverse Muslim-American community has been, much of our stories still haven’t reached the mainstream. The ugliness of Islamophobia that followed the attacks isn’t something new to us, but what disturbs me is how anti-Muslim sentiments and bigotry has increased over the years. Correlating with this rise of Islamophobia are the US Orientalist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as its complicity in Israel’s ongoing atrocities against the Palestinians.

As I read the post 9/11 accounts of Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and others, I reflected on my own experiences and thought about sharing them here.  Because this post focuses mostly on my personal experiences, it might be a little different than what I typically write on my blog.  Having said that, I don’t pretend like my encounters with racism and Islamophobia are worse than the experiences other Muslims (and those who are perceived to be Muslim) may have had.  It saddens me to point out how many have been detained, deported, physically assaulted, and/or lost their Loved ones in hate crime murders.  While I am strongly against “blaming-the-victim” politics or accusing people of “victimizing themselves,” I do wish to make clear that I don’t write this post out of self-pity nor do I think my story is “unique” or “different” than what other Muslims may have experienced. If anything, I simply wish to share what I have experienced and how my life has been shaped by those experiences.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was working on my algebra assignment (shout out to Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi!) before class started.  The whole morning, teachers were saying ambiguous things like, “Today is a sad day for America,” and, of course, when students asked what they meant, no one bothered to answer.  Finally, when my algebra teacher announced what happened to the World Trade Center, a classmate next to me shouted, “Is it those damn Palestinians again?!  They should be wiped off the face of the earth!”  I remember feeling my heart drop at that moment.  Just as I was thinking about how horrible the attacks on the Twin Towers were, I felt attacked with racism.

I kept quiet and before I knew it, my mom came to pick me up from school.  She was in tears and told me that the nation was “under attack.”  When I asked her why she took me out of school, she told me that she didn’t want anyone to beat me up.  I realized then that Muslims were already being blamed by the media for the attacks.   In the following days, I heard racist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments from students and teachers alike. Growing up in a predominately white non-Muslim American suburb, racism wasn’t anything new to me, but it seemed to get more hostile after 9/11.  When I found the courage to speak up and defend myself after someone called me “Osama” during volleyball, he pushed me in the locker room and challenged me to a fight.  I never fought anyone before (hmm, except my brother when I was little), so I was completely caught off guard. The gym instructors were there to break it up before anything happened.  While my classmate shouted profanities and racial slurs at me, the gym teacher said to me, “Just ignore him.”

There were several occasions when I openly called classmates out on their racism and in all cases, except for one, the teacher scolded me.  When I told one student that he was being racist for saying he wanted to “dress up like an Arab” for Halloween, I was sent to the school counselor’s office.  When I asked why I was being sent there, the teacher said, “I just want to make sure you’re ok.”  I didn’t understand, but I went anyway.  The school counselor asked me questions like, “Do you have any friends?  Are you lonely?  Were you born in the United States?”  When I told the school counselor that the Islamophobia after 9/11 was bothering me, she denied that such as thing was happening.  She said, “I think people are learning more about your culture. I don’t think there’s hatred at all.”  I never went back again, despite the number of times I was given “appointment cards” to visit her.

Like some Muslims I know, I lost friendships after 9/11.  Many of these friends I grew up with and knew since elementary school.  If I wasn’t losing friends, my friendships with them were fading to where they are now: rare contact via text messaging or awkward run-ins at the mall.  When I tried to speak about Islamophobia, I was given a defensive “I’m-offended-that-you’re-offended” attitude.  “Proof” was demanded about hate crimes committed against Muslims (because if the news didn’t report anything about it, it apparently didn’t happen).  “Colorblind” arguments were also made, claiming that they didn’t “see skin color” (despite the concurrent acknowledgment of me being a racialized and religious minority).

When I first experienced Islamophobia at my university (a faculty member posted racist political cartoons about Muslim suicide bombers outside her office), I told one of my white friends that I was going to file for discrimination. He replied, “You can’t do that, it’s freedom of speech!” The fact that my friend, someone who I knew since 6th grade, couldn’t support me (or at least empathize with me), because of his politics was difficult to deal with.  When I confronted this same faculty member alone, she admitted that she was “anti-Muslim” and, as I walked away, she said to her colleague, jokingly, “If I don’t take it (the cartoon) down, I’m going to get blown up!”  I yelled at her when she said that and I was kicked out of the office.  A random professor in the hallway shouted at me as well, even though he didn’t know what happened.

As I became more assertive of my religious identity, some accusations were made that I was being “led on by pride” and I was given holier-than-thou, Pat Robertson-style lectures on “Love.”  If I got angry at the man who shouted “Go back to Iraq” from the car next to me, it was because I didn’t have enough “Love” in me.  If I felt angry about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was because I didn’t “Love” enough.  It started to feel like I needed to self-monitor myself in friendships because my conversations about Islamophobia were seen as “politics.”  It was as if talking about Islamophobia and racism meant to be “confrontational.”  So, I had to forget I was Muslim and choose the “neutral” or “safe” topics, i.e. the stuff we usually talked about: “Star Wars,” the Philadelphia Flyers, movies, um, extra-terrestrials, etc.   But Islamophobia wasn’t “politics” to me.  It was/is my reality.

For a while, I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to.  I wrote a paper in one of my psychology classes on hate crimes and discriminatory acts committed against Muslims and I remember breaking into tears one night because I felt like my community and faith was being so unfairly and wrongly targeted. As my first semester of college went underway, I noticed a flyer posted on one of the outdoor bulletin boards on campus.  It was an announcement for the Muslim Student Association’s first meeting.  I was excited, but also shocked by the realization that I had never had a close Muslim friend.  When I made my first Muslim friend and got to know other Muslims, as well as South Asians and Arabs, it was nice to feel a sense of community.  I didn’t have to educate or enlighten anyone about the anti-Muslim climate we lived in. We all knew it.  I could talk about the media’s one-sided story on Palestine and my Muslim friends would be like, “Yeah, duh. Where have you been?”

I thought Islamophobia would die down after a few years, but as I got older and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq escalated, the anti-Muslim bigotry in the US got worse.  Experiencing discrimination in the workplace both times was unexpected.  Being called a “terrorist” by a customer and then being blamed for it by my employer lost me my job.  Fighting for my rights was emotionally draining the first time as it was the second time. Even though I had the help of civil rights organizations and was relieved by the outcomes, the stress, the frustration, and the way others treated me is hard to forget.

When I wrote more papers on post 9/11 experiences of Muslim-Americans, I heard stories worse than mine: Vandalism, physical assault, being spat on, workplace discrimination, detainment, deportation, etc.   I read about hijab-wearing Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and beaten on their walks home; I read about young Muslim teenagers beaten by a group of men wearing brass knuckles; I read about Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim fathers being shot and killed at their business stores; I read about Muslim women and men being denied jobs because of their Muslim names; I read about Muslim students being bullied and harassed at school, etc.  The internet, particularly social media, allowed me to connect with people who had similar and, sadly, far more painful experiences than I had.

My romanticized ideas of the “Muslim ummah” faded in time when I saw the problems that exist in our community, including the sell-out Muslims who “play the game,” work in collaboration with the State, and are complicit in victimizing their own people.  As I networked with more Muslims and people of color, I was introduced to the works of Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith and African-American feminist bell hooks.  I became more conscious of the interconnectedness of oppression, which I’ve written about before on my blog.  What I noticed among Muslims (and people of color in general), is that many of us are complicit in the oppression of other groups. When Muslims are praising Thomas Jefferson for holding the “first iftar” at the White House, for example, we are ignoring Jefferson’s hand in slavery and genocide against other peoples, namely Africans and Native Americans (and there’s overlapping there as well since a significant portion of African slaves were Muslim).  Similarly, as Andrea Smith points out, when indigenous people try to escape economic exploitation, they join the military and become complicit in the colonization of other groups (Iraqis, Afghans).  Understanding the interlocking nature of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of oppression means that we all take responsibility and work towards a reciprocal commitment that values the liberation of all people.

So, ten years after 9/11, as I reflect on the tragedy of that day, I am also thinking about the difference in the way people value human life due to racism and war.  September 11th will prompt many white non-Muslim Americans to post status updates to remember the victims – and that’s fine – but not a word is said about the unjust murders of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc. when the anniversary of their tragedies are marked.  At the same time, I reflect on some of the Muslim-Americans who participate in “victim-blaming” and/or fail to see how US imperialism and war crimes “over there” are connected to the struggles we face over here.  In other words, what can the State powers do for you when they’re bombing other Muslims in Muslim-majority nations (which kill, torture, and rape racialized bodies as we speak)?

Ten years later, I’m looking at Yahoo’s front page which has the same question glaring at me for days: “Are we safer?”  Um, no.  We cannot be safer when the NYPD and CIA illegally infiltrates and spies on Muslim communities.  We cannot be safer when bashing Muslims is normalized, or when hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims increase annually while US politicians use anti-Muslim rhetoric to win votes.  We cannot be safer when $43 million are pumped into an Islamophobia hate machine while counter-terrorism seminars and training programs teach military personnel and law enforcement that “Islam is a violent religion.”

Ten years later, I’m wondering why we are expected to know where we were on 9/11, but not expected to know where we were when the US killed over 1 million Iraqis and Afghans, or when Israel bombed Gaza and killed over 1,400 Palestinians.  I’m also wondering how we’re told to honor the firefighters and police officers who died on 9/11, but aren’t given details about the Muslim firefighters, the Muslim police officers, or even the Muslim victims who also died on 9/11.  A dichotomy is in effect when we have to keep reminding people that, yes, Muslims died, too.  And if we’re going to honor and value all human beings, we need to eradicate the racism that poisons these narratives.

I know that Muslims and people of color still struggle against racism, sexist oppression, classism, etc.  I do worry about the future and I think a lot needs to be done.  Rather than telling people to “just ignore” racism, we need to take initiatives for healing. There is a lot of pain and hurt in experiences with racism, and people respond to racism in different ways. Some people are able to laugh it off while others take it to heart.  It can get more dangerous when people internalize the racism they hear and start to believe they are “inferior.”  You cannot expect someone to get over a situation overnight; it needs to be a gradual and compassionate process.

I have received patronizing comments from some non-Muslim colleagues who say, “Love is the answer” or even something like, “Jehanzeb, you write some of the most beautiful poetry, but then you let this Islamophobia stuff get to you.”  Well, I’m sorry I can’t be the New Age mystical Sufi dude 24/7, but I am human.  Muslims, believe it or not, have good days and bad days just like everyone else.  I find Love through my faith, which has been a source of comfort and healing in my life.  But Love is not only a word, it is action. When Muslim teenagers are getting bullied and are too afraid to tell anyone because they either will feel weak for reporting it or feel as though the teachers and faculty members aren’t trained to help them, they need more than talk of Love. They need Love that is compassionate, conscious, active, understanding, and persistent.

In closing, if you say you Love all people and see one of your friends being discriminated against or hurt by racism, then reach out and make an effort to see things through his/her perspective.  Rather than resorting to “colorblind” politics and saying “we are all the same,” recognize that all of our experiences are different based on our race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.  A white non-Muslim telling me that “we have the same experience as human beings” does nothing but erase the struggles I have had as a Muslim and person of color.

As I wrote earlier, I don’t intend for this post to be a “victim narrative” nor am I looking for self-pity.  I am grateful for the friends I have in my life, alhamdullilah.  I know my experiences have made me stronger and taught me to stand up for myself.  Not everyone can say that about their encounters with bigotry, sadly, and rather than telling people what they need to do, we need to be more active and compassionate in helping them heal.  I’d like for my experiences to be understood instead of being dismissed as “anger” from a “dark Other.”  I’d like for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, to work together and move towards eliminating oppression not only in the world, but also within ourselves (as racism, sexism, classism, etc. is taught to us by society).

Anyway, if you are a non-Muslim reader who doesn’t have regular contact with Muslim friends, I suggest clicking “like” on the CAIR Facebook page so you can keep up to date with what happens in our community.  I do hope you get to read the stories and experiences of other Muslim-Americans as well.  Until my next post, I’ll be trying to figure out what that blasted Foucault quote was!