Fire Under Water


Their cold-hearts cast you out.
Here, beneath motionless skies
where all that would shine
is tinted in monochrome.

The taste of winter air
slithers into your lungs
and exhales as a trembling sigh –
cold smoke falling from your lips,
curling downward and vanishing
into icy waters.

Thousands of books
are sinking in this ocean:
mistranslations, romanticized histories
distorted facts, lies against humanity.

Pages too ashamed to show their faces,
longing to tear themselves out of binding;
black ink too ashamed of the words it was forced to write,
longing to drain its blood into non-existence –
both welcome death at sea.

You watch from the shore
shivering in the arcane chill;
the world still bleeds,
the sound of violence echoes from afar,
bombs, gunfire, voices crying out –
the roar of this distant thunder
growling louder like an oncoming storm.
You mourn for all those nameless, faceless people;
those who were called friends, Lovers,
mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters:
their last breath lingering in the air you breathe.

Tears begin to flow;
your black funeral cloak
blowing in the wintry breeze,
unfurling like a banner
with grieving strokes of poetry
painted in red upon its flowing cloth,
reminding that mystery we call ‘soul’
about Karbala’s tearful tragedy.

O broken spirit,
listen to the drumbeat in your heart
throbbing like the tabla
harmonized with ecstatic Qawwali praise,
a song for martyrs is taking flight.
Feel that unseen being within
pounding like a relentless hammer
at the exit door of your chest –
screaming to break open,
pleading to be seen,
to escape this lonely chamber.

The music strikes like lightning,
like a firestorm erupting in your veins,
hot sparks bursting in your blood –
pulsing chaos in fiery crimson –
electric currents charging through skin,
igniting body into mystic fire.

Burning rhythm
possessing you in its divine rapture,
locking you in its surreal magnetism;
your arms spread, palms open,
calling energy from heaven and earth;
your head swinging in euphoria
the wind racing through your hair –
everything is spinning round,
spin with it, O friend!
whirl in the direction of Mecca’s pilgrims!
slam your bare feet onto the ice
crush this frozen glass, melt this misery,
dance upon cool waters
and watch steam ascend.

The music leaps to your lungs
and escapes, bursts into a desperate cry –
a voice so passionate and fierce,
wailing in all of its agony,
crying out for Creator, for that One,
for peace, for reunion;
crying out for justice –
to drown out the hell that is war,
to blast every drone out of the sky,
to halt every soldier on the battlefield,
to lock every weapon in eternal ceasefire,
to blot out the lies and have truth revealed;
a cry so loud and raging –
to wake up the masses,
to shatter the colonial implant in our minds,
to demolish the pillars of supremacy,
to smash every spy camera invading our privacy,
to cut the plug that wired us to this machine.

You want to charge, you want to march onward,
but an icy tentacle from the ocean below
wraps around your legs –
in a swift, violent tug
it pulls you under.
Suddenly, all this heat
is swallowed again by winter.

Frozen blades pierce into your body,
shattered glass cutting into your skin;
all of your thoughts flooded
by cruel, crashing tides.
You fight to swim skyward
as you sink deeper
into this sea of lies –
desperate hands stretched, reaching
for anything to hold,
anything to survive.

Your thoughts call out to Creator,
begging for answers, praying for a hand
to reach down below.
You have fought this battle before,
but the hatred, the violence, the apathy –
the waves are too powerful now.

Just when you think this is the end,
a small, radiant orb of light
descends towards your begging hands
Remember, dear heart, it says,
God is in the darkness, too.

You have sung so many ghazals of sorrow,
spent so many days grieving separation,
wept so many tears for the Friend,
sought so many answers to erase your fears;
I have listened, I have understood –
I am Here.

O faithful follower,
feel this warm breath
wisp across your face,
God wants you alive.
You will not drown
in this death before death.

Catch this eternal flame,
place it in your heart,
and I will set you ablaze.
Become on fire for Me,
shine like Zulfiqar;
burn, glow – in all of your beauty
as fire under water.

~ Jehanzeb

Remembering Malcolm X


Malcolm X was assassinated on this day, February 21st, in 1965.  Like so many people in the world, Malcolm X’s life and commitment to social justice has had a profound impact on my life.  Although Malcolm’s legacy has received recognition in the mainstream, including a 1992 film directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, there is still a great misunderstanding about who he was.

There are still many who go as far as to vilify and demonize him.  Mainstream narratives about the civil rights movement still persist in creating a simplified dichotomy between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr.  The former is regarded as a “black supremacist” and “extremist,” whereas the latter is commemorated as the “peaceful” and “moderate” civil rights leader.  This distortion of history not only vilifies Malcolm, but also de-radicalizes Martin Luther King Jr. and co-opts his legacy for the ruling class.  It is very telling when you see white supremacists quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to justify discriminatory policies that work to silence and criminalize anti-racism.

One of the things that always bothered me about the “X-Men” was how the writers describe the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier as analogous to the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  The first “X-Men” film put Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” quote in the mouth of Magneto, the villain mutant, and most recently, Michael Fassbender admitted that the lives of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the story of “X-Men: First Class.”  As much as I could relate to the struggle of the mutants in “X-Men” and saw parallels with Islamophobia (especially in “X-Men 2″), the comic book writers and filmmakers constantly make the mistake in comparing Malcolm X to Magneto, a murderous mutant who wants to violently exterminate all humans.  Many have criticized this offensive allegory and rightfully so.  Anyone who delves into the biography of Malcolm X will know that he never killed anyone nor called for the “annihilation” of “white people.”  Advocating for self-defense, perhaps where Malcolm was misunderstood the most, does not mean one advocates violence.

Even in narratives that commemorate and revere Malcolm X, there are problematic “universalist” statements made about his life. He was a racist, they say, but then he went to Mecca and “saw the light,” i.e. he realized he shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  Indeed, when Malcolm went to the holy city of Mecca to perform his hajj, the experience had a profound impact on him. In his famous letter from Mecca, he admitted with humility and sincerity that his interactions with white Muslims, as well as the spiritual knowledge he learned, caused him to “re-arrange” his thoughts. Malcolm still recognized the system of white supremacy and reality of institutionalized racism against African-Americans and other people of color.  To accuse Malcolm of being a “racist” is irresponsible, as it erases the history and reality of racism in the United States, which Malcolm writes about in the letter, too.  Others choose to “water down” Malcolm in this narrative and many have argued that the Spike Lee film didn’t go far enough.  Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture stresses on how the film didn’t depict Malcolm’s visit in Africa and the Middle East, his meetings with African, Arab, and South American leaders, or his anti-Zionist politics.  She also points out that Lee received pressure from Hollywood producers because they were particularly concerned about showing Malcolm’s support of the Palestinians.

Being selective about Malcolm’s life and only focusing on his “post-Hajj” years is to overlook Malcolm’s complexities and how his life journey carries such a meaningful message about self-criticism, among other things. He was committed to learning and, unlike the political “leaders” in the world today, was not afraid to admit his mistakes.  There are still things we need to be critical of, however.  Similar to how bell hooks critiqued Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Aime Cesaire on their male-centered language, the same needs to be said about Malcolm X.   Writing only about male experiences with oppression perpetuates sexism, as it ignores and erases the experiences of women. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”

I remember when I took an entire class on Malcolm X, the professor, an African-American woman, critiqued Malcolm’s sexist logic throughout the semester and reminded us that much of Malcolm’s legacy has been shaped and defined by men. Malcolm was a strong advocate of women’s education, but many of his  attitudes towards women were also restrictive and rooted in distrust. My professor also spoke a lot about the women who played a significant role in Malcolm’s life, including his wife Betty Shabazz and his mother and sisters who taught him “the importance of race pride and self identity.”

I do find Malcolm’s sexist logic to be in line with traditional patriarchal attitudes that we can find in all communities. In his autobiography, Malcolm explains that Islam teaches true Love because the beauty of the person is found within, not on the outside.  I believe this is true, but the stereotypical gender roles were also present in Malcolm’s interpretation.  As a young Muslim man, I saw Malcolm’s leadership, politics, and courage as an example that was exclusive to men.  I viewed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a similar way. That is, men alone needed to be leaders and role models, whereas women were “followers” and “looked up to us.”

Critiques about masculinity and sexism in Malcolm’s life are important; they have been and are addressed by black feminists and activists. In other narratives, a lot of non-black Muslims try to isolate Malcolm as a Muslim and only a Muslim while ignoring African-American struggle. Through this process, Malcolm’s racial identity gets erased and he becomes an appropriated icon – this appropriation, under the assumption that all marginalized communities “share” the “same” oppression, only contributes to anti-black racism. Although I am not African-American, Malcolm’s speeches about not being ashamed of your skin color or where you come from resonated with me very strongly at a young age. My experiences as a South Asian-American are not the same as African-Americans, but Malcolm’s words helped me see important parallels of internalized racism within my community and, most of all, within myself.

There is a lot to appreciate, admire, and respect about Malcolm. Unlike so many today, he was not afraid to speak his mind and speak truth to power.  He didn’t worry about the way others perceived him and he didn’t change his words to please political parties or the white mainstream. He told it like it is.  Criticizing some of his sexist attitudes does not negate his anti-racist work or his advocacy for women’s rights, but rather keeps us critical of social justice struggles and how we can learn to strengthen efforts for liberation.   It is Malcolm’s self-criticism that has always inspired me and this is something all of us must do.  We must criticize the racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other oppressive norms that we have internalized.  Self-criticism reminds us about the importance of holding ourselves responsible and being mindful of the justice we seek for all communities.  As I have written on this blog so many times, racism and sexism are inseparable – there cannot be any true liberation while oppression still exists.

In closing, I wanted to share this excerpt from one of Malcolm’s final speeches that is so relevant today.  Malcolm comments on the multiple arms of racism and how dangerous the grasp of oppression can be when it transforms the victim into the oppressor, and the oppressor into the victim. An intersectional approach to the speech can help us connect Malcolm’s fierce criticism of victim-blaming racism to the way victims of sexual violence are blamed for oppression as well.  The speech was delivered five days before he was assassinated.  May Allah be pleased with Malcolm and may all of our communities work together to end oppression in all of its forms. Ameen.

We’re not against people because they’re white. But we’re against those who practice racism. We’re against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours. And because we’re against it, the press says we’re violent. We’re not for violence. We’re for peace.

We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York.

They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Silence Hurts

The other day I was reading a brilliant article on “People of Color Organize!” and this part stood out to me especially:

Silence – You are in a group of people, you’ve just heard someone say something racist. Not full blown N-Word racist just run of the mill racist (we’ll get to this in a minute) and you stay silent. You are a piece of shit.

I don’t expect anyone to go out and call out each and every racist thing they hear from each and every human being. Not only because you’d have no time to eat, sleep or breathe but in some cases, it could actually be dangerous to do so.

I am talking about that one time when you and your black friend were out with a group of people and someone said something racist. The black person was left to defend themselves while you stayed silent. Later, when you and said black friend were alone, you let them know how wrong you thought that person was and how much you agreed with everything the black person said.

You are a piece of shit.

If being friends with a black person is too much for you, don’t do it. If you are going to sit and silently agree that something was racist and wrong, keep walking. You are not a friend.

Being an ally behind closed doors and only behind closed doors is not being an ally at all. It is being a coward. Be a coward with someone else. You are not a friend.

Unfortunately, a lot of people of color can relate to this. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.  Many of us are already familiar with the phrase “silence is complicity” and how it is commonly written on signs at social justice demonstrations.  The statement is directed at governments, political leaders, and society in general for remaining quiet and not taking action against war crimes, colonial occupation, sexual violence, and other oppressions. As the excerpt above demonstrates, we can also look at how racism and silent complicity operates in the realm of personal relationships, such as friendships.

I’ve lost count of how many times certain white “friends” would remain quiet while someone else relentlessly demonized my culture and faith.  One awful memory was in my early twenties when someone I once respected lashed out on my research on Islamophobia and made utterly racist remarks against Muslims.  The silence from my “friends,” who sat as quiet observers during the whole tirade, was devastating.  It was more difficult to deal with when this happened on numerous occasions.

It took several years for me to realize that these people are not my friends. It took time to realize that their assertions of “colorblindness” is a fantasy and that there is too much at stake for people of color to ignore the reality of racism. In the process, I also had to confront my own internalized racism and the way I perceived myself, my culture, my religion, my community, etc. I couldn’t simply pretend that I wasn’t brown or that racism didn’t exist.

No one should have to tolerate situations where their friends suddenly fall silent during unwanted encounters with racism. No one should be left alone to defend themselves in the presence of friends.  It amazes me how people of color hear excuses like, “I was going to say something, but I didn’t want to get involved,” or receive advice like, “Just ignore it, that person says homophobic things all the time around my gay friends.”  While the people making these remarks may have good intentions, they are actually making matters worse and not being supportive at all.

Leaving someone unaccountable places the burden and expectation upon the victim to “get over it.” While the victim is told to “forget” about the damage that has already been done, the perpetrator’s behavior is normalized and allowed to carry on.  This is not how it should be. When you leave your friend to defend him/herself and then tell him/her to “ignore it,” you are participating in that abuse.  You are complicit because you allow the perpetrator to go unchallenged while your friend is hurt. That is not being a friend.

The disturbing part is that these experiences are not “isolated incidents.” They reflect a larger problem in society, particularly in the way we are taught to discuss (and not discuss) racism.  Throughout high school, I remember assemblies that would address bullying, but rarely was racism ever mentioned. We were constantly taught that “sticks and bones break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What my school and other schools fail to understand is that words do hurt. They do cause damage. Telling someone to ignore name-calling is to simultaneously excuse the bully of harassing that person.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between calling someone “four eyes” or “nerd” for wearing glasses and calling someone “Apu” or “Osama” for having brown skin.  There is a huge difference between calling someone a “loser” for being shy and attributing a sexist, degrading word to a woman because of the way she dresses. A white student being bullied for having blue hair cannot say he knows what racism feels like. This is not to negate his challenges, but rather to stress that his experiences are not the same as victims of racism. I bring this up because various forms of bullying often get lumped together when developing anti-bullying strategies.  Such strategies assume victims of bullying “share” the “same” oppression when, in fact, bullying has very distinct forms. The problem with the assumption of  “shared oppression” is that it has potential to trivialize racism (as well as sexism and homophobia) when people say things like, “Hey, I was called a nerd in high school and I was able to ignore it; why couldn’t you ignore the people who called you ‘Osama’?”

Verbal bullying is harmful, most especially when racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and ableist language is used, and it needs to be addressed more effectively in schools. When people are socialized to think insults “can’t” and “shouldn’t” hurt anyone, they end up telling their friends to “ignore” the racist remarks they hear. Such attitudes result in conflict and have serious potential to break friendships, particularly when white people get defensive after their friends of color call them out on their silence.

Interestingly, while I was writing this entry, I came across another blog post that also discusses silent complicity. The author cites recent video clips of white women who used violently racist language to verbally assault people of color on trains. Commenting on one of the videos, she writes:

So let me get this straight: It’s alright to let a raging racist White woman say sh*t about immigration and people of color but a Black man is not allowed to stand up for himself and express his anger at verbal violence explicitly directed at him? And can someone please tell me why the Black woman was the only person on the train who was left to defend herself? Where are the White people? Where are our White allies who should have told the Raging Racist to stop? Staring into space or playing on their phones.  At this point, Whiteness conveniently shrinks into the background as the people of color in the train are forced to listen to Raging Racist and forced to defend ourselves.

To make matters worse, we see people of color internalizing and perpetuating the same racist logic used to oppress marginalized communities.  The author terms these people as “white defenders.” They give excuses for the racism of white people and point fingers at people of color.  I cannot begin to describe the frustration that one feels when fellow people of color blame the victim for discrimination, sexual assault, and other abuses. When anger is expressed towards white supremacy, whether in rallies, in academic papers, or in general conversation, white defenders resort to “reverse racism” arguments. They say, “Not all white people are like that,” or “We shouldn’t stereotype white people,” or “I have really amazing white friends who I really love and care about.”  The conversation suddenly shifts from challenging institutionalized white supremacy to making people of color “anti-white,” as if they have the same power to dominate over and oppress white people.  The blogger of the aforementioned post articulates this much better than I can:

When we engage in ‘White defending’ and make excuses for individual acts of racism, we are supporting and furthering the agenda of White supremacy. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question. Engaging in ‘White defending’ gives Whiteness a free pass – White people can continue to ignore the historical and present wrongs committed against people of color. White defenders are White man’s best friend. This is the thinking and these are the people that people with privilege turn to and point towards as proof that ‘Things are better now’ when some shit-disturber like myself decides to call out their bullshit.

And, yes, this:

And when we come to realize that everyone is in one way or another complicit in racism, we realize that racism is not just about individuals saying some racist things this ONE TIME. Racism is not just an individual’s actions upon another individual. Racism is everywhere – it is in our culture, it is in our everyday interactions, it is in our systems and institutions. And when we shine a light on this bigger picture, we realize that racism is not just about one person doing something bad to another person. It is about centuries upon centuries of groups of people doing bad things to other groups of people and then, those groups of people punishing themselves, defending their bullies and saying they deserve the violence in the first place. Racism is a BIG OL’ GIANT ROCK THAT JUST WON’T SEEM TO BUDGE.

I know some people are thinking, “Well, if you would explain it nicer, then maybe we’d be more willing to listen.”  This goes back to attacking the tone of the victim.  For white friends and allies, you must understand the anger about racism.  You must.  If you sincerely care about ending racist oppression, you need to stop getting defensive when people of color express their anger about racism and stop being condescending with comments like, “You need to love more, just show people compassion and they’ll understand.”  If you try to make this about “tone” or “reverse racism,” then you are not being an ally or a friend.

White allies who do anti-racist work understand that there are times when they should speak and times when they shouldn’t. I remember during a social justice meeting, people of color wanted to have their own space to discuss certain issues and some white people objected to it because they thought they were being “discriminated against” (precisely the reason why people of color requested for safe space).  White allies interjected and told the other white activists that they should respect the decision made by people of color. Similarly, I recall women of color feminists making decisions for women-only spaces for certain discussions. No matter what a man’s feminist politics are, he should not go around complaining about “reverse sexism” or whine about about how he was “excluded” by women and how he “should have” been part of the discussions because “he is a feminist, too.”  If he makes these complaints, he is not an ally.  Sometimes, not interfering is the best thing you can do as an ally.  In the case of speaking up when your friend of color is being chewed out by a racist bigot right in front of you, you need to speak up – not to speak for your friend, but to speak out of support and solidarity.  People of color can defend themselves, but when we have our friends around, we don’t want to be abandoned and take further abuse from your silence.

I refuse to be in situations where I would be left alone to defend myself. I refuse to allow myself to be silent when my friends are on receiving ends of racist, sexist, homophobic, or any kind of discriminatory or derogatory remark.  There is a lot of responsibility that all of us have in the struggle to end oppression and that includes holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes, especially when our complicity hurts the people we deeply care about.