Responses to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

My Facebook news feed has been buzzing with critiques of Mona Eltahawy’s latest article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  When the original piece was published in “Foreign Policy” magazine, there was a small debate on a friend’s Facebook wall about how Mona continues to frame her work in problematic ways and assumes the role of a native informant for white western audiences.  Critiques of her article have been dismissed by some as mere “debate” or “differences in opinion” without any analysis of how Mona self-appoints herself before western audiences as a spokesperson for all Arab women and confirms simplistic and dangerous Orientalist narratives that play into the larger, racist discourses on Islam, Muslims, and the “Muslim world” (a “reductionist term,” as Dena Al-Adeeb writes, “used to name women from countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia”).

The vast number of critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women call attention to how Mona’s simplistic analysis and characterization of Arab women as “helpless” plays into larger discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. This construction of the “helpless woman of color” who must be saved from the “dangerous man of color” has a long history of sexual violence, colonialism, and racism.  As Andrea Smith explains in “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when European colonizers enslaved Native women, they argued that “they were actually somehow freeing Native women from ‘oppression’ they supposedly faced in Native nations.” When white colonizers would mutilate the bodies of Native men and rape Native women, they proclaimed “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men.”

If we look at the violent US invasion and military occupation in Afghanistan, we see how the legacy of colonialism continues when Afghan women’s struggles against patriarchy and misogyny are used as propaganda to advance war – one that continues to bomb, torture, and rape Afghan men and women. I don’t believe Mona Eltahawy is calling for the west to intervene in struggles against patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, but I present these discourses and histories to show how critiques of her article are not “pointless” or “personal attacks,” but serious and important. Performing as a native informant is dangerous, not only because of the racist stereotypes it reinforces, but also because of the way it silences the countless Arab and Muslim women and men who have been fighting against misogyny and other forms of sexist oppression. Egyptian journalist and activist Gigi Ibrahim, who blogs at “Tahrir & Beyond,” writes the following in her response to Mona:

What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.

Nahed Eltantawy mentions some of the Arab women missing from Mona’s article: “Tawakkul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt’s female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim,” and many others who challenge the “weak” and “helpless” western stereotype of Arab women.

As Shaista Patel explains, the Muslim native informant, whether it is Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is always “honored and respected by white men and women to silence and shame Muslim women who critique these Muslim native informants.” Just this morning, I was sent a blog post written by a white American man who wrote: “What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women” (I’m not going to link to his post, but you can put this quote into Google and find it). He suggested that the Arab and Muslim women who wrote these critiques had “issues with the actual speaker” (Mona) and that their criticism stemmed from “the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience.” Later, he equated his personal experiences, where Arab women told him not to speak for them, with the experiences of Mona being criticized for her article. This example of closely identifying with a native informant in this manner is not too different than the debate that occurred on my friend’s wall, where a white woman proclaimed her “respect” for Mona as a way to dismiss and silence an anti-racist critique from a Muslim woman. By accusing these critiques of making “personal attacks” against Mona or having issues with airing “dirty laundry,” the actual concern of these critiques, such as Mona’s problematic framework, analysis, and simplification of Muslim-majority countries is completely missed.

This isn’t the first time Mona has performed this way either. As many know, Mona strongly advocates for governments to ban the niqab. Her position is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. It’s troubling how the images are juxtaposed when we see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Such dichotomous thinking is engrained in the US’s oppressive international and domestic policies, which are violent for people in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims in the west. One needs to question how Mona’s anti-niqab stance is seen through the white imperial gaze.

One must also question what many of the critiques have expressed outrage over: the extremely disturbing Orientalist images used in Mona’s article. The pictures, which I have decided not to post (trigger warning if you haven’t seen them already) depict nude women in black body paint with only their eyes left bare. I agree with Roqayah Chamseddine that these images are “arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab” (her response is shared below). What impact do these pictures have on real Muslim bodies who wear the niqab and how are these images viewed by governments that want to police how Muslim women choose to dress?

Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, I believe it is important for all men, including myself, to not deny the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as the ways in which we are complicit in participating in sexist oppression, whether it’s done consciously or through the way we’ve internalized and constantly perform sexist socialization. None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well.  These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.

I’ve shared some excerpts from the responses to Mona’s article below. The first two comments were from an online discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall and are being re-shared with permission:

Shaista Patel:

I think that we need to understand that these debates are entrenched in various power relations. Mona has the backing of the mainstream (read racist) media and society, while somebody like a Sunera Thobani is condemned for giving a speech to a group of feminists in an auditorium. Nobody saw that as a healthy debate when a complaint was filed against her, and her life was under threat. By critiquing Mona and her work, we are not taking away the fact that she was sexually harassed, just like we’ve never wanted to discredit the abuse Irshad Manji’s faced at the hands of her father. It is when a Mona, Irshad Manji and an Ayan Hirsi Ali become the native informants, perform in a way that sits very well with the white Western society’s construction of the ‘Arab world’ and the “Muslim world”, when Bush asks us to watch Nilufer Pazira’s “Qandahar” while bombing Afghanistan and killing and mutilating people that we know that these debates/discourses aren’t necessarily productive for us racialized bodies, especially those whose lives are under threat every single minute of every single day. I have been asked to engage with the Zionists in debates, with the racists in debates but look at who I am and what I have to say and the sheer hostility I would have to and have faced several times from these white folks wanting to sit at the table and have a discussion while people who look like me are being killed every single day. Mona’s work is seductive to white people and some Muslims with liberal and racist politics because of what she has to say, and how she’s supporting the war politics of the West.

Lise Vaugeois:

I want to add more points: Sunera Thobani is vilified every time she opens her mouth. I have great admiration for her persistence in continuing to speak in public in spite of the relentless and attacks on her person. The other people we are talking about here, e.g. Manji and Elthahawy et al, are making a very good living by saying what mainstream financial/political interests want people to believe. Maybe these “pundits” genuinely believe what they are saying but – it sure works in favor of their own careers as well as the larger economic goal of arms manufacturers to create villains (in this case, brown Muslim folks) who can only be contained by mobilizing national militaries to exterminate them. And then there’s the goal to discredit all Middle Eastern governments and their peoples, in order to justify destroying their infrastructures and fully control their natural and human resources. These public relations games all feed into larger political goals that, unfortunately, are difficult to see for those of us who want to believe that genuine debates actually happen in the public domain. Power relations shape all public debates and are thoroughly scripted to make existing power relations appear “reasonable and good.”

This piece makes many good points, regarding disturbing (to say the least) treatment of women’s bodies in the region. The problem, however, is how Mona frames this. This isn’t about a single conglomerate of men working in synch to repress women. And it isn’t about ‘hate’ either — can we confine people who should be made into partners for the fight for gender equality into being the enemy? Additionally, can we say this ‘war’ is particular to the region or part of the great GWOFB — global war on female bodies (cough)? My ultimate issue with this piece (the ..terrible, terrible photos chosen by FP aside) is that it’s in English. It’s to an American audience. The only thing that it is conducive to is further fueling the flames of the plight of ‘poor Muslim women’ and the general perceived weakness women of brown skin, unable to help themselves. This hurts more than it helps. The piece had potential – but in Arabic.

Lastly, the author mentions that the uprisings were sparked by a man and she hopes they will be defined by women. But they are being defined by women (and men too and there’s nothing wrong with that). Some of the most known names and the most fierce personalities to come out of the uprisings have been women: the AlKhawaja sisters of Bahrain, Tawakkul Kamran of Yemen, Asma Mahfouz of Egypt.

The general treatment of women in the so-called Arab world is deplorable, but it is not exclusive to the region and is not merely a social or moral byproduct.

And we cannot, ever, underestimate any woman or group of women’s ability to be able to see the violence and injustices being done unto them. For us to assume so is to be compliant with that violence and injustice.
Roqayah Chamseddine:

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.

It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

(read the rest of her response here: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery)

Sara Salem:

At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.

Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.

My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)

My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?

Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.

Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.

(read more: A response to Mona el Tahawy)

Leila Ahmed:

These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.

It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to — of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.

There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.

(read more: Debating the War on Women)

Samia Errazzouki:

The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to “hate.” The argument dismisses the role of figures like Tawakul KarmanZainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and others — women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.

Eltahawy points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

Yet, Eltahawy entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.” Arab women such as Leila Ahmed and Lila Abu-Lughod, among others, have proven this fact time and time again.

The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.

(read more: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’)

Ayesha Kazmi:

While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.

(read more: Oh, Mona!)

Dalia Abd El-Hameed:

Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities.

Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you’ll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message:  “Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked.”

(read more: What 6 Egyptian Women Say About Mona Eltahawy)

Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi:

El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.

The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.

(read more: Let’s Talk About Sex)

Additional Readings:

Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?

The Hypocrisy of the “Why They Hate Us” Rhetoric of Muslim Native Informants

Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulful al Nidham

My Response to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Mona el Tahawy or Native Neo-orientalism

Dear Mona Eltahawy – Colonial Feminism

Orientalizing Pakistan in Cricket Commentaries


By now, every Pakistani and Indian knows about the epic Pakistan vs. India Cricket World Cup semi-final that will kick off Wednesday in Mohali, India.  Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has already accepted an invitation to join Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match and discuss India-Pakistan relations, while 5,000 visas have been authorized by the Indian home ministry for Pakistani fans to enter the country and cheer on their team (though a recent report claims that Pakistanis are having a hard time getting tickets for the match). Despite the friendly gestures from politicians and the peace messages I’ve seen Indians and Pakistanis alike post on their Facebook walls, a disturbingly popular and growing acceptability of anti-Pakistani rhetoric plagues online cricket commentaries.

Trash-talking, fierce debates, and impassioned displays of nationalism are expected, especially in the case of a Pakistan vs. India semi-final.  It isn’t unusual for Pakistani Captain Shahid Afridi to make competitive remarks about how Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century “will have to wait until after the World Cup to reach the landmark,” nor should it be of any surprise when Indian commentators say Tendulkar “sends shivers down Pakistani spines till date.”  Competition is an essential element of sport and from past cricket matches (which I will mention later in the post) we have seen how the sport can bring people together, regardless of the boasting heard on either side, but there’s a fine line between competitive spirit and super-patriotism fueled by jingoism and sheer bigotry.  The harmful anti-Pakistani rhetoric that I’ve found in some of the cricket commentaries are unsettling for a number of reasons.  For one, the articles seem to exploit tragedies in Pakistan to make it s0und as if the nation is undeserving of a World Cup victory.  Secondly, the anti-Pakistani commentaries fit very neatly into the narrative used by the Obama administration to justify its Orientalist war in Afghanistan and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan.

Consider Soutik Biswas’ piece for BBC News where he took harsh, one-sided shots at the way Pakistanis reacted to cricket losses in the past.  What’s astonishing is how Biswas essentially tries to present Indian and Pakistani fans as polar opposites, i.e. the former are respectful, while the latter are violent and take the sport too seriously.  After expressing his hope for Indian fans to be generous to Pakistani fans, Biswas writes:

Who can forget the time when Pakistan lost to India during the 1996 World Cup? Fans in Pakistan smashed TV sets, a college student fired a hail of bullets from a Kalashnikov into his TV set and then on himself, another fan died of a heart attack, captain Wasim Akram received death threats, a fan filed a petition in the court against the “disappointing performance” and a cleric said Pakistan would never win at cricket so long as a woman – Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister – ruled the country.

While Biswas tries to sound unbiased and respectful by later saying, “surely such passions have abated with the passage of time,” the punch at Pakistan was clearly thrown. In fact, earlier in the article, Biswas oddly cited some random Indian scholar (oh snap, a scholar!) who stated the following: “Indians don’t take failure as national humiliation. Perhaps they consoled themselves that the country surpassed Pakistan in all spheres. It had better scientists, better writers, a more vigorous film industry, and was a democracy besides.”  Biswas’ point is clear: Indians have never overreacted to cricket losses in the same way Pakistanis have, therefore Indians must be better than Pakistanis!

No.  Fail.

Any honest cricket fan knows when Sri Lanka played India in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, sections of the Indian crowd was so furious over the loss of the 8th Indian wicket that they set fire to the stands and threw water-bottles on the field.  The outburst from the crowd prompted referee Clive Lloyd to stop the match and award Sri Lanka with an automatic victory.  If Biswas is going to mention the Pakistanis that smashed televisions after a 1996 World Cup loss, he should also mention how an Indian mob attacked Indian wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s house and burned effigies of Rahul Dravid in the streets after a loss against Bangladesh.  If Biswas wants to mention a Pakistani college student who shot himself, he should also tell us about the 25-year-old Indian farmer who committed suicide after India’s loss to Sri Lanka in 2007.  What about recent reports regarding Shiv Sena, an extremist Indian Hindu nationalist political party, making threats against the Pakistani cricket team and declaring that it “gets to decide if Pakistan can play in the final” ?  One could also point out that Shiv Sena killed a parrot that predicted Pakistan would win the World Cup.  Poor parrot. Killed for making a prediction.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Surely we belong to God, and to God we shall return).

Commentaries like Biswas’ are more than just one-sided jabs at Pakistan, they are part of an Orientalist depiction of Pakistan that has become increasingly and widely acceptable.  The Orientalist description of Pakistan is as follows: Pakistan is a country that “harbors terrorists;” Pakistanis are violent, backward, and uncivilized people; Pakistani women are veiled and oppressed; Pakistanis suffer from all of the above because of the religion of Islam.  Because Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, it is often perceived as a Middle Eastern nation, not a South Asian one.  Furthermore, all of the virulent Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric that continues to spread at rapid rates, particularly in the west, also runs parallel with the Orientalist attitude and perception of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A good example of how the above plays out can be found in a post titled “Why India-Pakistan World Cup Semifinal Will Belie the Hype.” The author, Sajid Huq, starts with usual trash-talking and says “India will school Pakistan” on Wednesday (interestingly, the author seems to have deleted the remark today).  I don’t have a problem with Huq’s opinion nor am I offended by it.  However, the commentary suffers from the same anti-Pakistani rhetoric found in Biswas’ piece.  I must say that it is interesting how Huq lists Edward Said as one of his favorite authors and yet presents Pakistan through the dirty lens of Orientalism.  Huq paints a glorified image of India while depicting Pakistan as a country “housing terrorists.”  No historical or political context is given on how turmoil and violence has escalated in Pakistan nor is there any mentioning of how US invasion, and occupation in Afghanistan continues to have a disastrous impact on Pakistan.  Huq goes on to boast about India’s scientific and artistic achievements:

India is perhaps at a stage when the international community is more bullish about its markets, more excited about its culture, and generally more pro-Indian than at any stage of the nation’s history. And of course, this has not been a result of plain luck. Indian businessmen have distinguished themselves at an international stage, and noticeably so in the last decade. Indian engineers, doctors, scientists, and even investment bankers have made news and brought tremendous glory to the nation. Bollywood is increasingly an industry that has caught international imagination, as have Indian philosophies, literature, music, and last but not least, the fortune of the cricket team, which has successfully held on to top rankings in most forms of the game.

In sharp contrast, this is all Huq has to say about Pakistan:

Pakistan, as has been said so often, is an embattled cricketing nation. More pertinently perhaps, it is an embattled nation, dealing with perhaps its most troubled phase in history, at a time when brand Pakistan has been muddied, sullied, and then some more – through domestic turmoil, political unrest, and visceral anger from the international community for housing terrorists that then spawn and attack nations near and far.

Ah ha, I get it, India = happy, friendly, advanced, mystical; Pakistan = gloomy, hostile, backwards, dangerous.  This very narrow and unfair representation of Pakistan not only polarizes Indians and Pakistanis, but also plays into the hands of a hurtful narrative that vilifies Pakistan for imperialist purposes (after all, vilifying Pakistan as a “haven” for terrorists makes it easy for US war crimes to go unchallenged).  If we choose to talk about India’s Bollywood industry, then why not also include the Pakistani musicians that are not only popular among Pakistanis, but also among Indians because of their contributions to Bollywood songs?  Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nouman Javaid, Kamran Ahmed, and other Pakistanis have produced popular Bollywood songs.  I would take it a little further and acknowledge Pakistanis in the west who have made creative and artistic contributions, such as Pakistani-Canadian filmmakers like Zarqa Nawaz, Pakistani-Canadian actors like Zaib Shaikh, or Pakistani-American singers like Nadia Ali. Canadian actress Sitara Hewitt and British lead singer of “Bat for Lashes,” Natasha Khan, are of Pakistani descent as well.  Surely anyone who has seen the Pakistan-based Coke Studio sessions would recognize the immense amount of talent in Pakistan.

The point is not to gloss over the serious problems that confront Pakistan.  Indeed, it is important to address the country’s struggles on so many issues. However, presenting a singular and Orientalist image of Pakistan as dark, violent, and brutal in contrast to a bright and blooming India, almost to taunt Pakistanis, does very little to help us recognize Pakistan’s diversity, as well as its very complex history and contemporary challenges.  It also overlooks India’s struggles and makes it very easy for us to lose sight of the Pakistani activists, leaders, and organizations that are making strong efforts on so many levels by speaking out against injustices, standing up for human rights, improving education, helping those in need, etc.

Instead of hearing about these Pakistanis, mainstream western media depicts Pakistan solely as the aggressor and India as the victim.  Most of the cricket commentaries I’ve read, including the two I critiqued above, have mentioned the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and point out that the upcoming match is the first time the two teams have met since the attacks.  Other articles argue 26/11 is still the “biggest hurdle” for India and Pakistan talks, characterizing Pakistan as suspicious and untrustworthy.  As horrible as the attacks were in Mumbai, what continues to alarm me is how mainstream discourse on India and Pakistan seem to forget that Pakistanis suffer from terrorists attacks, too.  The bombing of the Islamabad hotel, the bombing of Sufi shrines, the bombing of girls’ schools, sporadic bombings in Lahore and other parts of the country – all of these attacks were made against Pakistanis by militants and extremists.  However, where are the dates for these events and why aren’t we expected to remember them?

26/11, like the 9/11 attacks, is treated as an epoch-making event.  The Indian government’s former Secretary of Security Shyam Mehra stated in October, “The events of 9/11 in the U.S. and 26/11 in India mark defining moments with epoch-making consequences. Implicit in these attacks is an assault on the larger idea and essence of free societies. Both countries need to work in a common endeavor to meet these challenges.”  Establishing this link with the US has significant strategic and political purposes.  Not only is 26/11 considered “India’s 9/11,” but it also identifies a common enemy for the US and India and strengthens their alliance.  Even though it was reported last year by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) that a total of 3,021 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2009, a 48% increase from 2008, media coverage on these attacks have never characterized them as “Pakistan’s 9/11.”

One must ask why the US, England, and India use calendar dates to commemorate the attacks on their nations and then expect these events to be universally known throughout the world.  What about the millions of murdered Iraqis and Afghans?  What about the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002?  What about Israel’s bombing of over 1,400 Palestinians in December-January 2008-2009?  What about the drone attacks in Pakistan?   What about the violence, oppression, and Indian military occupation in Kashmir?  What are the dates of these events, what are the casualties, what are the names of the victims, what are their stories?  Why aren’t these attacks expected to be universally known as attacks on non-Muslim majority countries like America, England, India, and Israel?  If we’re taught that all human life has value, then why these double standards?  Excluding the atrocities in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations only perpetuates the construction of Muslims as antithetical “others” and “enemies” of “the free world.”

Cricket commentaries shouldn’t participate in continuing the vilification and misrepresentation of Pakistan and Pakistanis.  As mentioned earlier, cricket matches between Pakistan and India have shown us inspiring displays of friendship and respect for both nation. One article makes note of how Indian journalist and author M.J. Akbar recalled:  “one of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship.”  I also remember watching those matches and seeing Pakistanis give standing ovations to the Indian players, Indians and Pakistanis holding signs that read “India-Pakistan friendship” and wearing face-paintings with the flags of both nations.

No doubt that Pakistanis and Indians will be cheering on their cricket teams on Wednesday.  Cricket has a way of boosting the morale of the general public.  As my cousin pointed out in an online discussion, amidst the political turmoil, the stereotypes, the exclusion from IPL and hosting in the World Cup, and being so “broken and dejected over the country’s pathetic state of affairs,” a victory for Pakistan would give the people something to smile about.  Perhaps it could also help break the Orientalist stereotypes that continue to tarnish the nation’s image and fuel western imperialist projects.

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.

Muslim-Americans Getting It Wrong on Pakistan

In no way do I support the Pakistani court’s decision to ban its citizens from accessing Facebook and YouTube. As many of you know, restrictions were put into effect after Pakistani officials learned about an idiotic, Islamophobic event on Facebook called “Draw Muhammad Day.” As much as I strongly oppose the event and find it clearly driven by hate and ignorance, I believe the Facebook ban is not only nonsensical and counterproductive, but also an insult to the Pakistani people, implying that millions of citizens would flock to the group and participate if the site is not prohibited. Without a doubt, the blockade of Facebook and YouTube represents the government’s religious insecurity and mistrust of its own people.

However, what puzzles me further is how Muslim-Americans, especially those of Pakistani descent, resort to simplified generalizations and misrepresentations of Paksitan and its citizens. I do not know Arsalan Iftikhar personally, but I have always respected his efforts to speak out against Islamophobia and distortions of Muslim-Americans. Whether on CNN or Fox News and talking to right-wing bullies like Bill O’Reilly, Mr. Iftikhar’s work certainly calls for respect and appreciation.

But I must challenge the comments he made about Pakistan in his latest piece on the CNN opinion page. Mr. Iftikhar paints a harsh picture of Pakistan in the very first sentence:

For a country that has produced five military dictators in 60 years, mourned the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and struggles continually against its own militant extremists who have killed thousands in their own nation, Pakistan has absolutely picked the wrong fight by banning Facebook and YouTube because of an idiotic virtual campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Mr. Iftikhar went further to argue that the country did not live up to its name, pointing out that the word “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” when translated from Urdu. “There has been nothing pure,” he writes, “about the downward sociopolitical spiral of this nuclear-armed, Third World fledgling democracy of 172 million people over the last several years.” He cites former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, who describes the region as terrorized by extremists. Mr. Iftikhar closes with the following:

Instead of conjuring up stupid controversies like the recent bans of Facebook and YouTube because of some silly drawings, the 172 million citizens of Pakistan should focus their political attention and economic resources on educating their women, improving their rule of law system and truly understanding the repercussions that come with ominously naming your country the “land of the pure.”

I will not dispute the social, political, and economic struggles that confront Pakistan. Indeed, they are real. However, what surprises and appalls me is that there is not a single mentioning of the U.S. intervening, exploiting, and attacking Pakistan. Mr. Iftikhar’s article is titled “Pakistan should ban extremism, not Facebook,” but he does not address the root of the extremism. He only touches upon the symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, Pakistan has an unfortunate history of military dictators and while it is important to hold those leaders accountable for their criminal actions, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the US largely supported and funded those dictatorships.

When the United States was hell-bent on fighting Communism, the government subsidized General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most ruthless military dictator, who was trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later stationed in Jordan to train soldiers during the Black September operations, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and causalities. The US-Pakistan alliance monetarily and militarily aided the Mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. Not only were extremists and militant groups supplied with US weapons and trained by the CIA, but the jihadi manuals were also printed in Nebraska.

I have repeatedly pointed this out in previous posts, but after September 11th, then President Pervez Musharraf was given an ultimatum from George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” Pakistani British author Tariq Ali has also emphasized on this next point: former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, as well as fighting in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has resulted in violent antagonism towards Pakistan from tribal groups, militants and extremists.

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is spilling into Pakistan. The invading Taliban groups view the Pakistani government as complicit with US war crimes, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Palestine as well. This has resulted in devastating attacks on Pakistan, which has caused so much suffering on the Pakistani people themselves – Sufi shrines being destroyed in Peshawar, the bombing of girl’s schools, sporadic bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and other parts of the country, etc.

President Obama, who frequently criticized the US for supporting Musharraf during the presidential campaign, is not only financially backing President Asif Zardari – a man who is reviled by the majority of Pakistanis – but also escalating troops in Afghanistan and carrying out deadly drone operations in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it was reported by Pakistan’s Dawn Media Group that over 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks since Obama took office in 2009. According to PressTV, an estimated 300 people (and counting) have been killed in 42 drone attacks in 2010. Not to state the obvious, but that is a lot of people! Zardari and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan both welcome Obama’s policies in advancing the Afghan war and continuing the drone attacks, respectively.

Yet it seems that President Obama receives little to no criticism from Muslim-Americans, specifically those who are in Washington or work in civil rights organizations. I often hear peculiar arguments that seek to justify his policies. There are those who even question the number of casualties from the drone attacks (to which author and activist Jeremy Scahill has refuted). Others have argued that leaflets were sent to those areas, so all of the Pakistani civilians should just leave. Funny, because I never heard such excuses when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in December-January of 2008-2009.

The reality is that human rights violations still occur under Obama’s administration – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. In February, US soldiers raided an Afghan home 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. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in another drone attack in Pakistan. With such injustice, how does one expect there to be no violent backlash or retaliation at all? Do people easily forget the murders of their Loved ones?

It would be inaccurate to say extremism and corruption does not exist among certain Pakistani religious leaders and politicians, but excluding US attacks and military operations in the region would be just as misguided. As Tariq Ali has stated in several of his talks, the US presence in Afghanistan is not the solution, it is part of the problem and it is having a disastrous impact on Pakistan. Drone assaults on tribal areas only generates a culture of revenge, intensifies the violence, and endangers the lives of Pakistanis, as well as Americans (see: Time Square).

Extremism does not manifest out of thin air. Ignoring the US as a key factor is a misrepresentation of facts and simplifies the radicalization of extremists and militant groups (similar to how Bush advocates used to say, “They hate us because we’re free”).

Not all of the 172 million Pakistani citizens support the ban on Facebook and YouTube. I would argue that the vast majority of Pakistanis object to it – and I base this on the nation-wide demonstrations that helped reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, as well as the gathering of over one hundred thousand people who observed the 250th anniversary of the divinely inspired 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. Though I doubt Mr. Iftikhar was implying that 172 million Pakistanis weren’t doing anything about educating women and improving their ruling systems, I think it was unfair that he didn’t mention their efforts.

As for Pakistan not living up to its name, “Land of the Pure,” I cannot really disagree with Arsalan Iftikhar. However, I must ask: which country is, if any? Which country in the world is the shining example of justice and liberty for all? Sure, there is enough to criticize about the “Land of the Pure,” but let’s not dismiss the facts, the US-Pakistan relationships, the dynamics of power, and the deadly repercussions of military intervention and exploitation.

And surely, that turns our attention to the problems we have here in the “Land of the Free.”

It’s Time to Get Real: Obama is Wrong

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’ve been cautiously optimistic about President Obama for a long time.  Like many, I was devastated by the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter and I was also extremely disappointed with Obama for not holding the Israeli government accountable.  “He’s not the president yet,” many would say, including some Muslim friends of mine.  I wanted to believe they were right, so I kept my frustration sidelined.  I’ll wait and see what happens after his inauguration, I told myself.  After 8 years of war, profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and rising Islamophobia, who wouldn’t like to believe there is hope for our nation?

After Obama swore into office, I was pleased when I heard his proposal to shut down Guantanamo bay.  I admit it was nice to see an American president reaching out to Muslim-Americans, Muslim majority countries, giving a speech in Turkey, in Cairo, and addressing Iran, all whilst demonstrating an appreciative understanding of Islam.  He cited the Qur’an, the Persian poet Sa’di, and a Turkish proverb that says, “You cannot put out fire with flames.”  He revealed that he had Muslims in his family and then wished Muslims worldwide a blessed Ramadan.  Although I did not fully support Obama at this point since I was still skeptical and, at times, very critical (especially for not highlighting the war crimes in Gaza), I was privately hoping that my uncertainty was wrong.  Maybe this is for real, I thought.  Maybe real change is on the horizon.

But my hopes quickly changed when Obama ordered drone attacks in Pakistan.  As I wrote in my previous post, the senseless drone attacks during Obama’s first 99 days in office amounted to well over 150 deaths.   Drone attacks have continued to the current month of December, claiming the lives of many innocent civilians.  In fact, as Pakistani author and political commentator Tariq Ali points out, on the very day that an Iranian woman, Neda Soltani, was murdered during the election protests in Iran, a U.S. drone killed 60 people in Pakistan, mostly women and children.  The death of Soltani drew international attention and became an iconic image of resistance against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, while nothing was mentioned about Pakistan.

The loss of one human life is one too many, but based on this contrast of media attention, it reveals a remarkably cruel prejudice that, seemingly, victims in Muslim majority countries are only worth reporting when they are killed by their own people.  Informing people about American atrocities sends the “wrong message” about the Obama administration’s agenda.  Similar to how Bush convinced citizens to support his war in Iraq, Obama cannot win support for advancing his war in Afghanistan if Americans know that innocent people are being killed by U.S. attacks.

When Obama officially announced escalating American troops in Afghanistan, I could not, for the life of me, understand why some liberals, democrats, and my fellow Muslims were still supporting him.  If George W. Bush was giving the same speech and deploying another tide of soldiers into the region, all of us would be flipping out.  It’s different this time, though.  Obama is not Bush, and he has reached out to Muslims in a way that no other American president has.  The majority of Muslim-Americans voted for him and a lot even campaigned for his presidency.  Perhaps people don’t want to admit they’re wrong, or perhaps they don’t want to criticize his policies because, quite simply, they like him.  I know there are a lot of Muslims and non-Muslims alike who are just as conflicted as I was and want to believe Obama is doing the right thing

But let’s get real: his foreign policy is terribly flawed and only calling for disaster.  You don’t “sweet talk” other Muslim majority countries, cite Qur’anic verses, quote Persian poets and Turkish proverbs, and then advocate for war/military occupation in another Muslim majority country.  You don’t exclude the word “terrorism” in a speech addressed to Cairo, but then use it again in the U.S. to reinforce the alarmist and manipulative rhetoric that “terrorism” can only be carried out by militants or extremists who self-identify as Muslim.  This duplicity is designed to simultaneously win the allegiance of Muslims (especially in Arab countries) and many Republicans who want the President to show some backbone in the war against “Islamic terrorism.”

But what happened to our anti-war stance?  “You cannot put out fire with flames,” goes the Turkish proverb Obama cited, so how does increasing violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan result in peace?  What’s astonishing to me is how so many people (who identified as “anti-war”) are now advocating for war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a disturbingly similar way supporters of the previous administration did!  Remember when you would argue with the pro-Bush crowd about Iraq and they would simply say, “Well, we’re protecting America from terrorists”?  The same argument is being made about Afghanistan by liberals, democrats, and Muslims alike.  It just shocks me at how oblivious many people are about this.

The sad part is that the “terrorism” argument is used as simplistic justification for their support of the Afghan war because, frankly, they tend to know very little to nothing about Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Let’s start off by saying the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis are anti-Taliban, anti-extremism, and anti-Western military occupation.  However, lies such as “Afghans/Pakistanis prefer the Taliban” are being perpetuated in a familiar alarmist fashion.  Where does this information come from and why is it being used to cover up real atrocities committed by the Obama administration?  Last week, about a hundred Afghans protested against Obama’s policies when U.S. special forces killed 12 people in the village.  In May of 2009, an American airstrike mistakenly attacked the village of Bala Baluk and killed over 147 people and resulted in even more anti-American sentiments from Afghan civilians.  How many more of these “mistakes” can the U.S. afford to make?  Why do we behave as if there won’t be any retaliation from the civilians, especially those who lost their family members and Loved ones?  Doesn’t common sense tell us that people don’t forget about these horrible war crimes?

Malalai Joya, an Afghan politician and activist who is often called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan,” is a vehemently outspoken critic of Afghan warlords and the presence of NATO troops in her country.  She highlights on the lies spread about Afghanistan, as well as the major flaws in Obama’s new strategy:

Almost eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled, our hopes for a truly democratic and independent Afghanistan have been betrayed by the continued domination of fundamentalists and by a brutal occupation that ultimately serves only American strategic interests in the region.

You must understand that the government headed by Hamid Karzai is full of warlords and extremists who are brothers in creed of the Taliban. Many of these men committed terrible crimes against the Afghan people during the civil war of the 1990sThe fact that I was kicked out of office while brutal warlords enjoyed immunity from prosecution for their crimes should tell you all you need to know about the “democracy” backed by Nato troops.

Furthermore, she adds that Obama’s war in Afghanistan and expansion into Pakistan is simply adding more fuel to the fire and is no different from Bush’s policies.  Afghan victims of abuse and rape find no justice when the people in power are corrupt themselves, but don’t count on the Obama administration to acknowledge this problem.  After all, the Afghan government allows NATO troops to occupy the country and the U.S. wants to maintain that kind of alliance.

Despite this information, I’ve seen many, including fellow Muslims, speak so insensitively about Afghanistan and Pakistan, as if the people there are complicit and responsible for the turmoil they’re in!  This is insulting and essentially transforms the victim into the perpetrator.  Pakistan, for instance, is accused of being “the most dangerous country in the world,” which only creates the image of a nation rampant with terrorism.  However, very little is said that the majority of Pakistanis hate the Taliban.  Polls and surveys have consistently found that the majority of Pakistanis consider the U.S. the greatest threat to their country.  This statistic is rarely reported and no one seems to care.

Tariq Ali asserts another significant point:  The situation in Pakistan today is directly linked to the war in Afghanistan.  Speaking as a Pakistani, I don’t ever remember a time when my family was frightened about visiting Pakistan or worried about their Loved ones because of bomb blasts and attacks.  Even after 9/11, my family and I would visit Pakistan and did not have to worry about our safety in the way people do now.  I have relatives who were only five blocks away from a bomb blast in Lahore and I once stayed at the Marriott hotel that was bombed in Islamabad last September.  Many, including some of my Pakistani acquaintances, simply utter profanities about these extremists, which is perfectly appropriate, but I’ve noticed that people overlook the root cause of this problem.  After 9/11, Pakistan was forced into military cooperation, not only because Bush gave Pakistan the “you’re either with us or against us” ultimatum, but also because Richard Armitage, the former U.S. deputy secretary of state, threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” No doubt the Pakistani military is not without blame, but its operations against the Taliban and other militant groups only make the Pakistani government look complicit with U.S. war crimes.  Similar to the Afghan government, the Pakistani government is reeking with corruption and its unpopular president, Asif Zardari, permits the U.S. drone attacks.  All of this is causing the war in Afghanistan to spill into Pakistan.

When we simply say “they’re terrorists,” we become desensitized to the deaths of Afghans and Pakistanis.  Associating the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis with the extremist groups or the corrupt officials in the government does a great injustice to their struggles.  In March, the Pakistani people marched in the streets and organized rallies in protest to the government’s sacking of their chief justice.  The government eventually caved in and conceded with the people’s demand to reinstate the chief justice.  This was a victory not only for the Pakistani people, but also for everyone who seeks social justice.  Yet why wasn’t this reported widely in the mainstream western media?  Perhaps because it is contradictory to the image that the media wants to promote, i.e. “the most dangerous country in the world” or a “boiling pot” of “terrorism.”

In several debates with fellow Muslims, I’ve been told that the Afghan and Pakistani people “aren’t taking a stand,” so Obama’s military intervention is “justified.”  Again, this does a great disservice to the efforts of Afghans and Pakistanis who are risking their lives in combating violent extremism.  But it does not help when you’re being attacked by both sides:  The Taliban on one hand, and the U.S. military occupation/drone attacks on the other.  If the people of America could not impeach a president for 8 years of his term, then how can we expect the Afghans and Pakistanis to easily overthrow their leaders?  And why do people expect a miraculous change from Obama’s surge?  Tariq Ali cites the previous head of CIA station in Kabul, Graham Fuller, who made the following points about the Afghan war:

1.  It is impossible to police the Afghan-Pakistan border because it extends over thousands of miles and consists of mountainous territory, which makes it impossible to even construct a wall.  I get the feeling that if we could ask Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan why they couldn’t conquer the region, they would say something about the mountains.

2.  People on either side of the border “often belong to the same tribes, often related, speak the same language, and inter-marriage is common.”  When people suffer on one side, allies from the other side cross the border to help out.

3.  “The presence of the U.S. is part of the problem, not the solution.”

Just by examining these points, one gets a glimpse of how complex the conflict is.  Too often, I’ve noticed that people speak about this war as if Afghans and Pakistanis are not suffering.  As Thomas Houlahan reports:  “Pakistan has lost more civilians in the war on terror than the United States; Pakistan has lost more troops killed in fighting insurgents than every foreign contingent in Afghanistan combined. These facts fly in the face of the misinformation bandied about that Pakistan is soft on terror.”

If people truly and genuinely care about the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I believe they should listen to the citizens of those countries instead of arrogantly behaving as if they can speak for them or “know” what’s best for them.  There needs to be a better exit strategy and a stronger effort for diplomacy.  The Angus Reid Global Monitor found that 68% of Afghans think the government should hold talks with the Taliban.  If Obama supports diplomacy with Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, why isn’t the same policy extended in Afghanistan?

I can no longer hold back on my criticism of president Obama and, honestly, I am fed up with people making excuses for him.  Muslims worked so hard to campaign for him and a lot of us put so much faith in him, but we cannot overlook the fact that his policies are only going to tarnish relations with Muslim majority countries even further.  I will not be a fool anymore and listen to the false hope that “over time, Obama will change things” or “after he does such and such, he will take a stand for Palestine and Muslims.”  I do not understand how Obama can get away with advancing war while citing historical figures who symbolize non-violence and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Just like Iraq and Palestine, people do not like being occupied by a foreign invader.  Military intervention and more drone attacks will make matters worse, endanger the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims in many parts of the world, and it will create more enemies.  I don’t need a crystal ball to figure that out.  Recent history (i.e. the last 8 years) says it all.