No One “Hijacked” Islam – Part 3

You know it’s serious when I write a trilogy.

I wanted to write this piece around the time Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US special ops forces last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  When the news was announced by President Obama, I remember seeing my Facebook news feed flooded with updates about Osama bin Laden being dead.  Some friends were jubilant,  some were claiming “victory,” some uploaded pictures of Obama as their profile picture, while others, like myself, were outraged by the excitement.  Amidst the “U-S-A” chants, the flag-waving, and the “God Bless America” demonstrations outside of the White House, people seemed to forget about the millions of Iraqi and Afghan bodies murdered by US wars after 9/11.  Oh, and the 900+ Pakistanis killed by the Obama administration’s drone raids.

Over a million deaths later, the US war machine finally killed the one man they claimed to be hunting for and now there are doves flying everywhere, carrying “world peace” banners?  At least, that’s how the joy made it sound.  It was as if the murders of all the Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, and Pakistanis were magically erased.  People were celebrating as if it was the end of war itself.  Some Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians were adding their voices to the choir, as if Islamophobia and racism was suddenly going to disappear.

President Obama’s speech was insulting enough, with ridiculous claims like:

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

As I mentioned in a recent post, there was no “color-blind” unity after 9/11.  The “one American family” 9/11 narrative that Obama and others love to romanticize about completely eliminates the reality of Islamophobia.  No mention is made about the Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, Sikh-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim who had and continue to endure traumatizing experiences with racism, discrimination, vandalism, harassment, and hate crimes. In her article, “Bin Laden’s Death: Why I Can’t Celebrate,” Valerie Kaur writes:

Even if I wanted to celebrate, I’m too busy worrying.  Today, many Sikh, Muslim, and Arab American families, brace for violence, concerned that Americans will target those who “look like” the Osama bin Laden we just destroyed. We didn’t bring Osama bin Laden to trial, after all.  We killed him before we captured his body.  So why would vigilante Americans wait for the law to take care of the “terrorists” in their midst.

The last time a sudden burst of nationalism rallied us against America’s turbaned and bearded enemy, an epidemic of hate crimes swept the country.  In the yearlong aftermath of 9/11, the FBI reported a 1700 percent increase in anti-Muslim violence. At least 19 people were killed in hate murders. In the last decade, we have seen resurgences of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last election season confirmed to politicians that they can use anti-Muslim sentiment to win political points.

On September 15th, 2001, just four days after 9/11, three men, a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Coptic Christian were murdered by white racist Islamophobes. The names of the victims: Waqar Hasan, Balbir Singh Sodhi, and Adel Karas, respectively. Mark Stroman, the murderer of Hasan, also shot Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi, in the face and then murdered Vasudev Patel a few days later. Hate crimes against Muslim-Americans skyrocketed to 481 reports after 9/11 and the number of discriminatory acts and hate crimes have been annually increasing since then (for more detailed accounts, statistics, and sources, read this older post).

I appreciated some of the commentaries I read about the death of bin Laden and how it wouldn’t mark the end of war.  But then came that dreaded phrase again, from both Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  “Terrorists hijacked Islam.”

A Yahoo News article, Muslim Americans still find acceptance elusive in the wake of bin Laden’s death, highlighted on some of the experiences with Islamophobia, but some Muslims claimed Osama bin Laden “hijacked our identity.”  In another article, Osama bin Laden is considered responsible for Islamophobia.  I am still coming across blog posts and articles that make the same assertion.

As I wrote in Part 2 of this series, the claim that Islam was “hijacked” by terrorists implies that violent extremists speak for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  It not only serves to justify demonization of Islam, but also glosses over serious racist double-standards that exist in our society, such as never asking white Christians to answer for atrocities carried out by other white Christians, but always demanding Muslims to do so.  Unlike white non-Muslims, Muslims are treated as spokespersons for the estimated 1.5 worldwide Muslim population, as well as the diverse cultures that make up the community, and must “prove” to western societies that they are “domesticated,” or rather the dominant culture’s definition of a “good Muslim,” i.e. uncritical of US policies, hostile towards Muslim-American civil rights groups like CAIR, committed to fighting religious extremism to “protect Americans,” and never making a peep about Islamophobia and racism in American society. If Muslims do not pass the “good Muslim” test, they get categorized as “bad Muslims,” or “radical,” “suspicious,” “militant,” “anti-west,” etc.

Mahmood Mamdani, author of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” describes this dichotomy:

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

Even more, these people seem incapable of transforming their culture, the way they seem incapable of growing their own food. The implication is that their only salvation lies, as always, in philanthropy, in being saved from the outside.

When I read this, or something like this, I wonder if this world of ours is after all divided into two: on the one hand, savages who must be saved before they destroy us all and, on the other, the civilized whose burden it is to save all?

Diversity within Islam and Muslim communities is not recognized (in fact, it is non-existent) when the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy is employed through the “terrorists hijacked Islam” narrative.  It becomes the Muslim’s responsibility to fight the religious extremists and take back Islam – only then, we are told, will Islamophobia and terrorism end.  Essentially, the burden is on Muslims to become superheroes overnight and save the world.  Yeah.

Anyway.

Arguing that Osama bin Laden is “responsible” for Islampohobia is awfully problematic because it implies Islamophobia didn’t exist prior to 9/11 and that racists cannot be blamed for their Islamophobia.  This argument caters to the flawed logic that people are responsible for their own oppression. That is, one shouldn’t blame Islamophobes for hating Islam or demonizing Muslims in mainstream media, for example, but instead, one should blame Muslims who are “giving Islam and other Muslims a bad name!”  This basically says people’s prejudices and racism is not of their own doing, but rather of the “otherized” group (in this case, Muslims) that they are targeting.  Islamophobes simply “don’t know any better” because the vast majority of Muslims aren’t “setting a good example,” therefore they’re absolved of being held accountable for their Orientalist stereotypes!

If Osama bin Laden caused Islamophobia, then why did Islamophobia and Orientalism exist prior to 9/11?  Mainstream European and American discourse on Islam was tainted by racist, Orientalist stereotypes – everything from “Islam was spread by the sword” history lessons to images of veiled Muslim women to charges that the Qur’an advocates war against Christians, Jews, and every other non-Muslim on the planet.  Jack Shaheen’s book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” covers over 900 Hollywood films that demonized Arabs, Muslims, and Iranians, and all of these films were made well before 9/11.  Some films that come to my mind are “True Lies,” “Not Without My Daughter,” “Executive Decision,” “The Delta Force,” and the atrocious “Rules of Engagement,” which is one of the most racist films I have ever seen.  Who “hijacked” Islam when these films were made?  Is the Muslim community to blame for the way white Hollywood filmmakers demonized them?  Who “hijacked” Islam when Dante Alighieri, the 14th century Italian poet, condemned Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali (peace be upon them both) to Hell and eternal, gruesome punishment in his acclaimed “Inferno”?  Were Muslims to blame when many medieval Christian leaders and writers believed Islam was the “Devil’s tool” to “destroy” Christianity?

I believe this is an incredibly important point because if we blame Osama bin Laden for Islamophobia and “hijacking” our identities, we are telling non-Muslims, as well as ourselves, that Islamophobia generated from within our community. The reality is, Islamophobia does not exist because of Osama bin Laden. Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy. One needs to understand how racial hierarchies operate within systems of oppression to get this point.  So many times, in general conversation, I will hear people say, “You know, I was in the store and the man behind the counter was asking this black lady what she wanted to order…” or “My friend got into a fight with this guy on my baseball team and he was from Puerto Rico; he had the accent and everything…” or “Yeah, a cashier at another store keeps telling me about all these Asian women who come in with envelopes filled with coupons.”  We hear people of color being racialized and politicized all the time. Notice how none of the expressions I shared tell us about the race of the “man behind the counter,” “the friend” on the baseball team, or the “cashier.”  We assume they are white because white represents the “default race.”  White people are seen as complex, diverse, and multi-dimensional people, which is why generalizations are made about “Asian women with envelopes filled with coupons,” while nothing is said about the white people who also shop with envelopes full of coupons. No one says, “Oh man, look at these white people with all their coupons.”   Their race isn’t a factor, they’re just seen as being “weird.”

While Muslims represent a religious community and not a race, white supremacy has created a racialized profile for Muslims: dark-skinned/brown, turban, bearded, Arab.  Here is an example of how this racialization works: If a white guy robs a store, it’s “oh, did you hear about the guy who robbed the bank this morning?” If he was Muslim, it would be, “some Muslim guy robbed the bank!”  The “Muslim” will be imagined as brown, bearded, shouting in Arabic, and wearing a keffiyeh around his face.  As the aforementioned hate crime incidents show, non-Muslim folks of color (like turban-wearing Sikhs or brown-skinned Hindus or Arabic-named Egyptian Christians) are targets of Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate.  If you are Arab, you are perceived to be Muslim, even if you are not, and if you are Muslim, you are perceived to Arab, even if you are not.  If your name is Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or South Asian, you are perceived to having a “Muslim name.”  If you are a brown Hindu man with a goatee and at the airport, you will be perceived as being Muslim.  This is how the logic of Orientalism works and, in the words of Andrea Smith, “marks certain peoples or nations as inferior and deems them to be a constant threat to the well-being of empire.”  She elaborates:

These peoples are still seen as “civilisations”—they are not property or the “disappeared”. However, they are imagined as permanent foreign threats to empire. This logic is evident in the anti-immigration movements in the United States that target immigrants of colour. It does not matter how long immigrants of colour reside in the United States, they generally become targeted as foreign threats, particularly during war-time. Consequently, orientalism serves as the anchor of war, because it allows the United States to justify being in a constant state of war to protect itself from its enemies. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the logics of slavery and genocide as these practices enable it to stay “strong enough” to fight these constant wars. What becomes clear, then, is what Sora Han declares: the United States is not at war; the United States is war.  For the system of white supremacy to stay in place, the United States must always be at war.

This is why Islamophobia exists – because of Orientalism, white supremacy, racism, war, hate.  We don’t blame Jews for anti-Semitism, do we?  We don’t blame African-Americans for anti-black racism, do we?  To reiterate and re-emphasize from Part 2: What of Timothy McVeigh, the Crusader language of Blackwater, and even the religious justification George W. Bush used to invade Iraq?  When was the last time you heard someone say “Christianity was hijacked”?  Or, what about the JDL (Jewish Defense League) former Chairman, Irv Rubin, and group member, Earl Krugel, who were arrested 3 months after 9/11 for planning bomb attacks on a Mosque in California and on the office of Arab-American US representative Darrell Issa?  Did anyone say “Judaism was hijacked” by these extremists?

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

The idea that a small group of people can take control of our religion is absurd and completely denies the voice that we as a majority have.  Osama bin Laden doesn’t represent the majority of Muslims. We are an immensely diverse community, there is debate going on, and there is a lot of work to do, but we don’t need to give in to Orientalist intervention. We don’t need Orientalist racism, war, or imperialism to “rescue” or “define us.”  We are constantly defining ourselves.

Revisiting Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Exploitation of Mayan Civilization

apocalypto

I admit that when I first saw Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” in theaters, I thought it was visually stunning (see screen shot above) and incredibly entertaining.  A few days later, I remember pondering about why Mel Gibson wanted to tell a story about Mayan civilization, especially after making a deeply religious film, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Was Gibson simply looking for a fast-paced action/adventure story to tell (with typical Mel Gibson-style gore) or was he embedding a strong colonial and Eurocentric message (also with typical Mel Gibson-style gore)?

Perhaps he was looking to do both.

It would be wrong to accuse a devoutly religious person of any faith that their work will always contain either an implicit or explicit message that promotes the superiority of one group of people over another.  It would also be wrong to assume that just because Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic, he must then fit the stereotype of pro-war neoconservatives.  On the contrary, Gibson revealed in Time Magazine that the “fear-mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.”  However, given Gibson’s drunken anti-Semetic rant in 2006 and his inconsistent remarks about whether or not non-Catholics and non-Christians are worthy of salvation, I argue that there is more to “Apocalypto” than an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

The film opens with a quote by American historian Will Durant:  “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”  By the end of the film, if you keep this quote in mind, the implication seems to be that the Mayas were a brutal civilization that destroyed itself before the Spanish conquistadors invaded and “saved” the people.   These sentiments are echoed by anthropologist Traci Ardren, who writes that the Spanish invaders were Christian missionaries and that the film contains a “blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were ‘rotten at the core.'”  She adds:

[The film] replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people.

Since the subject of human sacrifice is sensationalized incredibly in high school (and even college) discourse about Mayan and Aztec cultures, it shouldn’t surprise viewers that the film highlights upon the brutal ritual.  Indeed, human sacrifice was practiced, but many scholars argue against the notion that 250,000 people would be sacrificed annually.  Scholars and historians alike argue that the Aztecs would inflate the number for propaganda purposes and to intimidate their enemies.  Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, writes:

We have accounts from the Aztecs of such things; it shows up in their mythology. And we have some images from the Maya that suggest that that kind of sacrifice did take place and that they probably did roll the bodies down (the pyramid). Now, the guys in the movie at the bottom catching the bodies with nets? That is crazy. We have no evidence for that. Another thing that was so funny was all that crazy, wild dancing with women’s breasts flapping. I was just reading hours before I saw the movie with you a 400-page textbook dedicated to Maya dance, and it talked about how women played no major public role in these ceremonies but much more subtle roles.

It’s no doubt that the world in which the Mayan characters inhabit looks like a very scary place.  Mel Gibson intended it to be that way and he is very good at disturbing the audience with demonic representations of the Maya.  We don’t see anything appreciative about Mayan civilization, but rather see a very primitive and barbaric society that simply enjoys hunting, beating, and killing other human beings.  In actuality, aside from technology, the Mayan civilization was more advanced than their European counterparts.  They excelled in mathematics, astronomy, art, architecture, and science.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Brilliant Mayan artistic and scientific achievements in ceramics, sculpture, weaving, and painting, some of which were more advanced than European accomplishments of the same era, all showed remarkable artistic sensitivity. They developed an accurate calendar and complex systems of agricultural and water management.

Rather than enlightening us about these aspects of Mayan civilization, Gibson seems quite persistent in capturing the cruelty, horror, and “backwardness” in ancient civilization.  In fact, Gerardo Aldana argues in his brilliant piece, “Where Was the Maya Civilization in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto?” that much of the brutality depicted in the film was actually “borrowed” from the West.  He elaborates:

[T]he slave market depicted in the city constitutes a mirror image of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the pre-Civil War United States. In that case, the “sellers” of African slaves were Europeans or European-Americans, dehumanizing other peoples by treating them as commodities. While slavery is documented for Maya cultures (and Greek and Roman, etc.), there is nothing that attests to their having been bought and/or sold in public market contexts.

Furthermore, Aldana adds that the raiding of villages for human sacrifice, as depicted in the film, is undocumented in Maya cultures and that the practice of placing decapitated heads on stakes came from “Cortes’s entra in Central Mexico, committed by Spanish conquistadors against their indigenous ‘enemies.'”

Hernan Cortes, as Aldana references, was a Spanish conquistador who brought an end to the Aztec Empire.  It’s interesting to note that the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, feared that Cortes and his conquistadors were sent by the awaited feathered-serpent god, Quetzalcotal (who is thought to be Jesus, peace be upon him, by some Mormon scholars).  It’s disputed among historians whether or not Cortes learned about this prophecy and then claimed himself to be Quetzalcotal in order to take advantage of the Aztecs, but what’s not disputed is that Quetzalcotal was prophesied to be fair-skinned and bearded.  The European invaders were, in fact, lighter-skinned and many of them were bearded, and with their advanced technology, such as large ships and cannons, it worked in the imagination of many that the conquistadors were otherworldly, if not sent by Quetzalcotal himself.

As I keep this in mind, I reflect on the ending of “Apocalypto” when fair-skinned and bearded Spaniards arrive with ships and a wooden cross.  They are portrayed in an innocent and unapologetic light, as if they are, indeed, arriving to save the Mayans.  This bothers and disturbs me for a number of reasons; the main reason being that those who may not be familiar with ancient history of what is now Latin America may watch this film and conclude that the Spaniards simply came and everything was happy and wonderful.  In other words, it perpetuates the romanticization of Christopher Columbus, the “discovery” of the “new world,” and how the Europeans “coexisted peacefully” with the indigenous population.

Audiences aren’t concerned about the achievements and contributions of Mayan civilization when they watch “Apocalypto.”  There is nothing in the film that draws our attention to anything remotely appreciative about their culture or civilization.  Instead, the audience gets a fast-paced action/adventure movie that is set in a “scary” ancient world and we should be thankful for the European invasion.

To put it bluntly:  Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is an exploitation of Mayan civilization and it offers no apology for the Spanish conquest, which, in reality, imposed Catholicism, colonized Mexico for three centuries, and nearly wiped out the entire indigenous population.  Gibson’s film, with all of its sensationalism, suspense, and violence, ignored the opportunity to enlighten the world about an ancient civilization and, instead, opted to entertain and rake in money at the box office with a cheap colonialist message.