Post-Racial America? Yeah Right!

Uzma Kolsy wrote an important article about recent attacks on Mosques and the Wisconsin Gurdwara in the past 11 days. Please read it here: “Eight Attacks, 11 Days.”

For those who don’t know, a day after the Gurdwara massacre, in which six Sikhs were killed by a white supremacist terrorist, a Mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burnt to the ground (pictured above).  On Saturday night, I was volunteering again at my Mosque for Iftari time and a friend texted me about shots being fired at an Illinois Mosque.  David Conrad, a 51 year-old white man, shot pellets from his rifle at the wall of the Mosque while there were 500 people praying inside. No one was hurt, but it must be noted that these shots were fired a day after congressperson Joe Walsh shamelessly spewed out racist, Islamophobic statements about Muslims “infiltrating” Chicago suburbs and wanting to “kill Americans.” It needs to be understood that the acceptance and normalization of this type of hate speech has violent consequences, and the recent attacks on Mosques and the Wisconsin Gurdwara are proof of that.

The next few days saw more attacks on Mosques. Below is “(t)ranscribed data on the fate of some paintball gunshots, flames, hammers, pig’s legs, and bottles of acid in the first half of August 2012 in the United States of America” (Source: I Have No Memory of It):

ONTARIO, California. Worshippers said two women threw the three legs onto the driveway of the proposed Al-Nur Islamic Center in Ontario shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday and sped away in a white pickup.

NORTH SMITHFIELD, Rhode Island. Muslims from a North Smithfield mosque are asking for extra protection after a sign outside their place of worship was vandalized over the weekend. North Smithfield police confirmed they are studying surveillance video recorded around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. That’s when a person was seen driving into the mosque’s parking lot and smashing the sign with a hammer.

MORTON GROVE, Illinois. The shots were heard by worshipers who were outside the mosque and were powerful enough to damage the building’s brick wall.

LOMBARD, Illinois. The prepertrators hurled a 7-Up bottled filled with acid at the school during Ramadan prayers.

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma. Authorities are investigating after vandals fired paintballs at an Oklahoma City mosque. ‘A car pulled here in front of the main entrance and started shooting paintball guns, but at the time, I didn’t know it was that. I thought it was bullets they were shooting into the building.’

Three suspicious fires within four years at the mosque west of JOPLIN, Missouri. A mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground just over a month after an attempted arson at the Islamic center.

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee. They’d waited more than two years for the opening of their new Islamic center, delayed by legal wrangling and anti-Muslim sentiment that surfaced through protests, arson and vandalism.

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey didn’t mince words.

‘You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it,’ he said during his failed run for governor.

A sign announcing the new center was vandalized. The message said: ‘Not welcome.’

I don’t hear these stories in the mainstream media, do you?  Calling America “post-racial” is not only inaccurate, it is also dangerous. It denies the very existence of violence against communities of color and treats each crime as “isolated incidents” (if ever acknowledged at all). Some new readers of this blog have left comments here about how things aren’t “as bad” for Muslims as it was for the Irish.  Our community (and other marginalized communities) hear this all the time and it still amazes me how people don’t understand how that statement basically says, “Hey, it’s not that bad, just ignore the hate crimes against Muslims, it’s no big deal. Really!”  And some comments have no hesitation in pulling the flying carpet fallacy (follow the link for a detailed explanation). How many more hate crimes against people of color need to be committed before mainstream society actively confronts racism and white supremacy?

It’s about time people move beyond the “it’s worse over there” or “it’s not as bad” rhetoric and begin to show respect and concern for all of humanity.

The Violence of White Supremacy

Only 16 days after the horrific shooting in Colorado, an ex-army white supremacist male opened fire in a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and killed six people. Aside from having another “and they call me barbarian” moment, my deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. I pray that God gives them all the strength needed to heal through this difficult time. Ameen.

I don’t wish to appropriate the pain felt by the Sikh victims and families of Sunday’s shooting, but the attack on their house of worship angers and saddens me. On the same day of the attack, I was volunteering at my Mosque for iftari (Ramadan dinner) and it was quite troubling and upsetting that my father had to explain safety procedures to me in case a racist Islamophobe decided to open fire on us. We knew there was no doubt that the white man who murdered six Sikhs thought he was shooting Muslims — those who doubt this need to be reminded that, along with Muslims, Sikhs and other non-Muslim communities that fit white supremacy’s racialized profile for “Muslims/Islam” (brown skin, beards, turbans, headscarves, etc.) have been targeted in hate crimes motivated by Islamophobia for a long time, especially since 9/11.  As I have written several times on this blog, among the first victims of this violence was a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered just four days after 9/11 by a white man who mistook him for a Muslim. The murderer, Frank Roque, ranted in bars about how he wanted to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11th,” and upon his arrest declared, ““I stand for America all the way!  I’m an American.  Go ahead.  Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.” According to official reports, Roque also stated the reason why he killed Sodhi: “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”

Wade Michael Page, the white man who unleashed terror on Sikh worshipers, was part of a “White Power” band and sung lyrics that called for a “race war.” As usual, the media fails to emphasize that Page’s violent racism is not an “isolated incident,” but rather rooted in the established order of white supremacy. As Andrea Smith contends, the third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of Orientalism, in which Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and other communities of color are marked as “permanent foreign threats to empire.” As hate crimes, discriminatory acts, vandalism, and other forms of violence against these communities continue to increase annually (in fact, a day after the Gurdwara massacre, a Mosque in Missouri was burnt to the ground), we also see violence from the state: NYPD-CIA spying on Muslims and infiltrating their neighborhoods, mosques, and schools; Obama’s “kill list” and signing of the indefinite detention bill; Orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries and relentless backing of Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine.

It is violent, despicable, and utterly shameful how western mainstream media, including popular television and film, constantly vilifies and demonizes Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Over and over again, we see stereotypical, narrow, and racist depictions of these communities, and society fails to connect these gross misrepresentations to the harmful impact they have on real human beings. It is no wonder that the Gurdwara atrocity has not attracted as much media and national attention as other shootings – the media has already conditioned society to view “dark” and “turbaned” people as subhuman. Ali Abunimah reminds us about President Obama’s trip to India and how he “refused to visit the main shrine of Sikhism, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, because he did not want to be photographed wearing a Sikh headcovering and be confused for a Muslim.” How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed of themselves when they see the very people that they vilified and distanced themselves from attacked in such violent racist hatred? How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed when hate crimes and discriminatory acts show that a human being is marked as a target when wearing the turban or the hijab?

It was upsetting listening to CNN making it a point to differentiate between Sikhs and Muslims, asserting that the former are peaceful while implying that Muslims are “violent.” The distinctions also suggested that an attack on Muslims would have somehow made more sense or been “understandable.” As many writers have argued, the differences between Muslims and Sikhs “misses the point.”  Deepa Kumar elaborates:

This is how cultural racism operates: anyone who bears the markers of the “enemy” must necessarily be guilty. For members of the Sikh community, this bizarre attitude is baffling. Some have gone out of their way to insist that Sikhs are not Muslim and should therefore not be targeted in these ways.

Yet, the horrific murders in Wisconsin should teach us that racism is about the dehumanization of an entire group of people: It is the worst kind of guilt by association.  If the Sikh community is not to blame for the events of 9/11, neither is the Muslim community.

It’s infuriating how there are still forces that try to divide Muslims and Sikhs, despite the many similarities Punjabi Muslims in particular share with Punjabi Sikhs. When I watched interviews with the witnesses, I couldn’t help but think about my own Punjabi heritage. Although I am not Sikh, it is our South Asian culture that teaches us to address our elders as “Uncle” or “Aunty” out of respect,  regardless of what their faith is. Seeing Sikh elders – men and women I would call Uncle and Aunty – in tears brought me to tears. Hearing them speak in Punjabi made me think of my parents speaking in Punjabi, a language I read in poetry, a language I sing along to, a language that represents a cultural bond between Punjabi Muslim and Sikh communities.  It was a South Asian community, fellow members of our Desi community, that was attacked. Whether we’re Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.; whether we’re Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, etc., we shop with each other at the same Desi stores, we dine at the same Desi restaurants, we cook and eat similar foods, we listen to similar music, we watch the same Bollywood movies, etc. Although there is a history of Muslim oppression against Sikhs, South Asian Muslims and Sikhs share similarities, including names, language, culture, and reverence for the same poets and gurus (Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, etc.). When the media stresses on how Sikhs and Muslims are different, they fail to see these intersections.

Our differences are significant and important, but they do not pit our communities against each other. As Sony Singh writes in his article, “We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond”:

The roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Sikh community run deep in South Asia, from the days of the tyranny of Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb in the 17th century to the bloodshed in 1947 when our homeland of Punjab was sliced into two separate nation-states. Despite these historical realities, Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy.In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus.

[…]

What is it going to take for Sikhs and Muslims to join together in solidarity against the common enemies of racist harassment and violence, racial and religious profiling, and Islamophobic bigotry?… As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.

The Sikh musician, Sikh Knowledge, tweeted this important message after the Gurdwara massacre:

We cannot distance ourselves from each other and behave as if this is not “our problem.” We are all impacted by the systems of violence and oppression in many different ways, but our struggles are interconnected and we cannot afford to abandon anyone.Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – all South Asians and all peoples – need to stand united against the oppressive workings of white supremacy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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