Anti-Racist Critiques of “Homeland”

HOMELAND (Season 4)As upsetting as it is to hear about the Islamophobic TV show “Homeland,” it is encouraging to see so many anti-racist critiques being written about it. I mentioned this in my previous post, but media is a powerful force in our society that shapes people’s attitudes, perceptions, social norms, prejudices, etc. Constantly seeing demonizing images of Muslims in media are an assault on our humanity and they contribute profoundly to the apathy we see when Muslims are killed, tortured, bullied, and discriminated against. It is obvious at this point that the writers and producers are not concerned about how these images have a serious impact on the lives of Muslims, but I’m hopeful that these critiques by Muslims and non-Muslim allies will increase in number.

I decided to collect critiques of the show and post them on here. I will try to keep updating this post if I come across any more articles, but please feel free to share any additional links in the comments! Keep the critiques coming and let’s put them on blast on our blogs, tumblrs, twitter accounts, Facebook pages, etc. Below are excerpts from the articles, which can be read in full via the links provided.

I’ll start with the most recent article:

3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland‘s depiction of Islamabad by Fatima Shakeel:

As I watched the premiere episode, my anticipation over seeing my hometown as the setting of a critically acclaimed American television show quickly fizzled as I watched Carrie Mathison and her fellow CIA agents arrive in a wild, filthy, menacing land that looked nothing like the place I’ve lived in my entire life. The show’s clear lack of homework on Pakistan is astounding; the setting, the characters, and the language that Homeland tries to pass off as “local” are all foreign to me.

[...]

Homeland consistently botches the most fundamental aspects of Urdu conversation, in ways that are both painful and hilarious to anyone who actually speaks it… The English accents are just as inauthentic. In real life, Pakistani English sounds nothing like the oft-caricatured Indian English accent. On Homeland, however, Pakistani characters speaking in English sound either like Apu from The Simpsons or like the carpet merchant singing the opening song of Disney’s Aladdin.

I find it hard to believe that the show’s producers couldn’t find a single native Urdu speaker or any Pakistani actors. At the very least, why not hire a language consultant? If Game of Thrones can hire a linguist to properly construct believable, fictional languages like Valyrian and Dothraki, why can’t Homeland hire somebody to check the basics of a real-world language?

A ‘Homeland’ We Pakistanis Don’t Recognize by Bina Shah:

Pakistan has long been said to have an image problem, a kind way to say that the world sees us one-dimensionally — as a country of terrorists and extremists, conservatives who enslave women and stone them to death, and tricky scoundrels who hate Americans and lie pathologically to our supposed allies. In Pakistan, we’ve long attributed the ubiquity of these images to what we believe is biased journalism, originating among mainstream American journalists who care little for depth and accuracy.

[...]

[T]he season’s first hour, in which Carrie also goes to Islamabad, offers up a hundred little clues that tell me this isn’t the country where I grew up, or live. When a tribal boy examines the dead in his village, I hear everyone speaking Urdu, not the region’s Pashto. Protesters gather across from the American Embassy in Islamabad, when in reality the embassy is hidden inside a diplomatic enclave to which public access is extremely limited. I find out later that the season was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, with its Indian Muslim community standing in for Pakistanis.

I realize afterward that I’ve been creating a test, for the creators of “Homeland” and all who would sell an imagined image of Pakistan: If this isn’t really Pakistan, and these aren’t really Pakistanis, then how they see us isn’t really true.

A verse in the Quran says, “Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” Even after everything that’s happened between us, we in Pakistan still want you to know us, not as you imagine us, but as we really are: flawed, struggling, complex, human. All of us, in the outside world as well as in Pakistan, need art — film and television, story and song — that closes that gap between representation and reality, instead of prying the two further apart.

TV’s Most Islamophobic Show by Laila Al-Arian:

All the standard stereotypes about Islam and Muslims are reinforced, and it is demonstrated ad nauseam that anyone marked as “Muslim” by race or creed can never be trusted, all via the deceptively unsophisticated bureau-jargon of the government’s top spies.

[...]

“Homeland” leaves little doubt that, regardless of the other red herring motivations of justice and psychological manipulation, it is being Muslim that makes someone dangerous.  Brody is able to resist Abu Nazir’s machinations when he wants, and his desire to avenge Issa ultimately is overcome by his love for his own daughter.  But nothing can rid him of his Muslimness, and so, like a child molester, he will always be a threat to the audience. When his wife discovers Brody is a Muslim who has been praying in that most sinister of man-caves, the garage, she tears through its contents like she is looking for his kiddie-porn stash. When she finds his Quran, she points angrily at it, shouting, “These are the people who tortured you!”  These are the people who, if they found out Brody’s daughter was having sex, “would stone her to death in a soccer stadium!” She thought that Brody had put all the “crazy stuff” behind him, but he can only look sheepish and ashamed. The Quran, the sacred text of billions of people throughout history, is nothing more or less than terrorism and medieval justice embodied. Brody had it all, his wife implies: white, a hero, a family man, but he threw it all away by becoming a Muslim.

“Homeland” is the most bigoted show on television by Laura Durkay:

It’s easy to argue that “Homeland” is just a TV show, a thriller that naturally demands diabolical villains and high stakes. But these same stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims are used politically to justify actions in the real world — U.S. wars, covert operations and drone strikes; CIA detention and torture; racist policing, domestic surveillance and militarized borders. In this context, “Homeland” is not just mindless entertainment, but a device that perpetuates racist ideas that have real consequences for ordinary people’s lives.

“Homeland,” Obama’s Show by Joseph Massad (thanks to RenKiss for sharing this):

Homeland’s plot is hardly original. Its story is borrowed from the world of fiction and reality. While the plot resembles that of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, and the anxiety about the enemy within, the drone attacks that kill hundreds of innocent children (and hundreds more innocent adult civilians) have been a real Obama specialty for years, extending from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Yemen.

Watch this clip of Deepa Kumar talking about “Homeland”:

Happy Muslims: Performing “Happiness” and “Normalcy”

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I can’t believe I haven’t updated my blog since 2013! Most of my hiatus is due to being busy in graduate school and also working on a feature film. I’ll share some details about the film later in this post, but I first want to address a video that came to my attention a few days ago.

By now, most Muslims active on social media have seen the “Happy British Muslims” music video, which shows a diverse group of Muslims in Britain lip-synching and dancing (happily, of course) to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I noticed friends on Facebook sharing the video, but at first, I didn’t take the time to watch the video. However, after I noticed debates taking place, I decided to give it a view. Yesterday, a Chicago version of “Happy Muslims” was released online and I also heard about Boston and Toronto versions being in the works. Before I share my critique of these videos, I want to discuss a few conversations I’ve been seeing online.

So far, from what I’ve read, most of the articles framing this debate are reinforcing binary-thinking within the Muslim community. The articles state that there are two groups of Muslims that are dominating this discussion. The first group are Muslims who enjoyed the video and believe that it humanizes Muslims and helps break stereotypes. Obviously, it makes sense that many Muslims would support the video. After all, in Hollywood and mainstream western media, Muslims are overwhelmingly depicted as villains and terrorists (for over a 100 years!), so it’s refreshing to see Muslims being happy in a music video that has gone viral. The second group of Muslims, on the other hand, find the video sinful and incompatible with Islamic teachings. Their main criticism being that Muslim women are dancing in the video and that such “behavior” does not “follow the Sunnah.”

This debate continues to ensue on online forums, Facebook pages, Twitter posts, etc. However, the problem with this binary framing is that it ignores other perspectives that have not been receiving much attention (or being left out of the discussion altogether). One of these perspectives is concerned about the problematic messages the video reinforces politically. I believe Yasmin Jamaludeen’s powerful critique of the video touches upon many of the same concerns I had, but also so much more. As she writes:

What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”.

Like Jamaludeen, my problem isn’t with the dancing or music. In fact, I disagree with some of the Muslims who are objecting to the video on religious grounds. It’s outrageously sexist that a “halal” version of the video was made, where all of the Muslim women were edited out. By erasing Muslim women, they are being deemed “haram,” which is beyond horrible. I also don’t believe in shaming anyone who participated in the video nor am I interested in making personal attacks against the people who enjoyed the video. Jamaludeen also made it clear she wasn’t cynical about the people in the video and wasn’t attacking anyone, but rather expressing her cynicism about the agenda, which is what I’m interested in discussing. Specifically, what I’m interested in examining is how videos like these promote assimilation narratives that subsequently reinforce the harmful good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

One of the main issues I have with the video is that it follows a problematic, though common, trend we see from Muslims in the West who are attempting to “break stereotypes” or respond to Islamophobia. The common trend being that we have to assert our Western national identities in order to show the dominant culture that we are “normal” and “peaceful” people. In many ways, the problems I have with this video are the same problems I had with the “All-American Muslim” reality TV show which aired briefly on TLC (and faced Islamophobic attacks). I didn’t take issue with how Muslims in the show dressed, or where they worked, or whether or not they dated. It was with (and I know some people are probably tired of me saying this) the notion that we must be “proud Americans” (or proud Westerners) to qualify as human beings. It’s with the premise that we need to operate within the white non-Muslim gaze in order to claim our humanity; that we need to say, “Hey, look, I have barbecues in my backyard just like every other American! Look, I watch football games like you, too! We’re all American!” The title is cringe-worthy enough, too — what does “All-American” mean exactly?

National Muslim civil rights organizations promote these narratives too, unfortunately. In their PR campaigns, they’ll showcase images of Muslims proudly waving (or even wearing) American flags in the name of “breaking stereotypes,” as if performing Americanness (or Canadianness, Britishness, etc.) is the only way to prove to the West that we are human. Meanwhile, the Muslims who resist these narratives and/or question the legitimacy of white supremacist nations (often by addressing the racist, sexist, and violent colonial histories of these nations and the impact these forces have today) are categorized as “bad Muslims” – the militants, the extremists, the radicals, etc. Sadly, we see this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy also perpetuated by people in our own communities. I remember a few friends and I raised concerns about the way some Muslim civil rights groups were praising the “founding fathers.” In particular, we called attention to the fact that the founding fathers owned slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous peoples. The response we received from one of the representatives was a hostile one, accusing us of being “bad PR.” What message does this deliver to Indigenous peoples struggling against colonialism and genocide? What message does it deliver about Muslims in America and the agenda that some organizations are trying to promote (i.e. “we’re only concerned about our interests” over the rights of others)?

We saw the same pattern of the assimilation narrative in the awful Mipsterz video (which I believe is still worse than the “Happy Muslim” videos). With regard to the “Happy Muslims” videos, the critiques are again about how Muslims perform “happiness” for the white gaze to be seen as “normal” (“normal” meaning “just like every other British/American/Canadian person” and being seen as nonthreatening to white supremacy). An article on OnIslam.net, which wrote in defense of the video, concluded with a sentence stating that 83% of Muslims are “proud to be a British citizen.” To counter stereotypes, the message seems to always be: “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re proud British/American/Canadian/Australian, etc. citizens,” instead of “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re human beings.” It’s as if the only way to be respected and accepted in society is to show white non-Muslims that we are not only “happy” in their white supremacist nations, but also how we are “the Good Muslims,” or “proud citizens just like them.” Subsequently, this works to distinguish us from the Muslims “over there,” i.e. the Muslims who aren’t citizens of the West and characterized as being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” “unintelligent,” etc. (and as if their lack of citizenship makes them less human or their deaths less outrageous).

Indeed, Islamophobia and other oppressive forces from the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal establishment have tremendous effects on Muslims and people of color. I’m not saying that the Muslims who participated in the video are unaware or not impacted by these forces. However, what I’d like to call attention to is that we rarely see stories or videos that show Muslims resisting against state racism, assimilation, and other oppressive forces in their lives without being demonized for it. Are “happy” and state-friendly images of Muslims the only response we have to Islamophobia? Or, to phrase another way, are these images the only “appropriate” ways to counter stereotypes?

The argument from people who are defending the video is that the filmmakers are humanizing Muslims. However, let’s ask ourselves what it means to be human. Does “human” mean that we are only allowed to express one emotion, “happiness”? Does a “humanizing” depiction of Muslims mean we restrict ourselves to the narrow depiction of being “Good Muslims” and omit the other emotions (like anger and sadness) we experience for the sake of “proving” to white non-Muslims that we are not terrorists? I’m concerned with the ironically angry personal attacks that critics of the video are getting from fellow Muslims. Critics are labeled as the Muslims who “don’t know how to be happy” or “don’t know how to have fun.” Unfortunately, it goes to show how the good Muslim/bad Muslim is being reproduced, but also how oppressive “positive-thinking” politics can be, especially when they’re imposed on people who are expressing the opposite.  That is, if you aren’t “happy” or thinking “positively,” then you’re characterized as being “oversensitive,” “ungrateful/unappreciative,” or “too angry.” What does “happy” mean in this context anyway? Be happy and don’t talk about Islamophobia? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who do not perform happiness in the way the Muslims in the video do? What are the views toward Muslims who would be classified as “angry,” and are actively resisting against white supremacy and patriarchy? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who are disloyal towards the British government (or any government, really)? What about Muslims who don’t feel like they can “fit in” or may not even want to “fit in”? Aren’t all of these questions and concerns also part of people’s humanity?

There are ways to show Muslims struggling against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without portraying us as “helpless victims” or mass murderers. There are ways to tell stories about these struggles without relying on demonizing stereotypes. We can tell these stories without being primarily concerned with the gaze of the white non-Muslim audience. A few days ago, I read a really moving article by author Daniel José Older, who wrote about writers of color and the challenges they face in storytelling and publishing. In the article, titled “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” this part stood out to me the most:

The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair this month: “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

So we are wary. The publishing industry looks a lot like one of these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.

But let’s go back to this: “It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color, it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet of the majority white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture [Emphasis mine].

Yes. All of that!

The part about “writing past” editors and agents resonated with me the most because I believe it articulates how I’ve been approaching the feature film I’m currently writing/directing/producing (filming is about 70% finished). I did not want to make a PSA announcement nor was I interested in “educating” a white audience about Islam and Pakistani culture. I did not want the two Pakistani Muslim protagonists to be seen as representing “all Pakistanis” or “all Muslims.” Instead, I have been focusing on telling an honest and unapologetic story that treats these characters as complex, multi-dimensional individuals and human beings. I don’t mean “human beings” in the universal, colorblind, “we-are-all-human-therefore-race-doesn’t-matter” sense. I mean “human beings” as in owning our feelings, emotions, complexities, without being concerned with whether or not these characters make white non-Muslim audiences comfortable. In some scenes, these two characters are happy. In other scenes, they’re sad and conflicted. And sometimes, they are angry and disruptive. I’m sure some people will have critiques about the film and I’ll do my best to be ready for those criticisms (and own up to any mistakes I’ve made), but overall, I have found that not worrying or caring about the white gaze has been a very empowering process in telling this story. By the end of it, I hope it is seen as a disruptive film that challenges white supremacist patriarchy in education institutions and the workplace (where most of my film takes place), and promotes solidarity among communities of color. I also hope it’s seen as challenging assimilation and “American identity” in general. Of course, I anticipate white people watching the film and, if anything, I’d like them to think about how they can be allies (or improve their roles as allies), but overall, they’re not the target audience of the film.

Lastly, I’m not saying that we should see Muslims being “angry all the time” in contrast to all the “happy” videos that portray Muslims as “joyous,” “hip,” and “cool.” I’m saying that we do not see Muslims expressing rage or anger in videos/movies/TV shows that are seeking to humanize us. Too often, all we see are PSA or PR campaigns that are about “educating” non-Muslims that we are not “terrorists;” that we are just like them; that we are not actively challenging state oppression. If we see “angry Muslims” in mainstream media, they are terrorists, misogynists, and “oversensitive,” racialized Others who are “backwards” and “pre-modern.” Very rarely do we see stories or depictions of Muslims where we just are being and existing in all of our complexities without the filter of white culture.

While some people defend the “Happy Muslims” video (which seems to be turning into a campaign now in the West) and believe it helps “break stereotypes,” there are other stories that are left untold. I know there are other Muslim filmmakers and storytellers who are telling more nuanced and complex stories and not catering to the white gaze, but we do not see their work being promoted enough. We need to move away from this idea that we have to perform “happiness” and/or assert “American,” “British,” or “Canadian” identities to be seen as human beings. As Jamaludeen expressed at the end of her critique, we need to “start defining ourselves on our own terms.” The white supremacist nation-state doesn’t decide who is human or isn’t — our humanity is God-given and no one can take that away.

Confronting Personal and State Violence Simultaneously

Within the past month or so, a couple of friends were telling me about the racism and sexism they continue to experience in social justice spaces. Yesterday, another friend was telling me about her experience with abusive “activists” who refuse to take any responsibility for their racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.   I know I have addressed this before on my blog, but what does it say about the power of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy when we constantly face the internalization and reproduction of these oppressive forces within our own communities where we are supposed to be safe?

It is disturbing how misogynist men in particular can carry on with their celebrity “activist” status after being called out on their sexism. It is as if making the choice to march in the street, chant a slogan, and organize rallies and meetings suddenly purifies an individual of their racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The practice of self-labeling as “liberal,” “activist,” “progressive,” or “radical,” especially in this day and age of social media, has come to mean that anyone who takes a stance on a social justice issue is devoid of responsibility and accountability.  Making unwanted advances at women and objectifying them is “ok” just as long as the heterosexual male activist was arrested by the police in the past and, at the end of the day, “does important work.”

There isn’t much I can add because there is already an important article written about this: “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” The author highlights on the frightening reality of informants who infiltrate activist movements for the purpose of destabilizing them. She stresses that misogynists make the perfect informants, and whether or not these misogynists are working for the state, they effectively weaken movement building and perpetuate gender violence that only makes marginalized communities even more vulnerable to the state that wants to destroy them.  Here’s an excerpt:

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements.  Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Also, this:

We have a right to be angry when the communities we build that are supposed to be the model for a better, more just world harbor the same kinds of antiqueer, antiwoman, racist violence that pervades society. As radical organizers we must hold each other accountable and not enable misogynists to assert so much power in these spaces. Not allow them to be the faces, voices, and leaders of these movements. Not allow them to rape a compañera and then be on the fucking five o’ clock news. In Brandon Darby’s case, even if no one suspected he was an informant, his domineering and macho behavior should have been all that was needed to call his leadership into question. By not allowing misogyny to take root in our communities and movements, we not only protect ourselves from the efforts of the state to destroy our work but also create stronger movements that cannot be destroyed from within.

I believe these points must be stressed over and over again.  I remember a friend reminding me that our communities cannot survive if our politics don’t confront gender violence, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. As the author writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do.” This is not a call for men to think of themselves as “saviors” of social justice movements, but rather to look at their own complicity. How have we raised our voices over women and refused to let them speak? How have we interjected ourselves into discussions where we should have shut up and listened?  How have we stood silent when a fellow male activist, whom we respect and admire, got away with sexual objectification, misogyny, disgusting sexist jokes, and sexual assault?  How have we participated in this abuse without holding ourselves accountable?  These questions are important because it is dangerous how misogynist male activists use their power to deflect attention away from their abuses. It is dangerous because these individuals do not think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, but rather as people who do “important work” that apparently “no one else can do” and therefore must be excused.

I’ve been thinking about all of this with relation to the Muslim community. I was exchanging messages with another Muslim friend and we were talking about a popular article that was being re-posted a lot on Facebook: “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam.”  I’m not sure if I’ll get into a full critique of it in this post, but my issue with the article didn’t have anything to do with launching gay-friendly or women-led mosques. I support women-led prayers, ending gender segregation in mosques, welcoming LGBT Muslims, and eliminating sexist oppression in our communities. I didn’t take issue with any of that because I believe Islam advocates respect and rights for every person, irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us have to make our spaces respectful, accepting, and appreciative. Muslim unity means that we acknowledge the vast diversity in our Ummah, and instead of making everyone conform to a singular and narrow interpretation of Islam, we need to learn how to show respect and appreciation for each other. Faith is personal and it is not something that should be policed by any person or by any government.

What I found problematic about the article was how it’s framed in a good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog that got quite popular – one was about ending gender segregation and the other was entitled “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress.” Both posts were critical of Muslim communities, but what bothered me was how many white liberal non-Muslims would link to those posts and make comments like, “Looks like someone is being critical of his culture, good job!” or use my posts to pit me against the rest of the Muslim community. As if I am the “good Muslim” and everyone else is “bad.”  What this reinforces in a society that calls itself a “melting pot” (where people are supposed to assimilate into one identity as opposed to having multiple identities) is an “us versus them” mentality. We don’t need to look any further than the Orientalist wars to see how this plays out: “Good Muslims” are state-friendly, whereas the “bad Muslim” is anyone who isn’t and therefore must be categorized as a potential threat to western civilization as we know it.

I felt the article about progressive Muslims played into that dichotomy and it became apparent when the author would mention a progressive Muslim and then talk about the death threats that particular person received. As if being a “good Muslim” in the eyes of white liberal Americans means you have to pit yourself against your community and be threatened by your fellow Muslims.  If Muslims don’t fit this narrow definition of a “progressive” Muslim, then they are either issuing death threats or they are “regressive” and practicing “draconian ways of Islam.” I don’t deny that death threats are a problem or that it doesn’t happen; what I’m critiquing here is the way this is presented in simplistic ways and within an American-centric, pro-secular narrative. Such framing runs consistent with the logic of white supremacy because the construction of “American Islam” becomes the “superior Islam,” i.e. “superior” to the way the rest of the world practices the faith. Also, secularism is left unchecked, as if secular states are not violent. Secularism doesn’t mean everyone lives in peace; the majority of wars have been secular, and homophobia doesn’t come solely from conservative religious people, it’s part of heteropatriarchal white supremacy. I believe we need to decolonize and build societies that we actually want to live in – based on interrelatedness and mutual reciprocity.

Another thing that stood out to me in the article was how it mentioned Asra Nomani with no criticism at all of how she recently came out in defense of the NYPD-CIA spying on Muslim students. In the past, she has advocated for the United States to “adopt” the “Israeli model” of profiling, and she also supported Peter King’s hearing on the “radicalization of Muslims.” If to be a progressive Muslim means we should advocate gay-friendly and women-led mosques, shouldn’t we also challenge the way Islamophobia has become embedded in state policies, law enforcement, educational institutions, media, etc.?  How will our communities survive if we defend such oppressive practices and laws?

What I’ve noticed for a while now is that Muslims who confront oppressive forces within our community and Muslims who confront Islamophobia and racism often work in isolation from one another. Just wanted to stress here that this is only based my personal experiences, so I don’t want to discredit or ignore those who do confront interpersonal and state oppression simultaneously, but for those who don’t, sometimes it feels as though it is either we talk about one or the other. The challenge then becomes about reconceptualizing how we organize our struggles. How, for instance, can we work together and eliminate oppression within our communities without relying or depending upon the state to help us? A couple of friends recommended the Incite! anthology “Color of Violence” (cover pictured above) to me and I’ve just begun to read it. Perhaps understanding the following strategy developed by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” can help us think about connecting our struggles in more effective ways:

There are many organizations that address violence directed at communities (e.g. police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and so on). There are also many organizations that address violence within communities (e.g. sexual/domestic violence). But there are very few organizations that address violence on both fronts simultaneously. The challenge women of color face in combating both personal and state violence is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus. Our approaches must always challenge the violence perpetrated through multinational capitalism and the state.

With this in mind, white supremacy impacts marginalized communities in different ways, so the point here isn’t to organize around “shared oppression,” but rather understanding that our struggles are interrelated. We need to fight sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within Muslim communities, and we need to fight racism and Islamophobia directed at us.  Our responses to Islamophobia should address the interlocking systems of oppression and how our own internal struggles (i.e. oppressing women, threatening to kill LGBT Muslims, discriminating against Muslims based upon race, gender, class, etc.) make us weaker, enables state violence against us, and threatens our survival. Informants, like ex-FBI informant Craig Montielh, have used misogynistic tactics, such as pursuing sexual relations with Muslim women, for the sake of obtaining information and reporting to higher authorities. Misogyny not only makes great informants, it is also makes our community more vulnerable to this violence.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when are we going to wake up on sexism and gender violence in our community and how it is so strongly connected to our fight against Islamophobia and racism that targets both women and men?  So many times, I’ve heard and seen racist non-Muslims interject themselves into conversations among progressive Muslims and then vilify anyone who dares to even acknowledge institutionalized oppression against gendered, racialized, and queer bodies (and yes, this includes the non-Muslims who have used my blog posts for racist purposes).  This defense of state oppression is used by misogynists, racists, and homophobes alike who not only want to neatly categorize marginalized communities, but also infiltrate and divide them.

Fire Under Water


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Jehanzeb

Remembering Malcolm X


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

I know I mentioned to a few friends that I was taking a brief hiatus from blogging, but since it is the month of Muharram, I wanted to share a few thoughts about Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both), and how his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala still carries significance today.

Before I continue, it seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourses, particularly on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect.  For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni.  Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as the “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.

While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my research on Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. For about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. I also believe in the infallibility of all God’s messengers and the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin  and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all).  As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).

Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam.  I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.”   I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought.  I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another.  As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).

Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because my community identity is still Sunni.  What I mean by this is that when I attend Sunni Mosques or social gatherings with my family, I don’t have to worry about being stigmatized in the same way a Shia family might. I have the privilege to avoid that stigma by not “outing” my Shia beliefs because people know my family is Sunni, therefore I, too, must be Sunni.  Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by persistently discussing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.”  It is equally important to have this critique while also not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,’” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims.  Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is also important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs.  Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be appreciative and respectful of these differences.

There are a lot of great books and sources available to learn more about the spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid.  Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression.  Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:

Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua

Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai

(Translated from Urdu)

His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?

Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain

The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance.  Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world.  As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169).  Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example.  In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.”  The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression.  Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power should be implemented in each day of our lives.   Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for assistance, but many of them did not help or speak out.  We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not neglecting or being complicit in the oppression of others.

Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet.  In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God.  Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain, but rather commemorating and celebrating him. Imam Hussain stood up for the rights of all human beings by sacrificing himself, but is self-sacrifice or martyrdom the one and only way to express one’s commitment to justice?  Of course not.  It is the essence that matters.  So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation.  This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.

According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain

King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain

This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir)  Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As Hyder illustrates:

The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)

Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.”  Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself.  As he passionately articulates in Persian:

Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim

I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn

Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?”  Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means for us to resist oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of the way we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially within the context of social justice.  For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences.  An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women was recently published on AltMuslimah and highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.

When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation – all of which mirrors the Qur’an – we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, etc.  We must have this discussion because without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for.  We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brother/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.”  We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, where is the compassion when anti-racist and anti-imperialist critiques of an administration that bombs, kills, and rapes Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani bodies in Muslim-majority nations are ridiculed, insulted, or ignored by Muslim representatives of civil rights groups?  Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are only talking about unity, acceptance, and respect inside the United States?

As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny.  Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies.   Denying women prayer space or refusing to engage in dialogue about gender segregation in Mosques (and this is mostly in the mainstream Sunni context since there are other Muslim groups who do not have gender segregation in Mosques) not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.

Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance.  Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.”  They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.”  The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:

Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)

Elsewhere, the Prophet said:

Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)

This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam as well as western non-Muslim accusations that Islam is “inherently sexist.”  I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men.  As one scholar writes:

When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.

Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,”  to which the Prophet asked, “Why?”  Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.”  The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:

Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)

In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men.  Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s role in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them!  Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not. Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship and challenges throughout their lives, and while some poetic praises from Muslim men honor these women, they tend to focus more on their sorrow than their immensely active political roles.  Hazrat Fatima constantly questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. On the contrary, she constantly condemned him, despite the risk of being executed herself.  Iqbal often writes of Hussain’s greatness because he is the son of Fatima, but Iqbal also goes further to say that had it not been for God’s laws of monotheism, he would have “gone round and round her (Fatima’s) grave-site” and “would have done sajdah (prostration) on her grave.”  Although Iqbal is known to challenge patriarchal Muslim jurists in regard to women’s rights, his conservative views on gender need to be critiqued.  It simply makes no sense for Muslim men to celebrate women like Khadijah, Fatima, and Zainab and yet persist with sexist attitudes and practices that aim to relegate women to the background.

Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an.  If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam.  Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love of the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation.  For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.”  Of course Sufi poems are inspiring, passionate, and breathtaking, but incredibly rich and complex cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation.  For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5-6).

These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab.  Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle or endurance through hardship.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow.  Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering.  On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc.  Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:

Here is the path of Love—how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.

Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom.  Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God/Love.  One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:

And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.

I don’t read poems like this as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives.  Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities.  As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer together.  If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings  is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world – Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere.  Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”  Understanding our complicities serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements.  Our commitment to interconnectedness with others, consciousness of our own responsibilities, and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of Muhammad, Fatima, Hussain, and Zainab, rooted in Love.

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

No Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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