Planet of the Muslims?

planets

“The Muslim World” – Otherizing much?

Whenever I hear expressions like “The Muslim World,” or “The Arab World,” especially when they’re used by white non-Muslims, I think of those old science-fiction serials where the title screams across the screen in scary green text, accompanied by ominous music and a male radio broadcaster voice saying “The Muslim World!”  Admittedly, I have used these descriptions in college papers and blog posts in the past. Sometimes I used them out of simplicity and other times I used them because I didn’t know of any alternatives. I prefer saying “Muslim-majority countries” when referring to groups of countries that have predominant Muslim populations, but also make it a point to critique the Orientalist stereotypes that treat Muslim-majority countries or any Muslim population as monoliths.

I don’t like terms like “The Muslim World” or “The Arab World” for a number of reasons. First, it attempts to reinforce generalizations about all Muslim-majority or Arab-majority countries. Rather than acknowledging the complexity and diversity among and within Muslim-majority societies, “The Muslim World” simplifies these differences for the sake of Orientalist narratives and stereotypes. All Muslim-majority countries, according to this label, follow the same rules, laws, norms, lifestyles, beliefs, etc. In the Orientalist imagination, it’s like one of those exoticized “New Age” shops you’d find in an American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, etc.) suburb or city, where everything that “looks Indian or Arab” is showcased and treated “as the same.” Yeah, that’s racist.

Second, the language itself is absurd. It’s too intergalactic for me. Not only are Muslims from different racial and religious backgrounds, but they might as well be a different species. The language is dehumanizing and implies that Muslims are from an entirely different world – that their beliefs and ways of life are completely alien to planet Earth. Meanwhile, western white-majority societies are made out to be the real representatives of human beings on our planet. Ever notice how western science fiction movies, novels, and comic books about alien invasions tend to have white people representing Earth (and if they’re not white, they make sure you know that they’re American citizens)? Recently, I heard a non-Muslim writer say, “You’re right, our site needs more writers from the Muslim world.” What is being said here? That a random group of Muslims who happen to be from a number of Muslim-majority countries are going to represent a  homogenous “Muslim world”? That if a Muslim writer is based in, say, Lebanon, s/he is going to be an “ambassador” of an imagined “Muslim world”? That Muslims have some kind of shared “home world”? Though sometimes these phrases are used with good intentions, it’s important that we examine the language we use (in this case, the language used to describe Islam, Muslims, and Muslim-majority countries) and understand its implications.

Lastly, I don’t like these descriptions because of the way they’re often used to fuel generalizations and stereotypes that have harmful and deadly effects on real people.  “The Muslim world is evil,” which means all Muslim-majority countries need to be monitored by the U.S., invaded, occupied, and bombed. The “Muslim world” is characterized as a “dark, treacherous, and violent” place, and this kind of racist demonization maintains white supremacy, policies like racial profiling, hate crimes, and imperialism. If you listen to the hate speech of Islamophobes in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and other countries, their hostile hatred of “Sharia law” and Muslim immigration sounds like they’re warning against an “alien invasion.” Muslims, as well as other people of color, are viewed as perpetual “threats” and “uncivilized savages” that need to be cleansed to keep Earth (i.e. the family of white nations) “pure.” Yes, people have differences, especially different realities and experiences based on factors like race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth, but I find the manner in which phrases like “Muslim world” or “Arab world” are used are often otherizing and exoticizing. It reminds me of sexist language that asserts “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus,” which likens our differences to different planets and claims that we are “stuck in our ways” due to our biology; that we will always fit gendered and racialized stereotypes; that we have always been this way.

A few months ago, I was meeting with a white male administrator at my previous university and the conversation, unsurprisingly, shifted to where I was from. He then talking about how he wanted to visit Egypt and said he wanted to learn Arabic. Then he joked and suggested that maybe I could teach him. I told him I didn’t speak Arabic, mostly because Arabic is not spoken by majority of Pakistanis. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Wait, I thought Pakistan was in the Arab world?” As many Pakistanis know, we hear this a lot, so it wasn’t utterly shocking.  It would be racist to react with disgust to his question because there’s nothing wrong with being Arab, of course, so I took a moment and then said, “No, we’re on a neighboring world. You know, the planet next to the Arab world.” There was an awkward silence and the administrator’s face went blank. Then he laughed nervously, “Oh, ha ha ha ha.” I laughed genuinely – not with him, but at him. “You see what I did there?” I asked. He nodded and then apologized because he “didn’t mean it that way.” I then proceeded to explain to him why I find that language silly and offensive. He seemed to understand and said that he would “make a note of that.”

Perhaps its a message he can deliver back to The White World, right? :)

Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but nonetheless those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent in white English majority-speaking countries tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing stereotypes to bodies of color and perpetuating the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that there are anti-racist ways in which people of color imitate the accented English of their communities. There have been times when I used a Desi accent in ways that I felt were empowering and a form of resistance against racism. We perform these accents to counter the stereotypes that are projected unto us and others in our community. However, we also need to remember that we have the privilege of “switching off” the performed accent and go back to speaking with white accents that will never be mocked, degraded, vilified, and judged.

I also don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin colors, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.

Eid-ul-Adha Mubarak!

Salaam everyone!

Just wanted to wish you all a very happy Eid-ul-Adha!  May this be a blessed time for you and your Loved ones.  May Allah’s infinite blessings fill your hearts on this special day and always bring you happiness!

Eid-ul-Adha, commonly translated as “Festival of the Sacrifice,” is an important Islamic holiday that commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael) upon God’s command. As Ibrahim was about to cut his son’s neck, God intervened to replace Ismail with a sheep to sacrifice instead.  Muslims around the world remember Ibrahim’s act of Faith by sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat to family, neighbors, and those in need.  Eid-ul-Adha also marks the completion of the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

I remember watching the horribly racist, anti-Iranian propaganda movie “Not Without My Daughter” in my high school “world history” class (the genius teacher apparently thought that showing us a film that demonized Iranians and Muslims would give us an accurate understanding of Islam, Muslims, and Iran). One in scene particular involved a group of Iranians sacrificing a lamb and the reaction from the non-Muslim characters is disgust and horror. The Iranian husband/father (race-bent and played by Alfred Molina), who goes from friendly, “integrated” Iranian Muslim American to abusive, misogynistic, Iranian Muslim villain (because, you know, he’s getting in touch with his roots when he goes back to Iran), explains to his white wife (played by Sally Field) and daughter that the sacrifice is tradition, but the way in which the scene is shot and edited (along with the gloomy music), Iranian/Muslim bodies are clearly marked with Otherness. I remember feeling very uncomfortable in the room because all of my classmates knew I was Muslim and I could feel their eyes darting to me during this scene (and by the end of the movie, they looked at me like I had a raging Alfred Molina waiting to be unleashed from deep within).

The scene sets up the demonization of Iranians and Muslims that permeates throughout the rest of the film.  The point is to characterize Iranians/Muslims as backwards and uncivilized peoples with a savage culture. I remember being self-conscious of this whenever I’d have to explain to non-Muslim friends and peers about Eid-ul-Adha. Because it’s not about savagery, bloodshed, or scaring off children. As Sumbul Ali-Karamali explains in her book, “The Muslim Next Door,” meat becomes halal (permissible) when the animal is killed by “cutting the jugular vein, outside the presence of other animals, and after saying a prayer over (the animal), which evinces the intention of eating it and not killing it for any other purpose.”  All of the blood must be drained from the animal’s body as well.  According to Islamic law (Sharia), the point of sacrificing an animal in this manner is to minimize pain. As Ali-Karamali adds, “Torturing an animal renders it no longer halal.”

The holiday is about sacrifice, but also about Divine Love and Faith.  Ibrahim’s Faith in God is what leads him to make the decision to sacrifice his son, no matter how much it troubled him.  The spiritual message of Eid-ul-Adha, particularly about the relationship between Reason and Revelation, is quite significant. That is, Ibrahim was requested by God to defy his intellect, to defy reason and take the life of his own son.  It does not make sense to kill your own son and furthermore, murder is prohibited in Islam.  Yet Ibrahim made the sacrifice to express his Love for God, and in turn, God intervened to save Ismail.

There is a common Sufi theme that joy comes after sorrow.  I always saw this as a reference to the Qur’anic verses, “After hardship, there is ease.” This is evident in Ibrahim’s story.  Today, there is so much struggle in the world and it’s important to recognize all of the different experiences people have based upon the oppressive forces that exist in our societies.  By no means do I ever want to appropriate the experiences of people who have or are enduring pain and suffering that I cannot even begin to imagine. I think understanding our privileges and building social justice movements based on mutual accountability and reciprocity are not just important, but also very integral to the message of Islam. The Qur’an’s message of diversity, for example, emphasizes on getting to know one another, which includes understanding our differences.  As the verse reads: “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another.” (49:13)

It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed by the injustices in the world.  For a while now, I have been turned off by privileged people constantly saying, “Come on, think positively!” or “Why do you have to be so negative?!” as if you’ve committed a heinous crime in being human.  I don’t believe in silencing voices or making judgment calls on people who are sharing real and serious experiences with injustice.  Because we are human, we need to be there for each other. We need to be supportive, we need to make efforts to understand, we need to let go our egos and practice humility.  This is a Love that is conscious, compassionate, reciprocal and non-judgmental.  And this kind of Love is needed because to Love others is to Love God.  When Ibrahim was commanded to sacrifice his son, he consulted his son for consent first.  This act alone shows how much Ibrahim Loved his son, and in turn, Ismail shows his Love for Ibrahim and God by agreeing to it.  What we see here is the relationship between Ishq-e-Majazi (earthly Love, or Love for creation) and Ishq-e-Haqiqi (Divine Love, or Love for God).  As many Sufis have taught, one of the ways in which Love is expressed for God is through Love of others. Within the context of Ibrahim and Ismail, their Love for each other was also tied to their Love for God, which led them to witnessing the beauty and blessings of Divine Love.

Amidst the struggles all of us have here, there are efforts being made for justice, for healing,  for peace.  For Love. These efforts will always be there, no matter what the odds are.  It is the reminder of the Divine promise that, yes, “after hardship, there is ease,” that keeps the spirit of resistance strong.

Eid Mubarak. :)

Update: Be sure to read The Fatal Feminist’s post on “Eid al-Adha: Commemorating a Dismantling of Patriarchy.”  I especially like the point she makes about Ibrahim asking Ismail for consent and how that was an anti-patriarchal act.

My Culture is Not a Costume


I really Love these posters that speak out against cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and racism during Halloween. The campaign was launched this year by Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) and has been circulating throughout the blogosphere and social media networks.  I’m glad this campaign exists because every Halloween I’m disgusted by the (mostly white) people who choose to dress up as horribly offensive racial stereotypes.  “It’s no big deal,” they say, “it’s just for fun, stop being so sensitive!”

As the picture above depicts, racism isn’t hard to find during Halloween.  You’ll be walking through your local Halloween store and see costume packages depicting mostly white men and women dressed up in pathetic, westernized perversions of non-white cultures.  At Halloween parties, you might be having a good time with your friends when, suddenly, a group of white people wearing shoe polish on their faces burst into the room and, yeah, *record scratch.*

Even though I know racism is alive and well in society, I was a little surprised by the conversations surrounding this campaign.  Instead of listening to the people who are hurt by the way their ethnic and/or religious backgrounds are appropriated, mocked, and stereotyped, critics of this campaign have called anti-racist efforts “censorship,” “oversensitive,” and “overreacting.”  Several times, a friend and I were called “racist” or “anti-white” by white people who wanted to derail the conversation about racism by focusing on problematic “reverse racist” arguments.  Before we knew it, we were being accused of “denying” white people the “right” to perpetuate racist stereotypes about non-white cultures. Seriously?  You feel so “oppressed” because you’re being asked to not be racist and make a mockery of another culture?  Wow, that must be painful.

Perhaps what is most offensive to me is how concerns about people using other cultures as “costumes” is written off as “oversensitive” and accused of “dividing” people. There’s a “blaming-the-victim” tone in that argument, as if people of color offended by others using their cultures as “costumes” should “toughen up” and “stop being so darn sensitive!” Speaking out against racist stereotypes is about understanding people’s experiences, which includes making the effort to see realities from their perspective. That brings people together, generates dialogue, and works to establish understanding and respect. Arrogantly judging people’s feelings and experiences does not.

Imagine how damaging and injurious the experience would be for a Mexican student to see his/her white peers dressing up as Mexicans on Halloween, imitating Mexican “accents,” and acting in ways that mimic media stereotypes about Mexicans. Imagine how offensive and harmful it would be for a Muslim student to see his/her white peers dress up as “Muslim terrorists” and act accordingly to media stereotypes. Imagine how hurtful and terrible it would be for a black student to see his/her white peers shoe polishing their faces to look black, especially considering the loaded racist history blackface has in the US.  Think about how traumatizing all of these experiences can be.  Furthermore, the white people dressing up as Mexicans, Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, Native peoples, and so on, don’t have to deal with the marginalization, discrimination, stereotyping, demonization and other forms of oppression that those groups face on a daily basis.  When white people say people of color are “overreacting” or being “hypersensitive,” they are not only asserting their “authority” and “credibility” on what is to be deemed appropriate or offensive, but also defining the realities of people of color.  The dismissal of anti-racist concerns is an insult to their intelligence, which also reinforces the racist logic that the dominant group must speak for and define minority groups.

And when people say they’re “not racist” and actually “care” for the people they’re using as “costumes,” they should be informed about the struggles communities of color face.  If you say you care about people of color, then fight racism in education, law enforcement, politics, media, and so on.  Show solidarity with these communities and speak out against the stereotypes that have been normalized about them.  Solidarity in social justice struggles expresses more care for the community than using their culture(s) as “costumes.”  You say you care about Muslims?  Then when Muslims tell you that your “suicide bomber costume” is offensive, you should put your “costume” aside, along with your ego.

There are a lot of amazing posts on this subject and instead quoting from all of them, I will share a few links below.  Please take the time to read the posts, especially if, for whatever reason, you still don’t understand why cultural appropriation and using race and culture as “costumes” is offensive.

I hope everyone has a safe, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and bigotry-free Halloween!

Further reading:

1. Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes

2. Native Appropriations: Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween

3. Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

Jesus was a Palestinian and Why it Matters

Because of modern alarmist reactions to the word “Palestine,” many non-Arabs and non-Muslims take offense when it is argued that Jesus was a Palestinian (peace be upon him). Jesus’ ethnicity, skin color, and culture often accompany this conversation, but it is interesting how few people are willing to acknowledge the fact he was non-European.  A simple stroll down the Christmas aisle of your local shopping store will show you the dominant depiction of Jesus: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, White man.

Islamophobia and anti-Arab propaganda have conditioned us to view Palestinians as nothing but heartless suicide bombers, “terrorists,” and “enemies of freedom/democracy.” Perpetual media vilification and demonization of Palestinians, in contrast to the glorification of Israel, obstructs us from seeing serious issues such as the Palestinian refugee crisis, the victims of Israel’s atrocious three-week assault on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009 , the tens of thousands of homeless Palestinians, and many other struggles that are constantly addressed by human rights activists around the world. To speak from the perspective of the Palestinians, especially in casual non-Arab and non-Muslim settings, generates controversy because of the alignment between Palestinians and violent stereotypes. So, how could Jesus belong to a group of people that we’re taught to dehumanize?

When I’ve spoken to people about this, I’ve noticed the following responses: “No, Jesus was a Jew,” or “Jesus is not Muslim.” The mistake isn’t a surprise to me, but it certainly reveals how ignorant much of society still is. Being a Palestinian does not mean one is Muslim or vice versa. Prior to the brutal and unjust dispossession of indigenous Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel, the word “Palestine” was a geographic term applied to Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Jews. Although most Palestinians are Muslim today, there is a significant Palestinian Christian minority who are often overlooked, especially by the mainstream western media.

The dominant narrative in the mainstream media not only distorts and misrepresents the Palestinian struggle as a religious conflict between “Muslims and Jews,” but consequentially pushes the lives of Palestinian Christians into “non-existence.”   That is, due to media reluctance of reporting the experiences and stories of Palestinian Christians, it isn’t a surprise when White Americans are astonished by the fact that Palestinian and Arab Christians do, in fact, exist.  One could argue that the very existence of Palestinian Christians is threatening, as it disrupts the sweeping and overly-simplistic “Muslims versus Jews” Zionist narrative. It is because recognizing the existence of Palestinian Christians opposing Israeli military occupation, as well as Jews who oppose the occupation, is to reveal more voices, perspectives, and complexities to a conflict that has been dominantly portrayed as “Palestinians hate Jews” or “Palestinians want to exterminate Jews.”

Yeshua (Jesus’ real Aramaic name) was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and home to one of the world’s largest Palestinian Christian communities.   The Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, marks the birthplace of Jesus and is sacred to both Christians and Muslims.  While tourists from the around the world visit the site, they are subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks.  The Israeli construction of the West Bank barrier also severely restricts travel for local Palestinians.  In April of 2010, Al-Jazeera English reported Israeli authorities barring Palestinian Christian from entering Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Holy Sepulchre during Easter.  Yosef Zabaneh, a Palestinian Christian merchant in Ramallah, told IPS News: “The Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank doesn’t distinguish between us, but treats all Palestinians with contempt.”

Zabaneh’s comments allude to the persistent dehumanization of Palestinians, as well as the erasure of Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims.  By constantly casting Palestinians as the villains, even the term “Palestine” becomes “evil.”  There is refusal to recognize, for example, that the word “Palestine” was used as early as the 5th century BCE by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.  John Bimson, author of “The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life,” acknowledges the objection to the use of “Palestine”:

The term ‘Palestine’ is derived from the Philistines. In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus seems to have used the term Palaistine Syria (= Philistine Syria) to refer to the whole region between Phoenicia and the Lebanon mountains in the north and Egypt in the south… Today the name “Palestine” has political overtones which many find objectionable, and for that reason some writers deliberately avoid using it. However, the alternatives are either too clumsy to be used repeatedly or else they are inaccurate when applied to certain periods, so “Palestine” remains a useful term…

Deliberately avoiding the use of the name “Palestine” not only misrepresents history, but also reinforces anti-Palestinian racism as acceptable.  When one examines the argument against Jesus being a Palestinian, one detects a remarkable amount of hostility aimed at both Palestinians and Muslims.  One cannot help but wonder, is there something threatening about identifying Jesus as a Palestinian?  Professor Jack D. Forbes writes about Jesus’ multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environment:

When the Romans came to dominate the area, they used the name Palestine. Thus, when Yehoshu’a [Jesus] was born, he was born a Palestinian as were all of the inhabitants of the region, Jews and non-Jews. He was also a Nazarene (being born in Nazareth) and a Galilean (born in the region of Galilee)… At the time of Yehoshu’a’s birth, Palestine was inhabited by Jews—descendants of Hebrews, Canaanites, and many other Semitic peoples—and also by Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks, and even Arabs.

Despite these facts, there are those who use the color-blind argument: “It does not matter what Jesus’ ethnicity or skin color was. It does not matter what language he spoke. Jesus is for all people, whether you’re Black, White, Brown, Yellow, etc.” While this is a well-intentioned expression of inclusiveness and universalism, it misses the point.

When we see so many depictions of Jesus as a Euro-American White man, the ethnocentrism and race-bending needs to be called out.  In respect to language, for instance, Neil Douglas-Klotz, author of “The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus,” emphasizes on the importance of understanding that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, and that his words, as well as his worldview, must be understood in light of Middle Eastern language and spirituality.  Douglas-Klotz provides an interesting example which reminds me of the rich depth and meaning of Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi words, especially the word for “spirit”:

Whenever a saying of Jesus refers to spirit, we must remember that he would have used an Aramaic or Hebrew word. In both of these languages, the same word stands for spirit, breath, air, and wind.  So ‘Holy Spirit’ must also be ‘Holy Breath.’ The duality between spirit and body, which we often take for granted in our Western languages falls away.  If Jesus made the famous statement about speaking or sinning against the Holy Spirit (for instance, in Luke 12:10), then somehow the Middle Eastern concept of breath is also involved.

Certainly, no person is superior to another based on culture, language, or skin color, but to ignore the way Jesus’ Whiteness has been used to subjugate and discriminate against racial minorities in the West and many other countries is to overlook another important aspect of Jesus’ teachings: Love your neighbor as yourself.  Malcolm X wrote about White supremacists and slave-owners using Christianity to justify their “moral” and “racial superiority” over Blacks. In Malcolm’s own words, “The Holy Bible in the White man’s hands and its interpretations of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings.” Throughout history, whether it was in Jerusalem, Spain, India, Africa, or in the Americas, White so-called “Christians” cultivated a distorted interpretation of religion that was compatible with their racist, colonialist agenda (see my post on Christopher Columbus for more details).

In my discussions about Jesus being a person of color – a Palestinian – I encounter the argument that Jesus is depicted as Asian in Asian-majority countries, as Black in Black churches and homes, as Middle Eastern in Middle Eastern countries, etc.  While it is true that people of color portray Jesus as their own race, it is highly unlikely that these depictions will ever become the dominant, mainstream, and normalized image of Jesus. This speaks volumes about institutionalized white supremacy, as well as the way white supremacist ideologies operate as national and global systems of oppression.

And here we are in the 21st century where Islamophobia (also stemming from racism because the religion of Islam gets racialized) is on the rise; where people calling themselves “Christian” fear those who are darker skinned; where members of the KKK and anti-immigration movements behave as if Jesus was an intolerant White American racist who only spoke English despite being born in the Middle East! It is astonishing how so-called “Christians” like Ann Coulter call Muslims “rag-heads” when in actuality, Jesus himself would fit the profile of a “rag-head,” too. As would Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and the rest of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). As William Rivers Pitt writes:

The ugly truth which never even occurs to most Americans is that Jesus looked a lot more like an Iraqi, like an Afghani, like a Palestinian, like an Arab, than any of the paintings which grace the walls of American churches from sea to shining sea. This was an uncomfortable fact before September 11. After the attack, it became almost a moral imperative to put as much distance between Americans and people from the Middle East as possible. Now, to suggest that Jesus shared a genealogical heritage and physical similarity to the people sitting in dog cages down in Guantanamo is to dance along the edge of treason.

When refusing to affirm Jesus as a Palestinian Jew who spoke Aramaic — a Semitic language that is ancestral to Arabic and Hebrew — the West will continue to view Islam as a “foreign religion.” Hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims, Arabs, and others who are perceived to be Muslim will persist.  They will still be treated as “cultural outsiders” and “threats” to the West.  Interesting enough, Christianity and Judaism are never considered “foreign religions,” despite having Middle Eastern origins, like Islam.  As Douglas-Klotz insists, affirming Jesus as a native Middle Eastern person “enables Christians to understand that the mind and message” of Jesus arises from “the same earth as have the traditions of their Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers.”

Jesus would not prefer one race or group of people over another.  I believe he would condemn today’s demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinian people, as well as the misrepresentations of him that fuel white supremacy. As a Muslim, I believe Jesus was a Prophet of God, and if I were to have any say about the Christmas spirit, it would be based on Jesus’ character: humility, compassion, and Love. A Love in which all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, culture, religion, gender, and sexual orientation are respected and appreciated.

And in that spirit, I wish you all a merry Christmas. Alaha Natarak (Aramaic: God be with you).

The Fear of Minarets

The Swiss government’s ban on Mosque minarets says a lot to me.  Along with the propaganda campaign (pictured above), I feel there is no other way to put it:  this is Islamophobia — shameless, ugly, unapologetic, and in-your-face.  Either fear makes the imagination run wild or minarets are really missiles in disguise.

It is clear the Orientalist imagery in the posters intend to arouse fear that, somehow, Switzerland is not very far from becoming “Islamized,” a term which is equated with “Talibanization,” i.e. militants roaming the streets, women forced to wear burqas, and implementation of a radical ideology.  In respect to minarets, it apparently did not take a long time for the Swiss government to violate its so-called “policy of neutrality” and choose to jump on the Islamophobia bandwagon.  Out of the 150 Mosques in the country, only 4 actually have minarets and only 2 were planned for construction.  I guess some Jack Bauer-wannabe “saw it coming” – “it” being “Islamization” and, um, the “end of Western civilization” as we know it!  All because of 4 (potentially 6) minarets.

There is already a lot of commentary about this throughout the internet/blogosphere.  Many, if not all, of the commentators agree that this ban is fuelled by fear.  Tariq Ramadan elaborated in his article:

Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely “integrated”… We cannot blame the populists alone – it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens.

Ramadan makes a point that I always try to echo whenever I engage in inter-faith and/or intercultural dialogue.  Islam is a universal religion; it is a Swiss religion, a European religion, an American religion, and so on.  Muslims are not limited to their religious identity, no matter how important it is in their daily lives; they have multiple identities like everyone else.  I’ve stated this so many times on my blog and I apologize to my regular readers who may be tired of reading this but I am a Muslim, I am an American, I am a Pakistani, I am a South Asian, I am a writer, I am a son, I am a brother, and the list goes on!

In my opinion, this is a new concept that all Western societies, not just Switzerland, have a difficult time understanding.  President Obama talks and even stated that Islam is an American religion, but words alone cannot change the realities.  Even though I highly doubt the United States would ban the building of minarets, Islamophobia is very present and it is growing.  Racial profiling, which Obama promised to end, still occurs and anti-Muslim hate crimes still persist.  CAIR recently released its annual report on civil rights concerning Muslim-Americans and it revealed that Islamophobic incidents are on the rise. The ban on minarets in Switzerland may not exist in other non-Muslim majority countries, but I believe it is analogous to the wider problem of Islamophobia that Western nations face.

In the discussion taking place about this subject, I’ve noticed that some non-Muslims have tried to deflate the issue by pointing out that Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia would not allow the building of Churches.  My reaction is: why mention Saudi Arabia when this is about Switzerland?  Simply because we are Muslims?  Muslims cannot be Swiss, American, British, French, Canadian, or Danish?  When people draw such comparisons, it serves one purpose: to discredit and negate the experiences of those who are facing discrimination.  Put it like this:  If a Muslim gets beat up in America and reports it as a hate crime, imagine the police officer saying, “well, hey, Christians are discriminated against in Muslim countries, so sorry, I can’t do anything for you!”  That is essentially what those arguments say.

It all makes me question why fear of Islam and Muslims perpetuates.  I strongly believe much of it is rooted in racism and xenophobia.  A 2008 Gallup Poll survey revealed that Muslim-Americans are “the most racially diverse religious group in the United States,” with White-Americans making up 28%, African-Americans 35%, Asian-Americans 18%, and other races 18%.  However, Muslims are typically thought to be ethnically, racially, and culturally different than the dominant culture in Western societies. Christianity and Judaism, like Islam, both originated in the Middle-East, but they are generally not perceived as “foreign” or “alien” (even though Jesus and the other Prophets, peace be upon them all, were Middle-Easterners).  No one stigmatizes a White Christian because White Christians  “look like everyone else,” i.e. the dominant culture.  Muslims, on the other hand, tend to look “different” — they speak, dress, worship, and live “differently,” therefore fear and suspicion is “justified.”

Mosques?  Aren’t those things only found in the Middle-East?  Islam an American/European religion?  How can that be?  Isn’t Islam an Arab religion and aren’t Muslims anti-Western?  Such stereotypes exist in the minds of too many people, including professors, authors, business owners, store managers, politicians, and so on.  The more Muslims are treated like “cultural outsiders,” the more challenging it is to feel accepted.  Muslims are already integrated in Western societies, the problem is that we are not acknowledged, recognized, and in many cases, such as in Switzerland, we are not granted our religious rights.

Jonathan Freedland wrote a powerful commentary about the Swiss ban from a Jewish perspective.  He writes:

It’s a crude reaction but it’s the first one I had on hearing that the Swiss had voted to ban the building of minarets on mosques – the same reaction I have to the increasingly-frequent stories like it: how would I feel if this were not about them, but us? How, in other words, would I react if this latest attack were not on Muslims but on Jews?… With horror, of course… What passionate secularists and atheists need to understand is that what seems to outsiders like a religious affiliation is, for many millions, only partly about faith. It’s often partly, even largely, about identity. How can I be so sure that’s true of Muslims? Because I know it’s true of Jews.

Hatred, racism, and/or prejudice against an entire group of people is the most dangerous when it is acceptable.  The Islamophobic ads posted in the streets of Switzerland eerily recall days of Nazi propaganda used against Jews and the ban on minarets represents the complicity and fading consciousness of the government — and perhaps the world.

Congratulations Pakistan!

afridi celebrate 2

I will never forget this day, Sunday, June 21st of 2009 when the Pakistani cricket team defeated Sri Lanka to win the world cup in Twenty20 cricket.  Throughout the tournament, teams like South Africa, Sri Lanka, and India were favored to be this year’s champions, but no one expected Pakistan — led by an unstoppable Shahid Afridi — to power their way through.

This morning, as I sat tensely and cheered Pakistan on, I was reminded when Pakistan went to the Cricket world cup final in 1999 and lost miserably to Australia.  I remembered 2007′s Twenty20 tournament when India defeated Pakistan.  This year, Pakistan had to win.  A country that has been bombed, invaded, threatened, exploited, vilified, misgoverned, ignored, among many other things, can only take so much before the spirit of the people pull them out of the dark.  Indeed, it is a cricket team that has lifted the hopes of so many Pakistanis all across the globe, giving them something to smile, cheer, and even cry in joy about.  The exceptional teamwork and passion of their cricket team proved to the world that Pakistan deserved it.

I didn’t mention this in my previous post, but it bothers me when I see Pakistan and Pakistani people being so openly trashed and insulted around the blogosphere (one friend of mine reading this knows what I’m referring to *wink*).   It hurts me that there are millions of displaced Pakistanis as result of the Taliban invasion of Swat.  Recently, my parents and I watched some old footage that I video-taped in Swat when we visited in 2000.  It isn’t easy for those who make a mockery out of places like Swat (simply to support their Islamophobic views) to understand what it’s like to watch old footage of a beautiful place that you once visited before and realize that there’s a strong chance you’ll never see it again.  I was reminded of Swat while watching this cricket match and it wasn’t hard to tell that the team was winning it for them, as well as for all of Pakistan.

When I went out today, I looked at my Pakistani key chain and smiled at it.  I let it dangle freely when I walked into the mall; I rolled down my windows and popped in a CD of Pakistani music and sang along.  I smiled because I knew, today, my fellow Pakistanis were all happy.  We called our relatives and said “Mubarak (congratulations)” like it was Eid, we posted ecstatic status messages on our Facebook (and Twitter, I’m sure) accounts, and we all knew how important this was for our country, whether we were cricket fans or not.  Something also must be said about Sri Lanka, another country that has been facing challenges and difficulty.  They had a terrific run in the tournament and their country should be proud of them.  I especially liked the sportsmanship that both teams showed throughout the match, especially at the end.

Pakistan world cup champions

I found a great article published on Pakistan Daily this morning almost immediately after Pakistan won the match.  Very similar to my previous post here on Muslim Reverie, the author talks about how this victory was not just a win, but rather a reminder that there is hope.  Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the article:  “It is crucial to remember why Pakistan’s win is so important. This win is not about winning at all. It is about showing the world that once again, Pakistan has performed in the face of difficulty; death of their coach, attack on their country, bombing of their cities, exploitation of their money. A nation who the whole world had given up on has turned around to come out with a lot more than they expected. But they earned it. These players were working under the pressure of not only the game, but the political games being played with their loved ones in their hometowns. Sometimes, Allah sends motivation from unusual sources.”

As they say, Allah — God — works in mysterious ways.  There are still immense problems in Pakistan, but this win was something that the people needed a lot.  It was beautiful to see the Pakistani players to make sajdah after the victory and then hear the commentators point out how important and special this world cup is to the people of Pakistan.  When I look at the players of this wonderful team and then at the horrible images we see on CNN and Fox News, I see a mismatch.  This is no surprise to me, as a Pakistani and Muslim, but I’m sure that there a lot of non-Muslims and non-Pakistanis in the west who are not familiar with these images.  Surely, these images of remarkably talented and passionate cricketers don’t represent all of Pakistan.  They just represent one incredible snapshot!

Here’s a clip of the winning moment!  Watch it before they take it down (hopefully they won’t!):