Why Fareed Zakaria’s Comments About Muslims Are Harmful

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Last Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recorded a segment where he made alarming claims that Muslims are “not doing enough” to confront “extremism” within their communities. As many Muslims know, this is not the first time we’ve heard this. In fact, since 9/11, we have been hearing politicians, newscasters, celebrities, teachers, co-workers, and even some of our friends constantly ask, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” or “Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing anything to stop these extremists?”

As I wrote in my blog posts, “No One Hijacked Islam” (Part 1, 2, and 3), these questions about “where are all the moderate Muslims” are not only accusatory and assume that most Muslims are extremists, but they also reinforce the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary. When mainstream media and Islamophobes ask about the whereabouts of the so-called “moderate Muslims,” they ignore the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world because they are looking specifically for the “Good Muslims,” i.e. the state-friendly, pro-imperialist Muslim who will justify racist policies, spy programs, drone warfare, military invasions/occupations, settler-colonialism, etc. The “Bad Muslims” are, well, everyone else.

Like I have said before, I don’t believe Muslims should apologize or answer for violence carried out by other people. White Christians are not demanded to apologize for the violent acts carried out by other white Christians, so why place this demand on Muslims? Despite my views on this, there are countless Muslim imams, community leaders, and organizations around the world who have been condemning the actions of extremist groups. However, the state wants more than just vocal condemnations. They want Muslims to “prove” their allegiance by serving the state (e.g. working as translators on imperialist missions, collaborating with law enforcement to spy and infiltrate their own communities, voice support and justification for wars against Muslim-majority countries, etc.).

What makes Zakaria’s comments about Muslims so harmful and, yes, Islamophobic is that they fuel an already dangerous narrative. That narrative being that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not only responsible for the crimes they didn’t commit, but are also to blame for Islamophobia itself. I’ll try to break down Zakaria’s comments point by point:

1. “There is a problem within Islam.”

Ok, when I listened to Zakaria say this, my first reaction was, “Are you talking about the religion or are you talking about the Muslim community in general?” When one listens to the rest of Zakaria’s segment, it is clear that he is talking about Muslim communities. In other words, Zakaria is not saying anything critical about the religion of Islam, but rather talking about the people who follow it.  This is what makes Zakaria’s language so problematic and irresponsible. It’s very Orientalist because it’s like looking at a map, pointing to a group of Muslim-majority countries, and then saying, “This is Islam. There is a problem within it.” It reminded me of a time when a friend and I were doing a university project where we went around interviewing people in a suburban town and asked them what came to mind when we used certain words. One of the words my friend used was “Islam,” and the respondent said, “Country.” Yes, this is an ignorant response that did not shock me too much, but for a journalist, who was born into a Muslim family, to not even make the distinction between the religion and its people (let alone consider the Islamophobic connotations of saying “there is a problem within Islam,” especially within the context of discussing extremists) just goes to show how racialized Islam and Muslims really are.

2. “It is not enough for Muslims to point out that these people do not represent the religion. They don’t. But Muslims need to take more active measures to protest these heinous acts.”

He talks about taking “active measures,” but is never specific. What constitutes “active measures” for people like Zakaria? Does it mean increasing the suspicion that already exists about Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred recently in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing the NYPD/CIA to spy on Muslim students, neighborhoods, and mosques, which all proved to be ineffective? In fact, the only thing the spy unit was effective at doing was traumatizing Muslim communities. It has been revealed, for instance, that the FBI told white male informants (who pretended to be Muslim) that engaging in sexual relationships with Muslim women was permissible. Are these the “active measures” Zakaria is calling for?

Also, Zakaria is totally contradicting himself. If his statement above is read again, you’ll notice that he agrees that individuals like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau “do not represent the religion.” Yet, he insists that Muslims “need to take more active measures to protest.” So, the message here seems to be, “Hey, these people don’t represent your religion, but, um, PROTEST AGAINST THEM ANYWAY. DO SOMETHING! THEY’RE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY!”

3. “They also need to make sure that Muslim countries and societies do not in any way condone extremism, anti-modern attitudes and intolerance towards other faiths.”

This is troubling for so many reasons. Zakaria speaks as if every Muslim has a direct line to the governments of Muslim-majority countries. Again, the responsibility is placed on all Muslims to solve things like government corruption, discrimination against non-Muslim minorities, etc. How Zakaria managed to forget about the way power structures operate is beyond me. How can Muslims “make sure” that Muslim-majority countries don’t oppress religious minorities, for example, when Americans protesting the war against Iraq were not able to stop the war? Also, did Zakaria forget about the marches, protests, and revolutions that took/take place in Muslim-majority countries? The logic here is also terribly flawed and loaded with Orientalism. Yes, it is true that Islam teaches Muslims that we are all connected spiritually, but Zakaria speaks about Muslims as though we are a monolithic group; that we are all networked with each other, despite the immense diversity among and within Muslim societies and communities around the world.

As for “anti-modern attitudes,” this should raise our concerns about how “modernity” has become synonymous with western civilization, as well as how this language is heavily racialized. By calling Muslim-majority countries “anti-modern,” it fits into the ongoing narrative that Muslims are “trapped in the pre-modern” and have not “caught up” with the “modern/western world.” Colonialism, slavery of Africans, genocide against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, economic exploitation, incarceration of people of color, specifically black people, extrajudicial killings, using nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, waging wars and invading other countries, backing occupation and settler-colonialism in Palestine, appropriating a Middle Eastern man (Jesus) and transforming him into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white man to teach black people and other people of color that they are inferior to white people — these are all things that happened and happen in the so-called “modern” west. To resist these forces of oppression is to be “anti-modern”?

Of course, when these narratives of “modernity” are used against Islam and Muslims, they invoke things like human rights of women, LGBTQIA2-S, religious minorities, and so on. Because we all know the United States and other western nations are societies that champion “equality” and “justice” for “everyone.” I don’t raise this critique to ignore or invisibilize the very real struggles many marginalized communities endure in certain Muslim-majority countries, but rather to highlight on how western nations use and exploit these struggles to (1) justify exerting dominance and violence over Muslim-majority countries, and (2) trivialize and/or invisibilize the very real struggles that women, LGBTQIA2-S, people of color, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized peoples face in western countries. Perhaps most importantly, inherit in these “anti-modern” versus “modern” attitudes are violent notions of white saviorism, i.e. saving people through use of bombs and ruthless military invasions, as if the people living in Muslim-majority or non-western countries do not have a conscious for social justice or aren’t organizing, protesting, or speaking out against oppression. It’s the west, specifically the United States, that needs to save and modernize the “darker” and “uncivilized” people through the use of violent force.

4. “Muslims are right to complain that there is anti-Muslim bigotry out there. But they would have a more persuasive case if they took on some of the bigotry within the world of Islam as well.”

This part of Zakaria’s video probably upset me the most. I’ll get to his use of the term “bigotry” in a second, but the part about Muslims needing to have a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia is quite disturbing. So, we have to be more “persuasive” to show white people that we are human? Because the way Islam and Muslims are demonized is somehow our fault? According to Zakaria, if Muslims experience Islamophobia, they cannot challenge it unless they “took on some of the bigotry in the world of Islam as well” (again, note the orientalist language: “world of Islam”).

A few things: first, when Zakaria talks about anti-Muslim bigotry, his use of “bigotry” becomes a soft word here. He is reducing Islamophobia to interpersonal forms of racism, i.e. “hurt feelings,” and “individual people being mean and bigoted towards other people.” He is not addressing, let alone acknowledging, the larger structures of white supremacy and violence that is foundational to the United States. As I quoted Houria Boutelja in one of my previous posts, “Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” We have seen Muslims detained, deported, bombed, tortured, raped, occupied, discriminated against, denied rights, spied upon, demonized in media, collectively blamed — that’s not “bigotry,” that’s state racism — rooted in the U.S. political system which bell hooks describes as imperial­ist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Second, Zakaria is (deliberately or not) blaming Muslims for Islamophobia. His statement about Muslims potentially having a “more persuasive case” against Islamophobia if they would only challenge extremism in every corner of the world (preferably in superhuman fashion) aligns with the harmful notion that “Islamophobia only exists because of these extremists, therefore we must condemn their violence and eliminate them if we want Islamophobia to end.” Zakaria’s statements are harmful because they reinforce all of the mainstream and Islamophobic demands on Muslims, i.e. Muslims need to apologize for violence, they need to “do more” against extremism if they want to be accepted in the “modern world,” they need to stop complaining about bigotry because Muslim-majority governments are oppressive, etc. All of this vilifies Muslims, casts them as “suspicious” and “potential threats,” and silences Muslims who are victimized by Islamophobia.

This blaming of the oppressed is nothing new, as many people of color know. It was evident in history and it is evident today. When Zakaria hears about the surveillance of Muslim students or Muslim neighborhoods, does he think this violation of civil rights occurs because Muslims haven’t made a “more persuasive case” about their humanity? When Muslims of all ages and genders are physically assaulted or beaten for being Muslim, does Zakaria think the victims could have prevented this violence if they had only “took on some of the bigotry within” Muslim-majority countries? What is the correct response for Muslims when their mosques are vandalized, shot at, or receive threatening messages (like a pig’s head being thrown at a mosque entrance)? Is it, “It’s our fault, we are not doing enough to fight the extremists everywhere”? What should civil rights advocates say to people victimized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — “Sorry, I can’t help you because you’re haven’t convinced me that you are human”?

Lastly, it’s time to play the broken record (which, sadly, needs to be replayed over and over again): White people are never expected to apologize or answer for the heinous actions of other white people. Look at the white men like James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, Timothy McVeigh, and countless others who cause so much terror and yet are never used to collectively blame the entire white population. Where are the leaders of the white community condemning these atrocious acts of violence against innocent people? Zakaria asks when “moderate Muslims will say ‘enough is enough,'” yet it is never asked when “moderate white people” will say “enough is enough” when it comes to police brutality and murder against black men and women, or school shootings, or the terrorist attack on the Sikh Gurdwara, or “white-on-white murder,” or the ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples. Where are the calls for white folks to “take more active measures to protest these heinous acts”?

It’s concerning when Islamophobia is downplayed on the news, especially when we consider the serious lack of Muslim TV anchors in mainstream media (I cannot think of any off the top of my head). Zakaria himself stated that he’s “never been defined by religious identity” and that “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy,” but it does not seem to bother him to use his platform on CNN to point fingers at Muslims and accuse them of “not doing enough.” Oddly enough, it also seems like he’s trying to speak for Muslims when he says, “Let’s be honest: Islam has a problem today.” Something very “native informant” about the way he frames all of this.

But, let’s be honest, Fareed: Islamophobia is a real problem that goes beyond individual acts of bigotry or “isolated incidents.” Even more so, there is a problem with white supremacy. It’s been around for a very long time and it is still disturbingly strong today. Otherwise you would have made countless videos calling on white people to do more to stop racist oppression, violence/war against men and women of color, terrorist attacks on schools, movie theaters, college campuses, the list goes on and on and on.

Islamophobia TV: All the Hate, All the Time!

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No need to check your local listings. Islamophobia on TV isn’t hard to find. The image above is a promotional poster for the fourth season of “Homeland,” the hit television series about treacherous Muslims plotting to destroy western civilization. I believe the tagline of the show is something like, “Remember, kids, don’t ever trust the Moslemz.”

Over a year ago, journalist Laila Al-Arian wrote an excellent critique of the show and correctly called it “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” As many Muslims know all too well, the demonization of Islam and Muslims is not just confined to the TV screen, but has serious consequences in the real world. As expected, the critique was met with some resistance, notably from white non-Muslim viewers who could not bear to see their cherished imperialist television drama being criticized, let alone being called Islamophobic and racist. One would hope that producers would take the concerns expressed in Al-Arian’s article into account, but this is Hollywood after all and, as Jack Shaheen informed us, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti once said, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”

A year later, unsurprisingly, the producers decide to kick the Islamophobia up a notch. If the image above doesn’t make you cringe, I’m not sure what will. Laura Durkay recently pointed out in her critique what many Muslims noted in the image: “A blonde, white Red Riding Hood lost in a forest of faceless Muslim wolves.” The fact that such racist, sexist, and Orientalist imagery can be posted widely online and reprinted on billboards for the purpose of promoting “entertainment” for western viewers is utterly disturbing. I’m also told that the new season is set in Pakistan now? I’m guessing this won’t hurt public opinion about drone strikes on Pakistan, right?

It bothers me to see these images for a lot of reasons. I know there are some people in my workplace, for example, who rave about how “amazing” this show is. It’s difficult not to think about their attitudes and perceptions about Muslims and Islam. However, it goes beyond that. It’s about how these images further the dehumanization that’s essential for the war machine and white supremacy to prosper. Racist policies, surveillance and violation of rights, murdering Muslims through drones and wars – all of these things result for many reasons, and one of the reasons is because media renders Muslims as non-citizens and non-humans.

I know it’s been several months since I updated my blog, but over the hiatus, it was the holy month of Ramadan. Gaza was brutally attacked by Israel. No doubt, Palestinians are under constant threat of Israeli military occupation and genocide, but these attacks only accelerate the genocide against Palestinians. Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza led to the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and thousands more injured. I wrote something on my Facebook around the time of Eid-ul-Fitr, but will share it here with some variations:

Like for many, it was a difficult Ramadan, where the days and nights were filled with heartbreak, tears, rage, and desperate prayers. I cannot and do not want to appropriate the pain, suffering, and trauma that so many Palestinians are (and have been) enduring — Palestinians who are worried 24/7 for the safety of their family and loved ones in Gaza, and the Gazans themselves who are struggling to survive against Israel’s merciless and relentless genocide.

It is impossible to comprehend or imagine the terror they have been experiencing. No group should be massacred, let alone harmed, during any time of the year, but you know a people are so dehumanized, demonized, and seen as “disposable” when they are viciously bombed during their holiest month. Not all Palestinians are Muslim, but Israel, the U.S., and the western media have made it clear that the diverse religious or non-religious affiliation of Palestinians do not matter to the settler-colonial state that wants them exterminated. By labeling them all “Muslim,” they know what racialized, white supremacist-thinking and violence they are reinforcing and seeking to maintain.

Most of my writing is on media representations of Muslims and people of color, so when I notice the silence from certain people who would otherwise have no problem in condemning acts of terrorism when the perpetrators are Muslim, I continue to be so disturbed by the daily dehumanization of Muslims and all people of color in mainstream media, not just the news, but also in movies and TV shows. When people are watching and consuming racist, Islamophobic TV shows like “Homeland” and “24,” or movies like Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor, that is another form of violence against people who look like us and our families. That, too, is white supremacy at work. When we are constantly otherized, vilified, and depicted as “perpetual threats to western civilization,” these images are an assault on our humanity and contributes significantly to why so many people do not see us as human beings. We should not have to exhaustively reiterate, shout, and scream about how Palestinians are human beings. We shouldn’t have to organize protest after to protest to cry out to the world that genocide is wrong and inhumane.

It hurt to see fellow Muslims heartbroken. It was painful to look at the pictures of the Palestinian men, women, and children whose names and faces mainstream media never wants anyone to know about — and I cannot imagine how much more painful this is for their family members and loved ones. It is infuriating and often disturbing that because you are Muslim, because you are dark-skinned, and/or from a country that is marked “evil,” your life is seen by the powerful, oppressive forces in the world as inferior, disposable, of no value, and not worthy of being remembered.

I wrote all of the above before Mike Brown was brutally murdered by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson. The media’s anti-black racism was shameless as usual, trying to depict an 18 year-old black teenager as being a “thug” who “deserved” to be killed. This is in sharp contrast to the sympathetic media coverage that white murderers receive. If you follow the link, you’ll see the headlines describing white suspects and killers as being “brilliant” or “outstanding students.” Television anchors often ask, “How did such a nice kid do such a horrible thing?” Yet, when unarmed black men and women like Mike Brown and Renisha McBride are shot and murdered, the racist media condemns these individuals, blames them for their deaths, and justifies the actions of their murderers. The protesters in Ferguson are demonized and blamed for “escalating” the violence while nothing is said about the white folks raising money for Darren Wilson.

Just tonight, I had “Gotham” playing on TV in the background as I was writing this post (I don’t recommend the show, it’s terrible!) and Harvey Bullock ruthlessly punches a black woman who has her hands up. Are you kidding me? How often do we see this kind of violence against black people and other people of color, especially women of color, in TV shows and movies? This stuff is so normalized that it isn’t uncommon to hear people say, “Oh, I’m sure that wasn’t intentional.” But that’s the thing, racism and misogyny doesn’t need to be intentional. The victim-blaming we see against rape victims (“she was asking for it because of the way she dressed”), against black people (“they were criminals, not angels!”), against Palestinians (“they voted for Hamas”), against Muslims (“they don’t apologize for 9/11″) represent troubling examples of how normalized and acceptable it is to hold oppressive attitudes. It’s the work of interlocking oppressions that continue to uphold the larger structures of violence in the world.

Even when oppressive attitudes and behaviors are intentional, there are still efforts made to trivialize or even justify the racist, sexist sentiments, especially when they come from people in powerful positions. As many people know by now, Bill Maher has been spewing tons of hate about Islam and Muslims for a while. Recently, he had Sam Harris on his show who said, “Islam is the motherload of bad ideas.” But it’s cool though, we got Bruce Wayne himself, um, I mean Ben Affleck to defend us. In case you didn’t see it, you can watch it here. Be warned though, if you care about the humanity of all people, you’ll be quite outraged.

I’m being sarcastic about Ben Affleck, by the way. While he correctly calls Maher and Harris’ horrible stereotypes about Islam “gross” and “racist,” I’m not ready to give a hero star to Affleck. I know this may not be a popular opinion, but Affleck is the same guy who directed Argo (aka Not Without My Daughter 2). That might come off as sounding ungrateful to solidarity from a non-Muslim celebrity, but at the end of the day, there is not a single Muslim on the panel here. Not one Muslim was invited to respond to the horrendous and dangerous Islamophobia being spewed. No doubt, this was deliberate. Keeping Muslims out of these “conversations” further otherizes, vilifies, and silences us. It reinforces a racist hierarchy where white non-Muslim men must debate amongst each other and figure out what needs to be done about the racialized “others.” In this case, it’s how to deal with the “Muslim problem” while rendering Muslims voiceless. This, of course, isn’t something unique to Muslims. Historically white men have (and still) sit in offices and meeting rooms to determine the destiny of people of color. Even when people of color are nowhere close to being silent in their struggles for liberation, the lies persist through media. Remember that Spielberg movie Lincoln and how it completely erased Frederick Douglass and marginalized black people for the sake of centering on a bunch of white men sitting around and disputing about what they wanted to do about African slaves?

So, while I do appreciate Affleck speaking up, I do have to say this about his white male privilege: You can’t make an Islamophobic film like Argo to get your Oscar on one hand and then condemn Islamophobia to receive praise for “defending Muslims” on the other. No, you can’t do both. Solidarity doesn’t work that way. If anything, for what it’s worth, I do hope that when Affleck heard these remarks being made, he understood the severity of Islamophobia and maybe (just maybe) he considered how his own work has contributed to it.

When Muslims are invited on these platforms to speak, they are bullied, insulted, and interrogated. When Reza Aslan was on CNN recently, the CNN hosts Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota were horribly condescending and Islamophobic with their questions. As usual, Islam and Muslims were put on trial. Aslan was asked, “Does Islam teach violence?” Embedded in this question is the assumption that Islam is violent and that it is guilty unless proven otherwise. The sexist questions about Muslim-majority countries being “more sexist” than the United States were also terribly filled with Orientalist accusations.

When Muslims are invited to speak on panels or appear on news shows, they are not spoken with. They are spoken at. They are scolded. They are told to answer for the crimes that weren’t committed by them. They are not told to clarify or respond to misconceptions; they are told that their religion is barbaric, uncivilized, backwards, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, etc. The entire segment on CNN perpetuated the same attitudes that TV shows like “Homeland” perpetuate: Muslims must be seen in suspicious light and they must “prove” that they are not terrorists. The humanity of Muslims is never deemed important or relevant.

A few days after Aslan’s interview, Chris Cuomo appeared on CNN and started attacking Aslan’s “tone” and concluded that “this is why people are afraid of Muslims.” Now, I have critiques of Aslan for statements he has made in the past (I’m not going to delve into them here, but I’ll just leave this link here). There were many inaccurate and problematic things Aslan said in the CNN interview about Muslim-majority countries, but most importantly, as Shaista Patel pointed out, his insistence that female genital mutilation is an “African problem” was loaded with anti-black racism. Aslan’s response is a very liberal one and I’ve expressed on my blog before that the liberal responses to Islamophobia tend to be very simplistic and fall into the trap of reproducing the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Unfortunately, this is what happens when Muslims are placed on the defensive by default and rarely given a platform to represent themselves. I also know that regardless of what Muslims say, there are people like Cuomo who will use “tone arguments,” something that people of color are far too familiar with. I’ve seen cases where people of color have responded calmly and politely yet the white folks on the receiving end of the critique are always making it about “tone.”

It’s also ridiculous how Bill Maher transforms into a pro-feminist dude when he talks about sexism in “the Muslim world.” I’m not going to link it here, but Maher has a history of making misogynistic “jokes” during his stand-up routines and on other episodes of his show. I’m also fed up with the “moderate Muslim” and “fundamentalist Muslim” binary that is constantly reiterated in western media. But Harris said something on the show that I never heard before. He said that there are four types of Muslims! So, not two anymore, but four! According to him, there are the (1) “violent jihadists,” (2) the “Islamists,” (3) conservative Muslims, and (4) nominal Muslims who “don’t take their religion very seriously.” Wow, in all of my years being a Muslim and raised by Muslims, I never heard this before. That’s bloody brilliant, Sam. This must be the reform you’re talking about. Thanks for breaking us down into four categories instead of just two. “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” was getting boring.

But yeah, I do not identify with any of those categories! I cannot fit in any of them and neither can most Muslims. It’s because we’re people; we’re human beings. We’re not Cylons/robots that are built and designed into a limited number of model types (I’m foreshadowing a future post here). It’s incredibly dehumanizing and so much more concerning when we see this allowed to air on TV.

Lastly, Maher, Harris, and other Islamophobes claim they are “not hating all Muslims,” but rather seeking to “lift up” the voices of Muslim “reformers.” They claim that criticizing Islam is not racist nor Islamophobic. Yes, criticizing Islam is not Islamophobic, but far too often, “criticism of Islam” has meant to use racialized language and rhetoric to demonize it. The latter is not criticism; it is about furthering an agenda to cast Muslims as racialized “others” and justify laws, discrimination, and wars against Muslims. If Maher and Harris really cared about empowering Muslims, they would speak with Muslims and listen to our voices rather than calling our faith the “motherload of bad ideas” or arguing that Muslims will “f**king kill you” if you “say the wrong thing.” How can you claim you want to “help” Muslims when you cast them as potential murderers and cannot even respect their way of life, let alone confront your own prejudice and oppressive stance against Islam? There are Muslims in our community who have been speaking out against groups like ISIS. I don’t think this is necessary because no Muslim should feel the burden of answering for crimes that other people committed, but there are Muslim organizations and individuals who do it.

Yet there are those who continue to insist that these Muslims speaking out are apparently not doing enough. Ali Rizvi, who identifies as an atheist Muslim, recently wrote an awfully problematic article on the Huffington Post addressing “moderate Muslims.” I reject the term “moderate Muslim” because, again, Muslims are people, not categories, but I assume Rizvi is trying to address the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Rizvi suggests, alarmingly, that Muslims share some responsibility in perpetuating Islamophobia. Not only is this inaccurate, it is dangerous. He asks Muslims to put themselves in the shoes of non-Muslims and to look at all the images we see in mainstream media of Muslims shouting “Allahu akbar” and quoting the Qur’an before carrying atrocious acts of violence. Nevermind the fact that mainstream media has immense control over the images and stories it chooses to project or tell. Nevermind the fact that white non-Muslims are never accused by society at large for perpetuating white supremacy and racist violence against people of color. Nevermind that Muslims are constantly demanded to apologize and answer for groups like ISIS. Also, what about the countless Muslims who don’t wish to engage in political conversations or are fed up with having to answer for violent groups? What about the Muslims who are silent only because speaking up about these issues in their schools or workplaces will create an even more hostile climate against them or even jeopardize their careers? Has Rizvi taken into account that many Muslims in the west need to protect themselves in workplaces and schools? If white non-Muslims are able to carry on with their lives without having to apologize for violence committed by men like Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger, then why should Muslims feel the burden of responsibility for other people’s crimes?

Rizvi argues that criticism of Islam is not racist. On the surface, this is true, but what he fails to understand is how Islam is racialized. He fails to understand how Muslims are constructed as a race, despite not being one. As Houria Boutelja reminds us, Islamophobia is not and should not be merely characterized as a “feeling” or sentiment. She states, “To speak of Islamophobia as sentiment is a euphemism. Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” When we see NYPD spying and infiltration of Muslim communities, the recent raids on Muslim homes in Australia, the bans on hijab in western countries, the increase in racial profiling, and the vicious violence against Muslims in Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen, etc., Islamophobia is more than just about sentiment or “hurt feelings.” So, when Rizvi claims that Maher and Harris are “critics” of Islam, he is removing this context and reality of Islamophobia and white supremacy from their arguments. Again, as mentioned earlier, there is a significant difference between criticism and hate speech that perpetuates harmful consequences and practices against Muslims. The latter is clearly what Maher and Harris are participating in.

I recently read “Feminist Edges of the Qur’an” by Aysha A. Hidayatullah and I thought it engaged with the Qur’an in a very honest, critical, and scholarly way. Throughout the text, Hidayatullah recognizes the realities and histories of Islamophobia, colonialism, and racism that often come with narratives regarding gender justice and feminism in Muslim communities. Any critique Hidayatullah makes is done without Islamophobia. When I read the book, I felt it was written for Muslims, which is significantly different than the statements made by Maher and Harris, who are more interested in talking about Muslims and making attacks against the faith/community. For Maher, Harris, and other Islamophobes to hide behind the pathetic excuse that they really “care” about Muslims or want to “help them” rings of destructive white saviorism. Again, by making Muslims voiceless, they assert that white non-Muslim men and the dominant structures in society control the destiny of Muslims.

Racism and sexism has always been on TV, but the way we see racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other oppressions increasing on TV is utterly appalling. We cannot downplay the power of media and we need to take these images seriously, especially when they are used to justify racist policies, invasions, drone strikes, military occupations, sexual violence, police brutality, etc. I also think it’s really important for our allies to stop consuming these shows and make an effort to speak out against them. I wish we could see Muslims appear on these news shows and share their stories without the anchors or hosts attacking their religion or asking them accusatory, racist, and sexist questions. What would it look like if Muslims were given a platform where they could tell their stories without the gaze of Islamophobia?

As many know, the voices and stories of Muslims, of people of color are never silent. They are silenced by the powers that be.

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.

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?