The Violence of White Supremacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

“And They Call Me Barbarian”


Remember this scene from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)*? After witnessing Robin deliberately lie to his own English folk about the number of enemies approaching them, the North African Muslim character Azeem reflects to himself and says, “And they call me barbarian.”  Here’s the clip for those who haven’t seen it or need their memories refreshed:

Yeah, that’s my reaction whenever white non-Muslims like James Holmes go around shooting and killing innocent people. “And they call us (Muslims) terrorists,” I say.

Of course James Holmes, who indiscriminately opened fire on moviegoers at the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado,  is not called a “terrorist” because that term is reserved for Muslims only. Instead, Holmes is pronounced “mentally ill,” an ableist and inaccurate narrative since most people struggling with mental illnesses do not act out violently. Dismissed in the stereotyping of disabled bodies are the serious societal and political factors that contribute to the culture of violence in the United States. Meanwhile, white non-Muslim and able-bodied people never have to worry about being collectively blamed, stigmatized, racially profiled, or subjected to racist laws that target their entire race/community due to the violent actions of one man.

Even if some media outlets like NPR refer to Holmes as a terrorist, the narrative is still very different than how stories about Muslims are covered. When Muslims do it, the term “terrorist” is assigned to not just one person, but the entire community and religion. It’s heavily racialized and presented as an organized, “foreign” problem that threatens the existence of western civilization. White non-Muslim bodies like Holmes are ultimately seen as individuals, as “lone wolves,” and as “mentally ill.” The consequences of a white non-Muslim person committing an act of terror like this does not, as I pointed out, result in widespread, societal, and institutionalized discrimination against all white people.

In other words, I highly doubt Sherlock Holmes is worried about his next movie not being a hit just because he shares the same last name as a white terrorist. I’m confident that people with the first name “James” won’t get harassed with offensive questions like, “Have you ever thought about changing your name after what happened in Colorado?” (in the same way men with the first name “Osama” are). Also, I’m pretty sure that people who dress up as the Joker for Halloween aren’t going to be stopped in the street by police officers and demanded to provide their photo IDs or an explanation of why they’re dressed as Batman’s arch-nemesis  (in case you didn’t know, Holmes told the police, “I am the Joker”).

And let’s be honest about white non-Muslim privilege and power: a Muslim person wouldn’t have been able to legally purchase vast amounts of firepower (4 guns, 6,000 rounds of ammunition) Holmes did without having a visit from the FBI. Are the NYPD-CIA spy teams considering to infiltrate white neighborhoods, Presbyterian churches (since Holmes was reported to have been highly involved with his church), and schools in the same way they violated the rights of countless Muslims in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania? Do World War II buffs who collect German military uniforms, firearms, and other weapons need to worry about their homes being searched without warrants?

White supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy easily tells us that the answer is “no,” white non-Muslims do not need to be profiled or spied upon. Forget that James Holmes’ terrorism reveals the failure of gun control in the US and forget that opening fire in a movie theater shows how vulnerable people are. The “real threat,” we are constantly reminded, is from the “illegal immigrants,” the racialized peoples, the Muslims from “over there” who have the “mission” to “destroy the west from within.” These “real threats” need to be monitored, but not the white people who buy guns, ballistics gear, and ridiculous amounts of ammunition.

Lastly, I came across articles on Gawker and the New York Daily News about people who identify themselves as “Holmies,” or fans of James Holmes. They have Tumblr blogs, Facebook group pages, and YouTube videos in tribute of James Holmes. It is noteworthy to point out that these fans are predominately white and even try to emulate his manner of dress.  As one article put it, James Holmes has inspired “an online legion of ‘fans’ who upload original artworks and photos of themselves sporting Holmes-inspired plaid shirts flannel and sipping Slurpees.”

And they call us barbarians.

* Just a few thoughts on “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” I agree with Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” that the character of Azeem represents one of the rare positive images we see of Muslims in Hollywood cinema. However, I also agree with Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of “The Muslim Next Door,” that while Azeem is a hero, he is still otherized. I find the “devout mystical dude” and “loyal white man’s servant” portrayal of him to be really problematic and stereotypical, for sure. There are some moments when I appreciate how his character serves as a (often humorous) critique of romanticized European history (especially the Crusades) and the white imagination’s negative perception of Muslims and Islam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orientalizing Pakistan in Cricket Commentaries


By now, every Pakistani and Indian knows about the epic Pakistan vs. India Cricket World Cup semi-final that will kick off Wednesday in Mohali, India.  Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has already accepted an invitation to join Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match and discuss India-Pakistan relations, while 5,000 visas have been authorized by the Indian home ministry for Pakistani fans to enter the country and cheer on their team (though a recent report claims that Pakistanis are having a hard time getting tickets for the match). Despite the friendly gestures from politicians and the peace messages I’ve seen Indians and Pakistanis alike post on their Facebook walls, a disturbingly popular and growing acceptability of anti-Pakistani rhetoric plagues online cricket commentaries.

Trash-talking, fierce debates, and impassioned displays of nationalism are expected, especially in the case of a Pakistan vs. India semi-final.  It isn’t unusual for Pakistani Captain Shahid Afridi to make competitive remarks about how Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century “will have to wait until after the World Cup to reach the landmark,” nor should it be of any surprise when Indian commentators say Tendulkar “sends shivers down Pakistani spines till date.”  Competition is an essential element of sport and from past cricket matches (which I will mention later in the post) we have seen how the sport can bring people together, regardless of the boasting heard on either side, but there’s a fine line between competitive spirit and super-patriotism fueled by jingoism and sheer bigotry.  The harmful anti-Pakistani rhetoric that I’ve found in some of the cricket commentaries are unsettling for a number of reasons.  For one, the articles seem to exploit tragedies in Pakistan to make it s0und as if the nation is undeserving of a World Cup victory.  Secondly, the anti-Pakistani commentaries fit very neatly into the narrative used by the Obama administration to justify its Orientalist war in Afghanistan and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan.

Consider Soutik Biswas’ piece for BBC News where he took harsh, one-sided shots at the way Pakistanis reacted to cricket losses in the past.  What’s astonishing is how Biswas essentially tries to present Indian and Pakistani fans as polar opposites, i.e. the former are respectful, while the latter are violent and take the sport too seriously.  After expressing his hope for Indian fans to be generous to Pakistani fans, Biswas writes:

Who can forget the time when Pakistan lost to India during the 1996 World Cup? Fans in Pakistan smashed TV sets, a college student fired a hail of bullets from a Kalashnikov into his TV set and then on himself, another fan died of a heart attack, captain Wasim Akram received death threats, a fan filed a petition in the court against the “disappointing performance” and a cleric said Pakistan would never win at cricket so long as a woman – Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister – ruled the country.

While Biswas tries to sound unbiased and respectful by later saying, “surely such passions have abated with the passage of time,” the punch at Pakistan was clearly thrown. In fact, earlier in the article, Biswas oddly cited some random Indian scholar (oh snap, a scholar!) who stated the following: “Indians don’t take failure as national humiliation. Perhaps they consoled themselves that the country surpassed Pakistan in all spheres. It had better scientists, better writers, a more vigorous film industry, and was a democracy besides.”  Biswas’ point is clear: Indians have never overreacted to cricket losses in the same way Pakistanis have, therefore Indians must be better than Pakistanis!

No.  Fail.

Any honest cricket fan knows when Sri Lanka played India in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, sections of the Indian crowd was so furious over the loss of the 8th Indian wicket that they set fire to the stands and threw water-bottles on the field.  The outburst from the crowd prompted referee Clive Lloyd to stop the match and award Sri Lanka with an automatic victory.  If Biswas is going to mention the Pakistanis that smashed televisions after a 1996 World Cup loss, he should also mention how an Indian mob attacked Indian wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s house and burned effigies of Rahul Dravid in the streets after a loss against Bangladesh.  If Biswas wants to mention a Pakistani college student who shot himself, he should also tell us about the 25-year-old Indian farmer who committed suicide after India’s loss to Sri Lanka in 2007.  What about recent reports regarding Shiv Sena, an extremist Indian Hindu nationalist political party, making threats against the Pakistani cricket team and declaring that it “gets to decide if Pakistan can play in the final” ?  One could also point out that Shiv Sena killed a parrot that predicted Pakistan would win the World Cup.  Poor parrot. Killed for making a prediction.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Surely we belong to God, and to God we shall return).

Commentaries like Biswas’ are more than just one-sided jabs at Pakistan, they are part of an Orientalist depiction of Pakistan that has become increasingly and widely acceptable.  The Orientalist description of Pakistan is as follows: Pakistan is a country that “harbors terrorists;” Pakistanis are violent, backward, and uncivilized people; Pakistani women are veiled and oppressed; Pakistanis suffer from all of the above because of the religion of Islam.  Because Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, it is often perceived as a Middle Eastern nation, not a South Asian one.  Furthermore, all of the virulent Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric that continues to spread at rapid rates, particularly in the west, also runs parallel with the Orientalist attitude and perception of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A good example of how the above plays out can be found in a post titled “Why India-Pakistan World Cup Semifinal Will Belie the Hype.” The author, Sajid Huq, starts with usual trash-talking and says “India will school Pakistan” on Wednesday (interestingly, the author seems to have deleted the remark today).  I don’t have a problem with Huq’s opinion nor am I offended by it.  However, the commentary suffers from the same anti-Pakistani rhetoric found in Biswas’ piece.  I must say that it is interesting how Huq lists Edward Said as one of his favorite authors and yet presents Pakistan through the dirty lens of Orientalism.  Huq paints a glorified image of India while depicting Pakistan as a country “housing terrorists.”  No historical or political context is given on how turmoil and violence has escalated in Pakistan nor is there any mentioning of how US invasion, and occupation in Afghanistan continues to have a disastrous impact on Pakistan.  Huq goes on to boast about India’s scientific and artistic achievements:

India is perhaps at a stage when the international community is more bullish about its markets, more excited about its culture, and generally more pro-Indian than at any stage of the nation’s history. And of course, this has not been a result of plain luck. Indian businessmen have distinguished themselves at an international stage, and noticeably so in the last decade. Indian engineers, doctors, scientists, and even investment bankers have made news and brought tremendous glory to the nation. Bollywood is increasingly an industry that has caught international imagination, as have Indian philosophies, literature, music, and last but not least, the fortune of the cricket team, which has successfully held on to top rankings in most forms of the game.

In sharp contrast, this is all Huq has to say about Pakistan:

Pakistan, as has been said so often, is an embattled cricketing nation. More pertinently perhaps, it is an embattled nation, dealing with perhaps its most troubled phase in history, at a time when brand Pakistan has been muddied, sullied, and then some more – through domestic turmoil, political unrest, and visceral anger from the international community for housing terrorists that then spawn and attack nations near and far.

Ah ha, I get it, India = happy, friendly, advanced, mystical; Pakistan = gloomy, hostile, backwards, dangerous.  This very narrow and unfair representation of Pakistan not only polarizes Indians and Pakistanis, but also plays into the hands of a hurtful narrative that vilifies Pakistan for imperialist purposes (after all, vilifying Pakistan as a “haven” for terrorists makes it easy for US war crimes to go unchallenged).  If we choose to talk about India’s Bollywood industry, then why not also include the Pakistani musicians that are not only popular among Pakistanis, but also among Indians because of their contributions to Bollywood songs?  Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nouman Javaid, Kamran Ahmed, and other Pakistanis have produced popular Bollywood songs.  I would take it a little further and acknowledge Pakistanis in the west who have made creative and artistic contributions, such as Pakistani-Canadian filmmakers like Zarqa Nawaz, Pakistani-Canadian actors like Zaib Shaikh, or Pakistani-American singers like Nadia Ali. Canadian actress Sitara Hewitt and British lead singer of “Bat for Lashes,” Natasha Khan, are of Pakistani descent as well.  Surely anyone who has seen the Pakistan-based Coke Studio sessions would recognize the immense amount of talent in Pakistan.

The point is not to gloss over the serious problems that confront Pakistan.  Indeed, it is important to address the country’s struggles on so many issues. However, presenting a singular and Orientalist image of Pakistan as dark, violent, and brutal in contrast to a bright and blooming India, almost to taunt Pakistanis, does very little to help us recognize Pakistan’s diversity, as well as its very complex history and contemporary challenges.  It also overlooks India’s struggles and makes it very easy for us to lose sight of the Pakistani activists, leaders, and organizations that are making strong efforts on so many levels by speaking out against injustices, standing up for human rights, improving education, helping those in need, etc.

Instead of hearing about these Pakistanis, mainstream western media depicts Pakistan solely as the aggressor and India as the victim.  Most of the cricket commentaries I’ve read, including the two I critiqued above, have mentioned the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and point out that the upcoming match is the first time the two teams have met since the attacks.  Other articles argue 26/11 is still the “biggest hurdle” for India and Pakistan talks, characterizing Pakistan as suspicious and untrustworthy.  As horrible as the attacks were in Mumbai, what continues to alarm me is how mainstream discourse on India and Pakistan seem to forget that Pakistanis suffer from terrorists attacks, too.  The bombing of the Islamabad hotel, the bombing of Sufi shrines, the bombing of girls’ schools, sporadic bombings in Lahore and other parts of the country – all of these attacks were made against Pakistanis by militants and extremists.  However, where are the dates for these events and why aren’t we expected to remember them?

26/11, like the 9/11 attacks, is treated as an epoch-making event.  The Indian government’s former Secretary of Security Shyam Mehra stated in October, “The events of 9/11 in the U.S. and 26/11 in India mark defining moments with epoch-making consequences. Implicit in these attacks is an assault on the larger idea and essence of free societies. Both countries need to work in a common endeavor to meet these challenges.”  Establishing this link with the US has significant strategic and political purposes.  Not only is 26/11 considered “India’s 9/11,” but it also identifies a common enemy for the US and India and strengthens their alliance.  Even though it was reported last year by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) that a total of 3,021 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2009, a 48% increase from 2008, media coverage on these attacks have never characterized them as “Pakistan’s 9/11.”

One must ask why the US, England, and India use calendar dates to commemorate the attacks on their nations and then expect these events to be universally known throughout the world.  What about the millions of murdered Iraqis and Afghans?  What about the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002?  What about Israel’s bombing of over 1,400 Palestinians in December-January 2008-2009?  What about the drone attacks in Pakistan?   What about the violence, oppression, and Indian military occupation in Kashmir?  What are the dates of these events, what are the casualties, what are the names of the victims, what are their stories?  Why aren’t these attacks expected to be universally known as attacks on non-Muslim majority countries like America, England, India, and Israel?  If we’re taught that all human life has value, then why these double standards?  Excluding the atrocities in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations only perpetuates the construction of Muslims as antithetical “others” and “enemies” of “the free world.”

Cricket commentaries shouldn’t participate in continuing the vilification and misrepresentation of Pakistan and Pakistanis.  As mentioned earlier, cricket matches between Pakistan and India have shown us inspiring displays of friendship and respect for both nation. One article makes note of how Indian journalist and author M.J. Akbar recalled:  “one of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship.”  I also remember watching those matches and seeing Pakistanis give standing ovations to the Indian players, Indians and Pakistanis holding signs that read “India-Pakistan friendship” and wearing face-paintings with the flags of both nations.

No doubt that Pakistanis and Indians will be cheering on their cricket teams on Wednesday.  Cricket has a way of boosting the morale of the general public.  As my cousin pointed out in an online discussion, amidst the political turmoil, the stereotypes, the exclusion from IPL and hosting in the World Cup, and being so “broken and dejected over the country’s pathetic state of affairs,” a victory for Pakistan would give the people something to smile about.  Perhaps it could also help break the Orientalist stereotypes that continue to tarnish the nation’s image and fuel western imperialist projects.

No One “Hijacked” Islam – Part 2

The Orientalist defines the Oriental.  This is but one way the late Palestinian-American activist and scholar Edward Said described the relationship of power and domination between the West (the Occident) and the East (the Orient); the Westerner (the Orientalist) and the Easterner (the Oriental).  Orientalism is still at work today as White supremacy defines the Muslim, the Arab, the Iranian, the South Asian, the African, the Asian, the Latino, the Native-American, the “Other.”

In my original post (part 1) in November of 2009, I critiqued the way Muslims and non-Muslims alike tried to defend Islam after the shooting at Fort Hood.  Though well-intentioned, many made the mistake of using a very problematic phrase:  “Islam has been hijacked.”  The extremists, they say, are the ones who made it worse for all Muslims.  The terrorists took over the religion of Islam and the only way to save the faith is if “moderate Muslims” take it back.

The problem with this narrative is that it functions to (1) justify stereotyping and demonization of Islam, (2) hold the vast majority of Muslims responsible for “properly” representing their faith, and (3) dismiss the racist double-standards that exist in our society, such as never asking a White Christian to answer for atrocities orchestrated by other White Christians, but always demanding a Muslim to do so.  The label “moderate Muslim” is not only assigned to us by the dominant White supremacist culture, but it also represents the way racist and oppressive systems define who we are.  When we use the term “moderate Muslim,” we internalize the West’s simplified categorization of Muslims.  As Hoda of “The Ruh of Brown Folks” described during an online discussion, “Muslims can be neatly divided into polarizing categories of ‘moderate’ (read: Uncle Tom Muslims who are friendly to US foreign policy and law enforcement officials) and ‘radical/extreme’ (which lumps everyone else together).”

Similarly, the phrase “Islam has been hijacked” implies that militant extremists represent the majority of Muslims when, in fact, they do not.  It also serves as a way to corner Muslims into exhaustively condemning and apologizing for crimes and murders committed by other people.  Imagine if someone approached a White person and asked, “Why haven’t you condemned the White supremacist who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in New York?  Are you an anti-Semite?”  Muslims are asked such ridiculous questions, along with “Do you support Al-Qaida?  Are you a terrorist sympathizer?  Why don’t you condemn Hamas or Hezbollah or the Taliban?”

These questions are asked because Muslims are viewed in a suspicious light.  These questions are asked because in the minds of many non-Muslim Americans, Muslims are not welcome here.  Last year’s Washington Post poll revealed that 48% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam.  While there are those who dismiss the disturbance of these numbers, the anti-Muslim rallies and rhetoric surrounding the incorrectly titled “Ground Zero Mosque”  are just a couple of examples of how rising Islamophobia surfaces in the United States.

But it doesn’t stop at hate speech.  Wednesday’s hate crime in New York where a 21 year-old non-Muslim White male, Michael Enright, repeatedly stabbed a Muslim cab driver after asking him, “Are you a Muslim?” reveals the danger of Islamophobia and how worse it’s becoming.  In light of this recent event, our time to constantly stress on why young White males are not being racially profiled is long overdue.  We should also  heavily emphasize on how “moderate White people”are not expected to condemn or answer for Enright’s attempted murder.  And while we’re at it, let’s mention the White man who flew his plane into an IRS building, as well as the White Christian militia group that plotted to assassinate police officers.

What of Timothy McVeigh, the Crusader language of Blackwater, and even the religious justification George W. Bush used to invade Iraq?  When was the last time you heard someone say “Christianity was hijacked”?  Or, what about the JDL (Jewish Defense League) former Chairman, Irv Rubin, and group member, Earl Krugel, who were arrested 3 months after 9/11 for planning bomb attacks on a Mosque in California and on the office of Arab-American US representative Darrell Issa?  Did anyone say “Judaism was hijacked” by these extremists?

The reality is that the phrase “Islam has been hijacked” is a product of White supremacy.  It is the dominant culture’s way of speaking for us, imposing its definition of  Muslims/Islam upon us, and implanting the idea that we are, indeed, inferior, inadequate, and subhuman.  Once we internalize the racist and hateful messages and start using them, the idea becomes normalized and spreads.  We have to unplug ourselves from the oppressive system and start defining ourselves.  Islamophobia, for instance, does not exist because a small number of Muslim extremist militants carried out attacks and atrocities.  Islamophobia exists because White supremacist culture does not make a distinction between the vast majority of Muslims and the small minority of violent extremists.  As I pointed out in this post, White Christians are not treated as spokespersons for their entire race or religion whenever members within their communities carry out acts of terrorism.

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

The idea that a small group of people can take control of our religion is absurd and completely denies the voice that we as a majority have.  With that said, as the vast majority, let’s make it loud and clear:  No one hijacked Islam.

“South Park” Controversy and Wearing America on Our Backs

When Aasif Mandvi, the Muslim-American correspondent on “The Daily Show,” was asked to comment on the threats made against the creators of “South Park” for depicting the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a bear costume, his frustration was not unfamiliar to most Muslims, especially those who are also citizens of the United States.  Even though the character in the bear suit was revealed to be Santa Claus at the end of the show, Mandvi explained to viewers that, yes, insensitive cartoon representations of the Prophet do offend Muslims, including himself, as do ridiculous and reactionary threats made against the creators of “South Park.”  Mandvi then rose to his feet and turned around to reveal a suit with a large American flag printed on the back.  “I don’t like walking around wearing this suit,” he said.

Like many Muslims I’ve spoken to, I do take issue with how mainstream and popular western media is blowing this story out of proportion.  What I find highly significant to point out is how the threats against “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone came from 5-10 individuals who, according to Ahmed Rehab of CAIR-Chicago, “are widely reviled by the mainstream community for their radical and confrontational style including harassing Muslims outside mosques (where they tend to be banned) with outlandishly provocative anti-American rhetoric.”  This is not to say that the threats shouldn’t be taken seriously, but why are media outlets like CNN treating these few extremists as representative of the entire Muslim community?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper called the internet threats against the “South Park” creators “chilling” and even resorted to unpleasantly familiar Islamophobic rhetoric:

A threat against the creators of “South Park,” a warning from a radical Islamic group, right here in America, right here in New York, that they will end up dead because of a cartoon…

Note how Cooper emphasizes on “radical Islamic group” being “right here in America, right here in New York,” as if to promote fear and mistrust of fellow Muslim-American citizens.  He continues:

We live in a country which prides itself on its freedom of speech, in which we can say whatever is in our hearts, in our minds, as long as it’s not threatening to someone else– as long as it’s not calling for violence against somebody else. Now, you might not like South Park the cartoon, you might think it’s offensive, you might decide it’s not something you want to watch– that’s up to you. But the notion that some radical Islamic group in America would make a threat, even a veiled one, against two men’s lives because of it is chilling. And for the people making this threat, that is precisely the point– to chill discussion, to chill debate.

Not only does Cooper fail to mention that the threats came from a few Muslim extremists, but he also speaks about the “radical Islamic group” as if it is a massive and growing terrorist organization seeking to “Islamize” American society.  Cooper is not incorrect when he describes intolerant individuals as people who want to chill discussion and/or debate, but instead of bringing voices from within the Muslim community on his show, he invited radical Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Why?

Hirsi Ali spewed out her usual nonsense, hate speech and lies about Islam, going as far to say that scripture – Islam itself – told Muslims to kill anyone who criticized the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad.  It is absolutely appalling and insulting that Anderson Cooper would exclude Muslim voices on his show in favor of someone whose sole agenda is to fuel fear and hatred of Islam.  At one point, Cooper asks Hirsi Ali why Buddhists didn’t make the same kind of threats when Buddha was mocked on the show.  The implications are disturbing — that there is something inherently violent in the religion of Islam; that people of other faiths are “superior” and never make threats or commit violent acts.  With such inflammatory attitudes and ignorant generalizations, how is Cooper any different from the people he accuses of wanting to chill discussion and debate?

With this in mind, it is crucial to recognize that the stigmatization of Muslim-Americans, which Aasif Mandvi alluded to in his suit display on “The Daily Show,” is not and should not be seen as the result of a few extremists making threats against the creators of the show, but rather as a result of Islamophobia. In other words, it is society’s inability to distinguish between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and the marginalized extremists that generates stigma, fear, mistrust, discriminatory acts, hate crimes, and so on.

This is one of the many reasons why I do not like when some Muslims say, “Islam has been hijacked by extremists,” or “the extremists are giving Islam a bad name.”  These are expressions that we have internalized from non-Muslim politicians, pseudo-experts, and certain social commentators who, no matter how well-intentioned, are oblivious to our experiences as Muslims in the west.  I find it difficult to imagine that “South Park” never received death threats before, but when it’s from some extremist Muslims, it is widely reported in the news.  Would media coverage be the same if 5-10 unpopular Christian extremists made the internet threats?  Would people say, “Christianity has been hijacked by these extremists,” or “They give us Christians a bad name?” to the effect that every Christian is stigmatized and expected to answer for the actions of a few?

In any case, the reality is that many Muslim-Americans are pressured to “prove their loyalty” in the United Sates.  It gets to the point where it feels like we are wearing American flags on our backs (or stapled to our foreheads on some occasions).  And a lot of Muslims have come out to speak on the “South Park” controversy.  Zahed Amanullah, Arsalan Iftikhar, and Imran J. Khan have all published their opinion articles on Guardian, the CNN website, and Elan Magazine respectively (I’m sorry if I missed others).  Wajahat Ali even wrote a brilliant satirical piece on AltMuslim.

However, the question is:  Is anyone listening to us?

Kurbaan: Stereotypes, Islamophobia, and the Sexy Terrorist

I’ve been on and off with Indian, or “Bollywood” films over the years.  Though lately, ever since I saw the new Aamir Khan film, “3 Idiots,” and noticed how it helped improve my Urdu/Hindi, I have been watching more Bollywood movies. My personal history with Bollywood films is a bit complicated and would be more appropriate for a separate post. Very similar to how Sobia Ali opens her excellent piece, “Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate,”  I’ve found my connection to Bollywood films to be problematic for a number of reasons:   I didn’t grow up in a South Asian country, my Urdu/Hindi is not so great, and I’m a Pakistani Muslim.  Though much of the Indian film industry is packed with Muslim stars, directors, screenwriters, lyricists, and musicians, there are numerous Bollywood films that contain either implicit or explicit anti-Pakistani sentiments (one of the major reasons why I stopped watching them a few years ago).

However, in recent years, more Pakistani singers such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, and Kamran Ahmed have been producing immensely popular songs for Bollywood films, and Indian celebrities such as Aamir Khan, Emraan Hashmi (both Muslims), Mahesh Bhatt, and others have visited Pakistan on several occasions to promote more artistic collaborations between the two nations.  Movies like the Pakistani film “Khuda Ke Liye” represent the emergence of Indo-Pak collaborations, for instance.

But the latest film directed by Rensil D’Silva, “Kurbaan,” is anything but progressive.  Being Muslim, I have always paid close attention to the Muslim stars in Indian cinema, namely Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan, and as a kid, it was nice to watch films where I knew the protagonists were played by Muslims, even though most of the time they’re playing Hindu characters (which makes for another interesting discussion).  “Kurbaan” is one of those rare movies where the Muslim actor, Saif Ali Khan, actually plays a Muslim.  However, to my disappointment, the film is set in the backdrop of terrorism and loaded with Islamophobic stereotypes, something that is so typical in both Hollywood and Bollywood cinema whenever Muslims are portrayed.

Saif Ali Khan plays Ehsaan, a university professor in India, who passionately falls in Love with a Hindu professor, Avantika, played by real-life girlfriend Kareena Kapoor. Their Love carries them overseas when Avantika receives a job offer to teach in the United States. After settling in a predominately Indian Muslim neighborhood, Ehsaan, upon Avantika’s encouragement, applies to teach a class on “Islam and the modern world” at the same university. Ehsaan gets the job, Avantika gets excited, the two embrace, and they live happily ever after. Right?

But wait, don’t forget about the Muslims next door. The men are mostly bearded and all of the Muslim women are wearing the hijaab (headscarf). Strict gender segregation rules are set in place when Ehsaan and Avantika visit Bhaijan, their elder Muslim neighbor. To say the scene was nauseating would be an understatement — it confirms every single stereotype a person may have about Muslim women: oppressed, secluded, and subservient to men. The eldest Muslim woman, Aapa/Nasreen (Bhaijan’s wife), is the controlling one, she keeps the Muslim women in line and every time she speaks about Allah, she does so in the most ominous way possible. One of the wives, Salma, tries to express her frustration at how Muslim men don’t permit women to work, but Aapa interjects and says Allah has “no greater duty” for Muslim women than to be a homemaker. Avantika, a Hindu woman, represents the contrast and is familiar to international non-Muslim audiences, especially in the United States: she is unveiled, progressive, a working woman, and unsettled by the restrictive atmosphere of her Muslim neighbors. Earlier in the film, we see some reluctance from her father when he meets Ehsaan, and while he says he prefers Avantika to marry a Hindu man, he does so in a friendly manner and eventually becomes open to the idea.

Salma’s rebellious attitude brings deadly consequences. One night, Avantika looks out her window and sees Salma trying to escape in her husband’s jeep, but she is physically assaulted, and pulled back into her house by her spouse. Typical Muslim husband. Later, Avantika sneaks into Salma’s house and overhears Bhaijan and the other Muslim male neighbors discussing their plan to blow up a flight carrying a U.S. delegation to Iraq. Avantika is startled when she finds the dead body of Salma and the Muslim men catch her spying on them. She runs back to her house, locks the door, and rushes into the arms of her husband. Ehsaan tells her there’s nothing to be afraid of as he walks her back into the living room. Then Ehsaan says, “You all can come out now.” The Muslim men reveal themselves out of concealment. Avantika’s eyes fill with horror as she comes to the terrible realization that, yep, her husband is a terrorist.

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

Ow.

See, Hindu women (or any non-Muslim woman), never get involved with a Muslim man. Wait, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor are dating in real life. Nevermind. But still, what gives? This is something that really offends me about the movie. Saif Ali Khan is a charming Muslim man who teaches about Islam in a university, and he’s a terrorist?! The film provokes suspicion about Muslims at almost all angles. Suspicion about Muslim Lovers/husbands/professors, like Ehsaan; about Muslim neighbors, like Bhaijan and company; and about Muslim women, who join their husbands in the plot to blow up a subway station at the end of the film. No matter how Loving, intelligent, or kind they look on the surface, there is furious extremism boiling inside of them. And accompanying this suspicion is the ominous Middle Eastern music that plays every time Muslims are on screen, as if every Muslim has some connection to the Middle East, even if they’re Indian and speak Hindi!

Enter the “good moderate Muslim,” Riyaz (played by Vivek Oberoi). We are introduced to him early in the film as a TV reporter. He returns from a trip to Iraq and tells his Muslim girlfriend, Rihana (Dia Mirza), who is unveiled and dressed in Western attire, a noticeable contrast to Aapa and the other Muslim wives, about how “Iraq is a mess.” When Riyaz meets with his father in a restaurant, his father is disappointed with the U.S. news coverage in Iraq. What about the Iraqi civilian casualties, Riyaz’s father asks. Riyaz defensively says, “Dad, we are Americans. That is the kind of fundamentalist mentality that has made things worse for all Muslims.” Whoa, to speak about Iraqi causalities is a “fundamentalist mentality”? If that is the case, then the majority of the Muslim population (and anti-war activists) would fit that profile!

Riyaz is a superficial character. He is the super-patriotic, unrealistically pro-American character that is trying to speak for the majority Muslims, but fails. He fails because he tries to take on the definition of “moderate Muslim” – he is the “good Muslim” in the simplistic and dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. The kind of Muslim that Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobes fantasize about. The kind of Muslim who supports, advocates, and legitimizes Islamophobic, anti-Muslim policies and wars. The kind of Muslim who is only good because he is anti-Muslim. The “moderate Muslim” label is something a lot of Muslims are fed up with because it is generated by either Islamophobes or misguided individuals who have a very superficial understanding about Islam and Muslims in general. The term, “moderate Muslim,” not only reinforces the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary, but also the idea that “Islam has been hijacked,” or that the majority of Muslims in the world are hostile, violent, and oppressive. The “good Muslims” are in the minority; they advance the “interests” of the United States first and foremost. If a Muslim is anti-war and criticizes the Iraq war, s/he cannot be a “moderate Muslim” because, as Riyaz establishes in the scene with his father, that is a “fundamentalist mentality.”  In other words, the “moderate Muslim” is categorized and placed into a very narrow, tight box — anyone outside of that box is perceived as suspicious, dangerous, anti-American, and even violent.

Riyaz becomes a prominent character once his fiance, Rihana, dies in the plane bombing orchestrated by Ehsaan et al. Riyaz gets in touch with Avantika and comes up with a plan to join Ehsaan’s terrorist group. During a security check, Riyaz is “randomly searched” by a security guard and shows some resistance. “I don’t see anyone else getting searched,” Riyaz says. “It’s just a random search, sir” replies the guard. After being searched, Riyaz sits next to Ehsaan and complains about being profiled. “I’ve got a Muslim name, that’s why they had a problem with me.” Ehsaan replies, “I know what you mean.” At first, I appreciated this scene because it showed the experience of a Muslim getting profiled, but then you, as the viewer, are reminded that Riyaz is trying to befriend Ehsaan in order to stop him. We can’t tell if Riyaz is speaking for himself or simply putting on a front to impress Ehsaan.

We get to see Ehsaan’s lecture on Islam when he invites Riyaz to his classroom. I found this scene to be immensely problematic. When a student asks about why violence comes from Muslim majority countries, Riyaz raises his hand and argues the same point his father makes early in the film: “What about the Muslim casualties?” He argues points that many Muslims would argue if they were asked the same question, i.e. the violence in Muslim majority countries cannot be separated from U.S. and Israeli occupation of those countries. But this is all “fundamentalist” to us because the audience knows Riyaz is not there speaking for himself. He’s simply saying it in order to win Ehsaan’s trust and foil his plans.

There is something else going on in this movie that I must point out. Unlike the way Hollywood portrays Muslim terrorists, Ehsaan’s character is designed to gain the sympathy of the audience. He is not only presented as a good-looking, charming, and sexy Muslim man, but also as a lethal and unstoppable killer who can drop six police officers faster than you can say “007.” His action-hero stealth skills remind me of the hitman protagonist in Luc Besson’s “Leon: The Professional.” This is interesting for a number of reasons. In Hollywood films, the Muslim terrorist is played by a no-name actor, completely unfamiliar to the audience. Saif Ali Khan, however, is a sex symbol in Bollywood cinema. Audiences are familiar with him, therefore it makes sense to develop his character, no matter what horrible acts of violence he commits. A back story is given briefly — he was previously married, happily in Love, but his wife and child were killed by U.S. military forces. Thus, he was recruited by extremists.

The sex scene between Ehsaan and Avantika is another example of how sexualized (exoticized?) the Muslim male terrorist is. The bullet wound on his chest symbolizes his indestructible power and guardianship of his Love, Avantika. Like Leon, the hitman, Ehsaan is a killer, but he has a heart and tragic story behind him. Ehsaan decides not to bomb the subway at the end and instead, commits suicide to save his beloved Avantika. This does not make me happy about the way Muslims are depicted in this film at all, but it is certainly a very different depiction we usually see in Hollywood films.

In closing, “Kurbaan” offers nothing new about “terrorism” as director Rensil D’Silva aspired for. In an interview, he said that the “alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged,” which is extremely offensive and insulting. It perpetuates the stereotype that only Muslims carry out acts of terror, and that “Muslim” is synonymous with “terrorist.”  (My regular readers have heard this lesson before on my blog here).  It tells Muslims (and non-Muslims) that the only way to be “good” is to be uncritical of imperialism in Muslim-majority countries — in fact, “good Muslims” must support and praise the United States (as well as Israel and India) in their violent wars that target Muslims (whom we are to perpetually believe are the “bad Muslims”).

As for Bollywood’s depictions of Muslim characters, it is not different from previous representations. As Sobia Ali wrote in the article I mentioned above:

It seems that in the past 10 or so years, it has been difficult to find a film in which the Muslim aspect of a main character’s identity was simply just an aspect of their identity, as was the colour of their hair. Hindi films in which the central characters (i.e., hero and/or heroine) are Muslim maintain Muslim-ness as central to the storyline and the storyline is usually somehow political – either in severe (terrorism) or romantic (inter-religious love) ways, or both.

We need to see more films that accurately depict Muslims in the way the community deserves. Always setting Muslims within the backdrop of terrorism is offensive as it is nauseating. After “Kurbaan,” I wondered what the point of it was. What does it tell us about Muslims? One may get the impression that Muslims are mistrustful and dangerous. That Muslim women are oppressed and need saving from the “strict” religion that Islam apparently is. Others may get the impression that Muslim men are “tough” and “bad-ass” individuals who struggle with extremist interpretations of Islam. All of these stereotypes reinforce Islamophobic narratives that hurt the Muslim community more than anything.

D’Silva’s film carries the tagline, “Some Love Stories Have Blood on Them.” Well, apparently, some “Love stories” have shameful Islamophobia on them, too.