I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog. I’ve been meaning to share this, but kept putting it off due to other commitments. Back in August, a really awesome anthology of science fiction short stories was put together by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad over at Islam and Science Fiction. As described on the site, the anthology is “centered around Science Fiction with Muslim characters or Islamic cultures.” The term “Islamicate” refers to the “cultural output of predominantly Islamic culture or polity” and is “similar to the term West as it encompasses a whole range of cultures, ethnicities and schools of thought with shared historical experience.”
The anthology contains a total of 12 short stories, one of which was written by me. I felt like I could have expanded on my story if I gave myself more time to write it, but I’m glad to be part of an anthology like this. Something I always appreciated about science fiction is how it is often filled with social and political commentary, and I thought it was important for me to directly address Islamophobia in my short story. While most of my creative energy has been focused on my independent feature film, it was nice to revisit my passion for writing short stories, especially science fiction. It’s also exciting that the anthology was featured on i09,Tor.com,and The Arab Weekly!
You can read and download the complete anthology by following this link. Insha’Allah I’ll return soon with more blog posts!
True Lies, Executive Decision, Not Without My Daughter, The Delta Force, Rules of Engagement, The Siege. These are just some of many Islamophobic Hollywood films produced before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. In fact, Jack Shaheen documented over 900 films in his book Reel Bad Arabs,which examined how U.S. cinema demonized Arabs for about 100 years. The book was originally published in July of 2001, 2 months before September 11th (it was adapted into a documentary in 2006). Although Shaheen’s research focused on media depictions of Arabs, he does note the way “Arab” gets conflated with “Muslim,” and vice versa. In his other critiques, particularly of Arabs in mainstream American comic books, he also mentions how Iranians, Muslims, and Arabs get treated as “one and the same.”
I did not want to write about 9/11 this year because of the way it is marked, particularly how everyone is expected to share their stories about where they were, what they felt, what grade they were in, whether they were on their way to work, etc. Over the years, where we have seen the bombings of Muslim-majority countries and racist attacks on other communities of color, there is never a universal call for commemoration or a moment of silence for people of color victimized by white supremacist terror. We are not taught to mark the dates of brutal atrocities against Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Syrians, and other people of color. We are not told to hold annual memorials for racist murders and violence against Black people, Indigenous people, women of color, queer and trans people of color, and so on. We are not expected to know their names nor their stories. Instead, the state demands that we remember the lives lost on 9/11, not for the sake of these individuals and their families, but because the “threat of Islam” should remind the masses that the U.S. must continue its violence against Muslims and people of color everywhere in the name of “freedom” and “security.”
Last year, during the 14th anniversary of the attacks, I could not help but notice thearticles about post-9/11 experiences that Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, and others were sharing. I understood the use of the hashtag #AfterSeptember11 because I am aware of the heightened increase in discriminatory acts, hate crimes, vandalism, profiling, and detainment that many Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim experienced. The stories are powerful, heartbreaking, upsetting, and important, especially since Muslims are rarely, if ever, given a platform to share them in mainstream media. In the past, I have written about my experiences with racism and Islamophobia as well, but something I always realize in my reflections is that I, like many Muslims, encountered Islamophobia prior to 9/11, too.
The purpose of this piece is not to dismiss the post-9/11 stories at all, but rather emphasize an important point about how Islamophobia existed long before 9/11. Many commentaries I have read, written by both non-Muslims and Muslims alike, set September 11th as the start date of Islamophobia in the west (some even problematically label Osama bin Laden the “father of American Islamophobia”). We need to resist this narrative for its inaccuracy, but also because it reinforces violent erasure of both the past and the present — especially of Indigenous and Black peoples, including Black Muslims. Furthermore, the narrative reinforces the notion that Muslims “caused” Islamophobia.
Tracing the origins of Islamophobia is beyond my area of expertise, but we know bigotry and hostility against Muslims began as early as the advent of Islam. In 7th century Makkah, Islam challenged many traditional practices of the Quraish, the dominant tribe at the time. Like all movements against social injustice, the oppressors treated Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims as disruptive and threatening to the status quo. The call to abolish female infanticide (Qur’an, 16:58-59), for example, represents one of many examples of how it is impossible to separate Islam from its advocacy for social justice. Resisting oppression (4:75), respecting and honoring human diversity (30:22), building alliances with other communities (49:13), and standing out firmly for justice (4:135) are all integral to Islam’s spiritual message. The early Muslims faced adversity, persecution, and dispossession at the hands of the Quraish. Many Muslims were tortured and often killed by the Quraish for converting to Islam.
In her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, Sophia Rose Arjana proposes the question:”How did we get here?” That is, how did we get to this place and time when we see Islamophobic sentiments, practices, and policies in the west? Arjana argues that these realities are “not simply a result of September 11, 2001, Madrid 2004, or London 2005, nor a culmination of events of the past decade or the past century.” While acknowledging the increased visibility of Islam and Muslims following these incidents, as well as U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arjana points out:
“[T]hese concerns represent old anxieties that lie within a multiplicity of times and spaces on the pages of manuscripts and canvases of paintings, in works of great drama, poetry, and fiction, within travel diaries and government documents, and on the screens of movie theaters. To find the answer to the question posed here, we must look at numerous fields of cultural production; there, we find a vision of Islam that is both familiar and unsettling. Within it, we must seek what is common. What is common is the Muslim monster.”
For medieval Christian writers and poets, Prophet Muhammad was viewed as a “heretic,” “inspired by the devil,” and even the “Anti-Christ.” Chapati Mystery has an excellent article that provides a detailed historical overview of western depictions of the Prophet. The author writes:
“The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. . . . The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives.”
In later medieval writings, the article mentions Muhammad portrayed as “frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.” In the 14th century classic, the Divine Comedy, Italian poet Dante Alighieri placed Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali in the 8th circle of Hell, condemning them to vicious torment for being “sowers of religious divisiveness.“
The article also highlights on racialized and demonizing commentary about the Prophet appearing in the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649. In the text’s introduction, as the author points out, Muhammad is described as “the great Arabian imposter” who arrived in England “by way of France.” He is compared to an “African monster” for “people to gaze at, not to dote upon.” This likening of the Prophet to an “African monster” is significant as it reflected medieval Europe’s view of black skin symbolizing the devil, demons, and monsters. Arjana’s aforementioned book delves into the long history of Muslims being constructed as monsters, a “recurring theme” that was “first formulated in medieval Christian thought.” Examining medieval writings as early as the 5th century, she writes:
“Dark skin was understood as a theological consequence of sin. Gregory the Great claimed that Ethiopia was a sign of the fall of mankind, and other Christian writers followed suit, tying dark skin to sin and perdition. Jeremiah surmised that the Ethiopian’s skin could change like a leopard—one of many examples in which Africans were likened to animals. Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess ‘dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.’ Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.”
Western Europe referred to Muslims as “Saracens,” who were “described as Muhammad’s progeny” and seen as a “monstrous race that spawned a number of creatures, including one of the more popular characters of the medieval Christian imagination — the Black Saracen.” According to Arjana, medieval paintings and depictions of the Black Saracen was an amalgamation of three entities: Saracen, Jew, and African — a “hybrid monster.” She also notes that while Saracen “initially referred only to Arabs, it was soon applied to Muslims, Ethiopians, and Jews.” Furthermore, the terms “Saracens,” “Turks” and “Moors” were used interchangeably, often conflated to describe the “Muslim enemy.”
It is important to note that “Moor” was a term many Europeans applied to Africans since ancient times, not just in post-Islamic times. Contrary to popular belief, “Moor” does not mean “Muslim;” it was a word used by Europeans to describe black-skinned people. The origin of “Moor” is from the Greek word “μαυρο” or “mavro“ which means “black, blackened, or charred.” When North African Muslims (predominately Berber), led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, invaded Visigothic Hispania in 711, Europeans used the term “Moor” to refer to Muslims in Spain and North Africa. Like the present, Muslims were made up of diverse racial and ethnic groups, and after the 8th century, according to Dana Marniche, use of “Moor” began to include many Arabs “who had invaded the Mediterranean and Africa because of their complexions which were the same dark brown or near black to absolutely black color of the Berbers.” What we see in European demonization of Africans and black skin is obvious anti-blackness, and in their conflation of diverse ethnic Muslim groups, we see racialization of Islam and Muslims, which persists today (as I wrote in my post, “Debunking the ‘Islam is Not a Race’ Argument”).
As one can imagine, demonization of Islam and Muslims was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages, especially during the Crusades. The Crusades: A Reader provides a comprehensive collection of documents and speeches from both Muslim and Western Christian sources. Prior to the First Crusade in 1096, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I needed assistance to defend against Turkish forces near Constantinople, so he wrote to Pope Urban II. The latter was so tired of Christians fighting and killing other Christians in civil wars that he saw this as the perfect opportunity for Christians to unite and channel their hatred towards the Muslims. More important than helping defend Constantinople, what appealed to Pope Urban II the most was the prize of Jerusalem in the East — if Christian armies could capture Jerusalem, he would be remembered throughout history as the man who drove out the “infidels” and “rescued” the Holy Land.
During his sermon at a church council in Clermont, France, Pope Urban II declared that taking up arms against “the vile race” (Muslims) was “commanded by Christ.” He promised direct salvation; anyone who participated or fought in the Crusades would have their sins remitted instantly and granted entrance to Heaven. In addition to spiritual rewards, there were promises of treasures and wealth in “the land of milk of honey.” According to numerous accounts of his speech, Muslims were described as “barbarians,” “infidels,” and an “accursed and foreign race” that “worships demons.” Unsurprisingly, the Pope used strong religious language to justify war and also exaggerated about the mistreatment Christians experienced under Muslim rulers. For instance, he stated: “They (Muslims) circumcise the Christians and pour the blood from their circumcision on the altars or in the baptismal fonts. . . . It is better to say nothing of their horrible treatment of the women.” The depiction of Muslims as “barbaric” and the focus on Muslim men’s “horrible treatment” of women can still be found in the language and narratives used today to launch wars against Muslims. This is not to deny real issues regarding misogyny in Muslim communities, but rather to challenge western political narratives that exploit the struggles of Muslim women to justify bombings and invasions of Muslim-majority countries. The West’s hypocrisy on sexual violence is no different than how Crusader knights would rape women (whether they be Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women) and never be held accountable while pointing fingers at Muslim men as the “real” perpetrators of sexual violence.
Casting Muslims as “infidels,” “demons,” and “evil” is something we still see today. U.S. president Barack Obama, hardly an ally to Muslims, is thought to be Muslim by nearly a third of Americans, including 43% of Republicans. Many extremist white Christians have been explicit in stating that both Muslims and Obama are “of the devil,” a belief reflecting an old, though prevalent, Western/European tradition of demonizing Muslims and Black people. In The History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, where Jesus (peace be upon him) and his disciples are portrayed by white men, Satan was not only depicted as a dark-skinned man, but many also claimed there was a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. Criticism led to producers eventually cutting the scenes, but whether or not the resemblance to Obama was intentional, the main issue remained: the devil is depicted as a Black man. It can be argued that given the history of linking Muslims with blackness and blackness with evil, present-day demonization of Islam and images of a Black male devil represent Western anxieties of the Black Saracen mentioned in Arjana’s research. Moreover, this demonization goes beyond hatred of Obama specifically and reflects the reality of white supremacist attitudes, violence, and laws that target Black people (both Muslim and non-Muslim).
As we continue to examine history, we see more examples of military offenses against Muslim-majority regions. The Catholic reconquest of Spain — the Reconquista — was a long and violent Crusade over a period of 770 years that sought to expel Muslims from Europe. In 1492, Catholic forces led by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella were successful in defeating the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. As a result, Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave their homeland. As we know, 1492 was also the same year Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the so-called “New World,” as it fueled their interest in expanding European Christian domination.
The brutal European colonial expansion and conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands in North and South America and the Caribbean islands led to colonizers demanding the labor of enslaved Africans. According to Muna Mire, about 10-15% of the Africans forced into slavery were Muslim (other sources estimate up to 30% of enslaved Africans were Muslim). As Mire writes in her important article, “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance”:
The first Muslims in America were Black. They were stolen from the western coast of Africa – modern-day Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal – and brought to the New World through violence. Some ten to fifteen percent of enslaved Africans brought to America as chattel practiced Islam as their faith when they landed on American shores. From the genesis of the American project, their labor – Black Muslim labor – would build the country from the ground up. But white Christian slaveowners did not tolerate these Africans practicing the religion they were born into. Enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity, wholesale, under threat of further violence. Like marriage, gatherings of Black people larger than three or four persons, or any other self-determined social custom, non-Christian religiosity was a threat to be eliminated amongst the enslaved. Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself.
History of Black Muslim resistance is erased in U.S. history textbooks, Muslim-American narratives, and discourse about Islamophobia. Instead, Islamophobia is treated as a post-9/11 phenomenon that primarily targets non-black Muslims. Mire emphasizes another critical fact: “Black Muslims existed prior to the colonial systems which brought them to the Americas, and they have been fighting assimilation for centuries. For a long time, to be Black has been to be Muslim.” Yet Black Muslim resistance against European conquest, slavery, forced conversion, white supremacy, police brutality, and assimilation are shamefully missing from dominant discourse about Islamophobia and Muslims in the U.S. As I have written before, anti-blackness among non-black Muslims and other people of color is a reality that cannot be ignored. In an interview with Al-Muslimoon Magazine in February, 1965, Malcolm X commented on how Muslims in Muslim-majority countries ignored the struggles Black Americans faced:
“Much to my dismay, until now, the Muslim world has seemed to ignore the problem of the Black American, and most Muslims who come here from the Muslim world have concentrated more effort in trying to convert white Americans than Black Americans.”
While I’m not an advocate of converting non-Muslims to Islam, Malcolm’s comment are important here because it reflects anti-black attitudes among non-black Muslims. Today, we may hear South Asian, Arab, and white Muslims speak proudly of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Hazrat Bilal, but still perpetuate anti-blackness in their communities. It is not uncommon to find non-black Muslims enthusiastically speaking about Islamic history and Muslim contributions to science, mathematics, and art, but resist acknowledging that many of these Muslims were also African. A color-blind “Islam does not see race” attitude continues to prevail in our communities, which works to further invisibilize Black Muslims, especially Black Muslim women. As Donna Auston stresses, this erasure “renders our communities even more vulnerable — to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from within the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.”
What we have come to understand as Islamophobia today has primarily meant focus on the experiences of Arab and South Asian Muslim men. Marking September 11th, 2001 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia means erasing history of demonization, military campaigns, violence, and laws that have targeted diverse populations of Muslims around the world. The narrative also implies that the U.S. was not a hostile environment for people of color before 9/11, as it ignores genocide against Indigenous peoples, slavery of Africans, and institutionalized white supremacy. Sometimes I’ll read articles written by non-black Muslims who reinforce the mythical idea of a pre-9/11 “racial harmony.” This dangerously negates anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial struggles that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have fought and continue to fight.
What do we make of Israel’s violent dispossession of Palestine, Indian military occupation of Kashmir, U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries, and the media’s demonization of Muslims if we believe Islamophobia did not begin until 9/11? What about the Islamophobic news coverage and bigotry that followed the Oklahoma City terrorist attack when Muslims were heavily blamed? In my personal experiences, as a Pakistani Muslim who grew up in a predominately white suburban town in the U.S., I recall my history teachers depicting Islam as a “backwards” religion. The Crusades was extremely romanticized, especially the figure of Richard the Lionheart, and our teacher made us believe Muslims started the wars and lost. In addition to brutally executing 3,000 captured Muslim prisoners, Richard the Lionheart never made it to Jerusalem, but was deemed the “hero of the Crusades.” In my high school social studies class, the teacher assigned everyone to do a presentation on terrorist organizations. All of the terrorist organizations we had to choose from were Arab and Muslim groups. When teaching the class about Islam, this same teacher showed us the anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian propaganda film, Not Without My Daughter. All of this happened before 9/11.
But Islamophobia goes beyond people saying or doing offensive and bigoted things to Muslims. Unfortunately, many liberals and western-based Muslim organizations treat Islamophobia as simply being about ignorance and individual acts of bigotry. I believe this is one of the major consequences of marking 9/11 as the origin of Islamophobia because the discourse places the blame of Islamophobia on the actions of other Muslims. In other words, the more we perpetuate the idea that Islamophobia began on 9/11, the less we understand Islamophobia within the larger context of white supremacy and historical hostility against Muslims and Islam. Not recognizing Islamophobia as institutionalized and state racism doesn’t just fail other Muslims, but also places us in opposition to building solidarity with other communities, especially Indigenous Peoples.
For instance, it is not hard to find articles filled with narratives about how non-black and non-indigenous Muslims claim the U.S. as their “homeland,” and how they are treated as “strangers in their own land.” Representatives of mainstream western-based Muslim organizations (that center on non-black Muslims) have often stated that Islamophobia is the “only form of acceptable racism left.” To disprove this absurd and, frankly, self-absorbed statement, one just needs to look at the countless examples of how racism against Black people, Indigenous peoples, Latino/as, East Asians, and other communities of color are still viewed as acceptable. Blackface in the media, films depicting “Yellow Peril” (including the recent film, No Escape), Native American sports mascots and Halloween “costumes,” assigning the dehumanizing term “illegal alien” to Latino/as and other immigrants are only a few examples of normalized and acceptable racism that exists. We still see white men, especially police officers, walk free after murdering Black and Indigenous peoples.
In response to narratives where non-black and non-indigenous Muslims refer to the U.S., Canada, and other settler states as their “own land,” we need to understand how we become complicit in perpetuating genocide and settler colonialism against Indigenous Peoples. As mentioned above, many non-black and non-indigenous Muslims in the U.S. expressed how they felt like “outsiders for the first time” in their “own country” after 9/11. Indeed, it is a frightening and dangerous reality that Muslims are treated as perpetual threats, subject to racial profiling and detainment, placed under surveillance, and face discrimination in their schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. The purpose is not to negate any of these realities and experiences, but instead advocate that we resist narratives that assume we are the “only” community (i.e. non-black and non-indigenous Muslims) that faces racism. Instead, we should recognize that our struggles against racism and oppression are connected to the struggles of other marginalized communities. How many North American-based Muslim civil rights groups have stood in solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous people who have seen their land stolen from them for over 500 years? Why are so many “American Muslim” (and other western Muslim) groups so invested in assimilating Muslims into the very colonial systems that seek to exterminate Indigenous Peoples?In the recent and brilliant online editorial, “Critical Transnational Feminist Analysis of Settler Colonialism,” one of the editors, Shaista Patel, powerfully articulates the importance of ethically engaging with other communities and understanding how struggles are interconnected. She writes:
“For those of us who work with the question of violence against Indigenous, Black and other bodies of colour, we are required to pay attention to the fact that these violences are intimately connected across spaces and times… For some of us, the question of complicity here as people living on stolen land, requires that we look into our histories and that we pay attention to all bodies who continue to demand that we ethically engage with violences. Paying attention to such questions moves us across continents, from past into present and back into the past and so forth. It asks us to trace the contradictions of the Empire which places us as both victims of violence but also as perpetrators of violence.”
All of us are participants in maintaining the interlocking systems of oppression, but we can make more ethical, diligent, and compassionate efforts to be more conscious of our privileges, responsibilities, and complicities. Recognizing these intersections and contradictions (within and outside of ourselves) reminds us that our liberation cannot be dependent on oppressing the rights of others. In an earlier piece, “Defining Muslim Feminist Politics through Indigenous Solidarity Activism,” Patel describes how Muslim solidarity with Indigenous Peoples comes from “an understanding that some of our historical trajectories coincide.” She cites how genocide against Indigenous Peoples in the “New World” and “expulsion of the last Muslims in Spain” were taking place in the same year of 1492. Additionally, she states:
“These braided histories of foundational violence of the ‘New World’ and Spain’s repudiation of its internal Others are important to remember so that we don’t forget how our destinies in a white-supremacist global order are tied in very material ways. . . . The history and present of the U.S. as a strong white settler-colonial and imperial power needs to be taken into account when movements in support of Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and other Muslims here are mobilized.”
I cite and raise the points mentioned above because I believe they can help us understand the damage mainstream narratives about post-9/11 Islamophobia causes. We are not going to stop Islamophobia if we think the West “suddenly” and “abruptly” became Islamophobic after 9/11, as if no history of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry existed before. If we were to apply this logic to white Christians, we would be seeing institutionalized oppression against white Christians in the West as a response to all of the murders and crimes carried out by white people. Islamophobia needs to be recognized as being ingrained in state racism. Furthermore, as Patel asserts, we need to understand Islamophobia as encompassing anti-blackness, as well as white supremacy (including white Christian supremacy), heteropatriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, Zionism, and so on. To truly understand Islamophobia in all of its complexity and intersections, it requires us to look beyond 9/11 and closely examine history.
I’ll conclude with saying there is no denying that Islamophobia and demonization of Islam and Muslims intensified after 9/11. I am not against Muslims writing about their post 9/11 experiences either, especially when there are so many efforts to silence us. Let’s keep telling our stories; they are important and need to be heard. The point I’m emphasizing is that, when we tell our stories, we need to resist narratives that set 9/11 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia because such narratives make us complicit in reinforcing notions that the U.S. (and the West in general) was once “kind” to Muslims and people of color. It is true that some Muslims did not experience Islamophobia and racism before 9/11, but we must not establish this as a truth for all Muslims and people of color. Instead of treating anti-Muslim bigotry as a “new phenomenon,” we need to remember that it has existed for centuries. Understanding this reality and challenging the post-9/11 discourse about Islamophobia is critical not just for building alliances and solidarity with other communities, but also for building solidarity and unity within the Muslim community.
Here’s a thought: Instead of saying Muslim Americans should be defended because they are “partners” in the “fight against terrorism,” how about we simply say, “Muslims, whether they are citizens of the U.S. or not, should be defended because they are human“?
During the DNC, Bill Clinton addressed Muslim Americans directly and stated, “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.”
Many Muslims on Twitter reacted to Clinton’s speech and criticized the notion that Muslims are always discussed within the context of terrorism, even when we’re being defended against Islamophobia. In one of my tweets, I pointed out that Republicans and Democrats have the same “defense” of Muslims: We are only “good” if we’re (1) American citizens and (2) perceived and treated as pawns to help advance U.S. imperialism.
In other responses around Twitter, I saw Muslims declaring their love for the U.S. and proclaiming that they should not have to “prove” their loyalty as Americans, especially when the same is never demanded of White non-Muslim citizens. While I recognize that there are many Muslim Americans who do genuinely love the United States and identify as proud Americans, I think it’s crucial that we amplify the Muslim voices and narratives that move beyond the notion that citizenship status, or one’s “Americanness,” should serve as a qualifier for one’s humanity.
In other words, why are there prerequisites for Muslims to qualify as human beings?
Last night, the DNC commemorated a Muslim American soldier, Captain Humayun Khan, who served in the U.S. military and was killed in Iraq. Khizr Khan, the soldier’s father, delivered a speech that many people, including Republicans, considered “the most powerful speech” at the DNC. I recognize and anticipate the possibility that some readers may think my comments about this are insensitive or inappropriate, but I want to emphasize that I do acknowledge that the pain of Khan’s parents is unimaginable. This post is not an attack on them. One of the most popular Hadiths of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that Muslims are taught is: “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
In this regard, of course it is upsetting to hear about the loss of another person, whether they are Muslim or not, especially when we hear it from their parents. It is also upsetting when we hear about the Muslims and other people of color murdered by U.S. wars, drone strikes, state violence, and continued support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine and India’s occupation of Kashmir. Our hearts should still ache for those who suffer under the boot of oppression, no matter who the perpetrator is. We should organize and hold vigils for the victims of drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan just like people organized vigils for the victims killed by the Taliban in Peshawar. The citizenship status or the lack of “Americanness/Westernness” of the victims should not cause us to be less outraged. We should not be silent about sexual violence against Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq when the rapists are U.S. soldiers and not the Taliban. We should not be silent about the 56 murdered civilians in Syria just because the attack was carried out by the U.S. and not by ISIS.
The harsh reality we are confronted with each time U.S. politicians use the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim framework is that Muslims are only of value when we are state-friendly, fight in U.S. wars, support Islamophobic policies, and vilify non-western Muslims. This image of the “Good Muslim” is purposefully a monolithic one. What fails to be addressed, including by certain prominent Muslim American leaders, is that Muslims who don’t fit the “Good Muslim” category are either in danger or at risk of danger. A Muslim is not “ineligible” to be treated and respected as a fellow human on this planet if s/he is not a U.S. citizen, not patriotic, not pro-war, not assimilated, not the palatable image that mainstream western society wants her/him to be.
The majority of Muslim Americans do not serve in the U.S. army. The majority of Muslim Americans are not police officers. The majority of Muslim Americans are not working for Homeland Security. Despite representing a very small minority in the U.S. Muslim community, these were the individuals that the DNC preferred to mention, showcase, and provide a platform for. We didn’t see or hear any mentioning of the Muslim youth who stand up courageously against racist and Islamophobic bullying, or the Black and Brown Muslim activists who march against police brutality, heteropatriarchy, imperialism, and settler colonialism.
But this doesn’t only reflect a problem with Democrats and Republicans. As Hafsa Kanjwal writes, Muslim Americans have also internalized Islamophobia. People in our communities promote U.S. exceptionalism and “Us versus Them” narratives (in the form of Western Muslim versus non-Western Muslim) just as much as U.S. politicians do. Meanwhile, as Kanjwal points out, “critical Muslim voices that question the impact of destructive imperial, military and economic policies abroad and our own community’s complicity in it are drowned out by voices that are far more palatable to the mainstream American audience.”
Throughout my conversations with Muslims in my local community and on social media, I am consistently hearing more and more criticism expressed against the U.S. exceptionalism that many mainstream Muslim American organizations and leaders promote. When the latter reinforce pro-nationalist narratives, they refuse to see how it vilifies movements that are anti-racist, anti-heteropatriarchal, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonialist. When these same Muslim American groups refuse to at least acknowledge that the U.S. was built on the enslavement of Africans and genocide against Indigenous Peoples, how can we expect them to recognize movements that confront and challenge the structural violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities?
What should not be silenced are the voices that say there is nothing wrong with being against U.S. imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and settler colonialism. I’ve spoken to a lot of Muslims who feel conflicted about being American or don’t want to be patriotic AND. THAT’S. OK. There is nothing wrong with speaking out against U.S. militarism and the toxic masculinity that comes along with it. Just because there are Muslims and Sikhs in the U.S. Army does not mean Black and Brown communities in the U.S. and around the world are “safer.” When a U.S. Muslim soldier kills a Muslim in Afghanistan, are we to automatically demonize and devalue the life of the latter? If a Brown Muslim police officer racially profiles me, is it less racist and Islamophobic?
We don’t have to be soldiers serving in the U.S. army for people to care about us. We don’t have to watch the same TV shows or listen to the same bands as White non-Muslim Americans to be considered human. We don’t have to be American, Canadian, British, French, or Australian citizens to have human rights. And of course, we may happen to love the same TV shows and musicians as the White non-Muslims around us, but my point is, it’s OK if we don’t. Those aren’t prerequisites to being a person.
When we internalize and reinforce these “qualifiers” to determine who the “Good Muslims” and “Bad Muslims” are, we become complicit in dehumanizing all Muslims. It’s a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” mentality that racists and Islamophobes have been propagating. If we are truly concerned about liberation and justice for all peoples, we need to resist and actively challenge the reproducing of U.S. exceptionalism, white supremacy, imperialism, and other forms of oppression in our own communities.
Then I read Haroon Moghul’s latest article on CNN’s website.
Titled “How Muslims can fight extremism,” the article is filled with many of the issues I had with Fareed Zakaria’s CNN segment about how Muslims “need to take more active measures” against extremism. Moghul makes a similar argument, stating that “condemning terrorism is a woefully inadequate response to a persistent menace.” Reinforced throughout the piece is the harmful and dangerous notion that Muslims have not been “doing enough” to confront extremism and are therefore collectively complicit in violence carried out by other Muslims. Let’s go through his article point by point.
1. “How else is it that a small band of vile extremists have come to dominate the conversation about Islam, except that we have let this happen to us? Let’s take a long, hard, awkward look in the mirror.”
It’s hard to read these sentences without being appalled. They essentially assert that the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims — 1.5 billion of us — are to blame for “letting” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” It is not the fault of Islamophobes, it is not the fault of Hollywood’s 100+ years of demonizing and vilifying Muslims, it is not the fault of the mainstream media very rarely providing platforms for Muslims to speak (and if they do, the Muslim guests are often bullied and vilified), and it’s certainly not the fault of U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries. No, it’s our fault, the 1.5 billion Muslims who “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” Exactly how Muslims “let” this happen is never discussed or articulated in the article.
It’s disturbing how Moghul erases the voices of countless Muslims, who have not only been speaking out against crimes committed by other Muslim-identified individuals, but have also been working tirelessly against Islamophobia, anti-black racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. I’m not just talking about protests or community activism, but also about individual people who have to fight these oppressive forces every day in their workplaces, schools, and even in their own families. When Muslim youth are bullied and harassed in schools by both classmates and teachers, are we to say to them, “Sorry, but the bullies only think your religion is violent because you haven’t done enough to stop extremists from speaking for you, so there’s nothing we can do to help you”? When my parents worked multiple jobs and faced workplace discrimination, such as dealing with racist bosses and co-workers who would make fun of their accents and refer to them as “camel jockeys,” should I have turned to them and asked, “Why haven’t you done anything to stop these extremists from dominating the conversation about Islam”? See how ridiculous all of this sounds?
As my readers know, I don’t believe Muslims should have to publicly condemn crimes committed by other people. The same is never expected nor demanded of White Christians when a White Christian man carries out violence, so why should the burden be placed on Muslims? This position is often mistaken as being stubborn and close-minded, but it is really about equality and justice. If we really believe in equality, then we should not be treating one group of people different than another.
Despite my position on this, Muslim community leaders and organizations in the U.S. and around the world have always condemned violent acts committed by other Muslims. Moghul, like Zakaria, acknowledges this, but insists that condemnations are “not enough” and that Muslims need to “do more.”
2. “The hundreds of millions of Muslims who reject extremism must start building out real, institutional alternatives to extremism, with serious funding, talent and commitment behind them. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars in the United States, for example, and on what? We have some nice mosques. Most of them are empty most of the week, except for a few hours every Friday afternoon. We built some Islamic schools. I guess that’s cool. But on the major metric, we’ve failed. It feels as if we are more unpopular than ever.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First, let’s contextualize who the “hundreds of millions of Muslims” are. This is something that should stick in people’s minds: Whenever we talk about the “Muslim community” or the global Muslim population, we should remember that we are talking about a population that spans from Morocco to the borders of China, with significant Muslim populations in non-Muslim majority countries in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. In other words, Muslims are not a monolith, and the global Muslim community is incredibly diverse and complex. In addition to ethnic and racial diversity, there is also spiritual diversity: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and so on.
Moghul proposes that these very Muslims, the ones who make up the racially, culturally, spiritually, and politically diverse majority, should invest in building “alternatives to extremism.” The implication here seems to be that “alternatives to extremism” don’t already exist in Muslim communities. The other, and perhaps more disturbing, implication is that the majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists,” and if we don’t listen to Moghul’s ideas about investing in “alternatives to extremism,” then more Muslims will become violent. The “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability, according to this logic. Whether Moghul realizes that he is implicitly furthering the norm that Muslims should be treated as a suspect community, I’m not sure, but the erasure of Muslim organizing here is dangerous.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have seen Muslims organizing and actively participating in events, protests, fundraisers, and talks that address a wide range of issues, including interfaith dialogue, Muslim feminism, Islamophobia, solidarity with Black Lives Matter, justice for Palestine, etc. In Philadelphia, I see so many amazing events and initiatives organized by Muslims, many of which I have not been able to attend. Just last weekend, there was a panel workshop on “(Re)imagining Queer Unions in Islam.” Next month, the Philadelphia-based Muslim Wellness Foundation will be hosting its 2nd annual Black Muslim Psychology conference. The Muslim Life Program at Princeton University has also hosted countless events highlighting on issues that are often marginalized, such as Muslim women in the arts, narratives of the Black Muslim experience, Muslim masculinities, Muslim mental health, and so on (all of these events are open to the public, not just for Princeton students). The Muslim Anti-Racism Collective (or MuslimARC) focuses on racial justice education, outreach, and advocacy, often addressing intracommunity racism, particularly anti-Black racism in the Muslim community.
Are these groups and programs not “doing enough”? Have these groups “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam”? If mainstream media does not provide any coverage of the work Muslims are doing on the ground, is it their fault that the media depicts Islam/Muslims as violent? Is it their fault that Muslims are now “more unpopular than ever”? Moghul does not seem to understand how white supremacy operates as a system, especially in the way it socializes people to view White people as individuals and treat people of color as representatives of the entire groups they belong to. This is the reason why we don’t see laws and policies target White people after a White terrorist commits an atrocious act of violence (even though White males represent more than half of the perpetrators responsible for mass shootings). Rather than blaming Muslims for how negatively we’re viewed, we should be working in solidarity against a racist system that has always privileged White people over communities of color.
I don’t present the examples of Muslim organizations above to suggest that the Muslim community is perfect. Not at all. Muslim communities, just like any other community, have the responsibility of challenging problems within, such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, anti-black racism, and other oppressive practices. However, acknowledging these problems within our communities is very different from collectively blaming Muslims for the violent actions of people like Omar Mateen. I also mention the Muslim organizations above because Moghul creates the impression that all Muslims seem to do is build mosques and Islamic schools (as if there isn’t anything significant about investing in these projects). After reading Moghul’s article, one would think that Muslims are an isolationist group that doesn’t do any outreach, advocacy, or educational work.
Yes, it’s true that many in the U.S. want Muslims banned. Moghul is not wrong, but the implication here is that Muslims are to blame. It is our fault that people want to ban us. This is a disturbing victim-blaming mentality that leads to increasing more suspicion about Muslims. It is difficult not to see Moghul’s comments as a harsh accusation against the Muslim community. It reminds me of how Zakaria said that Muslims should be more “active” against extremism because it would make a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia. I cannot say Moghul agrees with Zakaria or not, but his comments about how we are “losing” the “battle for hearts and minds” seems to suggest that Muslims have an obligation to prove to non-Muslims — mostly White non-Muslims — that we oppose extremism.
4. “We need to turn this around. We need to fight back against extremism. We need to take ownership of the problems, because it’s the only way we’re going to take ownership of the solution. If you can’t criticize yourself, you can’t better yourself. If you can’t lay out a vision of the future, you’re going to live someone else’s future.”
In addition to talking down to Muslims, Moghul reiterates that Muslims are responsible for violent extremism. There is a lot to address here when it comes to an entire community taking “ownership” of Omar Mateen’s actions. When I discussed Moghul’s article with a friend, she said, “What is it that we could have done to stop him?” She pointed out that the FBI not only investigated and questioned Mateen on two occasions, but also determined that he did not pose a security threat, probably because they saw him sharing similar politics since he worked for G4S, the largest private security firm in the world (which supports Israeli apartheid and is complicit inhuman rights violations around the world). Furthermore, new information has been released about how the FBI tried to entrap Mateen. Is this, too, the fault of Muslims?
Dispatching informants to spy on or entrap Muslims is nothing new. I would hope that Moghul is aware of the NYPD surveillance program that spied on Muslim communities and sent “mosque-crawlers” into our houses of worship. What does it mean to “fight back against extremism” when we already see Muslims spying on one another and/or reporting each other to the FBI? In fact, it has been revealed that a Muslim man did report Mateen to the FBI, contradicting Donald Trump’s claim that Muslims don’t report fellow Muslims. I don’t point this out to advocate continued surveillance of Muslims or having Muslims become suspicious of one another. Research has found that the impact of the NYPD spy program was traumatizing for Muslims. But when Moghul says he wants Muslims to “fight back against extremism,” what else is he looking for? Our mosques are already monitored and many Muslims, including myself, are careful and cautious about what we say at community events or social gatherings with other Muslims — to the point where we see “self-censorship and decreased involvement in community groups.” Making a criticism of U.S. imperialism, for example, could get you put on a “terrorist watch list,” if you’re not on it already for the mere fact that you exist as a Muslim.
5. “I’m calling for the chaotic Muslim middle — too long unrepresented or underrepresented — not to stand up and speak out, but to stand up and build out. We must design, fund, sustain and expand programs that target the very people extremists are going after.”
The “chaotic Muslim middle”? Given the context of how Moghul is accusing the Muslim community of not doing enough to “fight extremism,” his characterization of us as “chaotic” is nauseating and Orientalist. Again, Moghul speaks as if the “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability. Also, as mentioned earlier, the implication is that the vast majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists.” What I found troubling about the second sentence is that Moghul talks about targeting “the very people extremists are going after.” Who these people are is never mentioned in the article. How does one determine who the extremists are targeting? What Moghul seems to be calling for sounds a lot like a counter-terrorist program within the Muslim community (because we know how effective and wonderful U.S. counter-terrorist programs are, right?). Can you imagine being a teacher at an Islamic school and being trained to view all of your students as “potential terrorists”? If a student voices a opinion that sounds “too radical,” what is to be done with that student? Again, are we to police our communities more than they are already are?
6. “Imagine if we could send significant numbers of young Muslims to meet their co-religionists and offer them aid and assistance, or to meet people they’ve never been exposed to, to be taught and to teach. Imagine if we leveraged our resources and our numbers to fight hate, intolerance and extremism. Imagine if young people saw they could help their co-religionists by working with mainstream institutions.”
On the surface, I don’t have any objection to Muslims meeting and working with other Muslims in different parts of the world, but Moghul is talking about this within a framework that collectively blames Muslims for “violent extremism.” The primary objective of the programs that Moghul describes seems more concerned with catering to a Western non-Muslim gaze that desires to the see the “Good Muslim” — i.e. the Muslim who fights against other Muslims that “threaten Western civilization” — than building transnational solidarity with other Muslims and communities across the world.
I don’t believe the “counter-extremist” approach is effective. In fact, I think it leads to more profiling, surveillance, and civil rights violations against Muslims. Yes, it would be great to see more Muslim organizations that work towards building more solidarity internationally, but we also need to resist this “helping” narrative. It carries connotations of an arrogant savior complex that assumes U.S.-based Muslims “know what’s best” for people in Muslim-majority countries. What we need to focus on instead is solidarity, i.e. working with the groups and organizations that are already fighting against oppression in Muslim-majority countries. Solidarity is a better practice because it does not arrogantly assume that Muslims in other parts of the world need “saving” or don’t have a conscious for social justice.
7. “I am tired of simply saying terrorism is wrong. We should know that already. We should be known for that. I’d rather build up an alternative, a Muslim world that doesn’t just reject extremism in word, but defeats it in deed, that does more than acknowledge homophobia, and intolerance (and the many other ills we see rampant in some Muslim communities, like anti-Semitism and racism), but actively fights them.”
It is concerning these attitudes about Muslims “not doing enough” are dangerously similar to what Donald Trump and Islamophobes say about us. That we “know” who the violent extremists are in our community and that we don’t do anything about it. As Moghul makes clear in his article, Muslims are speaking out and condemning horrible acts of violence, and yet he interprets Islamophobic hatred of us as being a result of Muslims apparently “not doing enough” against extremism. How does this not call upon non-Muslims, especially those who are racist and Islamophobic, to support more profiling, surveillance, and deportations of Muslims? How do these attitudes not depict every Muslim on the planet as a suspect who should be treated guilty until proven innocent?
In Moghul’s article, there is no mentioning of white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, and other interlocking systems of oppression that have caused so much violence in the world. By decontextualizing the ways in which Muslims are vilified, Moghul is able to depict Muslims as being responsible for Islamophobic sentiments, rhetoric, and policies. It astonishes me that people still have to say this, but nothing happens in a vacuum. How can we talk about ISIS without also talking about the impact of U.S. imperialism, which has killed over 1 million Iraqis that we’ll probably never know the names of? How can we talk about Omar Mateen without also talking about the violent, homophobic (whether internalized or not), transphobic, and pro-gun culture that he is a product of in the United States? As Tanzila Ahmed writes: “Too often, we blame these hate-fueled attacks on the individuals who perpetrate them. We forget that there is a system of oppression in place that led them there.”
What concerns me probably the most about Moghul’s article is how it is reflective of the victim-blaming culture in which we live. I have lost count of conversations I’ve had with fellow Muslims who have said to me, “Yeah, the media is a problem, but we are also to blame for Islamophobia because we don’t do enough.” I’ve seen Muslims at my local mosque tell police officers, “Give this person a ticket” because a fellow Muslim’s car was double-parked in an over-filled parking lot for Eid-ul-Fitr. I have heard countless khutbahs in mosques telling predominately Black and Brown congregations that we must buy into a racist color-blind ideology because “there is no race in Islam” (clearly forgetting 30:22 and 49:13 in the Holy Qur’an). While these examples may seem small and trivial to some, I believe they reflect how disconnected and fragmented our communities are. We don’t just see Muslims blaming each other, but also turning on one another.
I point out the examples above to challenge the harmful framework that Moghul uses. That is, we do not need fellow Muslims — especially those who claim to speak for us on CNN or other mainstream news outlets – to scold us, talk down to us, or tell us that we are responsible for the negative and Islamophobic attitudes that people have towards us. At a time when Muslims report “decreased self-esteem and increased psychological stress” as a result of Islamophobia; when nearly 50% of Muslim youth experience some sort of bias-based bullying in high schools; and when Muslims frequently experience microaggressions, covert, and overt forms of discrimination, accusing Muslims of “letting” violent extremists speak for them does nothing to uplift our communities. It is cruel condemnation, not compassion.
I agree with Moghul that heterosexual Muslims must do more to challenge homophobia, but the “fighting back against extremism” framework only calls for increased policing and profiling of people in our community. While I don’t agree with everything Linda Sarsour says, I think her call for Muslims to be unapologetically Muslim is a message that all Muslims need to hear, especially Muslim youth. The message is important because it not only tells Muslims to be proud of who they are, not ashamed, but it also carries the potential to encourage Muslims to be pro-active against oppressive practices both within and outside their communities. Rather than implying that all Muslims carry the burden of “doing more” against violent extremism and are somehow responsible, we need to be promoting more courageous stances, as Sarsour does, in teaching Muslims to be unapologetic about their faith, and to work in solidarity with each other — as well as other marginalized communities — against the systems of oppression that seek to divide us all.
Although WisCon 40 ended on Monday, I didn’t make it back home until Wednesday because my Tuesday flight was cancelled due to the weather. Even on Wednesday, United Airlines sent me consecutive texts about how my flight kept getting delayed. My plan was not to miss my Wednesday night class, but due to the flight delays, I ended up being an hour late!
There is a lot I want to say about my first time attending WisCon, a self-described feminist science fiction and fantasy convention that advocates anti-racist and intersectional politics. Overall, it was a great experience and I loved how efforts were made to provide safe space for everyone. There were so many amazing panel topics and discussions, but some took place at the same time, so it was impossible to attend all of them! It was refreshing to hear feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic perspectives highlighted upon, particularly in the context of science fiction and fantasy. In more mainstream discussions, the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are mostly marginalized or excluded altogether.
A friend finally convinced me to join Twitter so that I could keep up with the conversations at the panels and also live tweet reactions that others could read. I remember people doing live tweets when I spoke at the Banana 2 conference back in 2011, but I missed all of the tweets because I didn’t have a Twitter account!
Anyway, as much as I enjoyed WisCon, it was not perfect. I had one experience with a racial microaggression that shook me up a little on Friday, where a White woman scolded me in the elevator for not moving, even though there were clearly two other people standing in front of me and I was waiting for them to walk out. Her anger may have been towards all of us, but it was directed at me. I was the darkest person in the elevator, so I figured that I was an easy target. I didn’t say anything to her and just walked out when I was able to, but as someone who experiences racism, Islamophobia, and microaggressions on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think, “I came here to get away from the dehumanizing treatment I get from White people. I have to deal with it here, too?” Thanks to a friend, I was able to move past it. I needed to, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood and I would have missed out on meeting wonderful people at the Con.
The first panel I went to was a Star Wars panel, which tweeted under the hashtag #TheFandomAwakens. As one can imagine, the discussion was full of praise for the latest Star Wars film, particularly for Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was nice to hear the panelists mention the Women of Color characters that we saw in the background of the film, but I was hoping for them to be a little more critical and talk about how Women of Color deserve to play significant roles, too. I mentioned this in my previous posts here and here about how it’s great we are seeing more prominent women characters in science fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies/TV shows, but the majority of them are White women. I have some friends, for example, who wished Rey was a woman of color. It would have been interesting to discuss and ask, “Could a woman of color ever be the main character in a Star Wars movie?” This is not a diss on the panel because I totally understand wanting to talk about all the positive things in The Force Awakens. I wasn’t bothered by this, until a White woman referred to John Boyega’s skin color as “dark chocolate.” I was sitting there, thinking, whoa, did I just hear that?
Let me take a minute here to say: NO. Do NOT compare Black people and other People of Color to food. JUST DON’T. I remember classmates in school likening my skin color to Hershey chocolate after they told me I couldn’t dress up as Batman for Halloween because I’m not White. The panelist initially said that she appreciated how a dark skinned Black man was chosen to play Finn. There was nothing wrong about that statement because, yes, we see colorism a lot in Hollywood where People of Color, especially Women of Color, with darker skin are excluded and discriminated against, but the “dark chocolate” comment was completely unnecessary.
Later that day, I decided to go to the Safer Space for People of Color room. I cannot express how grateful I am that such a space exists for People of Color. Everyone in the room was friendly, welcoming, and supportive. People use the space to vent about anything, not just about the experiences they’re having at the Con. One night, I was talking to a couple of people about the “dark chocolate” remark I heard at the Star Wars panel. I also expressed how I often get worried about being critical of Star Wars (which is my favorite movie series of all time, by the way) because there’s a perception that if you critique something, then it must mean you hate it. One person in the room immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a White attitude.” And I was like, “Yes! It so is.” We had discussions about the metaphorical minorities panel and all of the sci-fi/fantasy movies that appropriate the struggles of People of Color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, and depict White people as being the most persecuted group. Someone in the space also mentioned how she felt Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road should have been an Indigenous woman due to how disappearances of Indigenous women and other Women of Color are still prevalent today. All in all, it felt great to have these discussions with people who understand that just because you’re critical of something, it doesn’t mean you “hate” it (And of course, I did talk about certain movies and TV shows I hate too!). I think having such spaces where people can vent freely and not worry about being judged, silenced, or marginalized is a radical act.
Frequent readers of my blog may know this already, but I am not used to being around a lot of People of Color due to the demographics of where I live, work, and study. Being the only person of color and only Muslim in the workplace or classroom is a norm I’ve experienced all of my life. At the Safe Space for People of Color room, when I introduced myself to people, everyone made a genuine effort in learning how to pronounce my name correctly. That meant a lot to me. I’m so used to the opposite, where White people won’t make an effort to learn. I worked 5 years in a workplace where one of my White managers refused to address me by my name because, “It’s too hard!” (yet she knew how to pronounce “Hydrochlorothiazide”). Of course, there are White folks and People of Color that I meet in my everyday life that are better at this, but I didn’t have any anxiety about introducing myself at the Safer Space for PoC at WisCon.
There was also a dinner for People of Color on one of the nights. Across the PoC dinner room was the dinner provided by the main Con. As you can imagine, all of the White folks were lined up for that dinner, but as a friend and I were walking by, we heard a couple of White people complaining about how there was a PoC dinner. One of them even said, “I’m transparent, does that count as a color?” Ha Ha. Get it? Because transparent is… Yeah. My friend and I looked at each other and were like, “Did you just hear that?” As I mentioned earlier, this was my first WisCon, so I was unaware of the work that went into getting safe space for People of Color. My friend informed me about how WisCon has been changing and becoming more inclusive over the years, and how there has been resistance to these changes, especially from the older generation of White attendees. I heard more People of Color mention this in conversations.
Of course, WisCon isn’t the only place where I’ve heard White people complain about safe space for People of Color. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’ve lost count of how many times I have been excluded from workplace dinners or parties organized by classmates. The workplace dinners were the worst because there were multiple times when pork would be on the pizza they ordered or there was never any effort to order Halal meat. I don’t expect the latter, but you would think “holiday dinners” would have vegetarian options at least, but they didn’t until I complained about it. I became so used to being that one person who couldn’t eat anything at non-Muslim dinner events. So it felt nice, for once, that I could access a space that White people couldn’t and that there were food options available to me. In downtown Madison, we were looking for restaurants that served Halal meat and were able to find three. I am thinking about contacting the organizers at WisCon to let them know which restaurants. I think it would be nice if the WisCon app included Halal and Kosher meat categories under the restaurants they have listed.
It was awesome meeting all of the science fiction and fantasy authors at the Con. I was introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s work last year and read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she wasn’t at WisCon this year. I felt a little awkward getting my book signed by Sofia Samatar because I had not read any of her work before. Before I went to the Con, I bought a book where two of her short stories are featured, but I didn’t get a chance to read them in time! I bought her book, The Winged Histories, and told her that I was really looking forward to reading it.
One of the panels I really liked was about Social Media Exclusivity. It stood out to me on the schedule because I’ve deactivated from Facebook for about 7 months now. I have been thinking about writing a post about why I deactivated, but it was nice to hear other people express similar concerns and critiques about social media. The panelists spoke about how people tend to assume that everyone has access to social media and/or the internet in general. They mentioned how a lot of activist organizing and announcements are made on Twitter and Facebook, but there are also a lot of people, especially communities of color, who are excluded from these meetings and events because they don’t have access to social media. There was also a discussion about how people choose to stay off social media due to how unsafe it can be due to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. I appreciated this panel because it reminded me of how torn I feel about being off Facebook. On one hand, it was a space where I could meet and network with people (mainly other Muslims and people of color) who I would not have met otherwise, but on the other, there was also a lot of toxicity, ego battles, and oppressive behavior. The latter made Facebook extremely time consuming, but also exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on Twitter because I hear it can be worse than Facebook. Anyway, like I said before, I have been thinking about writing a post on this, so I’ll save all of the details for that post.
I was hoping to find a panel about Muslim characters and/or Islamophobia at WisCon, but there did not seem to be any. However, I was informed that panels about Islamophobia and Muslim characters were discussed in previous years. I didn’t register for WisCon in time to organize a panel, but I would like to in the future because there’s so much I want to vent about with regard to Islamophobia in mainstream science fiction and fantasy movies! Overall, I am glad I went to WisCon this year. I got to meet some really wonderful people and I hope to stay connected with them! I would definitely go to WisCon again, though probably not next year because memorial weekend falls on Ramadan.
If you went to WisCon 40, I would love to hear your thoughts or read any posts you’ve written about it!
I can’t remember where I saw this discussion on YouTube, but it involved the issue of racebending The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film. Originally an Asian character in the comic books, the film cast a White actress, Tilda Swinton, in the role instead. Someone on the panel criticized the casting as routine Hollywood whitewashing, while another person responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s a good thing they cast a woman because women aren’t getting enough opportunities in Hollywood either.” The former countered that argument and stated, “Why not have the best of both worlds and cast an Asian woman??
What was exposed in the counter argument was the erasure of women of color – Asian women in particular – from the conversation. It didn’t seem to cross the second person’s mind that, “Oh wow, yeah, a person can be Asian and a woman!” Unfortunately, the second person’s comments exemplify normalized attitudes and assumptions that we see far too often in society. That is, race and gender are seen as two separate categories. By extension, additional factors like class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability are also seen as separate categories. I remember reading a “scholarly” journal article once that said, “LGBTQ people experience more discrimination than ethnic minorities.” Aside from my aversion to the term “minorities,” my reaction was a sarcastic, “Oh right, because LGBTQ people of color don’t exist.” The prevailing assumption in society is that people are only “one thing,” as opposed to understanding that every person has intersecting social identities. The second person in the video talks about Tilda Swinton as being only a woman, not a White woman. This reflects how people are socialized to think of the “default man” or “default woman” as being White. There is no need to specify that Swinton is a White woman because we’ve been conditioned to believe “woman = White woman,” just as “man = White man,” or “person = White person.”
I saw something similar happen a couple of nights ago in a clip from Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Colbert commented on how male-dominated the MCU is, calling it “kind of a sausage fest.” While I agree it’s important that Colbert criticized Marvel’s lack of women characters and their sexist decision to gender swap characters that were originally written as women (on the basis that women villains don’t sell toys), his arguments were grounded in colorblind gender politics. Earlier in the segment, he listed some of the main characters in the MCU, emphasizing on the “Man” in their names: “Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther Man.” We know Black Panther doesn’t have “Man” in his superhero name, but we get the point. However, what’s problematic, and quite sad, is how Colbert completely ignores the fact that, unlike the other male heroes in the MCU, T’Challa/Black Panther is an African man. Not only that, but Black Panther is also the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books and will be the first Black character to lead an MCU film. Him finally showing up in a Marvel movie is actually a big deal. By grouping Black Panther with Marvel’s White male superheroes, his Blackness is erased and we are instructed to view him as not only being the “same” as the other men dominating the MCU, but also as being part of Marvel’s “male problem.”
I’m not denying that Marvel is male-dominated – it most definitely is. However, placing Black Panther in the same category as Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man is an oversimplification that dismisses race and intersectionality in general. As bell hooks emphasized in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure.” Yes, all of the MCU films thus far are led by male protagonists, but they are White male protagonists specifically. Black Panther being an African man is significant and he disrupts the nauseating tradition of White male-centered superhero films. Sure, one can argue that T’Challa possesses more power and influence than Tony Stark because he is the king of an entire country, but let’s not ignore for a second the very real and violent anti-Black racism that exists in our world. Let’s not forget that opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood are still extremely limited, especially for Black women. There is a disproportionate number of films that are centered on White men compared to the number of films centered on Black men and other men of color. That number is even smaller when looking at films led by Black women protagonists.
What is also overlooked in Colbert’s segment is how the upcoming Black Panther film, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler, will feature a cast that is “90% African or African American,” according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. This news sparked the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLiton Twitter, where fans expressed their excitement about seeing a superhero film with a Black-majority cast. Selma director Ava DuVernay and Twitter user ReignofApril, who started #OscarsSoWhite, also chimed in to share their enthusiasm. The news of a 90% Black cast also means more opportunities for Black actresses to play significant roles in a superhero film. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o has been reportedly cast to star alongside Chadwick Boseman. Additionally, Captain America: Civil War seems to have introduced us to a Black woman character who may play a major role in Black Panther. Played by Ugandan-born German actress Florence Kasumba, the character was seen as one of T’Challa’s security chiefs, possibly a member of the Dora Milaje. Though only appearing briefly in Captain America: Civil War, fans on social media have been praising the character and hoping to see more of her.
None of the above is to excuse the fact that women of color superheroes are hard to find in the recent influx of comic book movies. The last superhero film I remember with a woman of color lead was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry (more on this later). In 2014, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a Captain Marvelfilm (set for a 2019 release), which will feature a White woman as the title character. As exciting as this news is, we see the exclusion of women of color yet again in the commentary surrounding the film. While Black Panther is described as a “Black character,” Captain Marvelis referred to as a “female character” or “woman character.” The former mentions the character’s race, but not gender, while the latter mentions the character’s gender, but not race. When we hear “Black character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a Black man, whereas when we hear “female character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a White woman. As a result of these assumptions, women of color are erased. I believe what we see reflected here is what Kimberle Crenshaw addressed in her article (PDF) on intersectionality:
Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.
Crenshaw wrote the above in 1991 and it’s sad that the marginalization of women of color and the either/or ways of thinking that she described is still so prevalent. When I think about the MCU films, it is difficult to find women of color characters in prominent roles, let alone portrayed as superheroes. However, I can name a lot of the White women characters: Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Hope van Dyne, Janet van Dyne, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Irani Rael, and Scarlet Witch (who should have been played by a woman of color because the character is Romani, though nothing about her Romani Jewish heritage is mentioned in the films). Avengers: Age of Ultron has an Asian woman character, Helen Cho, and Guardians of the Galaxy features Zoe Saldana in a leading role, but her skin is colored green as her character is of a non-human species.
In the MCU TV shows, we see a couple of women characters leading their own shows, namely Jessica Jones and Agent Carter (though the latter was recently cancelled after two seasons). We do see more women of color in the TV shows than the films. There’s Claire Temple and Elektra, who are not relegated to small roles, thankfully. I don’t watch Agents of Shield (I couldn’t get beyond the first season), but I know there are women of color characters like Melinda May and Skye. I have heard there are more women of color characters in the show, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. Outside the MCU, we do see more White women in leading roles in blockbuster films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, DC’s forthcoming Wonder Woman film, and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which has a racially diverse cast of men of color, but again, where are the women of color? White women can be found playing superheroes in popular TV shows like Supergirl and Arrow as well.
I remember when Jessica Jones and Supergirl were being released around the same time, there were some on social media who debated about which one would be better. A third group argued that it didn’t matter which one was “better” because what really mattered was how revolutionary it was to have two TV shows with women superheroes. I don’t downplay the significance of seeing more women superheroes. But again, which women are we talking about? It’s not Black women or Latina women or South Asian women or Arab women we’re seeing in these roles. We continue to see the trend of White men dominating roles in mainstream film and television, and now it seems that movies and TV shows with women main characters must also be White. As if only White women can challenge the White male-centered industry, while women of color play supporting or tertiary roles, or are excluded altogether. It’s the pattern of Whiteness that we are seeing with women characters in these blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Jyn Erso, Black Widow, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel.
Women of color are not given the opportunity to lead superhero films and when they do, there are still restrictions. I mentioned Halle Berry’s Catwoman film earlier, which received terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. But the movie was doomed from the start because the film made every attempt to distance itself from the source material. For instance, there was no mentioning of Gotham City and Berry’s character wasn’t Selina Kyle, but a new character named Patience Phillips. There was no indication that Batman or anyone else in his universe existed in the film either. It was as if Halle Berry wasn’t allowed access to this character; as if the producers said, “Ok, we can make a Black Catwoman, but let’s not make her Selina Kyle. We don’t want people to think the real Catwoman is Black! This will be someone else!” Of course, much of the blame goes to the studio for the failure of Catwoman, but it’s hard not to overlook how a comic book film featuring a Black actress in the lead role was handled so irresponsibly.
I’ve gone and broken the unspoken rule for successfully creating interracial relationships on television and in pop culture: You can’t actually be Black, or have a Black consciousness in said union. Nope. You can be cute, in that hip Black way, but please don’t show your blackness, or God forbid, the often casual, everyday ways that race and racism affect your life and relationships. In this way, The Flash writers and producers have made a choice to embrace a color blindness narrative, for not only the Barry/Flash-Iris relationship, but also, for the Iris-Eddie, and Barry/Flash-Joe relationships.
One of the strongest things The Flash has going for it is its patient, layered character development, and complex storytelling. How might this be deepened even further if Barry/Flash and Iris had to truly reckon with how they move through the world very differently in their respective White male and Black female bodies?
The above is a great example of how visual diversity is not enough. In other words, improving the lack of women of color in film and television (both in front and behind the camera) isn’t simply, “Oh hey, let’s just fill up the screen with more women of color!” There are other issues involved, including colorism, how the characters are portrayed, the amount of screen time they have, how much creative license is granted to a woman of color director, etc. If Hollywood decides to make a film featuring a brown Muslim male or female character, but that character is used to reinforce an assimilationist, “U.S. versus immigrant,” or “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim” narrative, that doesn’t do anything to challenge Islamophobia. It merely reinforces the status quo and how the State wants Muslims to be.
To clarify, when I list all of the White women characters we see in comic book movies and TV shows, I’m not saying, “See, look, there’s no problem with sexism! There are plenty of women characters!” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have White women as lead characters either. My point is that liberal commentaries need to challenge simplistic understandings of social identity and center their advocacy on women of color in particular because not only do we see White women receive more opportunities to play heroic (and better paid) roles in sci-fi and comic book movies than women of color, but we also need to connect the media’s erasure of women of color to the racism, misogyny, and other oppressions they experience in the real world. Is it any surprise that Black women receive the least amount of opportunities in the entertainment industry when Black women and other women of color are over-represented in the low-wage workforce?
On this note, I find it concerning when I hear people defend the casting of Ghost in the Shell on the basis that Scarlett Johansson was needed to sell the movie because “an Asian actress wouldn’t be able to sell it.” These comments are paradoxical because on the one hand, they acknowledge the casting is wrong, but then they justify it by essentially saying, “Well, that’s how the industry works!” What I rarely hear from these defenses is outrage — outrage at how racist the film industry is. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo, that White people, whether man or woman, must be lead a film in order to be successful (and that success is measured by how much money it makes, of course). It is interesting that the very same people would rage against producers and say, “These people don’t know anything about adapting (insert comic book/video game/novel here)!” and go on about preserving the “source material,” but when they defend the casting of a White woman in a Japanese role, they suddenly side with the producers!
I don’t believe Ghost in the Shell would be a box office failure if a Japanese actress was cast in the lead role. The movie already has a strong fan base of the original Anime, it is bound to make money. What’s more concerning than how much the movie makes is the acceptability of studios and movie producers conveying the message that people of color, in this case, women of color, cannot play main characters, even if the original character was written as a woman of color. At the end of the day, it’s another White actress getting paid for a role that a woman of color actress should have played.
Hopefully, with the recent casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarak and Rosario Dawson returning in Marvel’s Luke Cage, we’ll see producers of superhero movies and TV shows cast more women of color in prominent roles. I don’t expect anything radical from Marvel or Hollywood for that matter, but I think it’s important that we challenge conversations and commentaries that pit race and gender against each other as if they are “two separate categories.” Advocating for a “woman character” should not be synonymous with “White woman,” yet we see it reinforced in movie talk shows and websites that act as if women of color don’t exist. Indeed, it is great that mainstream films are featuring more women characters and integrating feminist themes, but when the vast majority of these women are White, it reflects an oppressive manifestation of white feminism that has long attempted to marginalize, silence, and erase women of color.