Against Collective Blame: A Response to Haroon Moghul

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In the aftermath of the horrific mass murder of 49 people, primarily Latinx, in Orlando, we hear the usual Islamophobic rhetoric, language (e.g. using “terrorist/terrorism” as code for “Muslim/Islam”), and commentaries from U.S. politicians, mainstream media outlets, and Islamophobes. In contrast to these simplistic, racist, and Islamophobic narratives, several articles have emphasized on solidarity between LGBTQIA Latinx and LGBTQIA Muslim communities. Additionally, queer Muslims continue to highlight on the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia, and many activists and organizations have called for the rejection of Islamophobia in response to Orlando.

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.

3. Many Americans want us banned from the country. In the battle for hearts and minds, we’re losing. Badly.”

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 in human 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.

I wrote this in my critique of Zakaria’s CNN video, but it applies to Moghul’s article as well: Does “fighting back against extremism” mean increasing the suspicion that already exists for Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing FBI informants who are authorized to engage in sexual relationships with Muslim women?

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.

Erasing Rey’s Whiteness in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey and Finn Star Wars
Image description: Two characters, Rey (a young White woman) and Finn (a young Black man), stand adjacent to each other under a tent on a desert planet called Jakku. They are looking off screen at approaching danger. Accompanying them is BB-8, a small white and orange droid shaped like a ball.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a huge Star Wars fan. I saw The Force Awakens on its first night (i.e. the Thursday night preview) right after my 7:30 to 10 pm class. It was the last day of the semester, but the class still ran till 10 pm! Didn’t my professor know Star Wars was coming out???

Spoilers for The Force Awakens below! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further!

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but I remember leaving and feeling like something was off about it. I’m not just talking in regard to its racial and gender politics, but also in terms of how you can really feel George Lucas’ absence. I know a lot of people will say that’s a good thing, but Lucas’ political commentary, especially in the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series, is something I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years (despite all of the problematic elements in those films/shows). I thought The Force Awakens was weak on the political and spiritual themes (aside from the obvious Nazi reference and Maz having a generic line about the Force). A common criticism of the film is that it was a rehash of A New Hope, which I can definitely see. I think this is, again, where we see Lucas’ absence because, as he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview, Disney wanted to go “retro” with The Force Awakens. Lucas, on the other hand, wanted to take it in a new direction.

However, I think something that is overlooked in this criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is the most diverse Star Wars film yet. Yes, there were Black men characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, and White women characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala, but The Force Awakens is the first time where we see the story centered on a White woman and a Black man. It’s also the first time we see a Latino male actor (Oscar Isaac) playing a supporting role in Star Wars. As readers on my blog know, I am very critical of movies, but I admit, when I first saw the movie, it was refreshing and pretty awesome to see a cast that wasn’t the usual all-white male ensemble. I definitely enjoyed this about the film, but like anything, it’s not perfect.

There are already some great critiques written about the way the film depicts Finn (John Boyega) and chooses to make Lupita Nyong’o a motion capture CGI character instead of having her appear in the movie. I’ll get to these critiques later in the post, but below are some of my thoughts about the way many blog posts, message boards, and fan sites are talking about Rey and Finn. As much as I liked most of the casting decisions, I expressed in my previous post that I was worried that White people would use The Force Awakens to argue that we live in a “post-racial” and “post-gender” society where racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression “don’t exist anymore.”

What’s problematic about the way fans/columnists/bloggers talk about Rey and Finn is that they either (1) erase Rey’s Whiteness and refer to her as just “a woman” (because we’ve been conditioned to think White women represent the “default” woman, therefore there’s no need to specify Rey is White), or (2) describe Finn as being Black, but fail to mention he’s also a man (because when we hear the term “Black character,” we assume that the “default” Black character is a Black man, therefore no need to specify Finn is a man), or (3) both of the above. What I’ve also noticed is (4) the erasure of Finn’s Blackness in certain conversations where he’s just referred to as a “male character” or just “a guy.” This is often done when Finn is discussed in relation to Rey and when the gender politics of the film are the only focus, as if race doesn’t matter or play a role.

For example, I’ll see people write, “The Force Awakens is so inclusive! The film has a Black lead and a female lead!” But why are people specifying Finn’s racial background, but not specifying Rey’s racial background, yet focusing on her gender? I’ve also read articles that praise the film for portraying “a male character” (Finn) who constantly “needs saving from a woman.” I definitely advocate challenging the prevalent “damsel in distress” trope where women need to be saved by men, but Finn is not just a male character and Rey is not just a woman. This is important because when we talk about Rey as a White woman, it complicates the racial and gender politics of the film. Because it’s not just Finn, a Black man, being saved “by a woman,” but rather by a White woman.

This is where I think the film gets problematic because Finn is not only frequently rescued by White characters (Rey and Han Solo), but he also, as Andre Seewood asserts, “lacks dramatic agency.” Unlike Rey, he cannot communicate with Wookies or droids nor does he know how to fly spaceships, despite being a trained stormtrooper and cleared for battle. The film later reveals that Finn worked in sanitation, which I found really stereotypical, but why would he be cleared for his first battle on Jakku if he wasn’t trained for combat? The argument can be made that Finn is Force sensitive (which I believe he is), but the end result is that he’s knocked unconscious quite brutally by the White antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Having a Black male character being constantly rescued by White characters reinforces the message that Black people need to be led/guided/saved by White people. Recognizing Rey’s Whiteness makes us think about the power dynamics. Is it sexist when women are portrayed as always needing to be saved by men? Yes, but we cannot just look at gender and ignore race, or vice versa. Rey is still White and we see her Whiteness reinforced in opposition to Finn through the way she has more dramatic agency.

I do like both Rey and Finn, don’t get me wrong (and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega delivered fantastic performances), but it is problematic when people fail to understand how race and gender intersect. In describing a screenshot for a Star Wars pinball table, an article on Kotaku states: “Here’s Rey instructing Finn to get his timid butt to cover while a real hero handles things.” This ridiculing of Finn and characterizing him as “timid” (or, as I’ve heard some people say, “a bumbling coward”) is something I’ve seen mostly from White commentators/fans. Yes, apparently it’s the White woman who needs to “instruct” the Black man on how a “real hero handles things.” Neither Rey nor Finn come from privileged backgrounds, but we know that White women can still oppress men of color. The author of the article may not have been thinking, “Rey is superior than Finn because she is White,” but the pattern in which White characters (whether men or women) are treated or perceived as more competent, skilled, and heroic than Black and other people of color characters is one that has existed for a long time. I don’t think Rey is portrayed as oppressing Finn, but the depiction of a White woman constantly saving a Black man reinforces a White savior narrative.

For the record, I don’t see Finn’s character as a “bumbling coward” nor do I think he is completely stereotypical. Finn standing up against the First Order and refusing to kill for them is heroic and hardly a “cowardly” thing to do. I read this act of resistance as being anti-establishment, especially when one considers how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. For those who don’t recall the Star Wars prequels, the Galactic Empire rose to power through votes, i.e. through the democratic process, not because of a military coup or external force. Lucas has stated in the commentary track for Revenge of the Sith that he wanted to portray how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, not from an outside force, but by being handed over from the inside (“This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause”). Revenge of the Sith featured heavy political themes and commentary about the Bush administration (the “you’re either with me or you’re my enemy” line being the most obvious), but it also attempted to shift people’s understanding of Palpatine’s Empire. Although Lucas expressed that the original trilogy was meant to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam, the Empire was mostly seen by audiences as far removed from the U.S. Say what you want about the prequels, but the politics of those films were meant to reflect and critique U.S. government corruption and imperialism. The formation of the Galactic Empire served as an analog for U.S. Empire. Through this lens, Finn resisting an Order that rose from the Empire can be read as resisting U.S. Empire, but I’m not going to pretend for a second that this is the message Disney is trying to promote! The foundations for a compelling and relevant narrative of a Black man rebelling against a predominately White imperialist Order (one that orders mass murder against villagers and obliterates entire planets) are there, but this narrative is not explored.

As much as I root for Finn, I notice that the more I watch the film (I’ve seen it four times… so far…), the more annoyed I become at how the narrative treats him. In many ways, it felt like his character was treated as serving the White protagonists. I thought Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan did a disservice to Finn’s character during his fight scene with the stormtrooper (who is equipped with a lightsaber-deflecting stun baton). When Finn used Luke’s lightsaber and fought against the very people that stole him from his family and attempted to brainwash him with their imperialist ideology, that was his moment. The sequence ended with Finn battling the stormtrooper and being knocked to the ground, only to be saved at the last second by Han Solo. Finn should have defeated that stormtrooper. Again, that was his moment. One of the basic rules of screenwriting is that you want your protagonist(s) to get out of situations on their own (there are exceptions, of course). If you have a movie where your character is stranded on an island and you solve it by having a random plane arrive out of nowhere and saving the day, that’s obviously very contrived and convenient. Granted, Han Solo was there on the battlefield, so it’s justified and not exactly deus ex machina, but it did not need to be written that way. Given how Finn turned his back on the First Order, overcoming and defeating that stormtrooper would have been so much more symbolic. In my opinion, having Han blast the stormtrooper from a distance took that moment away from Finn.

I’m not saying I think Finn should have been portrayed as a typical hyper-masculine character. I’m just saying that when you watch scenes like him getting zapped by BB-8, strangled by Chewbacca, almost eaten by a Rathar, almost killed by that stormtrooper, and almost beaten to death by Kylo Ren, I think erasing his Blackness becomes problematic because we know how Black bodies are often brutalized by police brutality (being assaulted, tazed, choked, shot at, and murdered). When Rey is suspicious about Finn and assumes he is a thief upon their first meeting, it’s hard not to draw parallels with how close that is to reality. I get people argue their points within the context of the story (i.e. it takes place in a galaxy far, far away), but the film is still released here on Earth and we need to understand the impact of these images within our sociocultural and political contexts. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to go “colorblind” on these issues (or go “colorblind” anywhere, really).

But perhaps the most important reason why all of this matters is because failing to identify Rey as a White woman and just referring to her as “a woman,” and failing to specify Finn’s gender and just referring to him as a “Black character” contributes to further marginalizing and erasing women of color. If Rey was Black, for example, I doubt promotional material would refer to her as simply a “woman lead,” they would say, “a Black woman lead.” Again, it’s because when we say “she is a woman lead,” we assume that “woman” means “White woman.” I remember being disappointed when I first heard about Lupita Nyong’o playing a motion capture character. It’s yet another example of people of color, especially Black women, being otherized as aliens or non-human characters in science fiction/fantasy films and TV shows. We saw this before with Zoe Saldana playing a motion capture CGI character in Avatar, as well as having her skin colored green in Guardians of the Galaxy. As Seewood writes, the primary reason why Nyong’o was hidden as a CG character is because the filmmakers did not want the “talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale.” Seewood cites Joseph Boston who writes:

“The casting of largely unknown Daisy Ridley as a central protagonist in the ‘Force Awakens’ therefore entrusting an inexperienced actress with a multi-billion dollar corporation while Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is relegated to a supporting CGI character named Maz Kanata is but the latest example of “Star Wars” and Hollywood’s misogynoir & its ‘problem’ with Black women writ large.”

It has been said many times before that leading roles for Black women and other women of color in Hollywood films are extremely limited. The Star Wars films are no exception (read my previous post for more on the few women of color characters in the Star Wars universe). During a press conference, J.J. Abrams mentioned that someone asked him why he cast “someone as beautiful as Lupita Nyong’o to play a motion-capture character?” Abrams’ response was, “Would it be ok if she were ugly?” The problem is that the wrong question was asked. What should have been asked is, “Why are you hiding a Black actress behind a motion-capture character when there are not any Black women or women of color characters in the film?” There have also been rumors that Abrams was not satisfied with her performance and decided to delete many of her scenes. Whether this is true, the reality is that Nyong’o, unlike Andy Serkis, does not specialize in playing CGI characters, so what was the purpose in having her playing a motion capture character? Why not have her play a human character?

Had Rey been Black (can you imagine that, a Star Wars film with both a Black woman and Black man in lead roles), I think the conversation about the racial and gender dynamics in the film would be much different. I remember when Mad Max: Fury Road was released, there were many critiques about the lack of people of color in the film. As much as I enjoyed it, I was still annoyed at how the two women of color in the film were relegated to limited roles or killed off so quickly. One blogger wrote in a very nuanced post, “If Furiosa had been black or brown, I feel like the reactions would have been very different. It would have not been hailed as the second coming of feminist films.” I feel the same holds true for Rey if she was played by a Black or Brown actress. In next year’s Star Wars spin-off film, Rogue One, we see another diverse cast, which includes Pakistani-British actor Rizwan Ahmed, but once again, we don’t see any women of color characters. For Episode 8, I heard rumors about Gugu Mbatha-Raw possibly being cast, but then I read an article saying she didn’t get the role? It would be really disappointing if the latter is true.

Hopefully, in Episode 8 and future films, we’ll see improvements, not just in terms of casting and diversity, but in how characters of color are portrayed. One can hope, right?

The Danger in Associating with Kings

From illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr. This miniature
From the illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Attār’s Mantiq al-tayr. This miniature “shows a king, who has summoned all and sundry to admire his new palace, receiving a sharp admonition from an unimpressed ascetic. Despite its flawless appearance, there is an invisible fissure in one wall through which ‘Azrā’īl, the Angel of Death, will one day enter to collect the king’s soul” (Source).

I know it’s been about 4 months since I’ve posted something on my blog, but I’m hoping to add some new content soon, insha’Allah! Not too long ago, a friend shared a chapter from Jalaluddin Rumi’s Fihi Ma Fihi with me and I came across this excerpt that I thought was worth sharing. Although written in the 13th century, it is difficult to overlook the political and spiritual relevance it carries today, especially about the influence of those in power, the danger of such alliances, and the way structural oppression operates.

The excerpt is below:

“The danger in associating with kings is not that you may lose your life, for in the end you must lose it sooner or later. The danger lies in the fact that when these ‘kings’ and their carnal souls gain strength, they become dragons; and the person who converses with them, claims their friendship, or accepts wealth from them must in the end speak as they would have him/her speak and accept their evil opinions in order to preserve him/herself. He/she is unable to speak in opposition to them. Therein lies the danger, for his/her religion suffers.

The further you go in the direction of kings, the more the other direction, which is the principal one, becomes strange to you. The further you go in that direction, this direction, which should be beloved to you, turns its face away from you. . . . ‘Whosoever renders aid to the unjust/oppressor is subjugated to them by God’ [1]. When you have fully inclined toward the one to whom you are inclining, he will be made master over you.”

– Jalaluddin Rumi, from Fihi Ma Fihi.

[1] Rumi quoting a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), quoted in ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi, Kunuz al-haqa’iq

Fear Leads to Anger: Race, Gender, and the Reactions to John Boyega in Star Wars

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“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
– Jedi Master Yoda, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

As my close friends know, I have been a huge Star Wars fan since childhood. I grew up on the original trilogy – first on VHS and then re-watched them in the theater when the Special Editions were released. I was 15 years-old when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 and I went to the midnight premieres for all three prequel films.

The way I viewed the Star Wars Saga changed as I grew older. When I picked up on the spiritual and political themes in the films, I began to think of Star Wars as more than just escapist entertainment. Commenting on his first film, the much overlooked THX 1138, George Lucas explained that the film was set in the future, but not about the future. Like many science fiction stories about dystopian futures, the movie was meant to reflect the kind of society we live in today. Star Wars is more space fantasy than science fiction, but Lucas’ social and political commentaries on contemporary issues are evident in his work, including in the prequels and “The Clone Wars” TV series.

However, I feel that the commercialization and status of Star Wars as a marketing brand have, unfortunately, depoliticized the important political themes of the films. Furthermore, as much as I appreciate the anti-imperialist and anti-war messages, there is a lot of race and gender fail that cannot be overlooked. In the 6 films, there is a serious lack of people of color and women characters. This criticism isn’t just about numbers, but also about how the characters are portrayed and tokenized. For example, the inclusion of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back appeared to be an attempt to add “diversity” to the series. However, as Wyatt Cenac expressed in one of his stand-up performances about the lack of black people in science fiction and fantasy, “There’s Lando Calrissian, whose cool till he betrays everybody.” Although the Empire forced Lando to betray his longtime friend, Han Solo, along with Leia and Chewbacca, the message that gets communicated is that black people are traitors and untrustworthy. In Return of the Jedi, we see Lando help rescue Han and later become a General for the Rebel Alliance. He also leads an attack on the second Death Star and destroys it. Adilifu Nama, the author of “Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film,” argues that Lando is more complex than a one-dimensional token black character, but also states that even though Lando is “situated with the ‘good guys'” in Return of the Jedi, the “broader racial message remained: whites must be guarded toward blacks, and blacks must be evaluated according to their degree of allegiance to white interests.”

Across the 6 films, there are only two prominent women characters: Padmé Amidala from the prequels, and Leia Organa from the original trilogy (for an excellent analysis of these characters, check out Amanda Rodriguez’s article, “The Very Few Women of ‘Star Wars’: Queen Amidala and Princess Leia”). The Star Wars Expanded Universe (i.e. the Star Wars novels, comic books, and video games) seemed to make a conscious attempt of creating more women characters in the Star Wars universe. Jaina Solo and Mara Jade are perhaps the most popular characters who do not appear in the films or TV shows (a comic book mentions that Mara was at Jabba’s palace during the events of Return of the Jedi, but she still can’t be seen in the actual film). Mara Jade was so popular that Lucasfilm hired model Shannon McRandle to represent the character in photos for Star Wars card games. Sadly, after Disney bought Lucasfilm and declared that the Expanded Universe is no longer canon, there is speculation about whether or not Jaina and Mara will be in the upcoming sequel trilogy.

NBail_Organaone of the women characters mentioned above are women of color. Although people of color are slightly more visible in the prequel trilogy, their roles are mostly relegated to the background. Indian actress Ayesha Dharker appears in a very short scene in Attack of the Clones as Queen Jamillia and is never seen again. Fans know the important role Bail Organa (pictured left, and portrayed by Jimmy Smits) plays in the saga, but he isn’t given much to do in the prequels. There are two politically charged scenes in Revenge of the Sith where he, along with other people of color and women characters (including Mon Mothma), are given more dialogue and screen time, but both of these scenes were deleted (you can watch them here and here). One troubling detail is that Chinese actress Bai Ling, who plays Senator Bana Breemu in one of the scenes, states that Lucas cut her role from the film due to her Star Wars-themed photoshoot for Playboy magazine.

SteelaIt is true we see more women characters in “The Clone Wars” TV series (which is still canon), like Ahsoka Tano, Asajj Ventress, Barriss OffeeSatine Kryze, and more screen time for Aayla Secura, but there are a few points that need to be addressed. First, since these characters exist in a timeline between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, they must eventually disappear, be pushed to the background, or get killed off. Second, women of color rarely make an appearance. I have mentioned Steela Gerrera (pictured right, and voiced by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) in a previous post and (SPOILERS) how her death reinforced the trope of women of color being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire the revolution led by white protagonists (Rue from The Hunger Games is another example). In prozacpark’s post about (SPOILERS) the horrible death of Dualla/Dee (another woman of color) in the TV show “Battlestar Galactica,” she mentions how Edgar Allen Poe once wrote that the “death of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” In response to this violent, misogynist trope and the death of Dualla/Dee, she writes:

But would Dee, arguably the strongest person this show has, kill herself? Dee, who told Lee that she was going to marry him despite believing he loved Kara better because she was willing to take whatever she could get and it was going to be enough? No, Dee would’ve gone on… She would’ve survived. And been more beautiful in her strength than she could ever be in death.

Because death – always beautiful for women – redeems them, restores them to their beauty, happiness, and honor or what the fuck ever. Because in death, they become a blank text that can be written upon – having nothing but the body that patriarchy finds so interesting, that the male gaze finds easy to objectify – just as Dee became a text to be written on (just as Cally was, before her, ‘vacant,’ as Tyrol said), so the writers could impart some message using her. She’s not a person to them; women rarely are in fiction, right? She’s a symbol. Of everything humanity has lost, and everything it continues to lose. But I’m sick of symbolism. Sick of women dying so they can be symbols of some man’s revolution or some writer’s narrative journey. Sick, in general, of this metanarrative that I hate with a burning passion and that just won’t go away.

You know what’s better than that proverbial beautiful death? SURVIVING.

I believe this applies similarly to Steela Gerrera in “The Clone Wars.” Here, we see a woman of color resistance leader fighting against a brutal droid occupation of her planet, Onderon (it’s hard not to think about a possible allegory with occupied Palestine when the characters demand, “End the droid occupation”). When she and Lux Bonteri, a young white politician-turned-rebel fighter, were nearly falling off a cliff, Ahsoka Tano used the Force in attempt to save them. Ahsoka managed to float Lux to safety, but her efforts to save Steela failed. Steela’s death was not necessary and served no other purpose but to transform her into a symbol and have her remembered as a martyr. Meanwhile, the young white man, Lux, survives and is re-appointed as senator of Onderon and rejoins the planet with the Republic. His survival was important for larger political purposes, whereas Steela’s purpose was to die for Onderon’s independence so that white men could lead. The “death of a beautiful woman” trope also victimizes Duchess Satine Kryze, whom Obi-Wan Kenobi is in love with. Since Obi-Wan doesn’t mention anything about a romantic interest in the films, the writers must have figured that the easiest way to keep continuity was by killing off Satine (who is murdered by Darth Maul).

Then there are issuEwokses concerning cultural appropriation, Orientalism (e.g. Tatooine, Tusken Raiders/Sand People, Jabba the Hutt smoking hookah and keeping a harem of female dancers), and the racialization of non-human characters (especially Jar Jar Binks and the offensive anti-Asian caricatures of the Neimoidians) in Star Wars. Lucas named the Ewoks (pictured left) in Return of the Jedi after the Miwok, a Native American tribe who are indigenous to San Rafael, California (which is also where Lucas built his Skywalker Ranch). In the Battle of Endor, where Ewoks help the Rebels fight the Empire, Lucas wanted to portray a “primitive” and “technologically-inferior” society of creatures (Ewoks) defeat the technologically-advanced imperial forces (not too different from how the Na’vi in Avatar are “thinly veiled representations” of Native Americans). As Gabriel S. Estrada states in his chapter, “Star Wars episodes I-VI: Coyote and the force of white narrative,” Lucas’ Ewoks “play into historical racism against California Indians and Miwoks in particular. Historical California Indian technological differences were unethically used to justify Indian genocide as State and Federal policy, especially after the 1849 Gold Rush.” Furthermore, he writes: “Even though the teddy bear Ewoks fight off Empire soldiers and side with the good guys, they are more like the ‘lovable’ loyal sports mascots that so many Native Americans ridicule.”

These topics on racializaiton and racist appropriation would be better discussed in a separate blog post, but I recommend clicking on the links I’ve provided above (also, much of my thoughts about white people appropriating the struggles of people of color are similar to what I’ve said in previous posts here and here). What I want to focus on below are the reactions to John Boyega being a potential lead character in the upcoming 2015 Star Wars film, Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I say “potential lead character” because we don’t know what his role is yet. However, based on numerous rumors and reports, including quotes from Mark Hamill (who says the upcoming Star Wars films are about the “new generation of characters”), it is believed that Boyega’s character is most likely part of this new generation.

According to how the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens is structured, it does not seem to be insignificant that the first shot we see of Episode 7 is one of John Boyega entering the frame. The second person we see is a young white woman (Daisy Ridley’s character) on a speeder bike, followed by a male X-wing pilot (played by Latino actor Oscar Isaac). Both of the latter characters are thought to share leading roles with Boyega. After the trailer was released, the racist tweets/posts/comments flooded the internet. Below are a few screenshots: swcomment1swcomment2swcomment3 swcomment5swcomment4comment6There are countless comments like these and the disturbing part is that they are not hard to find. One look at the comment threads on YouTube or message boards will be enough to see the white rage expressed against John Boyega. In fact, the racist remarks were so common that Boyega took a moment on his instagram account to (1) thank fans for the support and (2) tell the racists to “get used to it.” His instagram post can be viewed here.

It is good to see that there has been a lot of coverage on social media about these racist posts. Most of the articles and commentaries I’ve read rightfully condemn these reactions, but they unfortunately don’t get at the heart of the problem. That is, most of the articles frame these reactions as having everything to do with Boyega playing a “black stormtrooper,” instead of having more to do with him being black and a potential lead character in a film series that has always centered on white male characters. There are articles out there that are pointing this out as well, so I’m not the first to address this. However, I still notice posts, articles, YouTube videos, and news programs that ask, “Can stormtroopers be black?” when they should be asking, “Can Star Wars have a black lead character?”

jangofettHere’s the problem with the question about the race of stormtroopers: you’ll find a lot of posts and comments from people (who, to my astonishment, call themselves Star Wars fans) who believe that stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett (pictured right, and played by Temuera Morrison, who is of Maori descent) and therefore cannot be black. Within the internal logic of the Star Wars universe, this is factually incorrect. It seems like a common mistake that a significant number of people are making, but I also believe a lot of people are using it as an excuse to hide their racism and fear of a black lead character (I’ll get to this in a minute). In the prequels, Clone troopers were clones of Jango Fett, but the imperial stormtroopers we see in the original trilogy are no longer clones. After the formation of the Galactic Empire, humans were recruited to enlist as stormtroopers. This is indicated by the different heights and voices of the stormtroopers in the original trilogy (for the Blu-ray release of the Star Wars Saga, Lucas replaced Boba Fett’s voice with Temuera Morrison’s voice, but the voices of the stormtroopers were not changed). The recruitment of humans in the post-prequel era is also being explained and depicted in the new Star Wars Rebels TV show. So, the “black stormtrooper problem” is one that can be solved simply with a Google search.

Yet it’s amazing when I still see people on YouTube, Facebook threads (including on the official Star Wars page), and message boards persist in making this argument that “stormtroopers can’t be black because they are clones of Jango Fett.” When well-intentioned articles put forth the question, “Can stormtroopers be black?” they are working within a false framework that assumes all stormtroopers are clones. On a larger scale, their question raises concerns about whether black people and other people of color have a place in white male-dominated sci-fi/fantasy stories. I recently saw a comment that said, “Stormtoopers can’t be black because it changes the canon of the story,” and then the person went on about how Superman, James Bond, and Johnny Storm should always be white. When I pay attention to the tone, length, and persistence of these comments (mostly coming from white people in fandom), the more I believe there is more going on. How could casting a person of color as Superman, for example, be an issue about “canon” when the character is an extra-terrestrial from a fictional planet? What “rule” says his character (or any fictional character for that matter) must be white? As one can see in some of the comments I shared above about John Boyega, the complaints go beyond “canon” and are more about him being black. The “stormtroopers can’t be black” arguments are not only inaccurate, but also used as an excuse by people who are not comfortable with a black lead character disrupting their white universe. As one commenter, Grace_Omega, wrote on a message board:

[L]ook at the reaction to John Boyega in Star Wars. Some people are getting mad over accusations of infidelity to the previous movies (or they’re claiming to be, at least), but judging by the comments I’m seeing [it’s] clear that others just can’t accept a black Star Wars lead (assuming Boyega is actually the lead, as has been strongly rumoured). They’re used to Star Wars being almost entirely white, with black characters only included in supporting roles, and Boyega being the first character on screen in that trailer triggered the same reaction as the students I mentioned above.

It should be obvious that racism is the real issue here. As the comment mentions, there have been black characters in Star Wars before like the aforementioned Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, but the films never centered on them. Having black actors is more acceptable when they are playing supporting roles (though not always the case, especially if they’re playing characters that were imagined as white – see racist reactions to Rue and Idris Elba’s Heimdall). Even if stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, Star Wars is a fictional world with fictional characters. Do people really believe the writers wouldn’t be able to create an explanation?  These same individuals most likely will agree that sci-fi and fantasy stories/films encourages them to broaden their imaginations, but when it becomes about having people of color in these stories, suddenly there are limits. It’s called “political correctness” or a “diversity agenda.” Since we haven’t seen the film, isn’t there also the possibility that Boyega’s character disguised himself as a stormtrooper (in the same way Luke and Han did in A New Hope)? These possibilities are not taken into consideration because their racist imaginations refuse to accept a black main character in Star Wars.

Racism in fandom is nothing new and it’s something that’s still being addressed and challenged. It’s the fear of black people and other people of color “invading” that white-dominated space that leads to anger and hatred (not too different from how white America fears people of color outnumbering them in the near future). While most of the hatred here is directed at Boyega, you’ll find other comments that also complain about the film having a possible woman lead, a Latino male character, and (according to rumors) women playing stormtroopers. Lupita Nyong’o did not appear in the trailer, but is set to be in the film, too. The complaints (again, coming from mostly white male fans) accuse the film of pushing “political correctness” that is apparently threatening their fandom. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Nyong’o was shown as the lead character.

The message these racist reactions send are that black people cannot be seen as heroes. They reflect the dangerous anti-blackness that is rooted in white supremacy. As I mentioned in a previous post, anti-black racism is global. In the United States, we shouldn’t have to be reminded about the country’s long history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, police and state violence against black people. One of the comments above compared Boyega to Trayvon Martin, a horribly insensitive and racist sentiment that demonstrates how black lives are constantly devalued. A 2013 study conducted by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that “one black man is killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes.” Adam Hudson adds:

These killings come on top of other forms of oppression black people face. Mass incarceration of nonwhites is one of them. While African-Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though African-Americans use or sell drugs about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites. Most offenders are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

Mainstream media, including film and television, help fuel racist attitudes, policies, and violence through victim-blaming commentaries on the murders of black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people (who are criminalized and vilified as “thugs” after their deaths, cruelly implying that their deaths were justified and that their lives do not matter). The dehumanization is reinforced over and over again through racist stereotyping of black people in films and TV shows, which no doubt influence and fuel the racist reactions we see towards John Boyega. The shameful media coverage of Ferguson wanted to focus more on blaming Mike Brown and demonizing him as a “thug” rather than addressing and challenging the violence of white supremacy (some news networks tried to show “balanced” coverage, which is a horrible cop-out because it legitimizes the narratives that blame black people for their own murders and oppression). When the larger structures of violence in society views black men and women as “criminals” and “inferior,” it isn’t surprising that angry tweets and posts treat Boyega’s presence as a criminal act.

As I have articulated in previous posts, I believe images in media matter. The media plays a significant role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes about race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, body image, ideas about freedom, and so on. It is good to see John Boyega being in the new Star Wars (and even better if he is playing the lead role), but then there are questions that still remain about how his character will be portrayed. I also think it’s important to be conscious of how “diversity” in mainstream media (especially in franchises like Star Wars) has a terrible habit of reinforcing myths about a “post-racial and post-gender” world. These myths uphold white supremacy as they focus more on showing how “diverse” and “multicultural” our society is rather than dismantling systems of oppression. It is not difficult to imagine people saying, “Stop whining about racism, the new Star Wars hero is black” (similar to how people say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore because we have a black president”).

The Star Wars universe has touched upon speciesism within its stories, but never racism, sexism, and homophobia. I don’t expect Star Wars to address these issues (at least, not directly) and I don’t believe it intends to bring about radical change against racism. People of color have been (and are) leading that charge for a long time. I’ve heard some people dismiss the racist reactions to John Boyega as being a “non-issue,” but the reality is, the reactions reflect the disturbing anti-blackness (and its acceptability) that is dangerously prevalent. There is no doubt that the film will be a huge success (and it is predicted to break records at the box office) and there will be a lot of people who will praise the film’s diversity. I personally believe it’s important to see people of color in heroic, complex, and non-stereotypical roles. At the same time, I have seen the ways “diversity” has been used to advocate “colorblindness” and distract us from real problems in society (these are some concerns I have about Muslim-American superheroes too, but that’s for another post!). It would be awful if Boyega, along with Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o were used to promote the idea that we live in a “post-racial and post-gender” world. Because if there is one thing that’s clear from the outrage about Boyega, it’s that we are very far from that fictional world.

Why I’m Not Down With #MuslimLivesMatter

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I don’t have a twitter account, but I’m well aware of how hashtags can be used as tools to express solidarity, speak out, and mobilize against injustice. Almost immediately after the Chapel Hill murders, I noticed a lot of Muslims on Facebook using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. It was heartbreaking to hear the news and I understood the grief Muslims were expressing online. However, I cringed when I saw the hashtag because I recalled all of the critiques of #AllLivesMatter, which was used online and in activist rallies/spaces as a response to #BlackLivesMatter. Though #MuslimLivesMatter is not exactly the same as #AllLivesMatter, it still co-opts the movement against police brutality and racism that systematically targets, terrorizes, and devalues black people.

It became more unsettling when I watched South Asian, Arab, white, and other non-black Muslims posting up both #MuslimLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. While there are many people who mean well when they post these hashtags, I still see a disturbing amount of people getting very defensive (and even make racist remarks) when they are informed about how these hashtags co-opt and appropriate #BlackLivesMatter (and this is yet another example of how we cannot make it about people’s “intentions”). When they persist in posting these hashtags, it seems like they are doing it out of defiance against #BlackLivesMatter, as if the latter is “ethnocentric” and supposedly doesn’t value the lives of non-black people. The persistence and refusal to listen also reflects the anti-blackness that exists in our communities.

I know this is an issue that needs to be addressed sensitively. We know the lives of brown Muslims are not valued in this society and I know there are lot of Muslims who are shaken up or feel triggered after the brutal murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. Hashtags may seem trivial to some, but they become more than hashtags when we see them used to organize protests and movements. #BlackLivesMatter was created by three self-identified Black queer women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. As Garza writes:

Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression […]

When we deploy “All Lives Matter” as to correct an intervention specifically created to address anti-blackness,, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people—beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor—and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities.   We perpetuate a level of White supremacist domination by reproducing a tired trope that we are all the same, rather than acknowledging that non-Black oppressed people in this country are both impacted by racism and domination, and simultaneously, BENEFIT from anti-black racism.

When you drop “Black” from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy. And consider whether or not when dropping the Black you are, intentionally or unintentionally, erasing Black folks from the conversation or homogenizing very different experiences.  The legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero-patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy.  And that’s not an accidental analogy.

There are excellent critiques that I will quote and share below about #MuslimLivesMatter (because I believe they do a better job at explaining the problems of this hashtag), but I’ll just share a few thoughts here. Yes, the lives of Muslims are not valued in white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. We know how the media and Hollywood has demonized Muslims and Islam for a very long time. We know that Islamophobia isn’t something that “only started after 9/11,” but existed well before that. We know how the massacres against Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis show us how brown people are not seen as human beings, especially if they are Muslim. At the same time, we also cannot deny that when we talk about Islamophobia, it is often centered on the experiences of Arab and South Asian men. African/black Muslim men and women are frequently left out of the narrative, marginalized in mosques, otherized, and vilified by Arab, South Asian, white, and other non-black Muslims.

Anti-black racism is global. We cannot be preaching Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) or the Qur’an’s teachings about diversity and how no one is superior to another person on the basis of race if we are not practicing it in the community. Yeah, we’ll hear Arab, South Asian, and white imams quote Malcolm X whenever it is convenient or boast about Muhammad Ali, but then they’ll marginalize black Muslims or make racist remarks about the black people (Muslim and non-Muslim) in their neighborhood. There is also a colorblind narrative that accompanies the sermons about Malcolm X. I remember a white imam in one of my local mosques giving a speech about how Malcolm used to be a “racist black supremacist” until he went for Hajj and started to accept all Muslims (he liked to emphasize on how Malcolm started to accept white people). The conclusion the imam drew from this was that Islam advocates colorblindness or that “race doesn’t exist in Islam.” This narrative not only ignores Malcolm’s post-Hajj speeches against white supremacy, imperialism, and the western power structure, but also erases his blackness (side note: I’ll be writing a post one of these days on how religious and community leaders, especially those in the west, use Islam to silence anti-racism).

We’ll hear non-black Muslims speak highly of Hazrat Bilal (peace be upon him), the Abyssinian companion of the Prophet, and how he was chosen specifically by the Prophet to be Islam’s first muezzin. We’ll hear them talk about how beautiful his voice must have been and how he was one of the most trusted companions of the Prophet. We’ll also hear talk about how Islam doesn’t tolerate racism and point to Hazrat Bilal as proof. Yet, when it comes to the way we treat black people or talk about black people, whether Muslim or not, there is no denying that anti-black racism exists and needs to be actively addressed and challenged. We’ll still hear Arab, South Asian, white, and other non-black Muslims use the n-word (and even argue that they can “reclaim” the term) and use derogatory, anti-black words in Arabic, Urdu/Hindi, and other languages.

When two Somali Muslims, Mustafa Mattan and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, were recently murdered (Mattan was murdered a day before the Chapel Hill murders), we didn’t see the same outrage from Muslims in North America nor did we see the start of “Muslim Lives Matter.” It was necessary and important that Muslims spoke out against the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, so I am by no means saying that anything was wrong with this. The only thing that is wrong is how non-black Muslims tend to devalue the lives of black Muslims and non-Muslims. Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was 15 years-old and deliberately hit by an SUV that had a message reading “Islam is worse than Ebola” on the rear-view mirror. The Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence was frighteningly explicit in this case, but why wasn’t there a national outcry about his murder from Muslim communities and national organizations? As Khaled A. Beydoun and Margari Hill recently wrote in their article, “The Colour of Muslim Mourning”:

The curious case of Mustafa Mattan is as much a story of intra-racial division and anti-black racism within the Muslim population as it is a narrative about the neglected death of a young man seeking a better life far from home… The outpouring of support and eulogies that followed their deaths revealed that Deah, Yusor and Razan were, in life and in death, archetypes of young, Muslim Americans. Lives neglected by the media, but ones that mattered greatly for Muslims inside and outside of the US. […] Despite a few vocal critics, Mattan’s erasure in the discussion of Islamophobia in North America is evident. The exclusion of Mattan and Sheikh-Hussein perpetuates a harmful hierarchy that privileges Arab narratives and excludes black/African Muslims. This racial stratification relegating black Muslim lives is evident as much in death as it is in life.

In order to understand the critiques of #MuslimLivesMatter, we need to acknowledge that anti-black racism exists in our communities. We also need to understand that these critiques are more than just about hashtags. Because #BlackLivesMatter is not “just a hashtag,” it represents a movement. We can create our own hashtag and call for justice and solidarity for all Muslims without co-opting, appropriating, and/or stepping upon the rights of other communities. #JusticeForMuslims and #OurThreeWinners (the latter was started by the victims’ family) should be used instead. Below is an excerpt from Anas White’s excellent article, A Black Muslim Response To #MuslimLivesMatter:

#BlackLivesMatter began as a statement to an establishment – an overall system if you will, declaring the seeming unrecognized value of black lives. It continues to hold that same meaning, even as it moves to become an expression of the movement itself. A movement against deep rooted systemic racism, high rates of police brutality, extra-judicial executions, media smearing and vitriol, and the failure of the justice system to actually hold anyone accountable for dead black men, except dead black men. It is important to remember, that #BlackLivesMatter was not born of an occurrence, but of an atmosphere wrought with repeat occurrence. […] A 12 year old black boy was shot and killed for playing with a BB gun, his sister then handcuffed to watch him bleed. A black father was killed in a Walmart, holding a toy gun sold at that very Walmart, in a state where it is legal to carry guns. A black father was shot in the back, while handcuffed. A black father was essentially choked to death in high definition. A black protest was met with a para-military, and national guard troops. A black woman was shot seeking help. A black man was literally lynched. Where were you then? My respect to every single one of you that ever attended a protest, and to every Imam that ever gave mention, but I mean this on a deeper level. Where was the Muslim community in response to these egregious civil rights violations? Where is the Muslim community in solidarity with a movement against these civil, and even human rights issues?

And an excerpt from Sabah’s article, “Stop Using #MuslimLivesMatter”:

#BlackLivesMatter represents an entire movement and its history. It’s not “just” a hashtag, it’s a powerful outcry born from a racial injustice felt by a people. It cannot, and should not, be molded to fit another people’s struggle. And solidarity, while important (and in fact, essential), never involves co-opting another movement. […] There is obviously nothing inherently wrong with saying that “Muslim lives matter,” but contextually, it’s being used parallel to #BlackLivesMatter — it’s meant to evoke the same concepts, using the same kind of language. This appropriation of a movement is counterproductive and frankly unfair to both the Black and Muslim communities. We should not be blending together two complex, multifaceted issues for the sake of convenience. It’s a reductive move that simplifies both struggles, and it only contributes to erasing the very real, very dangerous implications that Islamophobia specifically holds for Muslims.

Racist Casting and the Politics of “Practicality”

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This post has been sitting in my draft folder for a long time now, but I haven’t been able to get to it until now! We put together a teaser poster for the feature film I’ve been working on and will be uploading it on a website soon, insha’Allah. We are nearly finished and have been making great progress! There is a lot to discuss about the film, including the production process, working on a low-budget, and collaborating with wonderful people, so I plan on writing more about it in future posts.

During lunch breaks and/or rehearsals, a topic that continues to be raised is how racist and sexist the casting decisions are in Hollywood. I’ve heard many stories from black and brown actors I’ve been working with about the struggle to find complex, non-stereotypical, and leading roles. When there are films that should feature a people of color-majority cast, we see Hollywood and even independent filmmakers resorting to whitewashing the cast. By now, we’ve all heard about the atrocious casting decisions for Ridley Scott’s Exodus. Actor Jesse Williams recently spoke on the interconnectedness of white supremacy and Hollywood in this powerful video:

… [A]nd why we think that it’s ok to have a movie like fucking Exodus where white people look ridiculous dressed like Africans. They look ridiculous. Because we know it’s make-believe… It ain’t just a movie, that’s the shit that gets Mike Brown killed and all you people think it’s ok because he’s a fucking ‘animal.’ All of this stuff is connected. That’s what you learn especially when you’re out there in Hollywood… You know how many fucking jobs I have to turn down and how many people I have to fire because of the racist shit that I get offered? And I’m as white as you can get being a black person. I have a fucking struggle. Imagine him trying to get those jobs. You got to decide whether wear a do-rag, rob some white person on a TV show or pay your mortgage and raise your family. And that’s no fucking joke, those are 5 of my closest friends, who have to decide every 3 days whether they want to chip away at their own soul, and chip away a piece of themselves to dance and shuck and jive for white America.

In addition to racist casting, the stories of black and brown people are marginalized, vilified, and/or silenced by mainstream media. When we see science fiction films that take place in dystopian futures, we either see the erasure of people of color, or we see a “post-racial” and “post-gender” world where racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia don’t exist. Also, if people of color are present in these stories, we see a common and disturbing trope where they are killed off to serve as martyrs to spark the revolution and inspire the white protagonist(s). Additionally, as Imran Siddique wrote in an excellent article, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” we not only see racism and sexism “magically disappear” in these films, but also see the “old sci-fi tradition of imagining the subjugation of white people, essentially saying ‘Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!'” I wrote about this previously in my post on X-Men and how it centers on a white-majority cast and appropriates the struggles of marginalized groups.

What I wanted to discuss in this post is how anti-oppression advocacy and calls for better opportunities for people of color actors, especially women of color, are dismissed by Hollywood, but also by some on the Left. In Hollywood, the excuses for the racist casting of Exodus were absurd, to say the least. So absurd that people making the excuses didn’t realize they were contradicting themselves or make paradoxical statements. For instance, Ridley Scott made an offensive comment about how he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so” to play the lead role because he wouldn’t get funding to produce the movie. People who rushed to Scott’s defense made the argument of “practicality,” i.e. they argued, “People don’t get it! Scott wouldn’t get funding if he cast a black man to play Moses. He was being practical! People need to shut up about racism and get over themselves!” What’s ridiculous about this argument is that it acknowledges that racism exists (the subtext being, “Studios won’t fund a movie with a people of color-majority cast because producers are racist”), but then, paradoxically, argues that people should shut up about racism.

Later, Christian Bale defended Scott in an interview with a rather pathetic statement. Instead of protesting, Bale said, people should support “Middle Eastern and North African actors and filmmakers.” I call this response “pathetic” because Bale doesn’t seem to realize that one of the major reasons why people were protesting Exodus is because they do support black and brown actors. They are protesting because they wanted to see Middle Eastern and North African actors in those roles. Bale continues and says that there will be a film about Moses (peace be upon him) with a people of color-majority cast “in a few decades” and that it will mark a day of “celebration” for both film and humankind. Again, what Bale doesn’t seem to recognize is that his statement admits that the film’s casting is wrong and racist (otherwise why say that an accurately cast Moses film would mark a day of celebration?). Of course, Bale refused to see his complicity because he benefits from racist casting. Once again, people of color are told to “wait” and just deal with the fact that only white actors can play roles that should have gone to people of color. They are told they are not being “practical.” Instead of pointing fingers at protestors, Bale should tell Hollywood (and himself) to support actors of color. If he did, then he would have turned down the role and told Ridley Scott to look for actors of color instead. I’m not singling Bale out either – all of the white actors should have said something (including Joel Edgerton who had to darken his skin and also had the sphinx molded after his European features!).

At the center of Bale’s argument was that people needed to help create a “market” for Middle Eastern and North African actors. That is, by supporting those actors, studios will see there’s a market for producing films that feature them in leading roles. This is something I don’t buy at all. The excuse that films won’t sell unless they are centered on white male actors is one rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist-thinking. It’s a shame that film is not really seen as an art form (no matter how many times certain filmmakers or producers in Hollywood claim otherwise), so equating success with financial success is something that has long been normalized in the entertainment industry. Many people are convinced that in order for a film to perform well at the box office, they need to have mostly white male actors. First off, I don’t believe in the notion that a film with a people of color-majority cast would not make money. I believe the real issue is that producers and Hollywood studios simply do not care and do not want to cast people of color most of the time in leading roles. Second, I think we need to move beyond this paradigm of monetary gain to determine whether or not a film should be made.

Moses is a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the story is essentially about speaking truth to power and freedom from oppression. Ironically, a film about fighting against oppression became one that perpetuates oppression. White supremacist patriarchal capitalism drains meaning out of everything in society, including society’s spiritual well-being. Scott treated a story that is held sacred by millions of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups, as a “fictional” story that could be adapted (as if it were Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). We saw Darren Aronofsky do this as well with his film, Noah.  White supremacist patriarchal capitalism doesn’t hold anything sacred. The message of the film is less concerned about emphasis on God, spirituality, and fighting oppression, but rather more interested in making money and telling an “entertaining” story where white people are, once again, heroes/saviors in stories that they weren’t apart of. And yet, it continues to amaze me when I hear/read comments from mostly white anti-racist “allies” who say that criticizing the casting of the film is “pointless” because, according to them, “the Bible is just fiction anyway.” David Dennis Jr. wrote an excellent response to these reactions, which I will quote here:

I know the initial reactions to articles about movies based on Bible stories is to do that cool Internet thing where you say how the Bible is fiction and it’s not important because fish weren’t even discovered when Jesus was alive or whatever cool nugget you read on Mental Floss. And why should people even care about a book that you think is as fictitious as Harry Potter, anyway? Just take into account that regardless of what any of you may think about religion, it’s a source of self-worth, inspiration and intense love for millions of people who dedicate their lives to whatever school of spiritual thought they choose. So while some may give a dismissive “lulz parting the sea” as an initial reaction, the idea of creating a race-based hierarchy with these figures isn’t an offense that should be taken lightly.

And he’s absolutely right, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. When children, especially children of color, only see religious leaders and prophets depicted as white men, there are serious concerns about internalizing white supremacy. Are white parents comfortable with their white children seeing the prophets they learn about in Church depicted as they really were: black and brown people?

But it’s not just about films like Exodus and Noah. It’s also about the industry in general and how people of color are marginalized, tokenized, vilified, and/or completely erased. I recently raised a critique of a white activist’s praise for the latest Hunger Games film and its apparent parallels with Palestine. I started my comment by writing that I totally support reading radical themes in science fiction films, but I also mentioned that one thing that continues to frustrate me is how these stories are almost always centered on white people. It’s difficult for me to read about a dystopian future where we see white people not only taking center stage, but also being the “most victimized” by state oppression. I mentioned the common racist and sexist tropes where we see people of color characters, particularly women of color characters, often being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire resistance movements led by white people. One of several examples I brought up was a 4-part series on “The Clone Wars” animated show where I noticed strong parallels with occupied Palestine, well-developed people of color characters, but (SPOILERS) then watched Steela Gerrera, the lead woman of color character, killed off to inspire the revolution. “Her sacrifice gave Onderon its freedom,” eulogized the white male character. This trope fuels the notion that women of color in particular must die or sacrifice themselves so that white people can get their freedom. The trope also denies one of the greatest strengths of communities of color: their survival. I also mentioned movies like Avatar, which appropriate Indigenous People’s resistance against colonialism and genocide, and use non-human species to stand-in for people of color (a trope we see far too often in sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows, novels, etc.).

Unfortunately, after presenting my critique, I got whitesplained.

He implied, condescendingly, that my “tactics” were not practical. He argued that the Left is too weak to be “overly purist,” so instead of “rejecting” movies “on the basis of racism, sexism, orientalism,” and so on, we should be encouraging people to engage these films with radicalized readings. There was a lot to unpack from his response. First, I never said in my initial comment to “reject” the movies altogether, but this is a common response I hear from white people, whether they are anti-racist activists or not. It’s common because whenever people of color critique or criticize something, we’re seen as the enemies of “free speech.” This is especially true when Muslims speak out against something. “Oh, you’re trying to ban free speech and/or freedom of expression!” “These Muslims need to learn how to respect freedom!” Whether or not this was his thought process when speaking to me, the impact of the words should have been taken into account.

Second, I very much agree that encouraging people to engage with films in radical ways is important, but what he didn’t seem to acknowledge was how advocating for the non-superficial presence and centering of people of color in these films is also part of those radicalized readings. Instead, it was dismissed, as if there is no space in the engagement/critique of these films to discuss people of color-centered stories and better opportunities for people of color actors.

Third, his response reinforced oppressive “practicality” politics. That is, we shouldn’t complain about people of color not being in these films because the Left is “too weak.” There are things we just need to let slide, especially when these issues are about racism, sexism, and appropriation. Yeah, those posts about how Katniss should have been a woman of color? Yeah, the Left is too weak, let’s not talk about that. Even beyond film and media, how many times have we heard people on the Left say that we should brush certain things aside “for the greater good”? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia in Leftist spaces? Yeah, we don’t want to risk being more divided, so let’s just ignore it. Imposing “practicality” politics on people of color reinforces an obvious racist attitude that people of color are not logical beings and therefore need the “guidance” of white people. It’s important that white people show their solidarity, but we don’t need paternalistic authority from them.

These are difficult conversations to have, no doubt, but we need to have them. Silencing these issues is not going to make things magically disappear. What kind of progress are we going to make if people are told they should suffer in silence? Something that I wish more Leftist activists, especially white male activists, would do is more privilege-checking and self-critique. All of us need to be conscious and aware of our privileges, myself included. Checking yourself isn’t just a one time thing and if you get published in a book, organize a protest, or lead a workshop, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Being an ally is something you work to maintain everyday.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered too much arrogance from people on the Left. Most of the time, I see this “know-it-all,” authoritative, paternalistic arrogance come from white “allies” who think they know everything about racism (and your life and soul) just because they read Fanon, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and other writers and activists. Hey, you read books, that’s cool. You should be reading those texts. However, asserting that men and women of color need to be more “practical” doesn’t do anything but maintain the status quo. What else does it do other than tell people to “shut up” about racism and sexism? How does this not reproduce white supremacy and patriarchy? I remember when I was telling a white colleague about my film, he told me that I should make it about bullying rather than highlight on specifics like racism and sexism. He said it would appeal to a “wider audience” if I made it more about bullying (because there’s no such thing as racist and sexist bullying, or a combination of both, apparently). I know that he meant “white audiences” when he said “wider audience.” Now, when I hear a white “anti-racist ally” say that we shouldn’t be demand for people of color to play leading roles in movies, I can’t help but ask, “Why do I hear the same racist stuff from people who are supposed to be allies?”

Why isn’t it “practical” to demand for people of color-centered stories? When black actors like Jesse Williams talk about all the racist jobs he gets offered and the struggle that actors of color go through, why isn’t it “practical” to demand for something better? As he passionately articulated in the video mentioned above, dehumanizing and racist imagery have very real and serious consequences in the real world because “it’s all connected.” White “allies” who resort to “practicality” politics should take the time to re-examine themselves before they condescend to people of color and behave like they know what it’s like to experience racism on a daily basis. There needs to be solidarity, but it can’t be accomplished when white people assert themselves in the movement as authority figures or behave like they know how to “practically” dismantle systems of oppression. We need more people to humble themselves, recognize their privilege(s), check themselves, and listen more. Do this work before you enter a space and cause more harm and reproduce the oppression you claim to be fighting against.

Why Fareed Zakaria’s Comments About Muslims Are Harmful

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

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

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

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

1. “There is a problem within Islam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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