Islamophobia Did Not Begin on 9/11

[Image description: a pair of hands hold a yellow poster board that reads “Islamophobia is Racism” in bold black ink.]
True Lies, Executive Decision, Not Without My Daughter, The Delta Force, Rules of Engagement, The Siege. These are just some of many Islamophobic Hollywood films produced before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. In fact, Jack Shaheen documented over 900 films in his book Reel Bad Arabs, which examined how U.S. cinema demonized Arabs for about 100 years. The book was originally published in July of 2001, 2 months before September 11th (it was adapted into a documentary in 2006). Although Shaheen’s research focused on media depictions of Arabs, he does note the way “Arab” gets conflated with “Muslim,” and vice versa. In his other critiques, particularly of Arabs in mainstream American comic books, he also mentions how Iranians, Muslims, and Arabs get treated as “one and the same.”

I did not want to write about 9/11 this year because of the way it is marked, particularly how everyone is expected to share their stories about where they were, what they felt, what grade they were in, whether they were on their way to work, etc. Over the years, where we have seen the bombings of Muslim-majority countries and racist attacks on other communities of color, there is never a universal call for commemoration or a moment of silence for people of color victimized by white supremacist terror. We are not taught to mark the dates of brutal atrocities against Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Syrians, and other people of color. We are not told to hold annual memorials for racist murders and violence against Black people, Indigenous people, women of color, queer and trans people of color, and so on. We are not expected to know their names nor their stories. Instead, the state demands that we remember the lives lost on 9/11, not for the sake of these individuals and their families, but because the “threat of Islam” should remind the masses that the U.S. must continue its violence against Muslims and people of color everywhere in the name of “freedom” and “security.”

Last year, during the 14th anniversary of the attacks, I could not help but notice the articles about post-9/11 experiences that Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, and others were sharing. I understood the use of the hashtag #AfterSeptember11 because I am aware of the heightened increase in discriminatory acts, hate crimes, vandalism, profiling, and detainment that many Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim experienced. The stories are powerful, heartbreaking, upsetting, and important, especially since Muslims are rarely, if ever, given a platform to share them in mainstream media. In the past, I have written about my experiences with racism and Islamophobia as well, but something I always realize in my reflections is that I, like many Muslims, encountered Islamophobia prior to 9/11, too.

The purpose of this piece is not to dismiss the post-9/11 stories at all, but rather emphasize an important point about how Islamophobia existed long before 9/11. Many commentaries I have read, written by both non-Muslims and Muslims alike, set September 11th as the start date of Islamophobia in the west (some even problematically label Osama bin Laden the “father of American Islamophobia”). We need to resist this narrative for its inaccuracy, but also because it reinforces violent erasure of both the past and the present — especially of Indigenous and Black peoples, including Black Muslims. Furthermore, the narrative reinforces the notion that Muslims “caused” Islamophobia.

Tracing the origins of Islamophobia is beyond my area of expertise, but we know bigotry and hostility against Muslims began as early as the advent of Islam. In 7th century Makkah, Islam challenged many traditional practices of the Quraish, the dominant tribe at the time. Like all movements against social injustice, the oppressors treated Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims as disruptive and threatening to the status quo. The call to abolish female infanticide (Qur’an, 16:58-59), for example, represents one of many examples of how it is impossible to separate Islam from its advocacy for social justice. Resisting oppression (4:75), respecting and honoring human diversity (30:22), building alliances with other communities (49:13), and standing out firmly for justice (4:135) are all integral to Islam’s spiritual message. The early Muslims faced adversity, persecution, and dispossession at the hands of the Quraish. Many Muslims were tortured and often killed by the Quraish for converting to Islam.

In her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, Sophia Rose Arjana proposes the question:”How did we get here?” That is, how did we get to this place and time when we see Islamophobic sentiments, practices, and policies in the west? Arjana argues that these realities are “not simply a result of September 11, 2001, Madrid 2004, or London 2005, nor a culmination of events of the past decade or the past century.” While acknowledging the increased visibility of Islam and Muslims following these incidents, as well as U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arjana points out:

“[T]hese concerns represent old anxieties that lie within a multiplicity of times and spaces on the pages of manuscripts and canvases of paintings, in works of great drama, poetry, and fiction, within travel diaries and government documents, and on the screens of movie theaters. To find the answer to the question posed here, we must look at numerous fields of cultural production; there, we find a vision of Islam that is both familiar and unsettling. Within it, we must seek what is common. What is common is the Muslim monster.”

For medieval Christian writers and poets, Prophet Muhammad was viewed as a “heretic,” “inspired by the devil,” and even the “Anti-Christ.” Chapati Mystery has an excellent article that provides a detailed historical overview of western depictions of the Prophet. The author writes:

“The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. . . . The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives.”

In later medieval writings, the article mentions Muhammad portrayed as “frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.” In the 14th century classic, the Divine Comedy, Italian poet Dante Alighieri placed Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali in the 8th circle of Hell, condemning them to vicious torment for being sowers of religious divisiveness.

The article also highlights on racialized and demonizing commentary about the Prophet appearing in the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649. In the text’s introduction, as the author points out, Muhammad is described as “the great Arabian imposter” who arrived in England “by way of France.” He is compared to an “African monster” for “people to gaze at, not to dote upon.” This likening of the Prophet to an “African monster” is significant as it reflected medieval Europe’s view of black skin symbolizing the devil, demons, and monsters. Arjana’s aforementioned book delves into the long history of Muslims being constructed as monsters, a “recurring theme” that was “first formulated in medieval Christian thought.” Examining medieval writings as early as the 5th century, she writes:

“Dark skin was understood as a theological consequence of sin. Gregory the Great claimed that Ethiopia was a sign of the fall of mankind, and other Christian writers followed suit, tying dark skin to sin and perdition. Jeremiah surmised that the Ethiopian’s skin could change like a leopard—one of many examples in which Africans were likened to animals. Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess ‘dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.’ Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.”

Western Europe referred to Muslims as “Saracens,” who were “described as Muhammad’s progeny” and seen as a “monstrous race that spawned a number of creatures, including one of the more popular characters of the medieval Christian imagination — the Black Saracen.” According to Arjana, medieval paintings and depictions of the Black Saracen was an amalgamation of three entities: Saracen, Jew, and African — a “hybrid monster.” She also notes that while Saracen “initially referred only to Arabs, it was soon applied to Muslims, Ethiopians, and Jews.” Furthermore, the terms “Saracens,” “Turks” and “Moors” were used interchangeably, often conflated to describe the “Muslim enemy.”

It is important to note that “Moor” was a term many Europeans applied to Africans since ancient times, not just in post-Islamic times. Contrary to popular belief, “Moor” does not mean “Muslim;” it was a word used by Europeans to describe black-skinned people. The origin of “Moor” is from the Greek word  “μαυρο” or “mavro which means “black, blackened, or charred.” When North African Muslims (predominately Berber), led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, invaded Visigothic Hispania in 711, Europeans used the term “Moor” to refer to Muslims in Spain and North Africa. Like the present, Muslims were made up of diverse racial and ethnic groups, and after the 8th century, according to Dana Marniche, use of “Moor” began to include many Arabs “who had invaded the Mediterranean and Africa because of their complexions which were the same dark brown or near black to absolutely black color of the Berbers.” What we see in European demonization of Africans and black skin is obvious anti-blackness, and in their conflation of diverse ethnic Muslim groups, we see racialization of Islam and Muslims, which persists today (as I wrote in my post, “Debunking the ‘Islam is Not a Race’ Argument”).

As one can imagine, demonization of Islam and Muslims was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages, especially during the Crusades. The Crusades: A Reader provides a comprehensive collection of documents and speeches from both Muslim and Western Christian sources. Prior to the First Crusade in 1096, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I needed assistance to defend against Turkish forces near Constantinople, so he wrote to Pope Urban II. The latter was so tired of Christians fighting and killing other Christians in civil wars that he saw this as the perfect opportunity for Christians to unite and channel their hatred towards the Muslims. More important than helping defend Constantinople, what appealed to Pope Urban II the most was the prize of Jerusalem in the East — if Christian armies could capture Jerusalem, he would be remembered throughout history as the man who drove out the “infidels” and “rescued” the Holy Land.

During his sermon at a church council in Clermont, France, Pope Urban II declared that taking up arms against “the vile race” (Muslims) was “commanded by Christ.” He promised direct salvation; anyone who participated or fought in the Crusades would have their sins remitted instantly and granted entrance to Heaven. In addition to spiritual rewards, there were promises of treasures and wealth in “the land of milk of honey.” According to numerous accounts of his speech, Muslims were described as “barbarians,” “infidels,” and an “accursed and foreign race” that “worships demons.” Unsurprisingly, the Pope used strong religious language to justify war and also exaggerated about the mistreatment Christians experienced under Muslim rulers. For instance, he stated: “They (Muslims) circumcise the Christians and pour the blood from their circumcision on the altars or in the baptismal fonts. . . . It is better to say nothing of their horrible treatment of the women.” The depiction of Muslims as “barbaric” and the focus on Muslim men’s “horrible treatment” of women can still be found in the language and narratives used today to launch wars against Muslims. This is not to deny real issues regarding misogyny in Muslim communities, but rather to challenge western political narratives that exploit the struggles of Muslim women to justify bombings and invasions of Muslim-majority countries. The West’s hypocrisy on sexual violence is no different than how Crusader knights would rape women (whether they be Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women) and never be held accountable while pointing fingers at Muslim men as the “real” perpetrators of sexual violence.

Casting Muslims as “infidels,” “demons,” and “evil” is something we still see today. U.S. president Barack Obama, hardly an ally to Muslims, is thought to be Muslim by nearly a third of Americans, including 43% of Republicans. Many extremist white Christians have been explicit in stating that both Muslims and Obama are “of the devil,” a belief reflecting an old, though prevalent, Western/European tradition of demonizing Muslims and Black people. In The History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, where Jesus (peace be upon him) and his disciples are portrayed by white men, Satan was not only depicted as a dark-skinned man, but many also claimed there was a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. Criticism led to producers eventually cutting the scenes, but whether or not the resemblance to Obama was intentional, the main issue remained: the devil is depicted as a Black man. It can be argued that given the history of linking Muslims with blackness and blackness with evil, present-day demonization of Islam and images of a Black male devil represent Western anxieties of the Black Saracen mentioned in Arjana’s research. Moreover, this demonization goes beyond hatred of Obama specifically and reflects the reality of white supremacist attitudes, violence, and laws that target Black people (both Muslim and non-Muslim).

As we continue to examine history, we see more examples of military offenses against Muslim-majority regions. The Catholic reconquest of Spain — the Reconquista — was a long and violent Crusade over a period of 770 years that sought to expel Muslims from Europe. In 1492, Catholic forces led by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella were successful in defeating the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. As a result, Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave their homeland. As we know, 1492 was also the same year Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the so-called “New World,” as it fueled their interest in expanding European Christian domination.

The brutal European colonial expansion and conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands in North and South America and the Caribbean islands led to colonizers demanding the labor of enslaved Africans. According to Muna Mire, about 10-15% of the Africans forced into slavery were Muslim (other sources estimate up to 30% of enslaved Africans were Muslim). As Mire writes in her important article, “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance”:

The first Muslims in America were Black. They were stolen from the western coast of Africa – modern-day Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal – and brought to the New World through violence. Some ten to fifteen percent of enslaved Africans brought to America as chattel practiced Islam as their faith when they landed on American shores. From the genesis of the American project, their labor – Black Muslim labor – would build the country from the ground up. But white Christian slaveowners did not tolerate these Africans practicing the religion they were born into. Enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity, wholesale, under threat of further violence. Like marriage, gatherings of Black people larger than three or four persons, or any other self-determined social custom, non-Christian religiosity was a threat to be eliminated amongst the enslaved. Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself.

History of Black Muslim resistance is erased in U.S. history textbooks, Muslim-American narratives, and discourse about Islamophobia. Instead, Islamophobia is treated as a post-9/11 phenomenon that primarily targets non-black Muslims. Mire emphasizes another critical fact: “Black Muslims existed prior to the colonial systems which brought them to the Americas, and they have been fighting assimilation for centuries. For a long time, to be Black has been to be Muslim.” Yet Black Muslim resistance against European conquest, slavery, forced conversion, white supremacy, police brutality, and assimilation are shamefully missing from dominant discourse about Islamophobia and Muslims in the U.S. As I have written before, anti-blackness among non-black Muslims and other people of color is a reality that cannot be ignored. In an interview with Al-Muslimoon Magazine in February, 1965, Malcolm X commented on how Muslims in Muslim-majority countries ignored the struggles Black Americans faced:

“Much to my dismay, until now, the Muslim world has seemed to ignore the problem of the Black American, and most Muslims who come here from the Muslim world have concentrated more effort in trying to convert white Americans than Black Americans.”

While I’m not an advocate of converting non-Muslims to Islam, Malcolm’s comment are important here because it reflects anti-black attitudes among non-black Muslims. Today, we may hear South Asian, Arab, and white Muslims speak proudly of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Hazrat Bilal, but still perpetuate anti-blackness in their communities. It is not uncommon to find non-black Muslims enthusiastically speaking about Islamic history and Muslim contributions to science, mathematics, and art, but resist acknowledging that many of these Muslims were also African. A color-blind “Islam does not see race” attitude continues to prevail in our communities, which works to further invisibilize Black Muslims, especially Black Muslim women. As Donna Auston stresses, this erasure “renders our communities even more vulnerable — to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from within the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.”

What we have come to understand as Islamophobia today has primarily meant focus on the experiences of Arab and South Asian Muslim men. Marking September 11th, 2001 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia means erasing history of demonization, military campaigns, violence, and laws that have targeted diverse populations of Muslims around the world. The narrative also implies that the U.S. was not a hostile environment for people of color before 9/11, as it ignores genocide against Indigenous peoples, slavery of Africans, and institutionalized white supremacy. Sometimes I’ll read articles written by non-black Muslims who reinforce the mythical idea of a pre-9/11 “racial harmony.” This dangerously negates anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial struggles that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have fought and continue to fight.

What do we make of Israel’s violent dispossession of Palestine, Indian military occupation of Kashmir, U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries, and the media’s demonization of Muslims if we believe Islamophobia did not begin until 9/11? What about the Islamophobic news coverage and bigotry that followed the Oklahoma City terrorist attack when Muslims were heavily blamed? In my personal experiences, as a Pakistani Muslim who grew up in a predominately white suburban town in the U.S., I recall my history teachers depicting Islam as a “backwards” religion. The Crusades was extremely romanticized, especially the figure of Richard the Lionheart, and our teacher made us believe Muslims started the wars and lost. In addition to brutally executing 3,000 captured Muslim prisoners, Richard the Lionheart never made it to Jerusalem, but was deemed the “hero of the Crusades.” In my high school social studies class, the teacher assigned everyone to do a presentation on terrorist organizations. All of the terrorist organizations we had to choose from were Arab and Muslim groups. When teaching the class about Islam, this same teacher showed us the anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian propaganda film, Not Without My Daughter. All of this happened before 9/11.

But Islamophobia goes beyond people saying or doing offensive and bigoted things to Muslims. Unfortunately, many liberals and western-based Muslim organizations treat Islamophobia as simply being about ignorance and individual acts of bigotry. I believe this is one of the major consequences of marking 9/11 as the origin of Islamophobia because the discourse places the blame of Islamophobia on the actions of other Muslims. In other words, the more we perpetuate the idea that Islamophobia began on 9/11, the less we understand Islamophobia within the larger context of white supremacy and historical hostility against Muslims and Islam. Not recognizing Islamophobia as institutionalized and state racism doesn’t just fail other Muslims, but also places us in opposition to building solidarity with other communities, especially Indigenous Peoples.

For instance, it is not hard to find articles filled with narratives about how non-black and non-indigenous Muslims claim the U.S. as their “homeland,” and how they are treated as “strangers in their own land.” Representatives of mainstream western-based Muslim organizations (that center on non-black Muslims) have often stated that Islamophobia is the “only form of acceptable racism left.” To disprove this absurd and, frankly, self-absorbed statement, one just needs to look at the countless examples of how racism against Black people, Indigenous peoples, Latino/as, East Asians, and other communities of color are still viewed as acceptable. Blackface in the media, films depicting “Yellow Peril” (including the recent film, No Escape), Native American sports mascots and Halloween “costumes,” assigning the dehumanizing term “illegal alien” to Latino/as and other immigrants are only a few examples of normalized and acceptable racism that exists. We still see white men, especially police officers, walk free after murdering Black and Indigenous peoples.

In response to narratives where non-black and non-indigenous Muslims refer to the U.S., Canada, and other settler states as their “own land,” we need to understand how we become complicit in perpetuating genocide and settler colonialism against Indigenous Peoples. As mentioned above, many non-black and non-indigenous Muslims in the U.S. expressed how they felt like “outsiders for the first time” in their “own country” after 9/11. Indeed, it is a frightening and dangerous reality that Muslims are treated as perpetual threats, subject to racial profiling and detainment, placed under surveillance, and face discrimination in their schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. The purpose is not to negate any of these realities and experiences, but instead advocate that we resist narratives that assume we are the “only” community (i.e. non-black and non-indigenous Muslims) that faces racism. Instead, we should recognize that our struggles against racism and oppression are connected to the struggles of other marginalized communities. How many North American-based Muslim civil rights groups have stood in solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous people who have seen their land stolen from them for over 500 years?  Why are so many “American Muslim” (and other western Muslim) groups so invested in assimilating Muslims into the very colonial systems that seek to exterminate Indigenous Peoples?  In the recent and brilliant online editorial, “Critical Transnational Feminist Analysis of Settler Colonialism,” one of the editors, Shaista Patel, powerfully articulates the importance of ethically engaging with other communities and understanding how struggles are interconnected. She writes:

“For those of us who work with the question of violence against Indigenous, Black and other bodies of colour, we are required to pay attention to the fact that these violences are intimately connected across spaces and times… For some of us, the question of complicity here as people living on stolen land, requires that we look into our histories and that we pay attention to all bodies who continue to demand that we ethically engage with violences. Paying attention to such questions moves us across continents, from past into present and back into the past and so forth. It asks us to trace the contradictions of the Empire which places us as both victims of violence but also as perpetrators of violence.”

All of us are participants in maintaining the interlocking systems of oppression, but we can make more ethical, diligent, and compassionate efforts to be more conscious of our privileges, responsibilities, and complicities. Recognizing these intersections and contradictions (within and outside of ourselves) reminds us that our liberation cannot be dependent on oppressing the rights of others. In an earlier piece, “Defining Muslim Feminist Politics through Indigenous Solidarity Activism,” Patel describes how Muslim solidarity with Indigenous Peoples comes from “an understanding that some of our historical trajectories coincide.” She cites how genocide against Indigenous Peoples in the “New World” and “expulsion of the last Muslims in Spain” were taking place in the same year of 1492. Additionally, she states:

“These braided histories of foundational violence of the ‘New World’ and Spain’s repudiation of its internal Others are important to remember so that we don’t forget how our destinies in a white-supremacist global order are tied in very material ways. . . . The history and present of the U.S. as a strong white settler-colonial and imperial power needs to be taken into account when movements in support of Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and other Muslims here are mobilized.”

I cite and raise the points mentioned above because I believe they can help us understand the damage mainstream narratives about post-9/11 Islamophobia causes.  We are not going to stop Islamophobia if we think the West “suddenly” and “abruptly” became Islamophobic after 9/11, as if no history of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry existed before.  If we were to apply this logic to white Christians, we would be seeing institutionalized oppression against white Christians in the West as a response to all of the murders and crimes carried out by white people. Islamophobia needs to be recognized as being ingrained in state racism.  Furthermore, as Patel asserts, we need to understand Islamophobia as encompassing anti-blackness, as well as white supremacy (including white Christian supremacy), heteropatriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, Zionism, and so on. To truly understand Islamophobia in all of its complexity and intersections, it requires us to look beyond 9/11 and closely examine history.

I’ll conclude with saying there is no denying that Islamophobia and demonization of Islam and Muslims intensified after 9/11. I am not against Muslims writing about their post 9/11 experiences either, especially when there are so many efforts to silence us. Let’s keep telling our stories; they are important and need to be heard. The point I’m emphasizing is that, when we tell our stories, we need to resist narratives that set 9/11 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia because such narratives make us complicit in reinforcing notions that the U.S. (and the West in general) was once “kind” to Muslims and people of color. It is true that some Muslims did not experience Islamophobia and racism before 9/11, but we must not establish this as a truth for all Muslims and people of color. Instead of treating anti-Muslim bigotry as a “new phenomenon,” we need to remember that it has existed for centuries. Understanding this reality and challenging the post-9/11 discourse about Islamophobia is critical not just for building alliances and solidarity with other communities, but also for building solidarity and unity within the Muslim community.

The Problem is Not Semantics: A Response to Jaideep Singh

Protestors hold signs at a protest against Islamophobia at Dundonald Park in Ottawa on Sunday, December 13, 2015. (Patrick Doyle / Ottawa Citizen) ORG XMIT: 1213 Islamophobia07

Last night, I came across Jaideep Singh’s article, “The Death of Islamophobia: The Rise of Islamo-Racism,” featured on Altmuslimah and RaceFiles. Singh argues that the term “Islamophobia” has become obsolescent and proposes that we use “Islamo-racism” instead. The latter, as Singh contends, helps us see anti-Muslim/anti-Islam hostility and discrimination as more than a phobia and linked to “our nation’s lengthy history of white and Christian supremacy.”

I do not disagree at all with Singh’s assertion that vilification of Islam and racism against Muslims and those who are perceived to be Muslim must be understood within the broader context of white supremacy. As my regular readers know, I have argued this same point throughout my blog. That is, Islamophobia (as I still choose to call it) goes beyond ignorance or individual racist acts. It is not an “isolated” phenomenon, but rather deeply embedded in the larger structures of violence and oppression that have long existed before 9/11.

Singh describes bigotry against Muslims as being a “continuation of a centuries-old American tradition of demonizing people of color,” and while he is not incorrect, I would just add that demonization of Islam and Muslims goes back even further than the violent “founding” of the U.S. Recently, I gave a guest lecture where I mentioned other Muslim writers, activists, and scholars who insist that Islamophobia pre-dates 9/11. In fact, one could argue that Islamophobia began during the very advent of Islam. When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) started to preach Islam, the dominant ruling tribe, the Quraish, perceived it as a threat to social order and subsequently persecuted and oppressed the early Muslims. Islamophobia can be traced back to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and to Western colonialism and wars in Muslim-majority regions. As detailed in Sophia Arjana Rose’s book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, medieval Christian literature, paintings, travel diaries, and other historical documents are filled with racialized demonizations of Islam and Muslims.

Throughout this history, we also see the intersection between anti-Blackness and Islamophobia. As pointed out in an article on Chapati Mystery, the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649 compares Prophet Muhammad to an “African monster” for “people to gaze at, not to dote upon.” This likening of the Prophet to an “African monster” is significant as it reflected medieval Europe’s view of black skin symbolizing the devil, demons, and monsters. Arjana elaborates:

“Dark skin was understood as a theological consequence of sin… Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess ‘dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.’ Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.”

The brutal European conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands in the Americas and the Caribbean islands led to colonizers demanding the labor of enslaved Africans. According to Muna Mire’s important article, “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance,” about ten to fifteen percent of enslaved Africans “brought to America as chattel practiced Islam as their faith.” Mire also emphasizes, “Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself.”

I do not doubt Singh would agree that these intersections are critical in understanding the ways in which anti-Muslim/anti-Islamic ideologies are systemic and interconnected with institutionalized racism or white supremacy. In fact, Singh’s article acknowledges and mentions the long history of violence against Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and other people of color in the United States. Singh also notes that demonization of Muslims constitutes racism because Islam has become racialized. His points on the racialization of Islam and Muslims are reminiscent to the ones I raised in my 2011 blog post, “Debunking the ‘Islam is Not a Race’ argument.” Singh believes these points about racialization and connections to white supremacy are more accurate and effective when one adopts use of the term “Islamo-racism” in place of “Islamophobia.”

Respectfully, I disagree. Every once in a while, I have heard people (both Muslim and non-Muslim) voice their criticism about the term “Islamophobia.” During a campus event about Islamophobia at my undergrad university, the non-Muslim white man who co-presented with me told the audience that he did not “like” the word “Islamophobia,” and instead insisted that we use “anti-Muslim racism.” What this did, no matter how unintentional, was discredit my use of “Islamophobia” during my portion of the presentation. Furthermore, the emphasis he placed on the semantics of the term reduced my use of it to “fear of Islam” or “fear of Muslims.” The dynamics of a white non-Muslim man explaining why he did not like a term that many Muslims use frequently to describe their own experiences was also a little troubling.

Indeed, when one examines the term “Islamophobia,” it sounds like it would refer to just that, “a phobia of Islam.” However, during a conversation about Singh’s article, a friend articulated to me that language is a social contract. That is, words are not inherit; we are taught and learn them from our environment. We, as societies and communities, agree on the use and meaning of words, no matter how limited the semantics are. For instance, when we look at the term “anti-Semitism,” we agree and understand it as referring to hostility and prejudice against Jews. If we were to examine the literal definition, we could make the argument that this term is used inaccurately since there are many non-Jews, including non-Jewish Arabs, who are also Semitic peoples. Another example is the term “homophobia.” As many activists would explain, we know this word is not limited to a group of heterosexual individuals who are fearful of gay and lesbian-identified people, but rather extends beyond phobia and is maintained by the structure of heteropatriarchy.

Despite the manner in which we can critique the semantics of “anti-Semitism” and “homophobia,” we do not see similar proposals to change or shift the use of these terms as we do with “Islamophobia.” Another point my friend raised was that focus on semantics often leads to derailment and division. I am not accusing Singh of derailing from the serious realities of bigotry and violence against Muslims, but I worry that such proposals have the potential to distract us from these realities. Even if a significant group of people adopt “Islamo-racism,” it runs the risk of isolating one’s self away from those who continue to use “Islamophobia.” Additionally, the call to change the terminology can work to delegitimize or discredit the work that many Muslims and allies are already doing. This is especially important because not everyone who uses the term “Islamophobia” sees it as merely being a sentiment or “fear of Islam.”

Islamophobia is not acknowledged as a real social problem by the U.S. or the West in general. However, “Islamophobia” as a word has stuck with the Muslim community. More than that, the term is widely used to organize, protest, and name personal experiences with anti-Muslim hate crimes, bigotry, discrimination, and microaggressions. For those of us in academic settings, “Islamophobia” is the word many Muslims and allies use to advocate curriculum, workshops, and programs that address anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic demonization. Calling for a shift in language, while seemingly harmless, does not only face the challenge of replacing a word that is so widely used, but also causes an unnecessary disruption to the efforts being made to fight Islamophobia.

I also do not see any advantages of using “Islamo-racism.” Like many Muslims, I have lost count of the times non-Muslims (mostly white, but not always) have told me, “Islamophobia is not racism! Islam is not a race, idiot!” Saying “Islamo-racism” is not going to change these responses. People will still cry, “Islam is not a race, it cannot be racism to hate Muslims/Islam!”

Just to be clear, I do not think there is anything wrong if someone chooses to use “Islamo-racism” instead of “Islamophobia.” The problem arises when one asserts and implies that “Islamo-racism” is the “correct” and “accurate” way of naming Islamophobia. Arguing that “Islamophobia” is a term of “obsolescence” is one thing, but framing it in the article title as “The Death of Islamophobia” comes off as a bit polemical. In any case, the main reason Singh calls for a shift in language is because he does not believe “Islamphobia” captures the way vilification of Muslims is entrenched and connected to white supremacy. However, this problem is not due to semantics, but rather with the way society is conditioned to treat racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression as being limited to “isolated cases” or interpersonal forms bigotry. For example, when the media reports cases of racism, it is not discussed as being systemic. Elizabeth Martinez draws another example:

“[People] will reduce racist police behavior to “a few bad apples” who need to be removed, rather than seeing it exists in police departments all over the country and is basic to the society. This mistake has real consequences: refusing to see police brutality as part of a system, and that the system needs to be changed, means that the brutality will continue.”

Martinez does not propose abolishing the word “racism,” but instead argues that we frame racism as being part of a system, “a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: economic, military, legal, educational, religious, and cultural.” Furthermore, she states, “We will achieve a clearer understanding of racism if we analyze how a certain action relates to the system of White Supremacy.” In cases of Islamophobia, we often see media and society treat perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crimes as “lone wolves” rather than being products of a violent, white supremacist society. As S. Sayyid writes, “Islamophobia has been presented as nothing as sordid as racism, but rather a rational response to real threats to western, nay universal, values.”

I agree with Singh that vilification of Muslims and Islam needs to be understood within this systemic context, but I do not believe the solution is re-naming or changing the terminology. What needs to change is how we frame Islamophobia, which many Muslims and allies are already doing. I have cited Houria Boutelja numerous times before, but here is her quote again: “To speak of Islamophobia as sentiment is a euphemism. Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” S. Sayyid has also expressed similar arguments for understanding Islamophobia in his piece, “Racism and Islamophobia.”

Rather than focusing on semantics, we need to work towards shifting people’s understanding of Islamophobia and other forms of oppression from “isolated incidents” to being rooted in systems. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other oppressive forces are products of interlocking systems, namely white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and so on. The more we focus on deconstructing the semantics of “Islamophobia,” the more it will lead us into cyclical debates about whether or not we are describing something “accurately.”

By using the term that Muslim communities have largely agreed upon does not mean we cannot recognize the limitation of the literal definition. However, wide usage of the term demonstrates an example of how language is a social contract and how we come to agreement on what words like “Islamophobia,” “anti-Semitism,” and “homophobia” mean and refer to. I believe the choice to continue using these terms – rather than creating new ones and shifting the focus to semantics – is not about being “inaccurate,” but about showing solidarity.

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

“And They Call Me Barbarian”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they call us barbarians.

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

Remembering Malcolm X

Malcolm X was assassinated on this day, February 21st, in 1965.  Like so many people in the world, Malcolm X’s life and commitment to social justice has had a profound impact on my life.  Although Malcolm’s legacy has received recognition in the mainstream, including a 1992 film directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, there is still a great misunderstanding about who he was.

There are still many who go as far as to vilify and demonize him.  Mainstream narratives about the civil rights movement still persist in creating a simplified dichotomy between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr.  The former is regarded as a “black supremacist” and “extremist,” whereas the latter is commemorated as the “peaceful” and “moderate” civil rights leader.  This distortion of history not only vilifies Malcolm, but also de-radicalizes Martin Luther King Jr. and co-opts his legacy for the ruling class.  It is very telling when you see white supremacists quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to justify discriminatory policies that work to silence and criminalize anti-racism.

One of the things that always bothered me about the “X-Men” was how the writers describe the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier as analogous to the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  The first “X-Men” film put Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” quote in the mouth of Magneto, the villain mutant, and most recently, Michael Fassbender admitted that the lives of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the story of “X-Men: First Class.”  As much as I could relate to the struggle of the mutants in “X-Men” and saw parallels with Islamophobia (especially in “X-Men 2”), the comic book writers and filmmakers constantly make the mistake in comparing Malcolm X to Magneto, a murderous mutant who wants to violently exterminate all humans.  Many have criticized this offensive allegory and rightfully so.  Anyone who delves into the biography of Malcolm X will know that he never killed anyone nor called for the “annihilation” of “white people.”  Advocating for self-defense, perhaps where Malcolm was misunderstood the most, does not mean one advocates violence.

Even in narratives that commemorate and revere Malcolm X, there are problematic “universalist” statements made about his life. He was a racist, they say, but then he went to Mecca and “saw the light,” i.e. he realized he shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  Indeed, when Malcolm went to the holy city of Mecca to perform his hajj, the experience had a profound impact on him. In his famous letter from Mecca, he admitted with humility and sincerity that his interactions with white Muslims, as well as the spiritual knowledge he learned, caused him to “re-arrange” his thoughts. Malcolm still recognized the system of white supremacy and reality of institutionalized racism against African-Americans and other people of color.  To accuse Malcolm of being a “racist” is irresponsible, as it erases the history and reality of racism in the United States, which Malcolm writes about in the letter, too.  Others choose to “water down” Malcolm in this narrative and many have argued that the Spike Lee film didn’t go far enough.  Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture stresses on how the film didn’t depict Malcolm’s visit in Africa and the Middle East, his meetings with African, Arab, and South American leaders, or his anti-Zionist politics.  She also points out that Lee received pressure from Hollywood producers because they were particularly concerned about showing Malcolm’s support of the Palestinians.

Being selective about Malcolm’s life and only focusing on his “post-Hajj” years is to overlook Malcolm’s complexities and how his life journey carries such a meaningful message about self-criticism, among other things. He was committed to learning and, unlike the political “leaders” in the world today, was not afraid to admit his mistakes.  There are still things we need to be critical of, however.  Similar to how bell hooks critiqued Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Aime Cesaire on their male-centered language, the same needs to be said about Malcolm X.   Writing only about male experiences with oppression perpetuates sexism, as it ignores and erases the experiences of women. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”

I remember when I took an entire class on Malcolm X, the professor, an African-American woman, critiqued Malcolm’s sexist logic throughout the semester and reminded us that much of Malcolm’s legacy has been shaped and defined by men. Malcolm was a strong advocate of women’s education, but many of his  attitudes towards women were also restrictive and rooted in distrust. My professor also spoke a lot about the women who played a significant role in Malcolm’s life, including his wife Betty Shabazz and his mother and sisters who taught him “the importance of race pride and self identity.”

I do find Malcolm’s sexist logic to be in line with traditional patriarchal attitudes that we can find in all communities. In his autobiography, Malcolm explains that Islam teaches true Love because the beauty of the person is found within, not on the outside.  I believe this is true, but the stereotypical gender roles were also present in Malcolm’s interpretation.  As a young Muslim man, I saw Malcolm’s leadership, politics, and courage as an example that was exclusive to men.  I viewed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a similar way. That is, men alone needed to be leaders and role models, whereas women were “followers” and “looked up to us.”

Critiques about masculinity and sexism in Malcolm’s life are important; they have been and are addressed by black feminists and activists. In other narratives, a lot of non-black Muslims try to isolate Malcolm as a Muslim and only a Muslim while ignoring African-American struggle. Through this process, Malcolm’s racial identity gets erased and he becomes an appropriated icon – this appropriation, under the assumption that all marginalized communities “share” the “same” oppression, only contributes to anti-black racism. Although I am not African-American, Malcolm’s speeches about not being ashamed of your skin color or where you come from resonated with me very strongly at a young age. My experiences as a South Asian-American are not the same as African-Americans, but Malcolm’s words helped me see important parallels of internalized racism within my community and, most of all, within myself.

There is a lot to appreciate, admire, and respect about Malcolm. Unlike so many today, he was not afraid to speak his mind and speak truth to power.  He didn’t worry about the way others perceived him and he didn’t change his words to please political parties or the white mainstream. He told it like it is.  Criticizing some of his sexist attitudes does not negate his anti-racist work or his advocacy for women’s rights, but rather keeps us critical of social justice struggles and how we can learn to strengthen efforts for liberation.   It is Malcolm’s self-criticism that has always inspired me and this is something all of us must do.  We must criticize the racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other oppressive norms that we have internalized.  Self-criticism reminds us about the importance of holding ourselves responsible and being mindful of the justice we seek for all communities.  As I have written on this blog so many times, racism and sexism are inseparable – there cannot be any true liberation while oppression still exists.

In closing, I wanted to share this excerpt from one of Malcolm’s final speeches that is so relevant today.  Malcolm comments on the multiple arms of racism and how dangerous the grasp of oppression can be when it transforms the victim into the oppressor, and the oppressor into the victim. An intersectional approach to the speech can help us connect Malcolm’s fierce criticism of victim-blaming racism to the way victims of sexual violence are blamed for oppression as well.  The speech was delivered five days before he was assassinated.  May Allah be pleased with Malcolm and may all of our communities work together to end oppression in all of its forms. Ameen.

We’re not against people because they’re white. But we’re against those who practice racism. We’re against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours. And because we’re against it, the press says we’re violent. We’re not for violence. We’re for peace.

We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York.

They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.

– Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Christopher Columbus: The Heroification of a Mass Murderer

In most American history classrooms, children are taught that in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and “discovered America.”  In this narrative, Columbus is portrayed as an adventurous explorer and a national hero.  It is a narrative that is profoundly romanticized and even mythical, yet despite the historical records and accounts of Columbus’s heinous crimes against indigenous peoples, he is still glorified and honored in American history and culture.

Heroificiation, as defined by author James W. Loewen, is a “degenerative process” that distorts reality and transforms “flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.”  Christopher Columbus represents but one example in human history where an individual responsible for some of the most dreadful atrocities in our human history is molded into a savior-like figure and commemorated with a national holiday.  It is disturbing how most American schoolchildren learn from history teachers and textbooks to not only venerate Columbus, but also to recite poems, sing songs, and perform in romanticized reenactments about his arrival to the Americas.  These praises, accompanied with “Columbus Day” celebrations and parades, grossly gloss over the horrors of American Indian genocide initiated by Columbus’s expeditions.

American public schools rarely discuss Columbus’s atrocities. As Corine Fairbanks points out:

Recently, Roberta Weighill, Chumash, shared that her third grade son disagreed with his teacher about the Columbus discovery story and added that he knew Columbus to be responsible for the deaths of many Native people.  The public teacher corrected him: “No. Columbus was just a slave trader.” Hmmm, just a slave trader? Oh! Is that all?

American history textbooks paint Columbus as a hero by treating his voyages into the “oceanic unknown” as exceptional and unique, as if he was the only explorer who ever journeyed to the Americas.  Aside from the fact that indigenous peoples already lived in the land we now call the United States and weren’t waiting to be “discovered,” Columbus was not the first to set sail to the Americas.  In his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Loewen provides a chronological list of expeditions that reached the Americas prior to Columbus, including explorers from Siberia, Indonesia, Japan, Afro-Phoenicia, Portugal, among other countries.  Most of the eighteen high school history textbooks surveyed by Loewen omit the factors that prompted Columbus’s voyage in the first place: social change in Europe, advancement in military technology, use of the printing press – which allowed information to travel faster and further into Europe – and the ideological and theological rationalization for conquering new land.   For example, Columbus’s greed and pursuit of gold in Haiti is either extremely downplayed or absent in textbooks.  Columbus himself aligned amassing wealth with salvation, writing:  “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”  Accompanying Columbus on his 1494 expedition to Haiti was Michele de Cuneo, who wrote the following account:

After we had rested for several days in our settlement it seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers.

In elementary school, I remember learning that Columbus was peaceful to the indigenous people, who were in turn friendly and welcoming of the Spaniards.  If anything was mentioned about war, it was always presented as, “There were good people and bad people on both sides.”  Such an explanation shamelessly ignores the fact that “over 95 million indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere were enslaved, mutilated and massacred.”  The myth that Native Americans and Europeans were equally responsible for gruesome brutality was also reinforced in Disney’s animated feature, “Pocahontas.”  The film placed Native American resistance and European violence on the same plane, i.e. the extremists on “both sides” made it bad for those who wanted peace, and colonialist domination and power was not a contributing factor to any form of resistance from the Natives.  This distortion of history often likes to behave as sympathetic to Native Americans, but what it actually does is consistently depict them as “inferior” and “backwards,” while lionizing European colonizers and settlers, as well as constructing a history that is complimentary to the nationalism and pro-Americanism preached in most American schools.

I don’t think I would have learned about what Columbus really did if I didn’t start reading about Islamic history, which, too, was either ignored or vilified (especially during lessons on the Crusades) in my history classes.  1492, the same year Columbus sailed to the Americas, was also the year of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or leave the country.  The Catholic reconquest of Spain – the Reconquista – by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella heightened interest in expanding European Christian domination, which led to their eventual agreement to sponsor Columbus’s voyage.

Upon his arrival to the Bahamas, Columbus and his sailors were greeted by Arawak men and women.  Columbus wrote of them in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Worth noting is how Columbus’s description of the Arawak correlates with his sense of European entitlement and superiority.  In several accounts, he praised the Arawak and other indigenous tribes for being hospitable, handsome, and intelligent, but not without saying they would make “fine servants.”  When Columbus justified enslavement and his wars against the Natives, he vilified them as “cruel,” “stupid,” and “a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours.”

It is also important to understand the genocide of indigenous people could not have been possible without racism and sexual violence. Andrea Smith cites Ann Stoler’s analysis of racism to illustrate the relationship between sexual violence and colonialism: “Racism is not an effect but a tactic in the internal fission of society into binary opposition, a means of creating ‘biologized’ internal enemies, against whom society must defend itself.”  Racism marks the “other” as “inherently dirty,” and subsequently “inherently rapable.”  For this reason, Smith argues that sexual violence is a weapon of patriarchy and colonialism, as opposed to being a separate issue altogether:

Because Indian bodies are “dirty,” they are considered sexually violable and “rapable,” and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count. For instance, prostitutes are almost never believed when they say they have been raped because the dominant society considers the bodies of sex workers undeserving of integrity and violable at all times. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear that Indian people are not entitled to bodily integrity.

Sexual violence and degradation of Native bodies is evident in how Columbus used Taino women as sex slaves and sexual rewards for his men.  Columbus profited off of sex-slave trade by exporting them to other parts of the world.  In fact, most of his income came from slavery.  In 1500, he wrote to a friend:  “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

During an online conversation, some defended Columbus by arguing he was only carrying out the “norms of his time.” Justifying Columbus’s actions by the “standards” of his time, or through historical moral relativism, is problematic, not only because it dismisses genocide, sex slavery, and land theft, but also because it suggests there are overall honorable traits about Columbus and that he should be commemorated.  For instance, Bartolome de las Casas, the Spanish-born Dominican Bishop of Chiapas, witnessed and documented the horrors of Columbus’s subjugation, enslavement, and massacre of indigenous people. He is often quoted for writing:

What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and humankind and this trade [in American Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them.

In numerous accounts, de las Casas reports about Columbus commanding his men to cut off the legs of children who would run away; about Spaniards hunting and killing Natives for sport; about colonialists testing the sharpness of their blades on living, breathing Native bodies; about Columbus’s men placing bets on who would cut a person in half in a single sweep of their swords. De las Casas wrote:  “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

[UPDATE 10/13/2014] It is important to note that by no means am I romanticizing de las Casas here nor would I suggest that Columbus Day should be replaced with “Bartolomé Day,” as this well-intentioned, though extremely problematic essay on The Oatmeal advocates. As Tria Andrews writes in her brilliant critique of the essay:

Although “Christopher Columbus was awful” is perhaps well intentioned, the logics guiding the essay’s trajectory are nevertheless harmful to Indigenous peoples, whose own struggles for recognition and sovereignty are entirely excluded from the discourse, and African Americans, whose enslavement and humanity are superficially gestured to, but ultimately ignored.

The essay is flawed in its inability to understand that there is no need to substitute Columbus Day with “bart-oh-low-may-day,” since Indigenous People’s Day, an international event of counter-resistance to Columbus Day, already exists.

Andrews points out that de las Casas “himself was a slave owner and temporarily supported the enslavement of African Americans.” Although de las Casas’s views changed over time, his advocacy of indigenous rights and ending slavery was motivated by his desire to “convert and baptize the ‘heathen’ Indians.”  In his debate with Juan Gines de Supulveda, who argued that the Natives were “barbarians” and predisposed to slavery, de las Casas argued that they were intelligent and capable of attaining salvation in Christianity without coercion.

Andrews points out that when we recognize the brutal atrocities of Columbus, but then praise another colonial figure, this “reinforces the false notion that Indigenous peoples need outsiders as protectors.” When people celebrate figures like de las Casas as “champions” of human rights, what does it say about the voices of Native Americans, especially those who live today and continue to struggle against genocide? In her conclusion, Andrews states:

Although de las Casas’s personal and political transformations are important, the solution to the violence of Columbus Day is far more complex than replacing Columbus Day with de las Casas Day. If mainstream histories view de las Casas as “one of the first advocates for universal human rights,” we might begin by asking who is constructing “universal human rights,” and how? Who has access? And whose perspectives are we foregrounding?

Each year, I hear people make the argument that Columbus and de las Casas cannot be “judged by today’s standards.” When these arguments are made, we need to seriously question and challenge what “today’s standards” are. Inherit in the romantic mythology of Columbus’s heroism is the white supremacist heteropatriarchal imperialism that colonizes, exploits, and unleashes massacres and sexual violence upon people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and in parts of the world like Pakistan where war eerily operates as if there is no war, despite US military presence, airbases, drone assaults, political intervention, etc.  Entire peoples are being vilified, demonized; their histories distorted, omitted; and indigenous peoples continue to resist and struggle against ongoing genocide that seeks to exterminate them. It is the logic of genocide, as Smith reminds us, that insists Native peoples must fade into nonexistence. War criminals are still glorified; war crimes are still justified; inhumane practices against humanity are still occurring.

The Reconsider Columbus Day effort challenges the status quo, not just for the sake of restoring dignity and honesty to human history, but also for eradicating tyranny, colonialism, and imperialism that exists in the present.  When American schoolchildren are taught to identify with Columbus, they are aligning themselves with an oppressor and making a racial distinction between “us” and “them.”   The point of dismantling the way we celebrate and honor Columbus goes beyond exposing Columbus’s personality, it’s about taking responsibility for the ways we are complicit in reinforcing the logic of genocide. It’s about decolonizing ourselves in order to bring about radical, revolutionary change to society.

Decolonize for the sake of today, and for the sake of tomorrow.

Thanksgiving and Forgotten Genocide: Brainwashing of American Textbooks

Those who are indigenous to the land we now call the “United States of America” have been long misrepresented, demonized, and effectively marginalized in American history textbooks in favor of glorifying European colonialism. Why does “democracy” refuse to teach that 10 to 30 million Natives were unjustifiably slaughtered in the name of conquest and imperialism? Where is the “free market of ideas” when selective and biased history is being taught in our educational institutions?

Erasing the memory of an entire race of people is cultural genocide. Not only is biased history presented to us through a distorted lens, but we are also subjected to the realities of capitalism, in which commercialization of an ambiguous holiday pulls us away from facts and meaning. Turkeys are associated with “Thanksgiving” in the same way Santa Clause and the Easter bunny have become synonymous with Christmas and Easter, respectively. Through the guise of innocence and “good holiday spirit”, capitalism is constantly telling us to consume because consumption equals “happiness.” It is no coincidence that we all rush to our favorite malls and shopping centers on “Black Friday” for “big savings.”

And as children dress up as Pilgrims and Natives to reenact the romanticized version of history, they are not only perpetuating stereotypes, but more importantly, they’re embodying racist and ethnocentric lies. What do they really know about the Pilgrims and the Natives? Consider a high school history textbook called “The American Tradition” which describes the scene quite succinctly:

After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth Harbor for their settlement. Unfortunately, they had arrived in December and were not prepared for the New England winter. However, they were aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

This patronizing version of history excludes many brutal facts about European history. As stated by James W. Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” many college students are unaware of the horrific plague that devastated and significantly reduced the population of Natives after Columbus’ arrival in the “new world.” Most diseases, for instance, came from animals that were domesticated by Europeans. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, which was later “spread through gifts of blankets by infected Europeans.” Of the twelve high school textbooks Professor Loewen studied and analyzed, only three offer some explanation that the plague was a factor of European colonization. The nine remaining textbooks mention almost nothing, and two of them omit the subject altogether. He writes: “Each of the other seven furnishes only a fragment of a paragraph that does not even make it into the index, let alone into students’ minds.”

Why is it important to mention the plague? Quite simply, it reinforced European ethnocentrism and hardly produced a “friendly” relationship between the Natives and Europeans. To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, and demonic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in England:

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect…

The ugly truth is that many Pilgrims were thankful and grateful that the Native population was decreasing. Even worse, there was the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which started after the colonists found a murdered white man in his boat. Ninety armed settlers burned a Native village, along with their crops, and then demanded the Natives to turn in the murderers. When the Natives refused, a massacre followed.

Captain John Mason and his colonial army surrounded a fortified Pequot village and reportedly shouted: “We must burn them! Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord Judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.” The surviving Pequot were hunted and slain.

The Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, further elaborates:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

Perhaps most disturbing: it is strongly argued by many historians that the Pequot Massacre led to the “Thanksgiving” festivities. The day after the massacre, the aforementioned Governor Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

Now, one may ask: What about Squanto, the Wampanoag man who learned to speak English and helped the hungry, ill, and poor Pilgrims? As cited by Professor Loewen, an American high school textbook called “Land of Promise” reads:

Squanto had learned their language, the author explained, from English fishermen who ventured into the New England waters each summer. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, squash, and pumpkins. Would the small band of settlers have survived without Squanto’s help? We cannot say. But by the fall of 1621, colonists and Indians could sit down to several days of feast and thanksgiving to God (later celebrated as the first Thanksgiving).

Note that this text states the first Thanksgiving was on 1621. Indeed, there was a feast on that year, but it was not called a “Thanksgiving feast” nor was it repeated until years later after the Pequot Massacre in 1637. In regards to Squanto, the correct question to ask is: How did Squanto learn English? History textbooks neglect to mention that the Europeans did not perceive Squanto as an equal, but rather as “an instrument of their God” to help the “chosen people.” It is also omitted that, as a boy, Squanto was stolen by a British captain in 1605 and taken to England. He worked for a Plymouth Merchant who eventually helped him arrange passage back to Massachusetts, but less than a year later, he was seized by a British slave raider. Along with two dozen fellow Natives, Squanto was sold into slavery in Spain. He would manage to escape slavery, journey back to England, and then talk a ship captain into taking him along on his next trip to Cape Cod in 1619.

As Squanto walked back into his home village, he was horrified to find that he was the only surviving member of his village. The rest were either killed in battle or died of illness and disease. Excluding Squanto’s enslavement is to paint an incredibly distorted version of history that suggests Natives, like Squanto, learned English for no other reason but to help the colonists. It is to glorify the Europeans and erase the struggles and experiences of the Native people.

When history is transformed into myths, tales, and bedtime stories, we ignore historical research that enables us to learn valuable and meaningful lessons about our present, as well as about our future. History is meant to be an accurate and honest account of civilizations, cultures, and events; not a one-sided narrative of ethnocentric and selective alterations.

As Professor Loewen states:

Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them ‘Pilgrims’ until the 1870s.

I did not write this post to pass judgment on everyone who is celebrating “Thanksgiving.” None of us are responsible for the atrocities committed hundreds of years ago. None of us caused the plague or the massacres. But as human beings, I do feel that it’s important to educate ourselves about history, to acknowledge that the United States was founded on dispossession of Native people, to be aware of our complicities (when we, including people of color, seek to become social equals with those who use their power to oppress others).

The fact that history textbooks and schools try to glorify the Pilgrims while omitting significant facts about Native peoples represent the ongoing cultural genocide in the United States. Let us not become clouded by super-patriotism or the blowout sales of “Black Friday.” Let us be conscious of our brothers and sisters in humanity, learn about their contributions, and embolden ourselves to stand up against racism and genocide in all forms.


UPDATE: This post was written a few years ago, so I apologize for not addressing the intersection between sexual violence and genocide (as I do in later posts).  Please follow the links below to read MUST-READ articles about the myths and lies of “Thanksgiving.”

1. A Day to Give Thanks?

2. The Original Occupation: Native Blood & the Myth of Thanksgiving

3.Cooking the History Books: The Thanksgiving Massacre