Islamophobia TV: All the Hate, All the Time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Muslims: Performing “Happiness” and “Normalcy”

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I can’t believe I haven’t updated my blog since 2013! Most of my hiatus is due to being busy in graduate school and also working on a feature film. I’ll share some details about the film later in this post, but I first want to address a video that came to my attention a few days ago.

By now, most Muslims active on social media have seen the “Happy British Muslims” music video, which shows a diverse group of Muslims in Britain lip-synching and dancing (happily, of course) to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I noticed friends on Facebook sharing the video, but at first, I didn’t take the time to watch the video. However, after I noticed debates taking place, I decided to give it a view. Yesterday, a Chicago version of “Happy Muslims” was released online and I also heard about Boston and Toronto versions being in the works. Before I share my critique of these videos, I want to discuss a few conversations I’ve been seeing online.

So far, from what I’ve read, most of the articles framing this debate are reinforcing binary-thinking within the Muslim community. The articles state that there are two groups of Muslims that are dominating this discussion. The first group are Muslims who enjoyed the video and believe that it humanizes Muslims and helps break stereotypes. Obviously, it makes sense that many Muslims would support the video. After all, in Hollywood and mainstream western media, Muslims are overwhelmingly depicted as villains and terrorists (for over a 100 years!), so it’s refreshing to see Muslims being happy in a music video that has gone viral. The second group of Muslims, on the other hand, find the video sinful and incompatible with Islamic teachings. Their main criticism being that Muslim women are dancing in the video and that such “behavior” does not “follow the Sunnah.”

This debate continues to ensue on online forums, Facebook pages, Twitter posts, etc. However, the problem with this binary framing is that it ignores other perspectives that have not been receiving much attention (or being left out of the discussion altogether). One of these perspectives is concerned about the problematic messages the video reinforces politically. I believe Yasmin Jamaludeen’s powerful critique of the video touches upon many of the same concerns I had, but also so much more. As she writes:

What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”.

Like Jamaludeen, my problem isn’t with the dancing or music. In fact, I disagree with some of the Muslims who are objecting to the video on religious grounds. It’s outrageously sexist that a “halal” version of the video was made, where all of the Muslim women were edited out. By erasing Muslim women, they are being deemed “haram,” which is beyond horrible. I also don’t believe in shaming anyone who participated in the video nor am I interested in making personal attacks against the people who enjoyed the video. Jamaludeen also made it clear she wasn’t cynical about the people in the video and wasn’t attacking anyone, but rather expressing her cynicism about the agenda, which is what I’m interested in discussing. Specifically, what I’m interested in examining is how videos like these promote assimilation narratives that subsequently reinforce the harmful good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

One of the main issues I have with the video is that it follows a problematic, though common, trend we see from Muslims in the West who are attempting to “break stereotypes” or respond to Islamophobia. The common trend being that we have to assert our Western national identities in order to show the dominant culture that we are “normal” and “peaceful” people. In many ways, the problems I have with this video are the same problems I had with the “All-American Muslim” reality TV show which aired briefly on TLC (and faced Islamophobic attacks). I didn’t take issue with how Muslims in the show dressed, or where they worked, or whether or not they dated. It was with (and I know some people are probably tired of me saying this) the notion that we must be “proud Americans” (or proud Westerners) to qualify as human beings. It’s with the premise that we need to operate within the white non-Muslim gaze in order to claim our humanity; that we need to say, “Hey, look, I have barbecues in my backyard just like every other American! Look, I watch football games like you, too! We’re all American!” The title is cringe-worthy enough, too — what does “All-American” mean exactly?

National Muslim civil rights organizations promote these narratives too, unfortunately. In their PR campaigns, they’ll showcase images of Muslims proudly waving (or even wearing) American flags in the name of “breaking stereotypes,” as if performing Americanness (or Canadianness, Britishness, etc.) is the only way to prove to the West that we are human. Meanwhile, the Muslims who resist these narratives and/or question the legitimacy of white supremacist nations (often by addressing the racist, sexist, and violent colonial histories of these nations and the impact these forces have today) are categorized as “bad Muslims” – the militants, the extremists, the radicals, etc. Sadly, we see this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy also perpetuated by people in our own communities. I remember a few friends and I raised concerns about the way some Muslim civil rights groups were praising the “founding fathers.” In particular, we called attention to the fact that the founding fathers owned slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous peoples. The response we received from one of the representatives was a hostile one, accusing us of being “bad PR.” What message does this deliver to Indigenous peoples struggling against colonialism and genocide? What message does it deliver about Muslims in America and the agenda that some organizations are trying to promote (i.e. “we’re only concerned about our interests” over the rights of others)?

We saw the same pattern of the assimilation narrative in the awful Mipsterz video (which I believe is still worse than the “Happy Muslim” videos). With regard to the “Happy Muslims” videos, the critiques are again about how Muslims perform “happiness” for the white gaze to be seen as “normal” (“normal” meaning “just like every other British/American/Canadian person” and being seen as nonthreatening to white supremacy). An article on OnIslam.net, which wrote in defense of the video, concluded with a sentence stating that 83% of Muslims are “proud to be a British citizen.” To counter stereotypes, the message seems to always be: “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re proud British/American/Canadian/Australian, etc. citizens,” instead of “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re human beings.” It’s as if the only way to be respected and accepted in society is to show white non-Muslims that we are not only “happy” in their white supremacist nations, but also how we are “the Good Muslims,” or “proud citizens just like them.” Subsequently, this works to distinguish us from the Muslims “over there,” i.e. the Muslims who aren’t citizens of the West and characterized as being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” “unintelligent,” etc. (and as if their lack of citizenship makes them less human or their deaths less outrageous).

Indeed, Islamophobia and other oppressive forces from the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal establishment have tremendous effects on Muslims and people of color. I’m not saying that the Muslims who participated in the video are unaware or not impacted by these forces. However, what I’d like to call attention to is that we rarely see stories or videos that show Muslims resisting against state racism, assimilation, and other oppressive forces in their lives without being demonized for it. Are “happy” and state-friendly images of Muslims the only response we have to Islamophobia? Or, to phrase another way, are these images the only “appropriate” ways to counter stereotypes?

The argument from people who are defending the video is that the filmmakers are humanizing Muslims. However, let’s ask ourselves what it means to be human. Does “human” mean that we are only allowed to express one emotion, “happiness”? Does a “humanizing” depiction of Muslims mean we restrict ourselves to the narrow depiction of being “Good Muslims” and omit the other emotions (like anger and sadness) we experience for the sake of “proving” to white non-Muslims that we are not terrorists? I’m concerned with the ironically angry personal attacks that critics of the video are getting from fellow Muslims. Critics are labeled as the Muslims who “don’t know how to be happy” or “don’t know how to have fun.” Unfortunately, it goes to show how the good Muslim/bad Muslim is being reproduced, but also how oppressive “positive-thinking” politics can be, especially when they’re imposed on people who are expressing the opposite.  That is, if you aren’t “happy” or thinking “positively,” then you’re characterized as being “oversensitive,” “ungrateful/unappreciative,” or “too angry.” What does “happy” mean in this context anyway? Be happy and don’t talk about Islamophobia? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who do not perform happiness in the way the Muslims in the video do? What are the views toward Muslims who would be classified as “angry,” and are actively resisting against white supremacy and patriarchy? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who are disloyal towards the British government (or any government, really)? What about Muslims who don’t feel like they can “fit in” or may not even want to “fit in”? Aren’t all of these questions and concerns also part of people’s humanity?

There are ways to show Muslims struggling against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without portraying us as “helpless victims” or mass murderers. There are ways to tell stories about these struggles without relying on demonizing stereotypes. We can tell these stories without being primarily concerned with the gaze of the white non-Muslim audience. A few days ago, I read a really moving article by author Daniel José Older, who wrote about writers of color and the challenges they face in storytelling and publishing. In the article, titled “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” this part stood out to me the most:

The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair this month: “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

So we are wary. The publishing industry looks a lot like one of these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.

But let’s go back to this: “It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color, it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet of the majority white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture [Emphasis mine].

Yes. All of that!

The part about “writing past” editors and agents resonated with me the most because I believe it articulates how I’ve been approaching the feature film I’m currently writing/directing/producing (filming is about 70% finished). I did not want to make a PSA announcement nor was I interested in “educating” a white audience about Islam and Pakistani culture. I did not want the two Pakistani Muslim protagonists to be seen as representing “all Pakistanis” or “all Muslims.” Instead, I have been focusing on telling an honest and unapologetic story that treats these characters as complex, multi-dimensional individuals and human beings. I don’t mean “human beings” in the universal, colorblind, “we-are-all-human-therefore-race-doesn’t-matter” sense. I mean “human beings” as in owning our feelings, emotions, complexities, without being concerned with whether or not these characters make white non-Muslim audiences comfortable. In some scenes, these two characters are happy. In other scenes, they’re sad and conflicted. And sometimes, they are angry and disruptive. I’m sure some people will have critiques about the film and I’ll do my best to be ready for those criticisms (and own up to any mistakes I’ve made), but overall, I have found that not worrying or caring about the white gaze has been a very empowering process in telling this story. By the end of it, I hope it is seen as a disruptive film that challenges white supremacist patriarchy in education institutions and the workplace (where most of my film takes place), and promotes solidarity among communities of color. I also hope it’s seen as challenging assimilation and “American identity” in general. Of course, I anticipate white people watching the film and, if anything, I’d like them to think about how they can be allies (or improve their roles as allies), but overall, they’re not the target audience of the film.

Lastly, I’m not saying that we should see Muslims being “angry all the time” in contrast to all the “happy” videos that portray Muslims as “joyous,” “hip,” and “cool.” I’m saying that we do not see Muslims expressing rage or anger in videos/movies/TV shows that are seeking to humanize us. Too often, all we see are PSA or PR campaigns that are about “educating” non-Muslims that we are not “terrorists;” that we are just like them; that we are not actively challenging state oppression. If we see “angry Muslims” in mainstream media, they are terrorists, misogynists, and “oversensitive,” racialized Others who are “backwards” and “pre-modern.” Very rarely do we see stories or depictions of Muslims where we just are being and existing in all of our complexities without the filter of white culture.

While some people defend the “Happy Muslims” video (which seems to be turning into a campaign now in the West) and believe it helps “break stereotypes,” there are other stories that are left untold. I know there are other Muslim filmmakers and storytellers who are telling more nuanced and complex stories and not catering to the white gaze, but we do not see their work being promoted enough. We need to move away from this idea that we have to perform “happiness” and/or assert “American,” “British,” or “Canadian” identities to be seen as human beings. As Jamaludeen expressed at the end of her critique, we need to “start defining ourselves on our own terms.” The white supremacist nation-state doesn’t decide who is human or isn’t — our humanity is God-given and no one can take that away.

Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

startrek1SPOILERS AHEAD: Don’t read further if you plan on seeing “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I remember when “Batman Begins” was in development, I felt uncomfortable learning that Ra’s Al-Ghul, an Arab villain from the Batman mythology, was set to be the antagonist. The idea of an iconic American superhero battling an Arab terrorist sounded like a perfect set-up to propagate America’s so-called “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitting Batman against an Arab enemy during a time when real-life Arabs and Muslims are increasingly regarded as “threats against western civilization” didn’t seem like a coincidence to me at the time, nor does it now (I’m not going to delve into the disturbing fascist, capitalist, and pro-police state politics in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” but there have been many excellent critiques which you can read here, here, and here).

When audiences discovered Liam Neeson, an Irish actor, ended up being Ra’s Al-Ghul, my initial reaction was mixed. On one hand, I was relieved that we didn’t see a stereotypical dark-skinned Arab man blowing up Gotham city, but on the other, I knew what this character was meant to represent: Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, etc. Not too long after the movie was released, I read some comments on discussion boards where some fans were upset that Ra’s Al-Ghul wasn’t played by an Arab actor. Several years later, I heard the same sentiment expressed when a white actor was selected to play the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” (the character is Latino in the comic books). Most recently, outrage has been directed at the casting decisions for Iron Man 3’s “The Mandarin” and Star Trek’s “Khan Noonien Singh” (pictured above), played by Ben Kingsley and Benedict Cumberbatch, respectively.

I have enormous respect for those who advocate for equal and fair representation for people of color in mainstream western film and television. Mainstream media is a powerful tool/weapon wielded by the interlocking systems of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. For this reason, it is challenging for men and women actors of color to find prominent roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Even more difficult is finding roles that don’t perpetuate racialized and gendered stereotypes. With this in mind, I can understand why advocacy groups protest against casting decisions that choose white actors to play iconic villains of color. When roles for people of color are so limited and scarce in an industry dominated by white actors, producers, writers, and directors, I can only imagine how difficult job-searching must be.

I also recognize that villains of color like Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, Bane, “The Mandarin,” and Khan Noonien Singh are beloved by many fans, including fans of color. Indeed, when I watched “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” it sounded ridiculous and even laughable when a white man declared his name to be “Khan Noonien Singh,” but I don’t believe having a South Asian/Desi actor playing him would solve the racism here. Similarly, an Arab actor playing Ra’s Al-Ghul would not challenge anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes (quite the opposite!). The problem is with these characters themselves and the fact that they exist in the first place. Exoticized names like “Ra’s Al-Ghul,” “The Mandarin,” and “Khan Noonien Singh” are not real names Arabs, East Asians, and South Asians would ever have for themselves. Any South Asian who looks at a name like “Khan Noonien Singh” would find it absurd. It looks as if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was combining different South Asian surnames to make something “exotic sounding.” It’s yet another example of white writers creating inaccurate and exoticized names for their characters of color, while also portraying them as stereotypical, racialized villains.

Personally, I don’t want to see another brown-skinned terrorist character in a Hollywood film, especially in a blockbuster like “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” In a “Star Trek” episode, Khan Noonien Singh is described as “probably” being a Sikh (because what we really need to see right now is a Sikh terrorist blowing up London). Aside from the obvious vilification that is at work here, when one considers the increasing anti-Muslim violence and terror that is afflicted upon Muslims and Sikhs, it is even more offensive to see brown characters relegated to playing terrorists (even if they are played by white actors). Similarly, I never wanted Ra’s Al-Ghul or Talia Al-Ghul to be played by Arabs. At the same time, I don’t like the fact that white actors are used as stand-ins for villains of color who have exoticized South Asian and Arabic names. The problem is with the source material and how and why these characters were created. A lot of times, we understand these characters with respect to the story and the worlds they inhabit, but I think it’s important to go beyond that and question the context in which these characters were created.

An excellent post about “Iron Man 3” points out that “The Mandarin” was created in 1964 and was used to perpetuate “the whole ‘Iron Man as capitalist versus Evil Chinese Communist’ mindset.” Patriotism and pro-war propaganda aren’t new to American comic books, nor are they going away any time soon (e.g. Frank Miller’s Islamophobic “Holy Terror” book). I haven’t done too much research on the context in which Ra’s Al-Ghul was created, but descriptions of him on the DC comics database states that he is an “international immortal eco-terrorist” who was born to a tribe of nomads “somewhere in Arabia.” When one sees the noticeable anti-Iran propaganda in “Batman: A Death in the Family,” it’s hard to imagine that Ra’s Al-Ghul being Arab and a terrorist is something coincidental (sidenote: the writers demonstrated they clearly don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs in that book).

I’m not saying people of color shouldn’t play villains in these stories, but I also think the following question needs to be considered seriously: where do we not see people of color portrayed as villains? If I wanted to see brown and black people vilified, all I need to do is turn on CNN. The demonization of African-Americans, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, and other communities of color have been well documented by countless anti-racist writers, scholars, and activists. Do we really need to see more villains who look like us and our families? I get that villains like Khan are respected and admired by fans and, yes, it is racist for filmmakers to assume that people can only sympathize with him if he is played by a white actor. I found myself sympathizing with his character, too, but at the end of the day, he is an “invisible” South Asian character who is a terrorist. This is why it’s so frustrating and upsetting – it loops back to the stereotype that brown people are already locked into.

When “Prince of Persia” came out, I joined the voices of other bloggers and fans of the video game who spoke out against the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role. It is true that “Prince of Persia” is an Orientalist fantasy written by a white man, but I still felt it would have been powerful to see an Iranian actor play a heroic lead role – something that is extremely rare, unlike villainous roles. The decision to cast a white man was a harsh reminder that (1) the majority of these characters in popular western science fiction, fantasy, and comic book stories are created by white male writers, and (2) Orientalism will always construct “the Orient as the West’s other” and therefore belonging to the West. As Edward Said said, Orientalism is not only inaccurate and dishonest, but also “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the ‘Orient.'” In other words, when applied here, a white man is cast to play the prince of Persia because the Orientalist owns this character and the world in which he lives. White people are cast to play Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, and Khan Noonien Singh because they are creations based upon racialized, gendered, and exoticitized constructions of the “Other,” therefore owned by their white creators and reproduced in whatever manner they wish.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends, but I was pleasantly surprised with what “Iron Man 3” did with “The Mandarin.” By no means is “Iron Man 3” devoid of being racist and problematic, but I thought it was really clever how they literally dismantled “The Mandarin” character. For half of the film, we were led to believe that “The Mandarin” was a Chinese, yet “Arab-looking,” terrorist who wished death upon western civilization, but it is later discovered that he was just a British actor being used by a white male villain named Aldrich Killian. The British actor, played by Ben Kingsley, didn’t even have a clue that people were being killed. In other words, “The Mandarin” simply does not exist as a character in the film (worth noting is that when the director Shane Black was asked about “The Mandarin” back in 2011, he replied by dismissing the character as a “racist caricature”). What Aldrich Killian did was deliberately create an Orientalist caricature of a “foreign” villain that American society would fear and feel threatened by. The real threat didn’t come from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Syria, which are all mentioned as possibilities by Tony Stark and his friends, but rather from a white man in Miami. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to hold up a mirror for America and commenting on how easy it is for people to believe that a racist caricature like “The Mandarin” (who is an Orientalist mix of different cultures) is actually real. I also felt that the director was essentially saying that a character like “The Mandarin” is so ridiculous and racist (his name alone is appalling enough) that he shouldn’t exist to begin with.

What’s also interesting to note is that a lot of white fans have been complaining about how “The Mandarin” was ruined (their rage about this can be seen/read everywhere from YouTube videos to blog posts to discussion boards). After the film was over, I heard a young white man sitting behind us express how angry he was about “The Mandarin.” He said, “Shane Black f***ed this movie up! The Mandarin is not like that in the comics, he’s an evil Asian guy! He’s supposed to be Asian!” I couldn’t help but think about how disturbing it was that people like him were angry because, what, they didn’t get to see another “Yellow Peril” narrative? We don’t need more “Yellow Peril” movies (we’ve already seen a couple of them released this year: “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” Click here and here if you can stomach reading the racist tweets people posted after watching both of these films). One of my favorite responses to these complaints comes from someone with the username “Whatever,” who wrote:

“-sniffle- I didn’t get my outrageously racist villain because he was instead revealed to be a powerless figurehead created by a white man playing on the xenophobic tendencies of the United States. I’m so upset. Wah. -_-”

Is this message in “Iron Man 3” going to end Islamophobia? Certainly not. It doesn’t erase the other nationalistic and racist elements in the film, like that horrible scene involving Muslim women wearing niqabs (which is why I won’t call “Iron Man 3” an anti-racist film). I understand the argument that erasing “The Mandarin” character would also mean erasing an opportunity for an Asian actor, but why don’t the filmmakers open non-stereotypical roles for these actors? The sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book genre in American film is overwhelmingly white, but God forbid if people of color start filling roles for characters who have always been imagined as white (we all remember what happened when some “Hunger Games” fans found out that Rue was black). What would happen if Batman was black? Or if Superman was brown? Or if the “X-Men” films centered on Storm instead of Wolverine? Or if the lead character for the next “Star Wars” film was a woman of color? Why do people of color have to settle for villains or supporting characters or the-black-person-dies-first character? (it still happens – remember “X-Men: First Class”?)

While I respect those who advocate against the racebending of villains of color, I think further steps need to be taken. The framework of “equal representation” for people of color leaves many potential problems unchecked and unexamined. For instance, when “Argo” was released, there were blog posts that voiced outrage over Ben Affleck, a white man, playing a character who is Latino in real life. However, nothing was said in these posts about the pervasive Islamophobia and demonization of Iranians existing throughout the film. Similarly, if we focus solely on “equal representation,” we overlook the racism that it is engrained in these villains of color. We need to move beyond “equal representation” and recognize characters like Khan Noonien Singh, Ra’s Al-Ghul, “The Mandarin,” and other villains of color as racist caricatures. We need to challenge the writers who are creating these villains and telling these stories. We need to challenge how these racialized and vilifying stereotypes fit into larger discourses in society, as well as the role they play in perpetuating racism, sexism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. We need to challenge why these characters exist in the first place.

It’s because people of color deserve more than “equal representation” in western science fiction and fantasy stories. They need better, dignified, non-stereotypical, honest, and unapologetic stories that highlight upon their experiences. They need stories that don’t tokenize them or pretend that things like racism don’t exist. They need stories where they are not only centered, but also radically challenge and disrupt these white-dominated genres. These kind of stories are told and need to be told by people of color themselves.

UPDATE: Coco made these important points in the comments, which I wanted to share here. Re-sharing with permission!:

“great post! I want to add on to your last point, which is that fair representation can only occur when we tell our own stories where we are not caricatures of our race but actual human beings. But the way racism is entrenched in western media and societies, it is not that non problematic narratives involving non-white people don’t exist, they simply aren’t heard because they aren’t promoted, financed, etc in the same way as white dominated narratives and so are forever left in the margins. Power lies in the hands of the capitalist racist hetro patriachy and the mainstream media is one way it perpetuates itself.”

Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but the reality is, those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing harmful stereotypes to people of color. The mockery inadvertently perpetuates the racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin color, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.

The Violence of White Supremacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

“And They Call Me Barbarian”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they call us barbarians.

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

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.