About a year ago, a friend told me about a feminist- and people of color-friendly science fiction convention called WisCon. Being a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued to learn about it, especially since I was always interested in going to a science fiction/comic book convention. WisCon sounded unique because it provided safe space for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
I am excited that I will be attending WisCon 40 this year in Madison, Wisconsin from May 27th to May 30th. I was disappointed to learn that I missed the opportunity to hear N.K. Jemisin — author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — speak last year, but I am hoping she will come this year, too! Also last year, admission tickets/memberships were free for Muslim-identified people or anyone of Arab descent. This was made possible through an anonymous donor who sponsored the Daisy Khan fund. Unfortunately, no such donations were received this year by WisCon, but I will still be attending (adult membership is $50). I’m not sure how many Muslims attend each year, but it would be cool to meet and network with other Muslim science fiction/fantasy/comic book fans, writers, artists, etc.
Since I registered late, I did not get a chance to organize any panels. However, a friend told me that we can do impromptu panels in case we wanted to discuss something that isn’t being highlighted in the other panels. I can’t imagine there not being a panel on the new Star Wars film, but in case there isn’t, I’ll try to set one up where we can talk about race and gender in the Star Wars films, animated shows, novels, graphic novels, video games, etc. You can read my commentary on the depictions of Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens here.
If any of my readers are going to WisCon this year, feel free to contact me! I will definitely write about my experience when I come back, insha’Allah.
Na main majno,na main ranjha. na uljha main vich aye zaataan. Tere daar tay aa betha waa, ishq da choula paa betha, main tay jogarn jogarn jogarn hoyi sonain yaar di, main tay jogarn jogarn hoyi sonain apne pyar di.
Tere naa tu jeewaan hon main, mar jawaan tere naa tu, Tere naa tu jeewaan hon main, Tere naa mar jawaan. waar diyaan main jindaari sari, naam Tera main pukaraan,
na yeh hai khatta na yeh hai judda Mera ishq Khuda Mera ishq waffa Mera ishq dua mera ishq sadda mera ishq junoon mera ishq wii tuun
Jai main Tenu bahaar dhondha andar kon samana jai main Tenu andar dhondha pher mukayaad janaa sub kuch Tu aye sab vich Tu aye Tenu sab tou paak pehchana, main vi Tu aye Tu vi Tu aye bulla kon namara
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.
How often have you been the only Muslim student in your class? In those situations, how often have you seen your teacher or professor write something on the chalkboard or put up a slide that depicts an Islam that is completely unfamiliar to you? The slide could have said something like, “Women in Islam are like a ‘pearl in a shell,'” or your textbook might read, “Moderate Muslims do not share the prejudices of radical fundamentalists.” Yet you notice that the term “moderate” is never used to describe Christians, Jews, or people of other faiths. If this isn’t blatant enough, perhaps you’re in high school and your History teacher shows the Islamophobic, anti-Iranian film Not Without My Daughter to “teach” the class about Islam. Each time Islam, Muslims, or “the Muslim world” is mentioned, the slides, lectures, or textbooks are filled with oversimplifications.
How often – if the class knows you’re Muslim – do people treat you like a spokesperson and expect you to speak for 1.5 billion of the world’s population? How often are you expected to explain the actions of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other violent groups? Do you speak up or stay quiet? If you speak up, do teachers or classmates challenge you and behave like they know your religion and community better than you? If you bring up U.S. imperialism, are you accused of “hate speech” or told to “go back to (insert Muslim-majority country here)”? In many cases, it can be difficult for Muslim students to speak up and challenge the curriculum, regardless of how problematic or inaccurate it is. There are legitimate concerns about professors getting defensive and hostile; about jeopardizing your academic career; about being ostracized or bullied by your peers, etc. In addition to these concerns, there is the internal dilemma about wanting to speak up because you hate the thought of your classmates thinking that everything taught in class about Islam is true.
Despite all of these incidents (which should not be understood as “isolated incidents”), a friend told me that none of these attacks were mentioned or brought up in classrooms. However, after the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, suddenly the professors and classmates decided to talk about current events. These discussions in class were accompanied by conversations about religious extremism, particularly “Islamic” extremism. Muslim students I spoke with told me about bigoted remarks they received from classmates or read on their social media pages. Some chose to deactivate their Facebook accounts altogether because of the Islamophobic comments, the emotionally draining racist commentaries, and the double standards of showing solidarity for France and yet none for Beirut, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, or victims of racism, imperialism, misogyny, etc.
Even when Donald Trump called to ban Muslims from entering the United States, nothing was said in the same classes that brought up ISIS. Often times, nothing gets mentioned about Islamophobia unless a student brings it up (and usually, it’s a Muslim student who does). However, even after a student raises concerns about Islamophobia, the professor has no idea how to talk about it and resumes to ignoring the issue in future lectures. In worse cases, the professor gets defensive and accuses the Muslim student of calling him/her racist or Islamophobic. The professor may eject the Muslim student out of class or even resort to harsher disciplinary action.
If you’re in a class that does not focus on addressing racism, you are unlikely to hear anything about racism or Islamophobia. Violence and discrimination against Muslims and people of color are not tragedies, unless they’re cases where the West believes it can exploit Muslim victims of violence committed by other Muslims (e.g. Malala Yousafzai — read Beenish Ahmed’s “The World’s Obsession with Schoolgirls as Victims and Why It’s Putting Them in Danger”). We see this reinforced in the media: Stephen Colbert will interview Malala, but would he ever bring Nabeela Rahman on his show, the young Pakistani girl who traveled to Washington D.C. with her family to demand accountability for a U.S. drone attack that murdered her grandmother? Nabeela and her family’s visit to the U.S. was not covered by mainstream western media and only 5 of 430 Congressional members were in attendance to listen to her. In classroom discussions, the victims of U.S. wars and Israeli military occupation are just as devalued and omitted.
As stated by Haque and Kamil, studies have found Muslims reporting “decreased self-esteem and increased psychological stress post 9/11” as a result of Islamophobia. Based on a 2013 California statewide survey of almost 500 Muslim students, between the ages of 11 and 18, nearly half reported to have experienced some form of bias-based bullying. Experiences of bias and Islamophobia didn’t just come from classmates, but from teachers as well. In a journal article, “Subtle and Over Forms of Islamophobia: Microaggressions toward Muslim Americans,”Nadal and colleagues conducted a qualitative study with Muslim American participates of diverse racial, gender, and age backgrounds. Emerging from their interviews and responses were several themes, including “Endorsing Religious Stereotypes of Muslims as Terrorists,” “Pathology of the Muslim Religion,” “Assumptions of Religious Homogeneity,” and “Exoticization.” It is not difficult to imagine these themes surface in classroom discussions and lectures about Islam. What is always overlooked is the impact Islamophobia (in all of its forms and intersections) has on Muslims.
It is important to emphasize that the effects of Islamophobia on mental health are not merely a result of interpersonal bigotry, but rather stem from the system of white supremacy that condones and fuels hostility against Muslims and people of color. Regardless of how unintentional educators are in committing microaggressions against Muslim students, the responsibility still falls on them to hold themselves accountable and actively challenge Islamophobic discourse. Educators should reject any textbook that treats Islam and Muslims as monoliths. Furthermore, they should reexamine their own lectures and be proactive in challenging any potential statements that generalize, stereotype, or vilify Islam and Muslims.
Most importantly, teachers need to work towards creating a learning environment where all students, especially Muslims and people of color, feel safe and valued for sharing their thoughts. Educators should not get defensive if a Muslim student raises critiques about the material that is being taught about Islam. These critiques are not personal attacks against the teacher or professor — they are specifically addressing what is being taught. The best thing educators and other potential allies can do is listen to Muslim students and work in solidarity to challenge Islamophobia.
There are no simple solutions to these problems, unfortunately. I would like to see more universities supporting events that not only address racism and Islamophobia, but also provide Muslims the platform to speak for themselves. Hiring more Muslim faculty may sound like a step in the right direction, but it should not stop at visual diversity. If you hire a Muslim faculty member that isn’t going to be supportive of Muslim activists on campus, then how is that benefiting efforts to confront Islamophobia? How does that amplify the voices of Muslims on campus?
I don’t know how many people will read this post, but I would like to hear from fellow Muslims and their experiences in schools. If Islam is mentioned in your classes, what is being taught about it? What are your coping strategies? Have you ever challenged a professor? What was that experience like? Did you receive support from other faculty members or students? I plan on writing more about this topic, so it would be great to hear from people!
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a huge Star Wars fan. I saw The Force Awakens on its first night (i.e. the Thursday night preview) right after my 7:30 to 10 pm class. It was the last day of the semester, but the class still ran till 10 pm! Didn’t my professor know Star Wars was coming out???
Spoilers for The Force Awakens below! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further!
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but I remember leaving and feeling like something was off about it. I’m not just talking in regard to its racial and gender politics, but also in terms of how you can really feel George Lucas’ absence. I know a lot of people will say that’s a good thing, but Lucas’ political commentary, especially in the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series, is something I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years (despite all of the problematic elements in those films/shows). I thought The Force Awakens was weak on the political and spiritual themes (aside from the obvious Nazi reference and Maz having a generic line about the Force). A common criticism of the film is that it was a rehash of A New Hope, which I can definitely see. I think this is, again, where we see Lucas’ absence because, as he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview, Disney wanted to go “retro” with The Force Awakens. Lucas, on the other hand, wanted to take it in a new direction.
However, I think something that is overlooked in this criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is the most diverse Star Wars film yet. Yes, there were Black men characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, and White women characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala, but The Force Awakens is the first time where we see the story centered on a White woman and a Black man. It’s also the first time we see a Latino male actor (Oscar Isaac) playing a supporting role in Star Wars. As readers on my blog know, I am very critical of movies, but I admit, when I first saw the movie, it was refreshing and pretty awesome to see a cast that wasn’t the usual all-white male ensemble. I definitely enjoyed this about the film, but like anything, it’s not perfect.
There are already some great critiques written about the way the film depicts Finn (John Boyega) and chooses to make Lupita Nyong’o a motion capture CGI character instead of having her appear in the movie. I’ll get to these critiques later in the post, but below are some of my thoughts about the way many blog posts, message boards, and fan sites are talking about Rey and Finn. As much as I liked most of the casting decisions, I expressed in my previous post that I was worried that White people would use The Force Awakens to argue that we live in a “post-racial” and “post-gender” society where racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression “don’t exist anymore.”
What’s problematic about the way fans/columnists/bloggers talk about Rey and Finn is that they either (1) erase Rey’s Whiteness and refer to her as just “a woman” (because we’ve been conditioned to think White women represent the “default” woman, therefore there’s no need to specify Rey is White), or (2) describe Finn as being Black, but fail to mention he’s also a man (because when we hear the term “Black character,” we assume that the “default” Black character is a Black man, therefore no need to specify Finn is a man), or (3) both of the above. What I’ve also noticed is (4) the erasure of Finn’s Blackness in certain conversations where he’s just referred to as a “male character” or just “a guy.” This is often done when Finn is discussed in relation to Rey and when the gender politics of the film are the only focus, as if race doesn’t matter or play a role.
For example, I’ll see people write, “The Force Awakens is so inclusive! The film has a Black lead and a female lead!” But why are people specifying Finn’s racial background, but not specifying Rey’s racial background, yet focusing on her gender? I’ve also read articles that praise the film for portraying “a male character” (Finn) who constantly “needs saving from a woman.” I definitely advocate challenging the prevalent “damsel in distress” trope where women need to be saved by men, but Finn is not just a male character and Rey is not just a woman. This is important because when we talk about Rey as a White woman, it complicates the racial and gender politics of the film. Because it’s not just Finn, a Black man, being saved “by a woman,” but rather by a White woman.
This is where I think the film gets problematic because Finn is not only frequently rescued by White characters (Rey and Han Solo), but he also, as Andre Seewood asserts, “lacks dramatic agency.” Unlike Rey, he cannot communicate with Wookies or droids nor does he know how to fly spaceships, despite being a trained stormtrooper and cleared for battle. The film later reveals that Finn worked in sanitation, which I found really stereotypical, but why would he be cleared for his first battle on Jakku if he wasn’t trained for combat? The argument can be made that Finn is Force sensitive (which I believe he is), but the end result is that he’s knocked unconscious quite brutally by the White antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Having a Black male character being constantly rescued by White characters reinforces the message that Black people need to be led/guided/saved by White people. Recognizing Rey’s Whiteness makes us think about the power dynamics. Is it sexist when women are portrayed as always needing to be saved by men? Yes, but we cannot just look at gender and ignore race, or vice versa. Rey is still White and we see her Whiteness reinforced in opposition to Finn through the way she has more dramatic agency.
I do like both Rey and Finn, don’t get me wrong (and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega delivered fantastic performances), but it is problematic when people fail to understand how race and gender intersect. In describing a screenshot for a Star Wars pinball table, an article on Kotaku states: “Here’s Rey instructing Finn to get his timid butt to cover while a real hero handles things.” This ridiculing of Finn and characterizing him as “timid” (or, as I’ve heard some people say, “a bumbling coward”) is something I’ve seen mostly from White commentators/fans. Yes, apparently it’s the White woman who needs to “instruct” the Black man on how a “real hero handles things.” Neither Rey nor Finn come from privileged backgrounds, but we know that White women can still oppress men of color. The author of the article may not have been thinking, “Rey is superior than Finn because she is White,” but the pattern in which White characters (whether men or women) are treated or perceived as more competent, skilled, and heroic than Black and other people of color characters is one that has existed for a long time. I don’t think Rey is portrayed as oppressing Finn, but the depiction of a White woman constantly saving a Black man reinforces a White savior narrative.
For the record, I don’t see Finn’s character as a “bumbling coward” nor do I think he is completely stereotypical. Finn standing up against the First Order and refusing to kill for them is heroic and hardly a “cowardly” thing to do. I read this act of resistance as being anti-establishment, especially when one considers how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. For those who don’t recall the Star Wars prequels, the Galactic Empire rose to power through votes, i.e. through the democratic process, not because of a military coup or external force. Lucas has stated in the commentary track for Revenge of the Sith that he wanted to portray how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, not from an outside force, but by being handed over from the inside (“This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause”). Revenge of the Sith featured heavy political themes and commentary about the Bush administration (the “you’re either with me or you’re my enemy” line being the most obvious), but it also attempted to shift people’s understanding of Palpatine’s Empire. Although Lucas expressed that the original trilogy was meant to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam, the Empire was mostly seen by audiences as far removed from the U.S. Say what you want about the prequels, but the politics of those films were meant to reflect and critique U.S. government corruption and imperialism. The formation of the Galactic Empire served as an analog for U.S. Empire. Through this lens, Finn resisting an Order that rose from the Empire can be read as resisting U.S. Empire, but I’m not going to pretend for a second that this is the message Disney is trying to promote! The foundations for a compelling and relevant narrative of a Black man rebelling against a predominately White imperialist Order (one that orders mass murder against villagers and obliterates entire planets) are there, but this narrative is not explored.
As much as I root for Finn, I notice that the more I watch the film (I’ve seen it four times… so far…), the more annoyed I become at how the narrative treats him. In many ways, it felt like his character was treated as serving the White protagonists. I thought Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan did a disservice to Finn’s character during his fight scene with the stormtrooper (who is equipped with a lightsaber-deflecting stun baton). When Finn used Luke’s lightsaber and fought against the very people that stole him from his family and attempted to brainwash him with their imperialist ideology, that was his moment. The sequence ended with Finn battling the stormtrooper and being knocked to the ground, only to be saved at the last second by Han Solo. Finn should have defeated that stormtrooper. Again, that was his moment. One of the basic rules of screenwriting is that you want your protagonist(s) to get out of situations on their own (there are exceptions, of course). If you have a movie where your character is stranded on an island and you solve it by having a random plane arrive out of nowhere and saving the day, that’s obviously very contrived and convenient. Granted, Han Solo was there on the battlefield, so it’s justified and not exactly deus ex machina, but it did not need to be written that way. Given how Finn turned his back on the First Order, overcoming and defeating that stormtrooper would have been so much more symbolic. In my opinion, having Han blast the stormtrooper from a distance took that moment away from Finn.
I’m not saying I think Finn should have been portrayed as a typical hyper-masculine character. I’m just saying that when you watch scenes like him getting zapped by BB-8, strangled by Chewbacca, almost eaten by a Rathar, almost killed by that stormtrooper, and almost beaten to death by Kylo Ren, I think erasing his Blackness becomes problematic because we know how Black bodies are often brutalized by police brutality (being assaulted, tazed, choked, shot at, and murdered). When Rey is suspicious about Finn and assumes he is a thief upon their first meeting, it’s hard not to draw parallels with how close that is to reality. I get people argue their points within the context of the story (i.e. it takes place in a galaxy far, far away), but the film is still released here on Earth and we need to understand the impact of these images within our sociocultural and political contexts. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to go “colorblind” on these issues (or go “colorblind” anywhere, really).
But perhaps the most important reason why all of this matters is because failing to identify Rey as a White woman and just referring to her as “a woman,” and failing to specify Finn’s gender and just referring to him as a “Black character” contributes to further marginalizing and erasing women of color. If Rey was Black, for example, I doubt promotional material would refer to her as simply a “woman lead,” they would say, “a Black woman lead.” Again, it’s because when we say “she is a woman lead,” we assume that “woman” means “White woman.” I remember being disappointed when I first heard about Lupita Nyong’o playing a motion capture character. It’s yet another example of people of color, especially Black women, being otherized as aliens or non-human characters in science fiction/fantasy films and TV shows. We saw this before with Zoe Saldana playing a motion capture CGI character in Avatar, as well as having her skin colored green in Guardians of the Galaxy. As Seewood writes, the primary reason why Nyong’o was hidden as a CG character is because the filmmakers did not want the “talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale.” Seewood cites Joseph Boston who writes:
“The casting of largely unknown Daisy Ridley as a central protagonist in the ‘Force Awakens’ therefore entrusting an inexperienced actress with a multi-billion dollar corporation while Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is relegated to a supporting CGI character named Maz Kanata is but the latest example of “Star Wars” and Hollywood’s misogynoir & its ‘problem’ with Black women writ large.”
It has been said many times before that leading roles for Black women and other women of color in Hollywood films are extremely limited. The Star Wars films are no exception (read my previous post for more on the few women of color characters in the Star Wars universe). During a press conference, J.J. Abrams mentioned that someone asked him why he cast “someone as beautiful as Lupita Nyong’o to play a motion-capture character?” Abrams’ response was, “Would it be ok if she were ugly?” The problem is that the wrong question was asked. What should have been asked is, “Why are you hiding a Black actress behind a motion-capture character when there are not any Black women or women of color characters in the film?” There have also been rumors that Abrams was not satisfied with her performance and decided to delete many of her scenes. Whether this is true, the reality is that Nyong’o, unlike Andy Serkis, does not specialize in playing CGI characters, so what was the purpose in having her playing a motion capture character? Why not have her play a human character?
Had Rey been Black (can you imagine that, a Star Wars film with both a Black woman and Black man in lead roles), I think the conversation about the racial and gender dynamics in the film would be much different. I remember when Mad Max: Fury Road was released, there were many critiques about the lack of people of color in the film. As much as I enjoyed it, I was still annoyed at how the two women of color in the film were relegated to limited roles or killed off so quickly. One blogger wrote in a very nuanced post, “If Furiosa had been black or brown, I feel like the reactions would have been very different. It would have not been hailed as the second coming of feminist films.” I feel the same holds true for Rey if she was played by a Black or Brown actress. In next year’s Star Wars spin-off film, Rogue One, we see another diverse cast, which includes Pakistani-British actor Rizwan Ahmed, but once again, we don’t see any women of color characters. For Episode 8, I heard rumors about Gugu Mbatha-Raw possibly being cast, but then I read an article saying she didn’t get the role? It would be really disappointing if the latter is true.
Hopefully, in Episode 8 and future films, we’ll see improvements, not just in terms of casting and diversity, but in how characters of color are portrayed. One can hope, right?
Mogahed is not the only Muslim who reinforces the “moderate/extremist” binary. In fact, most Muslims who appear on mainstream media and speak for us describe the global Muslim population in these binary terms.
This needs to STOP.
I have written about this before in my “No One Hijacked Islam” posts, but I am strongly opposed to the term, “moderate Muslim.” To assert that Muslims can be simply categorized into two types not only plays into the harmful “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary, but it is also so dehumanizing. It is as if all Muslims have radio dials attached to the back of our heads, indicating whether or not we are “moderate” or “radical.” Mogahed contends that the internet “radicalizes” Muslims, as if it is as easy as someone turning the dial knob from “moderate” to “radical.” Furthermore, does U.S. imperialism and military occupation not also fuel more violence? It’s just “the internet”?
Over the years, in conversations with well-intentioned non-Muslims who aspired to help challenge Islamophobia, I’ve lost count of how many of them would say, “It’s so ridiculous, not all Muslims are terrorists! Like, you’re a moderate!” Or as I heard recently from a non-Muslim who invited me to an interfaith discussion, “We never get to hear from the moderates like you, we just hear about the radical Muslims.” There is never a question of whether or not I identify myself as “moderate.” These assumptions and conclusions about us are made because of how normalized the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary is. To say “Muslim” is not enough, we need to specify that we are “moderate Muslims” in order to prove that we are not “terrorists.” This is dehumanizing because our values, morals, and political and religious views cannot, and should not, be measured or categorized. We don’t hear Christians or Jews being classified into simplistic categories, and certainly not in binaries like “moderate Christian” vs. “extremist Christians.” Yet, we must brand Muslims.
I also don’t like the vilification of the term “radical.” Here, on this blog, I use the term “radical” to describe the anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist politics I advocate. To me, “radical” has always meant resisting and challenging oppression, the status quo, and structural violence. In the mainstream media, when the term “radical” is paired with “Muslim” or “Islam,” we are being conditioned to view “radical Muslims” as people who blow up buildings or target innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than the fact that they “hate freedom.” Because so many of the mainstream Muslim American “representatives” and organizations who appear on CNN, MSNBC, or Comedy Central say, “ISIS and Al-Qaeda cause Islamophobia,” to challenge them and point out that Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy, is to get dismissed as an “extremist.”
Prophet Muhammad was a radical, as was Hazrat Fatima, Imam Ali, Jesus, Mary, Moses, and all of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). Remember that scene from Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, where he tells Forest Whitaker’s character that “Jesus was a radical”? Somehow, especially in the Muslim American community, we have internalized and reproduced white supremacy’s notion that “radical” means “evil.” The term is thrown around like an insult to dismiss Muslims as being irrational, violent, and extremist. You don’t vote in the U.S. election because you believe the system is corrupt? “Oh, you’re a radical, why are you in this country?!” You protest against drone strikes in Pakistan and talk about how the Obama administration has killed grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, and daugthers? “You’re a radical, you’re a terrorist sympathizer!”
“Moderate Muslim” is also code for “assimilated Muslim.” It’s appealing to the dominant culture and saying that we are “just like every other American” (and “American” is code for white people). Further, it’s saying that we must glorify U.S. history and the “founding fathers.” For Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, the term “moderate Muslim” gets applied to individuals who are pro-Western, or, as Fareed Zakaria fantasizes about, the “Jeffersonian democrats” — Muslims who supposedly want to be “American.” If we point out that Jefferson owned African slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous Peoples, we get called “radicals.” We get equated with “terrorists.” For Muslims who don’t want to be American or reject the U.S. political system, are we “evil” for having these thoughts? If we point out the facts and truth, such as the U.S. being founded upon slavery and genocide, we are “extremists.” Can we not be human and have freedom of thought instead of being forced into narrow boxes of identity? With all the talk about freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we don’t uphold those values for Muslims and people of color. To be accepted, you need to be “the moderate.”
Talk about imperialism, drones, and exploitation of Muslim-majority countries, and you’ll get classified as a “radical.” The worst and scary part of all of this is that you are not just vilified by the U.S. mainstream, but by fellow Muslims too, especially those who are speaking for us in the mainstream media. If you watch the entire interview with Mogahed, you don’t hear her once mention U.S. imperialism as playing a significant role in the creation of ISIS. Is talking about the latter considered an “extremist” view or “justification” of ISIS’s violence?
I understand the fear of getting labeled “anti-American,” – the consequences are real, no doubt – but it is concerning when we don’t see any of the more popular Muslims in the mainstream (i.e. those who get frequently invited to speak on TV) raising these points to challenge the imperialist violence that the U.S. perpetuates. Mogahed makes the important point that the vast majority of terrorists are white non-Muslims, but the argument stops there. It does not go further and address U.S. state-sponsored terrorism. Everyone is on board with condemning ISIS, but no one seems to want to talk about the root causes or how we got here. Instead, the “root cause” is pinned merely on extremism and anti-American sentiment. Nothing is said about U.S. complicity or about where this extremism comes from.
By reinforcing the “moderate Muslim” vs. “extremist Muslim” binary, we are restricting freedom of thought. We are not just discouraging critical thinking, but also vilifying it. We vilify the Muslims who challenge and speak out against the white supremacist system that is built into the U.S. It’s like we are giving other Muslims an ultimatum: you’re either a moderate, Good Muslim who loves being an American, or you’re the radical, Bad Muslim who we need to reject and turn in.
Our community is not monolithic. The views of Muslims are diverse, complex, and vary from individual to individual. I am not the only person who has been speaking out against the simplistic and harmful labels/categorization of our community. Instead of categorizing ourselves, we need to encourage Muslims to be who they are, unapologetically. Not all Muslims are going to be the flag-waving proud “American Muslims” that so many of the mainstream Muslim American groups want us to be, and that is OK. It should be OK.
Have any of the mainstream Muslim American political commentators gone on TV to talk about how dehumanizing and painful it is for Muslims when they constantly hear about people who look like them getting bombed, tortured, raped, and detained, not to mention being routinely demonized in TV shows, movies, and media news coverage? Holding anti-imperialist views does not mean Muslims are going to join ISIS. It does not mean we should be dismissed, ridiculed, or vilified. Being an “American” is not a prerequisite to being human, nor do we need to call ourselves “moderates” to be respected as human beings.
Let’s put an end to these harmful and dehumanizing labels. I have come across far too many Muslims, especially Muslim youth, who don’t like disclosing their Muslim identity or feel anxiety about going to school or work due to all of the media vilification that is out there. As research has suggested, racism and Islamophobia, including in the form of microaggressions, have a negative impact on self-esteem, mental health, and identity. It’s not easy being the only Muslim student in a classroom and the professor puts you on the spot to speak for all Muslims or answer for the crimes other people committed. It’s not easy to face Islamophobia in the workplace. We don’t help Muslims in those situations if we reinforce the idea that we have to define ourselves according to the “moderate Muslim/extremist Muslim” binary. Instead, we should be encouraging each other, uplifting each other, to define ourselves on our own terms, proudly and unapologetically.
The image above is a screenshot from DC comics’ recent Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #2 and was tweeted by fellow Pakistanian Pakistani writer, Khaver Siddiqi.
A friend sent me an article about this and my initial reaction was, “Seriously? They didn’t have time to run a Google search?” It doesn’t come as a surprise to me since I, like many Pakistanis, have heard non-Pakistanis use the term “Pakistanian.” I’ve heard from Palestinian friends that people often refer to them as “Pakistanian,” too. For those who are un/misinformed, there is no such language, let alone nationality, as “Pakistanian.” It doesn’t exist.
I saw one comment that tried to justify DC’s error by saying, “So translating from Kryptonese, a fictional language, is okay; but translating from Pakistanian, a fictional language, is not okay.” Haha, but I’m like, even fictional languages have words! You could learn how to speak fictional languages like Huttese, Klingon, and even Na’vi — despite being made-up, there are online lessons for them! But “Pakistanian”? Forget about it. It’s non-existent.
The other problem with this “rationalization” is that the comic book is specifically set in Pakistan, a real place in the world. Comic books have created fictional countries with fictional languages in the past, but that’s not what the writers are doing here. They’re trying to depict Pakistanis, but fail miserably at it.
Judging by the unflattering and stereotypical images of the Pakistani characters in the rest of the panels, I don’t think the writers cared about getting anything right about Pakistanis. When people are already dehumanized, accuracy is the least of concerns. We aren’t important enough for writers to take five seconds to fact-check. Whether this was deliberate or not, the pattern of inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Pakistanis has already been long established in western media.
There have been some hilarious reactions on Twitter, some of which can be viewed on Buzzfeed and The Guardian. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Siddiqi said: “My friend @Takhalus found it and shared it on a sci-fi geek Twitter group DM. I just had to buy the comic and read it myself to confirm. I’m not offended at being called Pakistanian — I’m just offended that nobody had the time to do one Google search. That’s all. Spoiled the story for me.”
Siddiqi’s tweet also said, “Here’s why @Marvel is winning over @DCComics – the latter thinks we speak Pakistanian.”
Hmm, I disagree with Siddiqi here because Marvel is not perfect at depicting Pakistanis and Muslims either, but that’s a topic for another blog post…