Islamophobia in the Classroom

A notebook and pencil on a desk in a school classroom

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.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not pro-ISIS, yet I’ve spoken to Muslims who have been in classrooms where teachers spend more time talking about ISIS than the racism and Islamophobia many Muslims are experiencing. Too often, non-Muslim teachers and students mention nothing about current events, except when Muslims are the perpetrators of violence. In the past semester, Black people were being murdered by police officers, a Black teenage girl was beaten by a white security guard at school, a 14 year-old Somali Muslim student was arrested in school, an armed protest was organized outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, a self-described conservative Republican opened fire at an Oregon community college, a white Christian man killed 3 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, and Black students at the University of Missouri were protesting racism on campus and received death threats from white students.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Reinforcing the Term “Moderate Muslims”

dailyshow1
The other night, Dalia Mogahed appeared on The Daily Show and spoke about the challenges faced by Muslim Americans. When asked whether Mosques caused “radicalization” of Muslims, she stated that Mosques are actually forces for “moderation.” In her 2006 Gallup report, “The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Moderate vs. Extremist Views in the Muslim World,” she classifies two groups of Muslims: the “moderates” and the “radicals/extremists.”

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.

DC Comics Thinks Pakistanis Speak “Pakistanian”

pakistanian
Image description: Two men are seen falling from high above – a bright sky in the background – and surrounded by rocky debris. One man is shouting, “<Father!*>” with the brackets denoting that a non-English language is being spoken. A note from the editor appears in a yellow box at the bottom of the page, reading: “All translated from Pakistanian — Ed.”

So, this happened.

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.

pakistanian2
Image description: An additional panel shows an older adult, the father, falling and screaming, “Help us, Allah.” In the next panel, he is caught by a blonde-haired man (whose face is concealed by his hair), who says, “Why call out for a God,” presumably also in “Pakistanian.”

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…

Dil hai Pakistanian. 

Gifs via my silences had not protected me.

Bill Maher’s Vilification of Ahmed Mohamed and What We Need to Understand About Islamophobia

BILL-MAHER
It takes courage to go after a 14-year-old, doesn’t it?

On Friday night, Bill Maher displayed that courage by going on an angry and hateful tirade against Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Sudanese Muslim-American who was recently arrested after a teacher thought his homemade clock was a bomb. Since Maher didn’t think his bullying of the teenager was sufficient alone, he made sure he brought company in the form of Mark Cuban, Chris Matthews, and former New York Governor George Pataki to gang up on Ahmed with their relentless victim-blaming racism and Islamophobia.

All of the white male panelists agreed that Ahmed’s arrest was “wrong,” yet devoted most of their time defending the school and blaming Ahmed. This is absolutely appalling. For instance, Maher expressed that Ahmed’s clock “looks exactly like a fucking bomb,” while Mark Cuban blamed Ahmed for not “opening his mouth” and “not having a conversation with his teacher.” Pataki said the incident had nothing to do with Ahmed’s race and religion, and Matthews blamed Ahmed for not being “forthcoming.” Matthews  also whined about how people always rush to side with “the minorities.” With all of the cheering and applause that came from the audience each time someone bashed on Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, I’m surprised I didn’t hear “U-S-A” chants.

What is atrocious about the commentary from Maher and the other white male panelists is their attempt to vilify Ahmed and depict him as “treacherous,” “deceitful,” and “conniving.” Mark Cuban spoke about his phone interview with Ahmed and mentions how he could hear Ahmed’s sister giving him the answers. I should note here that Cuban said this with a really odd and disturbing tone of enthusiasm and excitement, as if he just solved a mystery or was revealing something that would raise everyone’s suspicion about Ahmed.

“The kid is a super-smart kid, a science geek,” Cuban said. “I talked to him about science. But when I’m talking to him on the phone, as I asked him a question, ‘Tell me what happened,’ because I’m curious, right? His sister, over his shoulder, you could hear, listening to the question, giving him the answer.”

Like, can you believe that? His sister was telling him what to say! See how conniving and suspicious these Muslims are!  This is an utterly despicable and cruel attempt to depict Ahmed and his family as “untrustworthy.” What was Cuban expecting? Ahmed is 14-years-old and he was just arrested by a school that saw him as a criminal and terrorist. Cuban is going to insult Ahmed and his sister for wanting to guide him through an interview, during a time when Muslims, Black people, and other people of color are constantly demonized in media and society?

What Cuban fails and refuses to understand is that Black children, Muslim children, and other children of color are not trained in schools on how to deal with racist discrimination. That is why people of color rely on their parents, siblings, relatives, and other support systems to help them through these situations. I cannot speak for Ahmed’s sister or family, but I would not be surprised if they wanted Ahmed to be careful about what he said to the media, especially if there’s a condescending, victim-blaming racist like Cuban interviewing him.

But Cuban didn’t stop there. Watching how hyper he was to keep speaking reminded me of typical high school bullies who like to shout their insults, but then, only seconds later, are eager to chime in to spew more insults. Like, “Oh oh wait, let me say this about him too!” After Matthews made his absurd complaints about Ahmed not being “forthcoming” (which I’ll get to in a minute), Cuban jumped in, saying: “Do you know who the big winner is? Ahmed. When I talked to him, he got all the attention, right? His two hours were taken. But he told me, ‘I’ve been getting all these offers. I’m not going back to MacArthur. I’m going to pick which school I want to go to because everyone’s offering me scholarships.’ The kid came out way ahead.”

Wow.

So, Ahmed is the “big winner” here because he got all of the “attention” he was supposedly seeking? Look at all those schools offering him scholarships, Cuban says. See how using the “race card” gets Muslims and people of color ahead? See the advantages of being a racial and religious minority in the United States? Sure, you may get shot, arrested, fired, expelled, bullied, attacked in hate crimes, and so on, but look at all the attention you can get! Cuban’s comments are not too different than Richard Dawkins’ recent tweets accusing Ahmed of wanting to be arrested. Maher went further and diminished the impact of Ahmed’s arrest by saying, “We put a kid after school for a couple of hours, this is not the end of the world!” As if there is nothing potentially traumatic about being arrested in handcuffs and humiliated in your own school, not to mention being interrogated by 4 police officers who repeatedly refuse to let you notify and talk to your parents.

What is inconsistent about the attacks against Ahmed is that they obscure the truth. Ahmed told his teacher that he made a clock, not a bomb. How much more “forthcoming” did Matthews and the other white panelists want him to be? But we have seen these efforts to vilify and demonize Black youth before.  Kiera Wilmot, a Black teenager in Florida, was arrested and expelled from school in 2013 after her science project exploded by accident (no one was injured). Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were accused of “not being saints” by the media after their murders. The message is always loud and clear whenever people of color are discriminated against or even murdered: it was their fault.

Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos was the only person on the panel who defended Ahmed, but was shouted at and belittled by Maher, Cuban, Matthews, and Pataki. Maher knew that getting a majority of white men on his side would not only help him bash Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, but also that no one in the audience would cheer or applaud Ramos for his defense of a Black Muslim teen. Ramos was ridiculed to the point where he was seen as “uneducated,” “incoherent,” and “irrational.”

At one point, after Maher reiterated the arrest of Ahmed was “wrong,” he justified the arrest because “for the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again.” One culture? Who has been blowing up Gaza over and over again? Who opened fire on Black people in Charleston, South Carolina? Who massacred Sikhs in their Gurdwara in Wisconsin? Who massacred children in the Newtown school shootings or the attacks in Norway? What about the white Christian terrorist who planned to massacre a predominately Black Muslim population in the town of Islamberg, New York? Who murdered the three Arab Muslim students in Chapel Hill or the Somali Muslim teen in Kansas City? What about the U.S. bombings of Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? Which “culture” is responsible for that?

Maher says a Muslim adult should have taken Ahmed aside and told him, “Look what happened to you was wrong, but maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is because, in our religion, we were responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings,” etc. In case if it isn’t obvious, Maher believes Muslims — all 1.5 billion of us — are collectively responsible for attacks that were carried out by other people. I want a white adult to explain to Maher that the reason his Islamophobia and racism is so dangerous to Muslims and people of color is because “our people (white people) have been responsible for so much demonization, racism, misogyny, violence, and terrorism committed against black people, indigenous peoples, Muslims, and other people of color.” In fact, his Islamophobia fuels the kind of attitudes and behaviors that impact Muslims like Ahmed Mohamed.

But Maher loves to deflect. On the show, he mentioned Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Shia activist who is being horribly sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian government for participating in anti-government protests. What is repulsive about Maher mentioning al-Nimr is that he’s trying to deflect attention away from Islamophobia in the west, but also that he’s exploiting al-Nimr to make his political points about Islam being a “religion of violence.” In other words, Maher doesn’t really care about al-Nimr; he just cares about “proving” his point about how “barbaric” Islam and Muslims really are. He is also trying to create the impression that there aren’t any Muslims outraged about al-Nimr’s sentencing. Anyone who believes in a religion, especially Islam, is seen as “brainwashed” by Maher, so what does he think about Muslims like al-Nimr? That they’re “brainwashed” by their own religion?

What also needs to be emphasized here is that Maher’s statement about Ahmed’s arrest is something a lot of people believe. The narrative that Islamophobia is a result of 9/11 is one that many, both Muslims and non-Muslims, buy into. We need to denounce this narrative and understand that Islamophobia is not caused by the actions of other Muslims.

But let’s deconstruct this belief. Let’s follow the logic that Islamophobia is, in fact, a result of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London bombings, as Bill Maher claims. Let’s forget that, before 9/11, there was the brutal dispossession of Palestine, western colonialism and imperialism in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, or the demonization of Muslims and Islam in the media, including in U.S. cinema. While we’re at it, let’s forget about the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, too.

So, the logic goes, if a member of a particular group of people commits an act of violence, then the response from the general public and the state is to target said group with stereotypes, hate crimes, negative media depictions, and policies, right?  For example, if a Muslim person carries out an act of violence, then the entire Muslim population will be held collectively responsible, face bigotry and discrimination, and will be subject to racist policies and laws. Oh, and countries that have a Muslim-majority population will be bombed. So, this should mean that when white Christians commit violent atrocities, the entire white Christian population will suffer the same consequences too, right?

But we know the latter does not happen. We don’t see institutionalized racism against white people as a response to the crimes and actions of individual white people. This is because we live in a white supremacist society where white people, especially white men, are privileged and valued over the lives of people of color. Because white supremacy is foundational to the United States, it is deeply ingrained in society — so ingrained that we accept it as a norm. This is why anti-racist leaders, activists, and writers teach us that we all need to unlearn racism. White supremacist socialization and logic is the reason why people are able to make distinctions between white male terrorists and the rest of the white population, while not making the same distinctions for people of color. This is why politicians, the media, and the general public see Dylan Roof as a “lone wolf.” White people are not treated as a racialized group that need to be put under surveillance, racially profiled, demonized, and bombed.

The uncomfortable reality is that it’s not just Bill Maher who reinforces this idea that Islamophobia exists because of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. We hear this narrative from Muslim-American political commentators and representatives of U.S.-based Muslim civil rights groups, too. Granted, Maher diminishes the existence of Islamophobia and describes it as “not being a big deal,” but Muslim-Americans who claim to be speaking for us in the mainstream media need to stop saying Islamophobia is the result of 9/11 and ISIS. As I mentioned above, if this logic was true, then it would apply to white Christians, too, but we know it doesn’t.

Islamophobia is not simply about ignorance or individual acts of bigotry, but rather an institutionalized form of oppression that has existed long before 9/11. As Maher demonstrated on his show, his attacks against Ahmed are also his attacks against Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, these hateful views go beyond sentiments; they fuel hate crimes, oppressive policies, and imperialist violence against Muslims.

In order to challenge Islamophobia effectively, we need to understand it within this context of white supremacy, not by Maher’s victim-blaming “Muslims-caused-Islamophobia” definition of it.

The Danger in Associating with Kings

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

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

The excerpt is below:

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

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

– Jalaluddin Rumi, from Fihi Ma Fihi.

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

Islamophobic Ads on SEPTA Buses Are Not “Free Speech”

SEPTA-bus

Currently, Islamophobic ads that link Hitler with Muslims and read “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran” are posted on SEPTA buses in Philadelphia (these are the same ads that have been posted before in New York and San Francisco). The ads are funded by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an anti-Muslim organization that is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to CBS Philly, the group “paid about $30,000 for the advertisements that will be featured on 84 Septa vehicles for four weeks.”

There have been many advertising campaigns to counter these ads. For instance, when the AFDI posted their ads in Chicago, the local CAIR chapter launched a “My Jihad” campaign that featured cheerful images of Muslim Americans sharing their daily struggles, goals, and experiences. The campaign aimed to challenge misconceptions about the term “jihad,” but also sought to highlight on positive images of Muslims. Examples of the ads can be seen below:

CAIR-My-Jihad

In Philadelphia, a similar initiative called “Dare to Understand” has been organized by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia to counter the Islamophobic ads. Photographs of smiling Muslims based in Philadelphia are being posted on billboards and social media. As well-intentioned these responses are, my concern is with the framework these campaigns operate within and the implications they carry for Muslims.

It is important to note that many local religious and non-religious community leaders have publicly condemned the Islamophobic ads. While SEPTA tried to stop the ads, it is disappointing that they refused to appeal a federal court ruling that ordered them to post the ads on their buses. It is also incredibly disappointing and disturbing that CAIR-PA, the local CAIR chapter of Philadelphia, released a statement that supported the “free speech” ruling of the Islamophobic ads. The statement reads, “These ads are despicable and false, but fall under First Amendment protections.” Another representative concurred and added, “The First Amendment protects everyone, the hateful and the loving alike. Instead of suppressing dishonest and offensive speech, the American tradition is to respond with speech of our own. You can be sure we will.” Although CAIR-PA condemns the content of the ads, they agree with AFDI that these ads are “protected speech.”

For those who are unaware, CAIR represents the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States and the amount of work they do for Muslim Americans is both important and needed. This does not, however, mean that CAIR is beyond criticism. It is shocking to me that the organization would be seemingly unaware that its statement supports a situation that conflicts with the right for Muslims to feel safe on public transportation. In fact, CAIR-PA did express concern for Muslims in the city and stated, “One can only imagine the revulsion that tens of thousands of Muslim citizens will feel getting onto SEPTA buses.” Yet it is not just revulsion, but also a legitimate fear and concern for safety that many Muslims feel, especially those who have to board these buses daily. What about SEPTA Muslim employees who have to drive these buses? A lot of times when we talk about racism, we tend to overlook how much stress (including the stress of anticipating racism) and trauma it can cause. What is being done for the safety and well being of SEPTA’s Muslim passengers and employees? These ads are not just loathsome, they are targeting us. I hate playing the broken record on my blog about how much media images matter, but these ads target us in the same way films like American Sniper or TV shows like “Homeland” demonize and target us. We need to connect these ads to very real and dangerous consequences they have, not just on Muslims in the United States and other western countries, but also on Muslims who are targeted by imperialist wars and military occupations in Muslim-majority countries.

If ads that demonize Islam and Muslims are considered “free speech,” then does this mean CAIR, the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, SEPTA, and the federal court would consider anti-Jewish ads or swastikas posted on buses, billboards, and subways “protected free speech,” too? As a friend pointed out, if a Muslim group proposed anti-Judaism ads, would that be considered “freedom of expression”? The latter would not even get off the ground because they would be rightfully and immediately condemned as anti-Semitism, hate speech, and inciting violence. I wrote this before in my post on the Paris attacks, but when Islam and Muslims are demonized, it’s called “free speech.” This reflects western hypocrisy about “free speech,” and should raise awareness about whom this “freedom” is really for, whom does it really protect, etc. Furthermore, the hypocrisy reflects the frightening reality of how normalized and acceptable demonization of Islam and Muslims is.

The danger of working within the “free speech” framework is that it legitimizes violent anti-Muslim hate speech as “free speech” (no matter how unintentional this may be). Even though organizations and individuals who condemn these ads are developing counter-campaigns, recognizing the ads as “free speech” does little, if anything, to disrupt and challenge the status quo. Consider this statement from the Chicago chapter of CAIR when talking about countering the AFDI ads, “I don’t feel the urge to fight … I’d rather put out the alternative. People can decide what racism is.”

And what if people decide the ads are not racist or Islamophobic? The courts have already decided that these ads are not racist, otherwise they would be banned. The politics of letting people “decide” what is racist, again, legitimizes racist views as valid. Rather than relying on these strategies, Muslim civil rights groups need to take a bold, firm, and courageous anti-racist stance against Islamphobic hate speech. Putting out cheerful and smiling images of Muslims may seem like effective responses that challenge Islamphobic sentiments, but these images are also reinforcing a certain type of Muslim that is deemed palatable to the white non-Muslim American mainstream. I’ll expand more on this later.

AFDI has posted Islamophobic ads in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and now Philadelphia (sorry if I missed any others), but how long are these ads going to be tolerated in the name of “free speech”? Should we just continue to expect Muslims and their allies to organize counter-campaigns each time something like this happens? The AFDI will continue to raise more funds and get these ads posted in other cities. This is a cycle of abuse that we cannot afford to let continue, especially during a time when murders against Muslims in the west (namely the recent murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha, Mustafa Mattan, and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein) and imperialist violence against Muslims around the world are on the rise. The counter-campaigns thus far have only been short-term efforts. We need counter campaigns that think long-term and work towards structural change, which includes putting pressure on courts to end Islamophobic hate speech.

When Suzanne Barakat, the sister of Deah Barakat, went on CNN and MSNBC, she explicitly condemned the way the western mainstream media and Hollywood films like American Sniper continue to dehumanize Muslims and lead to deadly consequences. When I did my undergraduate research study on the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim American emerging adults, all of the Muslim participants agreed that the media poorly represented their faith and community. These concerns about the media are not just about fear of being offended, but also fear of being vilified, discriminated against, physically assaulted, bullied, profiled, spied upon, deported, detained, shot at, and/or killed. We need organizations like CAIR, SEPTA, and the Interfaith Center of Great Philadelphia to seriously acknowledge the impact that media images and anti-Muslim propaganda ads have upon us and the way they further shape racist attitudes, perceptions, and policies towards Muslims.

The other problem with making this about “free speech” is that it places the burden on Muslims to “explain” themselves in counter-campaigns. AFDI, on the other hand, is never held accountable. The lack of accountability here is astonishing because it leaves Muslims to once again “prove” that they are not terrorists, not “Jew haters,” not war mongers, etc. Not only is there this burden to respond, but Muslims also have to see these ads in front of their faces in the city they live.

The images of “happy Muslims” in these counter-campaigns need to be critiqued as well. Much of my views on this performance of “normalcy” are similar to what I wrote in my post about the “Happy British Muslims” music video. Again, we see yet another example where the only legitimate response to Islamophobia consists of showing Muslims expressing only one emotion: happiness. The image of the happy Muslim is palatable to the white non-Muslim western mainstream for a number of reasons, but it also furthers the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” divide. The good Muslim challenges Islamophobia with a smile, often accompanied by an assimilationist narrative about how proud he/she is to be an American. These cheerful images are complementary to the non-threatening tactics of these counter-campaigns since they are focused on “celebrating diversity,” as opposed to actively calling for the removal of Islamophobic ads and demanding accountability. The Muslims who protest and demand for the latter get vilified as the “angry” and “bad Muslims.” They would also get labeled “bad PR.”

I believe images are powerful and I do not write this post to shame any of the counter-campaigns nor their participants. As an independent filmmaker myself, I recognize the importance of producing media that challenges racism, Islamophobia, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. We need more representations of Muslims in the media, but too often, the responses to Islamophobia are simplistic and centered on showing how “normal,” “happy,” and “American” we are, as if the only way to qualify as human beings is if we are American (or Canadian or British or Australian, etc.) citizens. Muslims are not a monolithic group, so I’m not saying there shouldn’t be images of Muslims being happy or smiling. Instead, I’m arguing against a happy Muslim/angry Muslim binary that gets reinforced when the only acceptable responses to Islamophobia become about validating the racist views of the oppressor (e.g. calling Islamophobia “free speech”), “proving” to the white non-Muslim American mainstream that we are not terrorists, and promoting smiling images of ourselves for a “diversity” narrative that doesn’t challenge systematic oppression.

The “Dare to Understand” initiative had a white non-Muslim photographer take photos of Muslims smiling in their counter-ad campaign. This is not to say that white non-Muslims cannot be allies or help us challenge Islamophobia – they absolutely should. I address this only to point out how Muslims are so often silenced that we rarely see stories that are told through their lens or point of view. Muslims are speaking for themselves (whether on panels, news media, or through narrative films or documentary films, etc.) and it’s important to help amplify these voices (out of curiosity, were any local Muslim photographers and/or filmmakers contacted to lead these creative initiatives?). Our stories are important because they are far more complex and multi-layered than a PR campaign. We are much more than smiling faces that “showcase diversity.” We cannot simply be reduced to these happy images that only (and perpetually) smile in the face of oppression.

Lastly, if we are going to challenge Islamophobia, it is crucial that we be intersectional in our activism and stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities. When we invoke “free speech” and speak highly of the “American tradition,” we should be challenging the U.S. founding myths, as described by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, that these ideas originate from. We cannot deny the history that the United States could not have existed without the violent dispossession of Indigenous Peoples and slavery of Africans, nor can we deny the impact this history (and the systems of oppression that were established) has on people of color today. The double standards about “free speech” reveal much about whose speech is really protected and whose speech, rights, and bodies aren’t. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but instead of counter campaigns that frame these ads as “free speech” and place the burden on Muslims to “explain themselves,” I believe efforts and initiatives, especially from SEPTA, Muslim civil rights organizations, and allies, should be focused on appealing to the courts and demanding accountability.

We have the right to be protected from hate speech.