Debunking the “Islam is Not a Race!” Argument

Islamophobes think they have it all figured out.  After they read the works of anti-Muslim pseudo-intellectuals and propagandists, they become self-proclaimed “experts” on Islam.  The message they absorb from their favorite Islamophobe stars can be easily summarized as: “Islam is evil and must be wiped off the face of the Earth.  Furthermore, every single Muslim on the planet is plotting to take over the West (read: world) and any Muslim who claims otherwise is lying. Yes, this includes your Muslim friends, who you shouldn’t be friends with anyway.”

I’ve seen some Islamophobes embrace the term “Islamophobia” because they proudly admit being fearful of Islam. “Yes,” they say, “We are afraid of Islam, which is why we want it destroyed.”  Dang.  Geert Wilders has never been shy in stating he wishes for the Qur’an to be banned (Nazi-style) and for Muslims to be massively expelled from the West (Spanish Inquisition-style). Clearly, these views are appalling, dangerous, and racist.  However, as odd as it may sound (at least to people who abhor racism and oppression) Islamophobes justify their racism by claiming they are not racist.  Hence, the argument, “Islam is not a race.  I cannot be racist.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard Islamophobes and some well-intentioned non-Muslims make this argument whenever Islamophobia is addressed. The purpose, of course, is to derail conversations about Islamophobia and racism.  I’ve noticed the pattern of this response for quite a long time in workplaces, classrooms, on internet forums and blogs, etc.  You can picture the scenario involving an Islamophobe telling a Muslim that “all terrorists are Muslim.”  The Muslim person is insulted and calls the remark “racist.”  The Islamophobe steps up into the Muslim’s face and says, “It’s not racist!  Islam is not a race, idiot!”  He turns around and walks away, claiming victory for himself and starts high-fiving his buddies, who are like, “Oh man, you are so effing awesome!  You shut that Mozlem down!”

I wonder how Islamophobes expect Muslims to react after they make this pathetic argument.  Are we supposed to look surprised and realize, “Oh my God, Islam is not a race?  Really?  You mean I’ve been practicing Islam this whole time and didn’t know it was a religion?”  Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious, we know full well that Islam is not a race.  We know Islam, like any religion, is open to people of all racial backgrounds, including to those who are white (*gasp*).  However, what is also true is that Islam is racialized by the ideology of white supremacy, which means Muslims are cast as threatening racial Others. Take some time to understand this. The key word here is racialization, where racial characteristics and racist attitudes are assigned to groups and religions that are not races. No, Islam is not a race, but it is constructed as a race and the manner in which it is demonized is an extremely racial process.

In her book “Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics,” Sherene Razack describes the process of race thinking, which is a “structure of thought that divides up the world between the deserving and the undeserving according to descent.” Within the context of Muslims in settler states such as the US and Canada, Razack explains that race thinking is articulated when presidents and prime ministers of white-majority nations talk of the “American values” or “Canadian values” they are defending in the “war on terror.” Reinforced in this narrative is the notion of “culture clash,” which emphasizes on cultural difference between “the European majority and the Third World peoples (Muslims in particular).”  Since “culture clash” focuses on cultural difference and racism, white societies declare the “superiority of European culture,” which is “imagined as homogenous composite values,” by triggering stereotypical associations with Muslim-majority countries (Razack uses “the veil, female genital mutilation, arranged marriages” as examples of these associations). Reproducing this duality of “us versus them” where “the West has values and modernity and the non-West has culture,” Muslims are easily marked as racial Others that are antithetical and inherently opposite to the West. As Razack explains, “cultural difference, understood as their cannibalism, their treatment of women, and their homophobia, justifies the savagery that the West metes out.”

We see this sharp contrast in mainstream western media representations of Islam and Muslims.  Muslim men are consistently seen as dangerous brown-skinned and bearded men holding assault rifles, rioting in the streets, shouting “Allahu akbar,” and burning an American or Israeli flag.  Through this same lens, Muslim women are seen as veiled, oppressed, and sometimes dangerous, but also as victimized bodies that need to be rescued by western imperialist intervention. Through this racialization process, racism surfaces to demonize Islam and Muslims and treats them as “threats” that need to be exterminated. Razack, drawing upon Michel Foucault, states that “racism enables us to live with the murderous function of the state and to understand killing of Others as a way of purifying and regenerating one’s own race.”  In order for racism to function this way, race thinking must unite with bureaucracy, i.e. when “it is systematized and attached to a project of accumulation, it loses its standing as a prejudice and becomes instead an organizing principle.”  As Foucault articulates:

The fact that the Other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the Other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer.

Razack elaborates on how systematized racism against Muslims operates:

In our time, one result is a securitized state in which it is possible to know that ‘the passenger who has ordered a special meal is non-smoking Muslim in seat 3K’ and to arrange for that passenger’s eviction from the aircraft. Racial distinctions become so routinized that a racial hierarchy is maintained without requiring the component of individual actors who are personally hostile towards Muslims. Increasing numbers of people find themselves exiled from political community through bureaucratic processes in which each state official can claim, as did Adolf Eichmann about arranging the transport of Jews to Nazi Germany, that he was only doing his duty. In the ‘war on terror’, race thinking accustoms us to the idea that the suspension of rights is warranted in the interests of national security.

Captured in the phrase ‘they are not like us’, and also necessarily in the idea that ‘they’ must be killed so that ‘we’ can live, race thinking becomes embedded in law and bureaucracy so that the suspension of rights appears not as a violence but as the law itself. Violence against the racialized Other comes to be understood as necessary in order for civilization to flourish, something the state must do to preserve itself. Race thinking, Silverblatt reminds us in her study of the Spanish Inquisition, usually comes clothed in an ‘aura of rationality and civilization.’

Indeed, by making demonization of racialized Others an organizing principle and social norm in mainstream media and politics, as well as asserting that white-dominated societies are “more rational” and “deserving,” the atrocities and brutalities committed by the west are conveniently erased.  We can see how systematic race thinking is to the white supremacist settler state when ongoing genocide against Native peoples is made possible through established laws and accepted norms that Native communities are “vanishing.”  After all, the United States could not exist without the genocide of Native peoples.  Since 1492, white colonialists and settlers demonized Natives as “savages” and by the mid-1800s, they declared “Manifest Destiny,” which perpetuated the belief that the United States not only had the right to expand their culture and steal land, but was also destined to. As indigenous scholars and activists have pointed out, the message was/is clear: Natives must be killed so that white settlers can live. Maythee Rojas adds: “This concept of white supremacy and domination became actively employed to remove people from their lands and force them to assimilate to a Euro-American society. As a result, physical bodies became a primary target.”

It is this legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide that continues today, not only within white supremacist societies in North America and Europe, but also in its wars against Muslim-majority countries.  After 9/11, the Bush administration reproduced the idea that Western Christian values are  “superior” to non-Western culture by propagating the idea that the US was attacked because “we are free.”  Former vice president Dick Cheney confidently stated on national television that Iraqis were going to greet invading and occupying American soldiers as “liberators.”  Under the Obama administration, war and occupation in Afghanistan advances while drone attacks have killed over a thousand in Pakistan.  As racist war propaganda dehumanizes Muslims and Islam, US soldiers bomb, shoot, torture, and rape Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani bodies.  As racist discourse about Islam grows (i.e. it is a “violent,” “misogynistic,” “oppressive,” and “backwards” religion), mainstream white feminist groups took the opportunity to express their support for the war in Afghanistan, claiming that US invasion would “liberate” Afghan women.  The American soldiers murdering and raping Iraqi and Afghan women not only contradicts these claims, but also points to a disturbing reality of sexual violence being integral to war and colonialism.  As Andrea Smith reminds us, “If sexual violence is not simply a tool of patriarchy but also a tool of colonialism and racism, then entire communities of color are victims of sexual violence.”

It is significant to draw connections to the way demonization of Muslims leads to such sexual violence and brutality by Western occupying forces in Muslim-majority countries.  Muslim lands are considered “dirty,” “backwards,” and “hostile,” making the land violable.  Muslim men must be killed while the racialized bodies of Afghan or Iraqi women, like their land, become violable for Western masculinist power and possession. That is, since Muslim women are oppressed, who better to save victimized and racialized women from culture than the “civilized European” who represents “values” and “modernity”?  Razack explains:

Saving Brown women from Brown men, as Gayatri Spivak famously put it, has long been a major plank in the colonial ship since it serves to mark the colonizer as modern and civilized and provides at the same time an important reason to keep Brown men in line through practices of violence. In the post-9/11 era, this aspect of colonial governance has been revitalized. Today it is not only the people of a small white village in Canada who believe that Muslim women must be saved. Progressive people, among them many feminists, have come to believe in the urgency of saving Muslim women from their patriarchal communities. As a practice of governance, the idea of the imperilled Muslim woman is unparalleled in its capacity to regulate. Since Muslim women, like all other women, are imperilled in patriarchy, and since the rise of conservative Islam increases this risk (as does the rise of conservative Christianity and Hinduism), it is hard to resist calls to ‘save the women.’

Muslim women are not the property of Muslim men, therefore the imperialist notion that Muslim women need to be saved suggests they are helpless and don’t have a mind of their own. This is not to downplay the sexist oppression and misogyny Muslim women endure and fight against in Muslim-majority countries, but rather to point out the misogyny inherit in colonial savior fantasies.  Meanwhile, Muslims living in North America and Europe are marked as threatening racial Others that need to be stigmatized, profiled, incarcerated, put under surveillance, etc. Since the settler state determines who belongs and who doesn’t, and who must live and who must die, immigrants of color, as Smith argues, “generally become targeted as foreign threats, particularly during war-time.”  She adds, “Orientalism allows the United States to defend the logics of slavery and genocide as these practices enable it to stay ‘strong enough’ to fight these constant wars… For the system of white supremacy to stay in place, the United States must always be at war.”

At this point I would imagine the Islamophobe getting impatient and not buying this whole “racialization” business.  I’ve tried to explain this several times to people who have left such comments on my blog: “Race has nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with Islam.”  Most of the time, there is no response from these commenters, but when there is a reply, it’s typically a childish ad homimen attack. “You’re a moron, Islam is not a race, dammit!” they shout while (probably) jumping in the air and stomping the ground out of frustration.  Aside from the sources I’ve cited to counter their argument and personal experiences with Islamophobia, I remember how I saw this play out at a talk.  Earlier this year, I was one of two guest speakers at a local university hosting an event on Islamophobia in the West.  When a room about 40-50 students were asked to write down what first came to mind when they heard the words “Muslim man,” the responses were consistent with the racialization I discussed above.  Non-Muslim students wrote the following: “Arabic,” “turban,” “Middle Eastern,” “dark-skinned,” “beard,” “violent,” “aggressive,” “controlling,” “prayer rug,” “terrorist,” etc.  When they were given the same instructions for the words “Muslim woman,” they answered: “Veiled,” “headscarf, “oppressed,” “brown,” “shy,” “obedient,” “religious,” “serious,” “exotic,” etc.

See what’s happening here? What became clear from the responses was that non-Muslims associated Muslim men and women with racialized stereotypes. When it was my turn to speak, it was interesting how some of the non-Muslims made flying carpet fallacies and weren’t disturbed by the Islamophobia in the west.  When some students told me later that they didn’t think my use of the word “racism” was appropriate because, um, “Islam is not a race, dammit!” I reminded them of the racialized stereotypes they assigned to Muslim men and women. A Muslim can be black, brown, white, etc., but look at the attitudes about Muslims; look at the discourse surrounding them and their faith; look at how they and Islam are so politicized; look at the racial language that is used to describe Muslims.

Yes, Islam is not a race, but the mainstream discourse and perception of Islam and Muslims in media, politics, and law casts Muslims as racial Others. Having said that, when Islamophobes try to derail a conversation about Islamophobia by arguing “Islam is not a race,” they are also dismissing how oppressive power structures and hierarchies operate in the white supremacist societies.

It is no exaggeration to say that the “Islam is not a race” argument is a dangerous one. It works to legitimize state racism, particularly the racist laws and policies, surveillance programs, and imperialist wars that continue to target Muslims both in the west and in Muslim-majority countries. Islamophobes make this argument because they want to legitimize Islamophobia, and what better way to justify something than trying to convince people that the oppressive attitudes, behaviors, policies, and wars you advocate are “not racist”?

No One “Hijacked” Islam – Part 3

You know it’s serious when I write a trilogy.

I wanted to write this piece around the time Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US special ops forces last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  When the news was announced by President Obama, I remember seeing my Facebook news feed flooded with updates about Osama bin Laden being dead.  Some friends were jubilant,  some were claiming “victory,” some uploaded pictures of Obama as their profile picture, while others, like myself, were outraged by the excitement.  Amidst the “U-S-A” chants, the flag-waving, and the “God Bless America” demonstrations outside of the White House, people seemed to forget about the millions of Iraqi and Afghan bodies murdered by US wars after 9/11.  Oh, and the 900+ Pakistanis killed by the Obama administration’s drone raids.

Over a million deaths later, the US war machine finally killed the one man they claimed to be hunting for and now there are doves flying everywhere, carrying “world peace” banners?  At least, that’s how the joy made it sound.  It was as if the murders of all the Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, and Pakistanis were magically erased.  People were celebrating as if it was the end of war itself.  Some Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians were adding their voices to the choir, as if Islamophobia and racism was suddenly going to disappear.

President Obama’s speech was insulting enough, with ridiculous claims like:

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

As I mentioned in a recent post, there was no “color-blind” unity after 9/11.  The “one American family” 9/11 narrative that Obama and others love to romanticize about completely eliminates the reality of Islamophobia.  No mention is made about the Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, Sikh-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim who had and continue to endure traumatizing experiences with racism, discrimination, vandalism, harassment, and hate crimes. In her article, “Bin Laden’s Death: Why I Can’t Celebrate,” Valerie Kaur writes:

Even if I wanted to celebrate, I’m too busy worrying.  Today, many Sikh, Muslim, and Arab American families, brace for violence, concerned that Americans will target those who “look like” the Osama bin Laden we just destroyed. We didn’t bring Osama bin Laden to trial, after all.  We killed him before we captured his body.  So why would vigilante Americans wait for the law to take care of the “terrorists” in their midst.

The last time a sudden burst of nationalism rallied us against America’s turbaned and bearded enemy, an epidemic of hate crimes swept the country.  In the yearlong aftermath of 9/11, the FBI reported a 1700 percent increase in anti-Muslim violence. At least 19 people were killed in hate murders. In the last decade, we have seen resurgences of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last election season confirmed to politicians that they can use anti-Muslim sentiment to win political points.

On September 15th, 2001, just four days after 9/11, three men, a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Coptic Christian were murdered by white racist Islamophobes. The names of the victims: Waqar Hasan, Balbir Singh Sodhi, and Adel Karas, respectively. Mark Stroman, the murderer of Hasan, also shot Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi, in the face and then murdered Vasudev Patel a few days later. Hate crimes against Muslim-Americans skyrocketed to 481 reports after 9/11 and the number of discriminatory acts and hate crimes have been annually increasing since then (for more detailed accounts, statistics, and sources, read this older post).

I appreciated some of the commentaries I read about the death of bin Laden and how it wouldn’t mark the end of war.  But then came that dreaded phrase again, from both Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  “Terrorists hijacked Islam.”

A Yahoo News article, Muslim Americans still find acceptance elusive in the wake of bin Laden’s death, highlighted on some of the experiences with Islamophobia, but some Muslims claimed Osama bin Laden “hijacked our identity.”  In another article, Osama bin Laden is considered responsible for Islamophobia.  I am still coming across blog posts and articles that make the same assertion.

As I wrote in Part 2 of this series, the claim that Islam was “hijacked” by terrorists implies that violent extremists speak for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  It not only serves to justify demonization of Islam, but also glosses over serious racist double-standards that exist in our society, such as never asking white Christians to answer for atrocities carried out by other white Christians, but always demanding Muslims to do so.  Unlike white non-Muslims, Muslims are treated as spokespersons for the estimated 1.5 worldwide Muslim population, as well as the diverse cultures that make up the community, and must “prove” to western societies that they are “domesticated,” or rather the dominant culture’s definition of a “good Muslim,” i.e. uncritical of US policies, hostile towards Muslim-American civil rights groups like CAIR, committed to fighting religious extremism to “protect Americans,” and never making a peep about Islamophobia and racism in American society. If Muslims do not pass the “good Muslim” test, they get categorized as “bad Muslims,” or “radical,” “suspicious,” “militant,” “anti-west,” etc.

Mahmood Mamdani, author of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” describes this dichotomy:

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

Even more, these people seem incapable of transforming their culture, the way they seem incapable of growing their own food. The implication is that their only salvation lies, as always, in philanthropy, in being saved from the outside.

When I read this, or something like this, I wonder if this world of ours is after all divided into two: on the one hand, savages who must be saved before they destroy us all and, on the other, the civilized whose burden it is to save all?

Diversity within Islam and Muslim communities is not recognized (in fact, it is non-existent) when the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy is employed through the “terrorists hijacked Islam” narrative.  It becomes the Muslim’s responsibility to fight the religious extremists and take back Islam – only then, we are told, will Islamophobia and terrorism end.  Essentially, the burden is on Muslims to become superheroes overnight and save the world.  Yeah.

Anyway.

Arguing that Osama bin Laden is “responsible” for Islampohobia is awfully problematic because it implies Islamophobia didn’t exist prior to 9/11 and that racists cannot be blamed for their Islamophobia.  This argument caters to the flawed logic that people are responsible for their own oppression. That is, one shouldn’t blame Islamophobes for hating Islam or demonizing Muslims in mainstream media, for example, but instead, one should blame Muslims who are “giving Islam and other Muslims a bad name!”  This basically says people’s prejudices and racism is not of their own doing, but rather of the “otherized” group (in this case, Muslims) that they are targeting.  Islamophobes simply “don’t know any better” because the vast majority of Muslims aren’t “setting a good example,” therefore they’re absolved of being held accountable for their Orientalist stereotypes!

If Osama bin Laden caused Islamophobia, then why did Islamophobia and Orientalism exist prior to 9/11?  Mainstream European and American discourse on Islam was tainted by racist, Orientalist stereotypes – everything from “Islam was spread by the sword” history lessons to images of veiled Muslim women to charges that the Qur’an advocates war against Christians, Jews, and every other non-Muslim on the planet.  Jack Shaheen’s book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” covers over 900 Hollywood films that demonized Arabs, Muslims, and Iranians, and all of these films were made well before 9/11.  Some films that come to my mind are “True Lies,” “Not Without My Daughter,” “Executive Decision,” “The Delta Force,” and the atrocious “Rules of Engagement,” which is one of the most racist films I have ever seen.  Who “hijacked” Islam when these films were made?  Is the Muslim community to blame for the way white Hollywood filmmakers demonized them?  Who “hijacked” Islam when Dante Alighieri, the 14th century Italian poet, condemned Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali (peace be upon them both) to Hell and eternal, gruesome punishment in his acclaimed “Inferno”?  Were Muslims to blame when many medieval Christian leaders and writers believed Islam was the “Devil’s tool” to “destroy” Christianity?

I believe this is an incredibly important point because if we blame Osama bin Laden for Islamophobia and “hijacking” our identities, we are telling non-Muslims, as well as ourselves, that Islamophobia generated from within our community. The reality is, Islamophobia does not exist because of Osama bin Laden. Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy. One needs to understand how racial hierarchies operate within systems of oppression to get this point.  So many times, in general conversation, I will hear people say, “You know, I was in the store and the man behind the counter was asking this black lady what she wanted to order…” or “My friend got into a fight with this guy on my baseball team and he was from Puerto Rico; he had the accent and everything…” or “Yeah, a cashier at another store keeps telling me about all these Asian women who come in with envelopes filled with coupons.”  We hear people of color being racialized and politicized all the time. Notice how none of the expressions I shared tell us about the race of the “man behind the counter,” “the friend” on the baseball team, or the “cashier.”  We assume they are white because white represents the “default race.”  White people are seen as complex, diverse, and multi-dimensional people, which is why generalizations are made about “Asian women with envelopes filled with coupons,” while nothing is said about the white people who also shop with envelopes full of coupons. No one says, “Oh man, look at these white people with all their coupons.”   Their race isn’t a factor, they’re just seen as being “weird.”

While Muslims represent a religious community and not a race, white supremacy has created a racialized profile for Muslims: dark-skinned/brown, turban, bearded, Arab.  Here is an example of how this racialization works: If a white guy robs a store, it’s “oh, did you hear about the guy who robbed the bank this morning?” If he was Muslim, it would be, “some Muslim guy robbed the bank!”  The “Muslim” will be imagined as brown, bearded, shouting in Arabic, and wearing a keffiyeh around his face.  As the aforementioned hate crime incidents show, non-Muslim folks of color (like turban-wearing Sikhs or brown-skinned Hindus or Arabic-named Egyptian Christians) are targets of Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate.  If you are Arab, you are perceived to be Muslim, even if you are not, and if you are Muslim, you are perceived to Arab, even if you are not.  If your name is Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or South Asian, you are perceived to having a “Muslim name.”  If you are a brown Hindu man with a goatee and at the airport, you will be perceived as being Muslim.  This is how the logic of Orientalism works and, in the words of Andrea Smith, “marks certain peoples or nations as inferior and deems them to be a constant threat to the well-being of empire.”  She elaborates:

These peoples are still seen as “civilisations”—they are not property or the “disappeared”. However, they are imagined as permanent foreign threats to empire. This logic is evident in the anti-immigration movements in the United States that target immigrants of colour. It does not matter how long immigrants of colour reside in the United States, they generally become targeted as foreign threats, particularly during war-time. Consequently, orientalism serves as the anchor of war, because it allows the United States to justify being in a constant state of war to protect itself from its enemies. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the logics of slavery and genocide as these practices enable it to stay “strong enough” to fight these constant wars. What becomes clear, then, is what Sora Han declares: the United States is not at war; the United States is war.  For the system of white supremacy to stay in place, the United States must always be at war.

This is why Islamophobia exists – because of Orientalism, white supremacy, racism, war, hate.  We don’t blame Jews for anti-Semitism, do we?  We don’t blame African-Americans for anti-black racism, do we?  To reiterate and re-emphasize from Part 2: What of Timothy McVeigh, the Crusader language of Blackwater, and even the religious justification George W. Bush used to invade Iraq?  When was the last time you heard someone say “Christianity was hijacked”?  Or, what about the JDL (Jewish Defense League) former Chairman, Irv Rubin, and group member, Earl Krugel, who were arrested 3 months after 9/11 for planning bomb attacks on a Mosque in California and on the office of Arab-American US representative Darrell Issa?  Did anyone say “Judaism was hijacked” by these extremists?

If others do not say “Christianity was hijacked,” or “Judaism was hijacked” or “Hinduism was hijacked,” then why are we, the 1.5 billion Muslims, expected to say that about our religion?  Like any religious group, Muslims need to challenge the problems within their community, but it doesn’t mean we have to conform to how others, particularly the dominant culture, label us (and I argue that the phrase, “Islam was hijacked,” is one that we have internalized).  It doesn’t mean that we should ignore the double-standards of white supremacy and never speak out against the demonization of Islam and Muslims.

The idea that a small group of people can take control of our religion is absurd and completely denies the voice that we as a majority have.  Osama bin Laden doesn’t represent the majority of Muslims. We are an immensely diverse community, there is debate going on, and there is a lot of work to do, but we don’t need to give in to Orientalist intervention. We don’t need Orientalist racism, war, or imperialism to “rescue” or “define us.”  We are constantly defining ourselves.

Question: Why Do Muslim Men Talk About Hijaab?

Update (01/08/2016): I wrote this post 5 years ago and I’ve noticed how it is still one of my most popular blog posts. I’m grateful and glad people still find it worth reading and sharing. I still stand by every word I said in the original post, but over the years, I’ve noticed how this post has been misused, including by Islamophobes. The misuse has also come from liberals (often, but not always, white liberals) who aren’t exactly like the blatant Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer, but nevertheless are condescending and leave comments like, “Islam is more sexist than other religions,” or “Islam needs to get with modernity.”

I know we cannot control how people use our posts, but I feel that if I add a disclaimer here, at least it will make it clear that I do not support the idea of non-Muslims using this post to perpetuate Islamophobia against Muslims/Islam. So, just to be clear: this post was written for Muslims ONLY. It is about an internal discussion within the Muslim community. It is OUR conversation, NOT one for non-Muslims to intervene or interject their opinions. I do not give permission to non-Muslims to use this post. I welcome non-Muslims to read it, but know that it is NOT your conversation and that you are NOT an ally if you think Islam is inherently sexist or misogynistic. If non-Muslims are interested in sharing it (in cases where they feel like they can draw parallels with sexism in their own communities), then please do so in ethical and responsible ways. Thanks for reading.

You can think of this as a sequel to my post on “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress,” and maybe it sounds a little redundant, but I want to zero in on why Muslim men, whether they are scholars or not, feel entitled to speak about the hijaab.  Moreover, why do we often hold their stance and opinion on the topic in such high regard?

I’m asking because Muslim male authority on the hijaab and “modest dress” (whatever that means) is something I’ve always noticed in the Muslim community. I remember noticing once that one of my Islamic books, brilliantly titled “Hijaab,” was written not by a woman, but a man! There were several times during my first years of college when I felt the necessity to defend hijaab, not only because of the way Islamophobes stereotyped hijaab-wearing Muslim women as “oppressed” and “submissive,” but also because I believed my opinion was highly valued by Muslim women.

I am not going to conclude that all Muslim men believe it is their “religious obligation” to encourage women to wear the hijaab, but from my experiences in mainstream Sunni mosques, Muslim Student Association (MSA) events, and interacting with Muslim men, the emphasis on “modest dress” is primarily directed at women, implying that they should wear hijaab. Also strongly present in this discourse is that Muslim women should dress “modestly” because it protects them from lustful gazes and a man’s uncontrollable sexual desires.

It is difficult not to see how Muslim men are (1) holding women responsible for their sexual thoughts, desires, and/or behaviors, (2) dictating how women should dress, and (3) reinforcing their authority and control over women. If the Muslim men who prefer their spouses or relatives to wear hijaab cannot impose it, they will preach it in a way that makes non-hijaab-wearing women feel guilty and like “bad Muslims.” More on this later.

The problem with Muslim men constantly preaching about hijaab and feeling a sense of urgency to talk about it is that it implies Muslim women cannot speak for themselves and that their opinions are not as important or credible. I find it quite awkward and irrational when a Muslim man, especially a scholar, shares his thoughts on hijaab for several reasons. For one, Muslim men do not and cannot fully understand the lived experiences of Muslim women, both those who wear hijaab and don’t. Second, it would be like asking a White non-Muslim man to discuss how people of color “should feel” about whatever experiences they may have had with racism in their lives. It doesn’t make sense when one could be talking to the affected people directly. What does a Muslim man know about being a Muslim woman and wearing or not wearing hijaab? Nothing. So, why not talk to Muslim women themselves? Why not let Muslim women scholars address and discuss this topic? Wouldn’t that generate a richer discussion instead of listening to Muslim men simply sharing their “thoughts” and “scholarly knowledge” about something that will never affect them?

When we allow male heterosexual interpretations dominate the discourse, it leads to pushing fellow Muslims out of our community. In particular, Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab are far too often stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded by other Muslims. At Islamic conventions, banquets, or even art festivals, the absence of non-hijaab wearing Muslim speakers, activists and artists is extremely shameful. At a time when Islamophobia is rampantly growing and hating on Muslims is defended as “free speech,” our community works very hard to break stereotypes, but at the same time, we ignore the oppression existing within our community – and I’m not even talking about what happens in Muslim majority-countries either, I’m talking about how we treat each other here in North America.

Let me quickly share a true story to illustrate what I’m getting at: the other day, I was waiting at the traffic light when I noticed a White police officer in the car next to me. He kept staring at me and shooting me dirty looks. I considered the possibility that the music I had playing reminded him of the sad and lonely time when he missed the “Niyaz” concert earlier this year, hence the angry look. Or, I considered the possibility that he was simply racist scum. Anyway, it is one thing for me to anticipate these kinds of encounters with ignorant White non-Muslims, but I believe it is worse when people of color do it to each other, or more specifically, when Muslims do it to other Muslims. This is why it upsets me when I hear Muslim women share their experiences of discrimination and judgment from within our community just because they don’t wear the hijaab. I cannot speak for them, but no one should have to feel that way in their own community (or anywhere, really). The fact that they feel this way and the rest of the community overlooks it – along with other problems like the way non-Arab Muslims are treated – represents a large and serious problem that we need to resolve.

If we Muslims truly care about the unity of the Ummah – something that we always seem to groan and complain about – then critical self-reflection is required. Rather than focusing on how Muslim women dress, Muslim men should turn inward and address serious issues like the misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, the way we’re conditioned to perceive and treat women, and how patriarchy is counter-productive to Islam’s message of gender equality. Muslim men need to trust that Muslim women are smart enough to discuss hijaab and dress code on their own. We also need to become allies for the Muslim women who seek equal prayer space, equal opportunities, and equal rights in our community.

These sermons on hijaab or how women dress are getting old and nauseating. It’s time we take some responsibility and examine what needs to be improved if we really care about preserving the Prophet’s message (peace be upon him).

Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress

Update (01/08/2016): I wrote this post 6 years ago and I’ve noticed how it is still one of my most popular blog posts. I’m grateful and glad people still find it worth reading and sharing. I still stand by every word I said in the original post, but over the years, I’ve noticed how this post has been misused. I’ve seen it posted in Yahoo Questions, random internet forums, and other sites where non-Muslims either characterized me as being the “exceptional Muslim man” (i.e. Muslim men are misogynistic by default) or use my post to perpetuate their Islamophobic commentary about how Islam is “inherently” sexist and misogynistic. Also, there were times when I received requests from non-Muslim groups who wanted to republish my post on their site so that they can “provide insight” about the Muslim community. I did not feel comfortable having this republished on a non-Muslim site, so I declined. The other day, I noticed links to my blog coming from university forums/discussion boards and the thought of a non-Muslim professor using this particular post made me uncomfortable for many reasons. I would hate it if a Muslim student was made to feel uncomfortable or singled out in a classroom discussion about my post. I would feel terrible if that Muslim student was treated like the spokesperson for all Muslims and was asked to share his/her thoughts about my blog post. Given how there are Muslim women who do believe the hijab is obligatory, it would be totally unethical and horrible if a non-Muslim professor used my post in a classroom discussion AGAINST a Muslim student, as if to say, “Look! See, this Muslim is saying something opposite of what you’re saying, why can’t you think more like him?!” I’ve also seen non-Muslims use my post to say that the hijab and niqab are oppressive, but I never said that in my post. I’m saying that people should stop obsessing over how Muslim women choose to dress. Policing and telling Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab that they shouldn’t wear it is just as oppressive as telling them that they should wear it.

I know we cannot control how people use our posts, but I feel that if I add a disclaimer here, at least it will make it clear that I do not support the idea of non-Muslims using this post to perpetuate Islamophobia against Muslims/Islam. So, just to be clear: this post was written for Muslims ONLY. It is about an internal discussion within the Muslim community and I’m only addressing fellow Muslims. It is OUR conversation, NOT one for non-Muslims to intervene or interject their opinions. I do not give permission to non-Muslims to use this post. I welcome non-Muslims to read it, but know that it is NOT your conversation and that you are NOT an ally if you think Islam is inherently sexist or misogynistic. If non-Muslims are interested in sharing it (in cases where they feel like they can draw parallels with sexism in their own communities), then please do so in ethical and responsible ways. Thanks for reading.

A lot of people need to calm down about this subject. Whether it’s among non-Muslims, Muslims, or fascist Islamophobes in Europe and North America, there seems to be a growing obsession with Muslim women and the way they dress.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event as part of “Islamic Awareness Week” hosted by a local university where a panel of three Muslim women shared their personal experiences and views on Islam and modesty. Two of the women wore hijaab (headscarf) and one didn’t, which apparently, I’m sorry to say, seemed enough to draw controversy.

In the Q&A discussion, a young Muslim man said something that made me take pause and then realize how utterly offensive and repulsive his comment was. He argued that the Qur’an is “not spiritual,” but rather “practical,” especially in regards to hijaab because, according to him, “the hijaab is supposed to cover a woman’s neck and I admit, when I see a woman’s neck, I get attracted.” I smiled and looked at one of the panelists, a friend of mine, who also smiled at the absurdity of his comment. I followed up by tossing the panel a question that was set up for my friend to spike the young man’s comment: “I am sick and tired of men telling Muslim women how to dress,” she said boldly. She included both the Muslim men who impose hijaab/niqaab/burqa on Muslim women and the Islamophobes who are hell-bent on banning these styles of dress.

I am familiar with the young man’s views on hijaab and modesty. I used to say similar things myself. I would see Muslim women wearing tight shirts, jeans, and no hijaab, and I would judge them in my thoughts: “Look at how she’s dressed and she calls herself ‘Muslim’?” Then I would gripe to my Muslim friends, both female and male, about how “westernized” Muslim women are becoming. I remember coming across Muslim women wearing hijaab and tight jeans and thinking how hypocritical she must be. And the reason why my Muslim friends and I were so upset about this was because such manner of dress drew lustful and sexual gazes from men. In other words, I believed that, for the most part, Muslim women were responsible for the “uncontrollable” sexual urges of men.

It was always a Muslim woman’s fault. If some ignorant non-Muslim playfully tugged her hijaab in the computer lab, it was her fault because she gave him the liberty to be that free with her. If a man was checking her out, it was her fault because she didn’t choose to wear a long shirt. Unfortunately, I find this sexist mentality to be very prevalent in Sunni orthodoxies, especially among Muslim men. The disturbing thing, in my opinion, is how I thought that everything I believed about Muslim women, how they should dress, and how they should behave was not sexist, but actually liberating because it taught Muslim women how to be “real,” “respectable” women.

Over the years, I learned that it wasn’t about liberating women. It was about controlling them and molding them the way *I* wanted them to be. The way a lot Muslim *men* want them to be: obedient, passive, soft-spoken, sensitive, reserved, etc. In my mind, it was improper and sacrilegious for Muslim women to even flirt with a man, to even make a mentioning of sex, to even have male friends. Why? Because with this sexist, over-controlling, and uber-conservative mindset, it is always about sex.

ALWAYS. ABOUT. SEX.

Why can’t Muslim women be friends with men? Because there is a chance of sex. Why can’t Muslim women laugh or smile at a man? Because one of them might be thinking about sex. Why can’t Muslim women and Muslim men shake hands? Because they might get so turned on that they’ll rip each other’s clothes off and start having sex. Oh my God, if I hear a woman give the azaan (call to prayer), I’ll start thinking about sex because a woman’s voice is attractive and alluring. Oh no, we can’t take the partition out of the Mosques, the women and men won’t be able to keep their hands off each other. As if there’s a high risk of a giant orgy or something. That sounds practical.

And it’s not that sex is a bad thing — it’s not — but when it’s used in this hyper-sexual context to control the way women think, behave, and dress, it becomes something very dirty. Extremely dirty (see the paragraph above). Over time, this made me very uncomfortable because on one hand, Muslims would stress so much on “modesty” and not seeing each other as sex objects, but ironically, that is exactly what we were doing: sexually objectifying each other. The young Muslim man at the event who said he gets attracted by a woman’s neck is talking about her as a sex object, as if her body is so tempting that he cannot resist it, hence she must cover up. It also made me wonder if he had any idea how disgusting and sexual his comment was, considering that the majority of women (Muslim and non-Muslim) in the room had their necks visible? What is he saying, that he is thinking about each and every one of them sexually? And that if his mind is flooded with sexual thoughts, it is their fault?

This needs to stop. Muslim men need to stop examining Muslim women like lab specimens and instead, turn inward and look at themselves. It’s like blaming a rape victim and saying “she was just asking for it” because of the way she was dressed. Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men tell me, “Oh brother, look at the way Muslim women dress these days. They have no dignity, they don’t care about the Sunnah or Islam.” Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men point out a Muslim woman and say, “Look at how she’s wearing tight jeans” or a “t-shirt” or “not even wearing hijaab.”

My response is: So? Let them dress however they want. Look at you, I say sometimes to certain Muslim men, you’re wearing a muscle shirt, you don’t think you’re showing off your skin or that women can’t get attracted? How can you look into a person’s soul and judge them based on what they are wearing? The Qur’an talks so much about humility, yet so many of us are quick to make judgments about a person’s faith, as if we have some authority to do so. I have known Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab and are more religious/spiritual than I am. I have known Muslim women who wear hijaab, but hardly know anything about the Prophet’s life (peace be upon him). This doesn’t mean one is better than the other. The way a Muslim woman dresses should not be seen as reflective of her faith.

As a Muslim man, I tend to stay away from this topic of how Muslim women dress only because I see so many other Muslim men arrogantly giving lectures, writing books, and dictating in Mosques about how Muslim women *should* dress. Where are the lectures, books, and sermons that tell men to keep themselves in check? Why is there this sexist double-standard and attitude that Muslim women cannot be attracted to Muslim men either? Where are the imams and religious leaders who say, “If you’re getting turned on by a woman’s neck, that is your problem because *you* are seeing her as a sex object?” The truth is that Muslim men can have sexual thoughts about Muslim women regardless if they’re wearing hijaab or not, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. If a man feels distracted by sexual thoughts, it is not because of the way Muslim women are dressed, it is because his mind has wandered off in that direction. He should not blame a Muslim woman for his issues, he should turn inward and deal with it himself.

There is nothing wrong with desire and attraction. We are naturally attracted to each other as human beings. It is the way God made us and Islam does not teach celibacy, but rather to fulfill our desires in responsible ways. I am not saying we should see each other as sex objects, I am saying we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that yes, you may see someone in the Mosque or at an MSA event that you are attracted to, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts are “evil” and “impure.” How can we talk so much about marriage in Muslim communities without also talking about attraction, physical and non-physical? There is such a thing as Love and marriage where people find their partners beautiful and attractive, and don’t view/treat one another as sex objects.

We need to stop obsessing over the way Muslim women dress because it continues to lead to many problems that exists in our communities today: awkward and often hypersexualized gender interactions/relations, stigmatization of non-hijaab Muslim women, sexism and misogyny, and even problems in relationships/marriage, among many other things. If we really care about God’s Love and Compassion, then why make others in our community — people we are supposed to consider our spiritual sisters and brothers — feel like “bad” or “deviant” Muslims just because they don’t dress the way *we* want them to?

Why not express our compassion by accepting each other for who they are, treat everyone equally and refrain from making judgments? Isn’t that what humility is about?

The Flying Carpet Fallacy

Talking about Islamophobia in the United States can get tricky.  Similar to discussions about racism, raising awareness about Islamophobia often result in fallacious flip tactics, where the ignorant non-Muslim fellow turns the tables and accuses you of being divisive, confrontational, and even racist.  This reaction occurs, I believe, because such discussions about racism and prejudice not only address social problems that we’ve been largely conditioned to think are “not real,” or “not as prominent,” but also generate the perception and fear that you are trying to create conflict.  And people don’t like conflict, especially about these issues.

I’ve noticed a pattern when talking with certain non-Muslim individuals about this issue (and they may or may not be Islamophobes; sometimes they’re actually well-intentioned, but just misinformed).  You may be talking to them about Islamophobia and the struggles of Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America, but their responses often mystify you because they’re completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about.  They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical, racist, and exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world.”

It goes something like this:

Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week in the banquet room, you should come!”  The colleague, Person B, lights up with excitement, “Awesome!  I Love research, what’s your project on?”  Person A replies, “It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.”  Person B’s smile fades.  “Oh,” he says.  Person A shares a bit of information from her research, but then Person B shifts the focus of the conversation and says something like, “Hey, it’s not as bad as the way Christians are persecuted in Arab countries!”

Before she knows it, Person A finds herself on a flying carpet and sent to some random Muslim-majority country.  It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute, how the heck did I end up here?!  I was talking about–” and then she gets dragged into a discussion that wasn’t even what she was talking about in the first place.  But she is not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, she is sent to an orientalist fantasy of the “Middle-East,” which only exists in person B’s imagination — a flawed imagining of  “Arab countries” that is consistent with the stereotypical and often racist discourse perpetuated about Islam and Muslims in mainstream American media.  Person B is poorly equipped with the knowledge and experience to hold an intelligent discussion about Islamophobia and Muslim-majority countries, and his magic carpet takes you to a place that blurs the distinction between Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Turks, Afghans, and the various nations and regions they belong to.  That is, what he terms as “the Muslim world,” is simply a single entity in his mind, sort of like an “Indian shop” I know in a nearby suburban town that sells Middle-Eastern and South Asian clothing, belly dance outfits, and plays Far Eastern and New-Age music over the radio for customers.  Yeah.

But Person A may also run into Person C.  Unlike Person B, Person C is quite informed about the social and political dynamics of certain Muslim-majority countries and has actually traveled to one or two.  However, he resorts to the same fallacy, but only after showing off his “credentials” first.  Regardless of how intelligent and articulate he may sound, he still makes the error of using comparative arguments to negate the experiences of the initial group (Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America).  This is why Person B and C Love using the flying the carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for you to come back.  The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed.  You may have heard variations of these flying carpet fallacies before when talking about Islamophobia in western media and society (feel free to add to the list):

1.  “Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!!” (real comment)

2.  “However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.” (real comment)

3.  “You cannot be a real Muslim and a feminist.  The true representation of Islam is to kill the infidel and oppress women.  Just look at the Middle-East.” (real comment)

4.  “Try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!” (real comment).

5.  “By the way, in my knee-jerk American way, I have to say, I am so sorry you are discriminated against here, but have you any, any idea how even Pakistani Christians are discriminated against in Pakistan?” (real comment).

6.  “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby.  It’s a damn movie.  I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too” (real comment).

If you encounter Person D, then you’re really in for it.  Person D is the Islamophobe.  Person D hates Person A solely because she is Muslim.  Prepare to be taken to a place where bearded, scimitar-wielding mullahs chase non-Muslims around from dusk till dawn, where a man wakes up early in the morning and then decides to strap a bomb to himself because “the Qur’an told him so,” and where oppressed, veiled Muslim women await their White non-Muslim male saviors to liberate them (depending on Person D’s ideology, the savior for the “Muslim world” may not just be Western civilization, but also Jesus, peace be upon him).  Person D is only concerned about demonizing you and your faith; there is no compassion in his heart.  Person D wants to get under your skin and is so hell-bent on vilifying Muslims that he often comes looking for you, whether on your blog, Facebook page, at CAIR events, or even in your classroom.  If I were to describe Person D theatrically, he’s the guy with the sword shouting, “Fight me!”  There is no point in wasting your time with someone who spends the lot of his time reading hate-literature just for the sake of using that propaganda to argue with Muslims and bully them.

The key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, whether it’s used by Person B, C, or D, is to (1) not get dragged into their orientalist fantasies and (2) bring the conversation home.  One can also refute the fashion in which the said Persons use their comparative arguments and then bring the discussion back to your original point.  Countering this fallacy does not mean that you reject, deny, or ignore the real problems that exist in Muslim-majority countries, whether they concern minority groups or the rights of women.  The point is that comparative arguments by Person B, C, and D are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.

Often times, when discussing race, we hear people say, “Racism exists everywhere, no matter where you go in the world!”  Yes, it does exist everywhere, but that does not make everything “ok.”  The statement behaves as if it is futile to do anything about it and that we should just “not talk about it.”  Similarly, when we talk about Islamophobia and someone responds with a point about minority groups being mistreated, stigmatized, or persecuted in a Muslim-majority country, the implication is that (1) it’s worse “over there” for “people like me” and (2) Muslims should be “more grateful” to “be here.”  If we’re going to talk about Islamophobia in the US, then let’s keep the conversation centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Muslim-Americans.  The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country.  Neither topic is “more important” than the other;  discuss them separately and individually instead of comparing.

Bring the discussion home.  Don’t get on the magic carpet.  Take it home with you and use it for fun stuff.  But be warned, when you emphasize and stand by your point, the person using the fallacy may get impatient, frustrated, and even rude with you.  He may start hurling insults and personal attacks at you (especially true for Person D).

Stay calm and don’t get discouraged.  Because when someone demonstrates their inability to engage in civil and mature discussion/debate, they simply expose how ignorant and close-minded they really are.  It is my hope that in most cases, raising awareness about Islamophobia doesn’t result in personal attacks and racism, but in dialogue and understanding.

Peace.

Kurbaan: Stereotypes, Islamophobia, and the Sexy Terrorist


I’ve been on and off with Indian, or “Bollywood” films over the years.  Though lately, ever since I saw the new Aamir Khan film, 3 Idiots, and noticed how it helped improve my Urdu/Hindi, I have been watching more Bollywood movies. My personal history with Bollywood films is a bit complicated and would be more appropriate for a separate post. Very similar to how Sobia Ali opens her excellent piece, “Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate,”  I’ve found my connection to Bollywood films to be problematic for a number of reasons:   I didn’t grow up in a South Asian country, my Urdu/Hindi is not so great, and I’m a Pakistani Muslim.  Though much of the Indian film industry is packed with Muslim stars, directors, screenwriters, lyricists, and musicians, there are numerous Bollywood films that contain either implicit or explicit anti-Pakistani sentiments (one of the major reasons why I stopped watching them a few years ago).

However, in recent years, more Pakistani singers such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, and Kamran Ahmed have been producing immensely popular songs for Bollywood films, and Indian celebrities such as Aamir Khan, Emraan Hashmi (both Muslims), Mahesh Bhatt, and others have visited Pakistan on several occasions to promote more artistic collaborations between the two nations.  Movies like the Pakistani film Khuda Ke Liye represent the emergence of Indo-Pak collaborations, for instance.

But the latest film directed by Rensil D’Silva, Kurbaan, is anything but progressive.  Being Muslim, I have always paid close attention to the Muslim stars in Indian cinema, namely Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan, and as a kid, it was nice to watch films where I knew the protagonists were played by Muslims, even though most of the time they’re playing Hindu characters (which makes for another interesting discussion). Kurbaan is one of those rare movies where the Muslim actor, Saif Ali Khan, actually plays a Muslim.  However, to my disappointment, the film is set in the backdrop of terrorism and loaded with Islamophobic stereotypes, something that is so typical in both Hollywood and Bollywood cinema whenever Muslims are portrayed.

Saif Ali Khan plays Ehsaan, a university professor in India, who passionately falls in love with a Hindu professor, Avantika, played by real-life girlfriend Kareena Kapoor. Their love carries them overseas when Avantika receives a job offer to teach in the United States. After settling in a predominately Indian Muslim neighborhood, Ehsaan, upon Avantika’s encouragement, applies to teach a class on “Islam and the modern world” at the same university. Ehsaan gets the job, Avantika gets excited, the two embrace, and they live happily ever after. Right?

But wait, don’t forget about the Muslims next door. The men are mostly bearded and all of the Muslim women are wearing the hijab (I point this detail out not to stereotype Muslim women who wear hijab as oppressed and/or religiously conservative, but to argue that these depictions are too often aligned with orientalist stereotypes about Muslim women). Strict gender segregation rules are set in place when Ehsaan and Avantika visit Bhaijan, their elder Muslim neighbor. To say the scene was nauseating would be an understatement — it confirms every single stereotype a person may have about Muslim women: oppressed, secluded, and subservient to men. The eldest Muslim woman, Aapa/Nasreen (Bhaijan’s wife), is the controlling one, she keeps the Muslim women in line and every time she speaks about Allah, she does so in the most ominous way possible. One of the wives, Salma, tries to express her frustration at how Muslim men don’t permit women to work, but Aapa interjects and says Allah has “no greater duty” for Muslim women than to be a homemaker. Avantika, a Hindu woman, represents the contrast and is familiar to international non-Muslim audiences, especially in the United States: she is unveiled, progressive, a working woman, and unsettled by the restrictive atmosphere of her Muslim neighbors. Earlier in the film, we see some reluctance from her father when he meets Ehsaan, and while he says he prefers Avantika to marry a Hindu man, he does so in a friendly manner and eventually becomes open to the idea.

Salma’s rebellious attitude brings deadly consequences. One night, Avantika looks out her window and sees Salma trying to escape in her husband’s jeep, but she is physically assaulted, and pulled back into her house by her spouse. Typical Muslim husband. Later, Avantika sneaks into Salma’s house and overhears Bhaijan and the other Muslim male neighbors discussing their plan to blow up a flight carrying a U.S. delegation to Iraq. Avantika is startled when she finds the dead body of Salma and the Muslim men catch her spying on them. She runs back to her house, locks the door, and rushes into the arms of her husband. Ehsaan tells her there’s nothing to be afraid of as he walks her back into the living room. Then Ehsaan says, “You all can come out now.” The Muslim men reveal themselves out of concealment. Avantika’s eyes fill with horror as she comes to the terrible realization that, yep, her husband is a terrorist.

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

Ow.

See, Hindu women (or any non-Muslim woman): never get involved with a Muslim man. Wait, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor are dating in real life. Nevermind. But still, seriously? This is something that really offends me about the movie. Saif Ali Khan is a charming Muslim man who teaches about Islam in a university, and he’s a terrorist?! The film provokes suspicion about Muslims at almost all angles. Suspicion about Muslim lovers/husbands/professors like Ehsaan; about Muslim neighbors like Bhaijan and company; and about Muslim women, who join their husbands in the plot to blow up a subway station at the end of the film. No matter how loving, intelligent, or kind they look on the surface, there is an inevitable extremism boiling inside of them. And accompanying this suspicion is the ominous Middle Eastern music that plays every time Muslims are on screen, as if every Muslim has some connection to the Middle East, even if they’re Indian and speak Hindi! (and why is Middle Eastern music always played so ominously in these kind of movies?)

Enter the “good moderate Muslim,” Riyaz (played by Vivek Oberoi). We are introduced to him early in the film as a TV reporter. He returns from a trip to Iraq and tells his Muslim girlfriend, Rihana (Dia Mirza), who is unveiled and dressed in Western attire, a noticeable contrast to Aapa and the other Muslim wives, about how “Iraq is a mess.” When Riyaz meets with his father in a restaurant, his father is disappointed with the U.S. news coverage in Iraq. What about the Iraqi civilian casualties, Riyaz’s father asks. Riyaz defensively says, “Dad, we are Americans. That is the kind of fundamentalist mentality that has made things worse for all Muslims.” Whoa, to speak about Iraqi causalities is a “fundamentalist mentality”? If that is the case, then the majority of the Muslim population (and anti-war activists) would fit that profile!

Riyaz is a superficial character. He is the super-patriotic, unrealistically pro-American character that is trying to speak for the majority Muslims, but fails. He fails because he tries to take on the definition of “moderate Muslim” – he is the “good Muslim” in the simplistic and dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. The kind of Muslim that Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobes fantasize about. The kind of Muslim who supports, advocates, and legitimizes Islamophobic, anti-Muslim policies and wars. The kind of Muslim who is only good because he is anti-Muslim. The “moderate Muslim” label is something a lot of Muslims are fed up with because it is generated by either Islamophobes or misguided individuals who have a very superficial understanding about Islam and Muslims in general. The term, “moderate Muslim,” not only reinforces the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary, but also the idea that “Islam has been hijacked,” or that the majority of Muslims in the world are hostile, violent, and oppressive. The “good Muslims” are in the minority; they advance the “interests” of the United States first and foremost. If a Muslim is anti-war and criticizes the Iraq war, s/he cannot be a “moderate Muslim” because, as Riyaz establishes in the scene with his father, that is a “fundamentalist mentality.”  In other words, the “moderate Muslim” is categorized and placed into a very narrow, tight box — anyone outside of that box is perceived as suspicious, dangerous, anti-American, and even violent.

Riyaz becomes a prominent character once his fiance, Rihana, dies in the plane bombing orchestrated by Ehsaan et al. Riyaz gets in touch with Avantika and comes up with a plan to join Ehsaan’s terrorist group. During a security check, Riyaz is “randomly searched” by a security guard and shows some resistance. “I don’t see anyone else getting searched,” Riyaz says. “It’s just a random search, sir” replies the guard. After being searched, Riyaz sits next to Ehsaan and complains about being profiled. “I’ve got a Muslim name, that’s why they had a problem with me.” Ehsaan replies, “I know what you mean.” At first, I appreciated this scene because it showed the experience of a Muslim getting profiled, but then you, as the viewer, are reminded that Riyaz is trying to befriend Ehsaan in order to stop him. We can’t tell if Riyaz is speaking for himself or simply putting on a front to impress Ehsaan.

We get to see Ehsaan’s lecture on Islam when he invites Riyaz to his classroom. I found this scene to be immensely problematic. When a student asks about why violence comes from Muslim majority countries, Riyaz raises his hand and argues the same point his father makes early in the film: “What about the Muslim casualties?” He argues points that many Muslims would argue if they were asked the same question, i.e. the violence in Muslim majority countries cannot be separated from U.S. and Israeli occupation of those countries. But this is all “fundamentalist” to us because the audience knows Riyaz is not there speaking for himself. He’s simply saying it in order to win Ehsaan’s trust and foil his plans.

There is something else going on in this movie that I must point out. Unlike the way Hollywood portrays Muslim terrorists, Ehsaan’s character is designed to gain the sympathy of the audience. He is not only presented as a good-looking, charming, and sexy Muslim man, but also as a lethal and unstoppable killer who can drop six police officers faster than you can say “007.” His action-hero stealth skills remind me of the tragic hitman protagonist in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional. This is interesting for a number of reasons. In Hollywood films, the Muslim terrorist is played by a no-name actor, completely unfamiliar to the audience. Saif Ali Khan, however, is a sex symbol in Bollywood cinema. Audiences are familiar with him, therefore it makes sense to develop his character, no matter what horrible acts of violence he commits. A back story is given briefly — he was previously married, happily in love, but his wife and child were killed by U.S. military forces. Thus, he was recruited by extremists.

The sex scene between Ehsaan and Avantika is another example of how sexualized (exoticized?) the Muslim male terrorist is. The bullet wound on his chest symbolizes his indestructible power and guardianship of his love, Avantika. Like Leon the hitman, Ehsaan is a killer, but he has a heart and tragic story behind him. Ehsaan decides not to bomb the subway at the end and instead, commits suicide to save his beloved Avantika. This does not make me happy about the way Muslims are depicted in this film at all, but it is certainly a very different depiction we usually see in Hollywood films.

In closing, Kurbaan offers nothing new about “terrorism” as director Rensil D’Silva aspired for. In an interview, he said that the “alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged,” which is extremely offensive and insulting. It perpetuates the stereotype that only Muslims carry out acts of terror, and that “Muslim” is synonymous with “terrorist.”  (My regular readers have heard this rant before on my blog here).  It tells Muslims (and non-Muslims) that the only way to be “good” is to be uncritical of imperialism in Muslim-majority countries — in fact, “good Muslims” must support and praise the United States (as well as Israel and India) in their violent wars that target Muslims (whom we are to perpetually believe are the “bad Muslims”).

As for Bollywood’s depictions of Muslim characters, it is not different from previous representations. As Sobia Ali wrote in the article I mentioned above:

It seems that in the past 10 or so years, it has been difficult to find a film in which the Muslim aspect of a main character’s identity was simply just an aspect of their identity, as was the colour of their hair. Hindi films in which the central characters (i.e., hero and/or heroine) are Muslim maintain Muslim-ness as central to the storyline and the storyline is usually somehow political – either in severe (terrorism) or romantic (inter-religious love) ways, or both.

We need to see more films that accurately depict Muslims in the way the community deserves. Always setting Muslims within the backdrop of terrorism is offensive as it is nauseating. After Kurbaan, I wondered what the point of it was. What does it tell us about Muslims? One may get the impression that Muslims are mistrustful and dangerous. That Muslim women are oppressed and need saving from the “strict” religion that Islam apparently is. Others may get the impression that Muslim men are “tough” and “bad-ass” individuals who struggle with extremist interpretations of Islam. All of these stereotypes reinforce Islamophobic narratives that hurt the Muslim community more than anything.

D’Silva’s film carries the tagline, “Some Love Stories Have Blood on Them.” Well, apparently, some “Love stories” have shameful Islamophobia on them, too.

Jesus was a Palestinian and Why it Matters

Because of modern alarmist reactions to the word “Palestine,” many non-Arabs and non-Muslims take offense when it is argued that Jesus was a Palestinian (peace be upon him). Jesus’ ethnicity, skin color, and culture often accompany this conversation, but it is interesting how few people are willing to acknowledge the fact he was non-European.  A simple stroll down the Christmas aisle of your local shopping store will show you the dominant depiction of Jesus: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, White man.

Islamophobia and anti-Arab propaganda have conditioned us to view Palestinians as nothing but heartless suicide bombers, “terrorists,” and “enemies of freedom/democracy.” Perpetual media vilification and demonization of Palestinians, in contrast to the glorification of Israel, obstructs us from seeing serious issues such as the Palestinian refugee crisis, the victims of Israel’s atrocious three-week assault on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009 , the tens of thousands of homeless Palestinians, and many other struggles that are constantly addressed by human rights activists around the world. To speak from the perspective of the Palestinians, especially in casual non-Arab and non-Muslim settings, generates controversy because of the alignment between Palestinians and violent stereotypes. So, how could Jesus belong to a group of people that we’re taught to dehumanize?

When I’ve spoken to people about this, I’ve noticed the following responses: “No, Jesus was a Jew,” or “Jesus is not Muslim.” The mistake isn’t a surprise to me, but it certainly reveals how ignorant much of society still is. Being a Palestinian does not mean one is Muslim or vice versa. Prior to the brutal and unjust dispossession of indigenous Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel, the word “Palestine” was a geographic term applied to Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Jews. Although most Palestinians are Muslim today, there is a significant Palestinian Christian minority who are often overlooked, especially by the mainstream western media.

The dominant narrative in the mainstream media not only distorts and misrepresents the Palestinian struggle as a religious conflict between “Muslims and Jews,” but consequentially pushes the lives of Palestinian Christians into “non-existence.”   That is, due to media reluctance of reporting the experiences and stories of Palestinian Christians, it isn’t a surprise when White Americans are astonished by the fact that Palestinian and Arab Christians do, in fact, exist.  One could argue that the very existence of Palestinian Christians is threatening, as it disrupts the sweeping and overly-simplistic “Muslims versus Jews” Zionist narrative. It is because recognizing the existence of Palestinian Christians opposing Israeli military occupation, as well as Jews who oppose the occupation, is to reveal more voices, perspectives, and complexities to a conflict that has been dominantly portrayed as “Palestinians hate Jews” or “Palestinians want to exterminate Jews.”

Yeshua (Jesus’ real Aramaic name) was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and home to one of the world’s largest Palestinian Christian communities.   The Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, marks the birthplace of Jesus and is sacred to both Christians and Muslims.  While tourists from the around the world visit the site, they are subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks.  The Israeli construction of the West Bank barrier also severely restricts travel for local Palestinians.  In April of 2010, Al-Jazeera English reported Israeli authorities barring Palestinian Christian from entering Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Holy Sepulchre during Easter.  Yosef Zabaneh, a Palestinian Christian merchant in Ramallah, told IPS News: “The Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank doesn’t distinguish between us, but treats all Palestinians with contempt.”

Zabaneh’s comments allude to the persistent dehumanization of Palestinians, as well as the erasure of Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims.  By constantly casting Palestinians as the villains, even the term “Palestine” becomes “evil.”  There is refusal to recognize, for example, that the word “Palestine” was used as early as the 5th century BCE by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.  John Bimson, author of “The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life,” acknowledges the objection to the use of “Palestine”:

The term ‘Palestine’ is derived from the Philistines. In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus seems to have used the term Palaistine Syria (= Philistine Syria) to refer to the whole region between Phoenicia and the Lebanon mountains in the north and Egypt in the south… Today the name “Palestine” has political overtones which many find objectionable, and for that reason some writers deliberately avoid using it. However, the alternatives are either too clumsy to be used repeatedly or else they are inaccurate when applied to certain periods, so “Palestine” remains a useful term…

Deliberately avoiding the use of the name “Palestine” not only misrepresents history, but also reinforces anti-Palestinian racism as acceptable.  When one examines the argument against Jesus being a Palestinian, one detects a remarkable amount of hostility aimed at both Palestinians and Muslims.  One cannot help but wonder, is there something threatening about identifying Jesus as a Palestinian?  Professor Jack D. Forbes writes about Jesus’ multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environment:

When the Romans came to dominate the area, they used the name Palestine. Thus, when Yehoshu’a [Jesus] was born, he was born a Palestinian as were all of the inhabitants of the region, Jews and non-Jews. He was also a Nazarene (being born in Nazareth) and a Galilean (born in the region of Galilee)… At the time of Yehoshu’a’s birth, Palestine was inhabited by Jews—descendants of Hebrews, Canaanites, and many other Semitic peoples—and also by Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks, and even Arabs.

Despite these facts, there are those who use the color-blind argument: “It does not matter what Jesus’ ethnicity or skin color was. It does not matter what language he spoke. Jesus is for all people, whether you’re Black, White, Brown, Yellow, etc.” While this is a well-intentioned expression of inclusiveness and universalism, it misses the point.

When we see so many depictions of Jesus as a Euro-American White man, the ethnocentrism and race-bending needs to be called out.  In respect to language, for instance, Neil Douglas-Klotz, author of “The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus,” emphasizes on the importance of understanding that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, and that his words, as well as his worldview, must be understood in light of Middle Eastern language and spirituality.  Douglas-Klotz provides an interesting example which reminds me of the rich depth and meaning of Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi words, especially the word for “spirit”:

Whenever a saying of Jesus refers to spirit, we must remember that he would have used an Aramaic or Hebrew word. In both of these languages, the same word stands for spirit, breath, air, and wind.  So ‘Holy Spirit’ must also be ‘Holy Breath.’ The duality between spirit and body, which we often take for granted in our Western languages falls away.  If Jesus made the famous statement about speaking or sinning against the Holy Spirit (for instance, in Luke 12:10), then somehow the Middle Eastern concept of breath is also involved.

Certainly, no person is superior to another based on culture, language, or skin color, but to ignore the way Jesus’ Whiteness has been used to subjugate and discriminate against racial minorities in the West and many other countries is to overlook another important aspect of Jesus’ teachings: Love your neighbor as yourself.  Malcolm X wrote about White supremacists and slave-owners using Christianity to justify their “moral” and “racial superiority” over Blacks. In Malcolm’s own words, “The Holy Bible in the White man’s hands and its interpretations of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings.” Throughout history, whether it was in Jerusalem, Spain, India, Africa, or in the Americas, White so-called “Christians” cultivated a distorted interpretation of religion that was compatible with their racist, colonialist agenda (see my post on Christopher Columbus for more details).

In my discussions about Jesus being a person of color – a Palestinian – I encounter the argument that Jesus is depicted as Asian in Asian-majority countries, as Black in Black churches and homes, as Middle Eastern in Middle Eastern countries, etc.  While it is true that people of color portray Jesus as their own race, it is highly unlikely that these depictions will ever become the dominant, mainstream, and normalized image of Jesus. This speaks volumes about institutionalized white supremacy, as well as the way white supremacist ideologies operate as national and global systems of oppression.

And here we are in the 21st century where Islamophobia (also stemming from racism because the religion of Islam gets racialized) is on the rise; where people calling themselves “Christian” fear those who are darker skinned; where members of the KKK and anti-immigration movements behave as if Jesus was an intolerant White American racist who only spoke English despite being born in the Middle East! It is astonishing how so-called “Christians” like Ann Coulter call Muslims “rag-heads” when in actuality, Jesus himself would fit the profile of a “rag-head,” too. As would Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and the rest of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). As William Rivers Pitt writes:

The ugly truth which never even occurs to most Americans is that Jesus looked a lot more like an Iraqi, like an Afghani, like a Palestinian, like an Arab, than any of the paintings which grace the walls of American churches from sea to shining sea. This was an uncomfortable fact before September 11. After the attack, it became almost a moral imperative to put as much distance between Americans and people from the Middle East as possible. Now, to suggest that Jesus shared a genealogical heritage and physical similarity to the people sitting in dog cages down in Guantanamo is to dance along the edge of treason.

When refusing to affirm Jesus as a Palestinian Jew who spoke Aramaic — a Semitic language that is ancestral to Arabic and Hebrew — the West will continue to view Islam as a “foreign religion.” Hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims, Arabs, and others who are perceived to be Muslim will persist.  They will still be treated as “cultural outsiders” and “threats” to the West.  Interesting enough, Christianity and Judaism are never considered “foreign religions,” despite having Middle Eastern origins, like Islam.  As Douglas-Klotz insists, affirming Jesus as a native Middle Eastern person “enables Christians to understand that the mind and message” of Jesus arises from “the same earth as have the traditions of their Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers.”

Jesus would not prefer one race or group of people over another.  I believe he would condemn today’s demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinian people, as well as the misrepresentations of him that fuel white supremacy. As a Muslim, I believe Jesus was a Prophet of God, and if I were to have any say about the Christmas spirit, it would be based on Jesus’ character: humility, compassion, and Love. A Love in which all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, culture, religion, gender, and sexual orientation are respected and appreciated.

And in that spirit, I wish you all a merry Christmas. Alaha Natarak (Aramaic: God be with you).