Islamophobia Did Not Begin on 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against Collective Blame: A Response to Haroon Moghul

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In the aftermath of the horrific mass murder of 49 people, primarily Latinx, in Orlando, we hear the usual Islamophobic rhetoric, language (e.g. using “terrorist/terrorism” as code for “Muslim/Islam”), and commentaries from U.S. politicians, mainstream media outlets, and Islamophobes. In contrast to these simplistic, racist, and Islamophobic narratives, several articles have emphasized on solidarity between LGBTQIA Latinx and LGBTQIA Muslim communities. Additionally, queer Muslims continue to highlight on the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia, and many activists and organizations have called for the rejection of Islamophobia in response to Orlando.

Then I read Haroon Moghul’s latest article on CNN’s website.

Titled “How Muslims can fight extremism,” the article is filled with many of the issues I had with Fareed Zakaria’s CNN segment about how Muslims “need to take more active measures” against extremism. Moghul makes a similar argument, stating that “condemning terrorism is a woefully inadequate response to a persistent menace.” Reinforced throughout the piece is the harmful and dangerous notion that Muslims have not been “doing enough” to confront extremism and are therefore collectively complicit in violence carried out by other Muslims. Let’s go through his article point by point.

1. “How else is it that a small band of vile extremists have come to dominate the conversation about Islam, except that we have let this happen to us? Let’s take a long, hard, awkward look in the mirror.”

It’s hard to read these sentences without being appalled. They essentially assert that the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims — 1.5 billion of us — are to blame for “letting” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” It is not the fault of Islamophobes, it is not the fault of Hollywood’s 100+ years of demonizing and vilifying Muslims, it is not the fault of the mainstream media very rarely providing platforms for Muslims to speak (and if they do, the Muslim guests are often bullied and vilified), and it’s certainly not the fault of U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries. No, it’s our fault, the 1.5 billion Muslims who “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” Exactly how Muslims “let” this happen is never discussed or articulated in the article.

It’s disturbing how Moghul erases the voices of countless Muslims, who have not only been speaking out against crimes committed by other Muslim-identified individuals, but have also been working tirelessly against Islamophobia, anti-black racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. I’m not just talking about protests or community activism, but also about individual people who have to fight these oppressive forces every day in their workplaces, schools, and even in their own families. When Muslim youth are bullied and harassed in schools by both classmates and teachers, are we to say to them, “Sorry, but the bullies only think your religion is violent because you haven’t done enough to stop extremists from speaking for you, so there’s nothing we can do to help you”? When my parents worked multiple jobs and faced workplace discrimination, such as dealing with racist bosses and co-workers who would make fun of their accents and refer to them as “camel jockeys,” should I have turned to them and asked, “Why haven’t you done anything to stop these extremists from dominating the conversation about Islam”? See how ridiculous all of this sounds?

As my readers know, I don’t believe Muslims should have to publicly condemn crimes committed by other people. The same is never expected nor demanded of White Christians when a White Christian man carries out violence, so why should the burden be placed on Muslims? This position is often mistaken as being stubborn and close-minded, but it is really about equality and justice. If we really believe in equality, then we should not be treating one group of people different than another. 

Despite my position on this, Muslim community leaders and organizations in the U.S. and around the world have always condemned violent acts committed by other Muslims. Moghul, like Zakaria, acknowledges this, but insists that condemnations are “not enough” and that Muslims need to “do more.”

2. “The hundreds of millions of Muslims who reject extremism must start building out real, institutional alternatives to extremism, with serious funding, talent and commitment behind them. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars in the United States, for example, and on what? We have some nice mosques. Most of them are empty most of the week, except for a few hours every Friday afternoon. We built some Islamic schools. I guess that’s cool. But on the major metric, we’ve failed. It feels as if we are more unpopular than ever.”

There is a lot to unpack here. First, let’s contextualize who the “hundreds of millions of Muslims” are. This is something that should stick in people’s minds: Whenever we talk about the “Muslim community” or the global Muslim population, we should remember that we are talking about a population that spans from Morocco to the borders of China, with significant Muslim populations in non-Muslim majority countries in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. In other words, Muslims are not a monolith, and the global Muslim community is incredibly diverse and complex. In addition to ethnic and racial diversity, there is also spiritual diversity: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and so on.

Moghul proposes that these very Muslims, the ones who make up the racially, culturally, spiritually, and politically diverse majority, should invest in building “alternatives to extremism.” The implication here seems to be that “alternatives to extremism” don’t already exist in Muslim communities. The other, and perhaps more disturbing, implication is that the majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists,” and if we don’t listen to Moghul’s ideas about investing in “alternatives to extremism,” then more Muslims will become violent. The “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability, according to this logic.  Whether Moghul realizes that he is implicitly furthering the norm that Muslims should be treated as a suspect community, I’m not sure, but the erasure of Muslim organizing here is dangerous.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have seen Muslims organizing and actively participating in events, protests, fundraisers, and talks that address a wide range of issues, including interfaith dialogue, Muslim feminism, Islamophobia, solidarity with Black Lives Matter, justice for Palestine, etc. In Philadelphia, I see so many amazing events and initiatives organized by Muslims, many of which I have not been able to attend. Just last weekend, there was a panel workshop on “(Re)imagining Queer Unions in Islam.” Next month, the Philadelphia-based Muslim Wellness Foundation will be hosting its 2nd annual Black Muslim Psychology conference. The Muslim Life Program at Princeton University has also hosted countless events highlighting on issues that are often marginalized, such as Muslim women in the arts, narratives of the Black Muslim experience, Muslim masculinities, Muslim mental health, and so on (all of these events are open to the public, not just for Princeton students). The Muslim Anti-Racism Collective (or MuslimARC) focuses on racial justice education, outreach, and advocacy, often addressing intracommunity racism, particularly anti-Black racism in the Muslim community.

Are these groups and programs not “doing enough”?  Have these groups “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam”? If mainstream media does not provide any coverage of the work Muslims are doing on the ground, is it their fault that the media depicts Islam/Muslims as violent? Is it their fault that Muslims are now “more unpopular than ever”? Moghul does not seem to understand how white supremacy operates as a system, especially in the way it socializes people to view White people as individuals and treat people of color as representatives of the entire groups they belong to. This is the reason why we don’t see laws and policies target White people after a White terrorist commits an atrocious act of violence (even though White males represent more than half of the perpetrators responsible for mass shootings). Rather than blaming Muslims for how negatively we’re viewed, we should be working in solidarity against a racist system that has always privileged White people over communities of color.

I don’t present the examples of Muslim organizations above to suggest that the Muslim community is perfect. Not at all. Muslim communities, just like any other community, have the responsibility of challenging problems within, such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, anti-black racism, and other oppressive practices. However, acknowledging these problems within our communities is very different from collectively blaming Muslims for the violent actions of people like Omar Mateen. I also mention the Muslim organizations above because Moghul creates the impression that all Muslims seem to do is build mosques and Islamic schools (as if there isn’t anything significant about investing in these projects). After reading Moghul’s article, one would think that Muslims are an isolationist group that doesn’t do any outreach, advocacy, or educational work.

3. Many Americans want us banned from the country. In the battle for hearts and minds, we’re losing. Badly.”

Yes, it’s true that many in the U.S. want Muslims banned. Moghul is not wrong, but the implication here is that Muslims are to blame. It is our fault that people want to ban us. This is a disturbing victim-blaming mentality that leads to increasing more suspicion about Muslims. It is difficult not to see Moghul’s comments as a harsh accusation against the Muslim community. It reminds me of how Zakaria said that Muslims should be more “active” against extremism because it would make a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia. I cannot say Moghul agrees with Zakaria or not, but his comments about how we are “losing” the “battle for hearts and minds” seems to suggest that Muslims have an obligation to prove to non-Muslims — mostly White non-Muslims — that we oppose extremism.

4. “We need to turn this around. We need to fight back against extremism. We need to take ownership of the problems, because it’s the only way we’re going to take ownership of the solution. If you can’t criticize yourself, you can’t better yourself. If you can’t lay out a vision of the future, you’re going to live someone else’s future.”

In addition to talking down to Muslims, Moghul reiterates that Muslims are responsible for violent extremism. There is a lot to address here when it comes to an entire community taking “ownership” of Omar Mateen’s actions. When I discussed Moghul’s article with a friend, she said, “What is it that we could have done to stop him?” She pointed out that the FBI not only investigated and questioned Mateen on two occasions, but also determined that he did not pose a security threat, probably because they saw him sharing similar politics since he worked for G4S, the largest private security firm in the world (which supports Israeli apartheid and is complicit in human rights violations around the world). Furthermore, new information has been released about how the FBI tried to entrap Mateen. Is this, too, the fault of Muslims?

Dispatching informants to spy on or entrap Muslims is nothing new. I would hope that Moghul is aware of the NYPD surveillance program that spied on Muslim communities and sent “mosque-crawlers” into our houses of worship. What does it mean to “fight back against extremism” when we already see Muslims spying on one another and/or reporting each other to the FBI? In fact, it has been revealed that a Muslim man did report Mateen to the FBI, contradicting Donald Trump’s claim that Muslims don’t report fellow Muslims. I don’t point this out to advocate continued surveillance of Muslims or having Muslims become suspicious of one another. Research has found that the impact of the NYPD spy program was traumatizing for Muslims. But when Moghul says he wants Muslims to “fight back against extremism,” what else is he looking for? Our mosques are already monitored and many Muslims, including myself, are careful and cautious about what we say at community events or social gatherings with other Muslims — to the point where we see “self-censorship and decreased involvement in community groups.” Making a criticism of U.S. imperialism, for example, could get you put on a “terrorist watch list,” if you’re not on it already for the mere fact that you exist as a Muslim.

I wrote this in my critique of Zakaria’s CNN video, but it applies to Moghul’s article as well: Does “fighting back against extremism” mean increasing the suspicion that already exists for Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing FBI informants who are authorized to engage in sexual relationships with Muslim women?

5. “I’m calling for the chaotic Muslim middle — too long unrepresented or underrepresented — not to stand up and speak out, but to stand up and build out. We must design, fund, sustain and expand programs that target the very people extremists are going after.”

The “chaotic Muslim middle”? Given the context of how Moghul is accusing the Muslim community of not doing enough to “fight extremism,” his characterization of us as “chaotic” is nauseating and Orientalist. Again, Moghul speaks as if the “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability. Also, as mentioned earlier, the implication is that the vast majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists.” What I found troubling about the second sentence is that Moghul talks about targeting “the very people extremists are going after.” Who these people are is never mentioned in the article. How does one determine who the extremists are targeting? What Moghul seems to be calling for sounds a lot like a counter-terrorist program within the Muslim community (because we know how effective and wonderful U.S. counter-terrorist programs are, right?). Can you imagine being a teacher at an Islamic school and being trained to view all of your students as “potential terrorists”? If a student voices a opinion that sounds “too radical,” what is to be done with that student? Again, are we to police our communities more than they are already are?

6. Imagine if we could send significant numbers of young Muslims to meet their co-religionists and offer them aid and assistance, or to meet people they’ve never been exposed to, to be taught and to teach. Imagine if we leveraged our resources and our numbers to fight hate, intolerance and extremism. Imagine if young people saw they could help their co-religionists by working with mainstream institutions.”

On the surface, I don’t have any objection to Muslims meeting and working with other Muslims in different parts of the world, but Moghul is talking about this within a framework that collectively blames Muslims for “violent extremism.” The primary objective of the programs that Moghul describes seems more concerned with catering to a Western non-Muslim gaze that desires to the see the “Good Muslim” — i.e. the Muslim who fights against other Muslims that “threaten Western civilization” — than building transnational solidarity with other Muslims and communities across the world.

I don’t believe the “counter-extremist” approach is effective. In fact, I think it leads to more profiling, surveillance, and civil rights violations against Muslims. Yes, it would be great to see more Muslim organizations that work towards building more solidarity internationally, but we also need to resist this “helping” narrative. It carries connotations of an arrogant savior complex that assumes U.S.-based Muslims “know what’s best” for people in Muslim-majority countries. What we need to focus on instead is solidarity, i.e. working with the groups and organizations that are already fighting against oppression in Muslim-majority countries. Solidarity is a better practice because it does not arrogantly assume that Muslims in other parts of the world need “saving” or don’t have a conscious for social justice.

7. “I am tired of simply saying terrorism is wrong. We should know that already. We should be known for that. I’d rather build up an alternative, a Muslim world that doesn’t just reject extremism in word, but defeats it in deed, that does more than acknowledge homophobia, and intolerance (and the many other ills we see rampant in some Muslim communities, like anti-Semitism and racism), but actively fights them.” 

It is concerning these attitudes about Muslims “not doing enough” are dangerously similar to what Donald Trump and Islamophobes say about us. That we “know” who the violent extremists are in our community and that we don’t do anything about it. As Moghul makes clear in his article, Muslims are speaking out and condemning horrible acts of violence, and yet he interprets Islamophobic hatred of us as being a result of Muslims apparently “not doing enough” against extremism. How does this not call upon non-Muslims, especially those who are racist and Islamophobic, to support more profiling, surveillance, and deportations of Muslims? How do these attitudes not depict every Muslim on the planet as a suspect who should be treated guilty until proven innocent?

In Moghul’s article, there is no mentioning of white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, and other interlocking systems of oppression that have caused so much violence in the world. By decontextualizing the ways in which Muslims are vilified, Moghul is able to depict Muslims as being responsible for Islamophobic sentiments, rhetoric, and policies. It astonishes me that people still have to say this, but nothing happens in a vacuum. How can we talk about ISIS without also talking about the impact of U.S. imperialism, which has killed over 1 million Iraqis that we’ll probably never know the names of? How can we talk about Omar Mateen without also talking about the violent, homophobic (whether internalized or not), transphobic, and pro-gun culture that he is a product of in the United States? As Tanzila Ahmed writes: “Too often, we blame these hate-fueled attacks on the individuals who perpetrate them. We forget that there is a system of oppression in place that led them there.”

What concerns me probably the most about Moghul’s article is how it is reflective of the victim-blaming culture in which we live. I have lost count of conversations I’ve had with fellow Muslims who have said to me, “Yeah, the media is a problem, but we are also to blame for Islamophobia because we don’t do enough.” I’ve seen Muslims at my local mosque tell police officers, “Give this person a ticket” because a fellow Muslim’s car was double-parked in an over-filled parking lot for Eid-ul-Fitr. I have heard countless khutbahs in mosques telling predominately Black and Brown congregations that we must buy into a racist color-blind ideology because “there is no race in Islam” (clearly forgetting 30:22 and 49:13 in the Holy Qur’an). While these examples may seem small and trivial to some, I believe they reflect how disconnected and fragmented our communities are. We don’t just see Muslims blaming each other, but also turning on one another.

I point out the examples above to challenge the harmful framework that Moghul uses. That is, we do not need fellow Muslims — especially those who claim to speak for us on CNN or other mainstream news outlets – to scold us, talk down to us, or tell us that we are responsible for the negative and Islamophobic attitudes that people have towards us. At a time when Muslims report “decreased self-esteem and increased psychological stress” as a result of Islamophobia; when nearly 50% of Muslim youth experience some sort of bias-based bullying in high schools; and when Muslims frequently experience microaggressions, covert, and overt forms of discrimination, accusing Muslims of “letting” violent extremists speak for them does nothing to uplift our communities. It is cruel condemnation, not compassion.

I agree with Moghul that heterosexual Muslims must do more to challenge homophobia, but the “fighting back against extremism” framework only calls for increased policing and profiling of people in our community. While I don’t agree with everything Linda Sarsour says, I think her call for Muslims to be unapologetically Muslim is a message that all Muslims need to hear, especially Muslim youth. The message is important because it not only tells Muslims to be proud of who they are, not ashamed, but it also carries the potential to encourage Muslims to be pro-active against oppressive practices both within and outside their communities. Rather than implying that all Muslims carry the burden of “doing more” against violent extremism and are somehow responsible, we need to be promoting more courageous stances, as Sarsour does, in teaching Muslims to be unapologetic about their faith, and to work in solidarity with each other — as well as other marginalized communities — against the systems of oppression that seek to divide us all.

The Problem is Not Semantics: A Response to Jaideep Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

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.

It’s Not Just About “Cartoons”

Kebab-Shop-Attack-Lyon
In addition to several mosques, a Kebab shop located near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone was bombed in a revenge attack.

I posted this message on my Facebook wall this morning and upon the request of some friends, I decided to share it on my blog. I’ve expanded on it a little here and included links to some of the references I made.

I did not want to comment or write anything about the shootings in Paris yesterday morning. I have been wanting to write about the attacks in Peshawar on my blog and I remember what my reaction was upon hearing the news on that day. I grieved for the victims, who were mostly children, and then later, after seeing mainstream media coverage, the Islamophobic narratives, and the jingoistic responses from the Pakistani government and certain Pakistanis (particularly the privileged class Pakistanis living in the west and arrogantly proclaiming they know what’s best for the country and speaking as if there aren’t people in Pakistan with a conscious for justice), I felt angry and exhausted. Most of all, I worried about the escalation of Islamophobia — not just in the form of interpersonal racism and bigotry, but also in its institutionalized forms — and the continued military operations, violence, and displacement against people in Waziristan (please read Orbala’s important post about the Peshawar attacks here).

After the shootings in Paris, I worried again about the increase of Islamophobia. I have said this countless times on my blog (and I know so many Muslims have said it too), but I am just fed up with the expectation that Muslims have to answer for violence that was carried out by other Muslims. The problematic and apologetic responses from western-based Muslim organizations continue to be frustrating, as they play into the assumption that Muslims must take collective responsibility for these attacks. Muslims are considered “guilty,” “suspicious,” and “enemies” by default until they “prove” to the west that they are “civilized,” i.e. that they will swear allegiance to the state first and foremost, even if that means supporting the surveillance of their communities, racial profiling, imperialist wars, etc.

The condemnations from imams, religious leaders, and Muslim organizations never do anything in the eyes of Islamophobes, the state, and the general public. Instead, Muslims are demanded to “do more” than condemn (as Fareed Zakaria recently stated in his awful CNN video). Of course, this demand to “do more” is never made to white non-Muslims whenever other white non-Muslims commit acts of terrorism. For Muslims, the call for “doing more” constitutes turning on their communities and, if necessary, fighting against other Muslims, as if every Muslim, including the children, must be drafted into a war to exert greater violence against the “extremists.” Because when Muslims kill other Muslims, it’s never a loss for “western civilization.” Our lives are disposable after all.

But we must grieve the lives of white people, we are told, especially when they are murdered by darker-skinned people. The world, not just one country, must mourn their deaths. Furthermore, we see simplistic narratives that perpetuate the nationalist, racist discourse that Muslims and communities of color need to be policed, profiled, and spied upon. I wrote this on Facebook to express the frustration and concern I had about these narratives that were reducing this issue to being about “free speech” and Muslims being “offended” by “cartoons.” The post is pasted below:

I’ve been really bothered by all of the posts that are framing the shooting in Paris as being about “oversensitive Muslims” being “offended” by “free speech” and a “cartoon.” This is reductive and terribly misleading, to say the least. Weren’t we just posting Jesse Williams’ video where he explains why Exodus is NOT “just a movie” and how racist, anti-black imagery in media is powerful and interconnected with white supremacist violence? I only mention his video here because some people on the Left seemingly forgot the importance of critiquing and challenging images in media and, instead, defended the cartoons as “free speech” and “just cartoons.”

I do find those racist cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) offensive and I’m not ashamed of admitting that. But I’m not offended by them simply because they are “just cartoons” or because I’m “insecure” about my faith. I find them offensive because the images are harmful in the same way TV shows like “24” and “Homeland,” and films like American Sniper (which glorifies a racist murderer who declared that Iraqis “weren’t human beings”) and Zero Dark Thirty are harmful. We challenge those images because we recognize the significant role they play in perpetuating the demonization of Muslims and Islam, racist laws, policies, and surveillance programs, drone strikes and wars, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, apathy and victim-blaming towards Muslims murdered by the US and western nations, etc., but how can we now decontextualize and depoliticize these racist cartoons as if they don’t serve as propaganda to fuel Islamophobia, state racism, police brutality – specifically against North African Muslims in France – and imperialism?

Too many people are defending these cartoons as “satire” and arguing that Muslims “need to learn how to take a joke” (which is another way of narrating that Muslims are “uncivilized” and “backwards” people). No – Muslims, like everyone else, know what jokes are. We even tell them, too (gasp). But those cartoons are not “satire,” they are racist propaganda. And racism is racism; not a “joke.” Nazi Germany produced anti-semitic cartoons and films as propaganda to dehumanize Jews (and we know where it led to) — should we defend those images as “free speech”? Or what about the racist minstrel shows and blackface cartoons that dehumanize black people (caricatures that still surface – e.g. the horrifying cake in Sweden, in the Transformers 2 movie, and basically seen every Halloween, etc.)? Mainstream media never talks about how dangerous these images are and how they directly impact communities and shape nationalist discourse and norms, including our understanding of “freedom” and “free speech.”

Muslims are expected to “prove” they are “not terrorists” and condemn violence whenever other Muslims are involved, but we don’t hear about the Islamophobia Muslims experience and we don’t see white people condemning the frightening Islamophobia that is widespread in the west (e.g. the anti-Muslim rallies in Germany, the attacks on mosques in Sweden and in France today). If white people do not need to prove that they don’t support murderers like Elliot Rodger, Anders Breivik, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Darren Wilson, and Timothy McVeigh, then why should Muslims? No one deserved to die, but the west never says the same for the Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Somalis, and countless other communities who have been oppressed, tortured, raped, murdered, and bombed in the name of the very “freedom” and “democracy” people are defending.

It’s sad and absurd that I’m expected to write a disclaimer about how I condemn the shootings (and there it is), but before you defend a racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic magazine, look at the images you are defending and learn about the ways in which they perpetuate racism, hate speech, and violence.

Because it’s never “just a movie,” “just a TV show,” or “just a cartoon.”