Islamophobia TV: All the Hate, All the Time!

homeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Justice

Today, the so-called US “justice” system found all ten of the “Irvine 11” Muslim students “guilty” on misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting a speech delivered by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine  in February 2010. Two days ago, Troy Davis, a black man accused of killing a white police officer, was murdered by the State of Georgia, despite the overwhelming doubt surrounding his guilt.  A day later, activists highlighted on a 2008 case where a white man and confessed murderer named Samuel David Crowe was pardoned by the same Georgia Parole Board only hours before his scheduled execution.  I am utterly disgusted by the racism evident in these cases.

Some are saying these are sad days for the American “justice” system, but the disturbing reality is that racialized and economically disadvantaged people are constantly targeted and victimized by the system. According to a 2009 report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black men had an incarceration rate of 4,749 inmates per 100,000 US residents, a rate more than six times higher than white men (1,822 inmates per 100,000 US residents).  Black women, with an incarceration rate of 333 per 100,000, were over 3.6 times more likely to have been in prison than white women. Amnesty International research, as reported by Colorlines, shows that death sentences are more likely to be handed out when victims are white. This repulsive racist double-standard can be seen in the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, where a white cop, Johaness Mehserle, shot an unarmed black man and only served less than one year in prison.

In the Irvine 11 case, the horrible criminalization of these students only occurred because they were Muslim.  The Islamophobia engrained in mainstream American politics, media, and society only creates a larger obstacle for the students who were non-violently protesting and speaking out against something the US President never dares to do: Israel’s war crimes, genocide, and sexual violence against Palestinians. Sami Kishawi of “Sixteen Minutes to Palestine” contends that another verdict was reached in the Irvine 11 case:

The court’s decision complements traditional American policy towards Israel and its supporters. The excuse that Israel is forever under existential threat has embedded itself within the framework of the Constitution of the United States. First Amendment rights are no longer guaranteed if an individual is tried for being on the wrong side: for not supporting Israel’s policies in the Middle East, its occupation, its abandonment of the most fundamental form of justice, or its perception of public nonviolent dissent as institutionalized death-wishing festivities. So in a very obvious sense, the verdict is that Israel’s interests stand above the right to express, to speak, to engage, and to openly challenge the injustices confirmed by Oren’s words.

It would be a terrible mistake to overlook the connection between US-Israel complicity in the violence committed against Palestinians and the way Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and others are demonized and discriminated against in the United States.  Defending the rights of Muslims in the United States is intertwined with the struggle against the war machine that needs propaganda, racism, and sexism to fuel and justify its imperialist projects.  White supremacy makes it awfully challenging for the white non-Muslim mainstream to identify with the Muslim students who protested Michael Oren’s speech, regardless of how courageous and admirable they are.  Israel, Michael Oren, and the Zionist supporters are the white heroes in this masculinist narrative, where they are depicted as “victims” of the “dark” and “barbaric” invaders.  They’ve asserted themselves as upholders of “democracy,” freedom, and equal rights for all, especially for women, whereas the “dark” male villain is the over-sexed, savage, and destructive one.  Through racialization, the Muslim, no matter how outnumbered or oppressed, is cast as the “dark Other” who is the mortal enemy of the white hero.  As bell hooks describes:

The notion, originally from myth and fable, is that the summit of masculinity – the ‘white hero’ – achieves his manhood, first and foremost, by winning victory over the ‘dark beast’ over the barbarian beasts of other – in some sense ‘darker’ – races, nations and social castes… In our actual lives the imperialist white-supremacist policies of our government lead to enactments of rituals of white-male violent domination of a darker universe, as in both the Gulf War and the most recent war against Iraq. By making it appear that the threatening masculinity – the rapist, the terrorist, the murderer – is really a dark other, white male patriarchs are able to deflect attention away from their own misogyny, from their violence against women and children.

When the entire Muslim community is demonized, the Irvine 11 students are not seen as human beings.  Their “foreign” cultures and religion are “backwards” and “oppressive,” and the only hope they have is for western imperial masculinity to “liberate” them and force them to “assimilate.”  They are “foreign” bodies from societies that behead, torture, veil, molest, and rape men and women, whereas western society is “civilized,” “liberating,” and “free.”  Concealed from this racist socialization is the way Israel and the United States constantly carries out bombing, murder, sexual violence, and economic exploitation against racialized bodies outside and within their borders.  Consider Anushay Hossain’s point about the way Afghan women are used as “emotional tools” in US propaganda to justify its military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The US claim is to “liberate,” but there is nothing liberating about bombing, shooting, and raping Afghan women.

The point here is that US and Israeli war crimes are tied to their domestic State violence and corrupt “justice” systems.  If nations are willing to mercilessly and shamelessly kill, torture, and rape other human beings around the world, then what’s to stop them from targeting their “own” citizens?  What’s sad and quite unsettling about Troy Davis’ case is that he was not a victim of an “unfortunate mistake” nor was his unjust execution an “isolated incident.”  The problem is with the so-called criminal “justice” system itself.  Racialized communities, particularly Native and African American communities, have been long victimized by police brutality and other forms of State violence that is ignored, dismissed, and/or sanctioned by the criminal “justice” system. Troy Davis himself pointed this out in his message to supporters:

There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.

Indigenous women in particular have long fought and still fight the “justice” system’s complicity in the injustice they face. As pointed out by Andrea Smith, Native anti-violence advocates have reported that rape cases rarely reach the federal courts.  Smith elaborates further:

Complicating matters, cases involving rapes on tribal land were generally handed to the local US attorney, who then declined to prosecute the vast majority of cases.  By the time tribal law enforcement programs even see rape cases, a year may have passed since the assault, making it difficult for these programs to prosecute.

Smith also talks about the negative reputation police officers have in Native communities due to countless cases of police brutality.  When law enforcement and “justice” systems are not only suspect of communities of color, but also violent, discriminatory, racist, and sexist against them,  how does it expect to build trust?  I already mentioned the NYPD and CIA infiltrating and spying on Muslim communities in my previous post.  The injustices we have seen in this week, as well as the oppression we are being informed about by brothers and sisters in other communities, should prompt us to challenge the criminal “justice” system.  When cases for Troy Davis, Irvine 11, and others are fought, it is not only a fight against their injustices, but also against the racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc. that infects the system and society at large.  Andrea Smith proposes restorative justice efforts which “involve parties (perpetrators, victims, and community members) in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness.”

While I am saddened, disturbed, and angry by the injustice this week, I took a moment to think about all of the people who went out to demonstrate, to protest, to support, to Love, to cry, and to pray.  As I checked the updates on my phone from work, I saw that other people were doing the same. I noticed all of the people on my Facebook posting status updates and messages of support for Troy Davis and Irvine 11.  When I saw pictures or read reports of people crying after the unjust verdicts, I cried too.  It is that longing and drive for justice that connects us.  The solidarity is heartening and to know that other people feel the same way is important. To know that these people and your friends will always fight is important.

May Allah, the Most High and Compassionate, help us unite our struggles and grant us all justice.

Smoke Screening President Obama’s War Crimes

Last Friday night, my Facebook news feed lit up with updates about President Obama’s support for the hotly-debated Cordoba House Islamic Center in New York. My Muslim-American friends, especially, applauded the President for his “bold leadership,” “preservation of American values,” and “defense” of Muslim civil liberties. Somewhere, amidst all the excitement of expressing how “grateful” and “proud” we should be of President Obama, Muslim-Americans and others forgot about the horror stories of US war crimes and complicities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine.

I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the Obama administration in previous posts and while I strongly support the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan, I remain astonished at the way many of my fellow Muslim-Americans and human rights advocates praise President Obama and stay silent about his policies overseas.

It is clear that the ugly and seemingly endless controversy surrounding the Islamic Community Center (incorrectly termed the “Ground Zero Mosque”) highlights on the disturbing prevalence and growth of Islamophobia in the United States. Due to the hate-mongering initiated by Islamophobic bigots and propagandists, an enormous body of literature, especially on the blogosphere, exists about what has become a nationwide debate. Muslim-Americans, inter-faith leaders, and representatives of anti-racist organizations continue to speak up and condemn the shameful anti-Muslim smear campaign perpetuated by right-wing Republicans and others.

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich recently called supporters of the Islamic Center “radical Islamists” and likened them to Nazis. Gingrich then went on and stated, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.” Equating the entire Muslim population with Nazis and radical extremists is more dangerous than it is insulting, as it undoubtedly fuels the Orientalist perception of Muslims being suspicious, untrustworthy, and the threatening “Other.” Carl Paladino, Republican candidate for the governor of New York, added to Gingrich’s alarmist assertions with the following ludicrous statement: “The Ground Zero Mosque is not about freedom of religion, as President Obama claims. It’s about the murderous ideology behind the attacks on our country and the fanatics our troops are fighting every day in Middle East.” His ignorant comments are reflective of the countless Republicans who have joined the hate choir in demonizing Islam and linking the religion with terrorism.

But this debate is not so clear-cut either. The so-called “Anti-Defamation League (ADL)”, which claims to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people” and “secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike,” released a statement in late July to oppose the Islamic Center’s construction. The announcement prompted Muslims and Jewish representatives from Mt. Airy’s “Shalom Center” to rally in support of the Islamic Center and condemn the ADL’s hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Democrats such as John Hall, Tim Bishop, and Mike McMahon oppose the project, calling it “insensitive” to the “families of 9/11,” as if Muslim-Americans are responsible for the attacks and didn’t die on 9/11, too.

With such ignorance and nationalistic xenophobia during a time when Islamophobia is becoming more and more deeply rooted in the hearts of non-Muslim Americans, it is understandable and correct for Muslim-Americans to expect their President to defend religious liberty. However, when Obama escalates military presence in Afghanistan, widens drone attacks in Pakistan, and fails to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes against the Palestinians, to what extent are we comfortable with praising the President while disregarding US atrocities? That is, have Muslim-Americans and self-proclaimed anti-racist/anti-war/anti-oppression activists become so self-absorbed that we exclusively care about our civil liberties and not the rights of those victimized by the Obama administration’s military campaigns in Muslim-majority countries?

Before discussing his international policies, I want to address what happened on Saturday, a day after Obama made it “clear” about backing the Islamic Center. The President told reporters, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a Mosque there.” Aside from wrongly describing the building as a Mosque, Obama once again revealed his attempts to appease both sides of the debate. Though he “supports” the right for Muslims to build an Islamic Center in the proposed location (which is not at Ground Zero), he refuses to endorse it. One must question why Obama doesn’t endorse the project? If he believes Muslims are not responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the association between “Islam” and “terrorism” is abhorrent, then why refuse to comment on the “wisdom” of building an Islamic Center? Also, why is the Islamophobia surrounding this controversy not addressed? Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah writes:

What the critics are engaged in is collective vilification, delegitimization and incitement against Muslims in the United States and they are doing it deliberately and for political purposes. This is what needs to be recognized and confronted and sadly I do not see the president or any other senior politicians in the United States doing that… Muslims may have the legal freedom to exercise their religion in the US — and they do despite increasing efforts to use laws and regulations to prevent the building of mosques — but what is that freedom worth if they live in a climate of increasing fear, vilification and hatred?

Abunimah also points out that the ADL’s Abe Foxman and even Sarah Palin did not challenge the right to build an Islamic Center, but certainly opposed the idea. Defending civil rights is important, but pretending that Obama has championed the exhaustive and heated debates against Islamophobes ever since this controversy started would be to overlook his vague remarks on Saturday, as well as the hard work of Muslim and non-Muslim activists.

At present, Obama is still upheld as the “anti-war President.” The constant promotion of Obama as someone who “understands” Islam, “reaches out” and offers a “new beginning” to the “Muslim world” replays like advertisement and it serves as a powerful tool to justify and conceal his war crimes. Surely, after citing Qur’anic verses, Persian poets, and Turkish proverbs, Obama must be helping the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan; he’s only killing the “terrorists,” right?

In June, United Nations human rights official Philip Alston urged the CIA to cease its drone operations in northwest Pakistan and accused it of potentially generating a “Playstation” mentality towards killing. In his report, Alston concluded that “CIA personnel could be prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted killings, and could also be prosecuted for violations of applicable US law.”

While exact numbers of Pakistani causalities vary, all reports agree the death toll is high. According to a study published in February 2010 by “The New America Foundation,” between 413 and 709 Pakistanis were killed in drone strikes in 2009, while 278-465 (and counting) were killed in 2010.  As Pakistani-British author and political commentator Tariq Ali states, President Obama has ordered more troops and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, than Bush ever did. Given that no evidence has been provided that these drone campaigns are actually working, let’s ask some human questions: How many of these hundreds are “terrorists”? How does bombing people promote peace and stability? Are people expected to forget the pain and trauma when their family members and Loved ones are bombed?  Is there really no expectation for retaliation?

In Afghanistan, the condition for Afghans, especially women, has worsened under US military occupation. When asked to comment on the controversial “Time Magazine” cover featuring an 18 year-old Afghan woman with her nose cut off, Afghan feminist-activist Malalai Joya stressed that the atrocity occurred under western occupation and that such violence has increased since the US invasion. Joya explained to reporters:

During the Taliban’s regime such atrocities weren’t as rife as it is now and the graph is hiking each day. Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example and cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghan people, especially women, are squashed between three enemies: Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops.

Along with Anushay Hossain, Joya condemned the US media’s exploitation of Afghan women, calling it an attempt to use the plight of Afghan women as an emotional propaganda tool to garner support for an unpopular war. RAWA News claims that Wikileaks published a document in March that outlined the CIA’s strategy to use the condition of Afghan women to counter opposition against the war in Europe and the US. Such images, indeed, provoke strong emotional responses, but if the US media wants us to really care about Afghan women, then what about the US soldiers that raided an Afghan home in February and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies? Will these images be published by “Time Magazine” or are the images only powerful when Afghans commit the atrocities?

Yet despite the predator drones in Pakistan, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the torture and prisoner abuse in Bagram, occupation in Iraq, and the silence on Israeli war crimes, protests against Obama’s wars and complicities aren’t nearly as large as the anti-war protests during Bush’s term. Why? Also, criticism of Obama is often shut down as “hateful,” “anti-American,” and “pessimistic” or “cynical.” As an anti-racist activist, I do recognize the ugliness of racism in our country and how a lot of White supremacists direct their rage at Obama, but my criticism of the President is based on the principles of fundamental human rights and anti-imperialism. It continues to surprise me whenever I encounter people who get incredibly defensive to criticism of Obama. There was one instance when a fellow Muslim told me, “If you hate America so much, then go back to your country! I’m an American, I’m proud of my country and my President!” Not only was I stunned to hear xenophobia from a fellow Muslim, but I also thought about how I heard similar remarks made by the pro-Bush crowd.

Dismissing, vilifying, or even censoring criticism of Barack Obama not only discourages diligent questioning of authority and our responsibility as human beings, but it also works a way to overlook the realities and consequences of US war crimes and complicities in the aforementioned countries. When I am asked, “Would you rather prefer McCain as President?” I find that problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it says Obama was the “lesser of two evils,” and secondly, it doesn’t encourage us to hold our leaders responsible for their wrongs. If we all elected Obama, then wouldn’t it be more productive to speak out against the war crimes instead of smoke-screening them? When someone challenges Obama’s policies, what is the point of getting overly defensive other than seeking to shut that person up? If we believe Obama is the “better President” or the “less racist President,” does that mean we should excuse the people murdered in his wars? Muslim feminist-activist Shaista Patel comments:

With a family in Pakistan, and friends in Northern Pakistan, some of whom have lost their loved ones to the US airstrikes, it’s hard to digest this ‘better’ Obama. I am not appropriating the pain of the people there by sharing this, but I am from there and I am from here too; invested in the hope of my President doing something for us but knowing full well that he’s killing my people across the oceans. We think that better times are here and that we have the support of Obama, a President much better than the last one, which Pakistanis, Gazans, Afghans and Iraqis will tell us is not the case.

Even worse, as I write this now, over 20 million people are suffering from the devastating floods in Pakistan. Mark LeVine of Al Jazeera English wrote a powerful piece yesterday that called for relief boosts in Pakistan and an urgency for Obama to call a ceasefire. Outraged at American and Pakistani officials for pledging to continue war in Pakistan, LeVine writes:

Over the weekend US missiles killed 12 people. Meanwhile, 19 American helicopters are currently involved in the rescue efforts. Precisely what kind of message does that send? “We are not going to give much to help you stay alive, but we will make sure to continue killing you during this time of greatest need.”

What is startling is how the Obama administration spends $12 billion a month to fight the Taliban. Compare that amount to the $460 million requested by the UN to help aid the 20 million Pakistanis. In other words, the money Obama spends on war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is actually 25-times the amount needed to aid Pakistan. When we know our government can help another nation in its time of desperate need, why do we not express outrage the same way we did when Bush was in office?

As Muslim-Americans, Islamophobia is a reality that confronts us at home and it is important for our communities and allies to speak out against it, but at the same time, if we really care about human rights, we should also condemn the war crimes committed by our government. Before we got over-excited about Obama wishing Muslims a “Happy Ramadan,” let us be conscious of the people being killed by US missiles, occupying military forces, and US-funded weapons, tanks and jets in Israel.  I do not deny that Muslim-majority countries are plagued by corrupt governments and aren’t doing enough to help their fellow nations, but since criticism of Obama from our communities is often marginalized, it is important we realize that the US military presence and intervention in the rest of the world is part of the problem, not the solution.

Real “change” means there is always progress to be made. Nothing changes if we stay silent.

Solidarity with Gaza

Photo by Mast Qalander

As many of you know, Israeli forces recently attacked a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Palestinians in Gaza.  According to Al-Jazeera, nine people have been killed, including a Turkish-American, Furkan Dogan, 19, who was shot four times in the head and once in the chest.  Al-Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal, who was onboard the Turkish ship, the Mavi Mamara, when it was raided by the Israeli military, reported that Israeli warships surrounded the Mavi Mamara and fired tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets before Israeli commandos stormed the ship and shot live bullets roughly five minutes later.

Elshayyal was detained before eventually being released by Israeli authorities.  Dozens of the humanitarian activists on the Mavi Mamara were injured and flown home.  Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, announced that relations with Israel will never be the same, while thousands in Turkey demonstrated in the nation’s capital.

This horrible criminal act has sparked protests throughout the United States and worldwide.  My friends and I had already planned a trip to New York city earlier this week for the sake of visiting, but when we heard about the emergency protest being organized in Times Square, we made sure we made an appearance and expressed our solidarity in whatever way possible.  One of my friends, who went across the street to grab a snack, said he heard people shouting profanity and racial slurs, such as “rag-heads,” at the crowd of demonstrators.  It’s no doubt in my mind that these individuals wouldn’t have made such racist and hateful remarks if my friend wasn’t White.

Amidst the massive protests nationwide, it seems that Obama is only giving Israel a “slap on the wrist” for the murder of humanitarian activists.  It is crucial to understand that this incident represents a symptom of a larger problem.  The blockade on Gaza, which limits Gazans from receiving proper necessities, such as food, water, electricity, and medical supplies, must be lifted.  It is absolutely outrageous that Israeli apartheid is being tolerated in the 21st century and the fact that US politicians and many in the mainstream American media refuse to condemn Israel is extremely disturbing.  It’s easy to see how the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla disrupts the peace process and provokes potentially violent reactions, but it’s even worse when war criminals are not held accountable for their actions — silence only fuels more anger and hostility towards Israel and the United States.

Elsewhere, president Obama continues to advance the war in Afghanistan and orders drone attacks in Pakistan.  Al-Jazeera released a report from a United Nations human rights official, Philip Alston, who urges the CIA to end the drone strikes in Pakistan. According to Alston, “CIA personnel could be prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted killings, and could also be prosecuted for violations of applicable US law.”

Where is the “change?”  In all of this violence and injustice, we also see millions of Americans protesting and raising awareness about what’s happening internationally.  I went to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla rally in Philadelphia the other day and video-taped the entire protest.  Below is a clip from the protest, where Gaza Freedom marchers shouted “shame” to a small group of Zionists.  Resolving this conflict should not be about hate and violence, it needs to be about working towards peace.  The criminals must be condemned and held responsible, while the people — Muslims, Christians, Jews, or whatever you might be — need to come together and work at building a solution.

Anyone who attends the Gaza rallies or watches the videos I posted from the Philadelphia protest will see the incredible diversity of people who condemn Israel’s blockade of Gaza and military occupation of the Palestinians.  There are Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, and many others standing in solidarity with the people of Gaza — this is not about “Muslims versus Jews” or “anti-Semitism.”  This is about calling for peace and an end to the violence, injustice, and occupation.  This is about coexistence for the children of Abraham.  May God help us reach that understanding and establish that kind of Love in the world for all people.  Ameen.

Muslim-Americans Getting It Wrong on Pakistan

In no way do I support the Pakistani court’s decision to ban its citizens from accessing Facebook and YouTube. As many of you know, restrictions were put into effect after Pakistani officials learned about an idiotic, Islamophobic event on Facebook called “Draw Muhammad Day.” As much as I strongly oppose the event and find it clearly driven by hate and ignorance, I believe the Facebook ban is not only nonsensical and counterproductive, but also an insult to the Pakistani people, implying that millions of citizens would flock to the group and participate if the site is not prohibited. Without a doubt, the blockade of Facebook and YouTube represents the government’s religious insecurity and mistrust of its own people.

However, what puzzles me further is how Muslim-Americans, especially those of Pakistani descent, resort to simplified generalizations and misrepresentations of Paksitan and its citizens. I do not know Arsalan Iftikhar personally, but I have always respected his efforts to speak out against Islamophobia and distortions of Muslim-Americans. Whether on CNN or Fox News and talking to right-wing bullies like Bill O’Reilly, Mr. Iftikhar’s work certainly calls for respect and appreciation.

But I must challenge the comments he made about Pakistan in his latest piece on the CNN opinion page. Mr. Iftikhar paints a harsh picture of Pakistan in the very first sentence:

For a country that has produced five military dictators in 60 years, mourned the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and struggles continually against its own militant extremists who have killed thousands in their own nation, Pakistan has absolutely picked the wrong fight by banning Facebook and YouTube because of an idiotic virtual campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Mr. Iftikhar went further to argue that the country did not live up to its name, pointing out that the word “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” when translated from Urdu. “There has been nothing pure,” he writes, “about the downward sociopolitical spiral of this nuclear-armed, Third World fledgling democracy of 172 million people over the last several years.” He cites former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, who describes the region as terrorized by extremists. Mr. Iftikhar closes with the following:

Instead of conjuring up stupid controversies like the recent bans of Facebook and YouTube because of some silly drawings, the 172 million citizens of Pakistan should focus their political attention and economic resources on educating their women, improving their rule of law system and truly understanding the repercussions that come with ominously naming your country the “land of the pure.”

I will not dispute the social, political, and economic struggles that confront Pakistan. Indeed, they are real. However, what surprises and appalls me is that there is not a single mentioning of the U.S. intervening, exploiting, and attacking Pakistan. Mr. Iftikhar’s article is titled “Pakistan should ban extremism, not Facebook,” but he does not address the root of the extremism. He only touches upon the symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, Pakistan has an unfortunate history of military dictators and while it is important to hold those leaders accountable for their criminal actions, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the US largely supported and funded those dictatorships.

When the United States was hell-bent on fighting Communism, the government subsidized General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most ruthless military dictator, who was trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later stationed in Jordan to train soldiers during the Black September operations, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and causalities. The US-Pakistan alliance monetarily and militarily aided the Mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. Not only were extremists and militant groups supplied with US weapons and trained by the CIA, but the jihadi manuals were also printed in Nebraska.

I have repeatedly pointed this out in previous posts, but after September 11th, then President Pervez Musharraf was given an ultimatum from George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” Pakistani British author Tariq Ali has also emphasized on this next point: former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, as well as fighting in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has resulted in violent antagonism towards Pakistan from tribal groups, militants and extremists.

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is spilling into Pakistan. The invading Taliban groups view the Pakistani government as complicit with US war crimes, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Palestine as well. This has resulted in devastating attacks on Pakistan, which has caused so much suffering on the Pakistani people themselves – Sufi shrines being destroyed in Peshawar, the bombing of girl’s schools, sporadic bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and other parts of the country, etc.

President Obama, who frequently criticized the US for supporting Musharraf during the presidential campaign, is not only financially backing President Asif Zardari – a man who is reviled by the majority of Pakistanis – but also escalating troops in Afghanistan and carrying out deadly drone operations in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it was reported by Pakistan’s Dawn Media Group that over 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks since Obama took office in 2009. According to PressTV, an estimated 300 people (and counting) have been killed in 42 drone attacks in 2010. Not to state the obvious, but that is a lot of people! Zardari and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan both welcome Obama’s policies in advancing the Afghan war and continuing the drone attacks, respectively.

Yet it seems that President Obama receives little to no criticism from Muslim-Americans, specifically those who are in Washington or work in civil rights organizations. I often hear peculiar arguments that seek to justify his policies. There are those who even question the number of casualties from the drone attacks (to which author and activist Jeremy Scahill has refuted). Others have argued that leaflets were sent to those areas, so all of the Pakistani civilians should just leave. Funny, because I never heard such excuses when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in December-January of 2008-2009.

The reality is that human rights violations still occur under Obama’s administration – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. In February, US soldiers raided an Afghan home and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in another drone attack in Pakistan. With such injustice, how does one expect there to be no violent backlash or retaliation at all? Do people easily forget the murders of their Loved ones?

It would be inaccurate to say extremism and corruption does not exist among certain Pakistani religious leaders and politicians, but excluding US attacks and military operations in the region would be just as misguided. As Tariq Ali has stated in several of his talks, the US presence in Afghanistan is not the solution, it is part of the problem and it is having a disastrous impact on Pakistan. Drone assaults on tribal areas only generates a culture of revenge, intensifies the violence, and endangers the lives of Pakistanis, as well as Americans (see: Time Square).

Extremism does not manifest out of thin air. Ignoring the US as a key factor is a misrepresentation of facts and simplifies the radicalization of extremists and militant groups (similar to how Bush advocates used to say, “They hate us because we’re free”).

Not all of the 172 million Pakistani citizens support the ban on Facebook and YouTube. I would argue that the vast majority of Pakistanis object to it – and I base this on the nation-wide demonstrations that helped reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, as well as the gathering of over one hundred thousand people who observed the 250th anniversary of the divinely inspired 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. Though I doubt Mr. Iftikhar was implying that 172 million Pakistanis weren’t doing anything about educating women and improving their ruling systems, I think it was unfair that he didn’t mention their efforts.

As for Pakistan not living up to its name, “Land of the Pure,” I cannot really disagree with Arsalan Iftikhar. However, I must ask: which country is, if any? Which country in the world is the shining example of justice and liberty for all? Sure, there is enough to criticize about the “Land of the Pure,” but let’s not dismiss the facts, the US-Pakistan relationships, the dynamics of power, and the deadly repercussions of military intervention and exploitation.

And surely, that turns our attention to the problems we have here in the “Land of the Free.”

Jesus was a Palestinian and Why it Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel Does What?

viggomortensen

Check this.

Danish-American actor, Viggo Mortensen, is one of many artists taking a bold stand against the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and its commemorative spotlight on Tel Aviv.  According to Judy Rebick of Canadian Dimension:

This is the first time that TIFF has held a City to City spotlight and the spotlight is on Tel Aviv, a city that is symbolic to Zionist Jews of Israel’s success and to Palestinians of the ethnic cleansing that took place to found that state of Israel.

The Toronto Declaration has over 1,000 signatures of filmmakers, writers, and musicians alike, including Danny Glover, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Naomi Klein, and Naom Chomsky.  Here’s a surprise:  They’re being vilifed and demonized.

Filmmaker Robert Lantos goes as far as calling the protest a  “gang of well-fed, fashionable bigots” who just want to “stifle voices they don’t like.”  He asserts that Naomi Klein et al “have taken a page straight out of the fascist propaganda handbook.”

Hmm.  In Robert Lantos’ article, he states there was no such thing as a Palestine.  Wow, so did the world begin in 1948, Mr. Lantos?  I suppose your “point” erases the fact that over 700,000 Palestinians were evicted and forced out of their homes.  Speaking out against military occupation and oppression is propaganda, but denying the existence of another group of people is not?

Mortensen, who is best known for his role as Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, wrote some strong words about the Israeli government in a recent blog entry explaining why he decided to sign the Toronto Declaration:

[The statement objects] to the festival singling out Tel Aviv (which was merged with Jaffa to form a single municipality in 1950) for special recognition when the government of Israel continues to flout international law, essentially acting unilaterally as a rogue state in very much the same manner that the U.S. government did under George W. Bush

I signed the statement in question, along with people like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, and many other thoughtful citizens from various countries (including a number of Israelis) some of whom have suffered from very real censorship and blacklisting. The statement does not promote the boycotting or censorship of any artist or movie from Israel or anywhere else. Those who have attacked the statement with that accusation are simply spreading misinformation and, unfortunately, continuing the ongoing successful distraction from the issue at hand: the Israeli government’s whitewashing of their illegal and inhumane actions inside and outside their legal national borders. There was nobody outside the cinema objecting to anyone going to see “Ajami”. In fact, there was nobody doing anything other than going to see this and other movies being shown at the Scotiabank complex, or just walking on down Toronto’s Richmond Street.

The sad part is that all of this may come to a shock to many of Mortensen’s Republican fans.  I know because I know some of those fans.  When “Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King” was released, some of my Republican friends boasted about how the film paralleled with current events and how the United States – “the bastion of the free world” – needed to defend itself in the same manner as portrayed in the films (interesting enough, co-star John Rhys-Davies drew similar parallels and made bizzare Islamophobic remarks).  I know they’re alarmed by this statement of their beloved Aragorn, the courageous and fearless leader of “the great men of the west.”

“I can’t imagine why a Jew would kill an innocent civilian,” my White non-Muslim friend once said.  I fired back, “But it isn’t hard for you to imagine a Muslim killing an innocent civilian, right?”  The second I said that, he knew he made a flawed statement.  He realized immediately that he was conditioned to categorize Jews and Christians as the “good guys” and “upholders of democracy,” as if they’re immune to carrying out atrocities and terrorism.

Like many people, including anti-racist activists, writers, and academics, it is taboo to criticize Israel.  Criticizing Zionism is automatically equated with anti-semitism.  If you criticize Israel, it not only means you hate Jews, but it also means you support terrorism.  And terrorism, as discussed in a previous blog post, can only be carried out by Muslims and Arabs.

Yes, yes, innocent Palestinians died in Gaza, but Hamas made Israel do it.  It’s Hamas’ fault.  Israel cannot be blamed.

This is the brainwashing of Israel’s propaganda machine.  Every time we’re silent about Israel’s atrocities, whether out of fear, ignorance, or reluctance, we’re giving in.  I have seen many others claim to be anti-racist and anti-oppression academics, but they will keep their lips sealed when it comes to Israel.  Why?  Because they’re afraid of the “anti-semitism” label.

You want to see a bold stand against oppression?  Look at Toronto filmmaker and long-time gay activist John Greyson who wrote an open letter to TIFF and pulled his short film, Covered. Such artists inspire those who stand for social justice everywhere.  Look at the solidarity movements taking place in Palestine every day – activists, filmmakers, journalists, and inter-faith members alike who work so hard to raise their voices and even risk their lives for a brighter future.

Accusing the protest of being an “attack on the heart and soul of Israel” is a pathetic attempt to turn the tables and demonize anyone who dares to criticize the Israeli government’s war crimes and illegal military occupation.  Such protests should encourage dialogue, not lousy ad hominem attacks.  Open your ears and hearts for once, and listen!

Toronto Declaration – Co-sign.

Peace and Solidarity.