Islamophobia Did Not Begin on 9/11

islamophobiaracism
[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.

Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions


As 2011 comes to an end, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.  Due to the dangerous intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other positionalities, it is important to stress on being conscious of these interlocking oppressions.  The term “intersectionality” is invoked a lot, but there is a huge difference between writing about it and understanding it.

Recently, someone who self-identifies as an “activist” exercised his misogyny by taking a paparazzi-style photo of a woman’s body part and shared it with his friends on Facebook.  Over a hundred perverted and horribly sexist comments were made under the image.  All of this happened without the woman knowing that a zoomed-in photo of her body was publicly on display for a bunch of perverts to gawk at and sexually objectify.

Confrontations with the police does not excuse a male activist of being held accountable for his misogyny and violation of a woman’s privacy.  Those who commented in favor of the photo are also complicit in sexist oppression and objectification.  You cannot fight state violence while participating in another form of oppression and not acknowledging how the two are interconnected.  It undermines everything you claim to stand for.

I know there are a lot of men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are outraged by sexism and misogyny.  However, many of us make the mistake in seeing ourselves as being “outside of patriarchy.”  That is, because we have feminist politics and speak out against sexual violence, sexist exploitation, and patriarchal domination, there is no way we can be sexist.  On the contrary, I am not outside of it and neither are you.  None of us are.  I have read several posts written by men (some of which were recently pointed out to me) who tell this narrative: “I used to be sexist, but after reading feminist literature and making feminist friends, I am cured and better now!”  I have made this mistake as well and I accept that I will make more mistakes in the future. Being called out on your sexism is not always easy, but that is how you learn to unlearn.

Instead of congratulating ourselves or rushing to claim that “we are good men” and “not like those misogynists out there,” we need to understand our responsibility in constantly unlearning the sexist socialization we have internalized. We live in societies where sexist and racist oppression is so deeply engrained and even foundational to the established order, so saying “I’m not sexist” is not enough (likewise, saying “I’m not racist” is not enough for white people). Asserting this claim only puts us on the defensive and overlooks how we benefit from oppressive power structures. We cannot dismantle patriarchy externally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our complicities and actively confront sexism within ourselves, not just once, but every day, for the rest of our lives.

When a woman is addressing the awful reality of sexual assaults against women that occur in anti-racist spaces, we should not center our attention on thinking that she is only talking about “those men,” i.e. the assailants, the misogynists, the rapists, etc. Such an outlook only makes us perceive ourselves as “innocent” and “not sexist.”  We have to be conscious of the sexism we have internalized and how we exercise sexism in our everyday lives.  We have to take action to ensure we will not maintain and reproduce those power dynamics.  This is not about demonizing men or saying that all of us are monstrous at the core.  This is not about implying that all men will assault women in social justice spaces either.  This is about understanding our responsibility in challenging and eliminating sexism externally and internally.  In movements that are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., if there are people being abused, assaulted, discriminated against, beaten, or excluded, we must work to eliminate that violence.  When you are called out on your sexism, apologize, listen, and hold yourself accountable.   Take responsibility for it and accept the consequences, even if that means you cannot be part of the group anymore or that some people will never be able to trust you again.  Do not get defensive and say that what you did “wasn’t sexist” or “wasn’t patriarchal.”  Don’t make this about you “being a good man” or that “you had good intentions” or that you have women friends who “don’t see you as sexist.”  Don’t attack the “tone” of the people calling you out on it either. Denying your complicity only exposes the sexist masculine power you exercise.

Furthermore, we have to move beyond “accepting” sexist and racist socialization.  Accepting that white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy has programmed us to uphold these interlocking structures of oppression is important, but it does not at all give us an excuse to normalize our sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.  I have come across individuals who say, “Yes, I admit I’m racist, I accept it.” There’s a huge difference between understanding your responsibility in unlearning racism and simply asserting that “everyone is racist,” as if that makes everything “ok.” No, it is not “ok.” We live in a racist society and all us are impacted by it differently (and if you are white, you benefit a great deal from white supremacy). Instead of just sitting back and saying, “I admit I’m racist,” you should be challenging yourself on a daily basis and actively doing something about your racism. Don’t use racist socialization as an excuse to normalize your racism.

Some people, to my own astonishment, have told me to my face that they hate Indians and Pakistanis.  They have told me things like, “I hate Pakistanis. I hope you don’t take offense to that.”  Of course I take offense to it; it is racist and against me, in particular. Others have told me they “hate Indians” and then say, “I admit I’m prejudice against them, but everyone is racist, right?”  What makes them think this is acceptable to say to me or to anyone else is the real indicator of how deeply entrenched racism is. Accepting that we are socialized to be racist and sexist does not make things “ok” because these oppressions have serious effects in the real world.  “I am racist” or “I am sexist” is not something to boast about or repeat shamelessly.  Move beyond accepting the status quo and be responsible.   Apologize for the damage you have caused and do something about it.  Don’t expect your South Asian friend to continue talking to you when you’ve demonized his/her culture and never held yourself accountable for it.  Don’t expect your Arab friends to return your calls when you “jokingly” referred to them as “terrorists” and thought that was cool.  You may have “accepted” your racism or sexism, but your friend may not accept how your racism or sexism targeted him/her, so if you care about preserving that friendship, do something about it.

Challenge yourself in your daily interactions with people.  Challenge yourself when you use racist, sexist, colonial, and/or ableist language.  Challenge the stereotypes you have of certain groups of people when you see/meet them.  Critique yourself and analyze every aspect of your life.   We all make mistakes and we are going to continue making them.  It’s how we respond to those mistakes and actively work to correct them that matters.  Listen to the people you have offended, hurt, discriminated against, marginalized, etc.  Don’t accuse them of being “too angry” or “too mean”  when they condemn what you said or did.  Deconstructing and unlearning racism, sexism, and other oppressions is not something you can accomplish overnight; it is something all of us have to do for our entire lives.  Read the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has already been done, if you have access to the books and discourses.  Write about your resisting oppressive socialization, speak about it, teach about it, educate others about it, call yourself out on it, implement it into your life and work on it everyday. Never excuse yourself of your complicity, never be “ok” with it, but always assume the responsibility to struggle against it.

The Dervish and the Princess (Or How Men Fantasize About a Woman’s ‘No’ Being a ‘Yes’)

Whenever I have discussions about men “misinterpreting” women, within the heterosexual context, I remember a Sufi parable I once read about a dervish and a princess.  The story is part of a collection of Sufi tales that originate mostly in classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and South Asian literature and oral traditions.  Described as “teaching-stores of the Sufi Masters over the past thousand years,” the selections serve as a way for students to increase knowledge and perception, as well as obtaining a better understanding of their fellow human beings and the world around them.  It is noted that many Sufi tales “have passed into folklore, or ethical teachings, or crept into biographies.”  They are also commonly valued as “entertainment pieces.”

The story about the dervish and the princess is interesting because I believe it touches upon a number of serious issues that are relevant today. Perhaps to some, the reality of men “misinterpreting” a woman’s friendly behavior, for example, as flirtatious or “leading him on,” may sound harmless, but in order to understand why this is serious and even dangerous, it’s important recognize the oppressive forces at work within patriarchy that makes abuse, violence, and rape against women acceptable. It becomes more than just “misinterpreting,” but rather exercising masculine power and domination facilitated by oppressive hierarchies already in place, as well as maintaining and constantly constructing these social structures.

Heterosexual men are socialized to be homophobic, to be sexist, and to represent a singular mold of “masculinity,” i.e. be tough, aggressive, dominating (especially over women and other men), and even violent. It is common for many to interpret the previous sentence as a “generalization” about men.  However, this is not an attempt to vilify men, but rather to honestly discuss the indoctrination of patriarchal and sexist thinking that surrounds us.  bell hooks provides an important comment on masculine socialization in her book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love”:

Whenever women thinkers, especially advocates of feminism, speak about the widespread problem of male violence, folks are eager to stand up and make the point that most men are not violent. They refuse to acknowledge that masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.

hooks cites Terrence Real, who argues that “violence is boyhood socialization.” That is, the way society “turn boys into men is through injury,” detaching them from feelings, sensitivity, and expressiveness. The phrase, “be a man,” Real continues, means to “suck it up and keep going.”  Images of men being violent, aggressive, and sexually promiscuous are celebrated in popular films, television shows, video games, comic books, advertisements, literature, etc. These images, along with the way boys are socialized early in childhood contributes to the normalization of male domination over women.

When men are taught to expect and/or demand sex on the first date to “score,” or prove their “masculinity” and show off to their male peers, it isn’t about getting to know someone on a deeper, personal level.  It becomes a game. There are strategies that men have to play in order to “score” with a woman – whether that means paying for movie tickets or the dinner bill, or behaving like he’s interested in what she’s talking about. Such socialization is dangerous because it leads to date rape, touching women sexually against their will, and other abuses. Charlene L. Muehlenhard writes a scenario in her piece, “‘Nice Women’ Don’t Say Yes and ‘Real Men’ Don’t Say No: How Miscommunication and the Double Standard Can Cause Sexual Problems,” that I found relevant:

Imagine that a man is with a woman and he wants to have sex with her (or feels he should try to have sex with her, so that he can avoid the stigma of being sexually inexperienced).  He does not attempt to discuss their sexual desires; instead, he tries to interpret her behaviors. She is wearing tight jeans and a low-cut blouse, and she is willing to go to his apartment to listen to records. He interprets this behavior to mean that he is interested in sex. He begins to make advances. She says no. He assumes that she is merely offering token resistance to sex so as not to appear promiscuous – and, even if she does not mean to, why was she “leading him on” with her “suggestive” clothing and behavior?  He thinks of jokes he has heard about unmasculine men who stop their advances after being told no, he thinks of movies in which the woman first resists the man’s advances but soon becomes overwhelmed with desire, and he thinks of his male friends who all have sexual stories to tell. He has sex with her in spite of her protests.

As mentioned earlier, it is more than just about so-called “misinterpretation,” but about male domination and fantasy. A friend, Shaista Patel, shared some important points on how fantasies are about “symbolic violence for the fear of losing a dominant position and hence the object of love (whether it is the woman, the clique one belongs to, respect of other men) is inherent.” Furthermore, these fantasies are not just symbolic violence, but also personal violence. This fantasy, as Patel explains, also “emanates from a position of not only dominance, and hence the fear of losing it, but from a position of disempowerment, where a sense of engulfment by the woman, or other men, makes the man take a woman’s ‘no’ as a ‘yes.'”

What’s horrible about this is that women are blamed for men’s abuse.  It is a woman’s fault she was raped, abused, assaulted, etc. because she was being “too flirty,” because she was “leading him on,” because she “smiled at him,” because her clothing was “too provocative” or “suggestive,” because “she was asking for it.”  Victim-blaming only serves to normalize and reinforce heteropatriarchy and misogyny.  Of course, there is more to comment on this subject and much has been written on it. I think the Sufi story below challenges the heterosexual male fantasy as discussed above.

The Dervish and the Princess

A King’s daughter was as beautiful as the moon, and admired by all. A dervish saw her one day, as he was about to eat a piece of bread. The morsel fell to the ground, for he was so deeply moved that he could not hold it.

As she passed by she smiled upon him. This action sent him into convulsions, his bread in the dust, his sense half bereft. In a state of ecstasy he remained thus for seven years. The dervish spent all that time in the street, where dogs slept.

He was a nuisance to the princess, and her attendants decided to kill him.

But she called him to her and said: “There can be no union between you and me. And my servants intend to kill you; therefore disappear.”

The miserable man answered: “Since I first saw you, life is nothing to me. They will kill me without cause. But please answer me one question since you are to be the cause of my death. Why did you smile at all?”

“Silly man!” said the princess. “When I saw what a fool you were making yourself, I smiled in pity, not for any other reason.”

And she disappeared from his sight.

***

Idries Shah’s commentary:

In his “Parliament of the Birds,” Attar speaks of the misunderstanding of subjective emotions which causes men to believe that certain experiences (“the smile of the princess”) are special gifts (“admiration”) whereas they may be the very reverse (“pity”).

Many have been misled, because this kind of literature has its own conventions, into believing that Sufi classical writings are other than technical descriptions of psychological states.

Banana 2 Conference and Intersectionality

This is a very overdue post, but two weekends ago, I had the honor to be invited to this year’s Banana 2: Asian Pacific American Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles.  I felt very grateful to speak  on the “Uncovering the Activist in You/Social Media for Social Change” panel with Fatemeh Fakhraie (founder of “Muslimah Media Watch”), Marissa Lee (co-founder of “Racebending”), Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (of “Adventures in Multicultural Living”), Cynthia Liu (of K-12 News Network), and our moderator, Keith Kamisugi.  This was the first time I was invited to speak on a panel and I must thank Edward Hong, an activist, actor, and blogger, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and connect with fellow activists and bloggers.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that went into organizing the conference.  I especially Loved how everything in the room was very social media-based (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because it was, after all, a bloggers conference!).  For example, draped in one corner of the room was a projector screen that showed live Twitter updates from people in attendance.   There was also a table in another corner that had laptops for people to access the internet and update their blogs and social media accounts.  Above the table was a cute speech bubble painted on the wall that read: “Blog Here!” (I actually updated my Facebook status from this blogging station after I spoke on my panel!)  In the back of the room, there was a white board where people could post up neat and witty sticky notes.   Just by reading the notes, I recognized the diverse Asian community in attendance: Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans,  bi-racial and multi-racial folks, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)

Although I was the only South Asian and Pakistani speaker at the conference, I did not feel alienated or excluded.  On the contrary, I felt very welcomed and I got the sense that people were interested in what I had to say.  One of the first panels actually discussed what it meant to be “Asian” and how South Asians, as well as West Asians, should be included.  Fatemeh and I were the only Muslim speakers and I felt like we made a significant contribution to the discussion.  Given the size of our panel on social media activism, a maximum of five minutes to speak was requested of each panelist.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I was surprised how much could share within that limit.  I was nervous at first, but after speaking with my fellow panelists, particularly Marissa Lee, who told me that this is the most encouraging audience I’ll be speaking in front of, I felt more comfortable about it!  In this blog post, I just want to share some of the things I mentioned in my talk, but also elaborate further on activist organizing.

Prior to the conference, I remember Edward outlining the panel for us and one of the questions he made us think about was, “Can an everyday person make a difference through social media?”  A number of times, I wondered why I was invited to speak at the conference.  My blog is not connected to a group, organization, or a major website.  I really just created my blog to share my experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American and to write about issues that I feel are important.  A lot of times, in my experience, I’ve come across people who didn’t see the significance in blogging, going to a rally, protesting, signing a petition, etc.  They don’t feel like it makes a difference.  I think part of the problem is that we’re socialized to think that revolutions happen overnight and that there must be immediate results from our protesting.  When we focus on this model of activism, it’s easy for us to get discouraged.  We overlook the other significant elements that are important in our struggles, such as reaching out to people, engaging with people on a very personal and individual level.  I strive to do that on my blog, especially when I receive e-mails from readers who share their thoughts about my posts.  Making a difference one person at a time, as cliche as it sounds, is still making a difference.  It is still significant, and with those of us who have access to social media, we can use our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to network with fellow activists.  It is about sharing knowledge, learning from each other, building and creating communities, advancing upon our movements, expressing solidarity, meeting in person (if possible), and implementing new knowledge and contributions into our social justice activism.

As in my experience, you never know who’s reading your posts.  I’ve seen my posts being re-published on many different websites, not just anti-racist blogs.  In fact, my chapter published in “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” was a result of a university professor reading my two-part online essay on Muslim women in American and Middle Eastern comic books.  I do not deny that there are limitations with social media, but it is an important tool that we can use to strengthen and further our activism.  I mentioned Egypt briefly in my talk because it does exemplify how social media can be used to coordinate rallies, but I also made it a point to say that it would be very problematic and simplistic to characterize the Egypt uprisings as a “Twitter Revolution.”  That is, people were marching in the streets, putting themselves at risk, and even giving their lives for the sake of justice.  Even when the government shut down the internet, people were still protesting.

For a lot of us in the west, social media was a great way to follow the updates in Egypt.  If I didn’t have social media, I would have been stuck with mainstream American news channels that were distorting the reality in Egypt and discussing the protests through an offensive Islamophobic and orientalist lens.  If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t have been able to easily choose an alternative source, particularly Al Jazeera English.  I remember speaking to some co-workers who were surprised when I told them about Egyptian Christians and Muslims holding hands, forming human chains to protect each other during prayers, and standing in solidarity with each other.  Because of their access to social media, I was able to easily share Al Jazeera English with them.

Similarly, when we use social media to network with people and other communities, we benefit by learning from each other.  One of the most important things I’ve learned about through my discussions with friends on Facebook and the blogosphere is something called intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, and how they often operate simultaneously.  bell hooks stresses a lot on intersectional approaches because so many white feminists from privileged class backgrounds disregard racism, classism, and other factors that play immense roles in oppressing women.  This approach has taught that we cannot be speaking out against racism while participating in sexist oppression (and vice versa).  We can’t be condemning homophobia while we’re perpetuating Islamophobia (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage!).  We can’t be outraged by Islamophobia while making racist jokes about other communities and folks of color.  We can’t be advocating feminism while spreading racist stereotypes about women and men of color (and I would recommend reading this excellent post “Bad Romance: Feminism and Women of Colour Make an Unhappy Pair” by Sana Saeed).  We can’t fight gender discrimination while advocating racial profiling and congressional hearings on Muslims.  We can’t be standing up for Muslim rights in America while supporting orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries, and I would further add that such a stance plays into the hands of “US-centrism,” where we believe what happens in the US is “more important” than what happens “over there.”  We need to understand the relationship between US imperialism in other countries and oppression in the US itself.

For those of you who are familiar with Andrea Smith’s work, you may recognize that my last point comes from her brilliant piece “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supermacy.” A year or so ago, a good friend of mine shared Smith’s essay with me and I have to say that it remains one of the most important, thought-provoking, and valuable pieces I’ve read on people of color organizing.  Smith asserts that instead of focusing on “shared oppression” or “shared victimization,” we should understand that white supremacy affects us all in different ways and that we need to take responsibility in recognizing how our struggles often run into conflict with each other.  An example she uses is how US-born communities of color join the military “in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities.”  As a result, she adds, we “become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries.”  Meanwhile, “all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands.”  The point in keeping us all accountable is to develop stronger alliances and more vigilant strategies in ensuring that our commitment to social justice and liberation does not oppress others (either within or outside our communities).  I believe Smith’s following example demonstrates how effective this strategy is:

“Native peoples who are organizing against the colonial and genocidal practices committed by the US government will be more effective in their struggle if they also organize against US militarism, particularly the military recruitment of indigenous peoples to support US imperial wars.  If we try to end US colonial practices at home, but support US empire by joining the military, we are strengthening the state’s ability to carry out genocidal policies against people of color here and all over the world.”

I mention this strategy because I think it really makes us focus on the rights, dignity, and care of all peoples.  Its purpose is not to discourage us or to assert any sort of political superiority.  It’s about helping us build communities and understand each other better. I know there were things about the Asian-American community that I didn’t know about prior to attending the Banana 2 conference.  I wasn’t aware that Japanese-Americans were the first community to actively speak out against the vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (and they recently condemned the disgusting, anti-Muslim rally that protested against an Islamic charity fundraiser in Orange County).  I know there is a lot I can learn from you and I know that the same system that hurts your people is also hurting my people.  I know that when we get to know each other, learn about struggles, and build alliances, we only become stronger.  I know that when I do not stand up for you, no one will stand up for me.  When other people of color see Asians speak out against Hollywood’s whitewashing in “The Last Bender,” for example, it’s important to express solidarity and understand that this is not solely an “Asian issue.”  It’s something we should all be concerned about.

Towards the end of the conference, I was trying to articulate about something that I think I can express better on my blog. It’s about an unfortunate phenomenon called “celebrity activism,” which happens far too often.  It’s when being an “activist” becomes a “title” and social justice movements transform into another oppressive hierarchy.  This undermines everything we’re supposed to be standing for: equality, justice, dignity, and yes, Love.  There have been many times when I’ve felt discouraged by fellow activists who assert their political superiority in all sorts of manners, whether it’s because of their emphasis on “sexual liberation” (that is, if you’re not having sex, you’re seen as “backwards” and “regressive”) or their accusing you of being “too negative” and not “positive” enough.  I have seen fellow activists vehemently attack others for not being “consistent” enough in their politics.  In other words, there are “qualifications” one needs to be an “activist.”  There is a specific “way” one needs to speak and behave in order to be considered an “activist.”

On “sexual liberation,” I want to share what bell hooks writes in her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center”:

The focus on “sexual liberation” has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion.  Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed.  When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.

To address my other point on “positivity” and “earning” the “activist title,” I need to ask the following question: what does it mean to be an activist?  When we say that we must have a certain mind-set, or a “smile or die” attitude about social justice, we are forgetting about the fact that there are people out there who do not have the “privilege” (I don’t like this word; can anyone suggest an alternative?) to join organizations, to go to rallies, to write blog posts, to write to elected officials, etc.  These are people who are fighting for their rights 24/7, for their basic right to be treated as human beings.  To suggest that these stories aren’t important because they’re “too negative” is exclusionary and oppressive.  Human beings have feelings, they’re allowed to feel angry, sad, and miserable about the situations they’re in.  Arrogantly denying their feelings and telling them they need to be “more positive” is counter-productive and extremely inconsiderate of the fact that racism and oppression affects us all differently.  Malcolm X was angry, does that mean he couldn’t make a difference?  We need people to share their stories and experiences.  If they can’t feel free and comfortable to speak in our movements, then where can their voices be heard?  There is a lot of hurt out there and we cannot heal if we behave like the pain doesn’t exist.

Something else that also happens with “celebrity activists” is that we give them a “pass” on any problematic things they may say.  I am not diminishing the importance of speaking in the mainstream and I mean no disrespect to the scholars, activists, authors, filmmakers, and artists who are doing amazing work (which is why I will not say their names), but there are some who, due to their status, are excused on ridiculing and even exploiting others.  In some cases, the status of these “celebrity activists,” coupled with their “physical attractiveness” is used to gloss over the errors they make in their analysis.  When we excuse problematic statements that reinforce serious stereotypes about communities just because the individual is “hot,” we are asserting the oppressive notion that “physically attractive” people deserve better treatment.  In these situations, let’s consider if these same statements were made by someone that media and society would classify as “unattractive,” would we still excuse them? (and this topic on physical attractiveness and the way we treat people is an important one and requires further anti-racist analysis).

One of the things I appreciated about my experience at Banana 2 was that I didn’t feel a hierarchy. I didn’t get the sense that some bloggers/speakers thought they were better than anyone else.  While I heard things I disagreed with, I felt that this was a receptive crowd and that if we engaged in friendly, respectful discussions, we could learn a lot from each other.  I’m grateful for the opportunity I had and I hope whatever I shared in this post (and at the conference) is found useful.  I’m confident all of us can benefit from each other and build stronger, more effective alliances and strategies that ensure the end of oppression for all peoples.

Propaganda, Islamophobia, and Ethnic Cleansing

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It feels so overwhelming to even take a glance at the news these days.  From the post-election protests in Iran and the recently released propaganda film, “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” to the drone attacks in Pakistan and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Uyghurs in China, there is so much to discuss, report, and analyze.  I will share some of my thoughts on these issues soon, but in the meantime, check out these links for more details:

  • Muslimah Media Watch discusses how “The Stoning of Soraya M.” exploits human rights issues in Iran.  You can read the review by clicking here.
  • Joseph Shahadi has a great piece on his blog about Marwa Sherbini, an Egyptian-Muslim who was murdered in Germany after she sued a man for calling her a “terrorist.”  She was stabbed 18 times by the same man in a court room.  May Allah grant her peace and justice, insha’Allah.  Ameen.
  • Ethnic clashes in China between the Muslim Uyghur minority and the dominant ethnic group, the Han, reportedly resulted in 156 deaths, over 1,000 injured, and over 1,400 arrested. The fighting took place in Urumqi, the capital of the oil-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where the native Uyghurs have long charged the Han of discrimination and “silent ethnic cleansing.” Demonstrations in Urumqi initially began as a “protest over the government’s inaction following racially motivated killings of migrant Uyghur workers at a factory thousands of kilometers away in Guangdong, southern China.”
  • Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur activist and political leader, is being blamed by Chinese authorities for the deadly riots, but she has denied any involvement.   “I didn’t have anything to do with these protests, but I love my people and they love me,” she said.  “So the Chinese naturally try to blame me.”  She also argued that the protests erupted into rioting because of the “heavy-handed policing.” Here’s a report from Al-Jazeera English: