Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

startrek1SPOILERS AHEAD: Don’t read further if you plan on seeing “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I remember when “Batman Begins” was in development, I felt uncomfortable learning that Ra’s Al-Ghul, an Arab villain from the Batman mythology, was set to be the antagonist. The idea of an iconic American superhero battling an Arab terrorist sounded like a perfect set-up to propagate America’s so-called “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitting Batman against an Arab enemy during a time when real-life Arabs and Muslims are increasingly regarded as “threats against western civilization” didn’t seem like a coincidence to me at the time, nor does it now (I’m not going to delve into the disturbing fascist, capitalist, and pro-police state politics in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” but there have been many excellent critiques which you can read here, here, and here).

When audiences discovered Liam Neeson, an Irish actor, ended up being Ra’s Al-Ghul, my initial reaction was mixed. On one hand, I was relieved that we didn’t see a stereotypical dark-skinned Arab man blowing up Gotham city, but on the other, I knew what this character was meant to represent: Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, etc. Not too long after the movie was released, I read some comments on discussion boards where some fans were upset that Ra’s Al-Ghul wasn’t played by an Arab actor. Several years later, I heard the same sentiment expressed when a white actor was selected to play the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” (the character is Latino in the comic books). Most recently, outrage has been directed at the casting decisions for Iron Man 3’s “The Mandarin” and Star Trek’s “Khan Noonien Singh” (pictured above), played by Ben Kingsley and Benedict Cumberbatch, respectively.

I have enormous respect for those who advocate for equal and fair representation for people of color in mainstream western film and television. Mainstream media is a powerful tool/weapon wielded by the interlocking systems of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. For this reason, it is challenging for men and women actors of color to find prominent roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Even more difficult is finding roles that don’t perpetuate racialized and gendered stereotypes. With this in mind, I can understand why advocacy groups protest against casting decisions that choose white actors to play iconic villains of color. When roles for people of color are so limited and scarce in an industry dominated by white actors, producers, writers, and directors, I can only imagine how difficult job-searching must be.

I also recognize that villains of color like Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, Bane, “The Mandarin,” and Khan Noonien Singh are beloved by many fans, including fans of color. Indeed, when I watched “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” it sounded ridiculous and even laughable when a white man declared his name to be “Khan Noonien Singh,” but I don’t believe having a South Asian/Desi actor playing him would solve the racism here. Similarly, an Arab actor playing Ra’s Al-Ghul would not challenge anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes (quite the opposite!). The problem is with these characters themselves and the fact that they exist in the first place. Exoticized names like “Ra’s Al-Ghul,” “The Mandarin,” and “Khan Noonien Singh” are not real names Arabs, East Asians, and South Asians would ever have for themselves. Any South Asian who looks at a name like “Khan Noonien Singh” would find it absurd. It looks as if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was combining different South Asian surnames to make something “exotic sounding.” It’s yet another example of white writers creating inaccurate and exoticized names for their characters of color, while also portraying them as stereotypical, racialized villains.

Personally, I don’t want to see another brown-skinned terrorist character in a Hollywood film, especially in a blockbuster like “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” In a “Star Trek” episode, Khan Noonien Singh is described as “probably” being a Sikh (because what we really need to see right now is a Sikh terrorist blowing up London). Aside from the obvious vilification that is at work here, when one considers the increasing anti-Muslim violence and terror that is afflicted upon Muslims and Sikhs, it is even more offensive to see brown characters relegated to playing terrorists (even if they are played by white actors). Similarly, I never wanted Ra’s Al-Ghul or Talia Al-Ghul to be played by Arabs. At the same time, I don’t like the fact that white actors are used as stand-ins for villains of color who have exoticized South Asian and Arabic names. The problem is with the source material and how and why these characters were created. A lot of times, we understand these characters with respect to the story and the worlds they inhabit, but I think it’s important to go beyond that and question the context in which these characters were created.

An excellent post about “Iron Man 3” points out that “The Mandarin” was created in 1964 and was used to perpetuate “the whole ‘Iron Man as capitalist versus Evil Chinese Communist’ mindset.” Patriotism and pro-war propaganda aren’t new to American comic books, nor are they going away any time soon (e.g. Frank Miller’s Islamophobic “Holy Terror” book). I haven’t done too much research on the context in which Ra’s Al-Ghul was created, but descriptions of him on the DC comics database states that he is an “international immortal eco-terrorist” who was born to a tribe of nomads “somewhere in Arabia.” When one sees the noticeable anti-Iran propaganda in “Batman: A Death in the Family,” it’s hard to imagine that Ra’s Al-Ghul being Arab and a terrorist is something coincidental (sidenote: the writers demonstrated they clearly don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs in that book).

I’m not saying people of color shouldn’t play villains in these stories, but I also think the following question needs to be considered seriously: where do we not see people of color portrayed as villains? If I wanted to see brown and black people vilified, all I need to do is turn on CNN. The demonization of African-Americans, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, and other communities of color have been well documented by countless anti-racist writers, scholars, and activists. Do we really need to see more villains who look like us and our families? I get that villains like Khan are respected and admired by fans and, yes, it is racist for filmmakers to assume that people can only sympathize with him if he is played by a white actor. I found myself sympathizing with his character, too, but at the end of the day, he is an “invisible” South Asian character who is a terrorist. This is why it’s so frustrating and upsetting – it loops back to the stereotype that brown people are already locked into.

When “Prince of Persia” came out, I joined the voices of other bloggers and fans of the video game who spoke out against the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role. It is true that “Prince of Persia” is an Orientalist fantasy written by a white man, but I still felt it would have been powerful to see an Iranian actor play a heroic lead role – something that is extremely rare, unlike villainous roles. The decision to cast a white man was a harsh reminder that (1) the majority of these characters in popular western science fiction, fantasy, and comic book stories are created by white male writers, and (2) Orientalism will always construct “the Orient as the West’s other” and therefore belonging to the West. As Edward Said said, Orientalism is not only inaccurate and dishonest, but also “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the ‘Orient.'” In other words, when applied here, a white man is cast to play the prince of Persia because the Orientalist owns this character and the world in which he lives. White people are cast to play Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, and Khan Noonien Singh because they are creations based upon racialized, gendered, and exoticitized constructions of the “Other,” therefore owned by their white creators and reproduced in whatever manner they wish.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends, but I was pleasantly surprised with what “Iron Man 3” did with “The Mandarin.” By no means is “Iron Man 3” devoid of being racist and problematic, but I thought it was really clever how they literally dismantled “The Mandarin” character. For half of the film, we were led to believe that “The Mandarin” was a Chinese, yet “Arab-looking,” terrorist who wished death upon western civilization, but it is later discovered that he was just a British actor being used by a white male villain named Aldrich Killian. The British actor, played by Ben Kingsley, didn’t even have a clue that people were being killed. In other words, “The Mandarin” simply does not exist as a character in the film (worth noting is that when the director Shane Black was asked about “The Mandarin” back in 2011, he replied by dismissing the character as a “racist caricature”). What Aldrich Killian did was deliberately create an Orientalist caricature of a “foreign” villain that American society would fear and feel threatened by. The real threat didn’t come from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Syria, which are all mentioned as possibilities by Tony Stark and his friends, but rather from a white man in Miami. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to hold up a mirror for America and commenting on how easy it is for people to believe that a racist caricature like “The Mandarin” (who is an Orientalist mix of different cultures) is actually real. I also felt that the director was essentially saying that a character like “The Mandarin” is so ridiculous and racist (his name alone is appalling enough) that he shouldn’t exist to begin with.

What’s also interesting to note is that a lot of white fans have been complaining about how “The Mandarin” was ruined (their rage about this can be seen/read everywhere from YouTube videos to blog posts to discussion boards). After the film was over, I heard a young white man sitting behind us express how angry he was about “The Mandarin.” He said, “Shane Black f***ed this movie up! The Mandarin is not like that in the comics, he’s an evil Asian guy! He’s supposed to be Asian!” I couldn’t help but think about how disturbing it was that people like him were angry because, what, they didn’t get to see another “Yellow Peril” narrative? We don’t need more “Yellow Peril” movies (we’ve already seen a couple of them released this year: “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” Click here and here if you can stomach reading the racist tweets people posted after watching both of these films). One of my favorite responses to these complaints comes from someone with the username “Whatever,” who wrote:

“-sniffle- I didn’t get my outrageously racist villain because he was instead revealed to be a powerless figurehead created by a white man playing on the xenophobic tendencies of the United States. I’m so upset. Wah. -_-”

Is this message in “Iron Man 3” going to end Islamophobia? Certainly not. It doesn’t erase the other nationalistic and racist elements in the film, like that horrible scene involving Muslim women wearing niqabs (which is why I won’t call “Iron Man 3” an anti-racist film). I understand the argument that erasing “The Mandarin” character would also mean erasing an opportunity for an Asian actor, but why don’t the filmmakers open non-stereotypical roles for these actors? The sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book genre in American film is overwhelmingly white, but God forbid if people of color start filling roles for characters who have always been imagined as white (we all remember what happened when some “Hunger Games” fans found out that Rue was black). What would happen if Batman was black? Or if Superman was brown? Or if the “X-Men” films centered on Storm instead of Wolverine? Or if the lead character for the next “Star Wars” film was a woman of color? Why do people of color have to settle for villains or supporting characters or the-black-person-dies-first character? (it still happens – remember “X-Men: First Class”?)

While I respect those who advocate against the racebending of villains of color, I think further steps need to be taken. The framework of “equal representation” for people of color leaves many potential problems unchecked and unexamined. For instance, when “Argo” was released, there were blog posts that voiced outrage over Ben Affleck, a white man, playing a character who is Latino in real life. However, nothing was said in these posts about the pervasive Islamophobia and demonization of Iranians existing throughout the film. Similarly, if we focus solely on “equal representation,” we overlook the racism that it is engrained in these villains of color. We need to move beyond “equal representation” and recognize characters like Khan Noonien Singh, Ra’s Al-Ghul, “The Mandarin,” and other villains of color as racist caricatures. We need to challenge the writers who are creating these villains and telling these stories. We need to challenge how these racialized and vilifying stereotypes fit into larger discourses in society, as well as the role they play in perpetuating racism, sexism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. We need to challenge why these characters exist in the first place.

It’s because people of color deserve more than “equal representation” in western science fiction and fantasy stories. They need better, dignified, non-stereotypical, honest, and unapologetic stories that highlight upon their experiences. They need stories that don’t tokenize them or pretend that things like racism don’t exist. They need stories where they are not only centered, but also radically challenge and disrupt these white-dominated genres. These kind of stories are told and need to be told by people of color themselves.

UPDATE: Coco made these important points in the comments, which I wanted to share here. Re-sharing with permission!:

“great post! I want to add on to your last point, which is that fair representation can only occur when we tell our own stories where we are not caricatures of our race but actual human beings. But the way racism is entrenched in western media and societies, it is not that non problematic narratives involving non-white people don’t exist, they simply aren’t heard because they aren’t promoted, financed, etc in the same way as white dominated narratives and so are forever left in the margins. Power lies in the hands of the capitalist racist hetro patriachy and the mainstream media is one way it perpetuates itself.”

Responses to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

My Facebook news feed has been buzzing with critiques of Mona Eltahawy’s latest article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  When the original piece was published in “Foreign Policy” magazine, there was a small debate on a friend’s Facebook wall about how Mona continues to frame her work in problematic ways and assumes the role of a native informant for white western audiences.  Critiques of her article have been dismissed by some as mere “debate” or “differences in opinion” without any analysis of how Mona self-appoints herself before western audiences as a spokesperson for all Arab women and confirms simplistic and dangerous Orientalist narratives that play into the larger, racist discourses on Islam, Muslims, and the “Muslim world” (a “reductionist term,” as Dena Al-Adeeb writes, “used to name women from countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia”).

The vast number of critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women call attention to how Mona’s simplistic analysis and characterization of Arab women as “helpless” plays into larger discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. This construction of the “helpless woman of color” who must be saved from the “dangerous man of color” has a long history of sexual violence, colonialism, and racism.  As Andrea Smith explains in “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when European colonizers enslaved Native women, they argued that “they were actually somehow freeing Native women from ‘oppression’ they supposedly faced in Native nations.” When white colonizers would mutilate the bodies of Native men and rape Native women, they proclaimed “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men.”

If we look at the violent US invasion and military occupation in Afghanistan, we see how the legacy of colonialism continues when Afghan women’s struggles against patriarchy and misogyny are used as propaganda to advance war – one that continues to bomb, torture, and rape Afghan men and women. I don’t believe Mona Eltahawy is calling for the west to intervene in struggles against patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, but I present these discourses and histories to show how critiques of her article are not “pointless” or “personal attacks,” but serious and important. Performing as a native informant is dangerous, not only because of the racist stereotypes it reinforces, but also because of the way it silences the countless Arab and Muslim women and men who have been fighting against misogyny and other forms of sexist oppression. Egyptian journalist and activist Gigi Ibrahim, who blogs at “Tahrir & Beyond,” writes the following in her response to Mona:

What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.

Nahed Eltantawy mentions some of the Arab women missing from Mona’s article: “Tawakkul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt’s female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim,” and many others who challenge the “weak” and “helpless” western stereotype of Arab women.

As Shaista Patel explains, the Muslim native informant, whether it is Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is always “honored and respected by white men and women to silence and shame Muslim women who critique these Muslim native informants.” Just this morning, I was sent a blog post written by a white American man who wrote: “What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women” (I’m not going to link to his post, but you can put this quote into Google and find it). He suggested that the Arab and Muslim women who wrote these critiques had “issues with the actual speaker” (Mona) and that their criticism stemmed from “the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience.” Later, he equated his personal experiences, where Arab women told him not to speak for them, with the experiences of Mona being criticized for her article. This example of closely identifying with a native informant in this manner is not too different than the debate that occurred on my friend’s wall, where a white woman proclaimed her “respect” for Mona as a way to dismiss and silence an anti-racist critique from a Muslim woman. By accusing these critiques of making “personal attacks” against Mona or having issues with airing “dirty laundry,” the actual concern of these critiques, such as Mona’s problematic framework, analysis, and simplification of Muslim-majority countries is completely missed.

This isn’t the first time Mona has performed this way either. As many know, Mona strongly advocates for governments to ban the niqab. Her position is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. It’s troubling how the images are juxtaposed when we see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Such dichotomous thinking is engrained in the US’s oppressive international and domestic policies, which are violent for people in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims in the west. One needs to question how Mona’s anti-niqab stance is seen through the white imperial gaze.

One must also question what many of the critiques have expressed outrage over: the extremely disturbing Orientalist images used in Mona’s article. The pictures, which I have decided not to post (trigger warning if you haven’t seen them already) depict nude women in black body paint with only their eyes left bare. I agree with Roqayah Chamseddine that these images are “arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab” (her response is shared below). What impact do these pictures have on real Muslim bodies who wear the niqab and how are these images viewed by governments that want to police how Muslim women choose to dress?

Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, I believe it is important for all men, including myself, to not deny the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as the ways in which we are complicit in participating in sexist oppression, whether it’s done consciously or through the way we’ve internalized and constantly perform sexist socialization. None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well.  These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.

I’ve shared some excerpts from the responses to Mona’s article below. The first two comments were from an online discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall and are being re-shared with permission:

Shaista Patel:

I think that we need to understand that these debates are entrenched in various power relations. Mona has the backing of the mainstream (read racist) media and society, while somebody like a Sunera Thobani is condemned for giving a speech to a group of feminists in an auditorium. Nobody saw that as a healthy debate when a complaint was filed against her, and her life was under threat. By critiquing Mona and her work, we are not taking away the fact that she was sexually harassed, just like we’ve never wanted to discredit the abuse Irshad Manji’s faced at the hands of her father. It is when a Mona, Irshad Manji and an Ayan Hirsi Ali become the native informants, perform in a way that sits very well with the white Western society’s construction of the ‘Arab world’ and the “Muslim world”, when Bush asks us to watch Nilufer Pazira’s “Qandahar” while bombing Afghanistan and killing and mutilating people that we know that these debates/discourses aren’t necessarily productive for us racialized bodies, especially those whose lives are under threat every single minute of every single day. I have been asked to engage with the Zionists in debates, with the racists in debates but look at who I am and what I have to say and the sheer hostility I would have to and have faced several times from these white folks wanting to sit at the table and have a discussion while people who look like me are being killed every single day. Mona’s work is seductive to white people and some Muslims with liberal and racist politics because of what she has to say, and how she’s supporting the war politics of the West.

Lise Vaugeois:

I want to add more points: Sunera Thobani is vilified every time she opens her mouth. I have great admiration for her persistence in continuing to speak in public in spite of the relentless and attacks on her person. The other people we are talking about here, e.g. Manji and Elthahawy et al, are making a very good living by saying what mainstream financial/political interests want people to believe. Maybe these “pundits” genuinely believe what they are saying but – it sure works in favor of their own careers as well as the larger economic goal of arms manufacturers to create villains (in this case, brown Muslim folks) who can only be contained by mobilizing national militaries to exterminate them. And then there’s the goal to discredit all Middle Eastern governments and their peoples, in order to justify destroying their infrastructures and fully control their natural and human resources. These public relations games all feed into larger political goals that, unfortunately, are difficult to see for those of us who want to believe that genuine debates actually happen in the public domain. Power relations shape all public debates and are thoroughly scripted to make existing power relations appear “reasonable and good.”

This piece makes many good points, regarding disturbing (to say the least) treatment of women’s bodies in the region. The problem, however, is how Mona frames this. This isn’t about a single conglomerate of men working in synch to repress women. And it isn’t about ‘hate’ either — can we confine people who should be made into partners for the fight for gender equality into being the enemy? Additionally, can we say this ‘war’ is particular to the region or part of the great GWOFB — global war on female bodies (cough)? My ultimate issue with this piece (the ..terrible, terrible photos chosen by FP aside) is that it’s in English. It’s to an American audience. The only thing that it is conducive to is further fueling the flames of the plight of ‘poor Muslim women’ and the general perceived weakness women of brown skin, unable to help themselves. This hurts more than it helps. The piece had potential – but in Arabic.

Lastly, the author mentions that the uprisings were sparked by a man and she hopes they will be defined by women. But they are being defined by women (and men too and there’s nothing wrong with that). Some of the most known names and the most fierce personalities to come out of the uprisings have been women: the AlKhawaja sisters of Bahrain, Tawakkul Kamran of Yemen, Asma Mahfouz of Egypt.

The general treatment of women in the so-called Arab world is deplorable, but it is not exclusive to the region and is not merely a social or moral byproduct.

And we cannot, ever, underestimate any woman or group of women’s ability to be able to see the violence and injustices being done unto them. For us to assume so is to be compliant with that violence and injustice.
Roqayah Chamseddine:

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.

It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

(read the rest of her response here: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery)

Sara Salem:

At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.

Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.

My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)

My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?

Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.

Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.

(read more: A response to Mona el Tahawy)

Leila Ahmed:

These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.

It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to — of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.

There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.

(read more: Debating the War on Women)

Samia Errazzouki:

The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to “hate.” The argument dismisses the role of figures like Tawakul KarmanZainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and others — women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.

Eltahawy points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

Yet, Eltahawy entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.” Arab women such as Leila Ahmed and Lila Abu-Lughod, among others, have proven this fact time and time again.

The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.

(read more: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’)

Ayesha Kazmi:

While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.

(read more: Oh, Mona!)

Dalia Abd El-Hameed:

Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities.

Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you’ll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message:  “Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked.”

(read more: What 6 Egyptian Women Say About Mona Eltahawy)

Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi:

El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.

The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.

(read more: Let’s Talk About Sex)

Additional Readings:

Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?

The Hypocrisy of the “Why They Hate Us” Rhetoric of Muslim Native Informants

Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulful al Nidham

My Response to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Mona el Tahawy or Native Neo-orientalism

Dear Mona Eltahawy – Colonial Feminism

Debunking the “Islam is Not a Race!” Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Razack elaborates on how systematized racism against Muslims operates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One “Hijacked” Islam – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Planet of the Apes” and How Racism, Sexism Hurts Science Fiction

Honestly, as a brown Muslim who takes his science fiction seriously, I wish I could like the “Planet of the Apes” films. I really do. I’m always a sucker for mind-boggling time travel paradoxes, and “Planet of the Apes,” especially Tim Burton’s remake, gives sci-fi aficionados plenty to discuss/debate in that regard. However, as I recently revisited the films after several years, I am disheartened by what I found.

I vividly remember watching the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes,” starring Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, when I was a kid. I also remember being frightened by the apes. They were strange and scary-looking “monkey people” as far as my childhood brain was concerned. Interestingly, I recall feeling an odd sense of satisfaction when Heston, the White male protagonist, shouted the infamous line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I cheered for Heston because I hated the apes. They were animals.

Hairy. Ugly. Dark.

Throughout the film, I was waiting for Heston to find a machine gun and plow them all down like Rambo. That scene never came though; the movie just ended with Heston in front of a ruined Statue of Liberty and screaming in despair about something that my young self couldn’t understand. Many years later, when I was 17, Tim Burton’s remake in the summer of 2001 sparked my interest in the “Apes” franchise. I watched the original again and became an instant fan. I even enjoyed Burton’s remake (aside from some of my friends, not many people liked his version, but I’ll get to that later).

About a week ago, I was speaking with a friend about the bizarre ending to Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” and our discussion prompted me to revisit the movies yet again. This time around, at 26, it was upsetting to discover overt sexism and disturbing commentary on race in both films. Let’s begin with the original 1968 film: it is essentially space porn in its treatment of women. Out of the four American astronauts traveling thousands of years into the future in hopes to start a new civilization on another planet, only one is a woman. Without a single word of dialogue, she has about 3 or 4 seconds of screen time before being killed off by a lame air leak in her hibernation vessel. In other words, she doesn’t even survive the voyage! Furthermore, after the spaceship unexpectedly crash-lands in a river on an unknown planet (which we find out to be earth in the famous twist ending), the three male characters abandon ship without the woman’s body, completely denying her at least a proper burial.

As Heston gives some exposition about why he left earth, he reflects on the female character, Stewart, and how she was supposed to be “our new Eve.” Stewart is reduced to a reproduction machine and, were she to survive the expedition, her sole purpose would be to mate with one of the three males. Or, given the competitiveness of the male characters and the sexual frustration subtly expressed by Heston’s character later in the film, she would probably have to mate with all three men. I simply find it illogical for a small group of astronauts to embark on an enormous one-way journey and only bring one woman along to serve as their “Eve.” But the objectification of women and space porn fantasy doesn’t stop there.

When Heston and his two fellow astronauts stumble upon a tribe of humans living in the wild, a scantily-clad female native catches Heston’s eyes. Like the other humans on this future earth, she is mute and primitive. When Heston is paired to mate with her, he does not complain, nor does she. And why should Heston complain? He is a heterosexual space traveler in an unknown world and has a woman at his side – a woman who is only a body; she does not speak, challenge his actions, or resist his authority. Heston can do anything he wants with her. He even names her like a pet; never mind whether or not she had a name of her own or didn’t like to be called “Nova.” It is easy to argue that traveling into a distant future where a primitive and woman looks up to you as the superior male figure is nothing short of exotic, highly sexualized hetero-male fantasy. The only female character with speaking parts is Zira, the ape who, with the help of her fiancé Cornelius, defends Heston and human rights. However, she is consistently treated as an “other,” making it very easy, I would argue, for the audience to perceive her exclusively as an ape and not an empowered female.

The “otherness” of the apes and its correlation with people of color, specifically African-Americans, has been much discussed in other critiques of the film. As Gregory P. Kane of Black America Web comments:

The apes in the films have names, but they also have something else: A racial hierarchy. The blonde-haired orangutans are at the top, ruling the roost. Next in line are the chimpanzees, depicted in the films as having brown hair and light-skinned faces. At the bottom are the gorillas, who have black hair and – yes, you guessed right – black-skinned faces.

While one of the American astronauts is Black, he is quickly killed when the apes round up the humans in their first on-screen appearance. The humans on this future earth, by the way, are all White. As Kane remarks, “All those Black folks in New York today, and NOT ONE survived in the future? Oh, and there are no Latinos or Asians either. Every one of the future humans – the ones who survived – is White.”

One could make a counter-argument that the film condemns racism and actually blames “man” for essentially nuking humanity into extinction.  The argument would continue and point out that the experiences African-Americans have with racism in White supremacist heteropatriachy is exemplified in Heston’s character. That is, although Heston is a White man surrounded by an “other” majority, the role reversal is meant to allegorically teach White people how it feels to be enslaved and discriminated against.

I can see some aspects of this perspective, specifically the way the film regularly criticizes the destructive nature of “man,” but it does not excuse the stereotypical representations of apes that are meant to stand in for African-Americans and people of color. To be “human” in the film is to be “White,” and to be “Ape” is to be of color. Even if the message was about denouncing racism, the film’s ending – with Heston realizing that humanity (read: White people) blew up the world – sends an ominous and cynical warning: White people are going to destroy the world and make way for the genetically and technologically “inferior” races and civilizations to rule the planet.

Sadly, this racist theme is even more pronounced in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Like the original, the protagonist, played by Mark Wahlberg, represents the White man as a minority. In order for Wahlberg to return to earth, he has to fight an epic and violent battle against the apes, which only reinforces the White and “other” divide. What we see new in Burton’s film is the influx of Orientalism. The apes carry scimitars and wear pointed helmets, floral-patterned clothing and ornaments which all look like an odd fusion of Arabian, Ottoman, and South Asian art. Even when we are first introduced to an ape village, we see the apes playing sitars and smoking hookah. These images call for an important analysis on how representations of the non-human species in popular science fiction compares to the way people of color are depicted in mainstream media and perceived in society. Metaphilm alludes to this point in its commentary on Burton’s film, describing the attitude as: “Damn, look what’s happening to America! The White man is getting screwed. If we don’t do something, the Black man is going to take over our whole, f***ing planet!”

The author elaborates:

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” fuels this exact kind of racial defensiveness. The connection between the domineering apes and the growing Black (and ethnic) culture in America is striking. Almost every human represented in the film is played by a White actor: an insignificant Black man ends up getting killed, and a submissive Asian woman is virtually invisible. If humanity is represented as being White in the film, then apeness is understood as being colored. The Black man and Asian woman represent minorities that have chosen to blend into Whiteness: cultural sell-outs. And, according to the film, they too will suffer under ape domination.

In addition to these Black and Asian “sell-outs,” there are also the ape “sell-outs,” notably the female ape, Ari (played by Helena Bonham Carter). She is a passionate human rights activist and actually a very well-developed character. I mentioned earlier that not many people liked Burton’s remake, mostly because they didn’t believe it felt like a Burton film. True, I believe the studio tried to transform the original into an action movie, but if there is one aspect of the film, aside from the aesthetic, that has Burton’s signature written all over it, it is the romantic and sexual tension between the female ape and the male human. One could argue that the romance here is tainted with White hetero (earth-) male space fantasy and exoticism.

Ari is an empowered female ape and perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the entire film. She is devoted to her activism for human rights and challenges anti-human sentiment and policies, including in her family. When Wahlberg arrives, she immediately falls in love with him – a complete stranger from another planet – and loses all sense of her own identity. Whenever Ari is around Wahlberg’s character, she is deeply fascinated by him, by how intelligent he is and how he comes from somewhere else, a more technologically advanced, superior civilization where the humans – the White man – rules and dominates. Furthermore, the inter-species Love is only one-way. Wahlberg never shows any interest in her or in the female human character who also swoons over him. The latter is scantily-clad like the original film’s “Nova” and is played by supermodel Estella Warren. She hardly has any dialogue because, quite obviously, she serves only as eye-candy. But Wahlberg doesn’t care about them. Throughout the movie, he just cares about getting the heck off the planet!

The inter-species romance can easily be read as an inter-racial relationship. This is a common trope we find in science fiction where non-human species are stand-ins for people of color. This becomes more clear when we pay attention to social status, power dynamics, how the characters are being depicted and racialized. Although Ari is played by a White woman, her ape character’s representation is consistent with the way women of color are often portrayed in mainstream media: exoticized, animalistic (and that is obvious here), oppressed by the men of her own race/species, and must be rescued by the White man (this isn’t the first time to appear in science fiction either, you can find it in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar” film). Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the film’s sexism is how Wahlberg gets to kiss both Ari and the female human at the end of the movie! And neither of the women have any objection to that! Why should they – he is the White Messiah figure, they should feel honored he bothered to show them some attention in the first place, right?!

In closing, it is discouraging for me to reject these films that I once enjoyed. I’ve always appreciated how science fiction could convey important social (see “1984”), political (see “V for Vendetta”), and even spiritual (see “Star Wars”) messages in fantastical or futuristic settings, but throughout the history of the genre, at least in Western literature, non-human species have been used as substitutes for people of color. Though the intention is not always to be racist, the perception of the “other” is always reinforced, just as “otherness” is stressed when people of color are portrayed. This makes it quite challenging for people of color like myself to enjoy science fiction classics like “Planet of the Apes.” Women, especially women of color, are relegated to the background, and whenever they are given significant roles, they are almost always hyper-sexualized and exoticized. I really believe they could have made a “Planet of the Apes” film without the racism and sexism. For instance, why couldn’t the protagonist be Brown or Black or Yellow? Or why couldn’t the protagonist be a woman? Why not a woman of color? Why always a White man?

For women and people of color, I only see one solution to this: we need to start promoting and writing our own science fiction stories.

The Flying Carpet Fallacy

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

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

It goes something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Kurbaan: Stereotypes, Islamophobia, and the Sexy Terrorist


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

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

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

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

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

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

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

Ow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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