Islamophobia Did Not Begin on 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet of the Muslims?

“The Muslim World” – Otherizing much?

Whenever I hear expressions like “The Muslim World,” or “The Arab World,” especially when they’re used by white non-Muslims, I think of those old science-fiction serials where the title screams across the screen in scary green text, accompanied by ominous music and a male radio broadcaster voice saying “The Muslim World!”  Admittedly, I have used these descriptions in college papers and blog posts in the past. Sometimes I used them out of simplicity and other times I used them because I didn’t know of any alternatives. I prefer saying “Muslim-majority countries” when referring to groups of countries that have predominant Muslim populations, but also make it a point to critique the Orientalist stereotypes that treat Muslim-majority countries or any Muslim population as monoliths.

I don’t like terms like “The Muslim World” or “The Arab World” for a number of reasons. First, it attempts to reinforce generalizations about all Muslim-majority or Arab-majority countries. Rather than acknowledging the complexity and diversity among and within Muslim-majority societies, “The Muslim World” simplifies these differences for the sake of Orientalist narratives and stereotypes. All Muslim-majority countries, according to this label, follow the same rules, laws, norms, lifestyles, beliefs, etc. In the Orientalist imagination, it’s like one of those exoticized “New Age” shops you’d find in an American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, etc.) suburb or city, where everything that “looks Indian or Arab” is showcased and treated “as the same.” Yeah, that’s racist.

Second, the language itself is absurd. It’s too intergalactic for me. Not only are Muslims from different racial and religious backgrounds, but they might as well be a different species. The language is dehumanizing and implies that Muslims are from an entirely different world – that their beliefs and ways of life are completely alien to planet Earth. Meanwhile, western white-majority societies are made out to be the real representatives of human beings on our planet. Ever notice how western science fiction movies, novels, and comic books about alien invasions tend to have white people representing Earth (and if they’re not white, they make sure you know that they’re American citizens)? Recently, I heard a non-Muslim writer say, “You’re right, our site needs more writers from the Muslim world.” What is being said here? That a random group of Muslims who happen to be from a number of Muslim-majority countries are going to represent a  homogenous “Muslim world”? That if a Muslim writer is based in, say, Lebanon, s/he is going to be an “ambassador” of an imagined “Muslim world”? That Muslims have some kind of shared “home world”? Though sometimes these phrases are used with good intentions, it’s important that we examine the language we use (in this case, the language used to describe Islam, Muslims, and Muslim-majority countries) and understand its implications.

Lastly, I don’t like these descriptions because of the way they’re often used to fuel generalizations and stereotypes that have harmful and deadly effects on real people.  “The Muslim world is evil,” which means all Muslim-majority countries need to be monitored by the U.S., invaded, occupied, and bombed. The “Muslim world” is characterized as a “dark, treacherous, and violent” place, and this kind of racist demonization maintains white supremacy, policies like racial profiling, hate crimes, and imperialism. If you listen to the hate speech of Islamophobes in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and other countries, their hostile hatred of “Sharia law” and Muslim immigration sounds like they’re warning against an “alien invasion.” Muslims, as well as other people of color, are viewed as perpetual “threats” and “uncivilized savages” that need to be cleansed to keep Earth (i.e. the family of white nations) “pure.” Yes, people have differences, especially different realities and experiences based on factors like race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth, but I find the manner in which phrases like “Muslim world” or “Arab world” are used are often otherizing and exoticizing. It reminds me of sexist language that asserts “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus,” which likens our differences to different planets and claims that we are “stuck in our ways” due to our biology; that we will always fit gendered and racialized stereotypes; that we have always been this way.

A few months ago, I was meeting with a white male administrator at my previous university and the conversation, unsurprisingly, shifted to where I was from. He then talking about how he wanted to visit Egypt and said he wanted to learn Arabic. Then he joked and suggested that maybe I could teach him. I told him I didn’t speak Arabic, mostly because Arabic is not spoken by majority of Pakistanis. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Wait, I thought Pakistan was in the Arab world?” As many Pakistanis know, we hear this a lot, so it wasn’t utterly shocking.  It would be racist to react with disgust to his question because there’s nothing wrong with being Arab, of course, so I took a moment and then said, “No, we’re on a neighboring world. You know, the planet next to the Arab world.” There was an awkward silence and the administrator’s face went blank. Then he laughed nervously, “Oh, ha ha ha ha.” I laughed genuinely – not with him, but at him. “You see what I did there?” I asked. He nodded and then apologized because he “didn’t mean it that way.” I then proceeded to explain to him why I find that language silly and offensive. He seemed to understand and said that he would “make a note of that.”

Perhaps its a message he can deliver back to The White World, right?🙂

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.


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.

Your Racism is Showing

A lot has happened since I wrote my last blog post.  I’ve been busy with a few projects, so I haven’t been able to blog about some of the important issues in the world right now (France’s niqab ban, the death of Osama bin Laden, the anti-Muslim attacks immediately following Osama’s death, the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East, etc.).  With regard to Osama’s death, a few of my Muslim friends informed me about experiences they had in their schools and workplaces.  They were asked by white non-Muslim peers, “Were you upset about Osama’s death?” or “Are you mourning his death since you are a Muslim?”  The question is absurd and assumes that Muslims felt “sad” that bin Laden was killed.  There was another appalling report I read about a Texas algebra teacher insulting a Muslim student by telling her, “I bet you’re grieving.”  The student, a young Muslim woman, asked, “What are you talking about?”  The teacher replied, “I heard your uncle died,” referring to Osama bin Laden.  The student was brought to tears because of the teacher’s obnoxious remarks and obvious prejudice.  A Muslim friend texted me and said it feels like 9/11 all over again, referring to how Muslims felt on edge (and still do) about receiving offensive, ignorant and often racist remarks from non-Muslims (and I have to say that it is utterly absurd and insulting that President Obama would say we were all “one American family regardless of race and religion” in the days following 9/11.  Muslims, Sikhs, Arab-Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim didn’t enjoy any sort of “color-blind unity” after 9/11 and the reports of hate crimes, vandalism, and discriminatory acts committed against them testify that).

I’ve had some stressful and sometimes painful conversations about race and Islamophobia with people over the past few weeks.  Some of these people I know personally and some I don’t know at all.  What I’ve noticed for a very long time now is that conversations about race makes people very uncomfortable.  Because in the United States, to talk about racism is to be seen as “confrontational” or even “racist.”  The attitude about racism in the mainstream is that racism is a “thing of the past” and “doesn’t exist anymore.”  As a result of this socialization, there are several ways people derail conversations about race.  I was challenging white supremacy in one conversation, for example, but all I kept hearing in counter-arguments was that I was “generalizing about white people” or being “anti-white.”  In another conversation, a white feminist kept accusing me of “reverse racism” because I was critiquing the way white feminist movements have historically been oppressive, racist, and exploitative, specifically to women of color.  This same white feminist said I was bringing up “color” for “no reason,” as if racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression aren’t interlinked.  Finally, there was another discussion where a white Christian man, who claims to promote peace and coexistence between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all peoples, was advocating for imperialism in Muslim-majority countries.  He claimed there was a “just cause for war, civilian casualties or not.”  When I called his comments insensitive and disgusting, especially because he was speaking for a country that isn’t his own and dismissed civilian casualties as if it wasn’t a big deal, he got extremely defensive and accused me of having a “personal vendetta against the West.”

I see all of these reactions as dismissing a disturbing reality about racial hierarchy, white “privilege” and power, interlocking oppression, power relations between the West and Muslim-majority countries.  Rather than challenging white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the society in which we live, the focus of every conversation shifted towards personal attacks against me.  The goal in each case, whether deliberate or not, was to silence anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist politics.

One of the main problems about mainstream discourse about racism is that we’re taught that racism only exists in extreme forms. That is, it is only racism when someone uses the “n” word, when KKK members throw on white sheets over their heads and go out to lynch a black person, when racists proclaim they support slavery, when neo-Nazis praise Hitler and the holocaust, etc. Of course all of these things are racism, but racism still exists today in both overt and covert forms. The disturbing growth of Islamophobia in the west is evident of how racism and bigotry is still very much alive.  Racism against Muslims (and even though Muslims are not a race, they have become racialized by white supremacy), African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and other racialized peoples is seen as acceptable due to the way racism hides behind terms like “political connectedness” and “race card.”

Another major problem is how fragmented people on the Left are.  Those of us who identify ourselves as human rights activists, feminists, anti-racists, anti-capitalists, anti-war advocates, and so on, are caught in petty ego battles that stop us from moving forward.  Celebrity activism and creating hierarchies within our movements is driven shamelessly by narcissism and undermines everything we claim to be standing up for.  I’ve heard so many discouraging stories in the past few weeks about movements that oppressed, excluded, marginalized, or even discriminated against other groups of people.  A friend and I were speaking about the racist history of feminism in the United States and how feminist movements were largely dominated by white women from privileged class backgrounds, many of whom, as mentioned earlier, marginalized, oppressed, and exploited women of color.  Women of color still face racism within white-dominated feminist movements and spaces. A recent example of this is with Toronto’s “SlutWalk,” which was formed after a Toronto police officer told a group of students that women “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”  Although “SlutWalk” intends on fighting against dangerous sexist stereotypes and victim-blaming politics, a recent critique titled “SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy” exposes the way white women within the movement are marginalizing and silencing the voices of women of color.  I’ve seen Facebook comments where people have attacked this piece and accused the author for “splitting hairs.”  And of course, there are folks accusing her of being racist and “anti-white” (because whenever a person of color fights racism, they are being “anti-white,” right?  It’s appalling how the author is attacked for challenging white supremacy, as if racism isn’t a serious issue at all!  “Reverse racism” arguments are used to deny privileges and dismiss serious concerns and experiences – it is essentially another way of telling someone to “shut up!”  One particular person on Facebook argued that the author is hating on other women more than the oppressors.  Obviously what this critic fails to recognize is how dismissing racism within feminist movements actually serves the oppressors and that oppression exists within groups, too.  If we don’t confront racism, sexism, classism, ableism in our own groups, how are we going to confront it at large?

When I read and hear such defensiveness from privileged white people, it makes me realize how difficult the struggle is.  Being a heterosexual male of color, I don’t want to appropriate the pain that women of color endure – it’s not something I can imagine – but I do acknowledge my own experiences in how I’ve been discriminated against not just by white men, but also by white women, including white women feminists.  Some friends of mine have referred to me as a “male feminist,” but after a lot experiences, a lot of reading, and a lot of listening, particularly to women of color (all of which I am still doing), it encouraged me to challenge the simplistic and generalized language we use about gender and feminism.  If there are women of color who are not comfortable with self-identifying as “feminist,” then how can I? (I’m not saying we shouldn’t use the term, I am specifically questioning the way male privilege allows men to use the term without thinking about the experiences of women of color).  Other male feminists have written about their journey to feminism and how they believe it is the solution to patriarchy and misogyny.  The problem I have with this presentation of feminism is that it’s very simplistic and doesn’t critique the racism and power dynamics that need to be confronted within mainstream feminist movements and discourse.  When we say “men and women,” which men and women are we talking about?  White men and women?  Black men and women?  Brown men and women?  Homosexual men and women?  Disabled men and women?  And if homosexual or disabled men and women, are they white or of color?  Using general language about feminism and gender only ignores the other significant factors like race, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. that determine our experiences.  Muslim feminists, for example, have been on receiving ends of hostile attacks from arrogant white non-Muslim feminists.  I’ve lost count of how many e-mails and comments I’ve received from white non-Muslim women telling me that “Islamic feminism is an oxymoron.” Like non-Muslim women of color, Muslim women, especially those of color, have also been silenced due to Islamophobia and racism.  Even worse, there are white non-Muslim feminist groups like the “Feminist Majority Foundation” that support Orientalist wars in Afghanistan rather than supporting the women’s rights groups that exist on the ground (I’ve written about this before on my blog).

What’s even more painful for me is when I feel discrimination from people of color and/or fellow Muslims.  In a couple of recent cases, I have felt this.   Some Muslims are too busy playing “biddah” and “shirk” police rather than supporting their fellow Muslims who protest against Islamophobic speakers that preach hate on college campuses (in one particular case, a leader of a Muslim student group felt it was “better” if Muslims “ignored” an Islamophobic speaker than to actually speak out and protest against the talk.  While I don’t believe Muslims are obligated to behave like spokespersons for Islam, I think it’s important for the Muslim leaders in our communities to support the Muslims who actually put themselves in harm’s way to fight Islamophobia, racism, sexism, etc.)  Then there are Muslims who perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes and the demonization of Muslims of color when challenging sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities.  It is important for us Muslims to dismantle patriarchy and strive towards ending sexist oppression, but in some unfortunate cases, generalizing about Muslims and some of the cultures that comprise our community and then passing it off as “fighting sexism” only serves Islamophobia and western superiority complexes (I’m not in the mood to name names in this post, but there are published Muslims out there who speak out against sexism while supporting racial profiling and Peter King “hearings” that reinforce distrust and suspicion of the Muslim-American community – of course, this receives a stamp of “approval” from white non-Muslim Islamophobes who think the only acceptable Muslims are the ones who “assimilate” and serve the interests of the ruling class).  Unfortunately, there are “establishment Muslims,” as Huma Dar describes in her enormously comprehensive and brilliant piece, “Of Niqabs, Monsters, and Decolonial Feminisms,” that support racist, oppressive policies against Muslims (e.g. French Law banning the niqab/face veil) while claiming to support “reform” and “gender equality” in their communities.  I will continue to write about misogyny, male privilege, male supremacy, and sexist socialization in Muslim communities, mostly based in the US, while remaining conscious of racist assumptions made by certain white men and women alike who think as if white people aren’t also complicit in patriarchy and sexist oppression and exploitation.  I’ve written several posts on this blog that challenges misogynistic Muslim men, but what bothered me later was how some people felt it was “ok” to make racist generalizations about Muslim men of color.  Like in any community, issues like the objectification of women, domestic violence, and male domination needs to be discussed openly, but I also felt  it was a failure on my part for not having an anti-racist analysis in those posts.  The point isn’t that we should make a choice between talking about racism or sexism.  It’s not one or the other.  Racism and sexism are interconnected.  Failure in recognizing this shows when we see anti-racism plagued with sexism or feminism plagued with racism.

While I was stressing on these points with someone and talking about how US wars and propaganda use the struggles of Muslim women as sympathy tools to (1) Orientalize all Muslim women as veiled and oppressed, (2) demonize all Muslim men, (2) uphold ethnocentric, western supremacist ideologies, and (3) invade, bomb, and occupy Muslim lands (and killing, bombing, raping Muslim women in the process), my “tone” was called into account.  In other words, since my tone was fiercely critical of US imperialism, I was told I should be more “witty” and use “sarcasm” to win the “hearts and minds” of the person I was debating.  This is the “tone argument,” which another blogger beautifully identifies as a “logical fallacy” where “you object to someone else’s argument based on its tone: it is too angry, too hateful, not calm enough, not nice enough, etc.”  Furthermore, the “tone argument” isn’t concerned about whether or not the truth was spoken.  It is used to “derail and silence” and “dismiss you as an unreasonable person.”

Ok, I wrote more than I anticipated on writing.  The real reason why I wrote this post was to introduce this important and amazing piece that was published on “People of Color Organize!”  It’s titled, Fourteen Ways Your Racism is Showing.  It is written from the perspective of a black woman and addressed to white feminists, but I think it can be applied to other racialized and stigmatized peoples.  Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that this isn’t to perpetuate the “shared oppression” narrative – certainly, all of us experience oppression differently due to our race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  Anyway, I’ve pasted the entire post below. I hope everyone finds it as important and helpful as I did.

Your racism is showing when we are invisible to you; an afterthought solicited to integrate your white organizations.

Your racism is showing when in frustrated anger, you don’t understand why we won’t do your racism work for you. Do it yourself. Educate yourself. Don’t ask another Black woman to explain it all to you. Read a book

Your racism is showing when you pay too much attention to us. We resent your staring scrutiny that reveals how much we are oddities to you.

Your racism is showing in your cowardly fear of us; when you send someone else to talk to us on your behalf, perhaps another sister; when conflict resolution with us means you call the police. When you ignore what the police do to Black people and call them anyway, your racism is showing.

Your racism is showing when you eagerly embrace the lone Black woman in your collective, while fearing, resenting, suspecting and attacking a vocal, assertive group of Black women. One Black woman you can handle, but organized Black women are a real problem. You just can’t handle us having any real power.

Your racism is showing when you comment on our gorgeous “ethnic clothing or ask us why we wear dreads when we are perfect strangers to you. Would you do the same to a white stranger wearing Ralph Lauren and a page boy? These are also ethnic styles.

Your racism is showing when you demand to know our ethnicity, if we don’t look like your idea of a Black person. We are not accountable to you for how our bodies look. And we don’t have to be “nice” to you and tolerate your prying.

Your racism is showing when you insist upon defining our reality. You do not live inside our skin, so do not tell us how we should perceive this world. We exist and so does our reality.

Your racism is showing when our anger makes you panic. Even when we are not angry at you or your racism, but some simple, ordinary thing. When our expressed anger translates to you as a threat of violence, this is your unacknowledged fear of retribution or exposure and it is revealing your guilt.

Your racism is showing when YOU, by your interference, will not allow us to have our own space. We realize you never expected to be denied access to anything and any place, but sometimes you should stay away from Black women’s spaces. You do not have to be there just in case something exotic is going on or just in case we are plotting against you. In these instances, you are not just uninvited guests, you are infiltrators. This is a hostile act.

Your racism is showing when you cry, “Reverse discrimination!” There is no such thing. Only privileged people who have never lived with discrimination, think there can be a “reverse.” This means thatyou think it shouldn’t happen to you, only to the other people it normally happens to — like US.

Your racism is showing when you exclaim that we are paranoid and expecting racism around every corner. Racism inhabits this society at a core level. Ifwe weren’t constantly on our guard, we, as a people, would be dead by now.

Your racism is showing when you daim you have none. This economy and culture would not have existed without slave labour to build it. The invasion and exploitation of the Americas depended upon the conviction that people of colour were less than human. Otherwise, we could not have been so cruelly used. You grew up in a racist society. How could you not be racist? You cannot simply decide that racism is “bad” and therefore you are no longer racist. This is not unlearning racism. Black people could not afford to be this naive.

Your racism is showing when you think that all racists are violent, ignorant, card-carrying Nazis. You are fooling yourself, but not us, if you think that racism refers to the unconnected, isolated, “just-plain-meann actions and attitudes of bad people. Most racists are nice folks, especially in this country. Racism is systemic and cannot be separated out from this culture.

We do not want to witness or dry your tears. Yes, racism hurts. It hurts you, but please do not entertain the notion that it hurts much as us. Racism kills us, not you. Your tears will not garner our sympathy. We are no longer your property, therefore we will no longer take care of you. We don’t want to see your foolishness, so take your racism work to your own place and do it there.


Carol Camper, “To White Feminists” Canadian Woman Studies, 1994