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.

The Danger in Associating with Kings

From illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr. This miniature
From the illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Attār’s Mantiq al-tayr. This miniature “shows a king, who has summoned all and sundry to admire his new palace, receiving a sharp admonition from an unimpressed ascetic. Despite its flawless appearance, there is an invisible fissure in one wall through which ‘Azrā’īl, the Angel of Death, will one day enter to collect the king’s soul” (Source).

I know it’s been about 4 months since I’ve posted something on my blog, but I’m hoping to add some new content soon, insha’Allah! Not too long ago, a friend shared a chapter from Jalaluddin Rumi’s Fihi Ma Fihi with me and I came across this excerpt that I thought was worth sharing. Although written in the 13th century, it is difficult to overlook the political and spiritual relevance it carries today, especially about the influence of those in power, the danger of such alliances, and the way structural oppression operates.

The excerpt is below:

“The danger in associating with kings is not that you may lose your life, for in the end you must lose it sooner or later. The danger lies in the fact that when these ‘kings’ and their carnal souls gain strength, they become dragons; and the person who converses with them, claims their friendship, or accepts wealth from them must in the end speak as they would have him/her speak and accept their evil opinions in order to preserve him/herself. He/she is unable to speak in opposition to them. Therein lies the danger, for his/her religion suffers.

The further you go in the direction of kings, the more the other direction, which is the principal one, becomes strange to you. The further you go in that direction, this direction, which should be beloved to you, turns its face away from you. . . . ‘Whosoever renders aid to the unjust/oppressor is subjugated to them by God’ [1]. When you have fully inclined toward the one to whom you are inclining, he will be made master over you.”

– Jalaluddin Rumi, from Fihi Ma Fihi.

[1] Rumi quoting a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), quoted in ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi, Kunuz al-haqa’iq

Beyond “Free Speech” and Towards an Anti-Oppressive Future

Since my last blog post about the attacks in Paris, there have been a few comments asking about “the solutions” and “where we go from here.” I have also noticed how most of the articles and media coverage have been focused on discussions and debates about “free speech” and “freedom of expression.” Though not surprising, it is still very concerning when I read commentaries, including those written by Muslims in the west, that argue Muslims need to learn how to “respect other people’s views or opinions.”

These commentaries are not only inaccurate and play into “the clash of civilizations,” they distract us from a more important conversation we should be having. Mainstream media, as well as liberal political commentators (both non-Muslim and Muslim-identified individuals), have been locked in too much talk about “free speech” and debate over whether people should have the “right to be racist,” but there hasn’t been enough talk about how we move towards an anti-racist, anti-oppressive future. Little attention is given to the movements that are challenging and confronting white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

As I wrote before, the decontextualized and depoliticized narratives about the attacks in Paris reduce the issue to being about mere “cartoons” and results in the racist pathologizing of Muslims. When so-called “world leaders,” which included Benjamin Netanyahu, hypocritically marched in Paris, their demonstration had nothing to do with “free speech,” especially since many of these “leaders” have their own record of horrible violations against human rights and freedom of expression. The “unity march” was really about the west asserting its dominance and power over Muslims and other people of color. One of the ways this domination is expressed is through a narrative of the west being “under constant attack” from the “dark Other.”

Stacey Patton recently wrote about the dangerous prevalence of white supremacy, anti-black racism and violence, and the media’s silence whenever black communities and other communities of color are attacked. As she put it, #JeSuisCharlie is “the French version of #WhiteLivesMatter,” and the reaction from “world leaders,” Hollywood celebrities, and media was a reminder “that white lives matter, that white voices matter, and that white humanity is the only humanity worth protecting and respecting.” This reflects a major problem with conversations about “free speech”: these “rights” were never meant for people of color in white supremacist societies. We have seen countless examples of this, including the Patriot Act, the criminalization of students who speak out against Israel, the deportation of Muslims for criticizing U.S. support for Israel, or the bans against Gaza solidarity rallies in France. In fact, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist for drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon. This is by no means an endorsement of the cartoon or anti-Semitism, but just an example of the hypocrisy about “free speech.” When anti-Semitic cartoons are drawn, Charlie Hebdo treated it as “inciting racial hatred,” but when Muslims and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are mocked and demonized, it is considered “free speech.”

It is disturbing when I hear people, including some Muslims, say, “Yeah, people should have the right to draw those cartoons.” To those people, I simply ask, “Do you support Nazis for having the right to draw anti-Semitic cartoons or produce anti-Semitic films?” We all know where those propaganda cartoons and films led to, but why has it become difficult for politically conscious people to not see Charlie Hebdo as propaganda that fuels racism, Islamophobia, police brutality, and imperialist violence?

If we are seeking to work towards equity, towards a better world, where all people are treated equally and justly, where there is true liberation for all, then what place does allowing racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression have? If we think about the ongoing settler-colonialism and genocide against Indigenous Peoples, the police brutality and violence against black youth, the brutal wars against Muslims, the violence and unjust laws against undocumented immigrants and their families, do we want these oppressions to remain “norms” in the world? Are we ok with people using “free speech” as a cover for their Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia? Do we want to tolerate racist and sexist high school teachers or college professors who make students of color unsafe in classrooms? Are we ok with radio talk show hosts saying racist, misogynist things on the air without being held accountable for it? Is this the kind of society and world we want to live in?

I imagine that someone may view this post as advocating laws against demonizing Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m arguing that we go beyond laws and radically imagine a future where such demonization wouldn’t occur because of the acceptance and respect we have developed for each other. We sometimes see white celebrities having to apologize for the racist things they have said (and this only happens when their behavior reaches public attention), but there is a genuineness missing from most of these apologies. Most of the time, these apologies are superficial, empty, and done for the purpose of “saving face.” What if we lived in a society where people apologized, took responsibility, and held themselves accountable out of sincere love and concern for the people and/or communities they hurt with their words or actions?

History is filled with examples of western Christian societies fearing, ridiculing, and demonizing Prophet Muhammad. Since the advent of Islam, Muhammad became a target. Chapati Mystery recently featured a fantastic article that documents much of this history. Whether viewed as a corruption, an imposter, a heretic, a demon, sexually perverse, or even compared to an “African monster,” these depictions of the Prophet have a long history in the west and are ongoing. They go beyond sentiment and are connected to the oppressive laws and violence that target Muslims.

If we center our politics on abolishing oppression, then perhaps rather than ask if people should have the right to demonize the Prophet, we might be asking why is there a desire to demonize him (and Muslims in general)? What is the purpose? What “freedom” is being achieved when the freedoms of Muslims are violated on a daily basis? If you want to demonize the Prophet, first ask yourself what do you know about the Prophet and his life? Have you ever read about him? Have you ever read the impassioned poems that Muslims have dedicated to him over the centuries? Have you ever listened to the way Muslims sing out of praise and devotion for him? Have you ever spent time with Muslim families and listened to how they speak about him.

Could you imagine a cartoonist pulling a racist cartoon of the Prophet – not because of a law or to save face – but because he/she listened to the Muslim community and learned how harmful such images were to them? The Holy Qur’an acknowledges human diversity as a blessing and advocates for all communities – Muslim or non-Muslim – to build respectful relations with one another: “And among Allah’s signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs in this for those who know. […] O humankind, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (30:22; 49:13). As mentioned above, the “unity marches” had nothing to do with building positive relations with other human beings, but everything to do with valuing white lives and voices over people of color. To “know one another” would mean France and other “world leaders” taking responsibility and action against the racism and Islamophobia in French society. If we are truly seeking “freedom” for all people, then we need to abolish the systems of oppression that deny certain peoples their freedom. The dismantling of these systems also means unlearning the way we have been socialized, re-imagining ourselves, and deconstructing our understanding of what “freedom” and “free speech” really means to the State.

Will hate speech always exist? Maybe. But I believe we can work towards a future where racist and sexist hatred no longer comes from the powerful and real accountability is practiced. Instead of trying to integrate ourselves into conversations, debates, and spaces that are dictated by hypocritical laws and ideas about “free speech,” our focus and solidarity should be with the social justice movements against white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, setter-colonialism, and imperialism. Our solidarity should be with #BlackLivesMatter, with the Dream Defenders, with Idle No More and Indigenous activists, with the people and the resistance movements in Palestine and Kashmir, with victims and resistors against oppressive governments, with decolonial activists around the world.

Image credit: “Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy” by Sana Naveed
Translation: “We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all Worlds” (Qur’an 21:107)

It’s Not Just About “Cartoons”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing You a Blessed Ramadan!

Salaam readers,

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve updated my blog. I’ve had several ideas for blog posts, but haven’t had the time to write them yet. Insha’Allah, soon! I know we’re well into Ramadan, but I would still like to wish everyone a happy and blessed month!  May this month be a time of reflection, spiritual growth, and most of all, compassion.  May it bring communities together and guide us all closer to justice, peace, and liberation. Ameen.

Ramadan is the month in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so one of my goals this year is to re-read the Qur’an and learn more about the life of the Prophet and his family (peace be upon them). Like for a billion Muslims around the world, Ramadan holds a special place in my heart and always reminds me about the importance of self-discipline, God-consciousness, and showing kindness to all of Allah’s creation.

Ramadan is not without its challenges. The major concern I have every year is not about abstaining from food and drinks before sunset, but rather how workplaces accommodate our religious holiday. Workplace discrimination against Muslims in the United States has been on the rise in recent years and it serves as a reminder of how deeply engrained Islamophobia and racism is. Aside from Islamophobic remarks and harassment, especially during Ramadan, it continues to amaze me how workplaces do not see the insulting double standard when they treat their employees to food baskets, greeting cards, and “holiday dinners” for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah, but won’t even acknowledge Ramadan. It also shocks me when workplaces are not prepared (e.g. not scheduling enough help) for iftar time, which prevents Muslims from opening their fast on time or not being able to have a full meal.

I have left voice mail messages and written numerous e-mails to various departments of my employer, encouraging them that recognizing Ramadan in the workplace in an appreciative and non-superficial manner would strengthen the company’s commitment to diversity (I have issues with the way “diversity” and politics of “inclusion” serve to center whiteness, but you get the point). So far, no response. Meanwhile, I anticipate ignorant and even racist remarks from co-workers when I inform them about my fasting throughout the month. It can be annoying how the usual response is, “Oh my God, don’t you get hungry?” or “That must be so hard!” The sentiment seemed to always be, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you; your religion is really strict.”  It’s interesting when I reflect on how fasting became another way for me to resist Islamophobia and racism. At a very young age, I never wanted to show my white non-Muslim friends, classmates, teachers, and bosses that Ramadan was a difficult time for me. Instead, I learned to embrace the holiday and told them that they didn’t need to feel sorry for me and that it was offensive if they did. “I choose to fast,” I told them, “Ramadan is a special and joyous month for us.”

Anyway, I know the ignorance and bigotry is part of the challenge and struggle against Islamophobia at large. I don’t believe in shaming or scolding people for being angry, so when I say that Allah teaches us to be patient and steadfast, I don’t mean it in a condescending way, but rather as a recognition of struggle. As Allah teaches us in the Qur’an, the Divine presence is always close and near to us:

(Prophet), if My servants ask you about Me, say that I am near (to them). I respond to those who call upon Me. Let them, then, respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be guided. – Qur’an 2:186

I have noticed that some Muslims can be discouraging of others by monitoring the way they pray, how they open their fast, how they express themselves, etc. Judgmental attitudes from some fellow Muslims tends to ruin the spirit of Ramadan and I think invalidating a person’s feelings is cruel and un-Islamic. There are some Muslims, for example, who are unable to fast for various reasons. There are some Muslims who choose not to fast for various reasons. As a friend told me, instead of judging and ridiculing these individuals, we should focus on our sense of community by practicing compassion and understanding without any condescension, sense of “superiority,” or arrogant and self-righteous preaching. Here is a beautiful Hadith that highlights on how integral compassion is to Islam:

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would kiss his daughter Fatima (peace be upon her), talk to her, confide in her, and have her sit by his side, without paying attention to the remarks or even the criticisms that his behavior would give rise to. Once he kissed Hassan (peace be upon him), Fatima’s son, in front of a group, who were startled. One of them, Aqra ibn Habis, expressed his shock and said: ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them.’ The Prophet answered: ‘One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God).’ – Sahih al-Muslim (narrated by Tariq Ramadan, Qur’anic translation from

On a similar note, Aslan Media is currently running a Ramadan “mixtape” series where Muslim writers and artists share their favorite tunes for the holy month. On today’s post, I shared Abida Parveen’s song “Assan Ishq Namaz” because of its beautiful and powerful vocals and lyrics. Here are my thoughts about the song:

Music by Pakistani living legend Abida Parveen never fails to inspire and mesmerize me. Her divinely-inspired voice passionately expresses the deeper themes of divine love, sorrow, and longing that are often found in Islamic mystical/Sufi poetry. In this song, she sings famous verses by renowned 17th century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah. I love her ability to infuse so much pure emotion into the original poem and express how meaningful the lyrics are. The song opens with these important and relevant verses:

Parh parh ilm hazaar kitaaban
qaddi apnay aap nou parhiya naee
jaan jaan warhday mandir maseedi
qaddi mann apnay wich warhiya naee
aa-vain larda aye shaitan de naal bandeaa
qaddi nafss apnay naal lariya naee.

[Yes, you have read thousands of books,
but you have never tried to read your own self;
you rush in, into your Temples, into your Mosques,
but you have never tried to enter your own heart;
futile are all your battles with Satan,
for you have never tried to fight your own desires.]

This message of self-reflection, humility, and holding one’s self accountable captures the compassionate heart of Islam and is conveyed so powerfully when Parveen sings it. Bulleh Shah reminds us that when we judge others or perceive ourselves as “more pious” or “superior,” we fall into arrogance, hypocrisy, and failure to see our own faults. I believe these lyrics are relevant to social justice struggles as well and how self-critique and accountability is needed so that we don’t reproduce oppressive forces in our own movements. It is respect and compassion for every human being that makes Bulleh Shah’s message so beautiful and Islamic.

May Ramadan guide us to bettering ourselves and the societies in which we live. Ameen. I end this entry by sharing another amazing song by Abida Parveen, “Soz-e-Ishq.” I listened to it one day after sehri time and fajr prayer and it was such a soulful and soothing moment. The vocals, the lyrics, the music composition and arrangement – everything about it is so incredibly beautiful and spiritually moving (click on “cc” for the English translation). Enjoy!

Platonic Friendships and the “Man Box”

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.”

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  Consider bell hooks’ definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post, “Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TED video featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.

Ramadan Mubarak

This post is a couple of days late, but I wanted to take the time to wish everyone a happy Ramadan.  May Allah fill this month with blessings for you and your families.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Muslim holiday, the month of Ramadan is when Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received the revelations of the Qur’an.  For thirty days, Muslims who are able will fast and refrain from food and drink, among other things.  Ramadan is the month of kindness, generosity, and humility.  Fasting teaches Muslims self-control, patience, and empathy for the lesser privileged people in the world.

Ramadan comes at a tragic and challenging time for many Muslims this year.  In Pakistan, over 1600 people have been killed in the recent flooding, while over 14 million people are affected by the tragedy.  The international community’s weak and sluggish response to the floods compared with previous disasters serves as a harsh and cruel reminder of how human beings are not valued equally in our world.  I remember during the Haiti earthquake, websites like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, and even Facebook applications like Cafe World had donation tabs and buttons to provide relief to the victims of Haiti.  In almost every grocery store I went to, customers were asked to donate to Haiti at the check-out counter.  Such awareness is shamefully missing for floods in Pakistan.

According to BBC news, aid agencies in Pakistan “have warned that many more people will die as floods inundate southern areas unless more international help comes.”  I was informed by a relative of mine in Lahore that 10% of Pakistan’s population is directly affected by the flood, while the rest of the country is indirectly affected.   It is admirable and heartbreaking at the same time to hear that Muslim flood survivors in Pakistan are fasting despite the devastation that has struck their homes, villages and cities.

During this month of inner reflection, let us be conscious of our privileges and mindful of those who suffer.  Let us reach out and help in any way we can.  Please donate if you are able to and please raise awareness about what’s happening in Pakistan.  Here are a couple of useful links for those who are interested in helping out.  Please share them with whoever you can.  May Allah give strength and healing to all.  Ameen.

1.  ATP Gives:  What are Good Ways to Help Flood Victims in Pakistan?

2.  Pakistan Flood Victims Need Your Help.

3.  Be a Relief to Pakistan.