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

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

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

Hairy. Ugly. Dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author elaborates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince of Persia: The Brother is Brown

As Disney’s “Prince of Persia” is set for release later this week, I’m noticing more people talking about the casting controversy. As I have expressed in my previous posts (here and here), choosing Jake Gyllenhaal to play a brown character is another example of Hollywood’s Orientalist white-washing and ethnocentrism, as well as denying people of color the opportunity to represent themselves. The most common counter-argument I’m hearing is: “Well, ancient Persians were light skinned.” Producer Jerry Bruckheimer even said this, while adding, “The Turks changed all of that.” Ah yes, those bloody Turks and their dark skin! And how convenient for Hollywood, right? I suppose with those “facts,” they can justify the casting of a White actor to play an ancient Persian hero. But wait a minute, why were the ancient Persians in “300” dark skinned? Hmm.

I would like to present examples from the “Prince of Persia” video games to show how the character’s skin color changed over time.

1. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)

I could write a paper or hold a long discussion about how problematic the cover image above is. The Orientalist fantasy element is quite obvious – note the blue eyes, the Arabic script on his sword (this is supposed to be pre-Islamic Persia), and the Islamic crescents on the minarets. There needs to be an important discussion about masculinity as well (note the bare chest, battle scars), which I will be writing more about in future posts (though perhaps not specifically about “Prince of Persia”). Regardless of these problematic elements, the point is that anyone who played this game knows the character was brown and Middle-Eastern.  The game also features an Indian female character named Farah.  She does not seem to appear in the film and, as of yet, it isn’t certain that any of the South Asian characters will be featured.

2. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)

If there was any doubt about the Prince being brown in the first game, just take a look at how he is depicted in the sequel. In fact, he is darker in this game; brown and Hrithik Roshan-esque, minus the blue eyes. “Warrior Within” also did a better job staying consistent with Zoroastrian/pre-Islamic Persian mythology. I’m guessing someone informed them about it after all of the Arabic in the first game. And of course, the hyper-masculinity and Orientalism needs to be challenged immensely, but my point here is simply about skin color.

3. Prince of Persia: Two Thrones (2005)

Yep. Brown.

4. Prince of Persia (2008)

Whoa. What happened here?

I found this representation to be quite offensive. What’s important to be informed about is that this character is not the same Prince from the previous three games (did I mention they don’t have names?). The creators of the game wanted to explore “another Prince” (who you don’t really learn much about because he has amnesia). The Prince in this game is light-skinned, as you can see. If anything, he looks like he has a summer tan. Though the gameplay is enjoyable and the female character, Elika (who accompanies you the entire game), is dark-skinned, it was a huge disappointment that the Prince looked very White and Euro-American. Arguments that use this game to justify the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal are inaccurate since the film is based on the first game, “The Sands of Time.” Though it does raise an important question as to why this Prince’s skin is lighter than the previous Prince.

Even if there are disputes about the Prince’s skin color, I still do not understand the argument about ancient Persians being light skinned. It simply sounds like an excuse to cover up the fact that a non-Persian was chosen for the role. It is still racebending, white-washing, and Orientalism. And it must be challenged.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  This particular post is simply a brief content analysis on the character’s skin color in the video games. I am not saying all Persians are brown; I am saying that the Prince is depicted as brown (see pictures above).  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.

This Prince is Not Persian

It makes sense that I am seeing “Prince of Persia” posters at bus stops and malls. The movie is set for release later this month. It does not make sense, however, that I am expected to believe Jake Gyllenhaal is Persian. He is not. In fact, I will not even address his character as “The Prince” in this article (or anywhere else for that matter). I will just call him Jake.

“Hey, look, ‘Prince of Persia,’” my brother said, pointing at the movie poster.

“You aren’t going to see that, are you?” I asked.

“Pfft, yeah right, I’m not going to watch that racist s&#%!!”

Jake and Disney, the studio responsible for this racebending/whitewashed atrocity (surprise, surprise), seem to have their fair share of fans and supporters. On internet forums and threads, I see fans writing things like, “Ooh Jake is so hot,” or “I Love Jake Gyllenhaal,” or “I’m so glad they chose him to play the prince!” I saw one comment where someone called the casting racist and the response was, “Get over it! He’s hot!”

As I wrote in last year’s post about the film, the level of ignorance is disturbing. It reminds me when the film “300” – a White supremacist’s wet dream – was released and many viewers spoke about the “hotness” of Gerard Butler as a way of covering up the film’s disgusting racism. In that film, which I have written extensively about, you may recall that the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the “good guys,” they are played by lovely White people.

The first insult is that people of color, in this case Persians and South Asians, are not attractive people. They cannot be “hot.” I know I am not the only person who has heard White people say, directly or indirectly, that dark skin is not attractive as light skin. The second insult is that heroic Persian and South Asian characters cannot be played by real Persians and South Asians. They don’t know what it means to be “heroic.” Only White people do.

This is blatant Orientalism. Jake is the Orientalist, he is not the Persian. He embodies the West’s history of domination in the East, where the “Oriental,” the “other,” must be spoken for, must be represented by the West, by the White man, and must be feared or even hated. The “Oriental” is obliterated into non-existence and not granted the freedom or access to represent him/herself. This is an example of what the late Edward Said called “positional superiority,” i.e. the White Westerner can exploit the East in such a manner simply because it can.

But, as some fans complain, Hollywood needs to sell tickets. It needs to make money. Poor Hollywood. Oh, then I guess that makes everything “ok.” So what if there was a missed opportunity to break rising stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners and South Asians. I’m sure brown people and real Persians understand that Jake and Disney need the money, right?

No. While some fans and viewers drool over Jake’s fake prince, I propose that protesters join forces with Racebending.com, which has been raising awareness about the whitewashing in “The Last Airbender, “ and boycott this film. We shouldn’t give money to a greedy industry that does not even allow minorities to represent themselves.

Be sure to read the post I wrote about the film last year.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  The only reason I say “brown” is because the character is depicted as brown in the first three video games. My argument, like Dean Obeidallah’s, is that talented Persian and South Asian actors (the female lead from the video game is Indian) should be allowed to play protagonists in box office hits (Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, plays the role of a villain, similar to how Dev Patel, another Indian actor, is playing the villain in “The Last Airbender.”)  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine.  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.

The Flying Carpet Fallacy

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

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

It goes something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

No One “Hijacked” Islam

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Last Thursday, I attended an event hosted by the Muslim Student Association as part of their peace and coexistence week.  The event was about raising awareness and appreciation for the various cultures within the Muslim community.  Muslims read their poems, played music, sang, and gave presentations on Sufism/Islamic spirituality.  There were many non-Muslims in attendance and it was great to hear how previous events during the week had excellent turnouts as well.  As I drove home, I felt like all of us made a huge difference.

When I checked my e-mail that night, a news report about a man opening fire at a military base appeared on the Yahoo homepage.  I prayed, as many Muslim-Americans did, that the shooter wasn’t a Muslim.  The last thing we needed the media to get hyped up about was a Muslim-American murdering fellow Americans in the armed forces.  When the man’s Muslim affiliation was revealed, I was devastated.

My thoughts and prayers went out to the victims and their friends and families.  Simultaneously, as details slowly unfolded and as CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) released immediate condemnations of the incident, I felt like we took one step forward, but then two steps backward.  I am still worried about a backlash on the Muslim community.  Muslim-Americans have been suffering from hate crimes, discriminatory acts, prejudice, and media stereotyping/propaganda since the atrocity on 9/11, and although many Muslim-Americans have been speaking out, polls and surveys have found that negative attitudes and perceptions of Islam and Muslims have been on the increase.

I am not surprised by the Islamophobia that has resulted from this.  It has been going on since September of 2001; what else is new?  In typical Islamophobic fashion, Senator Joe Lieberman called the incident an “act of Islamist extremism.” Despite warnings not to jump to conclusions from Army officials and the President himself, Lieberman concluded:   “There are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act,” Lieberman.

In other words, “terrorism” is a term reserved only for Muslims.  Yeah, we’ve been through this lesson before (see my post, “‘Terrorist’ Means ‘Muslim'”).

Conservative author, David Gaubatz, who has labeled President Obama a “Muslim” among other things, explicitly called for “a professional and legal backlash against the Muslim community and their leaders.”  If that is not advocating hate and violence against an entire group of people, then I don’t know what is!  Oh, and televangelist Pat Robertson threw in some Lovely words, too:  “You’re dealing with not a religion, you’re dealing with a political system, and I think we should treat it as such, and treat its adherents [Muslims] as such as we would members of the communist party, members of some fascist group.”

Raising suspicion about Muslims, vilifying Islam, and then expecting Muslims to answer or “explain” what happened (as if we have some kind of special “insight” into these things) is reflective of our society’s Islamophobia and inability to use its common sense.  When a White “Christian” man blows up a building in Oklahoma, his religion or race is not put on trial.  As Brian Ross writes:

When a couple of white kids shoot up a school, it is a tragedy, and a search for mental defect. Bring on a shooting at a military base that involves an Arab-American though, and the media does everything that it can to shout “TERRORISM” without really saying it.

Jerry Campbell, the president of the Claremont School of Theology, adds:

As a “Methodist-American,” I do not fear for my safety after a fellow Methodist commits a heinous crime… And the churches of my tradition have no need to renounce the deeds of an outlier when one of our own goes astray.  As a Methodist-American, these are not my realities.  But for Muslim communities, this is their America.

It is a relief to see General George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, expressing concerns for Muslim-Americans, especially Muslims serving in the military.  I have a relative serving in the military and I know these concerns resonate with Muslim-American soldiers deeply.  One of his statements bothered me though (emphases added):

To those members of the United States military who are Muslims, thank you for protecting our nation, thank you for standing up against the people who are trying to hijack your religion.”

It’s clear to me that General Casey Jr.’s concerns are genuine, but I think it’s important to break away from this false notion that Islam has been “hijacked.”  Islam has not been hijacked — not by Nidal Malik Hasan, not by Saddam Hussein, not by Osama bin Laden, and not even by corrupt and wealthy Muslim “leaders” in Muslim majority countries.  Sure, much of the violence committed by those who self-identify as Muslim contain religious symbolism or slogans, but there are many other complex factors that contribute to their violence.  It is not simply religion.

Anyone who has studied Edward Said or postcolonial theory would argue that most of the violence in places like Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan are a result of post-colonialist liberation ideologies.  Palestine is occupied by the oppressive Israeli military, and Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, bombed, and occupied by US forces.  It is impossible to imagine such war and chaos without resistance.  The military superpowers cannot stomp the boot of oppression upon the oppressed and expect them to submit without retaliation.  As we have seen, resistance from those parts of the world express themselves in religious manners — shouting “Allahu akbar,” citing the Qur’an and Hadith, and even interpreting the conflict as some sort of “cosmic battle.”  Similarly, there are complex factors to be taken into account when one questions the motives of Nidal Malik Hasan.  They do not justify or excuse his actions, but they make us see a larger picture instead of making ridiculous accusations that the religion of Islam had something to do with it.  Hasan acted upon himself, not because a religion “told him” to do so.  His opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clear, but murdering fellow Americans is not the Islamic way of dealing with this situation.  His decision to murder was his own as an individual and his case should be treated as such.

No one has changed the Qur’anic text.  No one has replaced the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, with another religious figure in our Islamic tradition.  Islam, like any religion, can be manipulated and used by extremists for their own radical ideologies, but the actual message of the religion is not closed off to interpretation.  It is open for interpretation, and it has been for centuries.  And perhaps the most important point of all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims — an estimated 1.5 billion people — are non-violent and interpret Islam as a peaceful religion.  How can Islam be “hijacked” when the majority of its followers do not resort to violence?

Muslims have never stopped defining themselves.  Islam is our way of life and no one “hijacks” that from us.  No one bars us from Islam or forces us to change the way we believe about our faith.  Furthermore, our identities are not limited to the stereotypes and Islamophobic nonsense spewed out by bigots and media personalities alike.  I am a Muslim, and I am also an American.  We have multiple identities just like everyone else.  Only now are we hearing about the 20,000+ Muslims serving in the military, but why did we need a horrible act of violence to occur in order for us to see this fact?  Why do we only need to ease fear and  “suspicion” about Muslim-Americans when murders are committed by members of all ethnic and religious groups?

Muslims around the world continue to speak out, as they always have been.  Acclaimed Muslim-American author, Kamran Pasha, has written a brilliant piece called, “The Big Lie About Muslim Silence on Terrorism.” His post includes an extensive list of Muslim leaders and organizations that have condemned violence all over the world.  If we were to accuse the non-Muslim White population of being inherently violent against other races or religious groups over the centuries, media and society would be demanding for their organizations to speak out and condemn the actions of those who share the same religious or racial background.  If we looked at the religious affiliations of those who committed murders, robberies, and other horrible crimes, we would be saying, “Christianity has been hijacked,” or “Judaism has been hijacked,” or “Hinduism has been hijacked,” and so on.

No one “hijacked” Islam.  If anything has been hijacked, it is our own common sense, otherwise we wouldn’t be so quick to generalize about a religion or an entire group of people before a sensible fellow comes along and helps us come to the realization that, “oh yeah, we don’t expect non-Muslim White people to answer for crimes and murders committed by other non-Muslim White people!”

Gee, why didn’t we think of that before?  How’s White privilege, for starters?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

prince of persia

This post has been cross-posted on Racialicious.

If you’re having trouble trying to figure out what’s wrong with this newly revealed poster for Disney’s upcoming film, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” it may help if I pointed out that the title character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. In other words, the prince of Persia is not played by a Persian/Iranian. Big surprise, huh?

Why is this a big deal? Well, considering that negative perceptions of Middle-Easterners and/or Muslims have increased since 9/11 (and haven’t gotten better according to statistics and civil rights incidents reported by CAIR), a relatively anticipated film like “Prince of Persia” would seem like the perfect opportunity to help break stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners. The film is based on a very popular video game of the same title, which allows you to play the role of a Persian prince who has to save his kingdom (or world) from a time-altered reality. I remember playing the game when it was released in 2003 and even though it’s filled with Orientalist stereotypes, I always felt the story and character depictions could be tweaked into a mainstream film with serious potential (and by that, I mean a film with an actual story, real character development, and appreciation for the culture it intends to represent).

Unfortunately, Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the only White actor playing a Middle-Eastern character. Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamina, the film’s version of Farah, an Indian character from the video game, is also White. Ben Kingsley is also cast as a Persian character, and while he is of half-Indian descent, many Iranians recall how poorly he played an Iranian father in “House of Sand and Fog.” The best part (sarcasm) is that Alfred Molina will play a Persian again after his abusive and oppressive Iranian husband role in the 1991 propaganda film, “Not Without My Daughter”! As a user on IMDB commented: “Tamina = Indian / Gemma Arterton= White; What the hell is going on?”

Yeah, so what is going on? It’s not like Iranian actors and actresses are non-existent. A simple explanation may come from the fact that the film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood producer of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other successful mega-hit blockbusters. It seems like he wanted to play it “safe” since casting real Persians/Iranians would supposedly jeopardize the film’s box office success. In other words, Bruckheimer is more concerned about raking in the dough than conveying important messages about a community that he’s representing (read: exploiting) in his latest B-movie.

It’s important to note that this has happened before. Remember the animated film, “Sinbad and the Seven Seas” released by Dreamworks in 2003? The legend of Sinbad, an Arab sailor, is a classic Arabian Nights tale which the animated film distanced itself from in the most direct way possible. In his article, “Why Hollywood Drew a Veil Over Sinbad’s Arab Roots,” Sean Clarke writes:

…[I]n this version, Sinbad is from Syracuse (in Sicily, as opposed to New York State). The love of his life, Marina, is a noblewoman of Thebes. His estranged best friend is Proteus, the son of King Daimas, and his most dangerous enemy is Eris, the goddess of chaos. Every Arab reference has been removed, and replaced with something vaguely Greek.

Jack G. Shaheen, the author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” added:

This was an ideal opportunity to shatter some stereotypes about Arab and Muslim villains. When I spoke to Jeffrey Katzenberg – a visionary producer – I asked him to include some reference to Arabs or Arab culture. He didn’t seem surprised that I mentioned it, which presumably means that it was discussed early on in the development of the film.

I think maybe they decided to play it safe, not to ruffle any feathers by having neither Arab heroes nor Arab villains. Basically they’re out to make as much money as possible, and I think they were worried that if they took a risk on an Arab hero they might have suffered at the box office…”

The same argument can be made about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” where a Middle-Eastern man, Jesus (peace be upon him), was played by a White American actor, Jim Caviezel. As William Rivers Pitt wrote in his article, “‘The Passion’ of the Americans,” putting a “white Jesus Christ to the cross on film will generate a far more emotional response from the American viewing public than the crucifixion of a savior who actually looks like he is from the Middle East.”  Similarly, it seems that Hollywood filmmakers don’t believe an American audience can connect with “Prince of Persia” if the main character, God forbid, was actually played by an Iranian/Persian actor!

There isn’t any doubt in my mind that concerns were raised about “Prince of Persia” among many Hollywood producers since Iran is (wrongly) labeled an “existential” and “nuclear threat” to Israel. As with the Sinbad animated film, it seems that authentic Persian history, facts, and roots are going to be ignored in favor of Hollywood’s own Orientalized and exocitized version of the Middle-East — one in which brown people are played by White actors. It’s an extremely offensive and insulting modern form of Blackface which says only White people can play central Middle-Eastern characters.

Hollywood’s ethnocentrism shines shamelessly again.