Stop Reinforcing the Term “Moderate Muslims”

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The other night, Dalia Mogahed appeared on The Daily Show and spoke about the challenges faced by Muslim Americans. When asked whether Mosques caused “radicalization” of Muslims, she stated that Mosques are actually forces for “moderation.” In her 2006 Gallup report, “The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Moderate vs. Extremist Views in the Muslim World,” she classifies two groups of Muslims: the “moderates” and the “radicals/extremists.”

Mogahed is not the only Muslim who reinforces the “moderate/extremist” binary. In fact, most Muslims who appear on mainstream media and speak for us describe the global Muslim population in these binary terms.

This needs to STOP.

I have written about this before in my “No One Hijacked Islam” posts, but I am strongly opposed to the term, “moderate Muslim.” To assert that Muslims can be simply categorized into two types not only plays into the harmful “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary, but it is also so dehumanizing. It is as if all Muslims have radio dials attached to the back of our heads, indicating whether or not we are “moderate” or “radical.” Mogahed contends that the internet “radicalizes” Muslims, as if it is as easy as someone turning the dial knob from “moderate” to “radical.” Furthermore, does U.S. imperialism and military occupation not also fuel more violence? It’s just “the internet”?

Over the years, in conversations with well-intentioned non-Muslims who aspired to help challenge Islamophobia, I’ve lost count of how many of them would say, “It’s so ridiculous, not all Muslims are terrorists! Like, you’re a moderate!” Or as I heard recently from a non-Muslim who invited me to an interfaith discussion, “We never get to hear from the moderates like you, we just hear about the radical Muslims.” There is never a question of whether or not I identify myself as “moderate.” These assumptions and conclusions about us are made because of how normalized the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary is. To say “Muslim” is not enough, we need to specify that we are “moderate Muslims” in order to prove that we are not “terrorists.” This is dehumanizing because our values, morals, and political and religious views cannot, and should not, be measured or categorized. We don’t hear Christians or Jews being classified into simplistic categories, and certainly not in binaries like “moderate Christian” vs. “extremist Christians.” Yet, we must brand Muslims.

I also don’t like the vilification of the term “radical.” Here, on this blog, I use the term “radical” to describe the anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist politics I advocate. To me, “radical” has always meant resisting and challenging oppression, the status quo, and structural violence. In the mainstream media, when the term “radical” is paired with “Muslim” or “Islam,” we are being conditioned to view “radical Muslims” as people who blow up buildings or target innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than the fact that they “hate freedom.” Because so many of the mainstream Muslim American “representatives” and organizations who appear on CNN, MSNBC, or Comedy Central say, “ISIS and Al-Qaeda cause Islamophobia,” to challenge them and point out that Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy, is to get dismissed as an “extremist.”

Prophet Muhammad was a radical, as was Hazrat Fatima, Imam Ali, Jesus, Mary, Moses, and all of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). Remember that scene from Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, where he tells Forest Whitaker’s character that “Jesus was a radical”? Somehow, especially in the Muslim American community, we have internalized and reproduced white supremacy’s notion that “radical” means “evil.” The term is thrown around like an insult to dismiss Muslims as being irrational, violent, and extremist. You don’t vote in the U.S. election because you believe the system is corrupt? “Oh, you’re a radical, why are you in this country?!” You protest against drone strikes in Pakistan and talk about how the Obama administration has killed grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, and daugthers? “You’re a radical, you’re a terrorist sympathizer!”

“Moderate Muslim” is also code for “assimilated Muslim.” It’s appealing to the dominant culture and saying that we are “just like every other American” (and “American” is code for white people). Further, it’s saying that we must glorify U.S. history and the “founding fathers.” For Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, the term “moderate Muslim” gets applied to individuals who are pro-Western, or, as Fareed Zakaria fantasizes about, the “Jeffersonian democrats” — Muslims who supposedly want to be “American.” If we point out that Jefferson owned African slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous Peoples, we get called “radicals.” We get equated with “terrorists.” For Muslims who don’t want to be American or reject the U.S. political system, are we “evil” for having these thoughts? If we point out the facts and truth, such as the U.S. being founded upon slavery and genocide, we are “extremists.” Can we not be human and have freedom of thought instead of being forced into narrow boxes of identity? With all the talk about freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we don’t uphold those values for Muslims and people of color. To be accepted, you need to be “the moderate.”

Talk about imperialism, drones, and exploitation of Muslim-majority countries, and you’ll get classified as a “radical.” The worst and scary part of all of this is that you are not just vilified by the U.S. mainstream, but by fellow Muslims too, especially those who are speaking for us in the mainstream media. If you watch the entire interview with Mogahed, you don’t hear her once mention U.S. imperialism as playing a significant role in the creation of ISIS. Is talking about the latter considered an “extremist” view or “justification” of ISIS’s violence?

I understand the fear of getting labeled “anti-American,” – the consequences are real, no doubt – but it is concerning when we don’t see any of the more popular Muslims in the mainstream (i.e. those who get frequently invited to speak on TV) raising these points to challenge the imperialist violence that the U.S. perpetuates. Mogahed makes the important point that the vast majority of terrorists are white non-Muslims, but the argument stops there. It does not go further and address U.S. state-sponsored terrorism. Everyone is on board with condemning ISIS, but no one seems to want to talk about the root causes or how we got here. Instead, the “root cause” is pinned merely on extremism and anti-American sentiment. Nothing is said about U.S. complicity or about where this extremism comes from.

By reinforcing the “moderate Muslim” vs. “extremist Muslim” binary, we are restricting freedom of thought. We are not just discouraging critical thinking, but also vilifying it. We vilify the Muslims who challenge and speak out against the white supremacist system that is built into the U.S. It’s like we are giving other Muslims an ultimatum: you’re either a moderate, Good Muslim who loves being an American, or you’re the radical, Bad Muslim who we need to reject and turn in.

Our community is not monolithic. The views of Muslims are diverse, complex, and vary from individual to individual. I am not the only person who has been speaking out against the simplistic and harmful labels/categorization of our community. Instead of categorizing ourselves, we need to encourage Muslims to be who they are, unapologetically. Not all Muslims are going to be the flag-waving proud “American Muslims” that so many of the mainstream Muslim American groups want us to be, and that is OK. It should be OK.

Have any of the mainstream Muslim American political commentators gone on TV to talk about how dehumanizing and painful it is for Muslims when they constantly hear about people who look like them getting bombed, tortured, raped, and detained, not to mention being routinely demonized in TV shows, movies, and media news coverage? Holding anti-imperialist views does not mean Muslims are going to join ISIS. It does not mean we should be dismissed, ridiculed, or vilified. Being an “American” is not a prerequisite to being human, nor do we need to call ourselves “moderates” to be respected as human beings.

Let’s put an end to these harmful and dehumanizing labels. I have come across far too many Muslims, especially Muslim youth, who don’t like disclosing their Muslim identity or feel anxiety about going to school or work due to all of the media vilification that is out there. As research has suggested, racism and Islamophobia, including in the form of microaggressions, have a negative impact on self-esteem, mental health, and identity. It’s not easy being the only Muslim student in a classroom and the professor puts you on the spot to speak for all Muslims or answer for the crimes other people committed. It’s not easy to face Islamophobia in the workplace. We don’t help Muslims in those situations if we reinforce the idea that we have to define ourselves according to the “moderate Muslim/extremist Muslim” binary. Instead, we should be encouraging each other, uplifting each other, to define ourselves on our own terms, proudly and unapologetically.

Bill Maher’s Vilification of Ahmed Mohamed and What We Need to Understand About Islamophobia

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It takes courage to go after a 14-year-old, doesn’t it?

On Friday night, Bill Maher displayed that courage by going on an angry and hateful tirade against Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Sudanese Muslim-American who was recently arrested after a teacher thought his homemade clock was a bomb. Since Maher didn’t think his bullying of the teenager was sufficient alone, he made sure he brought company in the form of Mark Cuban, Chris Matthews, and former New York Governor George Pataki to gang up on Ahmed with their relentless victim-blaming racism and Islamophobia.

All of the white male panelists agreed that Ahmed’s arrest was “wrong,” yet devoted most of their time defending the school and blaming Ahmed. This is absolutely appalling. For instance, Maher expressed that Ahmed’s clock “looks exactly like a fucking bomb,” while Mark Cuban blamed Ahmed for not “opening his mouth” and “not having a conversation with his teacher.” Pataki said the incident had nothing to do with Ahmed’s race and religion, and Matthews blamed Ahmed for not being “forthcoming.” Matthews  also whined about how people always rush to side with “the minorities.” With all of the cheering and applause that came from the audience each time someone bashed on Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, I’m surprised I didn’t hear “U-S-A” chants.

What is atrocious about the commentary from Maher and the other white male panelists is their attempt to vilify Ahmed and depict him as “treacherous,” “deceitful,” and “conniving.” Mark Cuban spoke about his phone interview with Ahmed and mentions how he could hear Ahmed’s sister giving him the answers. I should note here that Cuban said this with a really odd and disturbing tone of enthusiasm and excitement, as if he just solved a mystery or was revealing something that would raise everyone’s suspicion about Ahmed.

“The kid is a super-smart kid, a science geek,” Cuban said. “I talked to him about science. But when I’m talking to him on the phone, as I asked him a question, ‘Tell me what happened,’ because I’m curious, right? His sister, over his shoulder, you could hear, listening to the question, giving him the answer.”

Like, can you believe that? His sister was telling him what to say! See how conniving and suspicious these Muslims are!  This is an utterly despicable and cruel attempt to depict Ahmed and his family as “untrustworthy.” What was Cuban expecting? Ahmed is 14-years-old and he was just arrested by a school that saw him as a criminal and terrorist. Cuban is going to insult Ahmed and his sister for wanting to guide him through an interview, during a time when Muslims, Black people, and other people of color are constantly demonized in media and society?

What Cuban fails and refuses to understand is that Black children, Muslim children, and other children of color are not trained in schools on how to deal with racist discrimination. That is why people of color rely on their parents, siblings, relatives, and other support systems to help them through these situations. I cannot speak for Ahmed’s sister or family, but I would not be surprised if they wanted Ahmed to be careful about what he said to the media, especially if there’s a condescending, victim-blaming racist like Cuban interviewing him.

But Cuban didn’t stop there. Watching how hyper he was to keep speaking reminded me of typical high school bullies who like to shout their insults, but then, only seconds later, are eager to chime in to spew more insults. Like, “Oh oh wait, let me say this about him too!” After Matthews made his absurd complaints about Ahmed not being “forthcoming” (which I’ll get to in a minute), Cuban jumped in, saying: “Do you know who the big winner is? Ahmed. When I talked to him, he got all the attention, right? His two hours were taken. But he told me, ‘I’ve been getting all these offers. I’m not going back to MacArthur. I’m going to pick which school I want to go to because everyone’s offering me scholarships.’ The kid came out way ahead.”

Wow.

So, Ahmed is the “big winner” here because he got all of the “attention” he was supposedly seeking? Look at all those schools offering him scholarships, Cuban says. See how using the “race card” gets Muslims and people of color ahead? See the advantages of being a racial and religious minority in the United States? Sure, you may get shot, arrested, fired, expelled, bullied, attacked in hate crimes, and so on, but look at all the attention you can get! Cuban’s comments are not too different than Richard Dawkins’ recent tweets accusing Ahmed of wanting to be arrested. Maher went further and diminished the impact of Ahmed’s arrest by saying, “We put a kid after school for a couple of hours, this is not the end of the world!” As if there is nothing potentially traumatic about being arrested in handcuffs and humiliated in your own school, not to mention being interrogated by 4 police officers who repeatedly refuse to let you notify and talk to your parents.

What is inconsistent about the attacks against Ahmed is that they obscure the truth. Ahmed told his teacher that he made a clock, not a bomb. How much more “forthcoming” did Matthews and the other white panelists want him to be? But we have seen these efforts to vilify and demonize Black youth before.  Kiera Wilmot, a Black teenager in Florida, was arrested and expelled from school in 2013 after her science project exploded by accident (no one was injured). Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were accused of “not being saints” by the media after their murders. The message is always loud and clear whenever people of color are discriminated against or even murdered: it was their fault.

Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos was the only person on the panel who defended Ahmed, but was shouted at and belittled by Maher, Cuban, Matthews, and Pataki. Maher knew that getting a majority of white men on his side would not only help him bash Ahmed, Muslims, and Islam, but also that no one in the audience would cheer or applaud Ramos for his defense of a Black Muslim teen. Ramos was ridiculed to the point where he was seen as “uneducated,” “incoherent,” and “irrational.”

At one point, after Maher reiterated the arrest of Ahmed was “wrong,” he justified the arrest because “for the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again.” One culture? Who has been blowing up Gaza over and over again? Who opened fire on Black people in Charleston, South Carolina? Who massacred Sikhs in their Gurdwara in Wisconsin? Who massacred children in the Newtown school shootings or the attacks in Norway? What about the white Christian terrorist who planned to massacre a predominately Black Muslim population in the town of Islamberg, New York? Who murdered the three Arab Muslim students in Chapel Hill or the Somali Muslim teen in Kansas City? What about the U.S. bombings of Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? Which “culture” is responsible for that?

Maher says a Muslim adult should have taken Ahmed aside and told him, “Look what happened to you was wrong, but maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is because, in our religion, we were responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings,” etc. In case if it isn’t obvious, Maher believes Muslims — all 1.5 billion of us — are collectively responsible for attacks that were carried out by other people. I want a white adult to explain to Maher that the reason his Islamophobia and racism is so dangerous to Muslims and people of color is because “our people (white people) have been responsible for so much demonization, racism, misogyny, violence, and terrorism committed against black people, indigenous peoples, Muslims, and other people of color.” In fact, his Islamophobia fuels the kind of attitudes and behaviors that impact Muslims like Ahmed Mohamed.

But Maher loves to deflect. On the show, he mentioned Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Shia activist who is being horribly sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian government for participating in anti-government protests. What is repulsive about Maher mentioning al-Nimr is that he’s trying to deflect attention away from Islamophobia in the west, but also that he’s exploiting al-Nimr to make his political points about Islam being a “religion of violence.” In other words, Maher doesn’t really care about al-Nimr; he just cares about “proving” his point about how “barbaric” Islam and Muslims really are. He is also trying to create the impression that there aren’t any Muslims outraged about al-Nimr’s sentencing. Anyone who believes in a religion, especially Islam, is seen as “brainwashed” by Maher, so what does he think about Muslims like al-Nimr? That they’re “brainwashed” by their own religion?

What also needs to be emphasized here is that Maher’s statement about Ahmed’s arrest is something a lot of people believe. The narrative that Islamophobia is a result of 9/11 is one that many, both Muslims and non-Muslims, buy into. We need to denounce this narrative and understand that Islamophobia is not caused by the actions of other Muslims.

But let’s deconstruct this belief. Let’s follow the logic that Islamophobia is, in fact, a result of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London bombings, as Bill Maher claims. Let’s forget that, before 9/11, there was the brutal dispossession of Palestine, western colonialism and imperialism in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, or the demonization of Muslims and Islam in the media, including in U.S. cinema. While we’re at it, let’s forget about the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, too.

So, the logic goes, if a member of a particular group of people commits an act of violence, then the response from the general public and the state is to target said group with stereotypes, hate crimes, negative media depictions, and policies, right?  For example, if a Muslim person carries out an act of violence, then the entire Muslim population will be held collectively responsible, face bigotry and discrimination, and will be subject to racist policies and laws. Oh, and countries that have a Muslim-majority population will be bombed. So, this should mean that when white Christians commit violent atrocities, the entire white Christian population will suffer the same consequences too, right?

But we know the latter does not happen. We don’t see institutionalized racism against white people as a response to the crimes and actions of individual white people. This is because we live in a white supremacist society where white people, especially white men, are privileged and valued over the lives of people of color. Because white supremacy is foundational to the United States, it is deeply ingrained in society — so ingrained that we accept it as a norm. This is why anti-racist leaders, activists, and writers teach us that we all need to unlearn racism. White supremacist socialization and logic is the reason why people are able to make distinctions between white male terrorists and the rest of the white population, while not making the same distinctions for people of color. This is why politicians, the media, and the general public see Dylan Roof as a “lone wolf.” White people are not treated as a racialized group that need to be put under surveillance, racially profiled, demonized, and bombed.

The uncomfortable reality is that it’s not just Bill Maher who reinforces this idea that Islamophobia exists because of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. We hear this narrative from Muslim-American political commentators and representatives of U.S.-based Muslim civil rights groups, too. Granted, Maher diminishes the existence of Islamophobia and describes it as “not being a big deal,” but Muslim-Americans who claim to be speaking for us in the mainstream media need to stop saying Islamophobia is the result of 9/11 and ISIS. As I mentioned above, if this logic was true, then it would apply to white Christians, too, but we know it doesn’t.

Islamophobia is not simply about ignorance or individual acts of bigotry, but rather an institutionalized form of oppression that has existed long before 9/11. As Maher demonstrated on his show, his attacks against Ahmed are also his attacks against Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, these hateful views go beyond sentiments; they fuel hate crimes, oppressive policies, and imperialist violence against Muslims.

In order to challenge Islamophobia effectively, we need to understand it within this context of white supremacy, not by Maher’s victim-blaming “Muslims-caused-Islamophobia” definition of it.

Racist Casting and the Politics of “Practicality”

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This post has been sitting in my draft folder for a long time now, but I haven’t been able to get to it until now! We put together a teaser poster for the feature film I’ve been working on and will be uploading it on a website soon, insha’Allah. We are nearly finished and have been making great progress! There is a lot to discuss about the film, including the production process, working on a low-budget, and collaborating with wonderful people, so I plan on writing more about it in future posts.

During lunch breaks and/or rehearsals, a topic that continues to be raised is how racist and sexist the casting decisions are in Hollywood. I’ve heard many stories from black and brown actors I’ve been working with about the struggle to find complex, non-stereotypical, and leading roles. When there are films that should feature a people of color-majority cast, we see Hollywood and even independent filmmakers resorting to whitewashing the cast. By now, we’ve all heard about the atrocious casting decisions for Ridley Scott’s Exodus. Actor Jesse Williams recently spoke on the interconnectedness of white supremacy and Hollywood in this powerful video:

… [A]nd why we think that it’s ok to have a movie like fucking Exodus where white people look ridiculous dressed like Africans. They look ridiculous. Because we know it’s make-believe… It ain’t just a movie, that’s the shit that gets Mike Brown killed and all you people think it’s ok because he’s a fucking ‘animal.’ All of this stuff is connected. That’s what you learn especially when you’re out there in Hollywood… You know how many fucking jobs I have to turn down and how many people I have to fire because of the racist shit that I get offered? And I’m as white as you can get being a black person. I have a fucking struggle. Imagine him trying to get those jobs. You got to decide whether wear a do-rag, rob some white person on a TV show or pay your mortgage and raise your family. And that’s no fucking joke, those are 5 of my closest friends, who have to decide every 3 days whether they want to chip away at their own soul, and chip away a piece of themselves to dance and shuck and jive for white America.

In addition to racist casting, the stories of black and brown people are marginalized, vilified, and/or silenced by mainstream media. When we see science fiction films that take place in dystopian futures, we either see the erasure of people of color, or we see a “post-racial” and “post-gender” world where racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia don’t exist. Also, if people of color are present in these stories, we see a common and disturbing trope where they are killed off to serve as martyrs to spark the revolution and inspire the white protagonist(s). Additionally, as Imran Siddique wrote in an excellent article, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” we not only see racism and sexism “magically disappear” in these films, but also see the “old sci-fi tradition of imagining the subjugation of white people, essentially saying ‘Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!'” I wrote about this previously in my post on X-Men and how it centers on a white-majority cast and appropriates the struggles of marginalized groups.

What I wanted to discuss in this post is how anti-oppression advocacy and calls for better opportunities for people of color actors, especially women of color, are dismissed by Hollywood, but also by some on the Left. In Hollywood, the excuses for the racist casting of Exodus were absurd, to say the least. So absurd that people making the excuses didn’t realize they were contradicting themselves or make paradoxical statements. For instance, Ridley Scott made an offensive comment about how he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so” to play the lead role because he wouldn’t get funding to produce the movie. People who rushed to Scott’s defense made the argument of “practicality,” i.e. they argued, “People don’t get it! Scott wouldn’t get funding if he cast a black man to play Moses. He was being practical! People need to shut up about racism and get over themselves!” What’s ridiculous about this argument is that it acknowledges that racism exists (the subtext being, “Studios won’t fund a movie with a people of color-majority cast because producers are racist”), but then, paradoxically, argues that people should shut up about racism.

Later, Christian Bale defended Scott in an interview with a rather pathetic statement. Instead of protesting, Bale said, people should support “Middle Eastern and North African actors and filmmakers.” I call this response “pathetic” because Bale doesn’t seem to realize that one of the major reasons why people were protesting Exodus is because they do support black and brown actors. They are protesting because they wanted to see Middle Eastern and North African actors in those roles. Bale continues and says that there will be a film about Moses (peace be upon him) with a people of color-majority cast “in a few decades” and that it will mark a day of “celebration” for both film and humankind. Again, what Bale doesn’t seem to recognize is that his statement admits that the film’s casting is wrong and racist (otherwise why say that an accurately cast Moses film would mark a day of celebration?). Of course, Bale refused to see his complicity because he benefits from racist casting. Once again, people of color are told to “wait” and just deal with the fact that only white actors can play roles that should have gone to people of color. They are told they are not being “practical.” Instead of pointing fingers at protestors, Bale should tell Hollywood (and himself) to support actors of color. If he did, then he would have turned down the role and told Ridley Scott to look for actors of color instead. I’m not singling Bale out either – all of the white actors should have said something (including Joel Edgerton who had to darken his skin and also had the sphinx molded after his European features!).

At the center of Bale’s argument was that people needed to help create a “market” for Middle Eastern and North African actors. That is, by supporting those actors, studios will see there’s a market for producing films that feature them in leading roles. This is something I don’t buy at all. The excuse that films won’t sell unless they are centered on white male actors is one rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist-thinking. It’s a shame that film is not really seen as an art form (no matter how many times certain filmmakers or producers in Hollywood claim otherwise), so equating success with financial success is something that has long been normalized in the entertainment industry. Many people are convinced that in order for a film to perform well at the box office, they need to have mostly white male actors. First off, I don’t believe in the notion that a film with a people of color-majority cast would not make money. I believe the real issue is that producers and Hollywood studios simply do not care and do not want to cast people of color most of the time in leading roles. Second, I think we need to move beyond this paradigm of monetary gain to determine whether or not a film should be made.

Moses is a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the story is essentially about speaking truth to power and freedom from oppression. Ironically, a film about fighting against oppression became one that perpetuates oppression. White supremacist patriarchal capitalism drains meaning out of everything in society, including society’s spiritual well-being. Scott treated a story that is held sacred by millions of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups, as a “fictional” story that could be adapted (as if it were Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). We saw Darren Aronofsky do this as well with his film, Noah.  White supremacist patriarchal capitalism doesn’t hold anything sacred. The message of the film is less concerned about emphasis on God, spirituality, and fighting oppression, but rather more interested in making money and telling an “entertaining” story where white people are, once again, heroes/saviors in stories that they weren’t apart of. And yet, it continues to amaze me when I hear/read comments from mostly white anti-racist “allies” who say that criticizing the casting of the film is “pointless” because, according to them, “the Bible is just fiction anyway.” David Dennis Jr. wrote an excellent response to these reactions, which I will quote here:

I know the initial reactions to articles about movies based on Bible stories is to do that cool Internet thing where you say how the Bible is fiction and it’s not important because fish weren’t even discovered when Jesus was alive or whatever cool nugget you read on Mental Floss. And why should people even care about a book that you think is as fictitious as Harry Potter, anyway? Just take into account that regardless of what any of you may think about religion, it’s a source of self-worth, inspiration and intense love for millions of people who dedicate their lives to whatever school of spiritual thought they choose. So while some may give a dismissive “lulz parting the sea” as an initial reaction, the idea of creating a race-based hierarchy with these figures isn’t an offense that should be taken lightly.

And he’s absolutely right, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. When children, especially children of color, only see religious leaders and prophets depicted as white men, there are serious concerns about internalizing white supremacy. Are white parents comfortable with their white children seeing the prophets they learn about in Church depicted as they really were: black and brown people?

But it’s not just about films like Exodus and Noah. It’s also about the industry in general and how people of color are marginalized, tokenized, vilified, and/or completely erased. I recently raised a critique of a white activist’s praise for the latest Hunger Games film and its apparent parallels with Palestine. I started my comment by writing that I totally support reading radical themes in science fiction films, but I also mentioned that one thing that continues to frustrate me is how these stories are almost always centered on white people. It’s difficult for me to read about a dystopian future where we see white people not only taking center stage, but also being the “most victimized” by state oppression. I mentioned the common racist and sexist tropes where we see people of color characters, particularly women of color characters, often being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire resistance movements led by white people. One of several examples I brought up was a 4-part series on “The Clone Wars” animated show where I noticed strong parallels with occupied Palestine, well-developed people of color characters, but (SPOILERS) then watched Steela Gerrera, the lead woman of color character, killed off to inspire the revolution. “Her sacrifice gave Onderon its freedom,” eulogized the white male character. This trope fuels the notion that women of color in particular must die or sacrifice themselves so that white people can get their freedom. The trope also denies one of the greatest strengths of communities of color: their survival. I also mentioned movies like Avatar, which appropriate Indigenous People’s resistance against colonialism and genocide, and use non-human species to stand-in for people of color (a trope we see far too often in sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows, novels, etc.).

Unfortunately, after presenting my critique, I got whitesplained.

He implied, condescendingly, that my “tactics” were not practical. He argued that the Left is too weak to be “overly purist,” so instead of “rejecting” movies “on the basis of racism, sexism, orientalism,” and so on, we should be encouraging people to engage these films with radicalized readings. There was a lot to unpack from his response. First, I never said in my initial comment to “reject” the movies altogether, but this is a common response I hear from white people, whether they are anti-racist activists or not. It’s common because whenever people of color critique or criticize something, we’re seen as the enemies of “free speech.” This is especially true when Muslims speak out against something. “Oh, you’re trying to ban free speech and/or freedom of expression!” “These Muslims need to learn how to respect freedom!” Whether or not this was his thought process when speaking to me, the impact of the words should have been taken into account.

Second, I very much agree that encouraging people to engage with films in radical ways is important, but what he didn’t seem to acknowledge was how advocating for the non-superficial presence and centering of people of color in these films is also part of those radicalized readings. Instead, it was dismissed, as if there is no space in the engagement/critique of these films to discuss people of color-centered stories and better opportunities for people of color actors.

Third, his response reinforced oppressive “practicality” politics. That is, we shouldn’t complain about people of color not being in these films because the Left is “too weak.” There are things we just need to let slide, especially when these issues are about racism, sexism, and appropriation. Yeah, those posts about how Katniss should have been a woman of color? Yeah, the Left is too weak, let’s not talk about that. Even beyond film and media, how many times have we heard people on the Left say that we should brush certain things aside “for the greater good”? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia in Leftist spaces? Yeah, we don’t want to risk being more divided, so let’s just ignore it. Imposing “practicality” politics on people of color reinforces an obvious racist attitude that people of color are not logical beings and therefore need the “guidance” of white people. It’s important that white people show their solidarity, but we don’t need paternalistic authority from them.

These are difficult conversations to have, no doubt, but we need to have them. Silencing these issues is not going to make things magically disappear. What kind of progress are we going to make if people are told they should suffer in silence? Something that I wish more Leftist activists, especially white male activists, would do is more privilege-checking and self-critique. All of us need to be conscious and aware of our privileges, myself included. Checking yourself isn’t just a one time thing and if you get published in a book, organize a protest, or lead a workshop, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Being an ally is something you work to maintain everyday.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered too much arrogance from people on the Left. Most of the time, I see this “know-it-all,” authoritative, paternalistic arrogance come from white “allies” who think they know everything about racism (and your life and soul) just because they read Fanon, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and other writers and activists. Hey, you read books, that’s cool. You should be reading those texts. However, asserting that men and women of color need to be more “practical” doesn’t do anything but maintain the status quo. What else does it do other than tell people to “shut up” about racism and sexism? How does this not reproduce white supremacy and patriarchy? I remember when I was telling a white colleague about my film, he told me that I should make it about bullying rather than highlight on specifics like racism and sexism. He said it would appeal to a “wider audience” if I made it more about bullying (because there’s no such thing as racist and sexist bullying, or a combination of both, apparently). I know that he meant “white audiences” when he said “wider audience.” Now, when I hear a white “anti-racist ally” say that we shouldn’t be demand for people of color to play leading roles in movies, I can’t help but ask, “Why do I hear the same racist stuff from people who are supposed to be allies?”

Why isn’t it “practical” to demand for people of color-centered stories? When black actors like Jesse Williams talk about all the racist jobs he gets offered and the struggle that actors of color go through, why isn’t it “practical” to demand for something better? As he passionately articulated in the video mentioned above, dehumanizing and racist imagery have very real and serious consequences in the real world because “it’s all connected.” White “allies” who resort to “practicality” politics should take the time to re-examine themselves before they condescend to people of color and behave like they know what it’s like to experience racism on a daily basis. There needs to be solidarity, but it can’t be accomplished when white people assert themselves in the movement as authority figures or behave like they know how to “practically” dismantle systems of oppression. We need more people to humble themselves, recognize their privilege(s), check themselves, and listen more. Do this work before you enter a space and cause more harm and reproduce the oppression you claim to be fighting against.

Why Fareed Zakaria’s Comments About Muslims Are Harmful

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Last Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recorded a segment where he made alarming claims that Muslims are “not doing enough” to confront “extremism” within their communities. As many Muslims know, this is not the first time we’ve heard this. In fact, since 9/11, we have been hearing politicians, newscasters, celebrities, teachers, co-workers, and even some of our friends constantly ask, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” or “Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing anything to stop these extremists?”

As I wrote in my blog posts, “No One Hijacked Islam” (Part 1, 2, and 3), these questions about “where are all the moderate Muslims” are not only accusatory and assume that most Muslims are extremists, but they also reinforce the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary. When mainstream media and Islamophobes ask about the whereabouts of the so-called “moderate Muslims,” they ignore the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world because they are looking specifically for the “Good Muslims,” i.e. the state-friendly, pro-imperialist Muslim who will justify racist policies, spy programs, drone warfare, military invasions/occupations, settler-colonialism, etc. The “Bad Muslims” are, well, everyone else.

Like I have said before, I don’t believe Muslims should apologize or answer for violence carried out by other people. White Christians are not demanded to apologize for the violent acts carried out by other white Christians, so why place this demand on Muslims? Despite my views on this, there are countless Muslim imams, community leaders, and organizations around the world who have been condemning the actions of extremist groups. However, the state wants more than just vocal condemnations. They want Muslims to “prove” their allegiance by serving the state (e.g. working as translators on imperialist missions, collaborating with law enforcement to spy and infiltrate their own communities, voice support and justification for wars against Muslim-majority countries, etc.).

What makes Zakaria’s comments about Muslims so harmful and, yes, Islamophobic is that they fuel an already dangerous narrative. That narrative being that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not only responsible for the crimes they didn’t commit, but are also to blame for Islamophobia itself. I’ll try to break down Zakaria’s comments point by point:

1. “There is a problem within Islam.”

Ok, when I listened to Zakaria say this, my first reaction was, “Are you talking about the religion or are you talking about the Muslim community in general?” When one listens to the rest of Zakaria’s segment, it is clear that he is talking about Muslim communities. In other words, Zakaria is not saying anything critical about the religion of Islam, but rather talking about the people who follow it.  This is what makes Zakaria’s language so problematic and irresponsible. It’s very Orientalist because it’s like looking at a map, pointing to a group of Muslim-majority countries, and then saying, “This is Islam. There is a problem within it.” It reminded me of a time when a friend and I were doing a university project where we went around interviewing people in a suburban town and asked them what came to mind when we used certain words. One of the words my friend used was “Islam,” and the respondent said, “Country.” Yes, this is an ignorant response that did not shock me too much, but for a journalist, who was born into a Muslim family, to not even make the distinction between the religion and its people (let alone consider the Islamophobic connotations of saying “there is a problem within Islam,” especially within the context of discussing extremists) just goes to show how racialized Islam and Muslims really are.

2. “It is not enough for Muslims to point out that these people do not represent the religion. They don’t. But Muslims need to take more active measures to protest these heinous acts.”

He talks about taking “active measures,” but is never specific. What constitutes “active measures” for people like Zakaria? Does it mean increasing the suspicion that already exists about Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred recently in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing the NYPD/CIA to spy on Muslim students, neighborhoods, and mosques, which all proved to be ineffective? In fact, the only thing the spy unit was effective at doing was traumatizing Muslim communities. It has been revealed, for instance, that the FBI told white male informants (who pretended to be Muslim) that engaging in sexual relationships with Muslim women was permissible. Are these the “active measures” Zakaria is calling for?

Also, Zakaria is totally contradicting himself. If his statement above is read again, you’ll notice that he agrees that individuals like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau “do not represent the religion.” Yet, he insists that Muslims “need to take more active measures to protest.” So, the message here seems to be, “Hey, these people don’t represent your religion, but, um, PROTEST AGAINST THEM ANYWAY. DO SOMETHING! THEY’RE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY!”

3. “They also need to make sure that Muslim countries and societies do not in any way condone extremism, anti-modern attitudes and intolerance towards other faiths.”

This is troubling for so many reasons. Zakaria speaks as if every Muslim has a direct line to the governments of Muslim-majority countries. Again, the responsibility is placed on all Muslims to solve things like government corruption, discrimination against non-Muslim minorities, etc. How Zakaria managed to forget about the way power structures operate is beyond me. How can Muslims “make sure” that Muslim-majority countries don’t oppress religious minorities, for example, when Americans protesting the war against Iraq were not able to stop the war? Also, did Zakaria forget about the marches, protests, and revolutions that took/take place in Muslim-majority countries? The logic here is also terribly flawed and loaded with Orientalism. Yes, it is true that Islam teaches Muslims that we are all connected spiritually, but Zakaria speaks about Muslims as though we are a monolithic group; that we are all networked with each other, despite the immense diversity among and within Muslim societies and communities around the world.

As for “anti-modern attitudes,” this should raise our concerns about how “modernity” has become synonymous with western civilization, as well as how this language is heavily racialized. By calling Muslim-majority countries “anti-modern,” it fits into the ongoing narrative that Muslims are “trapped in the pre-modern” and have not “caught up” with the “modern/western world.” Colonialism, slavery of Africans, genocide against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, economic exploitation, incarceration of people of color, specifically black people, extrajudicial killings, using nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, waging wars and invading other countries, backing occupation and settler-colonialism in Palestine, appropriating a Middle Eastern man (Jesus) and transforming him into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white man to teach black people and other people of color that they are inferior to white people — these are all things that happened and happen in the so-called “modern” west. To resist these forces of oppression is to be “anti-modern”?

Of course, when these narratives of “modernity” are used against Islam and Muslims, they invoke things like human rights of women, LGBTQIA2-S, religious minorities, and so on. Because we all know the United States and other western nations are societies that champion “equality” and “justice” for “everyone.” I don’t raise this critique to ignore or invisibilize the very real struggles many marginalized communities endure in certain Muslim-majority countries, but rather to highlight on how western nations use and exploit these struggles to (1) justify exerting dominance and violence over Muslim-majority countries, and (2) trivialize and/or invisibilize the very real struggles that women, LGBTQIA2-S, people of color, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized peoples face in western countries. Perhaps most importantly, inherit in these “anti-modern” versus “modern” attitudes are violent notions of white saviorism, i.e. saving people through use of bombs and ruthless military invasions, as if the people living in Muslim-majority or non-western countries do not have a conscious for social justice or aren’t organizing, protesting, or speaking out against oppression. It’s the west, specifically the United States, that needs to save and modernize the “darker” and “uncivilized” people through the use of violent force.

4. “Muslims are right to complain that there is anti-Muslim bigotry out there. But they would have a more persuasive case if they took on some of the bigotry within the world of Islam as well.”

This part of Zakaria’s video probably upset me the most. I’ll get to his use of the term “bigotry” in a second, but the part about Muslims needing to have a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia is quite disturbing. So, we have to be more “persuasive” to show white people that we are human? Because the way Islam and Muslims are demonized is somehow our fault? According to Zakaria, if Muslims experience Islamophobia, they cannot challenge it unless they “took on some of the bigotry in the world of Islam as well” (again, note the orientalist language: “world of Islam”).

A few things: first, when Zakaria talks about anti-Muslim bigotry, his use of “bigotry” becomes a soft word here. He is reducing Islamophobia to interpersonal forms of racism, i.e. “hurt feelings,” and “individual people being mean and bigoted towards other people.” He is not addressing, let alone acknowledging, the larger structures of white supremacy and violence that is foundational to the United States. As I quoted Houria Boutelja in one of my previous posts, “Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” We have seen Muslims detained, deported, bombed, tortured, raped, occupied, discriminated against, denied rights, spied upon, demonized in media, collectively blamed — that’s not “bigotry,” that’s state racism — rooted in the U.S. political system which bell hooks describes as imperial­ist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Second, Zakaria is (deliberately or not) blaming Muslims for Islamophobia. His statement about Muslims potentially having a “more persuasive case” against Islamophobia if they would only challenge extremism in every corner of the world (preferably in superhuman fashion) aligns with the harmful notion that “Islamophobia only exists because of these extremists, therefore we must condemn their violence and eliminate them if we want Islamophobia to end.” Zakaria’s statements are harmful because they reinforce all of the mainstream and Islamophobic demands on Muslims, i.e. Muslims need to apologize for violence, they need to “do more” against extremism if they want to be accepted in the “modern world,” they need to stop complaining about bigotry because Muslim-majority governments are oppressive, etc. All of this vilifies Muslims, casts them as “suspicious” and “potential threats,” and silences Muslims who are victimized by Islamophobia.

This blaming of the oppressed is nothing new, as many people of color know. It was evident in history and it is evident today. When Zakaria hears about the surveillance of Muslim students or Muslim neighborhoods, does he think this violation of civil rights occurs because Muslims haven’t made a “more persuasive case” about their humanity? When Muslims of all ages and genders are physically assaulted or beaten for being Muslim, does Zakaria think the victims could have prevented this violence if they had only “took on some of the bigotry within” Muslim-majority countries? What is the correct response for Muslims when their mosques are vandalized, shot at, or receive threatening messages (like a pig’s head being thrown at a mosque entrance)? Is it, “It’s our fault, we are not doing enough to fight the extremists everywhere”? What should civil rights advocates say to people victimized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — “Sorry, I can’t help you because you’re haven’t convinced me that you are human”?

Lastly, it’s time to play the broken record (which, sadly, needs to be replayed over and over again): White people are never expected to apologize or answer for the heinous actions of other white people. Look at the white men like James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, Timothy McVeigh, and countless others who cause so much terror and yet are never used to collectively blame the entire white population. Where are the leaders of the white community condemning these atrocious acts of violence against innocent people? Zakaria asks when “moderate Muslims will say ‘enough is enough,'” yet it is never asked when “moderate white people” will say “enough is enough” when it comes to police brutality and murder against black men and women, or school shootings, or the terrorist attack on the Sikh Gurdwara, or “white-on-white murder,” or the ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples. Where are the calls for white folks to “take more active measures to protest these heinous acts”?

It’s concerning when Islamophobia is downplayed on the news, especially when we consider the serious lack of Muslim TV anchors in mainstream media (I cannot think of any off the top of my head). Zakaria himself stated that he’s “never been defined by religious identity” and that “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy,” but it does not seem to bother him to use his platform on CNN to point fingers at Muslims and accuse them of “not doing enough.” Oddly enough, it also seems like he’s trying to speak for Muslims when he says, “Let’s be honest: Islam has a problem today.” Something very “native informant” about the way he frames all of this.

But, let’s be honest, Fareed: Islamophobia is a real problem that goes beyond individual acts of bigotry or “isolated incidents.” Even more so, there is a problem with white supremacy. It’s been around for a very long time and it is still disturbingly strong today. Otherwise you would have made countless videos calling on white people to do more to stop racist oppression, violence/war against men and women of color, terrorist attacks on schools, movie theaters, college campuses, the list goes on and on and on.

Islamophobia TV: All the Hate, All the Time!

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No need to check your local listings. Islamophobia on TV isn’t hard to find. The image above is a promotional poster for the fourth season of “Homeland,” the hit television series about treacherous Muslims plotting to destroy western civilization. I believe the tagline of the show is something like, “Remember, kids, don’t ever trust the Moslemz.”

Over a year ago, journalist Laila Al-Arian wrote an excellent critique of the show and correctly called it “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” As many Muslims know all too well, the demonization of Islam and Muslims is not just confined to the TV screen, but has serious consequences in the real world. As expected, the critique was met with some resistance, notably from white non-Muslim viewers who could not bear to see their cherished imperialist television drama being criticized, let alone being called Islamophobic and racist. One would hope that producers would take the concerns expressed in Al-Arian’s article into account, but this is Hollywood after all and, as Jack Shaheen informed us, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti once said, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”

A year later, unsurprisingly, the producers decide to kick the Islamophobia up a notch. If the image above doesn’t make you cringe, I’m not sure what will. Laura Durkay recently pointed out in her critique what many Muslims noted in the image: “A blonde, white Red Riding Hood lost in a forest of faceless Muslim wolves.” The fact that such racist, sexist, and Orientalist imagery can be posted widely online and reprinted on billboards for the purpose of promoting “entertainment” for western viewers is utterly disturbing. I’m also told that the new season is set in Pakistan now? I’m guessing this won’t hurt public opinion about drone strikes on Pakistan, right?

It bothers me to see these images for a lot of reasons. I know there are some people in my workplace, for example, who rave about how “amazing” this show is. It’s difficult not to think about their attitudes and perceptions about Muslims and Islam. However, it goes beyond that. It’s about how these images further the dehumanization that’s essential for the war machine and white supremacy to prosper. Racist policies, surveillance and violation of rights, murdering Muslims through drones and wars – all of these things result for many reasons, and one of the reasons is because media renders Muslims as non-citizens and non-humans.

I know it’s been several months since I updated my blog, but over the hiatus, it was the holy month of Ramadan. Gaza was brutally attacked by Israel. No doubt, Palestinians are under constant threat of Israeli military occupation and genocide, but these attacks only accelerate the genocide against Palestinians. Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza led to the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and thousands more injured. I wrote something on my Facebook around the time of Eid-ul-Fitr, but will share it here with some variations:

Like for many, it was a difficult Ramadan, where the days and nights were filled with heartbreak, tears, rage, and desperate prayers. I cannot and do not want to appropriate the pain, suffering, and trauma that so many Palestinians are (and have been) enduring — Palestinians who are worried 24/7 for the safety of their family and loved ones in Gaza, and the Gazans themselves who are struggling to survive against Israel’s merciless and relentless genocide.

It is impossible to comprehend or imagine the terror they have been experiencing. No group should be massacred, let alone harmed, during any time of the year, but you know a people are so dehumanized, demonized, and seen as “disposable” when they are viciously bombed during their holiest month. Not all Palestinians are Muslim, but Israel, the U.S., and the western media have made it clear that the diverse religious or non-religious affiliation of Palestinians do not matter to the settler-colonial state that wants them exterminated. By labeling them all “Muslim,” they know what racialized, white supremacist-thinking and violence they are reinforcing and seeking to maintain.

Most of my writing is on media representations of Muslims and people of color, so when I notice the silence from certain people who would otherwise have no problem in condemning acts of terrorism when the perpetrators are Muslim, I continue to be so disturbed by the daily dehumanization of Muslims and all people of color in mainstream media, not just the news, but also in movies and TV shows. When people are watching and consuming racist, Islamophobic TV shows like “Homeland” and “24,” or movies like Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor, that is another form of violence against people who look like us and our families. That, too, is white supremacy at work. When we are constantly otherized, vilified, and depicted as “perpetual threats to western civilization,” these images are an assault on our humanity and contributes significantly to why so many people do not see us as human beings. We should not have to exhaustively reiterate, shout, and scream about how Palestinians are human beings. We shouldn’t have to organize protest after to protest to cry out to the world that genocide is wrong and inhumane.

It hurt to see fellow Muslims heartbroken. It was painful to look at the pictures of the Palestinian men, women, and children whose names and faces mainstream media never wants anyone to know about — and I cannot imagine how much more painful this is for their family members and loved ones. It is infuriating and often disturbing that because you are Muslim, because you are dark-skinned, and/or from a country that is marked “evil,” your life is seen by the powerful, oppressive forces in the world as inferior, disposable, of no value, and not worthy of being remembered.

I wrote all of the above before Mike Brown was brutally murdered by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson. The media’s anti-black racism was shameless as usual, trying to depict an 18 year-old black teenager as being a “thug” who “deserved” to be killed. This is in sharp contrast to the sympathetic media coverage that white murderers receive. If you follow the link, you’ll see the headlines describing white suspects and killers as being “brilliant” or “outstanding students.” Television anchors often ask, “How did such a nice kid do such a horrible thing?” Yet, when unarmed black men and women like Mike Brown and Renisha McBride are shot and murdered, the racist media condemns these individuals, blames them for their deaths, and justifies the actions of their murderers. The protesters in Ferguson are demonized and blamed for “escalating” the violence while nothing is said about the white folks raising money for Darren Wilson.

Just tonight, I had “Gotham” playing on TV in the background as I was writing this post (I don’t recommend the show, it’s terrible!) and Harvey Bullock ruthlessly punches a black woman who has her hands up. Are you kidding me? How often do we see this kind of violence against black people and other people of color, especially women of color, in TV shows and movies? This stuff is so normalized that it isn’t uncommon to hear people say, “Oh, I’m sure that wasn’t intentional.” But that’s the thing, racism and misogyny doesn’t need to be intentional. The victim-blaming we see against rape victims (“she was asking for it because of the way she dressed”), against black people (“they were criminals, not angels!”), against Palestinians (“they voted for Hamas”), against Muslims (“they don’t apologize for 9/11”) represent troubling examples of how normalized and acceptable it is to hold oppressive attitudes. It’s the work of interlocking oppressions that continue to uphold the larger structures of violence in the world.

Even when oppressive attitudes and behaviors are intentional, there are still efforts made to trivialize or even justify the racist, sexist sentiments, especially when they come from people in powerful positions. As many people know by now, Bill Maher has been spewing tons of hate about Islam and Muslims for a while. Recently, he had Sam Harris on his show who said, “Islam is the motherload of bad ideas.” But it’s cool though, we got Bruce Wayne himself, um, I mean Ben Affleck to defend us. In case you didn’t see it, you can watch it here. Be warned though, if you care about the humanity of all people, you’ll be quite outraged.

I’m being sarcastic about Ben Affleck, by the way. While he correctly calls Maher and Harris’ horrible stereotypes about Islam “gross” and “racist,” I’m not ready to give a hero star to Affleck. I know this may not be a popular opinion, but Affleck is the same guy who directed Argo (aka Not Without My Daughter 2). That might come off as sounding ungrateful to solidarity from a non-Muslim celebrity, but at the end of the day, there is not a single Muslim on the panel here. Not one Muslim was invited to respond to the horrendous and dangerous Islamophobia being spewed. No doubt, this was deliberate. Keeping Muslims out of these “conversations” further otherizes, vilifies, and silences us. It reinforces a racist hierarchy where white non-Muslim men must debate amongst each other and figure out what needs to be done about the racialized “others.” In this case, it’s how to deal with the “Muslim problem” while rendering Muslims voiceless. This, of course, isn’t something unique to Muslims. Historically white men have (and still) sit in offices and meeting rooms to determine the destiny of people of color. Even when people of color are nowhere close to being silent in their struggles for liberation, the lies persist through media. Remember that Spielberg movie Lincoln and how it completely erased Frederick Douglass and marginalized black people for the sake of centering on a bunch of white men sitting around and disputing about what they wanted to do about African slaves?

So, while I do appreciate Affleck speaking up, I do have to say this about his white male privilege: You can’t make an Islamophobic film like Argo to get your Oscar on one hand and then condemn Islamophobia to receive praise for “defending Muslims” on the other. No, you can’t do both. Solidarity doesn’t work that way. If anything, for what it’s worth, I do hope that when Affleck heard these remarks being made, he understood the severity of Islamophobia and maybe (just maybe) he considered how his own work has contributed to it.

When Muslims are invited on these platforms to speak, they are bullied, insulted, and interrogated. When Reza Aslan was on CNN recently, the CNN hosts Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota were horribly condescending and Islamophobic with their questions. As usual, Islam and Muslims were put on trial. Aslan was asked, “Does Islam teach violence?” Embedded in this question is the assumption that Islam is violent and that it is guilty unless proven otherwise. The sexist questions about Muslim-majority countries being “more sexist” than the United States were also terribly filled with Orientalist accusations.

When Muslims are invited to speak on panels or appear on news shows, they are not spoken with. They are spoken at. They are scolded. They are told to answer for the crimes that weren’t committed by them. They are not told to clarify or respond to misconceptions; they are told that their religion is barbaric, uncivilized, backwards, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, etc. The entire segment on CNN perpetuated the same attitudes that TV shows like “Homeland” perpetuate: Muslims must be seen in suspicious light and they must “prove” that they are not terrorists. The humanity of Muslims is never deemed important or relevant.

A few days after Aslan’s interview, Chris Cuomo appeared on CNN and started attacking Aslan’s “tone” and concluded that “this is why people are afraid of Muslims.” Now, I have critiques of Aslan for statements he has made in the past (I’m not going to delve into them here, but I’ll just leave this link here). There were many inaccurate and problematic things Aslan said in the CNN interview about Muslim-majority countries, but most importantly, as Shaista Patel pointed out, his insistence that female genital mutilation is an “African problem” was loaded with anti-black racism. Aslan’s response is a very liberal one and I’ve expressed on my blog before that the liberal responses to Islamophobia tend to be very simplistic and fall into the trap of reproducing the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Unfortunately, this is what happens when Muslims are placed on the defensive by default and rarely given a platform to represent themselves. I also know that regardless of what Muslims say, there are people like Cuomo who will use “tone arguments,” something that people of color are far too familiar with. I’ve seen cases where people of color have responded calmly and politely yet the white folks on the receiving end of the critique are always making it about “tone.”

It’s also ridiculous how Bill Maher transforms into a pro-feminist dude when he talks about sexism in “the Muslim world.” I’m not going to link it here, but Maher has a history of making misogynistic “jokes” during his stand-up routines and on other episodes of his show. I’m also fed up with the “moderate Muslim” and “fundamentalist Muslim” binary that is constantly reiterated in western media. But Harris said something on the show that I never heard before. He said that there are four types of Muslims! So, not two anymore, but four! According to him, there are the (1) “violent jihadists,” (2) the “Islamists,” (3) conservative Muslims, and (4) nominal Muslims who “don’t take their religion very seriously.” Wow, in all of my years being a Muslim and raised by Muslims, I never heard this before. That’s bloody brilliant, Sam. This must be the reform you’re talking about. Thanks for breaking us down into four categories instead of just two. “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” was getting boring.

But yeah, I do not identify with any of those categories! I cannot fit in any of them and neither can most Muslims. It’s because we’re people; we’re human beings. We’re not Cylons/robots that are built and designed into a limited number of model types (I’m foreshadowing a future post here). It’s incredibly dehumanizing and so much more concerning when we see this allowed to air on TV.

Lastly, Maher, Harris, and other Islamophobes claim they are “not hating all Muslims,” but rather seeking to “lift up” the voices of Muslim “reformers.” They claim that criticizing Islam is not racist nor Islamophobic. Yes, criticizing Islam is not Islamophobic, but far too often, “criticism of Islam” has meant to use racialized language and rhetoric to demonize it. The latter is not criticism; it is about furthering an agenda to cast Muslims as racialized “others” and justify laws, discrimination, and wars against Muslims. If Maher and Harris really cared about empowering Muslims, they would speak with Muslims and listen to our voices rather than calling our faith the “motherload of bad ideas” or arguing that Muslims will “f**king kill you” if you “say the wrong thing.” How can you claim you want to “help” Muslims when you cast them as potential murderers and cannot even respect their way of life, let alone confront your own prejudice and oppressive stance against Islam? There are Muslims in our community who have been speaking out against groups like ISIS. I don’t think this is necessary because no Muslim should feel the burden of answering for crimes that other people committed, but there are Muslim organizations and individuals who do it.

Yet there are those who continue to insist that these Muslims speaking out are apparently not doing enough. Ali Rizvi, who identifies as an atheist Muslim, recently wrote an awfully problematic article on the Huffington Post addressing “moderate Muslims.” I reject the term “moderate Muslim” because, again, Muslims are people, not categories, but I assume Rizvi is trying to address the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Rizvi suggests, alarmingly, that Muslims share some responsibility in perpetuating Islamophobia. Not only is this inaccurate, it is dangerous. He asks Muslims to put themselves in the shoes of non-Muslims and to look at all the images we see in mainstream media of Muslims shouting “Allahu akbar” and quoting the Qur’an before carrying atrocious acts of violence. Nevermind the fact that mainstream media has immense control over the images and stories it chooses to project or tell. Nevermind the fact that white non-Muslims are never accused by society at large for perpetuating white supremacy and racist violence against people of color. Nevermind that Muslims are constantly demanded to apologize and answer for groups like ISIS. Also, what about the countless Muslims who don’t wish to engage in political conversations or are fed up with having to answer for violent groups? What about the Muslims who are silent only because speaking up about these issues in their schools or workplaces will create an even more hostile climate against them or even jeopardize their careers? Has Rizvi taken into account that many Muslims in the west need to protect themselves in workplaces and schools? If white non-Muslims are able to carry on with their lives without having to apologize for violence committed by men like Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodger, then why should Muslims feel the burden of responsibility for other people’s crimes?

Rizvi argues that criticism of Islam is not racist. On the surface, this is true, but what he fails to understand is how Islam is racialized. He fails to understand how Muslims are constructed as a race, despite not being one. As Houria Boutelja reminds us, Islamophobia is not and should not be merely characterized as a “feeling” or sentiment. She states, “To speak of Islamophobia as sentiment is a euphemism. Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” When we see NYPD spying and infiltration of Muslim communities, the recent raids on Muslim homes in Australia, the bans on hijab in western countries, the increase in racial profiling, and the vicious violence against Muslims in Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen, etc., Islamophobia is more than just about sentiment or “hurt feelings.” So, when Rizvi claims that Maher and Harris are “critics” of Islam, he is removing this context and reality of Islamophobia and white supremacy from their arguments. Again, as mentioned earlier, there is a significant difference between criticism and hate speech that perpetuates harmful consequences and practices against Muslims. The latter is clearly what Maher and Harris are participating in.

I recently read “Feminist Edges of the Qur’an” by Aysha A. Hidayatullah and I thought it engaged with the Qur’an in a very honest, critical, and scholarly way. Throughout the text, Hidayatullah recognizes the realities and histories of Islamophobia, colonialism, and racism that often come with narratives regarding gender justice and feminism in Muslim communities. Any critique Hidayatullah makes is done without Islamophobia. When I read the book, I felt it was written for Muslims, which is significantly different than the statements made by Maher and Harris, who are more interested in talking about Muslims and making attacks against the faith/community. For Maher, Harris, and other Islamophobes to hide behind the pathetic excuse that they really “care” about Muslims or want to “help them” rings of destructive white saviorism. Again, by making Muslims voiceless, they assert that white non-Muslim men and the dominant structures in society control the destiny of Muslims.

Racism and sexism has always been on TV, but the way we see racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other oppressions increasing on TV is utterly appalling. We cannot downplay the power of media and we need to take these images seriously, especially when they are used to justify racist policies, invasions, drone strikes, military occupations, sexual violence, police brutality, etc. I also think it’s really important for our allies to stop consuming these shows and make an effort to speak out against them. I wish we could see Muslims appear on these news shows and share their stories without the anchors or hosts attacking their religion or asking them accusatory, racist, and sexist questions. What would it look like if Muslims were given a platform where they could tell their stories without the gaze of Islamophobia?

As many know, the voices and stories of Muslims, of people of color are never silent. They are silenced by the powers that be.

Aamer Rahman on “Reverse Racism”

This is brilliant and hilarious! It’s nauseating how people of color are constantly accused of being “reverse racists,” or “anti-white,” when challenging and speaking out against white supremacy. This is an excellent video to show to people who claim “reverse racism” is actually a real thing.

Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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