a moment of power: ‘desis’ act for ICE detainees

On Thursday, DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving held an action in front of Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. They demanded that the 2016 presidential candidates make detainees in ICE detention centers a priority.

“Migrants came seeking safety in the U.S. but instead find themselves locked behind bars,” said Fahd Ahmed, executive director of DRUM.


“We are here to support our brothers,” said Aminul Islam, a former El Paso Detention Center detainee whose words were translated into English by a DRUM organizer. “We came outside this office because the people running for election say they will do something in the distant future for immigrants and refugees. But the crisis exists now. We want to know your position on these hunger strikes and conditions.”

Ahmed explained that the reason for choosing Clinton’s campaign headquarters was out of convenience. It is the only headquarter for a Democratic candidate that is in New York City. He also was not hesitant to point out that many of the men are “escaping war, repression and economic deprivation caused as a result of our government’s military, foreign and economic policies.”

Read the rest of my piece at The Islamic MonthlyA Moment of Power: ‘Desis’ Act for ICE Detainees

no, let’s talk about being muslim in america

(Originally published by The Islamic Monthly on March 13, 2014)

A recent article by Laila Alawa claims that we need to stop talking about being Muslim in America. By trying to break down the American versus Muslim dichotomy, Alawa built a dichotomy of her own and oversimplified the Muslim American narrative by ignoring the multifaceted nature of our identities. We need critical dialogues on being Muslim in America now more than ever to ensure that we are not becoming exclusivists based on one person’s interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim American.

Building a Dichotomy

Alawa’s article constructs an incessant differentiation between being a “Muslim in America” and being a “Muslim American.” Alawa’s preferred terminology, “Muslim American,” seeks to reconcile the dichotomy created between being Muslim and being American. This solution sounds innocent enough until it creates it’s own hierarchical dichotomy by splitting the Muslim American identity into two facets: the Muslim immigrant and the Muslim born or raised in the United States. In order to explain this difference, Alawa asserts that the “identity of [her] generation, the Muslim

American identity, was formed amidst games of mosque hide and seek and dinners” and was therefore completely natural. She makes a disclaimer that the issues of being a Muslim in America may apply to those people who were raised in a different country and immigrated to America. She continues to discriminate between the Muslim American and the Muslim immigrant by asserting that Muslim immigrants from ten or fifteen years ago ultimately sought to return “back home,” whereas contemporary Muslim Americans want to build up communal infrastructures in the United States.

Alawa’s approach assumes that her Muslim American identity is the Muslim American identity. Her rhetoric also dictates that Muslim immigrants, due to their different mentalities, do not have a rightful claim to the “Muslim American” identity unlike her and her “generation” (whatever that may mean). As someone who was born in rural Pakistan and raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, I could not disagree more. I have seen my parent’s identities go through various fluctuations over the years, but even at a time when they thought that they would ultimately return back “home,” they did not stop being civically engaged within the broader American community. My father has been voting in primary, local, and key national elections since he became a naturalized citizen nearly two decades ago. He looks forward to voting and knows more about the current political landscape than the average American. Although not an American citizen due to her lack of English, my mom has stayed up and cheered during the last two presidential elections; in those moments, Barack Obama was elected as her president as much as he was elected as my president. To differentiate their identities to a lower rung of hierarchy as they navigate the nuances of being Muslims in America as opposed to simply being Muslim Americans is a gross oversimplification of a very complex identity paradigm. It is also worth pointing out that the immigration of Muslims to the United States has not stopped and the mentalities from “ten or fifteen years ago” are realities for many Muslim Americans today.

The so-called “back home,” and therefore immigrant, mentality is also blamed for creating an unnaturalness between being a Muslim and being an American. Alawa states that this type of discourse does not come from outside of the Muslim community, but rather from within it––and originates specifically from immigrant Muslims. This sweeping declaration fails to acknowledge the acts of vandalism on mosques, violence against Muslims, and the predominately right-wing discourse, all of which seek to delegitimize the Muslim American identity from being naturally and holistically American. The effort to reconcile the seemingly unnatural identity of Muslims in America via khutbahs and conversations within mosques should be applauded as a worthwhile effort to counteract the public discourse. If there is something that is inherently problematic about those discussions, then we need to provide community leaders with constructive criticism in order to take the subject of identity in a different direction. Alawa’s article seeks to shut discourse down altogether.

The oversimplification of what it means to be a Muslim in America, which is relegated as an issue only for immigrants, is further demonstrated when Alawa completely ignores the multifaceted nature of identity. The Muslim American is not just the Arab or South Asian or Malaysian who grew up in a Muslim community with Muslim parents in the United States. Our identity includes converts who may not have the same familial or societal infrastructure, black Muslims (inclusive of immigrants and those African Americans whose ancestors were a part of the larger American community for hundreds of years), Muslims born and/or raised in the United States who are not a part of a Muslim community, and so on. An overlap between these identities is also a very real possibility. Consequently, all of these nuances necessitate a discourse in order prevent an exclusionary image of Muslims in America.

Being <insert minority group here> in America

To assume that Muslim Americans have “more to tackle” than identity issues, where even “race” is supposedly not an identity issue, is to ignore history. The black community (both Muslim and not) successfully used their struggle with identity to create two of the most American movements in the 20th century: the Harlem Renaissance and the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The Harlem Renaissance was a playing field for experimenting with identity; what does it mean to be African American and how does this impact how we proceed? Different people came up with different, and sometimes contradicting, definitions.

W.E.B. Du Bois believed that African-Americans needed to be intellectuals in order to legitimize their rightful equality with whites––ultimately legitimizing their claim to the very Americanness that was dominated by white men. Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, focused primarily on the financial stability. He did not not want strict equality with whites but was willing to use their help to gain financial independence for African Americans, a pathway he thought would be secure in keeping black identity as distinct. Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes were Watching God and one of the first African-American students to attend Barnard College, was more of a segregationist; she believed that desegregation would cause African Americans to lose their cultural identity. As an anthropologist, Hurston used her literary novels and academic work to illuminate and memorialize the rural Southern black dialect, which was one form of speech Du Bois sought to distance from the black community by building up his vision of black intellectualism. Despite their disagreements, Du Bois, Washington, and Hurston were all seeking to clarify what it means to be an African American and how the community should proceed in order to protect their versions of black identity. The Harlem Renaissance lasted until the mid 1930’s, but the impact of the discourse echoed well into the Civil Rights Movement––the epitome of identity struggle during the mid-twentieth century––and still resonates in identity discourses today. History teaches us that minorities benefit from spending time on their identities in order to lay out the groundwork for establishing a genuine space for themselves within the greater American culture. So it is shocking for anyone to claim that “identity should be the least of our worries.”

The notion of being Muslim in America is also inherently different from being a Muslim American, not because they identify two different groups of Muslims but because they are simply two different linguistic formations of a similar idea. Sidelining “Muslim in America” as being problematic only decreases the lexicon for developing our narrative. I am a Muslim American, but I can also face issues of being a Muslim in America. Acknowledging that Muslims in America have different circumstances from other groups in U.S. will also pave the necessary groundwork for us in other important matters that Alawa mentions, such as mental health or arts development. Muslims in America do not need one cultural identity or a single-mindedness about where to settle down in this globalized world in order for us to be a collective community. Our identity issues, accumulating in this melting pot of different cultures and ideas, are an integral dimension of our Muslimness.

“Waziristan is made to seem a world away” : Orientalist lingerings in the Colonized Mind

I just watched an impeccable documentary on the drone attacks in Pakistan called “Wounds of Waziristan” by Madiha Tahir. You can watch the entire documentary here.

The British thought you were all savages and now the Americans think you’re all militants.

Tahir says. She also goes further to show how the government of Pakistan has had a type of colonial attitude towards the tribal regions, where “the constitution doesn’t apply” and the residents are not given the basic rights available to all other Pakistani citizens.

I applaud the work Madiha Tahir has done and highly recommend watching the documentary to get a look at real people who have been affected by the drone strikes.

However, the issue goes much, much deeper than downplaying the humanity of tribal people living in Pakistan by the United States and Pakistani  government. This attitude is seemingly alive and conscious in the very depths of many elite Pakistanis and, sadly, even the average Pakistani living in urban areas.

During May, I attended a talk given by Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. The speech was primarily of Ahmed relaying his recent findings about drones and his take on the issue in his latest book, The Thistle and The Drone. The entire talk consisted of Ahmed creating a binary between the “periphery” (for him denoting the existence of tribal groups in Pakistan) and the “center” (inclusive of the government and rest of Pakistan). He continued on about how tribal codes emphasize honor, courage, and revenge, setting up the layout for a people who are on the brink of violence at any given moment. Ahmed also clarified that these groups exist in various regions, including Afghanistan and Yemen. It is these groups, he purported, that cling closely to traditional notions. The rest of Pakistan, unlike these tribal groups, does not have these cultural codes and stick more or less to the norms of other 21st century nations.

This binary opposition created by Ahmed clearly scapegoats tribal people as being the root cause of terrorism and hostility not only in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan and Yemen. This othering of an entire group of people, using the same language as many colonizers used to legitimize their colonization, is the utmost internalization of orientalist thought. Binaries automatically create hierarchies, placing one on top of the other. There is absolutely no question here as to what group Ahmed deems to be inferior, and therefore the problem. It’s unbelievable to think that someone who is considered to be a scholar of his field and is a Pakistani can diminish the value of an entire group of people. However, that is not where it stops. This type of mentality can be found subtly leering in the minds of many Pakistanis.

A Pakistani friend of mine, who had also attended the talk ,seemed to disagree with Ahmed just as much as I did. However, he said something odd that stuck with me, “Now, all the people that went to the talk will look at me and think I’m from a tribe.” He then needed to go pray, so we weren’t able to continue the conversation. However, he seems to have missed something very important. The issue isn’t that Ahmed associated the practice of tradition (which includes Islamic traditions) with tribal culture, it’s that he  completely demonized tribal culture. So being associated with a tribal group shouldn’t be the issue. The issue is associating all tribal groups with extremist ideologies, undermining their existence as a group of people, and, hence, legitimizing the actions being taken against them with the use of excessive force like drones.

This wasn’t the first time I felt uncomfortable with a Pakistani making an outwardly insensitive remark about a subset of Pakistani culture. While standing around with a group of students after Urdu class at NYU, a small conversation was struck up.

“I think Punjabi sounds really harsh,” one student said. The rest of the students agreed.

Various forms of this remark have been regurgitated by many Pakistanis, primarily those from outside of Punjab or those whose families hail from urban cities in Punjab where Urdu has become the dominating language. Somehow, Punjabi is always deemed to be inferior to Urdu. The periphery and the center.

Another binary that is posed within Pakistan is that of coming from a rural area versus coming from a city. The derogatory term of “paindu” is used to describe people who are from a village. The periphery and the center.

Then there are some American-Pakistanis who consider themselves to be very different from those “ignorant brown people.” The uneducated, living in Pakistan or India or Bangladesh, obviously inferior and clearly misinformed people. The periphery, those people who are are born and bred in South Asian homelands, are no longer the legitimate representations of their own cultures and beliefs. The “center” of this binary has moved back to the West, controlled not by colonizers but by those whose minds have been thoroughly colonized that self-hate is no longer evident.

Each of these binaries are described (albeit, oftentimes subtly) in much of the same way that Ahmed described the differences between tribal groups living in Pakistan and the rest of Pakistan. One is seen as being inferior, harsh, and uneducated, while the other is the modern, civilized version that should serve as the true representation of Pakistan. Unfortunately, what many of them can’t see is that this is the same way the British colonizers viewed, and still view, South Asians in general. They were the uncivilized savages who needed the civilized white man to set their affairs straight. Not much has changed since then. And this recycling of binaries has been taking lives of innocent civilians since the so-called “War on Terror” began.

Waziristan is the periphery: they are not civilized, their main language is not urdu, they are not living in the West.

They are collateral damage.

Waziristan is not made to seem a world away, it is a world away. The periphery and the center.

re: AAM, Lowe’s, NDAA

16 December 2011

A lot has been going on recently, particularly the All-American Muslim–Lowe’s ordeal and Congress passing the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention of people suspected to be working for Al Qaeda (which is just as easy to “prove” as it was that various mainstream organizations have ties to Hamas.)

However, the issues mentioned are being taken by the Muslim community as being completely isolated from one another. So in effect, most people’s remarks fall along the lines of: “Why are we protesting Lowe’s, why not protest the NDAA?”

In order to discuss everything in full-detail. We need to take a few steps back.

Discourse Surrounding All-American Muslim

When AAM (All-American Muslim) first came out, there were ranging opinions within the Muslim community: some in support of the effort and others not too pleased with outcome. The difference is: most people were in extremes.

I personally liked the idea of the show, but not how it was implemented for various reasons, including the fact that the “Muslim” identity was being pushed on one character and there was a monolithic representation of “Muslim.” There are many Muslims who felt the same way, but their opinions are simply pushed to the side despite supporters of the show also having “reservations” that they wished not to air. What needed to happen was a real discourse surrounding why there was such a discrepancy in opinion and not using the “you’re either with us or against us” motto. (re: “The question is – who will win over the dialogue in the end? And which side will each of us be on?”).

It is ironic that the same people fully throwing their weight behind the show are the ones quick to point out the diversity in practice of the characters while simultaneously unwilling to show that the diversity in opinion about this show also portrays the diversity of Muslims. After all, Islam is based on multi-faceted opinions within traditional schools of thought. Within the Sunni sect, there are four different schools of thought that have varying opinions (sometimes completely contradictory) that are all deemed to be correct. The same can be said about law derivations within the Shi’a sect, where there are various divisions based on different interpretations. Having different opinions is not harmful as long as you don’t demonize the other side.

The main issue concerning this discourse is that everyone is too busy trying to understand how AAM relates to non-Muslims. Why isn’t there anyone willing to discuss how AAM relates to Muslims? Not Muslims who are constantly writing about this show and who feel very comfortable with their Muslim identities, but the Muslims who are trying to figure out where they fit in on the vast fabric of Islam and who may not really feel comfortable with either their Muslim identity. This is a major point of discussion that no one is willing to have.

Regardless of where the discourse started or is heading, however, there was a point of reconciliation between the two groups when the home-goods retail giant, Lowe’s, decided to pull their ads from AAM. People seemed to be equally frustrated until it comes time to take action. Then, lo and behold, most people pretend like they never even heard of the issue to begin with.

Discourse Surrounding Lowe’s & AAM

Now, the tables have really turned to where people are insisting that “Muslims helped legitimize Lowe’s decision to pull ads from All-American Muslim. Frankly: no one cares about what Muslims think when it comes to politics let alone a show on a TV network.

It is really hard to believe that Lowe’s caved to the opinions espoused by a single man. But it’s not so hard to believe when you realize that this one man has the legitimacy that is created around a system that has promoted bigotry for the past decade: Islamophobia.

As Samuel G. Freedman notes in On Religion: A One-Man War on American-Muslims

It would be upsetting enough if a well-financed, well-organized mass campaign had misrepresented a television show, insulted an entire religious community and intimidated a national corporation. What makes the attack on “All-American Muslim” more disturbing — and very revealing — is that it was prosecuted by just one person, a person unaffiliated with any established organization on the Christian right, a person who effectively tapped into a groundswell of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Why is this discussion important? 

When Muslims are too busy concerned over what the society at large thinks about us, we forget to focus on ourselves.

But now, we can fully see the ramifications of not focusing on ourselves: we do not have a united front when it comes to larger issues. The only reason Islamophobia continues to be a strong threat and easily influences large corporations like Lowe’s, and domestic and foreign policy is because the Muslim communities in the U.S. do not have a voice. We were simply too busy trying to appease everyone else.

Of course the two do not have to be exclusive: Muslim communities can try to focus on themselves while also trying to show the public that we are not at war with the rest of the world as Islamophobes would have them believe. The problem is that most Muslim communities do not have the resources to do both. And instead of trying to tackle large issues, it would be more helpful for them to focus their resources on their own respective communities. The powerhouses that can be developed by focusing on ourselves will allow us to cultivate a political voice that is of importance to elections just as other minority communities, such as Hispanics and Latinos or African-Americans, have garnered attention from politicians.

In the same vein, when issues like this Lowe’s ordeal come up, it is important to tackle them head-on because this will have an effect on our communities. We need to address Lowe’s so that all other corporations know that the Muslim population is capable of taking action.

What does this have to do with the NDAA? 

Lowe’s pulling ads may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but it is a large retailer succumbing to anti-Islamic attitudes espoused by a single man. A few days later, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which is obviously focused on the Muslim population and could be used to entrap many prominent activists.

However, when there are Muslims who are indifferent about smaller actions showcasing bigotry, how can you make a case that what the government is doing is inherently wrong when they are being funded by people who hold the same values?

Right now, most Muslims are advocating trying to tackle a tree when they did not help uproot the weeds. And that is very frustrating. We can’t talk about the NDAA while ignoring “minor” issues that have cumulatively added up to the strength garnered by congressmen and senators advocating for the NDAA. Media matters.

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