The Test of the American Muslim

TheTestOfTheAmericanMuslimDear Daughter,

I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before.  When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well.  The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”

It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death.  There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.

My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes.  The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America.   America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet.  I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin.  The same lovely hued skin you have.

America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me.  I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was.  Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.

I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate.  In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X.  It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.

Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.

From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”

The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks.  The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen.  This is the test.

Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam.  You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.

What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too.  Ostensibly America is just a promise.  It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes.  For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion.  It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be.  This is America’s test, not yours.

Love,

Dad

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An Open Letter To Saudi Arabia

OpenLetterSaudi

1/2/2016

Dear Saudi Arabia,

The word “dear” is a common salutation in any letter, but I feel so conflicted using it in this instance, since not only are you not dear to me, I actually despise you, for what you are, what you have done and continue to do and ultimately what you symbolize in the world.

I write this on behalf of your people, many of whom are my friends and whom I consider extended family members, who languish in your state, unable to speak, watching helplessly as you prey upon basic human rights of your own citizenry.

I write this on behalf of the tortured and executed innocence of your archaic injustice system, where upper social class and male privilege hold greater sway than both truth and justice.

I write this on behalf of immigrant workers, who come to help build your nation, who you treat like animals, and who you further victimize in ways too gross and too numerous to mention.

Despise You

I do despise you for how you have treated Tamils, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, East Africans and other racial groups who constitute a modern day slave labor system in your nation, complete with the viciousness of the days of old; and yet this is not the main reason for this letter.

I do despise you for how my friend (name omitted for security reasons) and his family are brutalized by the elites of your nation, despite being Saudi himself, and have no recourse for justice, since you have a system that blames the victim, when that victim represents a minority of any kind; and yet this is not the main reason for this letter.

I do despise you for how my aunt and uncle were treated while they lived in Riyadh, where he was working for AT&T, and the tales they told me of what they experienced and what they saw with their own eyes, and again this is not the main reason for this letter.

Hold You Responsible

As an American I hold you responsible for all the 9/11 hijackers who came from your country. I hold you responsible for Bin Laden and your export of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which has hijacked the lives of many people, including Americans overseas and continues to hold our tax dollars hostage in military expenditures. I hold you responsible for the Janjaweed, for Boko Haram and for ISIS, all of whom you directly or tacitly support.

But these are not the greatest reasons for why I hate you.

Saudiquote

As a Muslim I hold you responsible for hijacking Islam. In your backwards pseudo-intellectual interpretation of the faith, you have birthed every single example of Islamic terror we see in the world and have made the word terror inextricably connected to Islam in ignorant minds as a result. You gave birth to Islamophobia, because your form of Islam is one that we should fear. You hijacked hajj, the holy pilgrimage, which you don’t even hold on the proper day and your mismanagement has cost thousands of lives.

And still these are not the primary reasons for my disdain.

I hold you responsible as a human being, who sees your citizens, impish oil sheikhs, who travel to places like Los Angeles and London, prey upon women with brutal sexual violence and escape their crimes by using the façade of diplomatic immunity and paying off those who compromise their own values for filthy oil dollars. I am in disbelief that women and both religious and ethnic minorities are treated with greater disdain and inequity than that experienced by those groups before Islam.

Disgust

The greatest reason for my disgust of your regime is the simple fact that all of these valid critiques are looked upon you as a sources of pride and that this pride fuels even greater abuses such as your financial and military support for the genocide in Bahrain and the extermination of the Houthi people in Yemen. The news of your execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, whose only crime was to ask for open elections, speaks volumes that you are a regime who is so wrapped up in the cloak of your perceived self-importance that you strike out at any that you can who disagree with you. You destroy shrines and world heritage sites to make space for your own aggrandizement, but also because those places represent legitimacy and you know you’re an illegitimate ruler of Holy Lands.

This is why I cannot go on the Hajj. I have family and friends who have gone, but I do not believe I can. I cannot enable the misperception that the false hajj you lead is legitimate. I cannot allow one cent to directly inure your kingdom of benefit from my coffers (I know that my usage of gasoline does, and I am taking steps, pun intended to remedy that as well). I cannot allow a visa stamp be looked on by my children, the students I teach as tacit approval of your regime and I cannot practice the cognitive dissonance that so many do who feel the same way.

So I have to deny myself a holy pilgrimage that I longed to do even before I became Muslim and prayed for every day since, and instead devote my prayer to your demise—that from your ashes a just regime emerges that is more in tune with the egalitarian and scientific principles of the true Islam. I will devote my time as an artist and educator to speak out against you and I hope that the Islamophobes in my country take a moment to listen, so that they know that where their legitimate fear can be directed. I will use my words to enliven those you’ve killed, thinking they have gone away—so do not think Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr is dead, he is very much alive and his voice will only grow louder as I add my voice to it, and invite those who are like-minded to do the same.

سیری ناپذیر-89840-shia muslim

There are those Muslims who may read this and say that I’ve gone too far and that the hajj is a pillar of our faith, and yet if Husayn ibn Ali and Zaynab bint Ali, the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad could break their hajj and leave Arabia just as the usurper Yazeed became Caliph—I believe I am justified in doing so.

There are those Americans who read this and wonder why I am focusing all my energy on you, when there are so many other despotic regimes in the Middle East—and it is because you are the reason for many of their existences as well and I’d rather focus my attention on the head of the beast rather than its tentacles for if you kill the head, the rest will fall.

How do you kill the head; a head created by lies and emboldened by ignorance? With truth and knowledge. This open letter is just the beginning. I have been relatively silent till now, but I can no longer sit pat while innocent people are killed–

You have awoken in me and others who are brave enough to stand with me your greatest nightmare—we will be the truth seeking missiles that will dismantle the infrastructure of your lies and the knowledge bearers who will water the thirsty while rooting out the ignorance you depend on for your existence. Your days on this earth are numbered.

Sincerely,

Professor A.L.I.