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

Stop Using Islamophobia

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Why not Islamophobia?

The original definition of this term, coined in the 1970’s was not one that invoked the notions of uncontrollable fear, but one that spoke to systems of oppression; however, over time a lay definition has taken over, one which absolves agents of hate, arguing that they too are victims–victims of a uncontrollable phobia.  Sadly, this not only does a disservice to those oppressed by these agents but the fight against this type of hate because it absolves the system of its culpability.

Therefore Islamophobia no longer helps to describe a system that actively “racializes” all those that it associates with Islam (not necessarily by declaration of faith, but by physical cues like brownness, facial hair, or head covering) into a monolith to be exploited, oppressed and to limit civil rights, for the excuse of safety.

Islamoracism is therefore, a more accurate term of this type of systemic hate.  I encourage my fellow educators, and diversity practitioners to switch the nomenclature, as a coalition of Muslims and Sikhs that I am a part of have.

To help, a group of brown M.C’s of various faiths and non-faiths created this piece:

Bury My Tamil Heart At Karbala

Bury My Tamil Heart At Karbala by Professor A.L.I.

My hemoglobin fills the chambers of dodo quill pens.

My heart, recycled parchment; my third eye: the lens.

Lifted by thick aroma, Appa’s savory sambar angrily boils!

Just like Tamil tea picking blood when no diamonds or oil–

Distract the mainstream with the genocide of filtered coffee drinkers.

Who cares about an island of demons faced with extinction?

My mother’s grandfather was blessed by a cobra’s boon.

Yet my father’s cousin died by its poison, after five transfusions.

I tried to grasp at Saint Elmo’s fire and hold a stellar fossil.

These old tales linger like scent of mountain jasmine in my nostrils.

Yet like lotus pollen, it explodes forth, carried forcefully by the winds:

British Wind, French Wind, Portuguese Wind and Arab Wind.

Indian Monsoons bring floods that release the shadow’s venom.

Just as the comfort of cotton lungis are exchanged for harsh denim.

The feeling of cold scales gliding across one’s feet is icy concrete.

Lost in asphalt jungles while our umbilical cords recede back into sea.

Once recognized as royalty in the heart of merchant barter.

I roamed as a slave; freed by the second son of the Prophet’s daughter.

From Kerala to Karbala, I travelled with Adam,

And pondered my existence, as I spun like my atoms.

I became a dervish, around the source of my passions.

Vow of silence like Buddhists and tried to speak with my actions.

I trekked to a village in Malabar named after Ali.

Where a girl was born, who’ll one day, birth me.

Could she see, facing west from Malabar shores?

The house in the desert, where Imam Ali was born?

I’ll never know, as Sita is now one with her mother.

Her ashes ripple atop Pacific waves as I shudder,

Torn And Mad In Loss; I was The Angry Man In Limbo

A T.A.M.I.L., empty (M.T.) without Ali (A.L.I.) I ail, slow.

Like a waking dream inscribed on the back of a holy tortoise.

A primary source of an archetype bereft of remorse.

Mercilessly repeating in every land, for everyday since

On Ashura, “Muslims” murdered Fatima’s prince!

I cried when I heard the story, like I cried for the womb that bore me,

For the father that once ignored me, while I was an unborn seed.

I was circumstance’s orphan, bombarded, searching for cover!

So when my Amma died, Fatima Az-Zahra, became my mother.

And I began to see Hussain everywhere, in every innocent soul.

I plunged into sea of my waking dreams, and the son of Ali spoke!

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Fear the Fear Itself

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Fear the Fear Itself by Professor A.L.I.

By the time the second plane hit, I had shaved my beard and almost didn’t recognize the face that stared back at me in the mirror, save for the eyes. My countenance showed the familiar fear I’d grown up seeing in my rippled reflection off of muddy puddles shortly before being pushed in, atop pot-holed, elementary school blacktops, or in the afternoons as the school bus window caught a reflection of my face, while the kids behind me brutally flicked my ears, snatched my hat, or pulled my collar ‘till I choked on my asthmatic breath. I grew up being “the other” so when I walked back into my apartment after attending my intellectual property law class early that morning at King Hall, at U.C. Davis, to find my Persian-American roommate glued to the television, weakly holding a soggy bowl of fruit loops precariously over his precious Tabrizi rug, uncaring that I knew that the “othering” had already begun.

I sat down and watched the horrific scenes, wondering if this was life imitating a Hollywood movie, vaguely remembering a scene from the X-Files Lone Gunman series on precisely this type of attack: a plane used as a weapon against the World Trade Center to terrorize our nation. I didn’t have to wait for proof that “Muslims” were behind this since that perception was already in the air. My thoughts ran to the Jordanian-American man, who had been the prime suspect after the Oklahoma City bombing, which was masterminded and carried out by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh. I remembered the bullying of my youth, being perceived as a Muslim ever before I became Muslim because of my brown skin; I was an American who was never truly seen as an American, due to my strange name and therefore I was constantly the other, only ever embraced by the black community.

I shuddered as I shaved my lengthy beard, which people jokingly said made me look like a black Rasputin (this was after all years before Rick Ross & James Harden made the look popular) and halfway through the process, I heard both commotion on the news playing and the audible gasp of my roommate, followed by the sound of a cereal bowl spilling; the second plane had hit. At this point, talks of an accident had been replaced by language of a coordinated attack; we then heard about the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and also in Pennsylvania. We heard of the flight plan for the two Boston flights, which were headed to California, and in that moment I couldn’t even wonder if people I knew were on those planes. I was so self-absorbed, so afraid, that I finished shaving before the buildings had fallen and returned, clean shaven, to watch in horror as they did. My thoughts went to my cousin in New York, my friends at NYU law school, that I had lost touch with in recent years, and others I cared about who lived in Manhattan and I was completely dumbstruck.

I thought about Oklahoma again, but this time it was Black Wall Street, and I remembered reading of its economic success and how a series of events set into motion whites to try and destroy it and reports of how planes may have been used to terrorize, by shooting and dropping incendiary devices on the black citizens of Tulsa in an event referred to in history as the Tulsa Race Riots. It was the first aerial attack on U.S. soil and could only topped in scope of aerial terror by the infamous bombing at Pearl Harbor and subsequent, yet failed Japanese attempts to bomb the west coast using weather balloon. I am what many would call a historical nerd, and as a student of the detailed minutia of U.S. history I was overwhelmed. The history of our nation is filled with reactions based on fear and actions that induce it. My mind naturally flooded with all of these images but in that moment they were overwhelmed by the din of the pen held by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he signed Executive Order 5066, which called for the internment of Japanese-Americans living on the lower 48 states. This was from the man who famously said that all we had “to fear was fear itself.” I could feel the sweat form on my brow as I began to imagine President Bush doing the same, I turned to my roommate, with whom I frequently debated on nearly every issue, and told him what I felt from my heart, just as the news firmly pointed fingers at Muslims as the perpetrators; in whispered tones I said, “they’re going to come for us!” and he surprisingly didn’t argue, instead he and I, silently barricaded the front door with the furniture in our living room.

Islamophobia

A Muslim in American Clothing

I converted to Islam in 1995, inspired by Malcolm X and Islamic references in Hip-Hop. The discipline of the faith attracted me – and as I became a Muslim, I became an instant demagogue amongst my social circle. People felt I betrayed them or that they no longer really knew who I was, or where my loyalties lay. My friends felt this “dramatic shift” in their opinion, was duplicitous; they saw it as a betrayal of our common values and a judgment of the friendship we shared. It also led to brutal arguments with my folks; arguments that were compounded by years of issues beyond choice of religious practice, and it eventually led to me becoming unwelcome for a time in their home. My father argued then that he didn’t mind that I had become Muslim, but asked me to stay away from the mosque and in my heated mind-state I wasn’t hearing his concern or what he was truly saying and adamantly refused. Years later, after both he and my mom died that I pondered their concern and have had to acknowledge in hindsight that it was perhaps their collective parenting that helped me stay guarded around the sheikhs (old-timers, taken as scholars) at various Bay Area masajid (mosques) who would encircle new Muslims and over time suggest to us that we needed to make hijra, or migration to Muslim countries. I balked back then at the idea of leaving the Bay, let alone California, and many years later, and again in hindsight when I heard news about the American Taliban I realized some of these same people were in the circles that likely hoodwinked a young John Walker Lindh.

In the short time between my conversion and law school, I’d become a known quantity in the Bay Area Islamic community. My work with the U.C. Berkeley MSA to leadership at a Sacramento mosque, led me to be the sometimes imam or prayer during Friday congregational prayer and khatib or lecturer for weekly programs. I wore a long beard on my face, covered my then long hair in a scarf that I wrapped like a pseudo-turban, and spent many days in spiritual fasting and nights in supplication. I was visibly Muslim and everyone on and around campus knew it. This was why, as those buildings fell that I felt so exposed. My roommate was a Muslim too, but he was white, and his Persian heritage manifested itself solely in his name. He had the privilege to blend in and even he was frightened—so it was unsurprising how fear gave me a precise to-do list in that moment. I’d taken care of the beard, and so next I sat and prayed. I prayed for my safety and that of my family. I prayed for the people in New York, my cousin, and my friends. I prayed for the families of the victims and then I called the one person who I knew would have something to say to make me feel better: my mom.

“Son, why did they do it?” she asked in a voice filled with a crackling fire’s warmth and empathy but it was question that I couldn’t answer. If I told her that they are not real Muslims, she would say that is what they claimed to be, and furthermore that in her eyes I wasn’t a real Muslim. If I told her nothing, she would use the opening to ask about why I had converted to such a faith and I didn’t want to cycle through my reasons in that moment, nor did I possess the words, to help her see the distinctions. So I said, “I don’t know.” I can’t recall how the conversation proceeded from there, but I remember how it ended, she told me my grandmother was taken to the hospital because she was sick and that I should stay safe.

I stayed in that apartment two days—and it took another horrible event, the death of my grandmother in New Jersey on 9/13 to bring me out into the sunlight, and it blinded me. The news jolted me from the encompassing fear; it was a shock that I wasn’t braced for, and provided a brief moment of clarity amidst the uncertainty that loomed throughout our nation. My tears fell will certainty and the sun warmed my face, as I walked passed our apartment complex towards the open grassy fields that lay beyond it. I wondered how this could happen to her, a woman who I had seemed Herculean in her strength. She had what I considered superhuman constitution; she had jet-black hair that had never been dyed and not a single strand of white. She gave birth to seven sons, six who survived to adulthood in British ruled Tamil lands and managed to overcome the withdrawal of the British, navigated post-colonial realties and migrated out of necessity to the North while being the primary caregiver for my father and uncles. My grandma gave birth to my dad when she was thirteen—let the weight of that sink in, and you begin to realize, if you haven’t done so already that this was one tough and resilient woman. I remain convinced that the reason she became sick in the first place was due to her worry over her favorite grandchild, my cousin, who looked a lot like her and lived in New York at the time. Her death was a shocker; everyone came for the funeral, travelling at one of the most arduous times in our nation’s history. My parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends all attended but there was one person who couldn’t get on a flight: me.

I would love to tell you the reason that I couldn’t board was due to the TSA, or some incident—but the reason I couldn’t attend was that I was still gripped with the fear of being victimized just like being bullied on the playgrounds of old, and I wasn’t in an emotional state—one that mourned the loss of a loved one and family matriarch, while I was trying to navigate how people would treat me for being Muslim. The clarity I had felt in my sorrow was being overcome by new waves of hate and violence, which rippled towards me, overwhelming me in a deluge of fear inducing imagery and pain. News of a Pakistani-American kid shot, walking on his way to another nearby campus didn’t help, nor did the news of altercations that singled out Sikhs and Muslims for their look, or the numerous attacks on mosques, Gurdwaras and Islamic Centers.

I couldn’t even visualize myself boarding a plane, exposing myself to being “othered” and so I hid. My uncle offered to fly me out, thinking it was a monetary issue, but it wasn’t. The combination of pain and fear paralyzed me and I found myself hiding, like I used to from the bullies on the playground. I hid under the weight of homework and papers and my general work as a student. I hid in my art, writing poetry and entries in long lost diaries. I hid in the act of lengthy prayer and recitation of supplications, and ultimately I hid within myself. The reflection in the mirror that stared back at me in those days looks more like the frightened kid on the blacktop than the man who writes these words now. I share these vignettes from my life shortly after 9/11 so you can understand how familiar the emotions were that governed my mental state and that in spite of my Muslim identity I acted as any human being would when gripped with fear.   

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America No More

9/11 affected all Americans and many people throughout the world. It became the impetus for a new wave of military actions in the Middle East, new rules that changed the way we Americans could feel about our personal freedom, it pulled us into tough moral questions that we have yet to answer, like how we enabled what happened at Abu Ghuraib, the use of torture, such as water boarding, extra-judicial killings carried out by drones and the very existence of Guantanamo. 9/11 changed our nation in ways that made our country seem like the one envisioned by dystopian writers of yesteryear and we did so in fear. We feared for our safety and these were efforts taken to ensure that America would be safe. However in our effort to secure America, a significant group of Americans were locked out of the safe house we had constructed. American Muslims and Sikhs and anyone with skin-color and “a foreign Islamic or Arab look” fell prey to the machinations of the fear that encircled our nation like vultures, to find themselves not only barred from the safe house, but know that they are the reason for the construction of its construction in the first place.

Our nation did the things it felt it needed to protect itself, just like my roommate and I did, the first few days, worried about what would happen next. The difference was that for us the fear was doubled. I feared the Al-Qaeda’s, Taliban’s, and the ISIS/ISIL’s of the world too. To me they represent such backwards ignorance that it is hard for me to find a place for them in “Islam” though that is what they claim to follow. My study of Islam was in-depth and thorough. I’ve read the Qur’an in both literal, and phrase-by-phrase translations, in Arabic and various exegesis or tafaseers written by the pre-eminent scholars like Tabatabai, who help to contextualize verses to help the reader gain the most from the depth of the text. I’ve read the classic Arabic historians, cover-to-cover, Ibn-Kathir, Juvaini, and At-Tabari. I’ve picked apart Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, the Muwatta, along with Usul-E-Kafi, Bihar-Ul-Anwar and texts like Hiyat-Ul-Quloob while scrutinizing both their chain of narration as well as their content and measuring it up to the language and messaging in the Qur’an. I’ve studied the history of the Prophet Muhammad and his family, and looked at their example to help understand the Qur’an. I’ve done all of this under the tutelage of true academics like Dr. Hamid Algar, and by doing all of this I feel armed with the knowledge needed to say that ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH does not represent anything to do with Islam, and if one must be exact and precise, what they represent is Wahhabism.

This is why I continue to teach Middle Eastern History, Early-Islamic History in the academic setting and utilize art to educate, exemplified by this recent live performance of “An Ode To Zaynab” with Stephen Herrick of Jazz Horizons and Ian Heung, recounting the story of the family of Muhammad, and his granddaughter Zaynab, and how her shrine was recently attacked by ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH, and why her narrative, which represents the true Islam, remains a threat for these extremists to target:

However, despite all of this I understand, in my heart the fear my fellow Americans feel when they hear phrases like “sharia law” or “jihad” because Islamophobia is not a new thing, it is just a new name for a particular type of xenophobia that people who looked like Muslims had to deal with long before 9/11 ever happened—I mean just look at my life!

Hate Muslims, Love Islam

I was a Muslim kid throughout the 1980’s, post-hostage crisis, Libya, the wars we were involved in the Middle East and the Gulf War. People perceived me to be Muslim because of my dark brown skin hue, and the fact my parents and I spoke another language. They could not differentiate Tamil from Arabic through their xenophobic lenses and I found myself the victim of abuse as a result. If you ever look at my hands you’ll know that I’m product of public school since I have the callouses on my knuckles to prove it; I grew up hating Muslims because of all those battles I felt forced to fight and I believed then that they were the reason why I was getting bullied. The influx of Afghan refugees did not help, in the early 1990’s as this only exacerbated the tensions that had already existed. However a funny thing happened, even as I found myself hating Muslims, I began to fall in love with Islam. Malcolm X’s Autobiography wooed me, and as a Hip-Hop head Paris, Ice Cube and Public Enemy were doing dawah (inviting) with their lyrics.

I became Muslim as an eighteen year-old college student and if one person should be blamed for my conversion it should be Dr. Abbas Rana. I met Abbas at the Clark Kerr Campus Dorms at U.C. Berkeley on the first day of welcome week and we got into a huge debate about Muslims that lasted three hours. It would be the first of many debates, discussions and dialogue as our relationship would evolve from acquaintances to friends to eventually brothers. However that first meeting, when I was introduced to him by a mutual friend should’ve never have begun. I said something to Abbas, which was in my estimation, the most offensive thing I’ve ever said to another human being in my life, “…That name sounds Muslim, are you Muslim, because I (expletive) hate Muslims!” He was visibly taken aback by my words but thankfully didn’t let me off the hook, he challenged me for what I said, which was the first time I ever said something like that out loud and I became defensive. I spouted out every argument and half-truth I’d heard, used the idiosyncrasies of the Muslims I had known in my life, who were probably bad practitioners of the faith to continue my arguments, and he responded with empathy and intellect. I was attracted to his compassion and soon we’d become fast friends, transforming as I learned more about the faith, into brothers.

It’s when I divorced Islam from Muslims in my mind that I felt comfortable making the transition to becoming Muslim myself. In Abbas I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, but the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, or were showcased in the media, or that I had met up until then were far outcries from the values of the faith. This was all before 9/11, when the ignorant tropes were magnified and the familiar image of a Muslim was that of a violent, gun or bomb-wielding villain who targeted innocent people. 9/11 merely helped America pull back the curtain, pun intended, on our assumptions of Islam. They gave Jack Shaheen more than he ever dreamed of in the stereotypical Arab in cinema. The media depictions and caricatures were Edward Said’s Orientalism on steroids. And yet the truth is that 9/11 only removed the façade, and that the bullying was always there. 9/11 merely transformed existing xenophobia into Islamophobia. Our efforts had transformed what had been existing xenophobia, and transformed it, with our reasoning behind those questionable decisions outlined above, into Islamophobia, the irrational fear of Islam. Islamophobia is equal parts fear of Islam and ignorance of Islam. It didn’t just bring down buildings it brought down our sense of what our values are and should be.

The world we live in one which is set up to doubly terrorize those with any affinity with Islam. We are terrorized by the act of terror, like our fellow citizens and then terrorized by our own because of their indiscriminant fear. Clarity only comes in moments when we are faced with a new tragedy and are forced to respond. For me after 9/11 it was the sudden death of my grandmother, for all of us it’ll be the death of an American Muslim, who we see as an American, more than as a Muslim whose inevitable victimization and God-forbid death will shake us to our senses. Today my social networking timeline is filled with abuse. I see a pig’s head on a mosque doorstep, bullied six graders, hijabis (scarf wearing) shot at and attacked. I see innocent Muslims and Sikhs illegally strip-searched, abused verbally and physically, and taken off of flights. I think about my kids and my wife. I think about my sister, niece and nephews. The fear I feel is real and it’s the same as I used to feel on the playground because it’s the same catalyst, it’s bullying plain and simple and we should not stand for it.

Fear

Fear “Fear Itself”

In the so called East, the combination of ignorance and fear has created Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Sepa-E-Sahaba, ISIS/ISIL aka DAESH, otherwise known as the tentacles of the same Wahhabi-Salafi Kraken that we support in Saudi Arabia, and we are being suffocated by their grip on our sense of safety. To put it more simply, they are the bullies of the Islamic world and their bullying, which terrorizes our planet has given birth to our own bullies like Marine La Pen, the English Defense League and Donald Trump. They gave birth to the new America we live in, one unrecognizable from the one I grew up in, when there was no NDAA, no TSA, no Guantanamo. It is a new America where book deals that homogenize over a billion people because of the gross violation of rights of a human being by a few, see Ayaan Hirse Ali. It gives Bill Maher fodder for his anti-religious views, which overly simplify the issue for lowbrow comedic effect. I am arguing that terrorists have created “Donald Trump for President”. His relevance is birthed by the fear caused by ISIS and the many tentacled beast described above. Every gunshot and explosion makes his candidacy more likely—his rhetoric is the protection that America is seeking—and it is not unlike the barricade I put up in that apartment on 9/11.

When I ran into that field of golden grass, out of my apartment for the first time in two days, I looked into the horizon and let the sun dry my tears and that is when I heard the siren. I saw a fire truck driving slowly through the neighborhood and saw people coming out toward the truck. I approached cautiously, pulled by the strings of my curiosity, fear replaced by a thirst for knowing. I walked closer to the street and what was happening became clear, the Fire Department of the City of Davis was collecting money for the first responders to 9/11. I dug in my pockets and without looking walked over to the truck, past my neighbors and others, and I gave. I remember the fireman smiled at me and I can’t remember if I smiled back, but I do remember that I didn’t feel the stares in that moment, in that moment I felt so American, and so at one with the sensation of sorrow stemming from the tragedy we all were reeling from.

While the clarity of that moment would diminish, because of the unchecked hate targeting people like me that followed it. It reminds me that the line between hope and despair is thin. While many of my social media associates have been busy “un-friending” Trump supporters, it’s given me pause to consider his candidacy in the context of world history. People keep comparing Trump to Hitler, but what makes Trump more compelling is that his rise is happening at a time where our nation is economically strong. In order to understand this one must understand the debilitating power that fear can have. Those that make the comparison, do so to make a compelling argument against Trump and ironically it’s seems the comparison itself is motivated by fear? I’ve lived through bullying, the ‘phobia after 9/11 and since then, and I do not find myself afraid like others do. I don’t fear Trump himself. I don’t fear his supporters or their reasons to support him. I do fear that which makes good people do bad things. I fear the “fear itself,” because it’s real and it is the culprit. F.D.R. was a hypocrite for signing Executive Order 5066, because the sole reason for signing it was for the fear of “fear itself.” Pearl Harbor was the catalyst, just as the Reichstag was for Hitler. 9/11 created this New America, but what will it take to put Trump into office? What is the fear to come? What is the fear itself? I’d argue that Trump is not Hitler, at least not yet.   What we should fear isn’t him, his rhetoric or his candidacy, but what his Reichstag might be.

History tells us that crazy things happen in times of fear. Executive order 5066 was a departure from American values and so are the NDAA, Guantanamo and the other changes we’ve made that walk the fine line of feeling pragmatically correct to safeguard against fear but ideologically wrong. We’ve created a world that is afraid of “too much toothpaste on flights”, belts and bottled water. We’ve given into fear wholeheartedly and it shows in the sheer ignorance that fuels it—like the analogy of targeting any snake for fear of a potentially venomous one seems an apt example to characterize Islamophobia, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of its madness. Half-truths, out-right lies and fabrications now circle around the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam and what Muslims believe. These then fuel the poison spit by bigots during these times of crisis and furthermore provide rationale for the Wahhabi-Salafi octopus, its tentacles, constituents and supporters for their crimes. There was a time, where I feared Islam too, because of the actions of Muslims, but that fear was dispelled by knowledge and I believe that feel that knowledge can help our nation, to discern what type of snake we should be afraid of and where its coil comes from.

Follow The Fear

My belief that knowledge reigns supreme was born from a Hip-Hop upbringing, a mom who put knowledge and the pursuit of it as the primary value she imbued me with, and a lifetime of welts and bruises given by the clenched fists of ignorance and stupidity. Knowledge was kryptonite to ignorance and this belief fueled my path in education. I started the City of Knowledge after-school intervention with the support of Principal Mireya Casarez at Cesar Chavez for students who were navigating post-9/11 realities as Muslim, Sikh or other students who had that look on playgrounds and buses on their way to and from school. It was an intervention, replete with coaching and advisory for students who were traversing the minefield of hate that had become America; I shared with them my narrative and how I had to code switch and assimilate to survive, and how those sacrifices made my people like me, were so we could be in a place of support for them so that they never had to shroud who they were in order to survive. It was a program that began with eight or nine kids then burgeoned to over forty students and then I went on to develop a multi-lingual inclusive program as an administrator in charter schools.

I believe in the phrase each-one-teach-one and truly believe that each of us can make a difference if we share our stories and the truths they hold. I continue to do this work as an educator and as an artist, through Hip-Hop and Hip-Hop Ed (#HipHopEd). Most of the work I’ve released speaks to the truth of the disenfranchised human being living in the shadows—In this moment its Muslims, and the story of our disenfranchisement fuels my craft. I leave you with a metaphor for our times, an-older piece, written to speak to core Islamic beliefs in the post-9/11 context. I recorded it and entitled it as a play on the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri; the following piece is called the Divina Comedia: Part 2: Purge Story, and it is the middle part of a spoken word piece recorded in three parts on my first full-length solo album Carbon Cycle Diaries. This piece touched the creative mind of my colleague, and fellow artist, director and educator Stacey Goodman, who saw in it an even deeper narrative. The question I pose in the piece of “Who Do You Follow?” in repetition had another meaning in the times we lived in. It no longer is a question of faith, but a question of who follows you because of your faith. Stacey created a script that spoke to this intersection and worked with me to tell a multi-layered visual story of our fear-induced world, which questions not only “[whom] you follow,” but also as a result, “who follows you?”

 

 

A Catalyst For Change

Zaynab2

Shrine of Zaynab

A Catalyst for Change

Learning History & Combatting Terror

By Professor A.L.I.

When my high school history teacher Jeff Ustick first posed the question of what the purpose of history was, to me, I had little idea then that later in life I too would become a historian like him. At the time, there were several quotes he shared with us including the cliché, “those that do not study history are doomed to repeat it,” in an effort to spark a classroom discussion. I forget the ensuing conversation, but in the time since, in which I majored in history at U.C. Berkeley and went on to become a history teacher, I believe I found my own reason for why history should be studied and it is a nuanced perspective on the cliché I re-quoted above.   I believe that history is filled with familiar patterns of human behavior. Once we recognize the catalysts to these behaviors we can begin to predict how humans might behave. This knowledge is therefore vital, if put to use to prevent wars and conflict—however and predictably so, human greed not knowledge tends to drive the actions of these political actors upon humanity’s drama.

Take for example the role we, i.e. the West have played in the Middle East for the past one hundred years.   Not unlike our ongoing relationship with the African continent, or throughout Asia, the Caribbean and also Latin America, we have engaged in the process of raw resource extraction for our profit, we have treated the Middle East as a place to deplete. The singular commodity interest that drives our involvement in this region from aid, to military support, to coups and wars has been oil. There are other resource interests in this region, but oil has been the dominant resource extracted and the need for it has consumed both politicians and robber baron alike. Unfortunately, based on how we’ve proceeded and whom we have backed in our thirst for oil, we’ve shown clearly that we haven’t understood the history of the region and have mucked it up as a result.

Minimization is part of the problem. Our media minimizes whole regions to fit into a neat, homogenous, black and white worldview–simplified both for our consumption and support. We mindfully use language to effectuate this black/white fallacy to those who, in our political system vote, putting people in office. The latter group in concert with business interests, use nation-state action to drastically intervene and subvert the interests of people in the regions we desire resources from. We couch it in language of democracy but have actively worked against democratically elected leadership in these regions. When democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran jeopardized the Anglo-American Oil company (later known as British Petroleum or BP) interests in this region, they worked with our then president Dwight David Eisenhower to utilize the CIA to replace him with a dictatorial Shah, or king. Fancy that! Our nation, which was born in reaction to the policies of King George that had people taxed without representation and whose ideological framing was the antithesis of monarchy, was, two-hundred years later actively supporting/creating monarchy so that multi-national business interests could take advantage of people, effectively extracting their wealth, where they had no voice to stop it. The irony (pun intended) is almost unbelievable.

This is where we are currently, operating in the same way throughout the world. We are not the only ones, the United Kingdom, France and Germany along with China, South Korea and Japan are all vying for the same resources and using similar means in order to wrest control. In the Middle East, we are all interested in oil. We are a fossil fuel driven world, and in this world oil is king. When the British and French became involved with the Ottoman Empire’s losing grip on the Middle East, they created nations, just as they had in Africa that never truly existed except on the resource maps of European dreams. Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia are all made up nations that never existed historically. They were created to help divvy up that region. Iraq and Syria had historically existed but their new borders were more arbitrary than based on the historic record. Palestine became its own issue, which continues to this day, but in the case of Saudi Arabia, you see the sinister machinations of the British Empire, creating the octopus, from whose outstretched tentacles refugees now flee.

سیری ناپذیر-89840-shia muslim

Global Terror

The house of Saud began as one of many tribes trying to control the Nejd and Hejaz regions of the Arabian Peninsula. The House of Saud needed ideological backing and they found it in Abd-Al-Wahhab, a pseudo-scholar who was cast out of his own village as a madman, who had re-discovered the works of Ibn Taymiyyah and continued to argue as he did that Islam needed to be purified and that innovation, or bidah, had overpowered its essence. This framing, later called Wahhabism or Wahhabi Islam gave the Saud the excuse it needed to unify the tribes under its banner and oppose the Ottomans. The British come in and support see Lawrence of Arabia for context and the nation of Saudi Arabia is born. There are arguments out there that the British had knowledge of oil in the Arabian Peninsula back in the 1870’s, when its value would have been more as a source of lubrication for machines than fuel, still, whether they did or not, they created the octopus and its tentacles grow forth from the Wahhabism that spreads, morphs into Salafism, an even more extreme, puritanical interpretation of Islam and creates arms for the kraken of terror named ISIS or DAESH, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Sepa-E-Sahaba to name a few. These arms do not represent the majority of Muslims, however, the arms have spread due to the oil money that fuels its source.

History has catalysts and human behavior is predictable. What the British did with Saudi Arabia we tried to do with Iran, and then we tried again with Al-Assad in Syria and Saddam in Iraq, after enabling the latter in the first place, and we’ve made a mess of that region, giving the Wahhabi/Salafi beast its building blocks in unemployment, instability, crusader-language that polarizes the them as much as it does the us, and war. We have sold them the weapons that they use against us. We have made our citizens targets, while we have actually targeted theirs with drone strikes and we now sit back and use rhetoric that further enables them, because this octopus needs to feed its tentacles with a combination of ignorance and fear and our media provides dosages of both so it actually is unsurprising to hear brainwashed Muslim teens trying to get to Syria to join DAESH/ISIS or to become brides for their soldiers. All the while, we engage in a steady stream or extraction.

We denounced Al-Assad for his dictatorship, also with Saddam and Qaddafi, but oil stable Saudi Arabia is predictably our friend. We refuse to denounce their treatment of women and religious minorities, the countless abuses they engaged in, human rights violations too lengthy to even list here and a monarchy that gives little real voice to its citizens while exporting a brand of a puritanical and extremist brand of Islam that argues that innocent people can be killed (violating one of the most fundamental core Abrahamic principles of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) and that Muslims should be in a perpetual state of war against non-Muslims.

My students ask me, what they can do, while straddling the line between cynicism and hope? My human family, fellow Americans, people living in the west and Muslim brethren ask the same question. To all these groups I have the following answer. Recognize the pattern in human behavior and understand the history. Go deeper, even when the media or Hollywood advises you to remain on the surface. There is knowledge at the depth that I will share with you, but continue the research beyond. If you understand the truth I will share and help others to as well, then I am certain that we can combat the wave of ignorance that feeds the Wahhabi octopus. I also believe if our policy-makers were more informed, then we’d be able to create mutually beneficial partnerships for resources (while we also transition to a model that is not fueled by fossils) between nations instead of one that finds us in a manipulative relationship with regions.

Zaynab

The Story of Zaynab

The Truth

What the ISIS/Daeshes, Talibans and Al Qaedas of the world are doing is not new. You can find their model in early Islamic history. In the year 680, and event took place in which a woman from the bloodline of Abraham and Muhammad was brutalized and chained. She watched her brothers, her nephews, including infants, and her own sons murdered and their heads chopped off and placed on spears. She was taken to Kufa and then marched through the desert with the survivors of this massacre, in which her niece and others would perish and placed in a dungeon in Damascus. In spite of this she spoke out, and when she found herself placed before the Caliph named Yazeed, she trounced him verbally with the eloquence of her mother and grandfather and the people took note of her narrative. Her words, which reminded the people in the court of what Islam was truly, a religion of equity and equality and of justice and peace, stirred hearts and the public pressure made Yazeed release her. She continued to proselytize and tell her story until she died. She represented feminism, legitimacy and truth. She is the reason why the largest pilgrimage in the world is to Karbala, where the initial massacre took place. She is the reason why the Taliban focused first on massacring the people of Mazar-E-Sharif (people who claim to be descendants of her bloodline through her lone surviving nephew, and ultimately that of her grandfather). And she is the reason why ISIS aka DAESH, in 2014 attacked her shrine in Damascus where many believe she is buried and is a popular place of pilgrimage. Her name is Zaynab and she represents us.

Her story is so threatening to the octopus, that its tentacles attacked her shrine and her supposed descendants before it ever attacked us. Why is she such a catalyst? What would fear truth? Perhaps a lie? What would fear feminism? Perhaps patriarchy? What would fear legitimacy? The illegitimate? I am convinced that if my students, my fellow Americans, my human family and my sisters and brothers of the Muslim faith understood who Zaynab truly was they could use her as a catalyst to combat the ignorance that feeds the tentacles of terror as well as the kraken itself.

I wrote the song “An Ode To Zaynab” in an effort to raise this awareness and I did so before ISIS ever attacked her shrine—but recent events compelled me to create the hashtag #IAmZaynab and the video that follows, which is an effort to capture this historical truth. This video was made with participation of people throughout the world, from the Middle East, through Europe, Canada and the United States. It is a video of people holding signs that say simply, “I Am Zaynab” along with her narrative captured in a verse that emulates the Masaib or Elegy traditionally given for her in Hip-Hop. It is my hope that through this piece of art, this article and others like it that we allow Zaynab to be a catalyst for us to help change the world with knowledge, born from a place of Authenticity, Love and Intellect. 

The song “An Ode To Zaynab” is available on Professor A.L.I.’s XFactor double-album on iTunes & free-streaming on Spotify.

Hate Muslims!

What makes a 'Muslim' hate Muslims?


10/30/11

Dear Norwegian Sisters and Brothers,

I want to begin by telling you that I don’t know what has happened to my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Whitlock and imagine that she retired soon after my time in her world history class. However I still remember how passionate she was about the world and culture in general. It was in her class that we were given a choice to do a research project (which back then meant copying out of Encyclopedia Britannica) on a European country. I had one of the first choices and choose Norway, probably because I was such a Norse mythology nut thanks to Marvel Comics.

I enjoyed doing that research project and remember how fascinated I was to learn about fjords and hakarl. Even beyond that handwritten project, my love of Norway would continue to grow over the years from a rising respect due to Norway being one of only a handful of countries to stand by the Tamils during the Sri Lankan Civil War, to my love for Norwegian Hip-Hop groups like Gatas Parlament to the fact that as a seminar instructor I’ve created and currently teach a course about Norwegian History centered on the Viking Age every Spring. I have a lot of love for Norway and could see myself settling down on the outskirts of Oslo, so when Remi Bye my friend of Facebook contacted me about writing this letter I felt the urge and compulsion to do it.

Though two decades have passed I can still remember my time in 6th grade vividly. Aided by social media like Facebook I’ve been able reconnect with old friends and wax poetic over shared memories, allowing them to live again. I remember the fun moments back then like my time horsing around with my friends Kenneth and Terrell in the back of the classroom to competitive moments like shooting hoops with Jason and Dissoni at lunch. Unfortunately I also have sad recollections, like coming back home to arguments and stress. I remember vividly how it was in the 6th grade my father was two years into his unemployment and would leave us two years later.

6th grade was a precarious time in my life, as well as a time of great self-reflection and identity formation. It was back in sixth grade I truly tackled questions like what I was in a world and why was it that it (the world) was trying to define me for its own benefit. There were so many doubts in my mind in those days but there were two things I knew to be true: that first, Norway was a wickedly cool place and second that I hated Muslims.

Maybe one of the reasons I liked Norway so much initially was because it didn’t have a significant population of Muslims to begin with. I’m not sure if that is true, but the fact remained: I hated Muslims, emphatically. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a suburb where a significant population of Afghan refugees had settled. Every year there were more and more Afghans and as each year passed I became increasingly agitated.

All the way through high school I was the only Tamil-American in my city, and being a brown person at that time meant you were lumped in categories for convenience sake. What bothered me was that I was continuously being lumped in with Afghans. This was pre-Taliban, pre-Islamic revival movement but there was no question that these Afghans were Muslim. In fact I saw them as Muslims first and they were joined by Iranians, Pakistanis and Arabs—and I hated them all. Being considered a Muslim drove me insane, so I lashed out.

I called them ragheads. I fought with them at the bus-stop and made fun of the kids when their moms would yell at them in their strange gibberish language. I took all the stereotypes for Muslims I saw on TV and I spit it back in their face. Like the Iron Sheikh so aptly stated in the WWF, Hack Too-Ey! I just wish the ragheads would go back home!

You know why I hated Muslims? They stuck to themselves, they were like a gang. They came off as arrogant and in my opinion had no reason to back up why. They had created their own little world within my world and it bothered me. However it wasn’t the only thing–as a student of history it bothered me that Muslims had gotten their own countries in South Asia while the Tamil people got screwed.

The primary reasons I hated Muslims was that I kept being mistaken for one. I didn’t have a bear d or a doily on my head, but I kept getting mistaken for a raghead and at the worst possible times. It was not a fun place to be in Union City during the first Gulf War. U.S. patriotism was at an all-time high and in an area with a large Muslim population that meant issues for a brown person such as me. I started to see that my friends Kenneth, Terrell, Dissoni and Jason began to wonder if I was one of them. I felt I had to keep making my case, and the best way to do that was to lash out at the ragheads, and I did that.

I formed a solid mental image in my mind, ‘Muslim = bad person’ and I would live with that image for the next 6 years. It would thaw a bit when I discovered Malcolm X in high school, a person who I grew to deeply respect, but I just couldn’t shake the fact that I hated Muslims. Hip-hop eased my dislike as well because artists like Brand Nubian, the Wu-tang Clan, Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Rakim, Public Enemy and the Poor Righteous Teachers kept referencing Islam in their music. Through Malcolm and hip-hop my respect for Islam grew but my hate for Muslims did not diminish.

My six year truth would finally become challenged on the very first day of classes in college. I would meet a Pakistani-American named Abbas that day, and that meeting would change my perceptions of Muslims forever.

I still feel bad about how I treated Abbas when I first met him, calling a filthy Muslim and going off about how much I hated Muslims and how we could never be friends. A year later I was living with the guy and calling him my brother. I could write volumes about his profound effect on me through his actions, but ultimately it was the subtle things like seeing Abbas pray or fast in the dorms, give charity and help others and how he was so non-judgmental that stayed with me. Up until now I had met Muslims in the media and in my life as public school student, but none of them had actually practiced this religion I had grown to respect through its references in the music I listened to and one of the people I admired in Malcolm.
So there I was interested in reading the Quran and learning more, and in my journey of discovery with the same passion for learning about new cultures and places as I had with Norway I began to piece together the Muslim world.

Over time I embraced the philosophy and then the religion of Islam, and transformed myself into a Muslim. However it was here in my life that I truly discovered the reasons why I hated Muslims, reasons I could not know while on the outside looking in—I was now inside the mosque, breaking fast with them, and conversing openly. I was observing their behavior and the way they treated each other and me, and unlike other “converts” I did not accept answers like, ‘it is that way accept it’ I wanted to know why. My journey of asking questions led me to more questions and greater truths until I discovered a shocking secret one known by few in the Muslim world… Islam is a pretty cool religion, but Muslims suck!

I say this after having travelled and lived briefly in the Muslim world, having read the Qur’an and the books of hadith cover to cover along with the complete works of Tabari (the Arabic Historian), having learned one of the gibberish tongues I used to ridicule, only to discover that I was right all along. My sixth grade self-had reached the correct conclusion for all the wrong reasons.

I hate Muslims and I’d like to tell you why. I hate Muslims for turning their back on their own prophet, the Prophet Muhammad, by murdering the his grandchildren, for burning down the Ka’aba in Mecca, for causing the miscarriage of the Muhammad’s own daughter Fatima, which resulted in her death. I hate Muslims for attempting to spread Islam through war, though the Prophet Muhammad taught them not to. I hate Muslims for downplaying these historic events and not talking about their own culpability in them. I hate Muslims for going away from the Prophet’s demeanor, going away from the kindness and mercy he exhibited and instead practice both hate and anger. I hate Muslims for being judgmental when only God is the judge. I hate Muslims for creating worlds within worlds instead of being one with the people they live among. I hate them for ignoring the message in the Quran and for diminishing a great book into a literal understanding. I hate Muslims for trying to construct black and white realities when we live in a world of gray and for ignoring that the Quran speaks more to the gray and the idea of reasoning than it does about right or wrong. I hate Muslims for being blind in faith and not posing and asking questions. I hate Muslims for gender inequities and their cultural views on the roles of men and women which has nothing to do with Islam. I hate Muslims for attacking the arts as inherently evil, and presenting Islam as some sort or robot religion devoid of love and emotion. I hate myself for hating Muslims, because if I had truly embraced Islamic ideals fully I would not hate, because Islam is truly about love.

So that last paragraph might make me a marked man in some enclaves in the world, but I’m fine with that because I know that I can always go to Norway. But seriously, while it may come off as Islamophobic, I don’t think it is. I don’t fear Islam. Nor do I fear Muslims. I fear God. I consider myself trying to be a true Muslim one who attempts follow those things that Muslims don’t follow. I try to follow the path of Fatima the daughter of Muhammad, as I believe her to be an exemplary leader. I also follow her legacy (though Muslims would attack ten generations of her progeny, through open war and covert poisoning), who I believe are the 12 princes prophesized in the Bible in Genesis 17:20 as well as mentioned in the Qur’an both directly and by allusion. I call this a movement of truth; a movement that I refer to as the “Fatima is Fatima” movement. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwxGG3vK1E0

So to my Norwegian sisters and brothers I must say it can be quite frustrating to see the events going on in the world and the behaviors from Muslims in Norway I’ve outlined above, but step above the basic understandings like only Norwegians can, and uncover the truth. Islamophobia is the ‘irrational fear of Islam.’ Norwegians are many things but far from irrational. Start with the story of Fatima and the life of the Prophet and you will discover much depth that is hidden, unknown to the majority of Muslims because many are taught not to ask questions. I invite you for dialogue through Facebook or through my webpage www.facebook.com/professali or www.professorali.com.

Peace and Love,

Professor A.L.I.