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 At this point, talks of an accident had been replaced by language of a coordinated attack; we then heard about the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and also in Pennsylvania.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.
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.
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 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?”