International Women’s Day

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day and the Story of Queen Velu Nachiyar

International Women’s Day by Professor A.L.I.

International Women’s Day has its origins in both protest and socialist movements, but it has evolved to a day which functions as a lens for the myopia of patriarchy through which we normally see our world.  It is a time for us to pause and reflect, as well as to honor and remember, all those around the globe who’ve been marginalized by the patriarchal norms we accept as the status quo.   Considering our all-too familiar binary construction of gender, history is only half the story; hence it is only a half-truth, which is akin to a lie.  Herstory was an attempt to expose the whole story, and on International Women’s Day, it is incumbent upon all who breathe in the patriarchal air that deadens our senses to the feminine energy that surrounds us, to take a moment to focus on this metaphysical force and imbue our spirits with the feminine; this necessary invocation requires an anchor, and there are many to invoke who represent its power like: Fatima bint Muhammad, Zaynab bint Ali, Rab’a al-‘Adawiyya, Nana Asmau, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Harriet Tubman, Yuri Kochiyama, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Valliamma, and Amina Al-Sadr, to name a few.  Each name represents immense power of spirit and the best examples of what human beings can become, and each of their stories are shrouded by attempts to dim their light in the smog of patriarchy.  Yet there is one place that stood above many others in honoring the feminine; giving it its proper elevated status and honoring this force, and it is in this place so many examples arose to champion the human condition using this power.  The place is South Asia, and it is here that the concept of Devi was constructed, and where women like Queen Velu Nachiyar arose to champion resistance and freedom; she will be the anchor through which we will explore the power of the feminine and celebrate this day as it should be celebrated, in hopes that one day, there will no longer be a need for a day to correct our myopic vision, since we will see clearly through both eyes and honor the entire gender spectrum of human contribution, but until then: Happy International Women’s Day and An Everlasting Victory to Queen Velu Nachiyar!

Rani Velu Nachiyar

She Made Patriarchy Call Her Devi!

The Devi

The Sanskritic concept of Devi was constructed two thousand years BCE, as a feminine form of the divine.  It was a way for practitioners of ancient Vedic faiths to understand a pantheon of divine beings, which included celestial beings who were perceived as mothers, consorts, and sisters to cosmological concepts.  Over time this term evolved and in the text Devi Mahatmya explores the idea of the ultimate truth and supreme power as manifest in Shaktism, a movement that was an important branch of Hinduism.  This term is still used in the modern era and its concept has continued to evolve even into vernacular usage that is divorced from its theistic origins, yet honors the power of the feminine.

The night before my father died, he awoke from a powerful dream and woke my mother. This is something he never had done in their marriage and according to my mom, he excitedly shared with her his dream in the pitch black night, which was about a vision he saw of a woman made of light calling him towards her; he referred to her as a Devi; he died later that afternoon, on the outskirts of the town he was born in, land once liberated from the yoke of British colonial rule by Queen Velu Nachiyar in a taxicab.  Unbeknownst to him, the day he passed fell on the lunar anniversary of the day that Fatima bint Muhammad died; and the great irony is that her adherents often refer to Fatima as the “lady of light”.

The great lie in the history of colonialism/imperialism of South Asia is that the South Asian peoples did not resist and the only form of resistance was non-violent and authored by Gandhi.  The second half of this lie was exposed in Herstory, but the first part is also not true.  While those tuned into South Asian history will be able to mention the Sepoy Rebellion as one specific example of resistance, it is still viewed as an exception to the norm.  Sadly this erroneous presumption is a result of patriarchal smog, which diminishes the light of numerous examples of resistance movements towards European control, all of which were sparked by the feminine.  Whether it’s the Mappila Rebellion, which came from the matriarchal Mappila community, or specific examples of leaders like Queen Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi or Queen Chennamma of Kittur who fought British interests in South India, or Queen Abbakka of Ullal who fought the Portuguese, it was the power of the Devi, which manifest itself in the spirit of freedom from the yoke of colonial oppression.  The first to fight against the British, in the middle of the 1700’s was Queen Velu Nachiyar and her story is truly remarkable, one worthy of our study and invocation every International Women’s Day.

The story of Queen Velu Nachiyar is one of extreme sacrifice!

The story of Queen Velu Nachiyar is one of extreme sacrifice!

Queen Velu Nachiyar

Born on January 3rd, 1730, Queen Velu Nachiyar was destined for greatness.  A daughter in a royal family, she had access to and studied the art of war as a young girl, mastering the art of silambam (the fighting stick), horse riding and archery along with the science of strategy.  She was a scholar of multiple languages beyond her mother tongue of Tamil, including Urdu, French and English at a time where few knew how to read and write in one.  She married a king, birthed royal heirs and shared a rule that was peaceful until it was interrupted by violence sparked by the greed of the British East India Company (BEIC), which wanted the lands she governed.  They killed her husband, and children, and she escaped into the forests, while the BEIC dismantled her rule and ensnared her lands just as they practically enslaved her people in servitude of wealth extraction.  She formed a guerilla army, made up of forest dwellers, struck alliances with neighboring rulers for arms, trained her forces and strategized a way to victory at great personal cost.  Her adopted daughter, Kuyilli, agreed to be the vehicle for Queen Velu Nachiyar’s victory, and according to plan doused herself in oil and stole herself into the British military stores, exploding their armory and herself into herstory books as the first human bomb (or suicide bomber in history).  This was the tipping point in the revolution and allowed Queen Velu Nachiyar and her forces to defeat the British and re-establish her rule.  She held onto the liberated lands for a decade, until she died and was South Asia’s first revolutionary.

Velu Nachiyar Parade - International Women's Day

A parade honoring Queen Velu Nachiyar .

Our Queen

Queen Velu Nachiyar’s story is barely a footnote in HIStory, and “Our Queen” is an attempt to commemorate her more than a singular stamp issued by the government of India in December of 2008.  Her story is as symbolic as it is iconic—and it represents the power of the Devi, i.e. the feminine spirit as well as the will of Tamil people to be free.  “Our Queen” is the second track song leaked off of the Tamilmatic album as well as its first video, and it features the soulful singing of Tony Thomas, which wraps around the lyrics of a Tamil griot (poet/oral historian) who recounts the story of the life, death and struggles of Queen Velu Nachiyar.

The song and video invokes the spirit of the feminine, using the story of Queen Velu Nachiyar as an anchor.  Her light beckons through the smog of patriarchy like a lone lighthouse inspiring sailors with hope to navigate treacherous waters to shore; and this video, inspired by her story evokes other images of Tamil women, from soldiers in the army to tea pickers, representing her resistance and the people she liberated respectively.  The music video also portrays a simple sketch of her, and the placing of it in a forest clearing; it symbolizes the forest clearing she once hid in as she planned, trained and strategized for the victory of her people.

Celebrate International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day was born of protest and social struggle, and the lens it provides through the smog of patriarchy allows us to commemorate figures like Queen Velu Nachiyar and through her struggle and revolution become inspired to carry out our own—one that helps us dispel the half-truths of history and understand the human experience wholly and at all times.

Celebrate this day by making your own sign: “I need feminism because: _______” and fill in the blank in a way that reconciles your spirit with the feminine—and share it.  Share it, and tag/link this article, share it and use the hashtags: #Feminism, #OurQueen, #Tamilmatic, or share it with the video/song above.  Let’s link each story, with each other, so that these disparate lanterns representing the truth of herstory help dispel the smog of patriarchy forever.

I Need Feminism Because

I Need Feminism Because _________; #OurQueen #Tamilmatic

Each name represents immense power of spirit and the best examples of what human beings can become, and each of their stories are shrouded by attempts to dim their light in the smog of patriarchy.

 

 

From Zaria to the Zarih

Zakzaky

The Trials of Zakzaky and Zeenah

By Professor A.L.I.

Yaro was the first Nigerian I ever met—he was from Lagos and for a time, back in the early 1990’s he would be my roommate. Since then I’ve made profound connections with many Nigerian people of various tribes, ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds. Some have adopted me into their families as an extended member, trusting me with their family suya recipes and dodo-making techniques–this type of familiarity and love breeds both interest and a sense of belonging and so as a result I’ve been tuned to Nigerian frequencies for years–listening to news about its people and nation.  This is how I came to know of a unique movement to reform Islam in Nigeria, led a person, who was returning Nigerian Muslims to the practice of Islam as exemplified by the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and he is known as Sheikh Zakzaky.  I write this piece on the heels of troubling news about Zakzaky, his family and his followers–and for all I know at the time of this article and piece being written, they could all be dead.

Ibrahim Yaqoub Al-Zakzaky is an Islamic scholar from Zaria, Nigeria, who studied Islam and continued to study it until he re-connected to its primary sources, which include the narratives belonging to the family of the Prophet.  Most Muslim ulema (scholars) or psuedo-scholars as they should be called, are not life long learners and limit the scope of their study to the memorization of Qur’an and ahadith.  Hence they have a hard time relating to the realities of the modern world, as they have not understood the context of these texts, nor those who embodied its values like the family of the bloodline of Muhammad through his only surviving child, Fatima.  These narratives have been threatening to the Saudi regime (in its illegitimacy) as well its Wahhabi-Salafi octopus, whose tentacles stretch out over the globe as ISIS/DAESH, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

The latter group works its wickedness in Nigeria at the behest of its Saudi paymasters and it is this group I suspect is behind or at least in the very least involved in the latest Nigerian military backed atrocities carried out in Zaria against Zakzaky and his family. Last year Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife Zeenah lost three of their sons at what is referred to as the Qods Day Massacre, a peaceful protest of Nigerians commemorating the significance of Jerusalem to Muslims.  A week ago, it seems that Sheikh Zakzaky, his wife and three more of his sons were killed along with their followers in estimates that range from 1000-6000 people by the Nigerian military in Zaria.   Reports of a mass grave with over 800 bodies have just been verified by independent human rights organizations in the area but no one has yet heard from Zakzaky or his wife Zeenah—however we are being told by the Nigerian military that they are in custody.

I am greatly troubled by this as an educator and a Nigeriaphile because I’ve followed Zakzaky’s career from afar and admire what he has tried to do. Those who follow the news casually may remember the global lament and attention paid to the kidnapping of 300 girls by Boko Haram; it was Zakzaky who was the main critic of this organization before this tragic event, its other numerous atrocities, and throughout the mass kidnapping episode up until the recent massacre, which may have claimed his life.   Even as global news ceased to talk about the happenings in Nigeria, focusing their lens on ISIS and other tentacles of the Wahhabi kraken, Zakzaky kept his focus on Boko Haram.

Sheikh Zakzaky worked fervently to build ties between Muslims and Christians both in and outside of Zaria. At one point, due to his following he was referred by many outside observers as the most influential Islamic leader in Nigeria and when he transitioned, as he learned to a form of Islam emblemized in the practice of the family of the Prophet; it put him at odds with Saudis who have invested heavily to spread of their Wahhabist interpretation of Islam in the region.  Their ideology, which is based on the re-Arabicization of Islam preached by 14th century ideologue Ibn Taymiyyah, in which figures like Muawiyya and Yazeed, former caliphs who targeted and eventually murdered the family of the Prophet are considered hero figures.

Zakzaky’s work with the Nigerian Muslim community flourished and names like Fatima and Ali, as well as Zaynab and Husayn, became re-introduced to the people–even as their shrines were attacked in the Middle East by Wahhabi-Salafi extremists.  His peaceful marches reminding Muslims to stand up against all forms of oppression, in solidarity with Christians and other groups was a revolutionary concept in a region that was once controlled by the British through divide and conquer strategies.  In Zakzaky people had an individual who represented human beings, and was loved by Christians and Muslims of various denominations–and this love made him a target by those who profit off of war.

Yaro once told me that the people of Nigeria, especially his people who honored and invoked Orishas as conduits to the divine, would truly understand and embrace Islam in its original sense, instead of the Arabized Islam that was being proselytized to his people.  He argued that Islam with respect for the family of the Prophet was more in line with culture of saintly veneration, of conduits to the divine and I find myself unsurprised by Zakzaky’s success in Nigeria as a result.

Sheikh Zakzaky developed a powerful Islamic movement centered around the commemoration of the event of Ashura in Karbala, which retells and reenacts the story of how the caliph Yazeed murdered Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad along with his family and tortured and chained Zaynab, his sister, after murdering her children and cutting off their heads to display in his Damascus palace.  Yazeedian methods are still being used by the ISIS/DAESH’s and Boko Haram’s of the world–and the story of a family who stands up to such violence, unwavering in their faith, remains a powerful testament to true Abrahamic principles and as a result Zakzaky’s efforts spread like wildfire and threatened fringe extremist groups like Boko Haram because their form of Islam requires the ignorance of their adherents to the peaceful & justice oriented way Islam was practiced by the family of the Prophet.

Hearing the news of Zakzaky’s capture/torture/or demise, I felt compelled to write in my personal journals and was urged to share my reflections by my extended Nigerian family members, Yaro and Abdul-Rahim, an American Islamic scholar who, like me felt so broken-hearted over the most recent tragedy to befall Zaria and Zakzaky that he compelled me to write a piece and tell Zeenah and Zakzaky’s story as only a Hip-Hop educator can by telling this story and asking the questions we have all had hearing of this tragedy and so I have and the lyrics to my piece follow the video below:

From Zariah to the Zarih by Professor A.L.I.

I spit like oil slicks that Shell spills in Niger delta

Exposing corrupt politicians, spirit of Saro Wiwa

Invoke brother Ken, before other men,

Understand this battle is commerce of elements

They coerce presidents; replace ministers,

With the sinister, the most wicked on this earth,

The sickness they insert, into wombs so at birth

Young seeds will wield, the weapons that assert

The will of the beast, so righteousness stay alert

See a Sheikh emerge, sparked by Hussain’s thirst

A Shia, but at first, was just another brother

Who understood Islam, but not Yemeni cover

Given sight, blinded by light, of the mother

Of her father, like Fatima there is no other

He shuddered, then evolved, and led his people

Became target, they fear, revolution’s sequel…

 

Ya Sheikh, are you alive, are you safe?

The pictures we’ve seen, make us shake

Their Bloodied faces, and Mass graves

Will you survive their torture and awake?

 

Ya Sheikh, are you alive, are you safe?

The pictures we’ve seen, make us shake

Their Bloodied faces, and Mass graves

Will you survive their torture and awake?

 

From Zaria to the Zarih, Islam is what he studied

Till photos emerge, of a body left bloodied

Why was he threat, a cleric guiding heretics

Who’s pockets knew lint more than money Arabic

An advocate for unity between Abrahamic branches

Representin’ PEACE, is kryptonite for the kraken

Whose tentacles damage, strangle whole planet,

The Taliban in Kandahar, brotherhood in Kemet

Isis is global cris, Boko Haram’s a cancer

For West Africa, its head lives in Saudi palace

So Zakzaky’s movement used for target practice

His followers are slaughtered, mass graves stacked six

Of his sons martyred, divide and conquer tactics

The Zariah Massacre, is the epitome of tragic

Zeenah and Zakzaky’s story is that of sacrifice

Like Jesus and Husayn, the resurrection and the life

 

Ya Sheikh, are you alive, are you safe?

The pictures we’ve seen, make us shake

Their Bloodied faces, and Mass graves

Will you survive their torture and awake?

 

Ya Sheikh, are you alive, are you safe?

The pictures we’ve seen, make us shake

Their Bloodied faces, and Mass graves

Will you survive their torture and awake?

 

Shout out to my my Nigerian fam… my Yoruba fam, my Ibo fam, my Fulani fam, my Hausa fam… It’s all love… PEACE from Cradle to the Grave.

 

 

Fear the Fear Itself

shout

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.   

911footage

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.

The Story of Zaynab Bint Ali Continues To Educate Students In 2015

The Story of Zaynab

The Story of Zaynab

The life of Zaynab bint Ali remains a relevant narrative even today, and in places you’d probably least expect it, despite nearly 1300 years between the events of her life and our life today. Annual commemoration in the form of poetry of lamentation has become a part of the religious tradition of many Muslims, some Middle Eastern Christians and a small group of South Asian Hindus and continues to be a growing practice in many parts of the world through immigration and conversion to this religious practice.

Zaynab’s story is clearly couched in a religious narrative, one of subjugation and martyrdom, where an oppressor strikes out against those cloaked in divine practice. However there is another thread of inspiration that connects back to Zaynab bint Ali that remains relevant today and that is her influence on oral histories and subsequent poetry in Northern Africa, to West Africa and through the Middle Passage onto the West in the form of poetry and musical traditions.

This is the story that Professor A.L.I. begins the journey with, in the “XFactor” a curricular album, which explores the connection of Makkah to Mecca (aka New York), in the development of narrative traditions and the emergence of Hip-Hop as a form of cultural expression in the inner city. In an “Ode to Zaynab” he states “The daughter of a martyr, the mother of slaughter, the daughter of a Prophet, a leader of hardship and inspiration for artists…” a reference to Zaynab’s robust impact, a thread stretching all the way to the modern day helping to weave into the culture known as Hip-Hop.

Hip-Hop, though lyrical is often a controversial subject matter and Professor A.L.I. does not pull any punches and instead digs into themes of misogyny and racism, while elucidating the difference between real “Hip-Hop”, i.e. intelligent movement, from the popular construction of a musical genre, which objectifies women and engages in coarse language. It is the former that falls in line with the lyrical narrative and the traditions influenced by Zaynab bint Ali.

XFactor by Professor A.L.I.

The X in “XFactor” pays homage to the influence on this narrative to Malcolm X, and also invokes the idea of what the variable X represents as far as the unknown threads of influence upon a cultural form like Hip-Hop. He states on the titular song, “He’s placenta to Hip-Hop’s birth so discarded, yet his knowledge provided nutrition for these artists.”

The album is intertwined with a robust curriculum that starts with the story of Zaynab and continues forward through time, ending with the narrative of the late Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, who for a brief time studied at a howza near the shrine of Zaynab in Damascus.

Shrine of Zaynab

Shrine of Zaynab

Finally the robust historical curriculum woven into this album did not go unnoticed by the University of California Regents, which rewarded the course being taught by Professor A.L.I., in which his album is an integral component A-G History credit. In addition, the course has become so popular it will be taught at five elite Bay Area college prep schools.

The course, as with the album, begins with the story of Zaynab.

Peace & Blessings.

Ali