Carl Ernst: There is no “Muslim world.”

Carl Ernst

“…you need to know the kinds of things you would need to know about anyone to place them in time and space, because they’re not on some remote asteroid out there that just zoomed in for a quick bit of terrorism.”

 

I read Carl Ernst’s “Following Muhammad” in 2007, back when it was my dream to study Persian literature and become an academic. Understandably, I was fan-girling a bit when I finally got to meet him in person. Ernst is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As someone who has been directly involved with Islamophobia and the media, he had some very blunt advice for journalists:

If you want to tell a good story, you can get a skeleton from a single person, but you need to have a little bit of context and know where they’re coming from. And one of the most important things to say is, there is no “Muslim world.” There is no separate planet that is inhabited exclusively by Muslims who somehow have never had any contact with America or Europe…What you need to know if you want to understand a Muslim is, what country do they come from? What political formation? What economic class? What ethnic group? What language? What religious teaching or grouping or community or tradition? What tendencies are there? Because there are lots of different things going on. The next thing to do after listening to somebody, if you want to have a context, you need to know the kinds of things you would need to know about anyone to place them in time and space, because they’re not on some remote asteroid out there that just zoomed in for a quick bit of terrorism.

He spoke a bit about the need for more Muslims in journalism, education, the arts and culture, etc. (ahem #AliceInArabia ahem):

In recent years, in fact for quite some time, I’ve had this conversation when I’ve been invited to speak to Muslim groups. I ask, you know, what are the professions of the people who are there and then I ask how many people are involved in journalism, the arts and culture? And there’s hardly anyone. And so my question at that point is, for people who are worried about Islamophobia and about media representations of Muslims, if you’re not involved in it, you really don’t have very much of a right to complain. I think that, for people like yourself who are going into journalism, education, the arts and culture, that’s a very appropriate thing to do and it needs to have more attention by everyone.

And he gave me a little bit of his own background:

I had an experience as an exchange student in South America when I was 16 and I was kind of taken aback by how little prepared I was for that experience. And this drew my attention to the way in which many Americans are simply not in a good position to be familiar with other cultures. People come here from around the world, but then it’s no longer necessary for us to know anything about those other cultures. That’s the paradox. So I think international studies and global culture is a big challenge for American education. So I’ve really devoted my career to that. So I asked myself at one point — I thought religious studies would be a good way to deal with this because it deals with such a profound level, that goes all the way through culture, society, you name it. And then — what is the area of biggest ignorance? To say Islam is the area of biggest ignorance is still obviously the case.

 

Check out my interviews with Eli CliftonHaroon MoghulHussein Rashid and Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.

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This is not my writing. [The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster]

Milo

I read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time when I was eight or nine. It was the first book that actually showed me what it is to have an imagination. I’ve read it tens of times since then, and it still delights me. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s some of what you’re missing.

_____

“‘I never knew words could be so confusing,’ Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.

‘Only when you use a lot to say a little,’ answered Tock.

Milo thought this was quite the wisest thing he’d heard all day.”

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Eli Clifton: America is just one poorly-regulated fraternity.

Clifton tracked $42 million that was used to fund the Islamophobia industry.

Clifton tracked $42 million that was used to fund the Islamophobia industry.

The Center for American Progress came out with a report in 2011 that did some important Islamophobia-related math: the Islamophobia industry — an American industry built on the fear of almost one-sixth of the world’s population — is a $40 million industry. $40 million.

Reporter Eli Clifton did some of the math for the report. I spoke to him in January. We talked about the funds, the players and the consequences.

We talked about the oft-mentioned “clash of civilizations” viewpoint on Islam and the West:

I understand where folks like Peter King come from, and it’s from a view of Islam and the West as two things at war. It’s a dangerous narrative because it’s al-Qaeda’s narrative; that is the narrative of the terrorists – that Islam and the West are inherently in conflict, that of course they’re at war. I mean, you’re quite literally letting the terrorists win if that’s the type of rhetoric and perspective on Muslims that you’re adopting. 

We talked about America’s hazing process:

As a country, we’re probably getting better at identifying when we’re suggesting that a certain group doesn’t fit in the United States. Jews, Catholics, the Irish, the Italians, Japanese Americans have all faced similar types of charges. The story hasn’t changed that much. It’s a pretty consistent set of charges that are laid against “the other.” And I think we’re getting better at identifying it. That’s a narrative right there — to talk about how this is largely an immigrant community, how this fits into an American narrative. And it’s a good story, I think. America is just one poorly-regulated fraternity.

We talked about what makes him angry about American counterterrorism efforts:

My view is that counterterrorism is best accomplished by treating it as a criminal problem. You shouldn’t glorify terrorists and you glorify them when you buy into the narrative that they are involved in a war, a cultural or religious war. You should treat them as common criminals. You try to set off a bomb, we’re going to treat you as a criminal. We’re not going to give you the glory of being some sort of a war hero. I found that very troubling. That’s a very lousy way of going about counterterrorism training, to suggest that we’re involved in this centuries-old conflict. No. Your job is to stop terrorism in all forms. If the terrorists happen to be Muslim. The problem is that they’re terrorists; it’s not that they’re Muslim. You’re giving them their narrative, and you shouldn’t be.

Check out my interviews with Haroon MoghulHussein Rashid and Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.

Let’s talk to the guy who was MSA president at NYU when 9/11 happened.

Haroon Moghul

Haroon reminisces about his last trip to the eye doctor.

When I interviewed Haroon Moghul, he told me he’s tired of being a “professional Muslim” and he’s trying now to focus on other things that are a part of his identity. My first thought was that if this actually happens, we’ll have lost one of our funniest professional Muslims. I got a laugh while transcribing this interview because Haroon and I talked for a solid five minutes about how special it feels to go to the eye doctor (“It’s all about which one I think is better,” he explains. “They’re like, ‘This one or this one?’ and I’m like, ‘Show me other ones.'”)

Why is he so funny?

“Humor always works. Humor terrifies people who don’t like you. If you are at all approachable, it destroys their narrative. So, I’ve been invited to discussions with very hostile audiences, where I will just play a comedian. It drives them off the wall. When you win over part of an audience, you’ve won. I think humanizing communities is really important.”

We spent a good amount of time talking about why the Iraq War was more relevant for Islamophobes than 9/11:

“I was in New York on 9/11, I had the great fortune of being MSA president at NYU, which is like a 15-minute walk from Ground Zero; we all saw it happen. What I saw in New York is, in that year after 9/11, that was my senior year, there was a lot of anger, obviously. There was hate and frustration, but there wasn’t a narrative provided to people to make sense of 9/11. And as a result, I think, people didn’t know what to do with this event. And when you don’t know what to do with an event, you don’t know how to respond thereafter. I think that the need to come up with a narrative to justify the Iraq War is what created the upsurge in Islamophobia…How we responded to 9/11 is really a critical issue. We could have made it a police action, we could have made it a ‘We’re just going to take out al-Qaeda’ thing, but instead we made it a ‘We’re going to invade Iraq and Afghanistan’ thing. And all these things are connected – so this secular Arab dictator has something to do with this religious zealot in Afghanistan? I don’t know, let’s make it up. I think that created the context for the momentum and basically it took off from there.”

We talked about the consequences of the surveillance of Muslim American communities:

“I think the main issue is that, 1. You’re not allowed to do this, you know? You have to show a cause for it. And 2. It has an effect on people. It affects the way they behave and it affects the meaningfulness of democracy. This applies to the NSA as well. And 3. It’s just a waste of money. And 4. The problem we have in the U.S. is that we never really look at context. Now that you have the drone wars and special operations command and the CIA running the kill list and things like that, we believe or we’ve been led to believe that we have a clean war. We don’t invade countries; we’re just firing missiles at bad guys. But nobody has ever explains how this ends. You’ve just kind of gotten through 9/11, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and there’s just another wave of al-Qaeda being produced. It’s just going to happen again and again and again and again…So you’re just creating this monster and eventually it becomes autonomous. It seeks out threats to justify itself. And if there are no threats, it will invent threats.”

We spoke a bit about his theory that we should be funding Islamophobes:

“I see Islamophobia as a positive force. It forces people to be on their game. If you don’t have an opponent…I think Muslims are lucky because most Islamophobes are idiots. Like, they’re just not very intelligent people. They reproduce their ignorance whenever they’re presented with anything different. So my theory for Islamophobes is that we should be funding them. Just give them a microphone and let them talk. Eventually, they’ll say something about black people or gay people or women or Latinos and then, goodbye. We may not be the third rail, but something in there is the third rail.”

Check out my interviews with Hussein Rashid and Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.

Intelligent discussions and “Princess Bride” references with Hussein Rashid

Hussein Rashid

Hussein explains it all (with Star Wars references).

No one I know makes more sci-fi/fantasy references in conversations about anything at all (including Islamophobia) than Hussein. A New Yorker, professor, blogger and leader, Hussein is one of the reasons my own interest in Muslim American communities and Islamophobia developed. I talked to him in New York last week.

We talked a bit about the weaknesses of journalists and editors:

News media also looks for easy stories. So we look for words that we think the audience understands, that don’t really mean what we think they mean.  It’s this Princess Bride moment – “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Jihad, shari’a, Allah, the Qur’an – these are words that have very specific meanings. Jihad, for example has a very modern definition, but then you try to read it back into 1400 years of history and it doesn’t make sense, and unless you start cutting and trimming stuff, it’s going to tell you a very different story than what you’re trying to tell. I understand there’s only so much you can write in 800 words, but I think careful selections in word choice, looking for experts in the field rather than the loudest voices, would go a long, long way.

I think if we look at the entertainment industry, it’s a really mixed bag there, but I would be remiss in not shouting out some really great explorations of what it means to Muslim. And I don’t mean shows like “All American Muslim.” You know, in the Simpson’s, Bart had a Muslim friend, which was a really great episode about this whole Islamophobia thing that the “average American” feels. Bones or NCIS, they have really great story lines around Muslims and are they perfect? No, but that’s kind of the point, right? Muslims are human beings and the all-evil representation is as bad as the all-perfect representation. You need complex, nuanced representations of Muslims because Muslims are people at the end of the day. You’re going to get the unsung heroes and you’re going to get the people you pass by on the street every day.

He explained what he means by “intelligent discussions”:

Part of what I do is try to create more intelligent discussion around religion generally and Islam specifically. A lot of this came out of, interestingly, not September 11, but the run-up to the second Iraq War in 2003. People were saying that al-Qaeda was in bed with the Iranians. But wait, do you actually understand that al-Qaeda thinks the Iranians are heretics and they deserve to be put to death because they’re Shi’i? So, how did we get to be friends with them? And that they’re partnering with Saddam Hussein, who’s a secularist with a religious nationalist movement – do you actually understand anything about how these pieces fit? Oil and water do not mix and realpolitik can only cover so much of that. It was at that point that I realized people just don’t know that much about religion. The term now is “religious illiteracy.” And I think anti-shari’a legislation is a good example of this. People say, “Oh, you must mean only Muslims because shari’a is a scary, foreign-sounding word,” but not actually realizing the things it’s affecting are other communities who live by religious laws, like Jews and Catholics.

Check out my interview with Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.

Hind Makki wants to clean our dirty laundry.

Hind Makki

“What the fatwa?”

If you’re a Chicago-area Muslim, you’ve probably heard of Hind Makki or seen her blogs, Hindtrospectives and Side Entrance. I interviewed her a couple weeks ago. 

She talked a little about Side Entrance, a blog that documents “the beautiful, the adequate and the pathetic” of women’s prayer spaces in mosques: 

I was always interested in how different communities build their mosques. At least in my mosque, women and girls were encouraged to go, they would give lectures, they were part of the community. Lots of other communities don’t do that. I remember very clearly, when I was 15 years old, my sister, my dad and and I went to a mosque in Devon Street, which is a heavily immigrant, South Asian community in downtown Chicago, and we went to a mosque to attend the Friday prayer. We got there and my dad goes, “Okay, where are my girls gonna go?” And the uncle said, “Oh, there’s no place for women.” And my dad’s like, “Where are they going to go?” This was before cell phones. The uncle’s like, “They can stay in the car.” And we were like, “Wait, do we not need to pray?” It was such a weird experience.

I was in a mosque in downtown Chicago that had a really small space for women; it’s not where women pray for Friday prayers or Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan, but it is where you go if want to duck in there and pray on a random day, it is where you’re going to pray. It’s eight feet wide, twenty feet tall. I took a picture of this and posted it on my Facebook. What surprised me was that my Muslim male friends were like, “What the fatwa?” That started me thinking: “I wonder what my Muslim male friends would say if they saw where Muslim women pray.” I think that Muslim men and women need to work together; it says in the Qur’an that believing men and believing women are partners to each other. That little picture that I posted, my Muslim male friends were shocked.

I’ve gotten some flack for the name, Side Entrance. Some men have been like, “Why are you calling it that?” And I say, “Because I literally have to enter through a side entrance to get into a mosque!” I’ve actually gotten much more support than flack, but the flack I have gotten is about Islamophobia. Some boys have said to me, “Well, why are you giving fodder to Islamophobes?” My response to them is, “We need to clean our dirty laundry.” This is true – this is our dirty laundry. Islamophobes will say, “Look at how Muslim women are treated in their mosques.” We need to clean it.

And she gave some suggestions to media organization on how to better include the narratives of Muslim Americans:

…If a reporter has a contact who is of a Muslim background, they can ask, what else can you talk about? They can pass that contact around to talk about other things. Most Muslims in this country fall into four professional categories: doctor, engineer, small business owner, cab driver. You want to talk about medical ethics issues? Okay, well, if the president of the mosque is a doctor, maybe you want to reach out to him or her. Set aside the Islamophobia question and ask, “What do you think about this medical issue? What do Muslims think about this ethical issue?” For small business owners, “What do you think about this local zoning issue?” It’s important to expand how Muslims can contribute to public conversations.

For me, one of the reasons I wanted to do Hindtrospectives, my blog, was because I write a lot about Muslims, interfaith, women, racism, I love that stuff. I live and breathe and read that stuff all the time. But I also really want to write about Sleepy Hollow, I want to write about the intersection of popular culture and religion or race. I’m happy to talk about that! Nobody’s ever talked to me about that. When I got my media appearances earlier this year, it was about Muslim women, women in scarves, Femen, things like that. I’m happy to talk about it, but it’s not the whole of who I am. I love figure skating! How come nobody’s ever asked me about figure skating?

“What the fatwa?” is definitely my new favorite phrase. 

Learn more about my project.

These are the worst things that could happen to me on a travel reporting trip.

I’m sitting in an airport food court area at 4:30 a.m. surrounded by depressed-looking single travellers and even-more-depressed-looking pairs of travellers when the feelings hit me: the creeping, deep-in-the-black-hole-that-is-your-gut sadness that repeats to your brain, over and over again, and echoes throughout your entire being, “You are alone. You will fail. You should give up.”

I’ve just begun my first ever one-woman travel reporting trip for a project upon which my Master’s degree depends. I should be excited and nervous, like on the first day of school, but I’m not. I’m (and I’ve considered these terms carefully) sad and puke-y, like when you’re in grad school. I don’t really have enough energy to spend on being sad and puke-y, given the importance of this project and the lack of time I have to complete it, so I’ve decided to just face my fears. Below is a list of the worst things that could happen to me on a travel reporting trip.

I could just immediately die.

I could interview everyone and then realize my camera was off/the lens cap was on the whole time.

My camera could break.

I could miss a plane or bus and have to call a source and be like, “Uhhh, I missed my bus.” And they could be like, “Wow, you’re a massive failure and I hate you.”

I could lose my belongings and then have to use a makeshift tripod for every interview.

A variety of places I go to eat and rest could just not have coffee.

I could just spend all my travel time thinking about how life is really just a long process of dying and how small we are and how really, nothing we do matters and the people we call our own will leave us in a variety of ways and the chances of each person finding people they are compatible with is slim to none and how, for most of us, in just 80-100 years, no one will remember who we were or what we did.

I could get back to school and find out my audio sucks a whole lot and it isn’t usable at all.

I could get a call from Berkeley while I’m out reporting and they could be like, “We just checked our records and realized we were actually trying to accept the other Nausheen into the j-school, not you. Lol sorry!”

I could get a call from my mom and she could be like, “Oh hey, I don’t love you anymore. Hope you’re well, ttyl.”

(I know the last two are highly unlikely, but admit it, you’ve thought them, too.)

Reporting and life are both for the brave. I will try to be one of the brave.

This is my Master’s project.

Here is a great shot of the trusty notebook. I have a lot of trusty things.

Here is a great shot of the trusty notebook. I have a lot of trusty things.

Á la lolmythesis: “Reporters are doing a great job of perpetuating Islamophobia in the U.S. Here are some new tools for them so they can do their jobs better.”

For the next 15 days, I’ll be travelling on planes and buses and subways with my dad’s trusty Nikon and my school’s trusty tripod to interview a handful of scholars and reporters and bloggers about Islamophobia, its perpetuators and the work being done to fight it.

This work, plus more work I’ll do throughout the semester, will result in a website and smartphone app that tracks and visualizes data on Islamophobic incidents throughout the U.S., made for the use of reporters.

One of the things I love about j-school is that mostly everything we learn is practical. In this same tradition, we have Master’s “projects” instead of Master’s “theses,” which just means that you have real-world requirements of the projects as well as academic ones. Though this makes it a tad more stressful, it also makes it much more relevant.

Many people have asked me what I’m working on. (I’ve also been told it’s beneficial to one’s reporting and one’s sanity to keep a record of events and updates while travel reporting.) So I turn to my trusty blog. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll do my best to keep it updated with travel-related anecdotes and project updates. I’ll also be tweeting with #IFRtravel on project-related tweets.

About The Author

Nausheen Husain was about 12 when she first was like, “Whoa, dude” about Islamophobia. It was September 12, 2001 and the dumb kid who sat in front of her in Language Arts turned around and said, “Hey, are you a spy from Afghanistan?” Nausheen was like, “Give me my pen back, Mike,” but the experience stuck with her. She guesses it stuck with her longer than she realized before, because she can see it happening in her head right now and she still remembers the kid and what he looks like and he never gave her the pen back and sometimes when she thinks about him she grips whatever she is holding tightly until it shatters into a billion pieces, even if it’s just a piece of paper or a doughnut. She may need to see a therapist or something.

I’m going to Germany today.

THIS DUDE'S NAME IS BAD REICHENHALL. (From the Flickr Commons)

THIS DUDE’S NAME IS BAD REICHENHALL. LOOK AT THAT HAT.
(From the Flickr Commons)

Each year, the German embassy sponsors the Young Journalists’ Program – they take a handful of American journalism students to Munich and Berlin to meet German journalists and visit media companies in the land of Bach and Oktoberfest. This year, I get to go.

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