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Ali Asani came to the U.S. from Kenya, started as an undergraduate student at Harvard, and then just never left. Today, he’s a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Asani and I’ve always been struck by the nuance in his arguments and, more importantly, his immense humility. We spoke a bit about his own navigation of identity and the global aspect of Islamophobia:
People often say, okay the Jews went through this, and the Catholics went through this, and the Irish went through this and Italians went through this. And it’s true that you know it’s part of the whole process of becoming American, you have to go through this. I do see it as different. Unlike I think some of those other groups, you don’t have the manifestation of this at a global level…It’s not just the U.S. It’s a global phenomenon. You see it in Europe, definitely. You see the links between Islamophobic groups in Europe with those in the U.S., but you also see it in places like India. You see it in Bosnia. You see it in Burma. You can see it in many, many different places. You see it in Russia. You see it in China…And that’s what I think makes it a little bit different from saying, okay, this is a normal part of the American hazing experience. That’s what I think makes it dangerous. Because it’s global.
He told me what struck him about election-time Islamophobia and the revision of history in people’s minds:
The thing that really stood out to me as an Islamophobic thing was made by Rev. Rod Parsley who was spiritual advisor to John McCain and who wrote in his book “Silent No More,” among other claims he makes, that 9/11 was a call to arms because America was founded in part to see the false religion of Islam destroyed, and that’s why America was created. And 9/11 now means that we are in a full-fledged war with Islam. That, for me, was an outrage because it’s just a revisionist form of reading history and documents and texts. When I saw that, I said, wow. And you can see how it was tied with the whole election of Obama. And that behind it was this whole idea that Obama was a secret Muslim and that electing him is going to be the ultimate triumph because now Muslims will be in power, they’ve taken over the White House and then they’re going to take over the country. So this was a strategy pandering to people’s fear for Islam — “Do not vote for Obama because if you vote for Obama, it’s a vote for Islam, it’s a vote for the enemy.” The implications of all of that are just astounding.
On the many ways he was denied his own identity in the U.S.:
When I came to Harvard as an undergraduate, one of the things I was astonished about was how ignorant people were about Kenya — they didn’t know where it was — and their perceptions about who was African. So someone like me would not qualify as African because, “Oh, you must be from India.” Even though my family’s been two generations in Africa. So I would say there was this broad illiteracy. My first encounter was this illiteracy about Africa that impacted me directly because people were not able to label me correctly or they thought I was a misfit or they wanted to impose their own labels on me, so you have to be — you can’t be African. And in Africa, people who are of Indian origin are called Asian. So if I said I was Asian, “No, you can’t be Asian because Asian means you’re Chinese.” So I was denied my African identity, I was denied my Asian identity, and then at a certain point I would find out of course that they were also very ignorant about Islam as well.
I met up with Jocelyn Cesari at Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program office. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and directs the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University. She explained to me why Europe’s Muslims have it much harder than America’s:
I would say that, even when it concerns the Islamic or religious signs only, the discrimination is higher for Muslims in Europe because it is not automatically an institutional discrimination, while I think in the U.S., most of the discrimination comes from policy-making or institutional settings, but not automatically from the society, although you will find groups that will say, “Yes, it has increased,” but if you look at where Islamophobia comes, it comes in police or law enforcement, it comes in airport and air traffic regulation; it’s not dominant in civil society, despite what Muslims are saying. But in Europe, it’s both an institutional discrimination — and a strong one, sometimes — but it’s also day-to-day discrimination by people who are not Muslim and who would attack women with hijab, or refusing to provide halal food, or refuse to acknowledge when kids are fasting. You have more of these things going on, that come more from a daily life perspective. I know that activist groups here tend to say that Muslims are in a bad situation; I’m not saying that there are no reality to that, but if I compare to the life of Muslims in Europe — immigration, they are at stake; ethnicity and culture, they are at stake. Economically, too, when people talk about underclass or ghettos, they think Islam. It’s not the case in the U.S. Any kind of laws about security of the country, they are at stake. And then you have the daily discrimination. And very little recourse.
She also explained why the biggest problem in the U.S. is not the media, but the politicians:
When you hear politicians — and I have heard them — all this started against the building of mosques in the U.S. and some politicians saying that Islam is not a religion and cannot be protected by the first amendment. These are very — for me, this is much more worrisome. Because then, what do you expect the media to do? They have to report on that, too. They are not making things up. They are also giving visibility to things and positions that people have that are far from being favorable or easy on Muslims. The whole shari’a campaign. It was not a media campaign. It was really orchestrated by anti-Islamic groups in different cities with the role of so-called experts coming and being concentrated in different localities. And Muslims have not even asked for shari’a in this country, which is mind-boggling to me. It’s whole construct — yes, the media report on it — but I would say they are not building it. I would say that some are trying to be more fair in the way they are report about Islam.
I’ve told myself that, at some point in my life, I’m going to go on a trip to Turkey with Omid Safi and Illuminated Tours. But, for now, just a conversation with Safi will have to do. I met up with him on UNC, Chapel Hill’s beautiful campus in January to talk about the different kinds of Americans America has, the Iranian blogosphere and our perceptions about the worth of different lives.
On using 9/11 as a measurement tool:
I have to say, as somebody who adamantly and unapologetically adopts a global humanistic outlook, of course I’m frustrated as much as the next person when 9/11 is allowed to become the new birth of Christ. It’s what you measure everything before and after it…I think it’s important for us to pause and think about, how do we have a conversation in which we can say, with the same breath, with the same moral commitment, that we mourn and stand against the actions of 9/11 and the loss of human life, and at the same time, we have to think about, what does it mean if the loss of 3,000 human lives on American soil is allowed to re-write the global order in a way that the loss of 30 million people with HIV in sub-saharan Africa does not? Or the loss of millions of lives in Vietnam or in other conflicts does not?…And actually, in North America, we’re completely unwilling to enter that conversation — it does say a lot about our assumption about the superior worth of some lives over others.
On the oft-sighted “kind-of-sort-of-basically-tolerated-as-long-you-keep-quiet-and-go-to-the-suburbs Americans” around the time of the Park 51 controversy:
I’m interested in the conversation about Islamophobia, but I actually don’t think you solved the problem by persuading people that Islam is great. I mean, I’m a professor of Islamic Studies, I teach about Islam. Obviously, I’m committed to presenting accurate and scholarly views of Islam, but I don’t think you solve this by just replacing people’s stereotypes about Islam. The place where you have to fight this fight — it’s an American conversations. It’s about laws; they bought this land legally. You don’t like it? Tough. It’s a conversation about citizenship. These are American citizens. If they’re American citizens, they’re allowed to do what other American citizens can do. We don’t like all of our citizens, but nowhere is it written in the Constitution that us liking each other is a prerequisite to people getting to exercise their constitutional rights. And I think that’s really the conversation that I want to see us have, I want to see Muslims have and non-Muslims have. Let’s have this based on liberties and civil rights and constitutional rights and freedoms. What does it mean to be American? Are all of us equally American? Are some of us really American? And others are kind-of-sort-of-basically-tolerated-as-long-you-keep-quiet-and-go-to-the-suburbs Americans? And I think that’s really the conversation I’m much more interesting in having now.
On Iranians, who are just a Google hit away:
One small example: Iran’s not a particularly large country, or it’s not in terms of population — certainly nothing compared to India or Pakistan. It’s a country of 77 million people — less than a quarter of the population of the U.S. And there’s very few other countries in the world in which Persian as a language is a major presence. Persian is now the fourth most heavily blogged language in the world. Iranians, in spite of and perhaps because of the extraordinarily repressive mechanisms of censorship imposed on them by their government, are among the most tech-savvy and connected and wired populations on the planet. Many of them have websites which are mirroring in Persian and English…I think that the overwhelming majority of Americans cannot name an Iranian who’s not a cleric, whether it’s Khomeini or Ahmedinejad when he was in power as the president. Hopefully now, they can at least add the figure of President Rouhani. But there’s such a broad range of artists and musicians, civil society workers, women’s rights activists, spoken word artists who are just a Google hit away.
On becoming “khalils”:
There’s this beautiful Qur’anic metaphor — the Prophet Abraham was thrown into the fire and God rescues him from the fire, and makes the fire be cool towards him. And interestingly enough, the Qur’an says when God rescues Abraham, Abraham or Ibrahim in Arabic, becomes called the “khalil,” which is called “the intimate friend of God.” And I’ve oftentimes used that metaphor for the condition of Muslims in post-9/11 America. A number of things can happen to people when they’re thrown into the fire — you can either burn, or you can emerge as a “khalil,” you can emerge as an intimate friend of God, and I see both having taken place in the Muslim community. I see lots of burnt and burnt out Muslims, but I also see people that have gone through the crucible of purification and have emerged as these moral beings that not only are interested in defending their own community, but are really engaged in a redemption process that there are people who are waging beauty, unrelentingly, and are interested in uplifting and transforming and redeeming this wider world that we all actually share. And that community gives me an immense amount of hope… There’s an extraordinary number of women in that population, there are African Americans, brown Muslims, white converts, Latino Muslims, for whom these kind of sectarian labels of Sunni and Shi’i are much less relevant than, “Who are you?”, “How deep do you love?”, “Whom are you serving?” and “Where is the community that you’re devoting yourself in service to?” Those are the important places that I look to and draw inspiration from.
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.
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.
I started coding my Master’s project today. Get pumped.
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.”
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.
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.
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