Archive for the ‘Islam in the Media’ Category

18 days.

Friday, February 11th, 2011


Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

Race, religion, and Michael Jackson.

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

I'm kind of fascinated with the question of Michael Jackson's funeral, and whether or not it will be Muslim. Jermaine ended his press conference with "may Allah be with you" and now even Andrew Sullivan is posting about it.

Reports that Michael Jackson had converted to Islam created a minor buzz on Muslim blogs last fall, but I didn't hear much about it elsewhere. Part of me was okay with that: the guy had become so weird that I'm not sure he did Islam's image any favors. But most Muslim bloggers who talked about it reported it as a happy event and welcomed him into the fold, under his new name, Mikaeel Jibril. A few other articles came out a week or two later saying it was just a rumor: that Jermaine had converted in the '80s, but Michael never did. Both Yusuf Islam and Dawud Wharnsby Ali, who were supposedly present at said conversion, said it wasn't true. Michael himself neither confirmed nor denied the story, though he certainly must have been aware of it.

We'll never know. But I thought the silence outside of Muslim Blogistan was telling. There are more Black Muslims in the U.S. than there are Arab Muslims, their history here pre-dates immigrant Islam, and most of them are Sunni, not Nation of Islam. But in the media they are presented as exceptions, or at best as avid followers of Louis Farrakhan. The Islam of someone like Dave Chappelle is rarely mentioned, and Michael Jackson was probably likewise considered an outlier, as he was in so many other ways, so reports of his conversion were ignored, doubted, or dismissed as a stunt, despite the otherwise obsessive interest in his personal life. Thus the narrative of who counts as a "real" Muslim remains intact. A Pakistani man who kills his wife does so because the Qur'an told him to, but even during the height of the War On Terror the D.C. sniper — also Muslim — was slotted into the Violent Black Male category. Not a category that's any better, mind you, but evidence of the way both stereotypes are calcified. Black and Middle Eastern men are both dangerous, but for different reasons.

In contrast, there was the case of John Walker Lindh, a devout Muslim by about any standard you care to employ, but he was white, so the media treated him like a mixed-up boy-child from northern California who dabbled in terrorism because he was spoiled by his hippie parents. Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Black Muslim convert who killed an army recruiter in Arkansas, was not treated as part of a larger conspiracy until it was discovered that he'd traveled to Yemen, although he was charged with terrorism — unlike Scott Roeder, a white man who engaged in a different politically-motivated murder one day earlier. Roeder was described as mentally ill.

Michael Jackson's funeral won't answer any questions about his relationship with Islam, if there even was one. The need for an autopsy means he couldn't have been buried within 24 hours, and at any rate it's common among American converts to have mixed ceremonies. But the conversation still interests me.

Obama in Egypt

Saturday, May 16th, 2009


Al-Azhar mosque

So Obama is planning to speak in Egypt on June 4, a choice some are saying is a signal that America wants our "autocratic ally" to be a model for other Arab nations. He's rejected the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in favor of Cairo, a move that is considered bold, since anything in Cairo will be harder to secure.

Now the question is finding a venue within Cairo, and there's talk that it may be Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and Egypt's center of Islamic learning. Pro: Al-Azhar can hold 1,000 people. Con: What to do with all the shoes?

I doubt this will be the final choice, but I'll be interested how the media in both countries will respond if it is. In Egypt Al-Azhar is the center of state-sponsored Islam; Sheikh Tantawi is known as a mouthpiece of the government, always giving Muslim cover for Mubarak's policy decisions. Obama speaking there would be an endorsement of Mubarak, not the Islamists. But would that be understood in the U.S.? Or would it just be read as Barack HUSSEIN Obama speaking at a mosque?

Boricua Islam in Pittsburgh

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

"So now, Brother Hamza, you are a single dad, and now you're married. So you're a married man, you're Muslim, you're American, you're Puerto Rican, you're from the 'hood, you're an artist, you're a rapper… you know… you sound like America's worst nightmare."

Check out the trailer for New Muslim Cool, a documentary about a Puerto Rican Muslim community in Pittsburgh:

From the web site:

Puerto Rican American rapper Hamza Pérez ended his life as a drug dealer 12 years ago, and started down a new path as a young Muslim.

Now he’s moved to Pittsburgh’s tough North Side to start a new religious community, rebuild his shattered family, and take his message of faith to other young people through his uncompromising music as part of the hip-hop duo M-Team.

Raising his two kids as a single dad and longing for companionship, Hamza finds love on a Muslim networking website and seizes the chance for happiness in a second marriage.

But when the FBI raids his mosque, Hamza must confront the realities of the post-9/11 world, and challenge himself. He starts reaching for a deeper understanding of his faith, discovering new connections with people from Christian and Jewish communities.

NEW MUSLIM COOL takes viewers on Hamza’s ride through the streets, projects and jail cells of urban America, following his spiritual journey to some surprising places —where we can all see ourselves reflected in a world that never stops changing.

What's the opposite of abaya?

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Aliyah’s Choice: The LA Times’ Profile of a Lesbian Muslim:

The problem with articles on gay Muslims is that they often paint a distinct binary of the Muslim identity as constraining, conservative, and judgmental, and the gay identity as free, liberating, and natural. There’s a reality that developed this stereotype, but it’s not quite that simple. When a gay Muslim throws off her Muslim identity because it conflicts with her gayness (as some Muslims do), it’s not as though all the problems of being gay disappear and life is suddenly easy. And it’s certainly not as though families, if only they weren’t Muslim, would accept a gay child. It’s true that many Muslims and many immigrants don’t view homosexuality favorably, but it’s not a position that’s unique to these communities, even when it may be more prevalent in them.

Excellent (and succinct!) analysis of a popular media trope, from Muslimah Media Watch.

Not my country.

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

The last time I was here hardly anyone had satellite. Obviously, that's changed. I've never had satellite before so I naively believed everyone when they said you could get "everything" on satellite.

This isn't true.

WHAT I WAS EXPECTING: People would be watching all the crap TV we export, including our crap news, including FOX. If someone spoke enough English, and cared enough, they could, in theory, watch all this crap American TV and come to the conclusion that the American people are either bombastic and stupid or decent and well-intentioned but either way they are separate from their government. Which is criminally insane.

WHAT I'VE FOUND INSTEAD: It's the other way around. The government looks smart, the people invisible (at best) or (at worst) in need of guidance from our overlords.

I was thrilled to get CNN International, since it's so much better than the regular CNN and in Boston we only get it for one hour a day. The problem is… it's too good. When Jesse Helms died there were no sappy and embarrassing obituaries, nor any glee from other corners. It was just reported. Here's who he is, he's dead now, moving on to unrest in Pakistan or child soldiers in West Africa. And the John Edwards affair? Only made the scroll on the bottom of the news. If I didn't have internet I would have missed it entirely. (I'm assuming they made more of it at home.) There's none of the joking about politicians, nothing about Bush's gaffes and failed policies. He does stuff and it's reported. Objectively and without context. Like he's a real politician, the kind other countries have.

I never thought I'd miss the underbelly of American media, but after being here for almost two months, watching only CNN and BBC and Al-Jazeera English, I've started seeing the U.S. in a different light. On television, our government looks scary-competent. It looks cold. And the American people — when they are featured at all, which is rare — look like cold and calculating minions of it. We look much more intentional than we really are. "Yes," we are saying to the world (unsmiling), "George Bush is our president. We like him, because he is powerful. We are more powerful than you."

One can, and I probably would, argue that this is closer to The Truth than the Jay Leno/Jon Stewart version of America, where George is a fuck-up who lies and bumbles, but not really Darth Vader, and the American people just kind of got stuck with him ha ha oh well.

Yet this cold version also misses the level and intensity of American opposition. I've gotten frustrated with German friends in the past who are critical of the U.S. government, particularly this administration, but obstinately refuse to acknowledge that I am too, probably way more than they are. But now I can kind of see it, because people who speak for me are not in power, and in this kind of news format, where it's Australia (60 seconds) –> France (30 seconds) –> South Africa (60 seconds) –> U.S. (30 seconds) –> Russia (60 seconds)….. there's no room at all for people like me. So why WOULD they think I exist? They watch the news, right, they're informed? And they don't see me. So my opposition looks like a defensive posture I'm adopting only because I'm under fire, in the moment, rather than the thing that drives me every day of my life.

It's making me re-think some of my reactions to Egyptian, and more broadly Middle Eastern, reactions to American policy. If you imagine an America with NO Left — not an ineffectual, underfunded, oppressed, or just generally embarrassing Left, the kind we complain about to each other, but literally NO Left, no anti-racist movement, no religions outside of God-told-me-to Crusader Christianity, no voices at all other than those of 5 or 6 politicians who are photographed disembarking from airplanes — I can see why it probably seems hopeless that anyone could ever deal with us. And maybe it really is! That's not my point. My point is that at home I feel American opposition and diversity. Here, I don't see it.

Do Muslims never get to have an idea of their own?

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

The case of Turkey's Department of Religious Affairs "reinterpreting" the hadith to make Islam more palatable to modern sensibilities has been the big story in Islamic circles this week. It was reported in the British press and received with fanfare across the blogosphere. I admit I am perplexed.

With the huge, blinding, blinking-lights-in-neon caveat that I Am Not An Islamic Scholar, and that I welcome comments from those who are, I need to rant about this because the whole idea of "reinterpreting" the hadith from a modern standpoint just doesn't make a lot of sense if you know how the hadith works. This is NOT because everything in Islam is set in stone and there can be only one interpretation and Muslims are conservative fanatics who believe a seventh-century code is the only proper guide to life in the modern era and therefore cannot bear the idea of new readings on old problems — it's because the hadith is already considered potentially unstable. But there is an established way of dealing with this. All Muslims know that, hence the collective "huh?" at this becoming such a big story in the West over the last few days.

To make the first of what I'm sure will be a series of scandalous simplifications, a hadith can be compared to an ancient game of telephone. Unlike the Qur'an, which was considered divine and memorized word-for-word, hadiths were stories told about (not by) Muhammad and were intended to complement (not replace) the Qur'an. Some of these were told by multiple people, though wording and details vary from person to person. Taken collectively, the hadith describes the traditions and sayings of Muhammad (the sunnah), which is the second-highest source of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, after the Qur'an.

Of course, like any game of telephone, there is danger in a story becoming corrupted as it goes through a chain of narrators. Allowing for this, each hadith is verified individually according to several factors, such as the character of the original narrator and the reliability of his or her memory, whether or not the chain of narration is unbroken, the number of narrators telling the same story, and so on. What you get, in the end, is a collection of thousands of hadiths with varying degrees of reliability. It is perfectly possible to have a hadith told by one unstable guy whom no one liked who had an ulterior motive and no one to back up his story, a story which doesn't even make sense anyway because no one believes Muhammad would really have done that thing this guy claims he did. Right? So that hadith would still be part of the conversation around Islamic law, but it would be classified as a fabrication or otherwise unsupportable by a variety of methods used to validate individual hadiths. In casual conversation these are usually referred to as "weak" hadiths (although the word for weak, da'if, has a specific meaning in this context).

By the same token, you can have a very "strong" hadith, let's say one told by twenty different companions of the prophet who were all noble servants of God and had no motive to lie, telling a story that seems consistent with the Qur'an, followed up by an unbroken chain of narration — and still argue about the applicability of that hadith to modern circumstances. For cases like this there are a number of "lower" sources of Islamic interpretation,* such as reasoning by analogy, decision by consensus, and, at the lowest level, the acceptance of default cultural practice when it does not conflict with any of the above.

This process happens all the time. It is an assumed part of 'official' Islamic jurisprudence, as well as a common conversation that goes on informally among Muslims on a dead regular basis. This is a good example, or this debate about the hijab, or this post regarding Islam's association with misogyny.

So when the BBC article says that the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs claims "that a significant number of the [hadiths] were never uttered by Muhammad", that's a serious case of non-news. Yet the tone of the article, and the tone of discussion around it, implies that this is a shocking new development in Islam, one that only a secular state like Turkey would have the balls to initiate and the kind of thing we could only see in our present world climate, now that Islam has been called on the carpet and ordered to modernize.

Okay, you say, so acknowledging the (sometimes) problematic sourcing of (some) hadiths is old hat, but what about the "strong" hadiths perceived to be incompatible with modernity? Isn't Turkey so very brazen and forward-thinking to go there, too? From the article:

Prof Mehmet Gormez, a senior official in the Department of Religious Affairs and an expert on the Hadith, gives a telling example.

"There are some messages that ban women from travelling for three days or more without their husband's permission and they are genuine.

"But this isn't a religious ban. It came about because in the Prophet's time it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that. But as time has passed, people have made permanent what was only supposed to be a temporary ban for safety reasons."

The project justifies such bold interference in the 1,400-year-old content of the Hadith by rigorous academic research.

Prof Gormez points out that in another speech, the Prophet said "he longed for the day when a woman might travel long distances alone".

So, he argues, it is clear what the Prophet's goal was.

Fine… but still not new. Feminists in Tunisia, for example, successfully achieved a ban on polygamy by arguing that it was permissible in the seventh century as a means of protection for widows and orphans during wartime, but that monogamy was clearly the Qur'anic ideal. This law, passed several decades ago, would have been even more controversial than what Turkey is doing now because these women were arguing about the Qur'an, not the hadith, and the Qur'an is considered the literal word of God.

Likewise, we hear of women trained in this "new" thinking going to rural parts of Turkey to explain that honor killings are not Islamic:

One of the women, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of headscarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Koran – one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith.

She says that, at the moment, Islam is being widely used to justify the violent suppression of women.

"There are honour killings," she explains.

"We hear that some women are being killed when they marry the wrong person or run away with someone they love.

"There's also violence against women within families, including sexual harassment by uncles and others. This does not exist in Islam… we have to explain that to them."

Yet another noble effort. Yet again, nothing new. There are so many examples of this I'm not going to list them here; suffice it to say that sending educated women into rural provinces to explain "true" Islam to illiterate peasant women is a well-established tradition in the Middle East and Central Asia, one that goes back at least 100 years, to the beginning of the feminist movement, and arguably much longer if we widen the discussion to include the historic role of Islamic schools in the teaching of literacy. My daughter's great-aunt, for example, born in 1920, got her first job as a teacher driving throughout Saudi Arabia, teaching girls in village schools. This was during a time of great upheaval, when the role of educating women was hotly contested. When this right was defended it was done so via the argument that women should learn "proper Islam" in place of "ignorant cultural practices." As evidenced by the Turkish case, elements of that debate continue today, on remarkably similar terms. Whether or not you find that position sufficiently radical to result in real change for women, at least situate it historically and acknowledge that this is not an example of bold new thinking.

Okay, you say, so it's not "new." Whatever. It's still good, right? This idea that Islam is subject to interpretation? Isn't it exciting to see people take up a project like this, in the face of certain fossilized versions of religion?

My problem here is that the perception of "newness" IS the story. It conforms to the view that Muslims occupy an earlier point on the progress timeline, and must be ripped, by force if necessary, into the modern era. (The Guardian article on this subject is called "Turkey strives for 21st century form of Islam" — in case we forgot that most OTHER Muslims are of the Dark Ages variety.) Sure, we may hate military intervention, but how else to foster change in a region where (we erroneously believe) people are still adhering to a form of religion unchanged and unquestioned for 1,400 years? That Muslims might — finally! for once! — be taking on this task through their own initiative is exciting only in the sense that we privately congratulate ourselves for having pushed them into it. When they stand up, we'll stand down. And so on.

The Guardian article makes this connection explicit:

The exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is being seen as an iconoclastic campaign to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.

The result, say experts following the ambitious experiment, could be to diminish Muslim discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with Islamic law, such as stoning and amputation, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in the large country that pivots between east and west, leaning into the Middle East while aspiring to join the European Union.

"Muslim beliefs and tradition" are balanced against "European and western philosophical methods and principles." They get to claim "stoning and amputation"; we get to claim "modern" and "dynamic." To drive this point even further into the ground, both articles rely on the tired trope of this leading to the possibility of "an Islamic reformation": an ahistorical idea rooted in the notion that Islam has remained stagnant.

In a related vein, the excitement here betrays a belief that extreme forms of Islamic conservatism begin with overly literal readings of Islamic texts. I've found this belief to be very popular with people who know a lot about, and are disgusted by, Christian fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism, they extrapolate, must be similar, only like using the Muslim Bible or whatever instead. I bet they hate science and abortion, too! In addition to ignoring some major theological reasons for this analogy not holding up, it's a framework that ignores the role of political circumstances, particularly colonialism, in shaping Islam-as-political-project. That's a separate and much longer discussion, but I'm noting it because I think, despite the fact that the word "terrorism" is never used, the read-between-the-lines hope being expressed here is that if Muslims only KNEW they had good, solid Islamic alternatives to Waging War On The Infidels, they would pack up and go home.

This is part of why the word "revised" is so problematic in this context. Read this sentence again:

One of the women, Hulya Koc, looked out over a sea of headscarves at a town meeting in central Turkey and told the women of the equality, justice and human rights guaranteed by an accurate interpretation of the Koran – one guided and confirmed by the revised Hadith.

There is no need to develop "revised Hadith" to make this point, since honor killings have never been an accepted part of Islamic practice. To note this is not to criticize the Turkish project itself, but to critique, again, its portrayal as daring innovation, because if anything such a portrayal lends credibility to the idea that actually honor killings ARE part of "real," "authentic" Islam. Not only is this false, but it is exactly the opposite of the project's intent. The implication is that, until last Tuesday, Muslims spent over a thousand years laboring under a medieval religious tradition; the only question now is whether or not they will accept "revisions" undertaken by a secular country like Turkey.

Which is an interesting subject itself. Had it not been for this rush of Western interest, I'd be optimistic. Turkey is secular, but its recent election was won by a (slightly) more conservative pro-Islamic party, and whatever the country's modern politics, it still retains an association with the Ottoman Empire, which would have been the proper site for a major Islamic project such as this one. More problematic is that it is being undertaken by a government agency, and government-sponsored mouthpieces of religion (an unfamiliar concept in the U.S., but popular abroad, not only in Muslim countries) are prone to issuing verdicts that are inevitably taken with a grain of salt. Still, the aim of this project sounds like something akin to Google — not the creation of new content, but the organization of old. Although this is being described as an attempt to overwrite all previous forms of Islam, I think, among Muslims, it would have been taken for what it was: an unusually ambitious but ultimately common and therefore familiar attempt to apply Islamic jurisprudence to modern circumstances. I have no particular problem with that, so long as it is understood to be part of a much larger discourse (and not, say, a state-sanctioned Wahhabist-style attempt to render all other readings moot).

Now, however, Turkey has been put on the defensive. This week, Mehmet Görmez, the director of the project, issued a statement decrying the BBC article, saying the Directorate of Religious Affairs is going so far as "to take the appropriate legal measures for redress" because the project was so inaccurately portrayed:

"Our project is not aimed at effecting a radical renewal of the religion, as is claimed by the BBC. Our objective is to help our citizens attain a better understanding of the hadith. Though I underlined several times during our interview with a BBC reporter that our project cannot be considered a reformation of Islam, he distorted the facts, saying Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam — and a controversial and radical modernization of the religion." …

A fresh look at the hadith collections — the gathering of which began some 200 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed — and how they are utilized and interpreted within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence, while sure to generate a degree of criticism and controversy, is a far cry from attempting to change, in effect, some of Islam's most important historical records…

"I had an interview with BBC reporter Robert Pigott around two months ago about the project. I underscored during our interview that it cannot be termed a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam. But, his article read 'the very theology of Islam is being reinterpreted in order to effect a radical renewal of the religion.' This does not reflect the truth."

If this denunciation speaks louder than the original misreporting, the project may still find an audience. If not, I'm guessing it'll be tossed in the pot along with other ideas assumed to be Western-tainted pseudo-Islam, inciting not "revolution" or "reformation," but reactionary backlash and a further retreat into religious conservatism.

* This process is Sunni — Shi'a practices vary.

Bhutto.

Monday, January 7th, 2008

I get most of my news from the internet and the radio. We have CNN but I rarely watch it unless there's a big visual event. While I was home, I was mostly away from all three sources.

Thursday morning (the 27th) my sister and I were leaving a gas station when I glanced at the newspaper rack and saw The Waterloo Courier's headline that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. I reacted the way you do when you hear something big, with what!'s and oh-my-god!'s, and then went searching through the rest of the rack to see if it was in any of the bigger papers, like The New York Times. It wasn't.

Now here is the thing. I honestly did not know if 1) it wasn't in any of the other papers because the news was so fresh that they hadn't gotten the story by the time they went to press, 2) if it was in the other papers but not considered enough of a story to make the front page, 3) if it had happened several days earlier and was old news by now, and I just hadn't heard it because I hadn't been following things, or 4) if it was even true.

Of course #1 did turn out to be right. The story broke, hard, within the hour, and then it was on every TV station, every radio station, my parents were talking about it, half my friends list posted about it, and my husband texted me the news on my phone.

But I thought about my reaction later, and realized what a crap shoot it's become, trying to predict what news will actually make it out of the apparent black hole that is the quote-unquote Muslim world. This goes for all international news, really, but I'm speaking about Muslim countries because so many Muslims complain about the way they're portrayed in the Western press, and I think this is often interpreted as a complaint, solely, about being portrayed negatively. Which is also a problem. But I think the larger issue is that, for all the news that we get in this country about Islam, the Middle East, and to a lesser extent South Asia, so much of it is the same five or six stories, re-hashed, continually, with American actors and American perspectives always, always, unrelentingly at the center. In retrospect it seems ludicrous that I could have thought Bhutto's assassination might be a page 16 blurb in the obits section, but then in so many other cases that's exactly how things have worked.

While I'm here and on the subject: HijabMan's sister and brother-in-law are in Pakistan right now and have been posting dispatches and analysis.

Tip of the hat, you hipster!

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Congratulations HijabMan! First he makes The New York Times, then USA Today, and now, awesomely, The Colbert Report!

Infidel.

Monday, March 5th, 2007

This is a great review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's latest book. By "great" I mean the article is great. I haven't read the book yet. But the article does justice to her life and her work (page 1) and then points out the problem with her theory (page 2). Most reactions to her are either fawning or dismissive, no middle ground, so this is refreshing.

It's a shame her first book came to the world's attention around the same time as Irshad Manji's did, so they keep getting thrown in the same intellectual pile. (I know I ordered them both in the same Amazon order. "If you liked… then you'll love…!") A shame, because Ali is about 150 IQ points smarter than Manji is. I still disagree with her a lot of the time, but I give her credit for being consistent to the truth as she perceives it.

Here is a New Yorker video from last October with her, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (who writes about human rights and Islamic jurisprudence), Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), Mahmood Mamdani (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim), and others. It's long, but worth watching.

Torture is fun.

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Even the army says '24' goes too farNew Yorker article about the politics of the creators of 24, and a visit they got from West Point asking them to stop, please, just stop.

Whether or not you watch or like the show, it's an interesting look at the "but it's just television!" defense, used repeatedly and then interspersed with comments from soldier-fans in Iraq (who just happen to be *actual interrogators*), and meetings the writers have with the likes of Mary Cheney and Karl Rove.

Covered girls.

Monday, December 4th, 2006

The first time I saw the cover of Asra Nomani's book I was in the Harvard bookstore with Hijabman. "Why is she veiled?" I asked him.

He knows Asra; I'd met her at least once. We both knew she didn't wear hijab. In fact she's one of the few women who sometimes goes unveiled even in the mosque, which is almost unheard of, even among women who don't otherwise veil, even among non-Muslim tourists. In the fury over the woman-led prayer in New York City last year, much of the controversy centered around the fact that Asra Nomani was in attendance and she didn't veil. Gasp.

This isn't something you just forget to do. It's something you do to make a point. So why was she veiled on the cover of her own book, a book that deals with this very subject?

"I don't think she had much control over cover art," he said.

A lot of writers make that complaint. It still bugged me, though. This wasn't a matter of different aesthetics. Using the veil in this way is not only cliched as all hell, it's actively playing into the stereotypes the book itself is trying to undermine. Plus, she appears unveiled on the back cover, which made the whole thing seem silly and costume-y on top of everything else.

Last month she wrote about her war over cover art: Why do Western publishers have a veil fetish? ("this is my mea culpa"). Her publishers eventually relented, and she appears unveiled on the paperback edition.

Good, I guess. But why was there a need to put her picture, or that of any woman, on either of the covers in the first place? Is it really so hard to sell this kind of book unless a) it's got a pretty girl on the front, or b) it's promising a trip inside the harem? That's it, them's the choices?

I'm not opposed to veiling. I'm not opposed to not veiling. I am opposed to reducing everything a Muslim woman says or does or writes or thinks to what she does or doesn't wear on her head. Look at those two covers side-by-side, and it's hard to believe the same book is contained between them. Notably, when they let her take off her veil they also stripped off the word "Mecca," presumably because that word's connotations don't sit right next to a picture of a woman, sans hijab, looking confident, happy, and self-assured (even though neither of the photos were taken IN Mecca — one was a photo shoot; the second was on the street). She's right when she quotes Mohja Kahf, in the piece linked above, who says the image forces Muslim women into "a Victim or Escapee package." In the first picture she looks trapped — not only because of the scarf, but because of the lighting, her head tilted down, the word MECCA as large as her face beneath her. In the second picture her scarf's around her neck instead of her head (just like those French libertines!), the light's on her face (did someone allow her to go outside without a male chaperone?), her smile is broader, and she's no longer Standing Alone in Mecca (how lonely), she's simply Standing Alone (what independence, what strength!). It's like she earned political asylum in the time it took the paperback to come out.

But her book isn't about suffering within Islam, nor about joyfully leaving it behind. It's about embracing it and reclaiming it. Neither of those images convey that.

Armbands & tattoos.

Monday, December 4th, 2006

"What good is identifying them?" he asked. "You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans."

At the end of the one-hour show, rich with arguments on why visual identification of "the threat in our midst" would alleviate the public's fears, Klein revealed that he had staged a hoax…

Honesty and pragmatism.

Monday, October 9th, 2006

I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book yesterday. I bought it prepared to hate it. After seeing her film and then all the publicity around the Theo Van Gogh stabbing, my first impression was that she was an attention-seeker lapping up the post-9/11 obsession with women's rights in Muslim countries. But I decided to give her a chance.

I didn't hate it. I didn't love it, either. I thought the sections detailing the abuse of women in immigrant communities were good. I thought her open letter to a Muslim woman wanting to leave her marriage was good, perhaps more as an eye-opener to non-Muslims who, as Ali repeatedly says, often mistake an immigrant woman's lack of options with "happiness with her place." I thought she had a valid point when she said the multiculturalism of the left can be condescending (i.e. it's okay to criticize Israel because they're "white like us," they're Western, they're a real state, but criticizing the Palestinians isn't fair because that's like making fun of the retarded) (I'm paraphrasing). Absent ANY discussion of economics, however, that view seems a little too easy. There is a real, concrete power difference between Israel and Palestine, in the form of money and tanks; the imbalance isn't all in our [racist] heads. (Someone needs to memo Tom Friedman about that, too, btw.)

Where I had trouble, though, was with her description of her own upbringing. I am all about drawing the political out of the personal, and I have no problem with her writing about her childhood as an entry point into the rest of the book. I like that stuff; it's like reality TV for anthropology students. The problem is that 1) she's very deliberately writing for a layman's audience of non-Muslim Westerners, 2) her experience was quite frightful, and 3) she paints it as The Universal Muslim Experience.

#1, alone, is great. I think there should be more of that kind of writing, by Muslim writers, especially women. Most of the popular political stuff is written by white dudes.

#2 is also valid. See Running With Scissors, Dry, Smashed, Wife Swap, whatever. I'm being glib here but I don't mean to trivialize her background: my point is that I don't have an aversion to memoir or personal narratives in general, even if those narratives don't necessarily reveal some Universal Truth. For one thing, I enjoy the reading. For another, I think there's something useful about throwing another story onto the pile of human experience, and as depressing as her story is it's refreshing, if I can use that word in this context, to read about a woman my age who spent the '70s and '80s dealing with real shit, where "coming to terms with my sexuality" didn't mean struggling with the spit-vs.-swallow dilemma at age 15 while Bon Jovi blared in the background — it meant evading an honor killing, or having your clit sliced off with a piece of broken glass. I'm not against sex-positive discussions in an American context, but I get pissy when that American context isn't acknowledged — when American writers place themselves on some kind of repression-to-freedom timeline with no recognition of America's image as backwards and puritan among many Europeans, or the fact that women in many parts of the world have problems bigger than "guilt" when it comes to being open about their sex lives. To that end I think writers like Ali, who write about sex without a shred of whimsy, are useful.

But #3 is where things get tricky. Speaking as someone who has been both thanked and derided for pulling too much general out of the specific, especially when it comes to "culture" (whatever that is), I recognize what she's doing and I don't fault her the attempt. I also think she's right to place her struggles on Islam, as she experienced it — in other words I don't think her father was insane or uniquely dictatorial; his actions were influenced by his culture's interpretation of his religion as he understood it. If she's going to write a book that is even partially a memoir, Islam needs to take center stage.

But add 1, 2, and 3 together and you've got a Not Without My Daughter sort of problem. It's not that Betty Mahmoody wasn't really abused by her Iranian husband, nor is it her fault that her story appeals to a Western audience more than would a broader, academic treatment of the same subject. But does the writer bear NO responsibility when it just so happens that her unique personal story plays right into the racist misconceptions of the very audience she seeks to educate?

Ali addresses this directly (and I give her credit for that, too) — she says no. The audience's racism is their problem; she's not going to alter her story or bend over backwards saying not all Muslims are like this in order to placate the assholes. In at least two places she does, in fact, talk about progressive vs. mainstream vs. fundamentalist (her term, not mine) Muslims, but those sections have a footnote feel about them when the majority of her book indicts the whole of Islam (the Qur'an, Sunna, Mohammed, and one billion believers — I'm not exaggerating here) for the form of sexism she, specifically, endured as a child and as a young woman.

So which version of Islamic family life is the "right" one? How is her life not-the-norm, where did she get it wrong? I know the easy answer here is to say there is no norm. At least that's what I fell back on whenever I was writing papers in college, and I always got good marks for saying that. *pats self on back, preens for professors* But I also think it's a cop-out. She's not wrong to say Muslims, as a group, have a history of over-policing female sexuality (especially pre-marital sexuality), that this has ruined the lives of countless girls, and noting that The Worst Case Scenarios commonly associated with Islam (honor killings, FGM, the stoning of rape victims) are not and have never been Islamic practices doesn't magically make it unacceptable to talk about the damage done when a family places the whole of its energy on preserving the honor of its daughters. The world needs more people who will advocate on those girls' behalf, even if it means enduring death threats, and for that she wins all kinds of awards with me.

What she doesn't talk about, however, is the way this plays out in Muslim families less draconian than her own. And I think that's the single, serious failing of her book. I don't know enough about Somalia to know if her experience was an aberration, but I do know it's not representative of the Muslim families I have known. She doesn't address the way class and culture have influenced Islamic practice over the last 1,400 years: she pins all problems on Mohammed, that sexist dick, and in so doing plays right into the clash-of-civilizations trope popularized by Western male writers with motives far less noble than hers. Nor does she address the military and economic imbalance between the West and Islamic countries, and/or/therefore why disempowered people might turn to Islam as an overarching signature of shared cultural identity in order to unite otherwise disparate groups and interests. To withhold that information is to leave the reader (and remember, "the reader" here refers to Average Joe, or in this case maybe Average Hans, the one who came to this book because OMG someone stabbed Van Gogh's nephew, whoa holy shit: this being her target audience) with the impression that Islam, the religion, and Muslims, the people, are, almost by definition, invested in the sexist control of their daughters just for the fucking hell of it, "because God told me to." What assholes. Let's bomb them.

In short, I guess, I admire her dedication to saving girls from abusive families, and for taking on Western discourses and institutions that seek to call that sort of rescue unnecessary, if not racist, or at least "culturally insensitive." But isn't the point to work to eliminate such abuse in the first place? I'm impressed with her commitment to human rights, but how do play savior with your left hand when your right hand is inflaming the problem?

An Open Letter to Bill O'Reilly.

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

Dear Bill (can I call you Bill?),

I've always thought you were the meanest person in the world. Others may be more powerful, or more dangerous, or even more conservative, but none of them are meaner. For a while I worried E.D. Hill might be able to steal the title from you, but nope, in the end no one compares.

The trouble with being pompous, though, Bill, is that there's no room to mess up. Even Dubya can fumble through a speech and make waste of the English language because the public relations image he's crafted for himself involves a big dose of aw-shucks humility. In reality I'm sure he's a lot smarter than we think he is, and a lot less humble, too, but enough people believe in his brush-clearin' dog-pattin' Texas-swaggerin' persona that he can get away with all kinds of destruction and pass it off as down-home bumbling idiocy. Gosh dangit, we all make mistakes!

You, however, have no margin of error. So when you write a column like this one, in which you take a series of celebrities to task for not having "a clue about what's going on in the world," you are not allowed to challenge "the pouty Dixie Chicks" (love the sexism!) to "tell [you] the origin of the Islamic Brotherhood." Nope, not when no such organization exists.

Granted, I may not be giving you enough credit. Perhaps your knowledge of Islamist networks is so deep and so vast that you are referring to "The Islamic Brotherhood in Guatemala," a minor cell that has been inactive since 1991 when it caused some property damage to the British embassy. If that's the case, however, it seems only fair to point out that Guatemala has no significant Muslim population and even intelligence officials believed that attack was the work of Guatemalan leftists who wanted to associate their cause with the Gulf War. I'm sure there are other, small organizations scattered throughout the world that also call themselves The Islamic Brotherhood, and maybe one of these splinter groups has caught your eye, to the extent that you believe The Dixie Chicks cannot possibly understand the present political situation unless they are able to provide a complete background on this issue. If that's the case you'd be expecting more out of them than is expected out of most tenured professors of Islamic Studies, but okay. Sure. I can buy it.

I'm guessing, though, that you mean The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist network in the Middle East, with branches in over a dozen countries and still the largest opposition party in Egypt.

Am I quibbling over semantics? Maybe. "Islamic" and "Muslim" in this context can be considered synonyms, and I'm sure if you're called out on this issue that's what you'll say. Thing is, though, Bill, The Muslim Brotherhood, unlike "The Islamic Brotherhood in Guatemala," isn't a minor splinter cell. It's been around since 1928 and is the mother of all Islamist groups. It is a gargantuan organization that everyone has heard of. Getting its name wrong is like calling The Democratic Party "The Democracy Party." The meaning is right, but the words are wrong. No one who follows the antics of the Democrats with any degree of rigor would make that mistake. See where I'm going with this?

I'm also surprised, given your politics, that you would bring up the example of The Muslim Brotherhood in the first place. Since The Dixie Chicks probably have better things to do than explain its origin to you, I'd like to step in on their behalf. I think there are some lessons here that are relevant to your column.

The Muslim Brotherhood was started in Egypt during the height of anti-colonial struggles. At its inception, like most opposition groups of its time, it favored the use of violence as one strategy for throwing off the colonizers. (Keep in mind that the British were literally, physically, in Egypt at the time, doing things like razing villages and executing dissidents. Opposing them with violence was not the same thing as blowing up a bus full of women and children in modern-day London.)

The Muslim Brothers had hoped to take over Egypt once the British were thrown out. It didn't happen. Secular nationalism won out, and Gamal abdl-Nasser and his Free Officers came to power in 1952. The Brotherhood remained a formidable opposition party, however, and Nasser quickly started cracking down on it. It's been officially banned in that country since 1954, although Nasser, and later Sadat, would periodically ease up on it whenever they felt it prudent to support a counterweight to the communist opposition parties. During the next twenty years it spread throughout the Middle East.

This is where things get interesting, Bill. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s. Despite the oo scary! connotations its name (however you say it) has in the United States, The Muslim Brotherhood is considered something of a sell-out party in countries like Egypt. Comprised mostly of members of the professional classes, it has put all its energy into getting its members into elected parliamentary positions and all of its money into social service projects, like financing schools and hospitals. In the West, terrorist groups such as Gama'a al-Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad are often described as "offshoots" of The Muslim Brotherhood. The word "offshoot" does not accurately capture the disdain those groups have for the Brothers' willingness to work within the system. If you have a solid job as a mechanical engineer, an interest in politics, and a strong commitment to Islam, The Brotherhood may be the party for you. If you are, on the other hand, a young person who has been unemployed for years and sees Mubarak's cooperation with the Israelis, the Americans, and the World Bank as the root of your troubles, you're much more likely to be attracted to a group with less patience and more weapons, regardless of how many times you pray each day or how many virgins you expect in heaven.

I have no more interest in seeing another Islamist theocracy come to power than you do. But I'm also aware that The Muslim Brotherhood provides a bit of a wrinkle in Bush's supposed pro-democracy stance. What happens when a democratic system is indeed implemented, and the Islamists sweep it? This isn't a hypothetical question. If the example of Algeria tells us anything, it may result in a ten-year civil war that leaves over 100,000 corpses.

Which is why I'm surprised you bring it up. When Egypt held its most recent round of elections — which you and your right-wing ilk held up as proof that the cultural tide was finally shifting in the Middle East, all thanks to Bush et. al. and their delivery of American-style democracy to the region — The Muslim Brotherhood made gains so unprecedented even members of its own party were shocked. As a fan of democracy myself, and a longtime critic of Mubarak's administration, I'm pleased that Egyptians were able to cast those votes. Nevertheless, I must say I was a little alarmed by the results. I would love to see Mubarak's 20-year-plus dictatorship brought to end and replaced with something more representative of the Egyptian people, but I can't help but feel nervous if that result would be Saudi-style application of shari'a law.

These are dilemmas you never address, Bill, and so I'm left wondering why you would call upon The Dixie Chicks, of all people, to answer a question you haven't answered yourself. In a world as black-and-white as yours, where you're either with us or against us, where you can find room enough in that cold dark heart of yours to ridicule Cindy Sheehan, or to have Jeremy Glick, the son of a Port Authority worker killed on 9/11, escorted out of your building because he made connections between September 11 and early American support of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, I am surprised you would, however ineptly, make reference to the grey area epitomized by The Islamic (sic) Brotherhood.

I'm guessing you just didn't know any better.

There's no shame in that. No one person can be expected to know everything, and some subjects are particularly murky. Ask me to explain differential equations, or why Pluto's not a planet anymore, or why Paris Hilton's head is so freakishly small relative to her body, and I'll be grasping at straws. If I wanted to understand those things, however, I'd pick up a book or two. I wouldn't demand that George Clooney and Tina Fey and Bill Maher and The Dixie Chicks explain it to me.

Just sayin'.

Yours in solidarity,
Laura