Fear of a Muslim Planet: A Conversation on Islamophobia

Yesterday, I participated in a “conversation” on Islamophobia held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The panel included myself, Linda Sarsour, Bassem Youssef, Douglas Murray, Asra Nomani, Faisal Saeed al Mutar


The full audio can be heard here: http://www.wnyc.org/story/bam-islamophobia/

My Yoda impression is at 1:39:40

Here is a transcript of my 3 minute opening remarks.

Hope it fell on some impressionable ears and can push things forward.



“Good evening BAM and Assalam Alikum to all.

I am Wajahat Ali – a multihyphenated, left handed, consistently brown skinned son of Pakistani immigrants born and raised in California whose first language was Urdu and who knew only 3 words of English in preschool: Shutup, Idiot, and uh oh Spaghettio.

I am an American Muslim of Pakistani descent.

And Nothing – NOTHING – says popularity like those three words: American, Muslim, and Pakistani.

In America, they ask me why does Islam hate the West?

Abroad I’m asked, Why does the West hate Islam.

And as a Muslim, I’m asked to apologize for criminal actions that I’ve never committed, done by violent extremists that I’ve never met.

And all this time I’m asking myself, “Who is Islam and the West? How come I’ve never met either of them.”

See Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do, and the overwhelming majority of them – according to the facts- reject violent extremism, love our freedoms, and are “moderate.”

Oh, you heard of moderate muslims, right? – you know these rare, mythical creatures that you can find after you bypass a “no go zone” enclave dominated by “non assimilationist muslims who carry out as much of sharia law as they can” in america and europe — that’s a direct quote by the way from Governer Bobby Jindal.

See, there are some who want you to fear me simply because I’m an American who happens to be a practicing Muslim.

Their rhetoric seeks to turn us – Muslims – your neighbors, friends, doctors, taxi cab drivers, tech support, relatives, into perpetual suspects instead of what we are – partners, neighbors and fellow Americans.

Their extremist narrative only seeks to divide Americans among religious and ethnic lines.

But apparently to some ISLAMOPHOBIA is just fiction: a manufactured ruse used to silence free speech and dissent. It apparently doesn’t exist – like Climate Change.

Awesome. This was the easiest honorarium ever. I guess we can go home now.

But –

Islamophobia exists. It’s real. It’s pervasive. It’s toxic and now it’s mainstream. Islamophobia is anti-Muslim bigotry – don’t let any verbal, semantic or pedantic gymnastics fool you otherwise. We know homophobia means anti-LGBT bigotry, we know antisemitism refers to anti-jewish hate. Islamophobia makes all of us – not just Muslims – all of us, including our troops and law enforcement, less safe and secure.

And it’s fundamentally anti-American. It’s against our American heritage, our values of pluralism and our freedoms. And it’s really nothing new – it takes its DNA and its playbook directly from hateful fear mongering campaigns that were once used against Jews, Catholics and Japanese Americans.

It’s divides the world into “Us vs them” and paints an apocalyptic, civilizational conflict – “Islam is at war with the West” and “The West is at war with Islam”

But – there’s a significant cost to such inflammatory hate.

Islamophobia overwhelmingly affects those who are innocent civilians.

It doesn’t just affect muslims, but also those who look “Muslimy.”

The first post 9/11 hate murder was of Balbir Singh Sohdi, a Sikh American, whom the murderer chose because he was “dark-skinned, bearded and wore a turban.”

Ask yourself this: WHERE WILL THIS LEAD US? How do we benefit from hysteria, fear and scapegoating? What do these Islamophobes inspire except division & hate?

This isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about Cartoons or satire. This is about extremism and hate – and it’ll take all of us to overcome it. Thank you.”

U.S. Muslim voters are election-year outcasts

MSN Tracking Image

Civil rights lawyer: ‘American Muslims feel slightly politically radioactive’
The Associated Press

Lepers. Untouchables. Politically radioactive.

These are ways American Muslims describe their status in an election year when Barack Obama’s opponents are spreading rumors that he is Muslim, when he is Christian, and linking him to terrorists.

So when Colin Powell, a Republican, condemned using Muslim as a smear — a tactic he said members of his own party allowed — there was an outpouring of gratitude and relief from American Muslims.

“That speech really came out of left field and really shocked us,” said Wajahat Ali, 27, an attorney and playwright from Fremont, Calif. “The sense is that it’s about time. He said something that needed to be said.”

The retired general, who was President Bush’s first secretary of state, made the comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” as he broke with his party to endorse the Democratic nominee for president. Powell noted in last Sunday’s broadcast that Republican John McCain did not spread rumors about Obama’s faith, but Powell said he was “troubled” that others did. Continue reading

Muslims for America: Powell and his Obama Endorsement Speech

Colin Powell’s declaration – ‘So what if Obama is a Muslim?’ – was an overdue repudiation of Republican smears

After being treated as political kryptonite and depicted as enraged Orcs for the past seven years, Muslims and Arabs – the media’s modern day Morlocks – temporarily emerged as human beings thanks to Colin Powell’s Obama endorsement on Sunday.

The former US secretary of state partially redeemed his tarnished legacy by asking:

What if [Obama] is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be president?

Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion: he’s a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

Unfortunately, according to an increasingly vocal, racist and Islamophobic minority, which has been shamefully aided over the years by the inexcusable silence of a complicit mainstream media, there is something fundamentally “un-American” about wearing the contemporary Scarlet Letter: Muslim.

Continue reading


Christian Rage and Muslim Moderation

Despite recent provocations against Islam in the West, many Muslims seem weary of the same old tit for tat.

Christopher Dickey
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Mar 27, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI, an exiled Egyptian journalist, a bleach-blond Dutch parliamentarian and Danish cartoonists all have something in common with a Teddy bear named Mohammed. They have been at the center of that seething storm called Muslim rage in the last few months, and, with the exception of Mohammed T. Bear, they appear to be testing that anger to see if it will erupt … yet again.

If it does, the crisis could peak just as Benedict begins his visit to the United States in mid-April. As he preaches world peace before the United Nations, once more we’ll witness scenes of books and flags and effigies burning in the world of Muslims. If precedent holds, rioters may die in Kabul, a nun could be murdered in Somalia, a priest might be gunned down in Turkey. All this is all too predictable, as provocateurs like the peroxide blond must certainly know.

And yet, this time the shockwaves may amount to nothing more than ripples. If the satellite networks allow their lenses to zoom back from the book burners, they may discover there’s no raging crowd there, just the usual collection of unemployed malcontents on any street in Karachi. And what is most important, we may find that the Muslims of this world are just as weary of this sorry spectacle—maybe even more so—than the Christian, Jewish and secular publics in the West.

There are several signs of change, and not always from the usual suspects.

In Turkey, the once militantly secular government is now dominated by the AK Party, which has Islamic roots and recently passed a constitutional amendment that ended the ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves at state universities. Yet the same government is supporting theological scholarship intended to modernize—and moderate—traditional Islamic teachings. An initiative run out of the prime minister’s office is re-examining interpretation of the Qur’an itself as well as the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey at Chatham House in London, recently told the BBC, “This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but if you think, it’s changing the theological foundations.”

In Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah once was known as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah and of its suicidal shock troops, who blew up American Marines and diplomats in Beirut in the early 1980s. Today, instead of calling the faithful to arms in response to perceived Western insults, Fadlallah calls on Muslim intellectuals, elites and religious scholars to work through the media and political organizations as well as “legal, artistic and literary” channels.

Fadlallah tells the faithful that the goal of Westerners who commit “aggressions against the Muslim world’s sacred symbols” is to create a rift between Muslims and Western societies—and to isolate those Muslims who live in Western societies. He decries those Muslims he calls takfiri who claim they are fighting heresy with violence. He says they play into the hands of Islam’s enemies. He even calls for “a united Islamic-Christian spiritual and humanitarian front.”

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah was pushing an agenda of political and religious moderation even before he assumed full control of the country in 2005. The kingdom still holds to the ultraconservative Sunni religious dogmas known as Wahhabism, and the monarchy’s legitimacy is tied to its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. That won’t change. But Abdullah has fired 1,000 of the Muslim prayer leaders on the government payroll and decreed that the 40,000 who remain must be retrained to make sure they are not stoking radical violence.

Yes, there may be less here than meets the eye. When I talked to Hakura on the phone Wednesday morning, he cautioned that the Turkish rethink of Islam is rooted in national traditions and might be a hard sell in the Arab Middle East. Fadlallah may be enthusiastic about reconciliation with Christians, but on his Web site he still presents himself as an implacable foe of what he calls Israel’s “Zionist project that is based on violence, arrogance and despise [sic] of other countries.” A highly placed Saudi friend assured me the other day the so-called “retraining” of Saudi Arabia’s retrograde imams really would be more like “a dialogue” to discuss the best ways to preach.

Islam, like any faith, has plenty of violent fools and fanatics. Certainly it is hard to credit the judgment or intelligence of anyone in Sudan connected with the arrest of British expatriate schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons a few months ago. You’ll recall she made the nearly fatal mistake of letting her class of seven-year-olds in Khartoum name a Teddy bear Mohammed. To the kids, many of whom were named Mohammed themselves, the name just sounded friendly and cuddly. Sudanese authorities claimed Gibbons was inciting religious hatred and insulting the Prophet. Eventually she apologized and they released her—against the wishes of the mob calling for her death.

But even with many qualifications and reservations, in my view the conciliatory trends in Islam make an interesting contrast with renewed provocations coming out of Europe.

There’s no use wasting much space on the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, the dyed blond with ugly roots who is promoting a film he says will prove his belief that “Islamic ideology is a retarded, dangerous one.” What to say about a politician reminiscent of Goldmember in an Austin Powers film who claims the Qur’an should be banned like Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”? No Dutch television network will show his little movie, so he released it on the Internet this week, reportedly drawing 2 million page views in the first three hours. The general reaction in Holland thus far has been little more than shoulder shrugging.

Danish cartoonists and editors previously unknown to the wider world garnered international attention when they published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 that brought on bloody riots in several Muslim countries in 2006. Having sunk once again into obscurity, the editors decided to publish one of the cartoons again last month, reportedly after the arrest of an individual plotting to kill the cartoonist. Great idea. Take one man’s alleged crime and respond with new insults to an entire faith.

The most problematic event of late, however, was Pope Benedict’s decision to baptize the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in Saint Peter’s on the night before Easter, thus converting a famously self-hating Muslim into a self-loving Christian in the most high-profile setting possible. Perhaps Benedict really thought, as the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano opined, that the baptism was just a papal “gesture” to emphasize “in a gentle and clear way religious freedom.” But I am not prepared to believe for a second, as some around the Vatican have hinted this week, that the Holy Father did not know who Allam was or how provocative this act would appear to Muslim scholars, including and especially those who are trying to foster interfaith dialogue.

Ever since 2006, when Benedict cited a medieval Christian emperor talking about Islam as “evil and inhuman,” and the usual Muslim rabble-rousers whipped up the usual Muslim riots, more responsible members of the world’s Islamic community have hoped to restore calm and reason. And now this. “The whole spectacle, with its choreography, persona and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam,” said a statement issued by Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for 138 Muslim scholars who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with Rome earlier this month.

Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican’s representative in Arabia, was reluctant to criticize the pope, of course, but when I reached him in Abu Dhabi Wednesday morning he clearly had reservations about the way Allam was received into the Church. He said that local Christians took him aside at Easter services and asked him “why it had to be done in such an extraordinary way on a special night.” Hinder contrasted Allam’s conversion to Catholicism with former British prime minister Tony Blair’s, which “was done in a private chapel.”

“What I cannot accept is if it is done in a triumphalistic way,” said Hinder. That is, if Allam were not declaring only his personal beliefs but intentionally demeaning the faith of Muslims. Yet it is hard to read the spectacle of his conversion otherwise, because that’s exactly the tone in which Allam writes. He has made his career portraying Islam as a religion that terrorizes. Allam says he has lived in hiding and in fear for years because of reaction to his columns in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, which regularly denounce excesses by Muslims and praise Israel. Allam converted to Catholicism, he says, as he turned away from “a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam.” Speaking as if for the pope, Allam told one interviewer in Italy, “His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims.” A Vatican spokesman says Allam was not speaking for the pope.

Allam claims he is hoping his public embrace of Catholicism will help other converts to speak out in public. But that hardly seems likely. The more probable scenario is that others will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam’s books, like many Muslim-bashing screeds that preceded them, climb the best-seller lists.

Unless—and this really would be news—the Muslim world just turns the page.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel” – Commentary by Asma T. Uddin

My commentary on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel was written over time. I jotted down my thoughts as I read the book, stopping to write every so often. You may be wondering why I didn’t just finish the book and write some sort of composite review, but I find some value in recording my impressions when they are fresh…like an evolving relationship with a supposedly evolving character. This is especially true of an autobiography, where the writer is at least attempting to explain events as they occurred without the character knowing where his or her life was headed. Unlike fiction, the writer doesn’t have an overall “plan”, however vague, for the character.


March 4, 2008:

Currently on page 134 of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 350 page autobiography Infidel. The book is not just about her past, but about how her past apparently justifies her personal and global judgments on religion and Islam specifically. Aside from the female genital circumcision part of her story, which was strangely brief, her story isn’t terribly different from what even most American Muslim women can speak to. That is, most of us who have grappled meaningfully with our faith have dealt with the fundo phase, where black-and-white Islam seems to be both a comfort and an assault on our notions of self-dignity and worth. We all struggle to define gender equality within a framework that doesn’t seem to really allow it.

But somehow, some or, I hope, most of us, don’t end up where she did – frustrated with Islam, unable to reconcile it with her deep seated notions of equality, sexuality, and individuality. That raises a question, though: why her? Why not us? What was different?

I think a part of it may be that she didn’t have the sort of mentors and companions, vicarious or real, who helped her with her spiritual negotiation. Her father was often missing, and her mother was staunchly anti-discussion and free thought. She was bent on having her daughters conform to her version of Islam and culture and to essentially live out what she had been forced to endure. Hirsi Ali’s siblings were not too helpful either, each living their own paths, her sister fiercely defiant and her brother finding his own winding way to authority, control, and honor. Her friends and acquaintances, teachers like Sister Aziza, and even those who attended the evening debates on Islam-related matters – none of them seemed to align with her. Her deepest love, Abshir, was perhaps the closest she got to finding a spiritual soulmate, but his parallel confusion made him obviously hypocritical. She spurned him because he created divisions where she sought unity.

Maybe there’s a character still waiting in the curtains, somewhere in the latter half of her book, who brought meaning to her religious quest. But I doubt it. If she ended up where she did, then her religious experiences were on a constant downward spiral, not leading her somewhere that made sense. Her past wasn’t making her present and future anymore whole. Being lost rather than grounded in time and life’s progression, in the ways I suggest in Spirals, seemed to be the cause of her religous infidelity.

But again – why? Why didn’t she find a mentor? Why does God give some of us that companion, and some of us not, even if the lack of such guidance can lead to our losing faith?


March 14, 2008:

So now I’m on page 270 of Infidel. As I near the end of the book, I am seeing more and more of what I had picked up on earlier in the book – that many, if not all, of her conclusions about Islam are simplistic and logically fallible. She states her conclusions point-blank, and doesn’t even acknowledge the existence or possibility of counterarguments. I’m at the point in the book right after she learned of the 9/11 attacks and is reevaluating her views on Islam. Her colleague states that this attack is due more to socioeconomic, political and cultural matters than it is to religious belief. She denies his position vehemently, using as proof that because, for example, the hijackers weren’t Palestinian, there is no way this can be related to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Or that because they themselves are not poor and oppressed, it has nothing to do with social and political oppression. For someone who fancies herself deeply connected to rationalism and Western Enlightenment, she doesn’t exhibit much in the way of either logical consistency or sociological sensitivity. Just because the hijackers claim to be committing crimes in order to attain religious reward doesn’t preclude the fact that (1) the hijackers’ version of religion is taught and encouraged by social circumstances and that this version may be entirely distinct and even antithetical to the religion itself; and (2) that the hijackers don’t have to be poor, or Palestinian for that matter, to feel tied enough to those causes that they feel the need to act for them.

Although the attacks cannot be justified, some holistic explanation is in order, something that pinpoints a problem that needs to be intelligently addressed. Racist, simplistic conclusions that are not related to the core issue are not going to help. That the Dutch commentators point to Islam’s history of peace and intellectual fervor doesn’t make them somehow out of touch with reality, as Hirsi Ali states. Instead, these commentators are looking for reasons why a culture that bred tolerance and rationalism can suddenly be used to justify totally barbaric acts against humanity. Particular religious interpretations feeding off of peripheral issues are the problem, not the core itself – otherwise the entire history of Islam would be about violence and hatred.

To the extent that she uses her own experiences of poverty and oppression as a way of reaching conclusions about Islam, she seems oblivious to other causes of socioeconomic depravity. She also doesn’t realize that the Islamic Empire itself was vastly more wealthy and sophisticated than the Western world. By viewing all of Islam through the lens of the current global situation and, even more narrowly, her particular experience of Islam is to discount a million factors and influences, ranging from the political to the social and to the psychological results of such influences.

From the moment she steps into Europe, she remains completely enamored. She acknowledges in passing that Holland does have some problems, but overall, it seems to her that the Dutch are living an almost idyllic life. It’s unfortunate that in all of Holland she didn’t find a compassionate, rational Muslim to connect with (or at least she conveniently excludes such characters from her book) but that such Muslims exist is, I’m sure, something she learned of from her colleagues or readings. But she ignores the possibility of such a thing – a modernized, intellectually-aware Muslim, and chooses instead to conflate all things bad and poor with Islam and Muslims, as if one cannot be extricated from the other. That her initial childish impressions of Europe and modernization were not at some point tempered by intellectual subtlety is not merely unfortunate, but evidence of a conscious disregard for anything that would shake her predetermined notions of Islam and Muslims.


March 22, 2008

I finally finished the book a few days ago. Throughout my reading, I periodically abandoned the book but whenever I finally made it back, I found it hard to put down. The drama, deceit, and sensationalism kept me hooked, I guess. These 80 pages to the end of the book, however, were quite painful, and mostly I plugged through it because I just wanted to be done with it.

First, the parts of her story that I can understand: I can understand her frustration with lack of cultural integration. The Dutch government, in wanting to give immigrants their space, decided against forced assimilation. Hirsi Ali is right in demanding that the government not use its anti-integration policy as a way of turning a blind eye to existing human rights violations.

A bit trickier: I also understand her insistence on pointing to the religious bases of some of these human rights violations. But, I think this approach is about cultural sensitivity rather than about attacking religion. When it comes to religiously-motivated crimes, it is not enough to blame culture alone, when such demarcation between culture and religion fails to get to the crux of the matter as the perpetrators themselves understand it. That is, if a father feels it is his religious duty to kill his daughter for her illicit love affair, then in counteracting that problem, the government must deal with the role of religion in that man’s worldview. Again, dealing with religion is about understanding it enough to come up with a solution more attuned to the problem. In the case of religion, it may be about counteracting a particular interpretation with another one. In no case is it about attacking all forms of the religion itself.

Now, the parts I don’t understand and which, essentially, belie understanding: I don’t understand how someone purportedly tied to the values of liberalism, such as respecting diversity, can continue to attack a major world religion in the crudest of ways, and then wonder why the reaction is so virulent. Of course, actions such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh are not justifiable, but to describe the incident as “I don’t understand how someone can be so angry at a mere film” (as Hirsi Ali states in her book) is ridiculously blind to the fact that Submission was not a mere film. It was a film that insulted its Muslim viewers in the deepest core of their being. She ends her book by noting that some people have told her that her criticisms of Islam are too aggressive, but goes on to say that the pain oppressed women suffer is far worse. But do all Muslims have to be constantly insulted in order for women oppressed in the name of Islam to find relief? According to her atheist dogmatism, religion is the bane of all existence. And so despite billions of people’s intimate, meaningful connections to their faith tradition, it is perfectly okay to insult them.

Though her atheism makes it legitimate, in her eyes, for her to insult religion and religious folk, she does take some pains throughout the book to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. She notes, for example, that “unlike” Judaism and Christianity, Islam requires that its followers’ relationship with God be entirely about submission. I am not sure where and when she educated herself about Judaism and Christianity, but she seems to have completely overlooked each of these religion’s fundamentalist strains.

For Hirsi Ali, “submission” requires blind following, with no space for questioning or interpretation. In fact, earlier on in the book, when her father tells her about his relatively modern views of Islam, she blows him off by stating that his views are mere interpretations and that real Islam is about literal interpretation. She echoes this thought toward the end of her book when she claims that Saudi Arabia practices the “purest” form of Islam.

In all of this talk of purity and what Islam really is, it never occurs to her that she has basically internalized a particular rhetoric about “pureness” and the essential superiority of literal readings of Scripture. She decides somewhere along the line that this particular rhetoric is the truest expression of Islam. Unlike millions of Muslims who undergo spiritual evolution in the course of their lives as they attempt to better understand their religion, Hirsi Ali somehow knows, for certain, what Islam is. She never doubts it or checks it against the practice and belief of the full diversity of Muslims across the world. Again, I find her naïveté unsettling – and her rise to a position of political prominence even more disturbing.

Asma Uddin is a freelance writer and editor, and is an attorney at the national law firm, Morgan Lewis & Bockius. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.