Who Are You Calling a Fundamentalist?

About a year ago, I made a decision against my better judgment and went to a bar with a friend. He was interested in meeting up with a woman that he’d been dating for a while. I ordered my usual when going to a bar: a frothy cup of coca cola.

I was then asked a series of standard rapid-fire questions. Did you only order a coke? Don’t you want alcohol? Why don’t you drink? When my friend intervened and explained to her that I’m a Muslim, I received the strangest question of my life.

Are you like a Mozlum Fundamentalist? (stress on the way she said mozzz lummm)

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ummm what?

I had no idea how to respond.

I laughed, desperately hoping that it was just a joke.

Ha, you must be joking!

She wasn’t.

This, I believe, is nothing less than a crisis. The fact that she would seriously ask me that question is evidence of the crisis of ignorance. I eventually explained to her that, despite her keen eye, she was mistaken. Unfortunately for her, I’m not a “Muslim Fundamentalist”.

Homeland Security’s vigilantes foiled again!

But this of course begs the question: What is a “Muslim Fundamentalist”?

Sure, I had a vague idea of what she meant. Probably some guys she saw on the news wearing black headwraps and messing around on monkey bars. When you really think about it though, can you give accurate definitions to any of these terms that are thrown around today? Islamism, Islamic extremism, Jihadism, Islamofascism, etc…

First of all, “Fundamentalism” is Christian terminology. Specific groups of Christians called themselves “fundamentalists” in some protestant movements around the turn of the 20th century. It was associated with getting back to the fundamentals of Christianity in response to all the secularism, decadence, and immorality. “Fundamentalism” really came to the fore in the United States during the Scopes Trial. So the fact that “fundamentalism” gets associated with Islam isn’t really an accurate use of the word.

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Are you now, or have you ever been, the descendant of a monkey?

Secondly, all these terms get conflated and distorted so we lump different groups of people in with each other. Which, by the way, whether or not you’re a card-carrying communist or a neo-conservative nitwit, isn’t helpful at all. Is Saudi Arabia an “Islamic Fundamentalist” state? Then why do they work with the United States and issue rulings against suicide bombing? What about Iran? Was Osama bin Laden a “fundamentalist”? Was Saddam Hussein? Was Khomeini? Why are Syrian “fundamentalists” fighting Hezbollah right now?

This is why we’ve got to think critically for a second.

Saudi Arabia and Iran aren’t on great terms. Saddam Hussein wanted to kill Khomeini in the 70s (and subsequently fought Iran in a brutal war throughout the 80s, which, by the way, was totally bankrolled by the United States). And suicide bombing has been a tactic of plenty of non-Muslims. See: Kamikaze pilots in WWII or the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Or how about the story of Samson in the Bible?

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Definitely Muslim Fundamentalists.

Our language is at least inadequate and at most insidious and racist.

One thing’s for sure: our discourse today is profoundly unhelpful. Arguably, countless Americans wouldn’t have thought that Saddam and bin Laden were friends if they knew that Saddam was a secularist, while bin Laden was striving for something a little more religious. Maybe this information would have caused people to question the official line.

Maybe the U.S. wouldn’t have brutally invaded and occupied Iraq. But now that’s just getting into the realm of speculation.

Seriously, who the fuck ever thought that bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were working together!?

It is clear that the way we talk about things shapes the way that we think about things. So when we talk about “Muslim Fundamentalism” or “Islamofascism” or whatever, it’s horribly important that we are clear and precise in exactly what we mean. This is why we need to change the way we conceptualize the other, because otherwise we’re doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

So who are you calling a fundamentalist?

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On Being a Muslim Ambassador

When I accepted Islam a couple years ago, one thing I failed to anticipate was all of the new roles that I would immediately have to play. This was obviously due to my own naiveté, but being a white American Muslim has definitely had an affect on how I view the world and, in turn, how the world views me.

First off, I neglected to realize how many Americans simply know next to nothing about Islam, Muslims, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, cheese making, origami, beekeeping…

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And this isn’t any one individual’s fault per se, but it put me in a position of representing every single Muslim ever in history since the beginning of time. Let’s not forget that right now, Muslims make up about 1/4th of the planet.

That’s a lot of pressure. Especially when I’m competing with bizarre, yet common stereotypes and fears of the other. Seriously, people in this country are petrified by stuff they don’t understand.

Another thing that surprised me was the latent racism against Muslims in supposedly “tolerant” circles.

Over the past two years, I’ve had multiple white people accuse me of somehow not being sufficiently Muslim for one reason or another. What this tends to mean is that I don’t fit into their box of what a Muslim ought to be or how a Muslim ought to act.

What do they have in mind?

Probably a brown person with a beard and a turban.

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You called?

Of course, these people are often well-meaning, enlightened Liberals who probably don’t see themselves as having a racist bone in their body. The problem is: however well-meaning one might be, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Finally, there’s a general concept among many Americans that Muslims are all the same.

Many people speak of Muslims as one, undivided whole. Can you imagine grouping all Catholics or Jews or Atheists into a singular group? No, probably not.

In reality, the Islamic tradition is filled to the brim with differences of opinion.

Ramadan just began a few days ago and I’ve started to receive a whole bunch of questions from friends and family. No food? No water? How do you survive!?

I think that I should elaborate that I love getting asked respectful questions, because it means that people are curious and interested, which is the only way to fight against these negative stereotypes.

At the same time, it’s easier for a lot of people to talk to me, because I’m the nice Westernized white Muslim. I’m about as non-threatening as you can get, considering I come in the shape of a pasty twig with glasses.

But this is another huge problem of me serving as a representative, isn’t it?

Especially considering the demographics of Muslims in the United States. I serve as an interesting bridge between white suburban middle class America and black and brown Muslims who have an entirely different way of engaging with the United States. (I use the word “interesting” in place of “really fucked up”)muslims-are-coming

In all honesty, I don’t mind playing this role, even with all the setbacks and frustrations. Ultimately, it’s going to take Muslims in the West opening up the doors for dialogue and discourse in order to break down these barriers and move forward.

I just hope that when I’m acting as an ambassador for Islam and Muslims, I’m not doing a terrible job, inshaAllah.

Alternative Histories of the American Revolution

In the United States, history tends to be presented in a clean, pre-packaged format. The past consists of people and places that are hollow, stale, and disconnected. As children, we are spoon-fed American history through teachers and textbooks. Unfortunately, history tends to be far messier than any teacher or textbook is willing to admit.

Take, for example, the 4th of July. Independence Day. The day on which we barbecue various meats and light off explosives in order to celebrate some super-ultra-mega-patriotic love fest. All this, the story goes, because brave Americans fought against the oppressive British Crown for freedom and liberty. King George III was smelly!

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He’s just one tiny mustache away from being Hitler.

None of this is necessarily untrue, but it’s certainly a poorly constructed narrative.

First of all, not everyone who fought in the American Revolution was an American. The Revolutionary War lasted from 1776 to 1781, and involved the Iroquois, France, Spain, the Cherokee, and a host of other groups. As in almost every war, the sides were never clearcut and not everyone acted within their expected party lines.

“American”, of course, is a limited term anyways. In its historical context, this means white male adult, who usually owns property. In other words, not someone I’d trust to represent the interests of the people.

However, even these “Americans” in the colonies were split, usually based on class and property interests. Slaves and free blacks fought on both sides. Indigenous people fought on both sides. But some people didn’t fight at all, which brings me to my next point.

Not everyone saw the British Monarchy as oppressive. This is probably the worst trope of high school history classes: the glorious struggle between the heroic American revolutionaries and the evil, crafty Red Coats. Reality, as expected, wasn’t quite so simple.

In the colonies, many people were just concerned with living, rather than obsessing about revolution against the British Crown.

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“Mom, we’re having a revolution!”
“That’s nice, honey, now shut up and eat your oranges.”

So not every “American” fought in the American Revolution, either.

On top of that, plenty of people were happy with good old King George and didn’t feel that a revolution was necessary or even desirable in order to change things. Besides, the Patriots were burning cities to the ground and torturing people, which wasn’t necessarily appealing.

Despite such brutalities, it was necessary for freedom and liberty, of course. That’s the price we pay for freedom and liberty, right?

Well, not exactly.

You see, the American Revolution wasn’t really about “freedom” and “liberty”. Hold on, before you have a patriotic heart attack.

Think about it – do you think the American colonists really had it all that bad under the British? Probably not.

So what was the issue?

Well, here’s where the story gets interesting. The important issue that no one talks about is expansion. The English had an agreement with the indigenous peoples not to expand past the thirteen already-established colonies. This didn’t jive well with the settlers, especially the ones who wanted some property. That’s colonialism for you!

So American Indians sided, for the most part, with the English – assuming it was in their best interest.

ImageWait, Indians were involved in the revolutionary war? I thought they were just chilling out and building tipis and wigwams and stuff.

Actually, the bands of the Iroquois Confederacy were incredibly important in the revolutionary war, which didn’t really make the colonists too happy. By the end of the war, however, the English had totally screwed over the Iroquois by bailing on the whole endeavor. This left the door open for the newly-formed United States to move relentlessly westward.

By the early 1800s, the British-Indian partnership would lead to another war with the United States. Once again, the English screwed over the Indians – resulting in the death of Tecumseh and pan-Indianism. This ensured American hegemony over the whole eastern half of the country.

These two wars probably left some animosity between Native Americans and the white Americans.

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I’m going to kill you and your whole family until you die.

Now, I could go in to how the “founding fathers” were all rich, white men who owned slaves and didn’t know the first thing about “freedom” or “liberty”. But that would simply be redundant, because the aforementioned textbooks already begrudgingly admit this.

Put simply, the American Revolution wasn’t the uncomplicated birth of a nation that it’s often portrayed to be. It’s important to keep in mind that the “founding fathers” were kind of huge buttholes and we probably shouldn’t celebrate their triumphs.  It’s time for us to start changing the dominant narrative.

It wasn’t simply the “Americans” gloriously fighting the oppressive British Crown for freedom and liberty.

On the other hand, King George III was definitely smelly.