Centering the Periphery

thoughts on law, politics, and the state of the world

Globalizing the Margins: From Christchurch to El Paso, From Kabul to Baghdad


It has been a bloody weekend here in the United States. We have had two mass shootings in the space of 24 hours. And the new normal continues. The normal that immediately looks for mental health reasons for a mass murder whenever the perpetrator is white. The normal that echoes across television screens telling us that “we don’t know why he did it.” And the normal that allows the person who slaughters black and brown bodies to be arrested peacefully while black and brown bodies are beaten, shot, annihilated at traffic stops, in playgrounds, in their own apartments.

There’s another aspect of the new normal also emerging. The manifesto.

The El Paso shooter’s manifesto starts with a sentence approving of the Christchurch massacre. He goes on to ramble about how immigrants are taking the place of whites. It’s not the “fresh off the boat” immigrants who do the “dirty jobs” but their children with college degrees taking all the power. The angst of a failed white man fairly leaps off the page. If only they’d stop coming here, I would not have to kill, says the victimized writer of this manifesto. Someone has to do something before we’re overrun by the invaders.

There’s an appeal to other whites to recognize that this was a desperate measure. Ordinarily, these extreme actions would not be needed. A properly functioning government would keep immigrants out, minorities and women in their place. The citizen would not have to take up arms in defense of the country and civilization.

If only they knew their place. We would not have to kill them.

If only they stayed where they belong.

The El Paso murderer invokes Christchurch.

I invoke Kabul, Cape Town, Saigon, and Baghdad, Gaza, Calcutta, Algiers, Hong Kong, and the Port of Spain. I invoke time and place. History and the present. Let us join the dots between the places where we belong and where we are told we don’t belong.

In the places we belonged, first they came as missionaries and traders and then they came with armies and stripped our lands bare. They enslaved our people through debt peonage and in prison camps, as property, shipping them across oceans. To take our lands, to make us work, they subjected us to rape, torture, and death.

Thus, we find Indians in Africa and in the Caribbean, Africans in Europe and the Americas, and we find Native Americans and Africans in reservations and Palestinians in open air prisons. Taken to where we did not belong.

The colonies became the rubbish bin into which every idiot third son who did not belong was sent to make his fortune. Where the sheer mediocrity of a person could be made inconsequential because of his or her skin color. It is in the colonies where stupid people could come and feel good about themselves and superior to all the coloreds.

Is it any wonder that the El Paso murderer finds immigrant children so disruptive? They come to “his” land and make him feel inadequate. They reflect his mediocrity like a pristine, true mirror back to him and he must destroy that mirror and the image. As if by sending us all back, he will be comfortable again–as long as the blacks know their place. He does not want a completely white country, after all someone has to be on the bottom.

Here in the “New World” we are always where we shouldn’t be. The mall, the parking lot, the church, the grocery store, our own apartments, other people’s apartments, schools. During Jim Crow, we were told precisely where we could not be. You could not be in spaces meant for white people. You could not inhabit whiteness. Transgressions and trespasses resulted in death. But then again, a bold look, a bold word also resulted in death. Groups of boys and men were sent to death on the lies of white women. The Scottsboro boys aged 13-20, the Groveland Boys 16-26 years of age, Emmett Till, aged 14.

Minorities of all colors lived the life of the camp. Ghettos, barrios, internment, reservations.

In colonies, it was the casbah, the quarter, the township.

Join the dots. One might think that’s what the white terrorists want: the camp, but I don’t think so. Whether it is in El Paso or Christchurch, Kabul or Baghdad, for the white nationalist, for the colonizer, the white terrorizer, wherever we are, we’re in their way.

It is not that we’re in the wrong place.

It is that we EXIST.

A Circular Firing Squad as We All Go Down in the Same Boat: Or Telling People of Color to Get in Formation

(c) Nick Anderson.

Over a year is left in what has already become an exhausting not-yet-a-race to unseat Donald Trump. For the better part of the last two years, the Democratic rank and file has been waiting for the party to display some coherence, a plan, a strategy. Again and again, any opportunity to do so has been squandered while those like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that have a political agenda are attacked. At times, it has seemed like the leadership is more interested in disciplining its left flank than actually opposing the right.

It is no wonder that we’re nervous.

The fears are not assuaged by the fact in addition to not having a solid message other than “Down with Trump,” the party now has 20 people in the primary. We have to get from 20 to 1 in about a year.

How do we do that? Apparently, for some people winnowing down to a single candidate is not to be done by evaluating their policy perspectives, their past actions, or anything like that. It will magically happen without any sort of “negative” discussion.

Oddly, I have found this tsk-tsking aimed primarily at people of color who are challenging candidates like Pete Buttigieg and other white candidates. It also happened  in the 2016 primary with people telling us all to fall in line behind Clinton although there it was primarily women being told that they had to support HRC in order to retain their legitimacy as feminists (bullshit, but let’s not get side-tracked). Now I acknowledge I may be picking up on this because of my own sensitivities but let’s just say it’s happening at some level.

There are few things I’d like to point out about this.

  1. This is the primary. We are assessing who is going to be THE candidate of the Democratic Party for president. Like any other job interview, we don’t do this by being nice to everyone.
  2. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate will not give Trump any more information than he would already be able to gather himself. Our discussing the candidates strengths and weaknesses on Facebook is unlikely to give Trump some sort of secret weapon. Without a strong platform and a good movement to get out the vote, we’ll be conceding much of the race already.
  3. It’s a process of elimination. This means people will be ELIMINATED. Get comfortable with the fact that it could be your person.
  4. This is a democracy. Part of respecting it is also respecting the right of a person not to vote for your person. If your candidate was unable to persuade a voter, that is part of the process. Browbeating Bernie Bros, third party voters, etc., while absolving the candidate who ran is pretty one-sided. Repetition of the same claims doesn’t help and is likely to entrench people who begin to think you are an asshole. As ever, reasoned arguments are better than snarky, thinly-veiled ad hominem/feminam attacks. The attacks say more about the injuries and mindset of those engaging in them than about any candidate.
  5. Democrats always shake their heads and wonder why poor white people keep “voting against their own interests.” Yet many expect women and people of color to do JUST THAT. Why should I vote for a candidate that is against my interests? Why do we have to keep taking one for the team? This bit of hypocrisy has gone on long enough. I won’t be voting for a felon-disenfranchising, gentrifier from some small town, thanks but no. At least not in the damn primary.
  6. Women matter. While reducing feminist politics to sexual harassment isn’t a good strategy, the fact that these grabby men keep showing up as “leaders” is tiring and we need to hold them accountable. Talking about their actions is entirely acceptable to me as part of a feminist practice of truth-telling and awareness raising. We can do this without jumping to the law or to legalistic and punitive responses. I’m not rewarding a person who doesn’t understand boundaries of the most basic nature with MORE time in elected office and at the head of this state. Withholding my vote from such a person is entirely defensible. I’m not asking for jail time but neither should you be demanding my support. Dismiss women’s experiences at your own peril.
  7. We are not on the same boat in the same way when you keep treating some of us like galley slaves and demanding that we vote for the whip-holder for captain. At some point some of us are going to stop rowing, jump ship, scuttle it. Let’s end this analogy, it’s ridiculous. You cannot expect Muslims to support someone who glibly voted for Iraq, helped decimate Yemen or Libya, and is happy to hold hands with the Saudis. Moreover, we’re not going to rubber stamp people whitewashing the human rights violations of Israel or those who traffic in Islamophobia-Lite: the liberal version. We will be realists but we’re not nuts. We are also not going to support people who keep cutting the social safety net and those who championed the policies that resulted in immiseration and mass incarceration.
  8. There are a lot of independents and there were several districts that went from Obama to Trump. Let’s not make over broad assumptions about who votes for what and write them off. I’ve heard people disparage Sanders for wasting his time on Fox. He’s running for President–of all of us–not just you and your debate team. Remember the last time someone wrote off the deplorables? Yeah, didn’t go so well. So let’s not think that the black and brown vote is going to bring in the savior on a tide of hosannahs. Every voter that can be turned should be. We should support all efforts by all candidates to address the needs of Americans. But not at the expense of the already marginalized. Chances are candidates like Harris are going to try to bridge divides because they have to. Let’s not throw them out because they do.
  9. Finally, there are several people of color running and women who are getting the short end of the stick media-wise, etc. I have yet to hear anyone say that a criticism of Klobuchar or Booker or Harris is engaging in a circular firing squad. If you can take criticism of them, then by God you’ll take it for the white guys.

Some of us are going to lose friends over this election. I won’t lose anyone because they disagreed with who I voted for. But I will most certainly eject anyone insulting me for engaging in my democratic rights as I see fit. Trump is not just the fault of those marginal voters in swing states or those who stayed home. He is also the fault of the system that keeps putting candidates up who don’t appeal to many (young) voters. He’s the fault of a system that allows for gerrymandering and voter suppression. Let’s not get carried away with blaming individual voters.

As for the circular firing squad, we aren’t standing in a circle with weapons as observers and voters. The only people capable of coming close are the candidates themselves and it’s not happening.

And as for the same boat, please no. Just stop. The people chained in the hull were on the same boat as the slavers. The people in steerage were on the same boat as the people in first class. The analogy’s usefulness trying to get us all to pull together should suffer the same fate as the Titanic.

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On Grievability

This week both Notre Dame de Paris and Al Aqsa burned. While my Facebook feed was full of concern about Notre Dame, a few of my friends, particularly those with ties to the Global South, posted about Al Aqsa. Outside of the two holy cities on the Arabian Peninsula, Al Aqsa/the Dome of the Rock is Islam’s third holiest site (at least for Sunnis).

These fires presented the opportunity to opine on social media. There were many responses among which these stand out: 1) mourning or worry about a beautiful building that had a universal value; 2) calling attention to all the monuments we routinely fail to mourn; 3) calling attention to the global devastation of human life which ought to be more valuable than a building; and 4) trying to build connections between loss in one place and loss in another.

I tried to do the last. Let me try again.

In the last two decades, immeasurable devastation has happened across the global landscape to both monuments and buildings in the Global South and to the natural environment. It has happened at such a pace and with such ferocity that it is hard to convey the depth of loss. Here are a few images:

Notre-Dame-morning-after.jpgNotre Dame de Paris, copyright The Independent.


Orphanschoolmosque.jpgThis is Gaza after Operation Cast Lead in 2014. Photo by Institute of Palestine Studies.


cfc50780c17b228fe5fea296e82d60b98c287242.jpgThis is the Ummayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria


This is Baghdad. Copyright AFP.


DEugCeQXgAEBbzN.jpgMosul, Iraq.


imagesSanaa, Yemen.


Afghanistan Bombed HospitalKabul, Afghanistan, copyright MintPress.


We watched with horror as Notre Dame burned. Global news coverage told us all the details. We prayed that the worst would be averted. Sighed a relief when we heard the fire was out and the rose window was saved.

There is nothing wrong with this. The Cathedral is a beautiful place, there is something timeless about it. And while it is on French soil, it is a part of human ingenuity. It’s very easy to see its universal value. In fact, people are defending our concern for it in precisely these terms.

I call on those people to do the same for the rest of our monuments which are no less universal. The Ummayyad mosque is as much a universally valued monument, so is Al Aqsa.

Even more so the Amazon rainforest, the ozone layer, the California redwoods and surely the oceans.

If you felt moved by Notre Dame, this is the time to expand on that feeling to embrace more of humanity. It’s not enough to defend your feelings on Facebook.

For those of us in the United States, this is our devastation. If you don’t feel for this, ask yourself how you are removed from the people for whom this is home, shelter, community, life. And try to feel…something.

Arson of a St. Landry Parish Church in Louisiana.

Human feelings are complex. We mourn what is close to us. And so it is not surprising that we mourn Notre Dame, a place many of us have visited. Empathy is not finite, grief is not finite. Compassion is not finite. Unless we don’t stop to think about others and connect their loss to ours.

Notre Dame was not a video game or a movie which could be turned off for many people. Neither should Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Gaza, the Amazon, the ocean be shrugged off as though they were.

5088653Amazon Rainforest devastation.


Seeing the Beauty After a Tragedy

Jacinda Arden comforting a Muslim woman–photocredit: David Walker

It’s been a little over a week since the Christchurch massacre occurred. A long week. As we were reeling from the news, people demonstrated the best of humanity and the worst.

At times like these, it’s easy to focus on the negative, to feel besieged by hate. When you hear justifications for the murder of 51 Muslims, excuses for the unvarnished hate and criminality, justifications that sound like the victims invited their own murders, it is difficult to feel anything but anger. And it’s not just words, not just the screeds on the internet. Last week, 5 mosques were attacked and vandalized in Birmingham, UK. While police have ruled out white supremacy or terrorism, Muslims in the area are not convinced. Of course, this is not surprising given the attack on the Finsbury mosque in 2017 and other racialized violence against Muslims in Europe. Furthermore, we know that there has been a very serious uptick in violence against Muslims and Islamophobia globally.

Yet in all this horror, there have been moments of incandescent beauty. And I want to invite us to dwell on these moments rather than let them pass by as we move back to the negative. Here are a few:

  • The celebration of the lives of the victims. Shortly after the massacre, I tweeted that even in death, Muslims were not humanized. That was remedied almost immediately by Professor Khaled Beydoun who tweeted about each victim, giving them names, faces, stories, lives. Rather than focusing on the terrorist, the world, possibly for the first time for Muslim victims, turned their attention to the beautiful lives of those who were targeted.
  • Jacinda Arden rose to the challenge. She showed what empathy and genuine concern for her people looks like. Her words were inclusive, she showed respect to the community, and more importantly she took action. She refused to say the terrorists name. She wore a head covering, she began the conversation about gun control immediately, and she has called for a global fight against racism. In contrast to Donald Trump who has taken every opportunity to marginalize Muslims, she did not shy away from extending her compassion and support for these grieving people. [The picture above was taken by David Walker.]
  • The memorial service started with the adhaan or call to prayer. In a time when many countries are regulating mosques, banning the call to prayer as a nuisance, New Zealand’s embrace of the call to prayer was moving and powerful. It centralized and normalized Muslim worship as part of New Zealand’s societal fabric.
  • Numerous hakas performed by New Zealanders across the island. These demonstrations of solidarity, particularly coming from Maori communities, remind us that white supremacy has had many victims across the globe. An indigenous community performing a sacred ritual in honor of new immigrants who have become victims of a very old racial violence is a recognition of kinship, of grief.
  • We are stronger together than any hate. And this was demonstrated by our Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters in the United States. Almost immediately, Jewish communities started raising money for Christchurch. A number of communities showed up to stand guard at mosques during prayers.

Even though we are the targets of violence, far more people reject violence than accept it. President Trump has tried to normalize violence. But he and his followers have not succeeded. They have justified it but it has not become any more normal to target Muslims than it has been to target Jews, Blacks, and LGBTQ communities–perhaps the regularity with which this violence occurs is depressing, but it is not “normal.”

And hate has given rise to the election of fighters like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sharice David, and others. So while it is important to be vigilant, to resist, to demand our rights, we cannot succumb to a victim mentality that sees Islamophobia in every disagreement, in every slight. There are far too many real threats to level this charge against those who disagree with someone who happens to be Muslim or for reasons that have nothing to do with Islam or bigotry. 

These are trying times. People are stretched thin. Scraped raw. It is now that we must exercise compassion, understanding, and patience–two important values for Muslims and all faith traditions.





Justifying a Massacre: White Supremacy and Islamophobia

Friday is a sacred day for practicing Muslims. In every corner of the globe, Muslims have their rituals around the Friday prayer. In Dhaka, the routine is as familiar and comforting as a cup of tea. Breakfast in the morning. Reading the paper. My father preparing to walk to mosque in his white kurta/pajama smelling of attar–musk, oud. My mother preparing for prayer at home. Lighting a stick of incense. The household quietens. The air breathes softly even while rickshaws, people, and cars carry on outside.  A peace enfolds us. Once prayers are done, we wait for my father to return so we can sit down to a family lunch. The household sighs and comes back to life. The rest of the day continues at this relaxed pace with people visiting, chai and chats, and meals.

Forty-nine people in Christchurch will never participate in their own rituals around Friday prayer ever again.

Why? Because a white man from Australia found their presence so enraging that he went to their mosque and shot them at point blank range.

Men, women, children.

A man, standing on stolen land, a settler whose ancestors dispossessed the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand with unbridled barbarism, found the existence of Muslims on this land intolerable.

He was greeted with acceptance and he shot dead the one who welcomed him. How fitting. That is white supremacy and settler colonialism in a nutshell.

While the Muslims and allies reeled from the news, one Fraser Anning, elected from Queensland, immediately blamed the victims for being massacred. He starts with a condemnation of violence. Two sentences. Not concern for Muslims or condolences, just a general sentiment, a pro-forma nod to peace.

What follows is truly remarkable. The shooting death of 49 people in video-game-like progression is blamed on “fear” of the growing Muslim “presence” in his land.

Second, it is not the presence of guns or white nationalism, vitriolic Islamophobia or xenophobia that has led to this incident. That’s just “cliched nonsense.” We all know his forbears never hurt a hair on anyone’s head before black and brown immigrants started invading the country. Just ask the aboriginal and Maori peoples.

Third, we are told that the real cause of bloodshed is the immigration policy that allows “Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Here we see the inversion that is so common in white nationalist/supremacist propaganda. The people praying peacefully are the fanatics. The man doing the mass murdering is the victim. It is a twisted provocation defense.

Fourth, Anning tries to cling to reality yet his tenuous grasp fails him. He claims that Muslims may be today’s victims but they are usually the perpetrators and they are killing people in the name of their faith on an industrial scale. It’s the Muslims, after all, who are dropping thousands of tons of bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, using drones, because they own all the arms factories and companies and have huge armies, we can safely call this “industrial-scale” violence. Perhaps Queensland isn’t quite such a hot bed of industry. Perhaps his familiarity with scale is limited to cottage industries? Anyway, these Muslims were just time-bombs waiting to go off. Best we kill them now before they “go Muslim” on us as Tunku Varadarajan (another mouth-frothing Islamophobe at NYU no less) tells us.

Fifth, he tells us who the Prophet was and lets us know that Islam is a violent ideology. It calls for the murder of unbelievers and apostates so he says. And this is why  no Hindus or Christians have survived to tell the tale in Muslim ruled lands. I wonder if he read the manifesto left by the mass murderer? Anning claims that Islam calls for the murder of nonbelievers. It only takes him another two paragraphs to call for the murder of Muslims.

Sixth, he fights fire with fire so he says. Islam is fascism and so we must fight it with… fascism. Just because the Muslims who died were not the killers (his brother-in-ideology has that distinction), they are not blameless. If they are not blameless, then they are to blame. They exist. That is enough.

Finally, he quotes the Prophet of love, Jesus, to say that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword. If you follow a violent religion, you can’t be surprised if you’re killed. (Has this man read the Old Testament?). This is the most common move of all. Muslims are interchangeable. Someone a world away kills someone, I can hold you responsible here. Muslims are the Borg. One organism seamless functioning together no matter where they are. That the people who lost their lives did nothing is irrelevant because someone somewhere did and is doing something. No Muslim is blameless not even children. That’s reserved for white Christians, liberal individuals. And that explains why for centuries Muslims along with other black and brown peoples have been killed on an “industrial scale” by white supremacist, settler-colonialists like Anning with impunity. Just how many have they killed in Iraq alone? Or is that just another inconvenient fact?

Muslims will continue to gather at mosques on Fridays. They will continue to greet each other in peace, to wish peace on the Prophet, and to take leave with peace. Because at the heart of Islam is peace. And the Fraser Annings of this world will never change that for those of us who believe and submit.

The “Brides” of Terror: The Women of ISIS and Layered Intersectionality

Muslim women are once again making front page news for all the wrong reasons. Since the inauguration of the War on Terror, various sorts of stories about women have surfaced periodically. At first, it was the story of the woman victim who had to be rescued from her barbaric culture/religion and her violent male family members. Then, less frequently, it was the simmering worry that women were espousing radical, illiberal ideas and hiding these anti-Western sentiments under their hijabs presenting one face to the public and while hiding their true intentions. And now, we have the stories of the ISIS brides seeking to return to their homes in the West. A figure that oscillates between the first two characters–victim and threat.

A Flawed Victim

What do we make of a child who purposefully and resourcefully takes herself off across multiple borders into a war zone in order to join what is clearly one of the most reprehensible groups on Earth? After all, she is only 15 or maybe 19. She is old enough to make elaborate plans but not old enough to fully think them through. She is old enough to not be driven by impulse alone yet susceptible to the romantic allure of religious purity and devotion. Does this change after a few years when she turns 18 or because she is already 19? When can we attach responsibility?

In the United States, we are familiar with charging children as adults. We disproportionately charge children of color, black children in particular, as adults. But to assume that a Muslim girl could act in an adult capacity to join a murderous enemy of the state conflicts with cherished tropes of victimization at the hands of Muslim men. While we haven’t seen many attempts to defend these girls on the basis that they could not have acted without significant pressure from ISIS recruiters, we have seen a number of writers underscoring their age and vulnerability. In particular, some liberal analysis has been quick to point out that we might not treat other children as fully culpable. Yes, they traveled to ISIS-held territory but they were hardly on the front lines. They were hardly killing and raping. In fact, once they arrived and the honeymoon was over, they might have wanted to return. They may even have been trafficked.

The problem is that an unalloyed narrative of victimhood may explain how a young ISIS bride was lured but it does not account for the fair amount of willpower it takes to travel from the UK or the US to a war zone. Moreover, once in situ, such a narrative puts her on par with the women who were held as sex slaves, held in captivity, killed resisting.

A Reluctant Threat?

An emerging narrative complicates the picture by suggesting that an ISIS bride may be a real threat. Yazidi women have been quick to point out that these women and girls recruited as brides became “mistresses” overseeing the servitude of captives. They are not “innocent.” Perhaps we can consider them as analogous to the slave-owning white woman. Constrained by structural patriarchy, subordinate to and/or fearful of the men surrounding her, and/or participating actively in upholding the hierarchies of power and domination over other men and women. In this role, the ISIS bride is seen by her female victims as having more in common with ISIS men. Sisterhood doesn’t stretch across torture and slavery.

We are told to be wary of their return. Not to take their tales of suffering and disenchantment at face value. To remember that they actively joined and then carried out the program of ISIS against other women, true victims. (And, of course, one can understand the desire on the part of former sex slaves to see all those connected with ISIS punished.)

Liberal experts, particularly those emerging in the Women, Peace, and Security field, argue that while these women may be a threat, they also have valuable information that the state can use to continue to wage the War on Terror. That these women aren’t the cringing victims that the early WoT narrative had advanced. Rather women are increasingly becoming active terrorists both in places like Syria and Iraq as well as in San Bernardino, California. ISIS women are, therefore, neither innocent victims in need of saving, nor the kind of threat that ISIS fighters are but a vital source of information that might advance our security agenda.

There are others with similar reductive stories which obscure more than they elucidate. And here we might consider extending the theory of intersectionality in a new direction.

ISIS Child Brides And Intersectionality Extended

Intersectionality, as theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, has been used to help us think about how multiple identities can lead to subordination greater than the sum of its parts. Much has been written about the theory and increasingly, it has become unmoored from the legal literature that Crenshaw analyzed and used to describe social and legal subordination.

But intersectional thinking can also help us grapple with the difficulty of multiple roles that sometimes appear paradoxical as they inhere in one person. The girls who left to join ISIS ought to be understood as being both victim and perpetrator who cannot be reduced to any one set of actions. They cannot be reduced to the child lured from home or the young adult wife who supports a jihadist husband and a rogue state. Nor is she simply the handmaid to torture or even the torturer. Just as Yazidi women are resisters, fighters, victims, survivors, so are their counterparts. This is not to suggest that women who joined ISIS ought to be viewed as equal to victims; rather, it is to argue against reductive assumptions and constructions.

Complexity should not be glossed over. And the contexts in which these girls-now-women acted should not be forgotten. First, no one who joins ISIS from the West was raised in isolation. These women, like their male counterparts, were raised in a milieu of suspicion and surveillance in the height of the War on Terror. Their identities are shaped by and through their resistance to the prescriptive identity foisted upon them by a state desperate for a visible risk group, a discernible population that Countering Violent Extremism or Prevent could target. This is not to say that counterterrorism or the War on Terror radicalized them but societal conditions must be taken into account. Families must also be taken into account. The experience of peers and the experiences of acceptance and rejection in school and bullying must be considered. The ongoing barrage of Islamophobia through media and state policy as well through both casual and more intentional discrimination must be factored into the alienation of these girls. None of these factors are dispositive on their own even if counter-radicalization efforts do not acknowledge this fact.

While we often go out of our way to understand white mass murderers who commit horrific acts of domestic terrorism, humanizing them, we are unable to hold the complexities of people of color–particularly women–in our mind. We may understand intersectionality as a meeting place, a junction of axes of subordinated identities but can we also understand it as the coexistence of subordinated and dominant identities. An interpretation that stretches the concept then makes it available to many more people not just people of color. Intersectionality is a term that invokes spatiality, movement, traffic. In keeping with this idea, complex dominant and subordinated identities can be viewed as axes layered on each other like pick-up sticks and fly-overs, a knot. In a state-run by ISIS, we can see how some of these women may have been subordinate, perhaps fearful of the consequences of disobedience, self-subordinating, and the wielders of both their own and reflected power. Layered intersectionality allows us to imagine a much thicker relationship among multiple identities without requiring one to dominate over the other.  Moreover, rather than being an entirely horizontal concept, it allows movement along more than one dimension including verticality.

Convenient and simple stories of how these women were lured, victims of Islamophobia looking for a place to fit in, products of Western imperialism, crushed by their barbaric families and religion, evil perpetrators of war crimes or at least enthusiastic supporters of the ISIS state may comfort some, but they are in the long run unhelpful in preventing the loss of young people to radicalism. And they flatten out the reality of these lives making them more vulnerable to criminalization justified through opportunistic national security narratives that sublimate structural Islamophobia.

Furthermore, men who have left to join ISIS have all been repatriated. This gender discrimination is unacceptable. It harkens back to the days when women’s citizenship followed that of her husband. A woman in the United States who married a foreigner would lose her citizenship, a fate no male suffered. This suggested that women experience an intersectional discrimination along both gender and religious lines which, for some reason, makes them more threatening than their male counterparts.

Returning Home: Beyond the Law

Indeed, national security has already become a preeminent concern with regard to the return of these women. In the UK and in the US, state officials have suggested that they be sent back to their country of origin by which it is meant the country from which their parents emigrated. This could only be possible if these women held dual citizenship of there was some legal basis on which to deprive them of their citizenship. Both Shamima Begum form the UK and Hoda Muthana from the U.S. were born in the country from which they hold citizenship. Shamima Begum, one of the UK brides, has been rejected as a Bangladeshi citizen because at no point was she a dual national. Both the UK Home Secretary and the US Secretary of State wish to render these women stateless contravening international law.

A number of scholars have already weighed in on the legal aspects of the attempts to strip ISIS brides of citizenship. The law, for the moment, does not allow the US executive branch to render Hoda Muthana stateless and, furthermore, citizenship stripping would have some consequences for her child. Yet, there is also a moral argument to be made on the basis of the fact that this woman was born, raised, and radicalized in the US. We are not absolved from our part in creating her and must now bear the consequences by allowing her to return. None of this means that she should be allowed to escape the consequences of her actions. But what it ought to mean is that we consider her on equal terms as the white supremacist or the confederate soldier. And as no worse than the number of males who have taken up arms against their cohorts in schools, movie theaters, and malls. If we can see humanity and conflict in these children and young adults, we should be able to extend that in fairness to people like Muthana and Begum.

To deprive Muthana and Begum of citizenship would solve our problem about what to do about these “traitors.” It would allow the state to side-step any process of establishing Muthana or Begum as a threat. But at the same time, it would send yet another message that people of color, those born of immigrant parents, regardless of whether born here or naturalized are second or third class citizens who cannot rely on the state to secure their legal rights. It would demonstrate in stark terms that the only way that anyone can truly be secure is to never make a mistake, never break the law and even then, as we know from the death of countless African Americans, it may not be enough.

We should remember that there have been other countries who have sought to deprive people of their citizenship stripping them down to one identity marker: Nazi Germany and Myanmar come to mind. This is not company that the world’s oldest liberal democracy with a self-professed commitment to human rights should seek to keep.





Reset for 2019

It has been three long years since I last posted here. During that time, we have gone through an election that was kafkaesque. The unthinkable happened. We elected Donald Trump: a candidate who built his political brand on hate. Sexism, xenophobia, racism, homophobia. Not sure what else is left. And now we prepare for another election.

We can be sure that Trump will bring his hate to the campaign trail again. And if one thought that perhaps his election has assuaged the white supremacist bigots that make up his base, it is a sobering fact that nationalist hate groups have grown by 17% since 2017. While we can’t show causality, surely it is no coincidence that the election of a man who peddles racism and hate would result in the increase in these groups.

There’s a lot to say, perhaps I will spend more time saying it rather than watching with sadness as this country unravels and its promise and future is squandered by people who would rather destroy it than share.

Reigniting the Hijab Debates

It’s not enough that we had to live through the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s but now feminists in the United States are engaged in yet another debate about what it means to be a feminist and anti-racist–two positions that are not always coextensive. Some women have taken to wearing hijab in solidarity with their covered Muslim sisters. In these times of heightened Islamophobia, such acts of support have been brave and well-meaning. They recognize that Muslims are facing an unprecedented onslaught of racism and bigotry fueled by politicians, clergy, and the media at large. For Muslims who are visible because of their race or their outward adherence to Islamic dress, the chances of being subject to physical violence have risen. Organizations tracking such violence have noted that there has been a notable uptick in attacks against Muslims and all who are mistaken as Muslims (generally Sikhs and other brown people). Anecdotally, we hear of Muslim women who have been spat at, pushed, and had their head coverings snatched off. Muslim men have been shot, stabbed, and beaten. It is clear that the inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican Party, which has harbored elected Islamophobes and racists and now has a slate of such hopefuls running for president, is bearing fruit.

One would think, then that any form of solidarity would be welcome by Muslims but we should think carefully before we uncritically applaud these moves. Nor should we disregard critiques of the assumption of the hijab as “the” marker of Muslim women simply because of the source of the critique. Recently, Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa have written in the Washington Post and the New York Times urging women not to don the hijab in solidarity. As is to be expected, there has been an almost instantaneous response from Muslims decrying Nomani and Arafa as native informants furthering the xenophobic, Islamophobic bigotry of the mainstream. The reaction is not surprising. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone from within the Muslim community in the US mounting a public critique of hijab, jihad, or any other problematic practice or belief without being subject to these charges and lumped in with opportunists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While I cannot speak for their position on the War on Terror and their politics, to assert that Nomani and Arafa’s arguments are simply a part of liberal imperialism misses the very real overlap they have with large groups of Muslim women and Muslim feminist scholars from well before the War on Terror. We have been challenging the patriarchy of the dominant interpretations of Islam since well before 9/11, we have been arguing that the religion does not have to be interpreted this way, and there is no reason to suddenly change course because of the WoT and its attendant (and incredibly tiring) identity politics.

Furthermore, context matters greatly in this discussion. And the specific treatment of context is missing for many of the people writing in generalities about hijab. For many Muslim women, the veil is not simply a choice in the liberal, autonomy-possessing sense that many claim. The assumption that women “choose” to wear the hijab carries with it the possibility of choosing not to wear it. But this choice does not exist in every context. Women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran do not have a choice to wear the veil. For women who come to the “West” from states that mandate the veil and punish disobedience, its valence can be quite negative and the refusal to wear it can be resistance to the imposition of religion by an external authority–even if that authority has been left behind in the old country. On the other hand, for Muslim women who search their faith and hearts and adopt the veil because they believe the religion demands it, do not “choose” it because, if their belief is true, then the hijab cannot be unchosen–it is mandated by God. For faithful women, it’s particularly difficult to reconcile a position on the veil that requires women to adopt a particular code of modesty and the clear connection this has with the gendered ideas of autonomy, space, and equality even in the absence of an external state power that enforces a particular practice. After all, where is it that Muslim women find the requirement to veil. The Qur’anic verse is open to interpretation and all the subsequent interpretations come from men. If the interpretations are stand ins for the literal word of God, then how do other gender subordinating interpretations fare? In other words, If the rules on hijab are mandated by God, then should “believing” Muslim women not also adopt all the gender rules also mandated by God (as reported by many people on the words of the Prophet). Choice as a justification for hijab seems disingenuous.

I think there needs to be a more rigorous conversation about what hijabi women mean when they speak of “choice”. I have had enough arguments to wonder at whether this is simply a way of cutting the discussion short before it gets to what women think it means to be free and how that can be experienced through a dress code.  For years, many theorists like Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Laleh Bakhtiar have been contesting the gender subordination within Muslim societies. Conferences have been organized and organizations have formed to reinterpret Islamic law to be more fair to women. The very idea that this is needed is a recognition of gender subordination. And it is not necessary to state that such sexism is not particular to Islam. The sexism may not be inherent in the religion but it is undeniable that Islam treats men and women differently. And because it is a religion, such treatment and the underpinnings are difficult to challenge.

I still remember once quoting a hadith to a family member in support of women’s equality only for it to be shrugged off and dismissed as a questionable hadith. Muslim men do this all the time. They write off women’s interpretations, women’s experiences, and women’s desires for equality. And they are willing to ignore scripture to do it. They arrogate to themselves the authority to shut women up by deploying counter scripture and a dismissal based not necessarily on the validity of the idea but on the basis of gender! Please do not ask for examples, you can google any number of imams pontificating on the uppityness of women and their proper place. Pointing this out cannot be seen as playing into “imperialism” unless we are to tell Muslim women that they must sacrifice their demands for dignity, equality, if not humanity at the alter of anti-imperialism. And we then are put in the position of supporting all the foolishness spouted by Islamists and male supremacists as “the” anti-imperial mode of resistance.

So what is it about Nomani and Arafa’s claim that provokes the reaction among Muslim women?

  1. It plays into dominant Islamophobia. But then any critique of Islam/Islamism/Muslim bad behavior does that. It’s not that it plays into Islamophobia but that it flattens the hijab’s meaning into a political statement. The problem with many of the criticisms of Nomani and Arafa is that they do the opposite. Rather than acknowledging that it might be a political statement, the opponents simply mirror Noman and Arafa by stating that it is a choice. It does not reflect conservatism. Nomani and Arafa collapse Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran into a singular space conflating it with communities in the West. These contexts cannot be treated as the same, as Karima Benoune so correctly argues in her analysis of the veil cases in Turkey and France.
  2. It assumes that Muslim are oppressed by the veil. This is generalization that needs to be carefully given nuance and contextualized. Nomani and Arafa may be read over-broadly to suggest that no adoption of the veil can be “free” but, on the other hand, the counter assertion is the same by suggesting that all veiled women “choose” in the liberal sense of also being able to unchoose. For some women the veil is liberation, for others it is not. Nomani and Arafa are speaking for themselves and their own experience. Just as hijabi women professing liberation after donning the cover do the same. Nomani and Arafa can speak for themselves. Just as choosing hijabi women speak for themselves. And they do represent the experience of women who have been forced to veil, judged for not veiling, and so on. Non-veiling Muslim women are all to aware of the use of the hijab as a litmus test in the community. So while it may not be a 6th pillar, it is certainly used a yardstick in the community. Muslim women who don’t veil get treated differently in the community and outside the community and this can be flipped for hijabi women who are treated differently.  Both judgments being based on what women wear are very problematic and we should be critical of why this happens.
  3. In a time of violence against women, internal critiques are unwelcome because they fragment the community. Some hijabi women have emotionally called for non-veiling Muslim women to just shut up and sit down. We are called to support but not critique the actions. The community is already fragmented. One cannot seriously make a call for silence without coming off as an anti-intellectual hysteric. There has been a vigorous response to Nomani and Arafa and that should be welcome.
  4. Nomani and Arafa claim to be mainstream Muslim women. What is that? It grates hijabi women who don’t want to be considered “fringe” Muslim women and they are obviously not. These terms are ridiculous. Furthermore, the statement that all veiling is a declaration of support of regressive politics grates women who veil but are otherwise very progressive.
  5. What is not ridiculous is the mainstream stereotype that Muslim women are visible. That we are all under cover. Islamophobia thrives on racial profiling. And the idea that hijab represents Muslim women exacerbates the negative and violent gaze. Non-Muslims who want to wear the hijab in solidarity should do it and see how it feels to be the target of so much vilification. But just as we don’t really recommend white folk donning blackface to experience racism, we don’t have to go this far. What is needed is better and more open dialogue, more honest conversation about the problems within our communities, and more representations of our diversity including the representation of Muslims who are black, Chinese, Latino. And this also means we should represent all Muslim women with their many forms of dress rather than just the hijab.

Other points to keep in mind: for women, it is not necessarily the religion that gives us freedom to choose the veil but the liberal or illiberal political regimes in which we live. Thus to state that hijab is a choice really needs to account for how this choice actually occurs. Second, feminism is not merely everyone’s way of being a woman. It is a political movement that demands equality for women. Women have often disagreed about the content of equality and freedom. Some women’s freedom is others’ oppression. But what is pretty clear to me is that a feminism that takes marching orders from men with very gendered views of the proper place of women is not really feminism at all.

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