Hoodies, Hijabis and the Hunger Games

This article was originally published by the online edition of the Kenyon Observer

I remember in the aftermath of President Obama’s election in November 2008, many proclaimed that America was post-racial. I disagreed then and now with this assessment; it suggests that the election of a black President amounted to full eradication of racial prejudices in America. In light of recent events, I don’t think one could reasonably make that argument. Three seemingly unrelated recent events, two murders and a blockbuster movie, in addition to my involvement in Project Open Voices, have brought in sharp relief the long road that lies before us in eradicating discrimination.

As horrifying and tragic as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Shamia Alwadi are, they present an opportunity to refocus attention on issues of race, discrimination, and internal biases. In honor of ‘Social Justice Week’ here at Kenyon, I’d like to raise a few comments and challenges to our community, in the aftermath of these events.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that occasionally the Twitterverse can feel like an echo chamber. However, it can provide a compelling glimpse into aspects of popular opinions and perceptions. So when Twitter lit up with angry Hunger Games fans expressing their disappointment (so to speak) that casting agents had “made all the good characters black,” I was disturbed but not surprised.

The events surrounding Trayon Martin’s death and the subsequent investigation have been chronicled in detail by the media, an overview by TKO’s Megan Shaw can be found here. A lesser known murder occurred just last Wednesday in El Cajon, California, and is currently being investigated as a hate crime. Homemaker Shamia Alwadi was found by her seventeen year old daughter, at home, “in a pool of her own blood” after her head was beaten with a tire iron. Next to her mother’s unconscious body, the girl found a note which read, “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Alwadi and her family moved to the United States from Iraq in 1993. She was a mother of five, and was a muhajiba, a Muslim woman who chose to wear hijab, or a headscarf. Emily L Hauser writes,

“In a country in which entire police departments feel justified in spying on Muslim Americans across state lines; in a country in which entire communities, across the country, are whipped up into a froth over plans to build houses of worship; in a country in which elected officials feel free to call Muslim faith-based philanthropic events ‘pure, unadulterated evil’ — should we, in fact, be surprised that many believe ‘Muslim’ to be  synonymous with ‘terrorist’?”

The next logical question, I would hope, is, how do we stop it?

I appreciate Jon Green’s recent post, which bravely acknowledges the striking biases that permeate our society. Advocating humanism and egalitarianism over socialized stereotypes is a crucial step in the creation of a better world and more just society. He writes, “As long as I am aware that my biases exist I can consciously override them, knowing how irrational they are.” It’s a simple but noble call to action, one that could have a radical impact on the lives of many if implemented. I look forward to the day when controversial acknowledgments, like those by Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams no longer occur, because they are overridden, “knowing how irrational they are.” Perhaps these Twitter users would feel differently about the Hunger Games movie if they were able to disassociate damaging stereotypes and biases from the story unfolding on screen, and recognize that the value of someone’s narrative, fictional or not, is not dependent on their ethnic, racial or religious identity.

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Decision Time

The uproar over the prospective building of the Cordoba House (aka “the Ground Zero Mosque”) has unfortunately done a fabulous job of showcasing the double-standards, stereotypes, and unfair generalizations that result in prejudice against Muslim-Americans every day.

The condemning of the sight by the ADL is the cherry on top.

“Let’s be clear. This is not about the proposed Islamic Center. There is already a masjid in the neighborhood, and it’s been there for decades. This is about giving political cover to right-wing politicians using anti-Muslim bigotry as a political weapon and a fundraising tool…I learned a very important lesson in Hebrew School that I have retained my entire life. If they can deny freedom to a single individual because of who they are, they can do it to anyone. Someone at the ADL needs to go back to Hebrew School.”Adam Serwer

“Those who sincerely believe that Cordoba House is offensive need to tell a Muslim serving in the U.S. military precisely how far from Ground Zero he may acceptably practice his religion.To the ADL: you’re breaking my heart here. Are you prepared to tell Jews not to build synagogues in Hebron because of the crimes of Baruch Goldstein? Do we Jews bear the guilt for the murders he committed?” Spencer Ackerman

I agree with the Goldblog:  !?!

“I have explained my support for the Lower Manhattan mosque project before, but let me restate two points: 1) The organization behind the project, the Cordoba Initiative, is a moderate group interested in advancing cross-cultural understanding. It is very far from being a Wahhabist organization; 2) This is a strange war we’re fighting against Islamist terrorism. We must fight the terrorists with alacrity, but at the same time we must understand that what the terrorists seek is a clash of civilizations. We must do everything possible to avoid giving them propaganda victories in their attempt to create a cosmic war between Judeo-Christian civilization and Muslim civilization. The fight is not between the West and Islam; it is between modernists of all monotheist faiths, on the one hand, and the advocates of a specific strain of medievalist Islam, on the other. If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side. It’s not that hard to understand. I’m disappointed that the ADL doesn’t understand this.”

All these quotes and articles come from Jewish writers. Peter Beinart hit the nail on the head earlier this summer with the publication of The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment .His latest thoughts :

Peter Beinart“For a long time now, the ADL seems to have assumed that it could exempt Israel from the principles in its charter and yet remain just as faithful to that charter inside the United States. But now the chickens are coming back home to America to roost. The ADL’s rationale for opposing the Ground Zero mosque is that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.” Huh? What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue? Would the ADL for one second suggest that sensitivity toward people victimized by members of a certain religion or race justifies discriminating against other, completely innocent, members of that religion or race? Of course not. But when it comes to Muslims, the standards are different. They are different in Israel, and now, it is clear, they are different in the United States, too. Indifference to the rights and dignity of Palestinians is a cancer eating away at the moral pretensions of the American Jewish establishment. Last Friday, in the case of the ADL, we learned just how far that cancer has spread.”

The ADL’s charter states :“Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”

“All citizens” has been asterisked in the case of Israel, and now with regard to American Muslims.

Perhaps the most passionate call to action American Jews can hear is from the incredible Elie Wiesel, in his address at the White House entitled “The Perils of Indifference”

“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction…. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”

I conclude by echoing the question asked by Issac Luria, VP of Communications and New Media for J Street in a recent email to supporters:

“This is a moment of truth for the American Jewish community and our friends. Will we line up on the side of freedom of religion and respect for all – or give in to the fear and prejudice that have led to the denial of our own rights in the past?”

Burqa Ban

One day at my high school a group of boys came to school wearing skirts, tight sweaters and excessive makeup. They were following through on a creative assignment from their English class, inspired by the novel Black Like Me: live a day in the life of someone unlike yourself, and experience the world from their perspective. Not a bad assignment, though it played out rather comically, and without much genuine effort (Although I did hear one boy remark on how uncomfortable the bra he had borrowed from his sister was).

As a Christian Arab-American, I have often wondered how my life is different from my Muslim brothers and sisters. In our post 9-11 world, my sensitivity to ethnic profiling and sweeping generalizations has heightened significantly. I sometimes imagine going “under (head)cover” for a day to see if I’d notice a change in others behavior/attitude toward me. I am especially curious in light of the recent legislative actions taken by the French government.

Why is the #the burqa ban# being proposed by the French government, and what would it actually achieve?

Fans urge that the measure will promote women’s equality and help maintain French values and secularism. Unfortunately (even as  a genuine aim) I observe the ban as yet another expression of legislating citizens’ Islamophobic and xenophobic concerns as Europe adapts to an ever-diversifying immigrant community (#banning minarets# anyone?)

So among the issues this controversy brings to the fore, a major point of contention for me stems from the issue of personal choice. We can’t determine whether the estimated 1,900 veiled women in France are being coerced to don the burqa or niqab, or whether their actions come from personal belief/religious motive/cultural choice. If the choice is being made based on religious or cultural conviction/ identification (like this young #American girl# ) then the ideal of secularism is stripping individual liberty in the process.

Furthermore, regardless of their reason for covering, the ban will effectively disenfranchise and further alienate these women. If it is the case that their husbands are requiring them to cover, legislating a removal of the burqa won’t liberate the woman, but further enslave her (her husband/family member potentially refusing to allow her to leave home since she cannot be covered). I suppose that is my biggest fear and concern about the ban: it will not liberalize the attitudes of this minority, but further ostracize them.

“There needs to be substantive change in Muslim men’s attitudes towards Muslim women rather than superficial change mandated by a government that seeks to erase those parts of immigrant populations they find distasteful. ” #tasha fierce#

more analysis here and here

Martha Nussbaum presents a much more thorough argument than mine here.

The NY Times has a comprehensive topic  page on Muslim veiling here .

Why I’m Blogging

“We live in a world where people get angry about things that do not matter, while at the same time people don’t get angry about things that do matter.”

It is my hope that this blog will serve as a constructive use for the emotions (including anger) that I feel in observing societal issues today, including (but not limited to) social justice, the Middle East, issues of gender, race, class, faith, religion and morality, education, culture, politics and human rights.

Bell concludes his “NOOMA” video sermonette “Store” by saying:

“Often, when we’re talking about what we’re going to give our lives to, we ask the question, “What do you love? What is it that when you do it you feel alive? You think, ‘Man, I could do this forever. I was made for this.’” So we often ask, “What do you love?” but there’s another question we can ask. “What makes you angry?” What is it that when you see it, you think, “That’s wrong! Somebody should do something about that! Somebody should devote themselves to that. Somebody should make a difference there. Somebody should help them.” Maybe that somebody is you.”

Maybe that somebody is you.

“I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together.”

-The Beatles