Who is American enough to sing the national anthem?

We live in the age of over-sharing. Anyone and everyone with access to the internet can post whatever they feel like and blast it to their followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook in a matter of seconds. While this new-found freedom of expression has its benefits, it most definitely has its failings too. SDLC_Thumbnail

Anyone with five minutes and a Wi-Fi connection can express their hatred and intolerance without thought; recently, a little boy was deemed “not American enough” to sing the national anthem. While the technology that bigots frequently use to express hate is new, the hate itself is not. This bigotry extends to most ethnic minorities today, and goes far back into our nation’s history, even to its conception.Last week, at a basketball game in San Antonio, eleven-year-old Sebastian De La Cruz sang the national anthem. Thousands of fans cheered his performance in the stadium.

At the same time, hundreds of bigots took to Twitter in order to express their frustration, complaining that De La Cruz should not have sung the American national anthem because he is a) wearing a mariachi outfit, b) he is Latino and c) he is most probably “illegal.” They assumed he is undocumented because of his ethnicity, because of course all people of Latino ethnicity are undocumented. De La Cruz was, therefore, labeled “not American enough,” and repeatedly requested in those tweets to leave the country and go back to Mexico.

A little research shows evidence to the contrary, proving that De La Cruz is a natural born American citizen who loves the San Antonio Spurs and playing basketball. Not only is he a citizen, his father served in the US Navy, and therefore, is so loyal to America that he is willing to defend it with his life. And even if he was not an American citizen, but spent his entire life here, doesn’t that still make him American?

Then why was there such a backlash against an innocent, talented little boy whose only crime is that he chose to express his love for his country in front of thousands of people?

The truth is that even after decades upon decades of minorities struggling for fairness and justice, America is still not the beacon of equality and freedom that we assume it should be or advertise it to be. We still choose to marginalize and demean cultures that we do not understand, and instead, label them as “other” than American.

From the Native Americans to the African Americans to the ethnic Chinese, to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bias in the 19th and 20th centuries, every minority and ethnic group has experienced blatant discrimination at some point in American history. Even Polish and Italian immigrants were not considered “white enough” by Caucasian Americans who were proud to declare themselves superior, according to a belief in racial superiority. Those with light skin, light hair, and light eyes were considered more intelligent, refined, and sophisticated.

Just a few days ago, celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to using the N-word casually and wishing she could have African Americans, and only African Americans, serve as butlers at her parties. A few weeks ago, a young Caucasian woman walked into a Dunkin Donuts and proceeded to verbally attack the employees, using racial slurs and insults. She complained that because she wasn’t provided a receipt after her last purchase, she should get her food for free. Not only did she expect preferential treatment, she also verbally abused a female employee, and threatened to “nuke” her. All that to get a free ride.

This begs the questions: Why is there such a hatred of anyone who looks or acts differently than the “mainstream”? Why are Americans so segregated in our thoughts and beliefs? And as a country, as a collective, aren’t all Americans immigrants anyway? Only Native Americans can claim that they were here first.

I believe that people are afraid of what they don’t understand. They choose to “other-ize” entire communities or nationalities of people rather than communicating with them or trying to educate themselves. We need to replace open mouths with open minds.

According to a Census Report from 2008, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority in the US by 2042. It is, therefore, imperative (as it has always been) that Americans from all racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds learn to coexist. Not only is this common sense, it is a fundamental aspect of our constitution. We must put aside petty differences and come together as one nation, a nation of immigrants.

Does Pakistan have a chance at democracy?

Is Pakistan truly a democracy?Nawaz_Pakistan_Thumbnail

In order to answer that question, one has to explore what democracy means.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, democracy is defined as: “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

So, for Pakistan to truly be a democracy, it 1) has to have supreme power vested in the people, or the majority, and 2) have periodic free elections.

But is that the case? Or is Pakistan actually a bureaucracy, with a few privileged elite running the country and the majority being crushed?

Pakistan was founded in 1947, after independence from the British and partition from India. In the bitter fight over land and resources, landowners in Pakistan hoarded as much land and wealth as possible, trying to preserve their way of life. These landowners would later become involved in the political process of the country and continue to accumulate wealth and power. Pakistan’s legislature is composed of a 100-member Senate and a 342-member National Assembly (or House of Representatives). Most of the representatives of the National Assembly are part of the landowning class. Not only would they control the farmers or poor working class populations of their constituencies through economic subjugation, they would further assert authority by making sure they alone had political power. Never will you hear about a poor farmer in Pakistan’s history who was able to become elected as a minister or state representative. As long as the landowning class flourishes in Pakistan and rises up by stepping on the backs of the poor, how can economic or political equality ever be a possibility?

The landowners or zamindar own hundreds, some even thousands of acres of land, mainly in the states of Punjab and Sindh. While they do little work on the land themselves because of an elitist mentality, their farmers or serfs do backbreaking labor for a few dollars a day. More than half of these farmers are in debt, most of whom have had to borrow money from the landowners themselves. Some spend their entire lives trying to pay back the debt, but dismally low wages and lack of supplementary income prevent these farmers from ever breaking free. Furthermore, as almost all of the farming class is illiterate, they have no other opportunities for progress. The mentality that farmers have no need for a proper education still prevails in Pakistan, with trade and agricultural know-how taking priority over a conventional degree. An added social stigma that they are from the farming class follows them everywhere even if they are educated, making it difficult for them to secure jobs in business, the civil service, or other industries.

Can such a fractured and troubled nation be democratic? The answer is not until the power-hungry landowning class’s power is checked. Not until the zamindar class pays the millions of rupees it owes in taxes. Furthermore, not until the average Pakistani is equipped with political awareness and an education, will they be able to vote for the right candidates to represent them in the government. As long as the literacy rate of Pakistan remains a dismal 56%, how can we expect Pakistanis to vote independently or freely in a fair election?

The people must take matters into their own hands and start with their communities. It is an uphill battle but with dedication and commitment, as well as time, it can be won. There are examples of regular Pakistanis who became inspired to truly build their nation and succeeded in causing positive change.

For such change, most importantly, tax evasion and corruption must be challenged head-on and those responsible must face consequences, no matter how many acres of land they own. It is because the zamindar class believes it is above the law that it is able to buy its way out of every situation. This mindset of entitlement is not exclusive to Pakistanis but it has succeeded in permeating every part of the country’s social structure and must be challenged if democracy is to be attempted. Until poor farmers from villages “owned” by landowners stop being subjugated and told who to vote for, democracy cannot become a reality. There must be an overhaul of this elitist system of government with distribution of power if elections and votes are to have any real meaning.

Until then, democracy will be an ideal, not a reality in Pakistan.

Kenyatta and the (in)effectiveness of the ICC

The International Criminal Court was established in 1998 to prosecute war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression, under the Rome Statute. Based in the Hague, Netherlands, the ICC has till date worked on eight cases, all of which originated in African nations.

Today, 122 nations are party to the ICC, including half of the African and all of the South American nations. However, three major world powers, without whose presence the ICC cannot significantly influence global change in terms of international criminal law, the United States, China, and Russia, are not state parties.

Along with Israel, a critical presence in the Middle East, the US refused to become answerable to the ICC in 2000. The ICC holds no power over them as they have not ratified the Rome Statute, and hence have no obligations, legal or otherwise, to uphold its laws.

Predictably, government leaders from Senegal and Djibouti have raised objections to the ICC specifically targeting and prosecuting African nations for crimes against humanity, largely ignoring dictators or abusers of power of other nationalities.

Most recently, the ICC held Kenya’s newly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta accountable for murder, rape, and displacement of members of the opposition in the unrest that followed Kenya’s 2007 elections.  However, the ICC’s negative press and accusations neither seem to have harmed Kenyatta nor helped his political rivals, as he has still won with more than 50% of the popular vote.

This raises questions of not only political clout and governmental power structures, but also the relevancy and authority of the ICC itself. Even if Kenyatta was found guilty of the crimes he is accused of committing, there is a slim chance that he will face a prison sentence or that his conviction will be of any real consequence. His “crimes of aggression” will never hold up in the face of his monetary wealth, which translates into power; Kenyatta’s lawyers are expected to pressure the ICC to drop all charges against him. And the ICC is expected to comply.

One wonders whether this court which was created to punish international criminals has any real authority whatsoever, as war crimes and crimes of aggression continue unchecked in nations around the world. A war crime is defined as an action that “violates international rules of war”. It can consist of murdering innocent civilians, and stealing from, lying to, or terrorizing them. Crimes of aggression are defined as the military occupation of another state, and bombing, attacking, or using the army, navy, or other armed personnel to control said state by using unnecessary force.

We do not need to look farther than the U.S. to witness examples of these crimes committed by our own soldiers.

Modest estimates show that between 16,000 and 19,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the War in Afghanistan since 2001. Deaths continue to be caused by bombings, assassinations, burning, and most terrorizing of all, night raids into the homes of suspected insurgents. This is not to mention the thousands of rapes of women and girls by US soldiers in KandaharBalkh province, and other villages in the country.

The War in Iraq shows an even more gruesome picture. To date, it has resulted in between 111,000 and 122,000 civilian deaths, not to mention the kidnappings, arrests, and indefinite detentions of suspected insurgents. (Let us also not forget the billions of dollars spent on these wars and the effect they have had on the economy.)

Perhaps the most horrifying example of the US military’s arrogance and brutality is the Mahmudiyah killings, carried out on March 12, 2006. Abeer Qassim Hamza, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl was gang raped, shot, and killed by Private First Class Steven D. Green and his colleagues. Her parents and six-year-old sister were also killed. After killing her, Green set fire to her body.

Green and his colleagues blamed the deaths on Sunni insurgents, hoping to get away with cold-blooded murder. However, another US soldier who had witnessed the crime confessed that Green had planned and executed the murders, therefore he and his accomplices deserved severe punishments.

Green was found guilty of murder and rape in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison. This is only one of the thousands of cases of rape and abuse of civilians at the hands of American soldiers, who view Iraqis and Afghans as less than human, and Green is probably one of the few criminals who has ever been brought to trial.

Aren’t these considered crimes of aggression or war crimes? Who prosecutes these? Why are they not given the same attention or value as other crimes in the International Criminal Court? Why is the US allowed to get away with almost all blatant abuses of power without accountability or moral obligation? Have we stopped to think what exactly we have done to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq under the guise of spreading freedom and justice? Kenyatta is equivalent to Libya’s Gaddafi or Syria’s Bashar-ul-Assad or the Shah of Iran.

These rulers are accepted by the US as long as their policies reflect American interests. But when their power threatens to influence the regional majority and challenge the status quo, the American government labels them dictators, totalitarian rulers, or terrorists.

Then, not only does the US withdraw support, it also actively works to destabilize the country. While the ICC is content with exerting influence over so-called “third-world” nations, it has absolutely no power or say in American foreign policy or crimes committed in the name of spreading democracy.

Even if we, as Americans, cannot significantly influence our government to take moral responsibility for its actions, we must be informed and educated about said actions. These issues do not exist in a vacuum; they have lasting effects on how the world sees us, how we form opinions about other nations, and what kind of world our children will inherit.

The Rape Epidemic

The night of December 16th 2012, a 23-year-old medical student named Jyoti Singh Pandey and her male friend boarded a bus to take them home after watching Life of Pi in Delhi, India’s capital. The six men already on board the bus, including the driver, beat the girl and her friend with a metal rod for more than an hour, gang-raped the girl, and threw both victims from the vehicle onto the road. Jyoti, who has now become a symbol of outrage and resistance to violence against women, suffered extensive damage to her internal organs. A metal rod was inserted repeatedly into her body and removed with such force that it pulled out her intestines. Jyoti was taken to Singapore for an intestinal transplant but she succumbed to her injuries and died on December 29th.

A December 16 assault on a bus in New Delhi, which left a 23-year-old victim fighting for her life, has triggered nationwide revulsion and protests.
Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Protests and marches for women’s rights blasted the incident and its perpetrators across the globe and especially in India. Millions of people, men and women alike, condemned the attack as a senseless, bestial act of violence against innocent civilians. Lawmakers in India proposed stricter punishments for crimes of sexual violence. The six men accused of committing this heinous crime are charged with kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder. Their imminent conviction makes them eligible for the death penalty.
But even as the Jyoti was fighting for her life and afterwards, when the world was mourning her death, rapes and murders continued across India and outside of the country. An 18-year-old girl from Patiala, another city in northern India, committed suicide after being raped. Not only was she molested, this girl was continually harassed by the local authorities and asked embarrassing questions about the incident itself, which drove her to kill herself. A nine-year-old girl was raped in Bahawalpur, Pakistan after being kidnapped by three men from outside of her house. No arrests were made by the police.
While these crimes against women increase at an alarming rate, many have come forward to try and give solutions for this rape epidemic. Some have said that the responsibility of not getting raped lies with women. These critics argue that if women dressed modestly, if they were not out late at night, if they did not act in a promiscuous manner, and if they were more cautious, they would not be harassed or raped with such frequency. But how does this explain female and male children raped by adults?
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in Washington, D.C., 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12. A 2010 study in the UK estimated that about 5% of all boys and 18% of all girls in the UK had been sexually abused. And in India, an alarming and rather frightening 53% of all children have reported physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. War torn regions like the Congo and now Syria, are using terror, intimidation, kidnapping, and rape as tools to keep populations under control. Keep in mind that because most rapes go unreported, these are modest estimates.

Can rape really be controlled by how women act? And does it not make more sense to shift the responsibility from women to men, and argue that men should not rape, instead of insisting that women must try not to get raped? Why can we not agree that we live in a patriarchal, misogynistic world where, in many countries, women are not respected? And why must we pretend that women are not careful enough to resist sexual violence and that in order to not become a statistic, they must spend their entire lives in fear?
The answer to these questions is that misogyny is rampant in our world today as it has been for centuries. If women survive nine months in the womb and are not killed at birth, they face discrimination at every turn in their lives. School for girls in the northern tribal areas of Pakistan are being ritually blown up and destroyed by extremists to discourage education for females. Even if young women from underprivileged strata of society manage to get their education, they are harassed at the workplace, while commuting to and from work, and worst of all, at home. According to the website for Domestic Violence Statistics, every nine seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in America. In many Asian countries, women are expected to bring a dowry with them to their husbands’ house after they marry. If they refuse or if their in-laws are not satisfied, they will suffer death threats and risk physical or verbal abuse. There are hundreds of thousands of cases of women who have been burned with acid or set on fire because of disagreements with their husbands or significant others.

But this is not all.

Even women in positions of power and authority are routinely abused by their superiors. The Invisible War is an excellent documentary on the epidemic of rape in the United States military. According to the film, about 19,000 female soldiers were raped by their fellow male service members. All of the women featured in the documentary agreed that they were violated twice: once when they were abused, and secondly, when the military refused to help them or convict their attackers and conveniently covered up the attacks. What is the answer to this epidemic?
As a young woman, I am deeply affected every time I hear about any incident of violence against women. No matter how I look at it, the solution to this epidemic is that we must respect women. Our media, society, and we ourselves must stop portraying women in a negative or stereotypical manner. Our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives deserve better than to be treated with brutality. They deserve to be born, to have an equal chance at life, at an education, to marry of their own free will, and to have children if they wish. They deserve to be paid the same salaries as their male colleagues for doing the same work and they deserve to be treated with respect in our workplaces. Women constitute more than half the population of the world. Let their contributions to our society not go unnoticed. Let women live.

The National Defense Authorization Act

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law last December by President Barack Obama, has a new provision which punishes the Palestinian Authority and discourages Palestine from seeking protection against Israel through the United Nations. Palestine, which has won non-member observer status in the UN, will see its foreign aid cut if it tries to prosecute Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court, according to Amendment #3209. These cuts will significantly limit the amount of critical aid Palestinians need in order to survive in the face of illegal Israeli blockades on food, building materials and medicine, among other provisions. Introduced by Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Barrasso (R-WY) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the arbitrary amendment would make Palestine’s new status in the UN worthless without the capability to affect the ICC. Israel has already announced that it will build 3,000 new illegal settlements on Palestinian land in retaliation to Palestine’s winning bid. The amendment also calls for the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) office in WashingtonDC unless Palestinians cooperate with Israeli aggression.

NDAA

Furthermore, the NDAA harbors a controversial indefinite detention provision, which gives President Obama unchecked powers. Under this specific part of the act, any individual suspected of aiding, financing or planning terrorist activities can be arrested and detained indefinitely without charge or trial. The US military was, with the express authority of the President, able to keep even US citizens in prison on the basis of suspicion. This amendment is left purposefully vague, making it possible for future administrations to implement it in a harsher way. This frightening part of the act has been justified by senators like Graham on the basis that the United States must “win the war” on terror, even if it comes at the cost of sacrificing civil liberties and freedoms.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently introduced an amendment which seems to give US citizens protection against indefinite detention. The amendment reads, “An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention.” However, this amendment can be easily misinterpreted or misconstrued. The US military can still detain individuals who are not US citizens but reside in the US. Also, a future administration can interpret the amendment in a way which makes it possible to give hasty trials to suspects, charge said suspects, and still result in indefinite detention. Moreover, the Feinstein amendment might not have much say in court whatsoever, considering that the President still has the power “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks [of] September 11, 2001, or…to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons,” according to the joint resolution titled Authorization for Use of Military Force. This resolution was passed soon after 9/11 by then-President Bush and still has relevance in the Supreme Court.

But the question which comes to the forefront and is most problematic is this: Who is a suspect? If a person chooses to donate money to a non-profit organization which then sends the donation overseas to help victims of a natural disaster in another nation, and said money ends up in the hands of a political party or government organization which is seen as a threat to the national security of the United States, that person can be considered a suspect. If the US government deems necessary, it can charge them with “aiding a terrorist organization”, even though they were not sending money overseas for terrorist activity. The US military can charge them with treason, send them to prison and keep them there for as long as “hostilities persist”. In other words, the never-ending war on terror, which has nothing to do with why that person sent money, can have a direct effect on their life and the lives of their friends and family, who might never see them again. The President is also authorized to use video and audio surveillance to monitor that “suspect’s” family, listen in on their phone conversations, and read their e-mails. Information collected from such surveillance can be used as evidence of the person’s guilt in court. Such a trial blurs the line between lawful and unlawful conduct by the US military.

While protecting the United States from threats to its national security is of paramount importance, so is the protection of Americans’ civil liberties and freedoms. The NDAA not only makes it easier to forego those liberties and freedoms, it enables the President and the military to exercise unchecked powers over civilians. It promotes fear and mistrust of our government’s policies and agendas, creating a divide between figures of authority and the general public. As Americans, we should urge the government to void the amendments regarding Palestine and indefinite detention. Take action by contacting Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin and urging them to oppose said amendments of the NDAA.

Senator Richard J. Durbin
711 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510
Tel: 202-224-2152
Web contact form: www.durbin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator Mark Kirk
524 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510
Tel: 202-224-2854
Web contact form: www.kirk.senate.gov/?p=contact

My Experience at EastWest Link

Original article: My Experience at EastWest Link

I first heard about East West Link (EWL) when a family member met Mr. Masood Farooqi, who heads the organization and was looking for Muslim youth to work as leaders in the community. As I had already worked as a communications and grant writing intern at the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago, I had experience writing news articles, editing and proofreading articles and publishing them on the organization’s website.

After Mr. Farooqi conducted my interview, I started working on an article titled, “NATO Supply Routes to Pakistan – Reopened”. As I am Pakistani, I have a keen interest in South Asian history, politics, religion, and culture, which is reflected in my writing. My second article was also based on Pakistan, in which I wrote about the injustices and societal issues in the country regarding lack of education, gender inequality, and implementation of law.

The next article I wrote was titled “The Institute of Social Policy and Understanding – Taking a Lead”. For this particular piece, I researched the think tank’s website and familiarized myself with the scholarly staff and fellows who conduct important research on Islam and Muslims in America, and are featured in various publications. As I aspire to be a professor one day, research and analytical writing on civil rights and policy making issues piques my curiosity. I am looking forward to working with ISPU through the EWL-ISPU Joint Internship and increasing my knowledge about how the institute affects American policies regarding Muslims.

Taking a break from political topics, I next wrote an article based on a tafseer of Surah Furqaan from the Quran. I learned the distinctions the Quran makes between good and bad attributes of believing people. As is evident in the surah, Allah (SWT- subhanu wa ta’ala – may He be glorified and exalted) favors humility, dignity, sacrifice, and moderation over arrogance, pride, selfishness, and extreme behavior. Even though the lessons are deceptively simple, they serve as reminders for us, advising us to rethink our impulses and purify our intentions.

The article I wrote next was probably the most interesting I have written yet. Strangely, it took me only a short time to come up with all of the points I wanted to make as I already had my thoughts in order on what I wanted to write. This article stemmed from a documentary I watched called, “Bowling for Columbine” which was based on gun violence in America and directed by Michael Moore.

 

The documentary’s main focus was the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado, in which two high school students went on a murderous rampage and killed 13 students and injured 21. I chose this topic because in the aftermath of the Oak Creek tragedy in which 7 Sikh Americans were killed by a white supremacist, I had many questions and concerns about these events. I wanted to learn about how these incidences happened with such ease and how much psychological trauma they caused for Americans.

I also wanted to understand what the reasons were for such violent and hateful tendencies in seemingly every day Americans, what role gun control played in this issue, and what could be done to prevent such crimes and senseless cruelty in the future. Today, as I write this article, another “deranged gunman” has gone on a shooting rampage in New York City, killing his boss who he apparently held a grudge against.

Finally, I wrote about Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who garnered national attention when he made controversial and false remarks about some Muslims in America wanting to and succeeding in killing Americans “every week”. I felt compelled to write about this issue because it hit close to home; I am from Chicago, Illinois. Such Islamophobic comments coming from a man who represents the state of Illinois were deeply disrespectful. They also proved dangerous as hate crimes against Muslims in Illinois, and in the county at large, are rapidly growing in number.

Besides writing articles, I also publish all of the interns’ work on EWL’s website in order to promote the writing of our talented youth staff. While reading my colleagues’ articles, I was struck by how informed and opinionated the Muslim youth is and convinced that their voices need to be given center stage in any dialogue about Muslims in America.

In the future, I hope to continue learning at EWL and using the skills I learned here in future job opportunities. I would like to thank Mr. Farooqi for giving me this wonderful opportunity, and Nabila Ikram and Sara Khan for their guidance and training. It is a dream to work with you and as a team member of EWL!

Islam: A Reactionary Religion? US Foreign Policy and the “Muslim World”

Original article: http://chicagomonitor.com/2012/09/islam-a-reactionary-religion-u-s-foreign-policy-and-the-muslim-world/

I would like to start off by stating that there is no excuse and no justification for violence against innocent civilians. I am not here to act as an apologist for violence or criminal behavior of any sort whatsoever. This is an attempt to gain understanding of the supposedly inexplicable and largely violent reaction from so many Muslim countries in response to a badly made film on the internet.

The American Muslim community condemns the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his staff and expresses condolences to their families. Though they may claim it, those who participated in this crime are not true followers of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who taught forgiveness and mercy and lived his life as an example of these lessons. The only purpose of the film, “Innocence of Muslims”, was to incite hatred and violence. Unfortunately, this is exactly the reaction rioters in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen gave as a response to the film, although many countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan reacted with largely non-violent protests. Critics argue that the film in question is so terribly made that it should not even have seen the light of day, much less have caused such violence and tragedy. But could the film have been the only reason that so many Muslim countries felt enraged, protested and burned American flags? Or is the underlying answer a little more complicated, and is the truth a little murkier, as it always is?

Why weren’t there such far-reaching riots when Norway published cartoons portraying Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist? Or why aren’t the French embassies in the Middle East being attacked right now as a French magazine has published naked cartoons of the Prophet? Shouldn’t the creators of such disrespectful cartoons have faced the same outrage that the creator of “Innocence of Muslims” faced?

The truth is that much of the so-called “Muslim world” sees, specifically, the US government’s international interests and interventionist foreign policy as counter to the safety and well-being of its people. It sees drone attacks, which are supposed to target extremists as opposed to civilians, but rarely do, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. It sees the unconditional and unquestionable support the American government gives to Israel in the form of military and financial aid even when Israel commits war crimes and human rights violations against Palestinians. It sees President Obama’s claim that Guantanamo Bay Prison will be shut down and the prisoners – many of whom are kept there without many constitutional rights or any hope of trial – will be released as ignored. It tries to make sense of the decades of baffling support for dictators in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Jordan, and horror of horrors, Libya and Egypt – the two countries which saw the worst protests as a response to the film. It sees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians who suffered unspeakable brutality, the destruction of their economy, infrastructure, and national psyche, and the installation of uncertain and shaky governments. Then, as a final straw, they see “Innocence of Muslims”, a trashy, low-budget and downright spiteful attempt at mocking their revered religious figure, their faith and their way of life.

It is not so difficult to believe, then, that countries around the world with Muslim majorities would confuse and conflate this film’s contemptuous message as a partner in crime to the aggressive military action and intervention the American government has utilized as part of its foreign policy. The above-mentioned countries, albeit wrongly, see the US government’s support of anti-Islamic rhetoric as predictable as they have already witnessed said government adopting questionable practices and policies in regards to the “Muslim world”. This is not to promote the rioters’ burning of public property, attacking civilians, or damaging their own infrastructure or to accept this violent response as practical. It is to attempt to understand the history of Middle Eastern-American relations which extends beyond “Innocence of Muslims”, as the film was only a nudge which caused the deck of cards to crumble.

 

Fear and Loathing in “Homeland”

Original article: Fear and Loathing in “Homeland”

I started watching Homeland, knowing that the high-energy political thriller had won critical acclaim and several Emmys last month. I got hooked right away – pulled in by the fast-paced story, compelling performances, and the unrelenting tension between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – as they are so aptly called in the show. As a viewer, I could never put my finger on what was coming next, or how the story would shift. However, as an American Muslim and keen observer of international politics, I could not ignore the troubling and reoccurring factual errors about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. These manifest in the dialogue and plot, making it difficult to discuss the show without addressing its problematic narrative which required suspension of disbelief about the Muslim community.

Showtime’s runaway hit Homeland focuses on Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison, played by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes respectively. Brody is a sergeant in the US Marine Corps – recently returned to his wife and two children in suburban Virginia – who had been stationed in Iraq. During a mission, he was captured by Al-Qaeda and held in an underground torture chamber for eight years. Carrie, a CIA agent who has also worked in Iraq, has received intelligence from an Al-Qaeda member after months of interrogation that an American who has recently returned to the US from Iraq had been “turned.” Carrie suspects Brody is now actively planning a terrorist attack on American soil while working with the head of Al-Qaeda, a Bin Laden-esque figure named Abu Nazir.

Homeland is based on the Israeli TV series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) which was created by Israeli screenwriter, director, and producer Gideon Raff. The series is about a group of Israeli soldiers who are captured as POWs in Lebanon in 2008 and the difficulties they face trying to readjust to civilian life. It is not surprising that the series would be easily adaptable for U.S. audiences as Israel and the U.S. share a similar stance when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs.

In another instance, Beirut is shown as a dusty, medieval bazaar, instead of the bustling metropolitan city it is, where armed militias in jeeps terrorize dilapidated neighborhoods and Hezbollah commanders leave their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk. Iraq is shown as a demonic hell-hole where Americans are tortured and killed. Needless to say, any American watching the show will not be inclined to think well of Muslims, much less visit a Middle Eastern country. This type of scene is recycled time and time again in mainstream media portrayals of Muslim-majority countries.

Sure enough, the Israeli series’ influence on Homeland is indubitable. Interestingly, the scenes representing Lebanon and Iraq were shot in Israel. What was even more fascinating was that six supporting actors, who are not of Arab ethnicity, play Arabs in the show. The actor playing a Saudi prince is an Israeli American named Amir Arison. Why was a Saudi actor not hired?

Yusuf Swade, who plays Hasan Ibrahim, Abu Nazir’s bomb-maker, is also Israeli. And what about Abu Nazir, a Palestinian being played by an Iranian actor named Navid Negahban? Raquim Faisel, another Saudi national in the show, is also played by an Iranian, actor Omid Abtahi. Hrach Titizian is of Armenian descent but is playing Danny Galvez, a character of Guatemalan and Lebanese origin. Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Roya Hammad, a Pakistani-British character, is of Burmese-Indian and English descent.

As I researched the characters’ backgrounds, I couldn’t help but question why Arab or Pakistani characters in Homeland are not being played by Arabs or Pakistanis? Wouldn’t it be more authentic, honest, and believable if Arab voices were heard in a show about Arabs? Is it that Arab actors refused to be part of Homeland or that the people behind Homeland purposely chose to not have Arab actors portray significant characters in the show? This could be comparable to actors who are not black playing African Americans on television, which is considered deeply offensive to the African American community today. Or could it be that the Arab American narrative is considered un-American and unpatriotic in popular culture, so much so that we require non-Arabs to tell us what Arabs’ lives are like?

This was not the only problem I have as a fan of Homeland; I also have trouble accepting Carrie and Brody as entirely credible characters.

I enjoy watching them play off of each other as Homeland’s crux is the dynamic between Carrie and Brody. The writers intelligently construct the entire show around a single relationship; to simply call it complicated would be an injustice to the show itself. Lewis plays Brody with a delicious duality, lying without a second thought to Carrie, his wife, his children, and even to himself. He keeps everyone under the dark about where his loyalty truly lies and yet maintains a respectable appearance, wearing a military uniform ironed to perfection. He is vulnerable yet dangerous, a loving father yet a terrible husband, claims to love his country yet actively assists Abu Nazir (who reportedly hates America) undergoes severe emotional and physical trauma, yet does not think twice about inflicting said trauma on others when necessary.

Furthermore, Carrie champions American nationalism with a self-righteousness that is frankly nauseating. She has no problem installing video and audio surveillance in Brody’s home to gather evidence against him, but does not forgive him when he lies to her about his identity.  Her strongest conviction is that she, and only she, must defend America from all threats, internal and external, the foremost threat being Abu Nazir, whose name Claire Danes mispronounces with relish. Keep in mind that this character is a CIA agent, fluent in the Arabic language. As someone who has studied Arabic, it was annoying to hear Carrie speak as if she did not know the pronunciation of Arabic names. Surely, could the show afford an accent coach?

As we find out over the course of the first season, Carrie is volatile and unpredictable. Even after she finds out that Brody has been turned into a “terrorist”, (as he decides to change foreign policy from the inside out through becoming a congressman than through Abu Nazir-like violent revolution) she does not stop loving him. This was a very difficult pill for me to swallow, as I would expect a CIA agent to be a bit more logical. Even after she undergoes self-imposed Electro Convulsive Therapy after an emotional breakdown brought on by Brody’s violent rejection to her “spying” on him based on suspicion that he is a terrorist, she still goes back to working for the CIA. Even after suffering humiliation by her boss, David Estes, she risks her life to go to Beirut to investigate a link between the Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, which might lead to Abu Nazir.

Because according to the show, there is no other choice to save America; there is no one more skilled or more intuitive or even more emotionally stable in the entire Central Intelligence Agency than Carrie Mathison. As a person who is a critical thinker, this is truly difficult to buy.

One cannot help but question whether Carrie is a sadomasochist, who revels in the pain she actively puts herself through in the name of work because of her disorder or whether this is how the creators of Homeland believe CIA agents would be. Even more worrying, however, is the thought that this is how said creators believe CIA agents should be. And if that is truly their belief, are they selling us near-lies in the name of entertainment?

I agree that the premise is fascinating, designed to keep the audience on its toes, with deeply flawed and still likeable characters, uncomfortably involved in each other’s lives. However, as I quickly realized, and as you might have guessed by now, the show is engineered to appeal to a certain demographic, one which does not require much critical thinking or deep understanding of international affairs, instead requiring the audience to stomach giant leaps in implausibility.

For example, Carrie is not alone in the mispronunciation camp; often, Brody mispronounces the Arabic prayers which he learned from Abu Nazir. Surely Abu Nazir knows the correct way to pray in Arabic, considering he has been Muslim much longer than Brody! In one scene, Brody offers salaah with shoes on, which is a huge blooper. It would only take a quick Google search to confirm that Muslims must not wear shoes while praying. This is not to mention that Isa (pronounced Ee-saa), the Arabic name for Jesus is pronounced Ah-i-sa, repeatedly. In the first episode of the second season, Brody’s wife Jessica throws his copy of the English translation of the Quran on the floor, after finding out that Brody has converted to Islam. Aside from the fact that I flinched instinctively at this disrespect, albeit coming from a fictional character, I was taken aback by what Jessica says at this moment and by her sheer disgust at Brody’s new identity.

“This can’t happen. You have a wife, two kids. You’re in the running to become congressman. This can’t happen, you get that right?”

Yes, because being Muslim and an American politician are incongruous, right? You can’t possibly be human or sane if you’ve converted to Islam. I could only wonder what the writers were trying to say in this scene.

Jessica goes on to argue that Brody being Muslim would jeopardize their daughter Dana’s relationship with her boyfriend because, in her view, Dana would be stoned to death for pre-marital sex if she was Muslim. And let’s not get started on how it would affect the kids’ future if anyone found out their father was a Muslim. Jessica is more terrified at Brody’s new-found faith, than hurt that he has lied to her countless times.

This is what truly makes me nervous about Homeland’s premise, not the mispronunciations or the easily avoidable inaccuracies, but that it actively perpetuates Islamophobia. Carrie and Brody’s relationship is built on fear and distrust; both of them represent the “us vs. them” attitude.

Every Muslim character in the show is suspicious at best, a terrorist at worst. None of the Muslims, according to Homeland, can be trusted to run their households, much less run for political office. This propagates further misunderstanding and fear of Muslims in the minds of the audience. Instead of dispelling stereotypes, Homeland promotes them, actively selling Islamophobia in the name of thrill and action.

As a fan of the show, I feel compelled to discuss these inaccuracies and problems. As an American, I feel it both misrepresents Muslims in America and abroad and promotes Islamophobia to audiences worldwide. I hope that in the future, Homeland’s writers and directors prove to be less concerned with gimmicks than with fact. A nuanced, balanced, and fair representation of Muslims would only add credibility to the show and increase viewership. Who knows, maybe more Muslims like me would even like to watch it without having to criticize every episode.

The Children of Syria: A History of Violence

Original article: The Children of Syria: A History of Violence

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times, titled “Syrian Children Offer Glimpse of a Future of Reprisals”.

Read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/world/middleeast/in-syrian-conflict-children-speak-of-revenge-against-alawites.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1

In it, David Kilpatrick wrote of the hundreds of Syrian children in Jordan’s Zataari camp who are forced to spend their days in tents, away from home, without the food, shelter, and education they desperately need. Mr. Kilpatrick’s thesis was that all of the Sunni children he met in this camp were overwhelmed by their hatred of President Bashar Al-Assad, his government, his supporters, and most importantly, the Alawites – members of a Shia sect of Islam which makes up ten per cent of its population. In this article, Mr. Kilpatrick repeatedly expressed his shock and concern at the apparently inherent violence and intolerance abundant (manifest) in these children’s nature. He expressed fear for the Alawite population of Syria, which, according to him, “see [Al-Assad] as their best protection against sectarian annihilation”.

Mr. Kilpatrick relates the mindset of these children in a fashion that reveals them to be almost barbaric on an intrinsic level. What he fails to address in his article, however, is the mental trauma these children have experienced at the hands of the Syrian government and its supporters, the result of which is a desire to perpetuate this violence in the form of revenge.

While the Syrian Civil War has caused extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure, economy, society, and global image, it has also irrevocably damaged the collective psyche of Syrian children. Armed militias, such as the government-backed Shabiha, have perpetrated unspeakable physical violence and ethnic cleansing against defenseless women and children. Eyewitnesses have reported that such groups have adopted the “scorched earth” policy; after the Syrian military shells a protesting village or town, the Shabiha further terrorize the residing population by burning homes, firing at families, and destroying everything in their path – whether combatant or civilian, whether man or child, it makes no difference. Air raids and shelling of civilian populations continue despite the United Nations forbidding the Syrian government the use of heavy weapons against civilians.

According to reports, Syrian children as young as eight have been beaten, arrested, detained, used as human shields, tortured and raped in prisons, and killed in an effort to crush and immobilize protesting neighborhoods. Perhaps the single worst incidence of violence committed against children was at the Houla massacre, on May 25th, 2012. The United Nations reported that at least 49 children, younger than ten, had been systematically and deliberately executed in this shameful event carried out by the Syrian military and the Shabiha. Those children that survived the massacre endured armed militia men breaking into their homes and watched their entire families shot point blank, knifed, or butchered by machine guns. Even though the Syrian government denied its involvement in this incident, the UN reported clear evidence that the Assad regime was directly responsible for the attacks. A video posted online of some of the murdered children showed their wrists bound with blue ties, which means that they were tied up before being shot. Modest estimates report that of about 30,000 civilians who have died during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, about 1,200 are children. Syrian security forces have killed, arrested and tortured children in their homes, their schools or on the streets. In many cases, security forces have targeted children and treated them with the same cruelty as adults.

Jarred and disoriented by the never-ending violence, about 1.5 million Syrians, including women and children, have been displaced within the country and tens of thousands have fled Syria for neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Some of these are the same children which Mr. Kilpatrick encountered in the Zataari camp of Jordan.

Syrian children display signs of deep emotional scarring, thoughts of revenge and murder, and getting “even with the enemy”, reactions which should not be difficult to fathom considering the history of violence against them. The purpose of this article is not to justify or promote these children’s views. It is to state that violence and hatred are not inherent; they are learned through negative experiences and societal influences. Expecting Syrian children to have an untarnished view of their world is not logical as they were not brought to refugee camps in Jordan from a utopia. They were brought to Jordan’s refugee camps from a country divided against itself, with the all too vivid images of violence and hatred still in their minds. They were taught by their authority figures that violence and hate prevail over peaceful protests and tolerance. Until and unless this young generation is given positive role models and reinforcement, empowerment through a proper education, and most importantly, security for their future, their worldview will be just as skewed and distorted as it is now and they will remain prone to regurgitating what they have been fed up till now; hatred and violence.

The Arab Spring: Its Geostrategic Significance by Mohammed Ayoob, ISPU Adjunct Scholar

Policy Report Summary

The Syrian Civil War includes Iran and Turkey, which have widened the conflict’s reach. Turkey supports the Sunni-dominated opposition against the Asad regime, as does Saudi Arabia, which has sectarian and ethnic differences with Iran. Iran supports Asad because his government supplies the Lebanese Hezbollah with financial and military aid. Saudis supply the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups with weapons.

As the opposition’s cause is accepted as justified by the international community, and Asad’s Defense Minister and brother-in-law have been killed, Ayoob believes that the Asad regime is coming to an end. Further complications arise with the inclusion of Russia and China, who tolerate Asad’s regime and have vetoed UN Security Council resolutions against Syria

Russia is averse to a Libyan-style military intervention that would damage its role in Syria, its only ally in the Arab Mediterranean. The US, however, which considers Iran its political and ideological foe, sees Asad as a danger also because his support for Hezbollah would cause attacks against American and Israeli targets as retaliation for attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Still, the US doesn’t have any plans for a post-Asad Syria and is afraid of creating another Iraq if it invades to intervene. While covertly supporting the disunited opposition groups in Syria, the US has refrained from a military intervention that might cause total anarchy.

Bahrain, which houses the Fifth Fleet, the American naval base in the Middle East, can be used against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The pro-Iranian Shia population in Bahrain complicates issues further; considering a democratic overthrow of the Sunni-led monarchy, it could create another natural ally for Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia, like the US, has been a massive support to Bahrain’s monarchy against Iran and is keeping Iran preoccupied with Syria so that it doesn’t gain an advantage in the Persian Gulf and Bahrain. Still, it is vulnerable as it’s led by octogenarians, lacks genuine political institutions and has to rely simply on cash to influence events.

Egypt, which has been the only Middle Eastern ally to Israel for 30 years, might now change its policy due to democratic change that sees Israel as a threat, which makes Israel nervous. Israel’s gain from the fall of Asad’s regime (Iran’s ally) may vanish quickly if it’s replaced with a pro-Palestinian Islamist government- like in Egypt – which would also cause tensions in the Israeli-Syrian border. The US-Israeli relationship would also suffer as the US has unequivocal support for Asad’s removal.

Egypt will stay fixated on the domestic struggle for power at the expense of expanding its regional role. Iraq has been significantly weakened after the 2003 US-led invasion and war, which leaves it unable to influence the region or the world politically.

Israel’s political position in the region is likely to weaken further given the US’s disengagement from the Middle East after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most people in the Middle East see Israel as a “pariah” state with no legitimacy in regional politics.

Turkey is seen as a role model for a Middle Eastern democracy and is supportive of the Arab Spring. Iran is also supportive, although for a different reason. Khamenei sees the Arab revolutions as empowering militant groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Shia extremists, but is primarily concerned with empowering Shia populations against Sunnis. Both countries would rather avid the creation of a Kurdish state, which could result from a disintegration of Iraq.