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 Institute for Social Policy and Understanding – Taking a Lead

Original article: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding – Taking a Lead

 

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding is a think tank and research facility founded in Detroit, MI and located in Washington D.C., that conducts extensive, crucial research, and offers nuanced policy analysis and context to the issues facing the Muslim community in the United States and abroad. ISPU’s research and analysis are performed by highly trained scholars in the economic, foreign policy, national security, and public health fields.

Founded in 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks as a result of growing curiosity about Islam and Muslims, ISPU has since established itself as a respected and trusted source of valuable information about Muslim traditions, values, practices, and institutions. Since then, ISPU has published hundreds of articles, reports, and research papers written by more than two hundred scholars, graduate students, lawyers, professors, and various other academics. ISPU’s website has been accessed by people in more than 115 countries; the institute has a budget of less than a million dollars annually, and is the only think tank focused on American Muslims.

More than $42 million have been donated to Islamophobic think tanks since 2001, a frightening fact, which gives even more importance to the work that ISPU does to counter stereotypes and anti-Muslim policies in America. In 2011 alone, ISPU published extensive research on topics including the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda and terrorism, the bullying of Muslim children in schools, the legality of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, how the media is improving the image of American Muslims, and the effects of the September 11th attacks on European Muslims.

ISPU scholars have been featured heavily in the news, television, online, and print media. The institute has provided ample analysis of the futures of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S. and how the American government might make new policies which could ease tensions between these nations.

With her work at the Center for Global Health at ISPU, Dr. Sania Nishta a Pakistani cardiologist, healthcare reformer, medical academic and writer produced “Through the Health Lens: The Aftermath of the 2010 Pakistan Flood”; a report which analyzed the challenges Pakistan faces as a result of the destruction the floods caused. Currently, ISPU’s Director of Research, Farid Senzai is conducting research on the political and civic engagement of American Muslims in the ten years since 9/11 (from 2001 up till 2011).

Julie Macfarlane, a Fellow at ISPU and a Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Windsor is writing a report on the use of Islamic family law principles and values in divorce processes conducted by third parties in North American mosques. Two research reports titled “A window into American Muslim traditions” and “Aging Muslim Families” are also under production and are being actively worked on by ISPU’s experienced scholars.

In light of the societal, political, economic, and international issues still facing the Muslim community in America, it is essential that policy research institutes such as ISPU not only function well, but that they are actively supported and promoted on an international stage. Only through dialogue, policy making, civic engagement and developing a deeper understanding of Muslims and Islam will the stereotypes and injustices against them end. To that end ISPU is a much needed and appreciated tour de force of activism and information. Take the opportunity to learn more about ISPU at their website www.ispu.org and their Annual 2012 banquet in Dearborn, MI on September 15th.