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Observers who warn against increasing levels of radical, far-right activism in the U.S. and Canada are often met with a retort of “it’s just a few crazy people.” In other words, “It’s clearly just a few dozen losers on the corner with signs, so why panic?” These fringe characters, the argument goes, are so unacceptable to the mainstream that it’s inaccurate to see them as being in any way representative of a larger right-wing movement. And since they don’t constitute a larger threat, why worry?
Such a liberal interpretation of today’s troublesome status quo is worryingly naïve.
First of all, let’s take a second to remember that it doesn’t take 50, 20, 10, five or even a pair of determined nutcases to do real damage these days. It takes one. Critics of “Islamic terrorism” always note without fail how today’s technological and societal circumstances allows one—just one—nut job to do the damage that only armies could do centuries ago. Well, the same applies to far-right or alt-right nut jobs.
Almost exactly a year ago, it took one such murderer—Alexandre Bissonnette—to walk into a Quebec City mosque and shoot dead six Muslim men and injure 19 others. He wasn’t a trained tactician. He had no military or Special Forces background. But he was dedicated to his task and got his hands on a deadly weapon. That’s all it took.
Sticking with this example, how fair is it to point to such a killer—who was known for loving Trump and hating on refugees—as an extreme product of the prevailing political atmosphere?
Well, if we’re being honest, it’s totally fair.
Some in Quebec’s provincial legislature recognized the connection (and how bad it made them look) and offered an acknowledgement of the kind of rhetoric that might have contributed to such a toxic atmosphere. It’s a scary thing to remind oneself of from time to time, but an individual’s extremist actions are almost never carried out within some sort of sealed social vacuum. Human beings are connected, now more than ever, to the sociopolitical “ether” surrounding them.
Today’s atmosphere has facilitated a rise in xenophobia against minorities, from Muslims to Jews to the transgender community and so on. This shift in political climate, this increase in the public legitimization of so-called politically incorrect speech, constitutes the direction of today’s cultural wind.
Foremost among those whose job it is to gauge such winds are, of course, elected officials who rely on the voting public for legitimacy, support and a career. It goes without saying that, regardless of where one looks on the political spectrum today, politicians in North America and Europe are well aware of the far-right resurgence and are working to orient their public image according to it.
Sadly, this act of political orienting has too often meant capitalizing off the racist and sometimes violent sentiment of the far right. And though not all on the right are playing this dangerous game, a significant enough portion simply can’t help themselves. It’s been there for the taking long before Trump showed up.
Take the following example: Breitbart and Steve Bannon were central to the success of Donald Trump, a supposed outlier vis a vis the Republican establishment. And yet, it’s likely true that the sentiment that got Trump elected is the same one that animates most of the Republican base today.
In Canada, the recent race for the Conservative Party—one of only two governing parties in the country’s history (the other being the Liberal Party)—saw the rise of Andrew Scheer, a supposedly reasonable right-of-center politician who stands opposite more populist candidates like Kellie Leitch, whose overt Trump-esque slogans led to her eventual loss.
All of a sudden, everything seemed crystal clear to Canada’s pundit class: The country’s ecosystem—unlike that of the U.S. or Europe—won’t allow for someone like Leitch, a populist wannabe, to take real power. Because, liberal or conservative, Canada is different.
Perhaps some of that is true, but none of it changes what was soon revealed about Scheer’s campaign team:
Hamish Marshall, a well-known political consultant who managed Scheer’s leadership campaign, was actually listed as a director for Rebel Media, Canada’s version of Breitbart and a common rallying platform for the alt-right.
Stephen Taylor, Scheer’s digital director, turned out to be a participant in an alt-right subreddit called MetaCanada.
Georganne Burke, a long-time Tory organizer who worked as Scheer’s outreach coordinator, was involved in the founding of an anti-Islam organization that believes Islamophobia—the discrimination and hatred of Muslims—is a fake concept invented by the Muslim Brotherhood to make the liberal West more Shariah compliant.
And this is all from the team of a party leader who’s presented to the public as the more reasonable right-winger, a serious politician who eschews the alt-right.
Perhaps citizens who care to hone their political acumen shouldn’t perceive the current rise of the “loonie” right as a purely aberrant strain that stands apart from the great tradition of Western political conservatism. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that significant swathes of official conservatism—those who run in elections and live a public life—are happy to use racist, populist strains to galvanize support and obtain votes, so long as that strain survives scrutiny in the eyes of the wider public.
We live in such times. The alt-right’s political success has long exerted influence on broader conservatism because, well, success is inspiring. Proven methods of attaining it are thus copied. The right wing, no matter how “official” sounding or looking, isn’t prone to such toxicity.
You help me stay awake and worship my lord while people fell asleep.
Don’t blame me for my intense love for coffee.
It is the drink of the righteous people.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali recited these lines of 14th-century Sufi poetry written by Moroccan scholar Shaykh Ali Ibn Omar Al-Shadhili. His voice echoed through space and time—not just from California where he lives to my room in New York where I spoke to him over the phone, but through centuries back in history when Muslims and coffee intimately intermingled.
Al-Shadhili’s words reminisce of a time when Islam evoked reveries of prospering economies instead of the war on terror as it does today. Alkhanshali aims to restore these older imaginations, not just of Islam but also of Yemen—now a war-ravished land— through one of its most sought after commodities: coffee. His story is documented in Pulitzer Prize finalist Dave Eggers’ upcoming non-fiction book The Monk of Mokha. Eggers chronicles Alkhanshali’s journey to start a business producing and exporting Yemeni coffee amid a civil war. As we unravel the 29-year-old’s tale, we also uncover the history of the multibillion-dollar industry of coffee that began in Yemen centuries ago and provided the impetus for his journey.
“The first people who drank coffee were Sufi monks and sheikhs in Yemen at the port city of Mokha,” Alkhanshali said. “Most Muslims don’t know this hidden history of coffee.”
* * *
According to folklore, coffee was discovered in ninth-century Ethiopia by a goat-herder named Kaldi, when he noticed his goats were more energetic than usual after eating fruit of a particular bush. This was the coffee fruit that held the coffee bean in its belly. While Ethiopians discovered the bean, Yemen is where it was first harvested and roasted from round ripe red cherries found in the highlands near the Red Sea. It was Yemenis who gave the drink the Arabic name of “qahwa,” from which the word “coffee” derives. Al-Shadhili was among the first to turn coffee beans into the charcoal-colored brew consumed around the world today and for that reason he was called the “Monk of Mokha,”—the inspiration behind Eggers’ book title.
Initially, coffee was popularized among Sufi monks as a stimulant to stay awake while they worshipped God into the late hours of the night as well as a means of reaching euphoria to aid in their spiritual connection with the Divine. Soon enough, coffee began spreading to all parts of the Muslim world, renowned as the “wine of Islam.”
They drank it every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay. Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas, “There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.”
In the 1400s, coffeehouses became the focus of intellectual life, bringing together people of all social classes. Muslim leaders began to see coffeehouses as a space that could breed possible social revolutions. In response, clerics in Mecca, Cairo and Istanbul issued fatwas prohibiting the consumption of coffee, comparing its intoxicating effects to that of wine. Murad IV, sultan of the Ottoman Empire between 1623 and 1640, went as far as imposing the death penalty for anyone found drinking coffee. Eventually, all efforts to ban coffee were wasted and religious scholars ruled that coffee was permissible.
Coffee beans made their way from Yemen to Europe in the 1600s. As other parts of the world began to cultivate their own coffee, by the 21st century, Yemen’s coffee trade was dwindling with farmers turning to growing the more profitable qat, a herbal stimulant. Over time, the Yemeni art of carefully cultivating and harvesting coffee was lost and coffee from the region was considered inferior to coffees grown around the world.
That is until 2015, when Alkhanshali paved his own path in history by exporting the first high-quality coffees from the port of Mokha in over 80 years.
* * *
Alkhanshali training farmers to pick the most red ripe coffee cherries. >Courtesy of Knopf
Alkhanshali grew up in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and six younger siblings. He knew next to nothing about coffee or how its industry operated. Inspiration struck when he worked as a doorman at a luxury high-rise and saw a statue across the street of a Yemeni monk drinking coffee.
“Alhamdulillah, I found my calling in coffee,” Alkhanshali said.
This was the turning point for him in what is an incredibly impressive journey to establish his coffee business. He trained to become a Q-grade taster and traveled across Yemen establishing relationships with coffee farmers and collecting samples. But when the time came for him to return to Seattle to attend a major coffee conference that would determine the success of his career in the industry, Saudi bombs rained over the Yemeni capital city of Sanaa, closing airports. He found himself trapped as a civil war raged.
“It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” Alkhanshali said of the war in Yemen. “And unfortunately, no one cares about it.”
The U.S. is still doing its part in fueling the war, he added. In May, the Trump administration struck a $110 billion military arms deal with Saudi Arabia. These weapons are being used to kill Yemeni civilians. The U.S. also abandoned American citizens in Yemen to find their own means of escaping, including Alkhanshali who made a harrowing getaway with his coffee samples through the port of Mokha on a tiny fisherman’s boat to Djibouti. With the challenges of operating a business in wartime, it’s no wonder Alkhanshali’s coffee sells for the high price of $16 per cup.
“Honestly, I thought by the time the book came out, the war would be over,” he said.
But the future of Yemen remains uncertain.
* * *
Eggers >Courtesy of Em-J Staples
Eggers writes of Alkhanshali in the prologue, “But his story is an old-fashioned one. It’s chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat.”
I disagree. Alkhanshali’s story represents the antithesis to the American Dream that romanticizes individualistic capitalism; exceptionalism of the nation-state; and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”-type philosophy. Contrarily, Alkhanshali’s narrative demonstrates the way America has racialized opportunity structures, blocking immigrants and their children from accessing resources to prosper. Whether it was the lack of affordable housing, the skyrocketing price of higher education or the history of anti-immigration policies that founded the Muslim travel ban, Alkhanshali’s narrative is littered with hurdles meticulously placed to block the upward mobility of immigrants and their children. It is important emphasize that it is often America’s self-serving economic and foreign policies that destroy people’s opportunities in their ancestral homes and trigger their desire to migrate in the first place.
Instead, Alkhanshali’s story epitomizes people’s moral courage. One where friends, family and sometimes strangers are brave enough to invest time and money in a diaspora kid—one of their own—who has no education or experience to his name. A diaspora kid who in turn, has made it central to his mission to uplift his fellow workers and community members.
“To be chosen to try to represent Muslims, Yemenis and coffee farmers—it’s a lot that weighs on me,” Alkhanshali said.
Moral courage is far from under threat in the U.S. where people across the identity spectrum have united in their resistance against the xenophobia espoused by the Trump administration. The process to unite hasn’t been perfect, but nonetheless determined. No better is that captured than through Alhkanshali’s Mokha Foundation, which partnered with the Department of Brewology to create a protest poster that reads, “COFFEE IS AN IMMIGRANT.” The poster reflects the same red-white-blue print as the Shepard Fairey images that are the faces of the Women’s March and its proceeds will benefit Yemeni farmers.
“It’s a very timely book to say the least,” Alkhanshali said. “We are Muslim and we are American. We are a part of the landscape. We live in a time of divisiveness so I’m hoping this [book] can be a unifying narrative.”
Indeed Eggers’ dynamic and explorative book does just that. Alkhanshali’s tale builds bridges between people, places and times no longer easily accessible—whether it’s due to politics, geography or simply physics—recognizing the ways communities of color have long been a creative force in defining America, despite its historical insistence that they do not belong.
1. “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
There is no doubt that President Donald Trump has indeed marked the beginning of a new approach to the conflict. He did, after all, just break with seven decades of U.S. policy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Moving the American Embassy is also a new beginning. Every president before him, Republican and Democrat, has decided to sign the national security waiver and postpone the move.
But what is his new approach? So far, we have little information except the latest on Jerusalem and a few indications of the “ultimate deal” that Trump has yet to unveil. Only a month ago, the New York Times reported on what Trump’s Middle East team was planning. Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner were prepared to take on the difficult issues of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements and think creatively. Yet Trump’s latest declaration on Jerusalem demonstrates that the “ultimate deal” is clearly skewed toward Israel and creativity may mean new ways of precluding a two-state solution.
2. “Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. … This is a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement. … Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.”
It’s difficult to imagine what Trump has in mind here. Exactly how will unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision that contradicts seven decades of international consensus and one of the key negotiation principles of the two-state solution, advance the peace process?
The obstacles are formidable. Consider, for example, that as early as the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, Jerusalem was designated corpus separatum, which meant that neither Israeli nor Palestinian sovereignty would exist over the city. After the 1948 war that divided Palestine between Israel and Jordan, the U.N. once again affirmed the international status of Jerusalem. The U.S. supported this position arguing that neither Israeli nor Jordanian sovereignty would be recognized over the city. When Israel occupied the city in the war of 1967, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 267, which, inter alia stated that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel which purport to alter the status of Jerusalem, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, are invalid and cannot change that status.” The U.S. again followed suit offering its own articulation of Jerusalem’s status. In 1969, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Charles Yost, stated that “the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the June war, like other areas occupied by Israel, is occupied territory and hence subject to the provision of international law governing the rights and obligations of an occupying Power.”
Since 1967, the U.N. position and international consensus has repeated that Jerusalem’s status could not be altered unilaterally. This has been the basis for every Israeli-Palestinian negotiating framework including the Oslo Accords and Road Map and was reaffirmed as recently as December 2016 in Security Council 2334, which not only identified Israel’s role as one of “occupying Power” but also rejected any changes in Jerusalem’s composition since 1967.
3. “But today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”
The idea that Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is nothing more than a “recognition of reality” is already catching on. I’ve heard several apologists for Trump’s decision emphasize this point. The logic is simple and has the benefit of appealing to partial reality. Trump, after all, isn’t completely wrong. For the past 50 years, Israel has exercised almost complete control over Jerusalem, placing key political institutions in the city. Moreover, in 1980, the Israeli Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, which identified the city as the capital of Israel. The problem is that Trump has recognized a reality Israel has been trying to institutionalize for the past 50 years (and here’s the kicker) against the reality that international law prohibits it and no one supports it. To say one is simply recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is already the capital of Israel is thus to say that one is simply authorizing Israeli occupation of the city. More important, it is to say that one is ignoring international law and contradicting the international consensus.
As the U.N. and U.S. has routinely restated, Israel is the occupying power and, as such, must comply with international law. Annexing Occupied East Jerusalem is, according to international law, illegal. Trump can ignore the law and express his support for the Israeli occupation. Indeed, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that’s implicitly what he’s done. The question is why didn’t he acknowledge that reality? One can speculate about the answers but one thing is clear: Trump has made an immoral and illegal choice about the reality he’s decided to recognize.
4. “In making these announcements … we are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
This is one of the more confusing sections of Trump’s speech. It’s impossible to imagine what he means here given that Jerusalem is a final status issue and thus calling it Israel’s capital is “taking a position” on a final status issue. More importantly, it is affirming that the boundary of “Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem” includes all of Jerusalem, east and west. Of course, Trump didn’t say that. He just said “Jerusalem.” But given the specifics of international law, the international consensus and decades of peace negotiations, Trump should have stated whether he was talking about West Jerusalem or all of it. Not doing so directly implies that he’s talking about the entire city. And that is certainly how the rest of the world, including Israel, has interpreted it. The fact that Trump hasn’t responded to the global criticism by clarifying that he wasn’t talking about all of Jerusalem suggests he very clearly was. Thus this part of his speech is nothing short of deception; a deplorable illustration of the proverbial cake one desires to both have and eat.
5. “This sacred city should call forth the best in humanity, lifting our sights to what is possible; not pulling us back and down to the old fights that have become so totally predictable. Peace is never beyond the grasp of those willing to reach.”
I cannot agree with Trump more on this point: Let Jerusalem call forth the best in humanity. The only problem is that calling it Israel’s capital is anything but the “best of humanity” and actually pulls us “back and down to the old fights.” Since Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the self-proclaimed Jewish state has been engaged in policies of Palestinian containment and dispossession alongside Israeli-Jewish expansion. Through building restrictions, land expropriation, home demolitions, revocations of residency rights, discrimination in budget allowances and municipal services, in addition to the forced isolation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem from Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank, Israel has been fueling the fight over Jerusalem.
Tens of millions of dollars are donated annually toward poverty relief programs, but the root cause of generational stagnation among Muslims is often overlooked.
Muslims — young and old, men and women, at schools and the workplace — are under attack today. There are Muslims who are forced to either publicly distance themselves from their faiths by calling themselves secular non-practicing Muslims or to defend their Islamic faith and beliefs.
Most Muslims and large businesses around the world are fortunate to be away from conflict zones and can go about their business, contributing to the economy, and assimilate themselves into the nation they call home. However, it is more important than ever that something is done collectively to counter the normalizing trend of Islamophobia and bigotry in the global mainstream media and social networking sites in the West.
We simply cannot leave the task of establishing the counternarrative to “Muslim community leaders,” who rely far too much on euphemism, with limited follow-through. This especially since the goal is not proselytizing about Islam, but about ensuring the entire generation of Muslim youth and teenagers today that they don’t have to bury their heads in shame every time an individual does something in the name of Islam, or when Islam is unfairly critiqued.
The key, however, is not to stifle the overly exploited “freedom-of-speech” justification that is used by mainstream media every time they are accused of carrying articles that are visibly biased against ordinary Muslims and Islam. If there are invisible red lines with joking about abused children, dead pensioners, rape victims, women’s rights, child pornography, or the Holocaust, then why then is it acceptable to provoke the sentiments of one-fourth of the world’s population, ordinary Muslims often wonder?
Unless ordinary Muslims push back by occupying the narrative space dominated by misinformation and hypocrisy, terror groups, deranged individuals with Muslim names and Islamophobes will dominate.
In light of the unveiling chaos from the ongoing unprecedented assault of being a Muslim citizen in the West, the Center for American Progress, in its February 2015 report “Fear, Inc. 2.0,” wrote with remarkable foresight, “In their attempts to alienate Muslim Americans and prevent them from partaking in American political life, these groups have clear malevolent motives, which they in fact often openly state. These have to do with their fundamental desire for more aggressive U.S. foreign policies and providing the rationale for the ever-growing national security state.”
Fear, Inc. 2.0: As Anti-Muslim Incidents Continue, Report Exposes Funders, Pundits of Islamophobia - YouTube
Admittedly, it will take us years to get past this sort of damage, inflicted over decades. Nevertheless, it is crucial we start funding projects that actively combat the media’s anti-Muslim bias, and tirelessly call for the elimination of anti-Muslim intimidation and violence worldwide by bridging the gap with factual information about Islam and ordinary Muslims.
At present, there are too many of us sitting in silence, unable or unwilling to take action. In other words, instead of overcoming irrational Islamophobia, we help legitimize it with our inaction.
Muslims need to identify, train and create a primary group of between 10 and 30 well-informed, presentable and confident professionals who can speak eloquently about Islam as a religion of peace to non-Muslims worldwide, using facts sourced from non-academic contemporary history, political science, the Quran and Hadith. These individuals must come from countries around the world with race, gender and ethnicity playing no role as to who gets shortlisted for this global initiative.
Culturally conversant, quick with logical arguments and able to look at any thought process and expose the inconsistencies, these individuals will primarily act as a leading voice to local, regional and global media outlets, policymakers, bloggers, op-ed columnists, television talking heads, and global think tanks.
This ought to be a powerful tool to reinvigorate self-confidence in our millennial teenagers and youth today with the ultimate goal of helping raise the self-esteem of the next generation of young Muslims around the world. Given how long this initiative is likely to take, it is therefore important we start now, before the next act of violence called terrorism appears in the headlines.
Unless we amplify the ongoing contribution of Islam and Muslims to humanity today, the microphone will be left to right-wing politicians, terrorists and “lone-wolves” living on the fringe with the loudest, most disturbing, views and voices.
Such actionable, focused global initiatives need to be transparently funded by ordinary Muslims and philanthropists everywhere with the ultimate goal of the revival of self-confidence among the Islamic population of tomorrow. If this does not happen, the spiral of madness against Muslims and Islam, which has no sensible origin, will see no end.
In recent years, there has been a rise in media discourse regarding Western converts to Islam. This is unsurprising, considering the increase in both conversions to Islam and the number of converts engaging in violent extremism. While the need to address a Muslim convert’s susceptibility to violent extremism is evident, there is a danger in allowing it to be the only lens through which we view this minority within a minority. Not only does it cause stigmatization, it neglects the unique experiences converts can draw on to foster the intercommunal dialogue we need to overcome the recent mainstreaming of divisive narratives.
Converts to Islam were involved in 44% of the 32 Islamist extremist terror plots in the West between July 2014 and August 2015. Moreover, 12 of the 18 American Muslims involved in these plots were converts, highlighting a significant disproportionality between the number of native Muslims and converted Muslims engaging in violent extremism. This disproportionality extends to the U.K. as well, where converts make up less than 4% of Muslims, but 12% of homegrown terrorists between 2001 and 2013. Journalists as well as policymakers have often wondered aloud whether converts are somehow uniquely susceptible to violent extremism. Khalid Masood of the Westminster Bridge attack and Aaron Driver, an ISIS supporter who detonated a bomb in Ontario, Canada, are but two recent examples that further this concern.
But we have to be careful. Seeing converts solely through the lens of national security skews reality and prevents understanding. Islamophobic and xenophobic narratives, which have gained momentum in the last year, thrive off such misunderstandings. There needs to be a broader emphasis on understanding converts in a multifaceted way, taking into consideration the utter shock to the system that often comes from leaving their family’s faith community behind and adopting a new worldview and way of life, at best with little community support, and at worst with flagrant ostracism.
The “security threat” narrative around converts is also highly gendered. There is a constant insinuation that women who convert to Islam lack agency. Two of the questions I receive the most, as a convert, testify to this: “Who made you convert?” or “Who did you convert for?” Female converts are often assumed to have become Muslims solely as byproducts of marriage, or due to manipulation or naiveté. The consequent implication, that only “submissive” women would convert at the hands of oppressive Muslim men, both amplifies the negativity with which conversion to Islam is already associated and feeds Islamophobic narratives that portray Islam as an invasive force laying siege to the West.
This tendency to view converts solely as a security risk ignores more commonplace, optimistic accounts of conversion, which show, for example, that female converts are largely drawn to Islam after finding “alternative feminist discourses” in it, discourses that stress the importance of motherhood, and of femininity as part of one’s character rather than as primarily physical. What is needed is a diversification of public discourse about converts, through introducing stories that more accurately reflect this reality and would, in turn, help to overcome the reductive, securitized approach in place today.
A Latina convert to Islam, which is a burgeoning trend > YouTube/Fusion
In addition to seeing converts as brainwashed or naïve, there has been an increased focus on converts as potentially vulnerable to radicalization. In effect, “religiosity” in Islam is seen as necessarily threatening. When a radicalized convert’s story is told, it is often done through implying that a growth in devoutness inevitably leads to violence. A convert’s personal history is therefore neglected in favor of oversimplified narratives that instill causality between violence and their newfound faith. What is left out is the context: What are the circumstances that led to their conversion? What was it that drew them to the faith? Did they have a history of criminality and/or violence? Was there enough support from the Muslim community to properly help the new convert navigate the theological and philosophical debates? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask if we want to foster broader understanding of converts.
Moreover, converts are often inadvertently portrayed not only as a physical threat, but also as a cultural threat, through emphasizing a “before and after” narrative that suggests converts choose “them” over “us.” The Daily Mail headline, “Why ARE so many modern British career women converting to Islam?” for example, subtly contrasts a convert’s pre-Islamic life with Orientalist narratives that perceive Islam as misogynistic and incompatible with modernity. Moreover, visuals used in such articles, often of niqab- or burqa-clad women, stress the physical “otherness” of Islam, moving converts out of the familiar “us” and into the monolithic, threatening “them.” Not only does this fuel divisive narratives, it also fails to show diversity in the reasons converts embrace Islam and in how they practice. The notion that a convert must actively abandon liberal democratic values to adopt the values of their new religion is not at all reflected in how the vast majority of converts actually go about their daily lives.
Ultimately, there needs to be greater effort directed toward accurately portraying what is an already misunderstood minority. The fear of converts, motivated by public perception and the heavy focus on security, only helps to fuel Islamophobic hatred and discriminatory stances toward the “other.” This in turn can cause alienation, incidentally one of the vulnerabilities that leads to radicalization.
By reconsidering current approaches and creating a dialogue around the conversion process, news outlets and the general public can generate greater understanding and open-mindedness, and can help in tackling the rise in hate speech and hate crime that we have recently witnessed. We have an opportunity to view converts as bridge-builders between Muslim and non-Muslim communities that have long been taught to focus on differences rather than similarities. Reevaluating how we currently talk about converts, and reducing stigmatization and securitization around what is often a very private and turbulent decision, is a first step toward seizing that opportunity.
*Image: A new Muslim convert discussing if Islam would make him a terrorist. >YouTube/OvercomeTV
When President Donald Trump announced his administration’s long-awaited policy toward Iran this month, including his decision to decertify the nuclear deal, the “America First” president sought to present himself as an envoy of the Iranian people. “[W]e stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people,” he said during his address.
But make no mistake about it: Trump is not a friend of Iran or its people.
Trump has long been a critic of the historic 2015 nuclear accord, which aimed to ensure Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon, in exchange for relief from some economic sanctions. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agreement places Iran under “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime,” and the monitoring group has released quarterly reports on the accord’s implementation.
The president’s decertification, therefore, not only manufactures a nuclear crisis that had come to a negotiated settlement, but also endangers the process of Iran’s greater re-engagement with the international community. While the administration’s stubborn refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, absent any violations by Iran, will have significant repercussions on the state of global diplomacy, the most damaging impacts will be borne out in the homes of ordinary Iranians. Last week, one school teacher in Tehran told Reuters, “My worry is that the economy will go back to the sanctions era when we had difficulties to find essential food and even medicine. I want my son to have a good life.”
Since the deal was finalized in 2015, Iran has significantly rolled back its nuclear program. In exchange, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States agreed to suspend nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran, including lifting an oil embargo and trading with Iranian businesses. But the deal has yet to result in the economic windfall many had predicted before the agreement. The rate of inflation is down and the government has initiated a series of reforms to restructure the economy, but unemployment remains an issue as foreign investment trickles into the country. The IMF still predicts Iran’s economy to grow by more than 6% this year, even though remaining U.S. sanctions on Iran continue to limit Tehran’s access to its reserves and foreign assets.
But after the Trump administration’s recent decision to decertify, Congress is positioned to reapply the same sanctions legislation that was waived under the nuclear agreement. It is unlikely, however, that anyone in the administration has considered the economic plight of ordinary Iranians, considering the president bragged (incorrectly) that sanctions (put in place by Hillary Clinton’s State Department) had brought Iran’s economy to the brink of “total collapse.”
President Trump Delivers Remarks on the Iran Strategy - YouTube
The administration has also included Iranian nationals in every iteration of its travel bans. Last month, the National Iranian-American Council estimated that Iranians are highly likely to be disproportionately affected by the new restrictions, and professor and author Neda Maghbouleh told Al-Monitor that the travel ban is forcing a generation of Iranians in the U.S. “to imagine a future where we might as well be the last Iranian-Americans.”
It is therefore difficult to take Trump at face value when he expresses concern for the “proud people” of Iran, a group he has gone to such great lengths to harm both at home and abroad. Many recall how Trump blamed Iranians for the terror attack that struck their capital this past summer, and across social media, Iranians have protested Trump’s revisionism on the name of the Persian Gulf.
Even during Iran’s presidential elections earlier this year, when nearly three-quarters of voters participated, the president planned a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he called for Tehran’s isolation. Perhaps Trump was not notified that Iranians had overwhelmingly elected a government committed to engagement and dialogue, whose president recently called for the “mother of all negotiations, not the mother of all bombs.”
Trump may not care what ordinary Iranians have to say, but he can no longer pretend to speak for them.
One would have thought that a 15-year-old girl shot in the head for speaking out in favor of education for girls would be hailed as a hero. Unfortunately, there is no dearth of people who have scathingly criticized Malala Yousafzai.
Yousafzai makes many Pakistanis proud across the globe. She is the second Nobel Laureate from Pakistan. However, like the first Nobel Prize winner, the late Dr. Abdus Salam, she is reviled by a significant number of Pakistanis.
Salam was the first Pakistani and the first Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in Science for his contribution to the electroweak unification theory. His advanced knowledge in theoretical and particle physics played a major role in the 1960s and early ’70s in developing the scientific infrastructure of Pakistan, especially related to space and atomic energy. Salam, however, is ignored because of his Ahmadi faith, while Yousafzai is spurned for espousing a “Western agenda,” and even for wearing a Western dress. Recently, a Pakistani politician asserted in the National Assembly that a premier university should not name its physics center after Salam. His anti-Ahmadi spiel was actually met with applause.
The same conspiracy-theory-fed mindset that sees Ahmadi Muslims as a threat views Yousafzai with contempt. This is not a coincidence, because opposition to both Ahmadis and Yousafzai is based on an exaggerated patriotism or jingoism. Like two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Yousafzai has been attacked for bringing light to negative aspects of Pakistan. Those on the left see her as a stooge for Western imperialism, a point on which they make strange bedfellows with right-wing Pakistanis who accuse her of being a CIA spy. A significant proportion of Pakistanis raise questions about her qualification to receive a Nobel Prize. Others engage in whataboutery when they bring in issues of Palestine and victims of drone attacks.
Yet Yousafzai has outshone them again and again. Here are five instances that show that far from being an apologist for Western imperialism, she has spoken out on the same issues that Muslims are generally concerned about.
Responding to reports on the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims and the deafening silence of Myanmar’s incumbent state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yousafzai condemned Myanmar and called for neighboring countries to support the Rohingyas. Yousafzai said, “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. … I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” As such, instead of picking on Yousafzai, her Pakistani critics should reflect on the mistreatment of poor Rohingya Muslims in Karachi, and ask themselves what they have done to solve the problem.
Palestinians in Gaza
Palestine is important to Muslims across the globe. It is often a topic of many Friday prayers. Yousafzai has offered support to Palestinians that extends beyond empty words and emotional tactics. In 2014, she called for a cease-fire and donated $50,000 toward the reconstruction of schools in Gaza. She stated that “innocent Palestinian children have suffered terribly and for too long.” How does this make her a stooge for Western imperialism?
Victims of Drone Attacks in Pakistan
Yousafzai’s critics on the left often like to point out the victims of drone attacks and view her education campaign through the lens of Western imperialism. Somehow, they feel that focusing on the victims of religious extremism takes away from their anti-imperialist and anti-colonial narrative.
However, Yousafzai put them to shame when she met with President Barack Obama in 2013 and pulled no punches in asserting how drone attacks were causing much suffering in Pakistan. On her meeting with Obama, she stated: “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. … Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education, it will make a big impact.”
Malala's Message To President Obama | Forbes - YouTube
Children of Aleppo
In 2016, Yousafzai issued a passionate statement on the atrocities committed by pro-Syrian government forces. She compared the situation to the genocide in Rwanda and stated that “prayers are not enough. We must act. The international community must do everything they can to end to this inhumane war. … May God be with the children of Aleppo, even if our world leaders are not.”
Far from being a Western stooge, her words repeatedly show how she takes to task world leaders for their ineffectual position and voices the concerns of innocent Muslims who are suffering under the weight of dirty international politics. She avoided the game of blaming either the Syrian regime or the rebels, and went ahead to collect funds from world leaders for Syrian refugee children.
Kashmiris in India
Yousafzai also supports the Kashmir struggle, which holds a lower priority than Palestine and Syria in the Muslim world. Yet many Pakistanis hold the issue of Kashmir close to heart. Last year, there were reports that the Indian army used pellet guns that blinded hundreds and wounded thousands of unarmed protesters in Kashmir. Yousafzai stated, “I stand with the people of Kashmir. … My 14 million Kashmiri sisters and brothers have always been close to my heart.”
In sum, Yousafzai has consistently spoken out about human rights abuses against the Rohingyas, the people of Gaza, Syria and Kashmir, and drone attacks in Pakistan. She has done this while campaigning for the education of girls, which is not just a Western value but a universal right.
“Geo Yousafzai” (Long Live Yousafzai), daughter of Pakistan!
Ignorance is not bliss. It is the hotbed of misunderstanding, misapprehension and mistakes. Recently, I presented a lecture on Islam at a Homeland Security Conference to emergency managers, law enforcement officers, and military men and women. Speaking about Islam as a religion of peace, mercy and understanding is a heavy responsibility, and each time I do so, I grapple with the fear of unanticipated questions.
Unexpectedly, the first question from the audience on this occasion was simple enough: “What’s the difference between a Shia and Sunni?”
In the three-hour lecture, I had avoided addressing the historic Sunni-and-Shia divide, assuming the sectarian wars in the Muslim world forced analysts, authority figures and agencies across the government of the United States to learn the basics of the Islamic faith. I was wrong. In the West, there is still a desire and need to understand Islam and the Muslim world.
On another occasion, in a specialized class on Islam, I presented the beginnings of Islam as a glorious faith that originated in 7th-century Arabia and spanned the world in a few centuries. After two days of intensive training, one participant privately asked me about a Muslim’s relationship with God: “How do you talk to Him?”
One participant asked for a copy of the English Quran. Others wanted me to explore the extremists’ perversion of Islam. They asked about the Verse of the Sword (9:5), which forced me to review the famously cited verse used by extremists to justify their so-called war. Verse 9:5-6 is commonly translated into English as the following:
Kill the disbelievers wherever you find them. But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah and then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge.
To better understand the historical context of the verse, I consulted with local imams and a wide range of scholars, who agree that the Verse of the Sword has nothing to do with non-Muslims today or even Muslim leaders considered to be corrupt and unfit to rule. Instead, the Verse of the Sword is very specific. God commands Muslims in 7th-century Arabia to defend themselves and fight against Arab polytheists because they ordered the death of the Prophet Muhammad for not worshipping idols. Thus, the polytheists initiated warfare and tortured, tormented and terrorized the early Muslims. Additionally, the Verse of the Sword emphasizes the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness. God ordered Muslims to give asylum to anyone, even an enemy, who seeks refuge; present the message of Islam without coercing the enemy to accept Islam; and finally, grant safety to anyone, regardless of faith. All verses of the Quran need to be understood in their proper context.
Engaging U.S. civilians and officers has made me painfully aware of their desire to learn Islam to make informed decisions about individual Muslims or communities, as well as the need for Muslims everywhere to accept the collective responsibility to communicate with others about their faith.
Yet effective engagement requires scholarship and learning the classical sources of the religion. To be fair, the education revolution, or the “take back Islam” movement, has existed for years. Shortly after 9/11, American Muslim and non-Muslim academics, scholars and sheikhs preached the principles of the faith and denounced terrorism in the name of Islam. They lectured and published books to raise consciousness and reconstruct Muslim identity: Khaled Abu El Fadl’s The Great Theft; Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, Reza Aslan’s No God But God, Muhammad Ayoob’s Islam: Faith and History, and Hamza Yusuf’s Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart, to name a few.
Reza Aslan, a scholar who has dedicated a great deal of time to educating others on Islam, at a 2012 Security and Defense Agenda conference. >Flickr/Security & Defense Agenda
While these books shed light on Islam, not everyone makes time to read. This is why the internet provides short and quick answers: the one-page summary to substitute for in-depth studies of contemporary Islam; handbooks filled with illustrations and a list of key points instead of expansive research reports; real-time fatwas, a one-stop shop for those who simply don’t make the time to study or know Islam.
Obviously, online resources are not the answer and cannot substitute for learning about a religion with a rich intellectual heritage and culture. As one fellow instructor said to me, “The internet is like a colorful painting that will encourage students to learn how to draw.”
The real solution, as I have discovered, is to learn from a sheikh, scholar or imam — a learned individual with a sound, in-depth understanding of faith. Interviews of other Muslims, including ex-radicals, emphasize the importance of working with a trained man or woman steeped in religious scholarship. Most importantly, this person has to be accessible and trustworthy, a point made by a young sheikh, Saad Tasleem.
After nearly 20 years of teaching Islam, I have also accepted that learning Islam is a call of duty for everyone. It’s an act of service that is essential to helping authorities, agencies and analysts in the U.S. government and beyond understand that Islam is a simple, practical and peaceful religion. The responsibility is not mine, alone, but should fall on every Muslim working in the West, because questions about Islam — the faith and practice — are still prevalent and will be asked of everyday Muslims, in and out of professional circles. When we are able to provide honest answers, we can cultivate love and trust among those who are most ignorant about our faith; with knowledge, we receive respect and kindness from non-Muslims willing to listen and learn; and with the gift of the Quran, we can protect ourselves against criticism and cynicism often expressed by the uninformed and unlearned individuals in our society.
There’s a lot of “us” and “them”-ing going on these days. Try as we may, it is almost impossible for you and me to avoid being labeled. Some labels are simply about us:
They are White.
They are Black.
They are of mixed race.
They are from California.
They are from Kenya.
They are from Charlottesville.
They are from outside Charlottesville.
They are parents.
Their daughter was killed.
But today’s labels mostly seem to tear folks down, divide and bedevil unity in our communities. Often we call using these labels “prejudice” and “bigotry.”
They are White nationalists.
They don’t believe in free speech.
Those people are terrorists.
They came to my country to take my job.
None of these labels describes the nuances that we know to be true about us as individuals. There are areas in which we are consistent and areas about which we are emboldened to be ambiguous; some labels hold and others do not. And they all, ideally, should nest in the tree of Pluralism.
I am White.
I am an American patriot.
I am Muslim.
I believe in free speech.
I decry racism.
How shall we describe American pluralism in a time when divisions command the headlines and accusations of “White nationalism” and “anti-free-speech” fly in the face of epluribus unum? What brings us together? What holds us there? How shall we remain democracy’s defender when its practice at home is under a microscope?
Simple answers used to include “our diversity,” “our dreams for a better life,” and “our Constitution.” However, questions are complex and answers may be even more so, especially as we acknowledge that the American example is part of an international phenomenon.
If we didn’t recognize the racism simmering beneath the American surface since the Civil War, it might seem that the United States was a late-comer to the ethnic, linguistic, religious and racial divisions that consumed portions of Europe, Asia and Africa in the late 20th and early 21st century. Alternate voices are emerging that assume credible and equal status alongside the voices of the status quo. Which are majority and which are minority is increasingly difficult to determine.
Jason Kessler, who described himself as a “White advocate” to a New York Times reporter, said that during the August 12 rally he organized in Charlottesville, Virginia, his group had been “forced into a very chaotic situation,” and that “the police were supposed to be there protecting us and they stood down.”
Balancing the voices, needs, hopes and fears of increasingly decentralized communities may be the government’s big assignment over the next decades. A popular euphemism for America’s 20th-century pluralist society was “the melting pot.” We saw ourselves as a vibrant multi-part community into which everyone assimilated into unum. All were welcome to blend into the American experiment wherein a magical formula of capitalism plus opportunity plus equality equaled democracy. Melting-pot terminology was bandied about with great pride: We had a marvelous mix of humanity where many other countries were homogeneous. In the United States, all people could be accepted into the culture at large. Shared geography, political institutions and economic institutions were to fuse multiple cultures into a new culture, sociologists surmised.
Sometime during the 1960s, the nation was forced to admit that the term “melting pot” was inaccurate. Citizens kept their “old country” distinctions: foods, faiths and family values. Races lived in like-looking neighborhoods. People kept their ignorance of one another intact in many cases. Bias and fear —the parents of racism, sexism and religious discord— were allowed, even encouraged, to fester. In truth, Americans weren’t melted together after all: Not every ore was admitted. Indeed, the pot itself was in meltdown. Civil Rights riots, antiwar protests, free love and political assassinations upended the melting-pot theory.
Next came the “soup bowl” analogy: meat and potatoes, carrots, celery, rice and beans all simmering in a Constitutional broth. In the soup of pluralism, each ingredient would maintain its own integrity, color and consistency, and offer digestible traces of itself to the whole. It was a new concept for integration. But the broth wasn’t thick enough. For example, even if schools became integrated, neighborhoods did not. Integration did not guarantee a good education for all nor access to the American dream of a job and a home.
Thus there are economic forces that lead from differences in household wealth (and home ownership) to differences in the civic quality of the community in which a household lives. U.S. policy to increase low-income ownership rates reflects the understanding that home ownership rates affect neighborhood quality and that growing up in a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood impairs health, personal development, and school outcomes. But home ownership—a major way in the Unites States that households access better neighborhoods and also accumulate wealth—is not sustainable for households with no wealth to start and with little income.
Economic segregation also prevails in the “salad-bowl” metaphor. But there’s too much Boston lettuce and not enough okra to get some on everyone’s plate. What’s a chef to do when the dietician insists on a healthy economy?
“A healthy economy is a mixed economy, in which government and the marketplace both play their role,” writes Jeffrey Sachs in The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity. “Yet the federal government has neglected its role for three decades. Just when the government was needed to chart a course through the twists and turns of globalization … it turned the levers of power over to the corporate lobbies. America’s economic failures are therefore at least as much political as economic.”
Our economy is not mixed and neither are American citizens.
What’s next in the world of gastronomical metaphors for pluralism? Smoothies? Banana splits? Let them eat cake? No.
We have run out of food metaphors for our multicultural, multi-confessional, multiracial society. Instead we should look at the cloth from which we are cut. Literally. E pluribus unumis best likened to a patchwork quilt.
Consider the colors and patterns of stitched-together squares, brilliantly complementing one another with apparent randomness. A large swatch on the upper left is related to a smaller swatch at center right; another piece of that theme is on the next-to-bottom row. Vertical black-and-white stripes appear here and horizontal stripes are there. None of the pieces is identical, still all the swatches carry commonalities. The thematic structural, repeated concentric squares might represent the physical forms we all share: human heart, brain and body. A sample of every fabric is sewn into the exterior frame as if to affirm universal inclusivity.
In November 1996, Gustav Niebuhr wrote on the quilt for the New York Times. In “A Religious Quilt That Is Largely Patchwork,” he asks, “Is the field of religious studies about theology, how believers understand the divine? Or is it more anthropological, the study of regional histories and cultures in which different faiths developed? Or is it social science, heavy on statistics and the charting of trends?”
It is all of the above. He cites Barbara DeConcini, executive director of the American Academy of Religion: “What’s happening now is the extraordinary explosion of pluralism in the culture.”
Is pluralism now imploding, giving way to a determined quest for identity and preservation of unique cultures? Or will identity, pitted against a fierce appreciation for diversity and equal rights for all, recognize there is room for all of the above?
Can unity exist without uniformity? The answer is “yes,” if Joseph Campbell is correct. The American writer and lecturer best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion, whose work covers many aspects of the human experience, notes that, “If you travel far enough, you’ll eventually meet yourself.”