Papa Dont Preach

Papa, Don't Preach (or the Fallacy of Fallaci)
by Naeem MohaiemenSometimes it's good to get behind the news cycle. By the time I came back up for air, gallons of ink (and a wee smidgen of blood) had been spilt over the Vatican's new video game "Holy War: Part XXXII". Tariq Ali, Karen Armstrong, everyone and their mother has weighed in on this, so I don't have to.

The Muslim world, as always, genius at PR moves. A nun shot in the back, just to prove that the Pope was wrong. I'm non-violent, and I'll shoot anyone who says otherwise. Smooth.

The interesting concept to tease out is this idea of Muslim rage in response to critique. A rage that is directly proportional to a sense of impotence. There is almost a palpable sense of disappointment among the rightwing that more crazy stuff did not happen. A few demonstrations and then everything quieted down. Prophecies of Muslim rage are nested in a political structure that needs these explosive conflicts to keep things moving along.

There was a strange parallel between Benedict's proclamation and the death of the Italian polemicist who would have cheered his words most strongly. Oriana Fallaci, a "tough broad" to the end, died last week.

I have tremendous respect for many of the iconic interviews and moments she commandeered, including being shot while covering the student protests in Mexico City in 1968. And I empathize with her being irritated by the chauvinism, boorishness and pugnacity of Khomeini, Arafat, et al. What remains problematic is her raging diarrhea towards Islam in her last years, when her target practice veered away from the powerful to concentrate on random, buckshot attacks on working-class immigrants in Europe -- a target unable to defend itself and already on the ropes in the face of continent-wide racism and Islamophobia.

Since 9/11, she wrote three polemics: “The Rage and the Pride”, “The Force of Reason” and “The Apocalypse”. In her pursuit of a "total truth" about Muslims, she even went as far back as 1971 to re-brand the Bangladesh liberation war as an Islamist war. For anyone familiar with that history, and the rupture of Pakistan in rejection of the notion of Islamic State, these are falsifications. Here is her description of an alleged revenge killing against Pakistani collaborators after Bangladesh became independent:
“To make you cry I’ll tell you about the twelve young impure men I saw executed at Dacca at the end of the Bangladesh war. They executed them on the field of Dacca stadium, with bayonet blows to the torso or abdomen, in the presence of twenty thousand faithful who applauded in the name of God from the bleachers. They thundered "Allah-akbar, Allah-akbar"…at the conclusion of the slaughter, the twenty thousand faithful (many of whom were women) left the bleachers and went down on the field. Not as a disorganised mob, no. In an orderly manner, with solemnity. They slowly formed a line and, again in the name of God, walked over the cadavers. All the while thundering Allah-akbar, Allah-akbar. They destroyed them like the Twin Towers of New York. They reduced them to a bleeding carpet of smashed bones." (La Rabbia e l'Orgoglio, 2002).
Besides the sheer porno-voyeurism in this text, there is fabrication of the “Allah-u- akbar” chant, an impossible coda to a liberation war that had, at least temporarily, obliterated the idea of an Islamic Pakistan. It is possible that in her dotage she had remixed scenes from the Iranian revolution. Still, any Islamist revolution will do.

I am La Fallaci, trouble me not with fact checkers.

Turning to contemporary immigration (a much bigger obsession for her), Europe to Fallaci was “Eurabia”, “a colony of Islam” where there will soon be “minarets in place of the bell-towers, with the burka in place of the mini-skirt.” Contemporary immigration, to her, was a new form of Muslim invasion, using “children and boats” instead of “troops and cannons.” In particular, she resisted immigration to Italy because "our cultural identity has been well defined for thousands of years we cannot bear a migratory wave of people who have nothing to do with us . . . who, on the contrary, aim to absorb us.” Spain is particularly vulnerable because “too many Spaniards still have the Koran in the blood

European multiculturalism and ideas of tolerance infuriated Fallaci, when she wrote:
“If you speak your mind on the Vatican, on the Catholic Church, on the Pope, on the Virgin Mary or Jesus or the saints, nobody touches your ‘right of thought and expression.’ But if you do the same with Islam, the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad, some son of Allah, you are called a xenophobic blasphemer who has committed an act of racial discrimination. If you kick the ass of a Chinese or an Eskimo or a Norwegian who has hissed at you an obscenity, nothing happens. On the contrary, you get a ‘Well done, good for you.’ But if under the same circumstances you kick the ass of an Algerian or a Moroccan or a Nigerian or a Sudanese, you get lynched.”
There was a psycho-sexual undertone to Fallaci's loathing of Muslim immigrants, often expressed in the language of body phobia. Looking at urine streaks in the Venice Piazza San Marco, she wondered if Muslims will one day “s*** in the Sistine Chapel.” She imagined Somali Muslims who left “yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles" of the Florence Baptistery:
“Good Heavens! They really take long shots, these sons of Allah! How could they succeed in hitting so well that target protected by a balcony and more than two yards distant from their urinary apparatus?”
In the end, the best response to Fallaci is to critique and deflate her (as Umberto Eco did). The attempts by some Italian Muslims to bring her to court and ban the books ended up making her a martyr, a living Joan of Arc -- a role she revelled in.

An even better response to these brands of provocations is the one I had last week in London. Sitting in a restaurant, I spotted a young man wearing a t-shirt.

On the front:
There's A Picture Of Prophet Mohammed On The Back Of My T-shirt

And on the back:
Just Kidding! Praise Allah! (Please Don't Kill Me)

I ran up to him to take a photograph. He looked confused. He also looked slightly scared.

I had not indentified myself but I suppose some level of melanin automatically denotes "Muslim" in certain contexts.

"You just want to take a photo?"
"You're not mad or anything?"
"No man, not at all."
"Just a photo..?"

Yes, just a photo.

So I can laugh with you.

And then forget about it and move on.


Go West

Go West, Young Muslim
by Naeem Mohaiemen

"Go West, young man, and grow up with the country."
[John Soule, Terre Haute Express, 1851]

A few months after the Afghan war, I was sitting in the Dhaka office of Sajjad Sharif. Sajjad is an art critic and associate editor of Prothom Alo (progressive newspaper often under attack from Islamists). The regular tea cicle was assembled (artists, poets and journalists all end up in Sajjad's office), talking about the "Muslim street" (that elusive beast!).

For two decades, my personal dual existence between New York and Dhaka had been fairly unremarkable and unremarked. Now, there was a desire to boil down everyone to their "essence". I was supposed to be some sort of stand-in for "the American street" -- a farcical concept that I usually deflect.

In the middle of a heated debate, Sajjad lightened the mood with a popular street saying of the time:

"Tomorrow, if Osama said, 'all my jihadi brothers come and join me!'"
"10% of Bangladesh would cross the border into Afghanistan."
"Bolen ki bhai?"
"Yes, it's true."
"But if the next day, Bush announced 'jobs for everyone'..."
"90% of Bangladesh would line up in front of the American Embassy!"

It reminded me of many, more prosaic, encounters, in "living rooms" of various Dhaka uncles and aunties that I have to visit as an obligation. The conversation always veers to, "Oi desh e pore thako kibhabe baba?' (how do you live in that place?). This is often followed a little later with the revelation that their eldest son or daughter is taking the SATs next month. "Do you have any advice about applying to American colleges?"

This strand is not to, in any way, minimize or trivialize the varied oppositions to the new Imperialism project. But we can at least complicate the conversation by looking to the revulsion and fascination projected on the same surface. A similar sentiment seems to be at play in the European obsession with the idee fixe vis-a-vis American power and culture.

Things are not of course quite so simple. Nor will they stay the same. Obsession with the American dream will be replaced by other foci, including the idea of India Shining, China Rising, and all the rest. Al Jazeera may yet replace CNN as the most watched channel (actually, CNN is already not the most watched channel anyway). Then again, certain shifts may be temporary (recall the total obsession with Japan for a minute in the 80s). Only a fool or Nostradamus makes predictions without caveats.

I was thinking of all this as I was reading a new data released by Homeland Security (they are also responsible for immigration). It shows that, contrary to all expectations, Muslim immigration to America has increased, after an initial drop, since 9/11. In 2005, more people from Muslim countries became legal permanent US residents (green card), nearly 96,000, than in any year in the previous two decade. More than 40,000 arrivals from Muslim countries were admitted into US in 2005, the highest annual number since 2001.

One of the photos that illustrates the report is taken on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, once again a bustling center of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. This is the same Coney Island Avenue targeted when "Special Registration" and Immigration raids went after Pakistanis (Bangladeshis were lesser targets). At that time, writers evoked Germany 1939, a comparison that raised hackles but also pointed to shared struggles between Jewish and Muslim migrants. That same Coney Island wears a hopeful look in this photo. Fluttering American flags in background, hugging Musollis in the foreground. It looks for a moment like a moon alignment that brought Eid and July 4th on the same weekend.

Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan has explored a new definition of dar al-harb (also dar al-shirk, but not to be confused with dar al-kufr). In the older consensual view, a country is dar al-harb when the legal system as well as government is non-Islamic. Dar al-harb translates in one formulation to "Abode of War". The Hanafi school says that this is a territory where Muslims are neither protected nor able to live in peace. If law and political systems define this, then even a nation like Bangladesh, which is majority Muslim, is still dar ul-harb (as are Indonesia, Malaysia, etc).

A competing vision argues that it is the condition of population, and safety of that same, that defines dar al-harb. Ramadan argues that
"Muslims may actually feel safer in the West, as far as the free exercise of their religion is concerned, than in some so-called Muslim countries."
Thus America and Europe, having large Muslims populations that maintain (even after all recent events) some measure of religious freedom, can also be defined as dar al-islam.

If Muslims feel safe in the West, Muslim immigration will continue and will create a new form of hybrid Islam, as postulated in Ramadan's "To Be A European Muslim." But there is another aspect to consider. If the West is not dar al-harb as per the old definition, militant groups' manifesto to attack the West loses a key theological underpinning. This is not to say that militants will read Ramadan and change their key strategy (and many scholars debate Ramadan on this). But it can outline the beginnings of a counter-debate, one that looks at the roots of Islamic theology to counter the bastardization of the same.

We have two visions on display in this week's newspapers.

One is the dark, apocalyptic view in Roger Cohen's essay:
"But like the world it still claims to lead, the United States has grown darker. Two wars lurk on a leafy street. Fear haunts the political discourse. A century that dawned brightly now offers conflict without end. Beyond U.S. borders, no longer those of a sanctuary, the fanatical group called Al Qaeda that turned planes into missiles has morphed into a diffuse anti- Western ideology followed, in some measure, by millions of angry Muslims. They are convinced the United States is an infidel enemy bent on humiliating Islam. Anti-Americanism has become the world's vogue idea."
Now if "millions" had already joined the jihad, there would be very few buildings left standing. But never mind, the man is writing with a flourish, allow him a moment of hyperventilation.

Let's turn instead to Andrea Elliott's lead article in yesterday's Times:
"[Muslims] have made the journey unbowed by tales of immigrant hardship, and despite their own opposition to American policy in the Middle East. They come seeking the same promise that has drawn foreigners to the United States for many decades, according to a range of experts and immigrants: economic opportunity and political freedom. Those lures, both powerful and familiar, have been enough to conquer fears that America is an inhospitable place for Muslims."
Today is the 5th anniversary of 9/11. In years past, in a more navel-gazing state of mind, I wrote pedestrian, sentimental entries about biking down to Tribeca to look for my then-partner (she had been evacuated), tracking down Bengali victims' families, losing a fond memento at airport security, etc, etc. These are not unique, nor are they (after thousands of memorial stories) particularly emotive. I wrote as an ideological naif about the end of technology in the face of box cutters. It is time to look beyond only these stories. Time to also feel the pain of others outside these borders. Time to formulate theory, trajectory and a vision for a more humane future. A shared world beyond wars without end.

Naeem Mohaiemen/Visible Collective
Cohen: Darker Landscape

Elliott: Muslim Immigration Up Since 9/11


True Jet Blue

Is It True, JetBlue? Artists In Time Of War
by Naeem Mohaiemen

"The artist says, "It's not my business." Then whose business is it? Does that mean you are going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country? How stupid can we be?" [Howard Zinn, Talk @ Massachusetts College of Art, October 10, 2001]

Is It True Jet Blue? JFK? TSA? A rhetorical question that leads to a tautology. Yes, of course people racially profile the darker masses while whipping up a pervasive fear in the name of "national security." Paranoia is so essential to running the modern state, other navigation tools seem permanently broken.

After learning that Raed Jarrar was told to remove his Arabic WE WILL NOT BE SILENT t-shirt before he could board a JetBlue flight, four members of The Critical Voice (TCV) boarded a Jet Blue flight last Thursday. The four members, all white women and US citizens, were wearing the same Arabic t-shirts. They were allowed to board the flight. This is more evidence that the Raed Jarrar case is one of racial profiling and censorship.

Many of us have been helping as supporters of TCV, an affinity group of Artists Against the War (AAW). Today, after consultation with other members, Laurie of TCV went on Democracy Now and broke the story. I first met Laurie when she and other TCV members were ejected from NY Public Library's "Who's Afraid of Iran" event (w/ Shirin Neshat, et al) -- they were wearing the same t-shirts, but were ostensibly ejected for carrying political posters.

The t-shirts have now spread globally, and become an icon of popular, non violent resistance. Because of the open-ended nature of the two phrases "We" (who?) and "Will Not Be Silent" (about what?), people have appropriated these t-shirts and used their bodies to register opposition to many flanks of the "War On Terror", including invasions, fear-mongering, censorship, detention of immigrants, racial profiling of Muslims, use of African-Americans, Latinos and working-class Whites as cannon fodder, the abandonment of poor Blacks in New Orleans, and the linkages and overlaps between all these and other common struggles. To give one example, two weeks ago, many of us as members of Action Wednesday, collaborated with TCV to distribute the t-shirts at Outernational concert in Central Park, to protest the invasion of Lebanon.

Caroline Parker, Laurie Arbeiter, Susan Kingsland, Ann Shirazi and other members of TCV and AAW put into practice a new model of artists as public actors, activists and intellectuals who refuse to confine their cultural production inside gallery or museum walls.

Contra Adorno, it becomes even more essential to write "poetry" (using an expansive definition) after Auschwitz. To use the many routes of contemporary culture to dissent and to shape a new mental and actual reality.

Sandy Kaltenborn of Kanak Attac in Berlin writes, "Design Is Not Enough." Neither are t-shirts, but they are a good start. To take the carrier of such witless 1970s slogans as "Have A Nice Day", "I'm With Stupid", "Pobody's Nerfect", "Kiss Me, I'm Drunk" "My Parents Went To London And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt", and invert it into an act of body-based defiance is a good beginning.

At the risk of descending to repetition, I echo Adorno's other sentiment:
"The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under the constant threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterizes the world today."
[“ValĂ©ry Proust Museum” in Prisms, Samuel and Shierry Weber, trans. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983)]

Stay tuned.

Related Links

We Will Not Be Silent On JetBlue (Press Release)

Snakes On, Arabs Of The Plane

Artists Against War

The Critical Voice

Our Central Park T-shirt Action

Video of Outernational Rocking Central Park w/ T-Shirt & Kufiya

Naeem Mohaiemen
Visible Collective/Disappeared In America