Wednesday, September 16, 2015

9-11 & Tribalism



Around this time of year, I'm wary of the the hardcore American nationalism that surfaces - but because of the many lives lost in Mecca on the anniversary of 9-11, this sentiment was out in full force. People were calling it 'karma' for 9-11, some were saying 'Muslims' got what they deserved. A disgusting line of thought, because it's not terrorists or 'the state' who were crushed by the crane, it was innocent people. People who were gathered to pray to an almighty, loving god...

My thoughts are with those who lost friends and loved ones.

I stopped briefly to wonder...how do so many believe 'god' lets such tragedies strike in his house? In the place where pious 'god-fearing' people gather to worship him? A question we'll never know the answer to, because 'god works in mysterious ways' - it's all part of his plan. God is all knowing, and never makes mistakes. So, crushing people in the holy place was definitely what he meant to do.  :(

(Apologies for thinking out loud for a second, this is the kind of stuff I really can't make sense of, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy.)

Anyway, the American tribalists, gleeful at the demise of 'Muslims' caused by some apparent cosmic payback, are no better than the Islamists who wish death upon Westerners, no better than those who chant 'Death to America'. 

The owner of the notorious 'Muslim-free' gun store had a very 'classy' promotion in memory of 9-11. This is the kind of sentiment that's become synonymous with the 'Never Forget' meme. It's sad, because a very real, devastating occurrence has been appropriated by hyper-nationalists to further their own bigoted agenda. It belittles those who lost their lives that day. If only bigots could see how they cheapen such losses. 


As a person of colour, an immigrant...9-11 holds several meanings for me. I will do my best to put down my thoughts below. 

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America The Religion


As a very vocal critic of Islam (the religion I was born into), I find myself fighting off accusations of being an ‘American agent’ far too often. Muslim tribalists who consider me a ‘betrayer' assume I have an undying loyalty to America. Since I clearly have no loyalty to Islam, I must be some sort of spy or die-hard US fan. Only two scenarios exist apparently, love for Islam or love for the US. :/ 

It’s fascinating how one end of the scale is Islam and the other America, as if it was a religion unto itself..the US of A . Some would say that it is, but the difference is you’re not killed for blaspheming against the US. In fact, many Americans have built media careers on laughing at the failings of their own country. I find that to be one of the most endearing things about America actually, the ability to self-criticize - and I long for it in my own culture. If we could self-reflect, admit to our issues the entire world would be a different place. Muslims... their actions and their ability to address clear problem-areas within the community are *that* significant to the landscape of the world today. 

Image from Team America

America is at the forefront of many Muslim perceptions as the number 1 opposing tribe. The wealthy, powerful oppressor, the imperialist. Resentment ranges from smaller details like Disney’s appropriation of Aladdin, to the larger issues like foreign policy. But in most cases it seems this Western superpower can do no right (despite the fact that many Muslims immigrate there for a better life, more human rights, better opportunities). Sure it provides the rest of the world with it’s favourite TV shows, music, and culture that many happily adopt, or imitate even. But this just lends itself to lopsided accusations of ‘Imperialism’.

Image from Disney's Aladdin


Sometimes those accusations hold truth, of course,  like when an American corporation picks an ethnic clothing item to mass-manufacture. It makes me cringe, that it takes something of cultural value and waters it down for consumption, repackages it as ‘American’ without any credit to those who invented it. I get that. But sometimes these accusations are taken too far, and become a caricature of what they intended to be. *No*, opposition to a misogynist tool like the burqa isn’t a Western conspiracy to control what women of the East wear. It isn’t an attempt to make Muslims submit to a foreign expansionist power, it’s a natural opposition to something sinister, used primarily to ‘possess’ and erase women. 

America is a lot of things, but the evil mastermind, conspiring to control/demonize *every* *single* Muslim, sometimes via *faked* tragedies - it is not.


How I experienced America(ns)


As a consequence of growing up in Saudi Arabia (as a Pakistani) and living through ‘Operation Desert Storm’, my feelings about the US are not so easily defined. Throw in my relationship with Islam, as well as America’s relationship with Islam and you have layers of overlapping and conflicting thoughts. 

In Saudi Arabia I was raised with a certain perception of the United States….and it’s not what you might think either. In some ways the US was idolized and admired, in some ways it was looked down upon. But there wasn’t any of the ‘death to America’ sentiment that I can recall. There wasn’t that much overt hatred for the West either…but it was a different time, the pre 9-11 era. Admittedly I didn’t have an average Saudi life as an expat kid. We grew up within the walls of a Westernized compound, where the booze flowed freely and women sunbathed topless at the pool. People were always paid more and treated better if they were Western, especially American. The morality police didn’t 'lightly cane' the ankles of blonde haired women if their headscarves slipped off. Pakistanis like my family were the bottom rung. We were foreigners, but not the right kind. I recall a Saudi man asking us to pull our car out of the last available parking space once, because as he explained (shouted), he was Saudi and therefore entitled to it. We didn’t pull our car out, but defying a Saudi was always scary. It was a risk. Luckily my family was privileged enough to live among highly valued Westerners and be educated/work amongst them and so we were treated better than many Pakistanis are. 

My point is, there was a clear admiration for Americans. Then Operation Desert Storm happened…something changed...even way back then. Our compounds were flooded with obnoxious US soldiers who walked around as if they owned the place. They were loud and rowdy from what I remember. They didn’t have to abide by the Saudi rules set for the rest of us mortals. I recall being intimidated by them, but I was too young to understand the politics behind what was actually going on. I was told they were on 'our side', it's not like I was lead to believe they were the enemy - but still, the very visible foreign army presence was uncomfortable for me. Our compound handed out pamphlets about what to do in case of a mustard gas attack. Again, I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation as a child, but sensed the tension. 

Once it was over, and my memory is fuzzy…there was a bit of a shift in how Americans were perceived. An increased 'Us vs Them’. I didn’t really identify as ‘Us’ or ‘Them’…so I just observed from the outside.

One summer, during a rebellious phase in teenagehood, I was babysitting at a neighbouring compound. This compound housed a lot of 'good Christian' army families from the US. I was in the community centre with the kids and had my first real run-in with conservative Christianity. I was wearing a lot of black eye-shadow and my favourite Manson t-shirt, and one of the army wives started talking about how she’d pray for Manson’s soul, soon more army wives joined in to talk about how evil Manson was…I was annoyed, but I was fascinated too - at the display of religiosity. 

Image from Fanpop.com

Is this what an American fundamentalist religionist was like? They had those too? *gasp* I was relieved to know Islam was not alone in the fact that it had crazy fundies. Although the Christian army wives paled in comparison to the morality police I’d seen regularly in Saudi, they still left me feeling a general distaste for religion. The US Army was not leaving a positive impression on my young mind, that’s for sure. And it was not out of some loyalty to Islam. 

Even to this day, when I speak to US Army vets, those who are honest tell me about the way they were indoctrinated to be anti-Muslim. A strategy of war, dehumanizing the other, and its not like this doesn’t happen in the East. Almost every child is indoctrinated to believe Westerners are less moral, different, promiscuous. But - In a situation where we are already perched to expect the worst from one end and the best from another we certainly don’t hold them accountable in the same way. In many instances we expect from the West what we can’t even fathom from the East. I have been guilty of this too. My liberal gut reaction was to hold a ‘humane’ secular country like the US  to higher standards than any Muslim country. 

This was wrong. I failed to stand up for those who suffered under the ideology, I failed to stand up for myself. Different moral standards, lower expectations…I inadvertently excused religious intolerance in the East, by not criticizing it, by expecting it. This line of thinking doesn't aid progress, I see that now. 

I will criticize America happily (as you can see), but I will also keep in mind the proportion of what irks me about it, vs. the proportion of other things that trouble me. The blatant subjugation of women, public beheadings, the inability to deal with ‘offence’ in a mature manner, a lack of freedom of speech, treatment of minorities. These are the things that require a bit more urgency than the cultural imperialism of Disney. Proportionality is key. 

Look at this pretty blonde lady, standing out like a rose
in a sea of faceless, burqa'd zombies. *eyeroll*  It's kind of douchey.. I get it. 

Yes Homeland is inaccurate and annoying as shit. But, you should see the way Westerners or 'blasphemers' are portrayed in Pakistani media. I do believe we had a film that showed 'Salman Rushdie' being struck by lightning that came from flying Qurans...



9-11, Fetish Parties and Chomskyites


My family immigrated to Canada around the time I started university. And the contrast between the Canadian temperament and American was immediately noticeable - a big relief to me was how little the mention of god or religion came up. I loved how polite people were, how soft spoken with such few displays of obnoxious nationalism. In Canada -for the first time ever, I felt at home. I could actually be myself, I didn’t have to hide my opinions on religion, I didn’t have to dress modestly, I was free. 

I truly enjoyed my newfound freedom. I wore cosets and fishnets, I danced, I drank, I lived. 

Then 9-11 shook my understanding of the world.

Even though I hadn’t identified as Muslim in years…my life was about to change. The day of, I was in complete shock, I was woken up by my friend who lived down the hall in my dorms. I couldn’t register what she was saying, till it finally sank in. People purposely flew planes into buildings. Wtf. 

We watched TV all day, just horrified, terrified, frozen…it was an unthinkable tragedy. I was devastated, but as the days went on I recall there being a certain quality to the way it was reported. It seemed to perpetuate the Us vs.Them narrative - there it was again, that tribalism. The coverage also possessed a certain urgency because it was America’s tragedy. And please don’t misunderstand or think that I am downplaying the horror, I’m not. It was life changing for me, it has helped shape my worldview even today. But as a brown skinned person with a Muslim name in a post 9-11 world, your perspective includes the shift in the way you've been treated since. From that day we were all regarded with suspicion. Other tragedies occurred in the world, but nothing was comparable in terms of how people reacted. My birth country Pakistan has terror attacks and deaths upon deaths but most of us are numb to tragedies in that part of the world. It’s whats expected. In fact, it’s hard to keep track of and separate the tragedies that occur daily. It's always bothered me when there’s a plane crash or something, and a country reports specifically how many of “their" lives were lost. As if the other lives mattered less… there was a sense of that in 9-11 coverage. 

It confirmed for me that the religion I was born into was manifesting in some seriously hideous ways. It was already a given in my life that religion/Islam was terrible, but because it was a given I felt no real need to vocalize my criticisms. I was a relativist, sigh. I was being educated by Chomsky worshipping professors that enhanced this. But 9-11 made me reevaluate, because I found myself saying…"what else would you expect from a bunch of savage extremists. But what is wrong with you America…why are you creating this divide". My focus was on America’s failings because Islam’s failings were to be expected. That didn't sit right for too long, thankfully.

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We need perspective, proportion and we need to call out all failings on all sides accordingly. The Western far left suffers from a kind of narcissism, where everything bad happening today is because of 'The West'. Islamic terrorism is because of - you guessed it, 'The West'. No, it's not. Some agency, some accountability and higher expectations would go a long way. 

Everything does not revolve around the West, everything is not a result of the West. Sunni's do not kill Shia's because of the West. Thinking this way is no better than the 'imperialist' mindset these leftists accuse everyone of. Terrorists did not fly planes into buildings and kill themselves because of 'The West', terrorists did not kill 132 school children in Pakistan last year because of 'The West', they killed them because they found divine justification in Hadith to carry out their kill fantasy, because they deemed a group of people disloyal to Islam. This kind of 'dedication' is a result of pure, blind faith. Yes geopolitics plays a role, foreign policy angers people, but to absolve the ideology at the root of religious terror is ludicrous. Many people are angry, not all of them kill. Give someone with a taste for killing, divine justification though...and they just might. 

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The day after 9-11 I was at a fetish party, dressed in bondage collars, a nun outfit and black lipstick…ready to forget the draining events of the past day. When suddenly the DJ was instructed to switch off the music and an announcement was made in remembrance of the victims of 9-11, a very long, awkward moment of silence followed. It was an odd place and an odd time, fetish parties never stopped for real life tragedies. They were in fact a place we all went to forget about the real world, we dressed up in costumes and carried surreal props and accessories. It was a weird moment, the Chomskyite lefties from my university were not pleased, I felt the pull of that side but my prior relationship with Islam didn’t let me fully indulge. 


Anti-Imperialism & The Post 9-11 Era


In the years after 9-11, My relatives and I were treated very poorly at US borders and airports. We’ve been spoken to rudely, My 65+ dad pulled out of lines, made to sign extra 'security' forms specifically because of our names, our association with Saudi, and our Muslimness. This tragedy undoubtedly created a divide, that hasn’t been repaired to this day. On the one hand we have overly defensive Muslims, refusing to acknowledge or address any problems within the community. On the other hand we have the creation of anti-Muslim bigots like Pam Geller. Each paranoid defensive group feeding off the other, the shrieks of Islamophobiaaaa grow louder as do the Fox news-esque calls to recognize Muslims as a threat. Rational thought and logic are lost in in this cacophony of extremes. 

As a reactionary response to anti-Muslim bigotry, we have liberals who are happy to call out the Christian far right for standing in the way of human rights, but get defensive when someone like me wants to call out the Islamic far right for the same thing. There's a strange marriage between the Islamic far right and the Western left. A union that may have taken place anyway, but post 9-11 sentiment was the cement.

As more members of the Ummah jump on the 'anti-imperialist left' bandwagon, not necessarily because they hate capitalist expansion but because their tribalism demands they side with the anti-West camp, I’d just like to remind everyone that it’s been a long time that America and Islam, America and Saudi Arabia have been in bed together. 

From my post International Relations

Those who think these are always opposing sides should re-evaluate and look at all the places they intersect, the diplomatic relations, the consumerism of pilgrimage, the golden arches of McDonald’s that glow in the holy city of Mecca, where non-Muslims are not allowed to set foot. It’s time to examine the increase we see in prepackaged, shiny nuggets of McIslam. 

A roundabout in Karachi, Pakistan which says 'Allah' in Arabic...
and yes...it is sponsored by Pepsi! Even god needs a corporate sponsorship, come on. 

A picture I took when I was in Pakistan many, many years ago.
A bizarre Ramadan ad campaign where you'd get *free* prayer beads if you
upsized your meal. Yes that's a McDonald's M made out of prayer beads. >_<
McIslam Nugget: No, of course not! Religions don't promote anything, obvs. It's not like they are moral guides
of some sort. No no, words don't actually mean anything...you assign your own meanings to them.
Opposing 'cultural imperialism' with consistency would mean that Wahhabi Arab imperialism in the Muslim world would also be opposed. But the silence on that is deafening. 


Repairing the rift that a tragedy like 9-11 has created requires us all to step outside of our tribes, throw down our arms and acknowledge the wrongs of our camps. I’ve been a 'liberal' apologist and a tribalist. I know where that comes from. I’ve been an anti-capitalist angry teenager too, I’ve held the West to a different moral standard than I’ve held my own community to. I will no longer, naturally expect less from my people. I will hold them accountable, I will expect them to progress. And that expectation comes from a desire for betterment, not hate, not 'white supremacy' or being on the CIA payroll as many would have you believe. 

*some details have been changed to protect privacy/anonymity

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2 comments:

  1. I really love your work. I continuously marvel at how internet allows someone like me, sitting in my office somewhere in comfy Europe, to get a sense of how other people from radically different backgrounds experience life. I am learning a lot from your writings. Lots of respect.

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    1. Thanks! :) x The internet is a pretty cool place sometimes. I too love how it gives me access to so many ppl, perspectives from different backgrounds.

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