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Who is a 'Muslim American?'

Muslim Senegalese American Fatou Goumbala takes part in a World Hijab Day rally held in front of New York City Hall in Manhattan, New York, US, February 1, 2018 [Amr Alfiky/Reuters]

I recently read two very informed and informative pieces on Al Jazeera on the situation of “Muslim Americans.” One was very critical and the other, quite complimentary. Both authors of these two short essays were making important and cogent points. I did not think I had to take side with one or the other. They were both making valid points. 

In one of those articles, I read about “the political impotence of the Muslim American community,” in which Ali Al-Arian argued: “Today prominent Muslim American figures and organisations stifle the spirit of political resistance in our community.” In the other, Abbas Barzegar countered: “Actually, American Muslims are at the centre of the resistance,” further telling us: “Despite challenges inside and outside the community, Muslim Americans have stood up to Islamophobia and the far right.” 

I always read these pieces with obvious interest and a bit of curiosity for I wonder who gets to be this thing they keep calling “Muslim American?” In between their learned exchanges I kept asking myself a question they were both taking for granted.

Who is a “Muslim American?” I am a Muslim. I am also a US citizen. Am I a “Muslim American?” Yes, no, maybe – and if so in what particular sense? When they say “our community” who exactly is the member of this community? Are they all Americans who profess to be Muslims, or those who congregate at certain types of mosques? The question at some point becomes quite existential. 

Breaking up the stereotype 

Certain types of Muslims have now cornered the market in defining who or what an “American Muslim” is. They get themselves invited to the White House, serve on certain panels, perform certain rituals. They, of course, have every right to define how they understand what the term “American Muslim” means. But can they seriously delimit the meaning of the category in an inclusive or exclusive way?

If you sport a beard or wear “the hijab,” as it is called, then you are a Muslim. If you pray in a particularly prescribed way or fast during the month of Ramadan or have performed your Hajj pilgrimage, well you are certainly a Muslim and if you are also American then that will make you a “Muslim American”. 

During the last US presidential elections, a certain Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala Khan, the bereaved parents of United States Army Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War, emerged as a prominent Muslim couple speaking on behalf of these “Muslim Americans.” They were pro-Hillary Clinton and anti-Trump.

But suppose none of those things applies to you – you do not pray on a regular proscribed fashion, you do not fast during Ramadan, you do not sport a beard or wear the hijab or have performed your Hajj pilgrimage – and you categorically oppose war, especially the illegal and immoral US invasion of Iraq, but you are a Muslim and you are an American – would you still qualify to be called an “American Muslim” and count yourself among “our community?”

Suppose you do not carry your Islam up your sleeve, inside your headscarf, hidden and manifest in your formidable beard. What then? Are you still allowed into the august gatherings of “American Muslims?” If you pray, you pray privately at home, or in the hidden labyrinth of your heart and soul, not at a mosque, or a community centre. If you fast you keep it to yourself and in the sacrosanct solitude of yourself and your creator, and do not advertise it. 

I have a dear friend and colleague who is a senior professor at a major Ivy League university, a prominent scholar, a loving wife, and mother of four children. One day she confided in me, “You know,” she said, almost whispering, “I recently went and did my Hajj but I keep it to myself.” She does not wear the hijab or pray regularly or fast in any manifest way. She is also American. Would that make her an “American Muslim?” “The Muslim community” would be ever so poorer if she were to be denied who she is.

The unfolding history 

We recent Muslim immigrants who have come to the United States before Donald Trump and Stephen Miller got to ban us altogether and make America Great for White People Again, come from all over the world. We are Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Indonesians, Malaysians … white, black, brown, you name it. We are Sunnis, Shias and bless them all, also “Sushis.” But all such designations come together and yet they do not explain or exhaust or pigeonhole us into something called “Muslim Americans.” 

Our strength as Muslims living in the United States, in my judgment, and if we are to have any enduring effect on this country, is precisely in our diversity, multiplicity, and in fact undecidability, in the fact that we cannot be pigeonholed and defined and ruled. 

It is good that we will not, indeed cannot, put all our Muslim eggs in one denominational basket for the nefarious Islamophobes to shoot at us. The question is happily no longer who is a Sunni or a Shia. The question is something far more urgent.

The question is the future of our ancestral faith having a liberated but anchored moral rectitude that will enable our posterity to think their own thoughts, feel their own sentiments, remember their parental generation with respect but not in fear. This and next generation of Muslims must wrestle with some mighty moral issues. Pending environmental calamities, massive labour and refugee migrations, women’s rights, the crucial doctrinal conundrum of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights, etc. These issues will unite and divide Muslims for generations to come far more seriously than any doctrinal quarrel about succession to Prophet Muhammad. 

The fact that despicable Islamophobes hate us and we hate them 10 times back cannot be the sole force of determining who and what we are. 

Remembrance of things past

A key component of rethinking the very idea of Muslims in America is to root it in the history of African-American Muslims, chief among them the unfolding legacy of Malcolm X. We must remember that the first Muslims arrived in American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves.

Equally important is to expose the sham of the white supremacist concoction of what they call “Judeo-Christian” tradition – deliberately denying the historic facts of the “Judeo-Islamic traditions.” But it is not enough to expose this racist camouflage of the Christian Zionists. In doing so Muslims will have to find ways in which aspects of their communal faith might enter into what the prominent American sociologist Robert Bellah has called “civil religion”.

It is not enough to react to Islamophobia. We must inaugurate a far more progressive agenda of refreshing American civil liberties by adding our voices to the priceless heritage we already have in the legacies of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.    

Our recent experiences from Palestine to Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen place us in active solidarity with other Americans who are not Muslims, with African-Americans who might be Christians, with brave anti-Zionist activists who include a major Jewish component, with Latin-Americans, with other refugees, with environmentalists, social justice activists, the LGBTQ+ community, etc.   

All of these are the formative moral and political forces that will define the terms of a post-Islamist liberation theology that will begin to map out the metaphysical underpinnings of a progressive Islam from right here in the United States.

The overwhelming power of Islamophobes and masses of millions of dollars at their disposal should not detract attention from the fact that these mostly Christian Zionists are morally and intellectually bankrupt dilatants whose advocacy for Israel is a subterfuge for their incurable and in fact doctrinal anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which itself is a flimsy cover for their white supremacist ideologies that expresses itself in such fraudulent expressions as “the Judeo-Christian tradition”.  

The more rooted in progressive politics Muslims become the more distant they will find themselves from nefarious Muslim opportunists who join the bandwagon of presidential politics whether with Obama or with Trump. Being Muslim today means to open up and expand the moral imaginary of Islam precisely at the moment when we join forces with Christian, Jewish, or even atheist and agnostic forces in actively rearticulating the American civil religion for a greater, common, good. 

In Kashf al-Mahjub, a revered Sufi text of the eleventh century by Ali b. Uthman al-Hujwiri (circa 1009-1077), we read a sublime paradox: When there was Sufism, he writes, there was no name for it, and when there was a name for it there was no Sufism. In a way you might conclude, we Muslims too – black, brown, white or any other colour – who have gathered in this country were “American Muslims” when there is no name for us, and when they come up with a name for us, however politically expedient, we may forget who we truly are.

Source: Aljazeera

Muruts Beyene: Living in the Ethiopia-Eritrea Borderland

Filmmaker: Brian Tilley

“My Ethiopia is my homeland. My Ethiopia is my blood. My Ethiopia is the country I was wounded for,” says Muruts Beyene who lives in the Tigray region of northeast Ethiopia.

A veteran of the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war, Muruts spent years defending the territory he lives in from being usurped. But now, after new political reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, part of his Irob community may be at risk.

“I live near the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, in an area which has been promised to Eritrea,” he says.

Although the war officially ended with the signing of a peace deal more than 18 years ago, countless disagreements and scrimmages over the disputed territories have continued. 

Since coming to power in April 2018, Abiy has promised unprecedented reforms. Part of this involves agreeing to relinquish some borderland to Eritrea – including sections of Irob land where Muruts and his community reside.

Many Ethiopians welcomed Abiy’s gesture as a way of allowing Ethiopia to move forward. However, others see the move as a betrayal of their contributions to the country, as well as a threat to Irob language, culture and identity.

“Since Prime Minister Abiy came to power, for the Irob, there has been no peace,” Muruts says. “The politics are a mess and we are affected.”

At least 80,000 people were killed during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war.

Pointing to the mountains near the border, Muruts says: “That mountain you see is a graveyard, full of people from different nations and ethnicities who died and were buried there.”

“If the land is going to be given away, what were all those people sacrificed for?” he asks.

Muruts’ Irob community is a minority ethnic group of about 30,000 people. Already small in number, a redefined border would mean that some of their tiny population would be split between two countries.

Muruts is desperate for his community to stay together, and worries the planned division will threaten his business as well as the survival of his people.

“We Irob are like brothers with one church, one house,” he says. “Dividing us in two will hurt the Irob nation.”

Source: Aljazeera

India dams: Villages swamped by floodwaters

Dams are a growing source of controversy in India.

Many have been built to supply water and electricity to millions of people.

But they have also caused deaths and destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes, due to flooding after heavy rainfall.

Source: Aljazeera

Iran charges three detained Australians with spying

The prosecutor did not identify the people in custody and gave no details about when they had been arrested [File: EPA]

Iran‘s judiciary has charged three Australian citizens with spying, according to an official cited by Iranian media.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili was quoted by the semi-official Tasnim and Fars news agencies as saying on Tuesday that the trio had been charged in two separate cases, confirming for the first time that Tehran was holding them.

Esmaili said that two of the Australians were alleged to have used a drone to take pictures of military sites, while a third was accused of spying for another country.

They had been identified at the time and images were found on a drone they were using, he added on the first case.

“Criminal charges have been issued for both cases and they are waiting for their trial,” Esmaili was quoted as saying.

The families of the three said last week they had been held in Iran. 

They identified them as a travel-blogging couple Jolie King and Mark Firkin and Melbourne University lecturer Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

It is unclear when the trio was arrested and where they are being held.

The travel-blogging couple had been documenting their journey on social media for the past two years but went silent about 10 weeks ago after posting updates from Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan.

The family of Moore-Gilbert said on Saturday that she had been held in Iran for a “number of months”. The academic, who is reportedly a dual British-Australian national, specialises in Middle East politics with a focus on Gulf states.

Diplomatic efforts

Australia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week it was providing consular assistance to the families and pressing Tehran for their release.

Britain said last week that it had raised concerns with the Iranian ambassador over the number of dual-nationality citizens held in Iran and the conditions in which they were being held.

The development comes after Australia announced that it would join a US-led mission to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in August announced a “modest” contribution to the controversial mission – including a frigate, a P8 maritime surveillance aircraft and support staff – which will also involve British forces.

Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said last week that there was “no reason” to believe the arrests were politically motivated. 

The Australian government recently updated its travel advice for Iran to “reconsider your need to travel” and “do not travel” to areas near the border with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Already difficult relations with Iran and Western countries have threatened to boil over since United States President Donald Trump abandoned a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2018.

Source: Aljazeera

French police begin to clear migrants sheltered at Dunkirk gym

Last December a sports hall was opened up for migrant families seeking shelter from the cold [Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images]

French police are clearing nearly 1,000 migrants from a gymnasium near the northern port city of Dunkirk after a court ruled it was a health and security hazard.

The mayor of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk, last December opened up the sports hall to migrant families seeking shelter from the cold.

Since then, it has grown into a makeshift camp with approximately 800 people sleeping in tents pitched around the cramped gymnasium where some 170 people, mostly Iraqi Kurds hoping to reach the United Kingdom, had taken shelter.

A court in the regional city of Lille ordered the gymnasium shut on September 4 following complaints from local authorities and residents about violence, rubbish and the presence of people-smugglers among the migrants.

Tuesday’s clearance operation began shortly after 8:00am local time (6:00 GMT).

Young men travelling alone were the first to board buses that will take them to migrant shelters around the region, where they can apply for asylum. Families are to be moved later.

Great risk to reach Britain

Northern France has long been a magnet for people seeking to smuggle themselves to the UK in the tens of thousands of trucks and cars that travel daily between the countries on ferries and trains.

Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego reporting from Dunkirk said that despite the dangerous journey, the migrants pay thousands of dollars to people-smugglers in an attempt to gain a spot on what is usually nothing more than a rubber dinghy or small kayak in order to try and cross the English Channel.

“[It’s] extremely dangerous as it’s one of the busiest shipping lanes that there is. With that expectation a lot of the people who boarded the coaches were keen to get away from the situation here,” Gallego said.

“There are a few people who we spoke to, who said that even that they were being turfed out of this place, they were still trying to … get to the UK no matter how dangerous that would be, because for them it is preferable to continuing to live the destitute situation that they currently find themselves in.”

The area around Grande-Synthe has traditionally drawn Iraqi Kurds and has been repeatedly cleared in recent years.

French authorities have had a policy of trying to prevent migrants from forming camps since 2016 when they razed a notorious tent camp known as the “Jungle” near the port of Calais which was home to 10,000 people at its height.

But rights groups have criticised police tactics and migrants have begun taking greater risks to try and reach the UK, including trying to cross the Channel in small boats.

In December, the country’s human rights ombudsman denounced the “extreme destitution” suffered by people camping out or sleeping under bridges in the Calais area.

The ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, accused the authorities of “trying to make [migrants] invisible” by regularly tearing down their camps without providing them with viable alternatives.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to speed up the asylum claims process for people deemed to be bona fide refugees while promising to accelerate the deportation of so-called economic migrants.

Source: Aljazeera

A rescue pilot's perspective on Everest's melting glaciers

Everest Base Camp, Nepal – “Don’t go too far, and don’t get lost, please. We can’t spare the fuel,” warns Nepali rescue pilot Captain Kiran Pun, as he touches down close to the edge of the Khumbu Glacier.

At Everest Base Camp’s 5,360m altitude, helicopter pilots seldom risk shutting off their engines over a fear the lack of oxygen will prevent them restarting. There is also the chance of being rolled over by a sudden shift in the ice.

The pilots navigate one of the most dangerous flying territories in the world, ferrying vital medical supplies to remote communities, injured mountaineers to hospitals in Pheriche or Kathmandu, and relief operations after natural disasters, through the weather so unpredictable, a forced emergency landing is never out of the question.

But from their bird’s eye view of the Himalayas, they have a unique perspective of the landscape, and the effect climate change is having on Mount Everest’s glaciers and the surrounding mountains.

“I’ve noticed great changes in the size of glaciers on the mountains due to global warming,” says Captain Pun. “The glaciers keep thinning and it’s becoming more common to see parts of the mountains which used to be hidden by ice.”

Scientists monitoring climate change in the region say the average melt rate has doubled in the past decade, with data revealing only 72 percent of the glacial areas mapped in 1975 remained in 2018.

Source: Aljazeera