A note on retaining our allies…

smartly discrediting Islamophobia
Ninjabi comics: smartly discrediting Islamophobia

Recently, I’ve covered two stories that have rightly raised alarm – not just among Muslims, but among concerned non-Muslims as well.

In this entry, I provided several links to breaking news from the Muslim world. One of the stories was that of a young Muslim woman who had allegedly been attacked at her university. Safia Jilani, 19, claimed that a masked gunman had attacked her because she is a Muslim. Her account of being knocked unconscious in a restroom of course raised both concern and outrage. Officials put the campus on lockdown in order to conduct a thorough investigation. Campus police offered Muslim students the option of free rides and escorts if they felt unsafe navigating the campus alone. Hundreds of students held a demonstration in support of Ms. Jilani, and concerned bloggers spread the news quickly, calling for action on her behalf.

Then, police investigation determined that Ms. Jilani’s story had been fabricated – she had in fact not been attacked.

Another incident in question is the gassing of a mosque in Dayton, Ohio. It has been reported that perhaps this incident was fabricated as well.

Many non-Muslim Americans would readily acknowledge that, post-9/11, Muslims (and those thought to be one of us!) have been subject to Islamophobic backlash. Fueled by fear and often ignorance, some people have chosen to react to Muslims in negative ways – including with violence. (And good-old-fashioned capitalism). At the same time, many non-Muslims have been at the forefront of constructive initiatives to increase dialogue and understanding, including countering anti-Muslim sentiment in their communities. These allies aren’t just joining us in denouncing crimes against Muslims. They’re also risking ostracization within their own circles for doing what’s right. Don’t we owe them due respect by acting with integrity ourselves?

I mention the latest developments in these two cases not just to keep you updated – but also to caution our own against crying wolf.

If the blatantly Islamophobic, ridiculous and divisive campaign to convince us all that Barack Obama is a “stealth Muslim” out to “destroy Israel” and the American way of life tells us anything — it’s that what Muslims need is not just better representation in the public eye. We also need the help of reasonable non-Muslims who are willing to decry and combat this kind of absurdity. (Hey, Colin Powell – thanks! And Campbell Brown – shukran!)

The question becomes: can we expect our allies to continue taking risks for us when they find out about made-up cases of anti-Muslim violence? What could be more alienating to well-intentioned non-Muslims than pulling stunts involving tall tales of oppression? The truth is, anti-Muslim sentiment does exist. As do sexism, racism, and plenty of other “isms” ready to compromise a just society (not to mention ruin your day). Let’s not risk our cries falling on deaf ears, tired from stories like the above.

Do something constructive to combat discrimination: check out this organization’s**  work.

…and the ever-talented Suheir Hammad. She’s got the support of Muslims and non-Muslims by using art for change. (Listen to some of my other favorites by Suheir here and here.)

**(June 2011 update: this line once linked to the American-Arab anti-Discrimination Committee. Given recent revelations about the Committee, as well as additional information I’ve learned from trusted sources, I’m hesitant to continue linking to them until some pressing ethical questions can be answered.)

Too little, too late for Sarah and Amina Said

For months before their father allegedly murdered them, Sarah and Amina Said confided in their friends about the threats he had made against their lives. Classmates remember the girls showing up to school with “welts and bruises”, getting in trouble for talking to non-Muslim boys and for acting “too Western.”

Despite these signs of danger, no one intervened before the girls were found dead in their father’s taxicab in Texas. Shot to death on New Year’s Day, the girls had already tried escaping when their father threatened them with a firearm earlier.

In December of 2007, the girls and their mother temporarily fled when their father, Yaser Said, was enraged to find out that the girls had non-Muslim boyfriends. They were lured back home by promises that no harm would come to them upon their return.

Now, the FBI is calling the murders a possible case of a double “honor killing” – making the deaths of Sarah and Amina Said the first time the FBI has used the term. The FBI’s recognition of honor killings is significant in at least one respect: understanding “honor” could help law enforcement officials better identify the motivation behind slayings like these.

But how does this help Sarah and Amina Said? Theoretically, understanding honor killings would increase community sensitivity about the kinds of threats the Said sisters were experiencing.

Unfortunately for Sarah and Amina, this is a case of too little, too late. While I believe that it is crucial for law enforcement officials at every level to understand cultural motivations for murder, it seems that the issue here was not that their community didn’t understand honor killings. The issue, rather, was relativism in the face of obvious abuse.

I’ve often called out the Muslim community for not doing enough about honor killings. This time, however, I take issue with my fellow Americans. A Muslim man may be to blame for the killings of Sarah and Amina Said – but it is not just his hands that are bloodied now. Indeed, those who knew of the danger the girls were in are guilty as well.

The girls arrived at school with welts and bruises. Friends and family knew that when Sarah and Amina said their father was “going to kill” them – it was very likely that he was serious. The girls’ non-Muslim family members now champion themselves as knowing “all along” that the girls would eventually be murdered by their father, and that it would in fact be an honor killing.

Whose “culture” is to blame this time? Texas law requires anyone who suspects that a child is being abused to report the case to the Department of Family and Protective Services. This document, on display where the girls attended school, provides the contact information necessary to anonymously report cases of child abuse. Further, according to both Texas law and the school policy, anyone who fails to report a possible case of child abuse is committing a crime.

So, what gives? It seems that everyone knew that the girls were in danger. They weren’t isolated from extended family – including non-Muslim relatives who were concerned about their father’s violence and railed against his “culture”. Why didn’t these informed individuals stop at nothing to get the girls out of there? It can’t be possible that any reasonable individual would call this a “cultural” or “family issue” and step aside.

Unless, of course, they were engaging the very worst of American culture: relativism. It got the best of us when communities and authorities called domestic violence a “private matter” and when we waited to intervene in Bosnia. It makes us lazy cowards when it tells us that we have no place in the conversation about female genital mutilation, even when it happens on our own soil. And now it’s cost Sarah and Amina their lives.

Many are ready to make “other” cultures out to be evil, dangerous or scary. But if we can’t take action to assist those in danger right here – it is our attitudes and our inaction that are dangerous and even deadly.

It is too late for Sarah and Amina. But it needn’t be too late for other young women in danger – if we recognize and heed our responsibility to help them. We have every resource before us and no reason to remain silent.

Take action:

* Learn about the International Campaign Against Honour Killings

* Check out the resources available in your area. If you’re in Maryland, a new Muslim women’s shelter has just opened.

* Find the right person to call by seeing lists like this one, provided by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Jumu’ah dispatch #3 – Friday news updates

As always, Muslimah Media Watch brings us the latest in news from the Muslim world, focusing on women’s issues. Check out this week’s (very thorough) update. Some selections:

* Women have started a group called Sisters Against Violent Extremism. The idea? Courageous dialogue will not just transgress national boundaries – but mobilize women to make positive change. They’re redefining the conversation from Sri Lanka to New York. Stay updated by subscribing to their newsletter.

* If you’re already at the Women Without Borders website, you’ll see a link to Men for Change. They feel that “to be free means being equal in every way” – and they’re taking on issues from honor killings in Pakistan to domestic violence in the United States. Mashallah.

* Iran steps up threats against Shirin Ebadi.

* A community in Uganda has banned female genital cutting. Community leaders are petitioning the country’s government to ban the practice nationwide. They’re not waiting around for the United Nation’s goal to “significantly reduce” female genital cutting by 2015.

* A Muslim woman was brutally attacked on her campus in Chicago. This follows a string of anti-Muslim incidents at the school, including the vandalism of the young woman’s locker with hate speech.

Check out the rest of MMW’s weekly links here.