On my way to class, I take the Q train to Manhattan and sit down next to an old white man who recoils a noticeable bit. I assume it’s because I smell odd to him, which doesn’t make sense because I took a shower in the morning. Maybe I’m sitting too liberally the way men do on public transit with their legs a mile apart, I think to myself. That also doesn’t apply since I have my legs crossed. After a few seconds of inspecting any potential offence caused, I realize that it has nothing to do with an imaginary odor or physical space but with the keffiyeh around my neck that my friend gifted me (the Palestinian scarf – an apparently controversial piece of cloth). It is an increasingly cold October in NYC. Sam Harris may not have told you but we Muslims need our homeostasis at a healthy level. While our bodies regulate our internal fanatic temperatures to remain stable, sometimes it gets a little too chilly so we pull out those diabolical scarves and wrap them around our diabolical necks and diabolically say, “Holy shit. It is cold today, Abdullah.” To which Abdullah replies, “Wallah. My ass is freezing.”
By the time I have figured my criminal-by-default status out, we are on the Manhattan Bridge headed toward Canal Street, which means there is mobile reception. My old white friend is on his iPhone telling his friend something about ISIS. He looks at me every single time he says ISIS or Islamic State. I take it lightly; I don’t want to yell at a guy who looks like his joints would fall out of place if I raised my voice. But it’s insulting and several people look in our direction, at my keffiyeh and at him enunciating ISIS while talking to his friend on the phone. That’s when I debate engagement or flipping him off. I decide on neither but I reach into my bag, which alerts him, and pull out a bomb in the form of a plastic bottle containing tap water.
I drink the water, man. I’m tired.
After 9/11, Muslims all over the world but specifically in the West were left suspended in the middle of an imperial dichotomy consisting of the Good Muslim versus the Bad Muslim. The either-this-or-that characterization of Muslim-ness can also be traced to the good ol’ days of Pax Britannica that had its Good Colonized Subjects and then its Bad Colonized Subjects. The GCS was the colonized man or woman who pushed empire apologia and saw the “goodness” and “progression” in being a colonized subject. The BCS was the one who revolted. In contemporary history, the opportunistic binary surfaced in the 1970’s when the United States of America viewed the USSR as the sole threat to its global hegemony and utilized Middle Eastern and South Asian nation states to combat the Red evil. Back then, the mujahideen weren’t menacing bearded men but freedom fighters bravely battling against Soviet incursion in Afghanistan. In a bout of admiration for these righteous warriors, Reagan gifted the local mujahideen hand-held Stinger surface-to-air missiles in a multi-billion dollar program that later on spread out to Iran and as far as Sri Lanka. In 1982, he dedicated the Space Shuttle Columbia to the mujahideen. Once the Soviets retreated, Mother America’s interest in Afghanistan dwindled and funding was terminated. Today the freedom fighters are the Taliban. Lesson: Americans sure know how to show their love.
In the American context, the Good Muslim performed the political role of a liberal apologist and extension of Empire. S/he would celebrate iftar (breaking of fast in Ramzan) at the White House after a speech by the President that highlighted the good that expansionist foreign policy does abroad and increasing surveillance and enforcement of alterity against a minority group back home. These Good Muslims came from a variety of civic, religious, cultural, political and educational institutions that amounts to how well-established but also assimilated they were into the American society. Prefacing every public announcement with the customary “Moderate Muslim” label, the Good Muslim became ultimately a pawn in the ideology and practices of US empire.
The reaction to prove Muslim worthiness in order to garner American approval was understandable: After the attacks, the Islamic community was forced to choose between proving their loyalty to the United States by agreeing with rapidly brutal invasions abroad/domestic civil liberties crisis in the name of security or dissent that would and did elicit social paranoia and legal punishment as well as exclusion. In the name of self-reflection and political correctness as well as empathy for a tragic loss of American life, the American Islamic community forfeited in its own autonomy and demands as citizens to appear less un-American and therefore, less deserving of state-sanctioned retribution.
In this binary, the Bad Muslim is the constant malefactor. Since s/he is fed up with attempting (in distressing futility) to show his/her legitimacy as a human being – forget the title of American as it becomes unavailing in this case – s/he refuses to apologize for Islam. The Bad Muslim is the exhausted Muslim. A Muslim whose morale has been drained by perpetual anxiety, hostility and social marginalization for being seen as a criminal for acts of violence he or she has never committed. The Bad Muslim is the Muslim who makes the mistake of thinking he or she is as human as the next person and should be given a modicum of respect as anyone else would receive, such as the random white American who is never harangued to apologize for what KKK did or modern day Neo Nazis do. The Bad Muslim is unhappy with being profiled “randomly” at the airport, for being rejected employment because his or her name sounds a little too Muslim ergo a little too Al Qaeda or ISIS or Taliban or what-have-you. Unless he or she is rich, a Bad Muslim – who is often a working class individual, a mere wage earner – cannot afford the temporary getaway financial stability provides from this interminable environment of contempt and xenophobia. The Bad Muslim is often aware of RAND-constructed typologies that identify ideological tendencies in Muslim communities and exploit inter-sect divides to promote US strategic interests. Here is a five hundred page report on one of many similar documents. The malice is most evident when the Bad Muslim refuses to cheer on imperial occupations of his or her motherland or provide explanations for on-ground militias that, more often than sadly not, have once received the monetary backing of the same country attacking them. The bitter irony is never lost on the Bad Muslim because the Bad Muslim lives it every single day.
In the eyes of those perpetually seeking an apology from Muslims, I am a Bad Muslim. I don’t put hashtag-suffixed apologies online for what someone else of my faith does. When 9/11 happened, I was as shocked and terrified as anyone else was. We scary-looking Muslims experience human emotions, too. It sounds unbelievable if you’ve been swallowing Fox News and CNN (not much of a difference between both just like Democrats and Republicans operate nearly identical in the eyes of someone living in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen, ad infinitum) narratives or can’t get enough of Homeland’s racist depiction of Muslims but we Muslims react to unexpected loss of life like any non-Muslim would. We cry, we mourn. We don’t wake up in the morning, like Bill Maher thinks, with the idea that today we will go infidel hunting. Some of us just have a minor existential crisis over what cereal to eat.
It amazes me how topical 9/11 is in the American consciousness when someone asks, “Where were you on 9/11?” I was in front of the television doing my homework. But I often ask: Where were you on 10/7 or 3/20 or 6/18 or 8/6 or 9/6 or 5/15 or the other dates when Western hegemony assaulted the lives of millions of innocent men and women? Where were you when the United States employed white phosphorous in Iraq in 2004 that resulted in a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, female breast cancer, infant mortality, lymphoma and brain tumors; statistics crossing those who survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? More importantly, as an American, when will you apologize?
No amount of polls of Muslims denouncing ISIS will authenticate our humanity to the average Westerner who trusts propagated tropes from a culture industry more than anything else. It does not matter to the average bigot whether 126 senior Islamic scholars hailing from various parts of the Middle East, Europe, South Asia, North Africa and beyond theologically make clear in an open 24-bullet letter that the deeds of ISIS are entirely un-Islamic because to the average bigot, Islam is beyond redemption and its followers deserve to be punished by virtue of the faith they follow. It does not matter if one explains, as Alireza Doostdar does meticulously in this essay, that ISIS is not a religious problem but a political exacerbation that necessitates a contextual understanding of its chronological development and proliferation. This hostility is not innate. One is not born with vengeance for a specific group of people. It is instilled and socialized through social and institutional production of ideology from the State, media outlets, academia and everyday social exchange. It is manufactured by ever escalating dosages of premeditated images, sound bites and seductive rhetoric that lures one into regurgitating falsities about a people. It reaches to a point, as we see today, where simply appearing to be Muslim (as if there is a specific aesthetic embodied by us) elicits some of the most unwarranted suspicion, invasive questions and in many cases, outright violence.
#NotInMyName is a well-intended initiative by Muslims who wish to reassure the world that not all of us are raging extremists who want to see communities burn to ashes. But that’s the problem. In a symptomatic reading of the many sincere apologies coming from young and old Muslims, one should not focus on the overtly stated text but what has not been said in those apologies. What you don’t see is that these messages are coming from harmless men and women who simply want their humanity to be registered in the reactive and hyper-alarmed Western world before they are made to pay for a group that, ironically enough, came into existence as a splinter faction when the United States invaded Iraq. What you also don’t see is that these messages shy away from stating the fact that the biggest victim of ISIS is not the United States or the collective West but the average citizen in Iraq and Syria. Stating this is an offence to American political sensibility, a faculty that endlessly amazes me with its parochial view of the world it inhabits. A haunting image of a masked Muslim man attempting to behead a western journalist injects horror in the Western imagination but if you go back a bit into the past, not many people remember British Royal Marines beheading indigenous communists of Malaya. The methods implemented in taking a human’s life is identical and yet the reactions are polar opposites. In the latter case, majority of the West has little to no memory of such a massacre.
Take it this way: In 2011, white men constituted over 69% of those arrested for urban violence and yet black men made up for the majority of the prison population thanks to the American prison industrial complex. The majority of school shooters and mass murderers in the United States are white men (97% of them being male and 79% being white) from upper-middle class backgrounds. But for some curious reason, Twitter or Facebook or even your favorite news channels have not seen a flood of apologies from white men under the hashtag #NotInMyName. I already expect indignant comments to tell me that these men were lone cases who had mental disorders and no friends because it’s the go-to reason when a white man decides to shoot schools up. Unfortunately, brown and black men cannot use the same excuse. Furthermore, white communities do not worry for their well-being when a white person is indicted with a crime the way non-white communities do. Similarly, when American soldiers go on killing sprees in Afghanistan and other lands under siege, we do not witness social media inundated with American soldiers tweeting #NotInMyName. If anything, we rarely hear of such bloodsport. When Mike Brown was murdered by officer Darren Wilson, we did not see white Americans tweet #NotInMyName to highlight the utter barbarity of Wilson’s racially motivated attack. But we did see over $50,000 donations go to Wilson and the cash came out of white pockets. This list goes on and so does the violence but the apologies never make an appearance. Mass culpability seems to apply to Muslims only in the post-9/11 world.
Let me make it clear to anyone expecting an apology from me: There is none.
I will apologize for ISIS when every single American apologizes for the production of the War on Terror that, like the brilliant Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon says, is the production of more terror and thus, endless war. I will apologize for ISIS when every single white American apologizes for the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the United States. I will apologize for ISIS when I see American men and women post lengthy and introspective apologies for what the US Empire has done to the world, including my native country, since its very advent. I will post an 8,000 word apology when English people email me individual apologies for what the British Empire did to the subcontinent. I will carry a banner around Union Square that reads “I condemn ISIS as a Muslim and everything else you think I’m responsible for because I share an identity with someone else” when I start seeing white Americans wearing shirts that read “I condemn the KKK, slavery, plantations, gentrification, the genocide of Native Americans, the internment camps for East Asians, the multiple coup d’etats my country facilitated abroad, the other 9/11 that Chileans suffered and yet everyone and their mother forgot, Christian fundamentalists who can’t pronounce Mohammad but think all Muslims need to be racially profiled and segregated from the rest of America and a lot more as a white person.” I won’t limit this to whiteness only; I will apologize when every single ethnic, religious group apologizes for whatever someone did simply because, under this debauched logic, they owe the world an apology for sharing an identity. When I start seeing these apologies, I will apologize too.
Until then, no apology.