The Muslims You Cannot See: Sahar Habib Ghazi at TEDxStanford

The Singju Post

Here is the full transcript of Global Voices‘ editor Sahar Habib Ghazi’s TEDx Talk: The Muslims You Cannot See at TEDxStanford conference.

Sahar Habib Ghazi – Managing Editor at Global Voices

Allow me to take you back to a couple of months ago. I’m at the Women’s March in San Francisco with a neighbor and a dear friend.

I trust her with my four-year-old daughter; she trusts me with her children. She’s my rock. One minute we are chanting for women’s rights, the next we are shouting for trans rights. We are in a sea of umbrellas and people: some carrying the iconic image of a hijabi wrapped in an American flag; some chanting slogans against Islamophobia.

My friend looks at me and says, “You don’t have to deal with that stuff, right?”

“Why, because I’m not Muslim?” I have had this conversation before.

People I work with, or people who have known me for years, separate me, the Sahar they know, from the idea of “Muslim” built in their imagination. They de-Muslim me. There are 17 billion Muslims worldwide. We look different.

We practice different. We identify with being Muslim differently. But somehow we all get packed into the same Muslim box. This box is so well-constructed in our collective imaginations that when people like me don’t fit in it, we get de-Muslimed. I am not alone in this.

It even happened to the best-selling poet in America.

[ACT I: Being De-muslimed]

What images come to your mind when you think of Rumi, poet of love? Peace? Love ? When Jalaluddin Rumi was my age, he was an orthodox Muslim preacher and scholar Islam, the Quran and Prophet Muhammad stayed central to his poetry until the day he died. But Rumi’s religion has been erased from Western imagination and most popular translations of his poetry. An erased history is a big part of the story of the 1.7 billion Muslims

[ACT II: Belonging to the 1.7 billion].

Another is the reductive imagery of Muslims that has colonized Western books for centuries. This seductive imagery is defined by the dark men you should fear and the exotic women you need to save. The path-breaking Palestinian American scholar Edward Said first deconstructed this imagery in the 1970s.

But it stands tall today. Our politicians, my news industry, and Hollywood all continue to build on it. Take the 1998 film The Siege as an example. In it, Arab American men are actually rounded up in an internment camp in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Here’s Denzel Washington at the top, with the bad dangerous Muslims, and there he is below, with the good, patriotic Muslim FBI agent.

This film was released three years before the tragic events of 9/11. I’ve worked in the news industry for 13 years, and I’ve seen this kind of reductive powerful narrative dominate our newsfeeds. This narrative overshadows the fact that nine Muslim women have led their country in the last three decades, while the US couldn’t even elect its first real female presidential candidate in 2016. This narrative fails to recognize that French Muslim women, who can’t wear their hijab in public buildings, and Saudi Muslim women, forced to cover their bodies by their government, are two sides of the same coin. It’s one powerful group controlling the other.

This narrative diminishes Muslim leaders leading movements of change; it ignores the fact that the first Muslim prayers said on American soil were said by Africans brought here on slave ships; it erases the existence of Queer Muslims. This narrative has captured our collective imaginations so deeply and so inaccurately that Sikh men and children are often the target of anti-Muslim attacks and violence.

Because of the stories we tell and the way we tell them, Islamophobia today is more than fear of Islam, the religion, it is fear of the other. In the news industry, we tell more than stories based on facts or alternative facts, we also build narratives that help you make sense of the world. And my industry has epically failed at capturing the narrative of the 1.7 billion Muslims.

And we’ve failed them here, in the US, where seven million Muslims make up the most diverse religious group in America. One in three Muslim Americans are African Americans, and six out of 10 Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants who come from 77 different countries.

Four decades ago, my immigrant parents arrived in New York to live their American dream. My mother placed her first jewelry designs on 5th Avenue, and my father worked hard in the skyscrapers of New York – skyscrapers made possible by a Bangladeshi American Muslim structural engineer named Fazlur Rahman Khan.

Back when Khan was re-imagining the skylines of the world, my parents were unapologetically Muslim and American. But am I unapologetically Muslim and American now? Sometimes when people ask me why I don’t eat pork, instead of taking out my Muslim receipts or my pocket Quran, that all Muslims carry, I say, “Out of respect for Peppa Pig.” I was joking, we don’t all carry pocket Qurans. We don’t have to be Islamic theology experts to be “Muslim” or to almost always get selected for random security checks at the airport.

There are hundreds of islamic scholars, Muslim activists, and interfaith activists who are combating pervasive lies about Islam. These lies are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with dozens of financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who swept in and easily manipulated our already flawed image of what Muslims are, of what Islam is.

Because of the stories we tell and the way we tell them, Islamophobia is more than someone snatching a hijab off a woman or this horrifying map of attacks on mosques across the US. Islamophobia in its ugliest form attacks our sense of belonging, which is so vast, and varied, and intersectional that it cannot possibly fit in a box.

Let me explain: I was born Muslim, but being Muslim was born in my imagination when I was 4 years old, in a makeshift mosque in the basement of a Presbyterian Church in New York. When social scientists describe religious life, they refer to the three B’s: belief, behavior and belonging.

My Muslim belief may not always be visible, but it’s there. Perhaps my neighbor, my rock, my friend, would see that I’m Muslim if she could see through the 50 feet of concrete and air that separate our homes. She’d see the nighttime ritual with my daughter, cradled in the crook of my arm, me whispering the Arabic protection verses that seal the Quran, repeating them three times each. Asking for her to be protected from the evil that can be seen and the evil that cannot be seen. My Muslim belief may not always be visible, but my belonging is always in my shadow.

Belonging is this image of my grandmother standing with her sisters, half a century ago, in Karachi, Pakistan. It is the image of her that I see right now, when I close my eyes: Nano, surrounded by her finished and unfinished canvases of Sufi saints; and a heavily bookmarked Quran, a book with 114 chapters that she knows practically by heart.

Being Muslim is saying the prayers she tells me to say when I’m having a bad day. Being Muslim is how I refer to God: Allah Mian – God, my master. For a people colonized for centuries by an empire that started as a corporation called the Honorable British East India Company, calling God my only master has deep meaning.

Belonging is growing up hearing, “Men don’t cry,” but seeing my refugee grandfather cry. In between writing books on Modern Islam and Kashmiri independence, Nana Jaan cried unapologetically for his family in Indian Kashmir, family and sisters he couldn’t embrace for the last 50 years of his life.

Belonging is knowing that there are millions of Kurds and Palestinians, like my grandfather, whose families were torn apart by colonialists, who divided the Muslim world like a game of Risk. Being Muslim is knowing that in the last two centuries all but four Muslim countries were colonized by Europe. Being Muslim is knowing that the first aerial bomb in the history of mankind was dropped on a Muslim country a century ago.

It is knowing that around the same time, my grandmother’s grandfather, a distinguished lawyer and an Indian Kashmiri British imperial subject, was called dangerous by the newspapers of the time for running the first mosque in England. Before airplanes existed, he traveled to more places in the world than I can imagine, preaching the radical word of love, peace and social justice. The word of Islam Belonging to my tribe of 1.7 billion runs deep into our unforgettable bloodlines and unacknowledged histories.

It is knowing that fourteen years ago, the most powerful military in the world, with troops currently spread on every continent except Antarctica, went into Iraq chasing weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. It’s knowing that now more than half a million Iraqis lie beneath the rubble of that war. It is knowing that the rate of suicide amongst US veterans has jumped 32 percent since 2001.

Being Muslim American is knowing that 1400 years ago, the first call to prayer, the Azaan, was said by a freed black slave named Bilal Being. American Muslim is knowing that 200 years ago, an African Islamic scholar named Bilali Muhammad was brought to this land and made a slave.

Being American Muslim is calling Malcolm X an American hero. It is the warmth I felt when people overwhelmed the airports to fight the Muslim Ban. It’s the hope I feel when we stand up for our dreamers; it’s the hope I feel when we say, “Black lives matter.” Being American Muslim is knowing the inherent intersectionality of our multi-hyphenated identities but failing to communicate it to you.

The Muslim narrative of 1.7 billion has more possibilities than a Rubik’s cube, but we’re portrayed in reductive binaries: us versus them; good versus bad. Being a mother is the worry I carry for my child and all Muslim children, knowing that powerful, privileged people build structural Islamophobia on these binaries. Structural Islamophobia are the Muslim registries that began with President Bush but continued under President Obama. It is pervasive mosque surveillance. It is a country closing its borders to people it is bombing.

It’s an immigration officer handcuffing a five-year-old child. It’s the wars we wage and the bombs we drop on Muslim countries. Because of the stories we tell and the stories we don’t tell, here we are today. In a study called the Ascent of Man, researchers at Northwestern University showed this scientifically incorrect image to participants and asked them to rate groups on a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of evolution. Muslims scored the lowest.

We are too deep into de-humanizing Muslims. We are decades behind recognizing the dangerous tropes we perpetuate in our newsrooms. It’s a big downer, isn’t it? Well, there is a growing movement led by American Muslims in the media industry that gives me hope. This movement aims to capture the complexity of our multi-hyphenated identity and our forgotten histories. The #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast; Sapelo Square about Black Muslim life; and Ms Marvel, the Pakistani American superhero all give me hope.

[ACT III The conversations we need to have]

But I’m deeply worried about this global moment we are in. And this moment has consequences beyond the 1.7 billion. There’s a reason conspiracy theorists that existed on the dark corners of the Internet now rule the White House. They rose exponentially because they “othered” Muslims.

There’s another group that rose exponentially the last few years by making an other out of all of us. They didn’t exist five years ago, and now they rule large parts of Iraq and Syria. I’m worried about the realities and the histories that I was unaware of when I was my daughter’s age but make me unapologetically Muslim today. Things I left breadcrumbs for, throughout this talk. Things that might have resonated with you too because in all the intersections that make up our humanity, there might lurk a story of being “othered”.

Right now, across the bridge in Berkeley, the 8th annual Islamophobia conference is happening. Over there, more than a hundred academics are getting together and talking about our problems with the “other,” talking about structural racism and American militarism. All of us need to ask ourselves, “Why aren’t we having these conversations?” Why am I giving you this talk, at TEDxStanford in 2017, when the man who introduced us the concept that wars are waged by dehumanizing the “other” was a scholar here, decades ago.

All of us need to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions like my friend and I did in the rain about how we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate the “other” because the work of re-imagining a new future, where we don’t have an American President eating chocolate cake while bombing broken countries and “othered” people, goes well beyond the visible and invisible 1.7 billion.

It starts here, with all of us.