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Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation

March 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My friend Amer Zahr’s testimony about racism in the USA points to parallels between what Arab kids experience today and what he faced a quarter century ago when he was 13. On the surface it seems there’s been scant progress for us, as for African Americans, especially Black men for example in how they’re treated by police.

Remarkably, we hapless citizens on the receiving side of prejudice and ignorance continue to believe it’s possible to educate our foes and our rude friends. How many times have we heard how they “honestly never spoke to a real Muslim” or “never sat with a Black family”, how they “never knew”….until they viewed one of our prize-winning films, watched Muslims comedians or read a mind-blowing novel by an Arab woman?

Today, recharged by a battery of immense talent—comedians, authors, actors, musicians and TV hosts-- we forge ahead with the dream of overturning the shortcomings of our purported democracy, a distracted free press, our abused free speech and our trivia-laden social media.

The latest talent to come to my attention in the search for justice through powerful story-telling is Rafia Zakaria . She’s author of a new memoir "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan", published by Beacon Press in Boston. I read it and swiftly arranged to interview Zakaria.

The book is a portrait of the author’s Karachi family woven into Pakistan’s history since independence, with the aim of illustrating how divisions and fragilities inside a household can mirror the vulnerability of a whole nation, manifest through women’s lives-- from Zakaria’s own hapless Aunt Amina, to protesting college girls, to the ambitious leader Benazir Bhutto. These lives intersect with one another and within the promise and pain of nationhood.

"The Upstairs Wife" joins a growing body of literature that reinvents how history is made more accessible and more realistic. But my phone interview with Rafia revealed something more personal and significant for me. Choosing journalism as a career, we share a commitment to erase misconceptions implanted and perpetuated about us by a patronizing and biased western press.

 Both Zakaria and I (along with Amer Zahr, Nermin Al-Mufti and others) declare an unwillingness to accept imperialist characterizations of our existence, and a determination to establish a new discourse. I set out a generation ago to portray multi-dimensional Arab lives (not ‘victims’ who liberals so eagerly embrace), bringing years of anthropology research to my journalism. Today’s generation is fighting the same stereotypes and professional battles we were certain we could obliterate. We didn’t fail; we simply need our children with their energy and their own rationale to maintain the momentum.

Zakaria explains: “You have to present stories of ordinary families: how they endure history, the mistakes they make, their victories and joys. Those are universal experiences; they bring people of the world together. If you know someone’s story, it's more difficult to hate them.”

It seems prety straightforward, doesn’t it? Zakaria repeats my assertions when I took up journalism in 1989. I'm heartened, not dismayed by her statements. She too understands the process: “If you call a country a failed state over and over, that becomes the country’s identity not only for people applying those terms, but for the people of that country itself.” She concludes my admitting how hard it is for her and other citizens to deal with the reality of Pakistan, not because of its flaws, but because the idea of promise and potential, whether within a nation or in personal relationships, is something very fragile.

[ Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation ]

Our Legacy of Women Authors

February 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A beneficiary of recent memorials to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Malik El-Shabazz, I’m rethinking what I say below about dead women writers. Death anniversaries can be inspiring— called “teaching moments” here—so bring them on.

Should we welcome news of the passing of women writers? Last month we learned of “The Thorn Birds” author Colleen McCullough’s death. I admit it; I read “Thorn Birds” only recently, then excitedly called friends to discuss this gripping family epic set in Australia. Ahh yes, they said. They knew it:--not the book but the film adaptation (in this case a TV-series). They remembered the handsome priest played by American actor Chamberlain. And the author? Hmm; maybe it was a woman. To compound this injustice to McCullough, Wikipedia characterizes “The Thorn Birds” as (just) a love story and devotes more attention to the film than the book and its author.

With McCullough’s passing we read that this bigger-than-life Australian – an ‘outspoken’ woman, they note-- penned 20 books including a 7-volume Masters of Rome series that shone light on her research proficiency and earned accolades from historians. And how about this: McCullough’s inspiration to write began while working as a neuroscientist (neurophysiology was her first vocation) in New Haven; earning half what her male counterparts made McCullough took up writing to supplement her income. After she’d become wealthy from the success of “The Thorn Birds” in 1977, she thoroughly indulged herself living how she pleased while continuing to write. Good for her.

When British author Doris Lessing died in 2013 we revisited her award-winning “The Golden Notebook” portrayal of free women written decades before the American feminist movement emerged. This story isn’t easy to follow but once into it you grasp what a brilliant piece of literature it is.

So overwhelming is our celebrity culture today that cinema eclipses all. How many of us who enjoyed the audacious film “Thelma and Louise” champion that feisty actor Susan Sarandon yet can’t name the screenwriter? Well, she’s another woman-- Callie Khouri-- who is moreover an American of Arab heritage!

Last year young people were fawning over “Hunger Games” film star Jennifer Lawrence and the story’s heroine Katniss Everdeen. But do they recognize the name Suzanne Collins who wrote that book? And how about the award-winning film “Theory of Everything” based on the book “Traveling to Infinity”   by Jane Hawking?

We still talk about “To Kill a Mockingbird”. But it’s the 1962 film with Gregory Peck that leaps into our minds. And if we can recall the author, we’re uncertain if Harper Lee is male or female. Or we may know her from the 2005 film “Capote” where Lee is a literary companion of Truman Capote.

We’ve just had news that may resuscitate Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Pioneer Girl”, a lost autobiography of Wilder, is to be released soon and will surely revitalize interest in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series for children. (Children’s books are one of the most invigorating areas of American literature.)

We’ve just had the 50th death anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun”—Yes, I know: you remember the film-- with Sidney Poitier. But what about Hansberry’s political career? 

Women will forever be compelled to pen stories from rich imaginations, curiosity and pride, pains and losses… and from inspiring foremothers. If it takes an obituary or a film for us to discover them, so be it. Along with libraries that still house books, we now have search engines to mine the web for more history.  END

[ Our Legacy of Women Authors ]

Three New Martyrs from North Carolina

February 16, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Could the deaths of three young Muslim college students in North Carolina be a turning point for Muslim Americans?

During more than 30 years after we became a recognizable part of the American scene, Arabs and Muslims have suffered insults, physical attacks, abuse, harassment and discrimination—all in relative silence. At times those incidents were violent; more often abuse was deceptively subtle. But it was always harmful and frightening. Our homes and places of worship have been attacked, our ambitions thwarted, our children intimidated, our fathers humiliated. Many American immigrants of Arab and Muslim origin have been stabbed, insulted and beaten, with assaults directed at those “mistaken for Muslim”, e.g. Sikh Americans. The August 2012 murders of six Sikhs at their place of worship in a Wisconsin town was the worst but not the only attack Sikhs sustained as a result of anti-Muslim hatred.

Islamophobia seems to be inexorable. Countless US citizens returned to their native counties because of the hostility they and their children sustained here. Others have been swept up on minor immigration charges either to be recruited as FBI informants, or detained and deported. Vacationing Muslim parents from overseas have been denied entry to the US to visit their children here.

In too many of these cases, the racism and hatred experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans went unreported. Despite being highly educated our members have, ironically, been reluctant to register these injustices. Whether from fear, from self-deprecation, or from ignorance about legal protections available in the US, immigrant victims of assaults, physical and verbal, often downplay or hide those frightening experiences.  

As a journalist I witnessed at close hand widespread abuse heaped on community members at times of heightened political tensions, e.g. the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait when Iraq held American workers hostage, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, following the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston bombings. Only recently reports emerged that some American movie goers, after seeing “American Sniper”, lashed out against people they perceived to be Muslim.

For too long victims of attacks and their families shied from taking legal action. Just as young Black men are advised to keep their eyes down and yield to police intimidation, Muslims recoiled from confrontation. “We don’t want to make trouble”, they said.

Slowly--too slowly-- that attitude has changed, partly with the realization that this hostility is inescapable but also with the emergence of our own legal services. Foremost among these is CAIR (Council of Islamic American Relations www.CAIR.net), which since its founding in 1994 has employed its nationwide network to assemble a data base documenting attacks on Muslims in particular. (Sometimes in its attempt to gain points with the government and prove its patriotism CAIR has too readily supported government surveillance of Muslims and prematurely reacted to media judgments and hastily commended the FBI when it apprehended ‘suspects’.)

Besides lobbying against the inclusion of Islam-haters in public seminars and police training programs, CAIR led the way in advocating legal action against mistreatment. In the past 20 years we have seen the growth of Muslim civil rights agencies: Karamah Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights was among the earliest, followed by Muslim Advocates, Muslim Legal Fund, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms). Whereas in 1990, one could hardly find a Muslim American drawn to civil rights work, today we see hundreds, mainly young people, joining the profession and working with frontline organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU. So while victimization of Muslims and Arabs was generally not visible to the public, years of sustained personal injury led to positive changes in how to confront this. Perhaps we also stopped denying that in these injustices we have much in common with Black and Latino Americans. So that we might find common solutions and join in solidarity with the wider society. Surely the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter is a genuine illustration of that bond.

If we needed a high profile, unarguable illustration of the Muslim American experience, we surely found it in North Carolina last week. The savage killings of these three young Americans is a shock. While some argue about the motive of the murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her new husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her younger sister Razan, Muslims and other minorities understand the undeniable nature of that attack.

The packed out funerals of these promising young people and the widely televised statements by families and friends shone a light never brighter on the real American face of Muslim Americans. The tragedy and the testimonials have exposed our vulnerability, our love for one another and our Americaness like nothing I have witnessed. END

[ Three New Martyrs from North Carolina ]

Deportation as a Solution to Injustice?

February 12, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What are we to take away from the disappearance of Sami Al-Arian? I mean his disappearance-- by deportation-- from the struggle for civil rights in the USA. For more than 15 years, Al-Arian has been a symbol of resistance to intimidation from the daunting and deadly alliance of Israel and the US government to deny Palestinian aspirations, to quell support for Palestinian rights, to smother Arab American and Muslim American leadership, to strengthen anti-terror legislation and to erode the civil rights of all Americans.

Few men and women from our community have been able to sustain the kind of resistance the Al-Arians have waged for justice. Sami Al-Arian confronted a succession of obstacles that would have broken most of us. First was his support for his Mazen Al-Najjar (his brother-in-law) related to their Florida-based think tank, WISE  (World and Islamic Studies Enterprise http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_Al-Arian  ) when Al-Najjar was targeted by well known pro-Israeli agents. (We’re return to Al-Najjar’s persecution later).

After charges against Al-Najjar were dropped, although continued harassment eventually ended in his deportation, the anti-Palestinian campaign turned to Al-Arian. First it targeted Al-Arian’s professorship with the University of South Florida. (He was dismissed in October 2001 but put up a vigorous fight and in the process drew wide attention to his unjust treatment.) Al-Arian pressed ahead with challenges to human rights abuses, especially government use of secret evidence, co-founding the National Association to Protect Political Freedom (NAPPF) and a Tampa Bay civil rights group. NAPPF’s chief goal was to call attention to the government’s use of secret evidence following the passage of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996.

Then came a charge against Al-Arian as a Palestinian rights advocate of supporting terrorism. His successful defense in that case and subsequent government denials of his freedom are reviewed in a recent Firstlook article.

Throughout his ordeal Al-Arian stood firm, rallied a vigorous defense team and emerged as a major Muslim and Arab civil rights leader in the US. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., he consistently asserted his faith in the US judicial system democracy. The price he paid was high. Years in prison included months in solitary confinement and government surveillance of his family. Even under house arrest after his 2006 plea deal, his freedom to write and speak was restricted.

Al-Arian and his family have shown immense energy and stamina during this period. Their dignity and clarity over the issues doubtless accounted for sustain legal and moral support over the years.

While at the outset of his dilemma, few Muslim and Arab Americans recognized Al-Arian’s leadership quality, in time many conceded that this man tackled head-on the injustices and threats they themselves faced. If one of the aims of the government’s persecution of Al-Arian was to intimidate other leaders in our community, they succeeded. Where countless others gave up the challenge, “co-operated”, were jailed or were deported, Al-Arian pressed ahead, supported by national civil rights groups and a fine team of attorneys. The success in 2007 of the LA8, also persecuted for their Palestinian association, surely encouraged  them.

Like the LA8, Al-Najjar was an early target of Palestinian foe Steven Emerson who waged a tireless fraudulent campaign against him. In my 2000 interview with Al-Najjar from a Florida prison, this Palestinian intellectual summarizes his experience. Al-Arian and others including Muslims represented by attorney Lynne Stewart successfully fought the US government’s illegal use of secret evidence against Al-Najjar and others, and Al-Najjar was among those released in December 2000.

After 9/11, everything changed. Secret evidence was again permitted, terror laws were reinforced with the Patriot Act, Al-Najjar was re-imprisoned and, although never charged with a crime, deported in 2002.

In Al-Arian’s statement to the press at his deportation a few days ago, he no longer makes any reference to American principles of justice. But advocates here are turning their energy to a relatively new Palestinian target of the same forces that drove out the Al-Arians: Rasmea Odeh.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

[ Deportation as a Solution to Injustice? ]

Karen Armstrong’s Appraisal of Religion and the History of Violence

February 07, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

British author Karen Armstrong’s latest book is necessarily ambitious. Today when so much misinformation dominates the public debate over religion (we mean Islam, of course) and its relation to politics, serious efforts to explore their interconnection is daunting.

Comparative religion scholar Armstrong is known for tackling big subjects. Her History of God was a daring work that invited the public to reach further than their own faith. Her studies on Buddha and Muhammad were no less ambitious. Now we have an even more daring adventure, "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence".

"Fields of Blood" seems audacious at a time when Islam and violence are in the forefront of our minds and government policies. Outrage at the killings in Paris and the consequent debates over what constitutes free speech, while necessary and healthy, are polarizing our communities and putting Muslim leaders (and Islam) on the line. (I could find only a single reference to Armstrong in this recent debate. Perhaps she feels this book says it all.)

"Fields of Blood" begins at the dawn of human history with a review of ancient Sumer, moves through Indus civilization of 4000 years ago, Chinese progress from the earliest records, Hebrew history, the rise of Christianity, across the Roman and into the Byzantine Empire. In each period Armstrong draws on mythology as well as documented history to understand how war fuses with religious ideals and symbols.

In a 2014 interview with Salon.com, Armstrong  summarizes--“Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.” There is hardly an era when Armstrong can find they are not handmaidens. It seems Armstrong is reluctant to attribute a causal relation. She demonstrates that religion itself does not give rise to warfare, although expansionist ambitions may foster an upsurge in religious faith.

In her review of modern history, Armstrong suggest that the establishment of secular states may itself have given rise to a particular kind of religiosity, fundamentalism. “Blaming religion”, Armstrong argues, “allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.”

The book’s final chapters concentrate on how religion's ‘fight back’ becomes manifest as a ‘holy terror’; she offers examples which, when we’re faced with today’s attacks, we overlook; e.g. the 1978 Jonestown Guyana suicide of 913 Americans, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Armstrong proposes that perhaps the death wish embedded in acts of terror “suggests a flaw in the purely secular ideal that eliminates holiness from its politics—the conviction that some things or people must be “set apart” from our personal interests. The cultivation of that transcendence –be it God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana—had at its best, helped people to appreciate human finitude. But if the nation becomes the absolute value (in religious terms, an “idol”), there is no reason why we should liquidate those who appear to threaten it.” (p 341, Fields of Blood)  

Armstrong proceeds to today’s all-too-familiar clashes--what is widely known as global jihad—emerging from the Muslim East. She offers background to the rise of religious leadership in Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine which we’d do well to review since media sources and contemporary books largely ignore critical details of American and European role in that history. Confronted by her arguments, we are compelled to reread the long history of religion and imperial interests offered in the first half of this book.

Still, how can attacks by individuals and groups against western symbols of liberty end? Even if our leaders and academics accept the West’s responsibility for the anger and retaliatory acts now directed at it, the West seems to lack the moral capacity to invent a humane response to halt this cycle. Can we really admit, as Armstrong suggests that “we are all implicated in this violence”?

"Fields of Blood" is not an easy read. But Armstrong has done the homework for us, assembling an overwhelming wealth of facts that is worth our attention; they can at least help us bring balance to the current debate. END

[ Karen Armstrong’s Appraisal of Religion and the History of Violence ]
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