Tuesday, December 29, 2009

State of the Blog: Happy New Year

Photo by Hans Haake

Well hello there, new readers and followers.

According to the fine folks at Google Analytics you are from countries all over the globe. It is an exciting prospect, having an international readership, so I thought I would pause as the year comes to an end and restate my goals with this blog.

What do I blog about? Glad you asked:

I am interested in the ways that culture and politics overlap and rub up against each other. I don't make distinctions between "high" and "low" culture, so you are as likely to read about contemporary art and experimental performance as films and TV here. And my notion of politics, which I take to mean the structures of power that shape the relations between people, is similarly broad. I am also a performance and interdisciplinary artist and scholar and if you are interested in that work you can find it here on my website. You can find my critical writing in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism and (upcoming) in The Drama Review. And I have guest blogged at Racialicious and had my work reposted at Altmuslimah.com.

You may notice by looking at my archive that I often write about the Middle East. I am interested in the politics and culture of the Arab and Islamic worlds and the dynamics between East and West, more broadly. Orientalism and Islamophobia are particular concerns for me but I also write about racial and ethnic prejudice--and the ways those things are represented in culture-- in general.

Also: after decades of successfully avoiding and/or sabotaging interpersonal relationships in favor of an artfully crafted cynicism and lots of black clothing I got a dog and became a complete sap. So sometimes I write about him too.

So, um, that's me. Now, if you like tell me about yourselves.

What brings you here? What sorts of things would you like to see me address? Where are you from? Don't be afraid to speak up. I have no formal commenting policy and do not mind posting dissenting opinions as long as they are offered respectfully and move the conversation forward. But don't waste your time writing me hate mail: I'll just delete it without a second thought. I've enjoyed starting this blog this year. In 2010 I plan to resume my interview series with artists and thinkers I find interesting so hopefully you will enjoy that.

Have a happy New Year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Joy To the World

This is a video of Rocket, the day after the blizzard, encountering snow for the first time. I hope all of you are this happy during the holidays and in the upcoming year.

... Although I hope the sight of kids sledding does not freak you out the way it does him.


Peace and blessings.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Uncomfortable Truth

When I put together last Sunday's Link Tilt-A-Whirl I posted a link to a great essay on James Cameron's Avatar on SF/pop culture site site io9 by its editor Annalee Newitz called "When Will White People Stop making Movies Like Avatar?" When I was reading the essay myself I became fascinated with the comment thread, which hummed with indignation at the very premise that an SF film might have a racial (let alone racist) subtext. I found this notably odd since, in the case of Avatar, the aliens are animist, face-painted, bow-and-arrow wielding warriors, so it shouldn't take much effort to see them as proxy Native Americans/First Nations peoples. And also--as I noted in my post-- analyzing SF cultural products is the entire point of the site, so why the incredulity?

I liked the writing on io9 despite the weirdo comments so I went back to visit and was pleased to read another of Newitz's posts--this one reiterating a question posed by Lisa Katayama on Boing Boing: "Why Do Westerners Fetishize Japan's Futuristic Weirdness?" Katayama writes, " Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign "other" that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it's suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy. This fascination doesn't just end with angry commenters, either. Over the last couple of decades, it has spawned a huge industry of magazines, blogs, and products themed around Japanese culture marketed to Westerners by Westerners who are also obsessed with Japanese culture . . ." Katayama's point, that Westerners often misunderstand the attitude of the Japanese toward their own culture, which is apparently almost entirely less serious than the Westerners who enshrine it, is an interesting one. But I am again fascinated by the comment thread which followed Newitz's post, which again... lets go with "struggled"... with the concept of locating race in popular culture. The angry blind spot where racial representations live for these SF fans is exemplified by the following exchange between poster "Tenacious-G" and editor Newitz:

I think this is just another instance of someone manufacturing an excuse to become offended. Personally, I thought shows like Firefly and movies like Bladerunner were a positive depiction of Eastern cultures. Remember, the people bitching about this are the same people who complain that Americans are isolationist and refuse to have anything to do with other cultures. Besides, it's OKAY to think another culture is weird. Weird doesn't mean wrong.

Annalee Newitz
@Tenacious-G: In what way is Firefly a positive depiction of Eastern culture? There are literally NO Asians in the entire show. Just white people who occasionally speak really bad Chinese.

@Annalee Newitz: You've got a point there. I guess I never noticed that they didn't have any actual Asians. I did think it was neat how Asian influences were worked into the show, though. However made up the actual words may have been.

To summarize: Actual Eastern peoples are not necessary for a "positive depiction of Eastern cultures" and if you argue otherwise, you are "manufacturing an excuse to become offended."

Yeah, okay.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Israel Admits Harvesting Palestinian Organs

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs

By Ian Black, Middle East Editor
via the Guardian UK

"Israel has admitted that pathologists harvested organs from dead Palestinians, and others, without the consent of their families - a practice that it said ended in the 1990s, it emerged at the weekend.

The admission, by the former head of the country's forensic institute, follows a furious row when a Swedish newspaper reported Israel was killing Palestinians in order to use their organs – a charge that Israel denied and called "anti-semitic".

The revelation, in a TV documentary, is likely to generate anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds and reinforce sinister stereotypes of Israel and its attitude to Palestinians. Iran's state-run Press TV tonight reported the story illustrated with photographs of dead or badly injured Palestinians.

Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab MP, said the report incriminated the Israeli army.

The story emerged in an interview with Dr Yehuda Hiss, former head of the Abu Kabir forensic institute near Tel Aviv.

The interview was conducted in 2000 by an American academic who released it because of the row between Israel and Sweden over a report in the Stockholm newspaper Aftonbladet.

Channel 2 TV reported that in the 1990s, specialists at Abu Kabir harvested skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives.

The Israeli military confirmed to the programme that the practice took place but added: "This activity ended a decade ago and does not happen any longer."

Hiss said: "We started to harvest corneas ... whatever was done was highly informal. No permission was asked from the family."

However, there was no evidence that Israel had killed Palestinians to take their organs, as the Swedish paper reported. Aftonbladet quoted Palestinians as saying young men from the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been seized by the Israeli forces and their bodies returned to their families with missing organs.

The interview with Hiss was released by Nancy Sheppard-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley. Sheppard-Hughes, who had conducted a study of Abu Kabir, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that while Palestinians were "by a long shot" not the only ones affected by the practice, she felt the interview must be made public because "the symbolism, you know, of taking skin of the population considered to be the enemy, [is] something, just in terms of its symbolic weight, that has to be reconsidered."

Israel demanded Sweden condemn the Aftonbladet article, calling it an anti-semitic "blood libel". Stockholm refused, saying that to so would violate its freedom of speech. The foreign minister then canceled a visit to Israel, just as Sweden was taking over the EU's rotating presidency.

Hiss was removed from his post in 2004, when some details about organ harvesting were first reported, but he still works at the forensic institute.

Israel's health ministry said all harvesting was now done with permission. "The guidelines at that time were not clear," it said in a statement to Channel 2. "For the last 10 years, Abu Kabir has been working according to ethics and Jewish law.""

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Link Tilt-A-Whirl

1) Its Time to Get Real: Obama is Wrong

Jehanzeb Dar, of the great blog Muslim Reverie, has always been a good writer but he surpasses himself with this essay. Point by point he breaks down the growing discontent with President Obama over his policies toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. He writes, "Like many, I was devastated by the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter and I was also extremely disappointed with Obama for not holding the Israeli government accountable. 'He’s not the president yet,' many would say, including some Muslim friends of mine. I wanted to believe they were right, so I kept my frustration sidelined... But my hopes quickly changed when Obama ordered drone attacks in Pakistan." Like Jehanzeb, I have also been "cautiously optimistic" about Obama since the beginning. And like him, the decision to escalate the war in South Asia, based on campaign promises made to illustrate the grotesque folly of the war in Iraq, has left me thoroughly disillusioned. Jehanzeb cites Tariq Ali's point that "on the very day that an Iranian woman, Neda Soltani, was murdered during the election protests in Iran, a U.S. drone killed 60 people in Pakistan, mostly women and children. The death of Soltani drew international attention and became an iconic image of resistance against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, while nothing was mentioned about Pakistan." Jehanzeb's point (via Ali) is a provocative one: Perhaps the (im)moral of the story is that if you are a Western superpower (or close ally) you can kill civilians and it doesn't "count" in the same way as it would for say, Arabs or Muslims.

Tags: Politics is Culture

2) Garrulity of Places

This essay, by the artist Anas Al-Shaikh in Nafas Art Magazine describes a fascinating series of experimental works staged in public spaces in Bahrain by Al-Shaikh with the participation of 11 other artists called Garrulity of Places. Al-Shaikh writes, " Concentrating on ephemeral, interactive, improvised, and critical practice, the experiences provided by the project were very different from the previous artistic experiences of most participants. Special emphasis was put on encouraging cooperation, discussions, and dialogue..." The project's focus on audience interactivity is designed to foster awareness of various issues through the medium of artistic practice. For example one of these works, titled Tales (2009), was staged in a local market in Bahrain's Isa Town. The artists situated a group of photos on a table in the market and attached listening devices to each image. Passers-by could then choose to listen to a "tale" recorded by the artist, related to the image. I love the idea of this piece, which gives a voice to the random, anonymous photos you often find in boxes at open-air markets, at least here in the US.

Often, people unfamiliar with conceptual art react badly to the idea of it-- as if it is designed to make them look stupid-- and further, often react with surprise that there is conceptual art in the Middle East, but it is a global phenomenon. According to Al-Shaikh, people reacted to these pieces, staged in public places, with curiosity. This essay then both describes an ambitious, if deceptively simple conceptual art project in a Middle Eastern country and an ideal (to my mind) response to it.

Tags: Culture is Politics, Installation

3) When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

Annalee Newitz, editor of SF site io9 and author of Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, has written a terrific review/analysis of James Cameron's new film Avatar in which she skewers its racial pretensions. Newitz writes, "Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it's undeniable that the film - like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year - is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?" This is a fascinating question and she expands it by not only comparing Avatar to the recent District 9 but by tracing the thread of what she calls this meme across several films. Newitz writes, "Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America's foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent... (the film's aliens, the Na'vi) wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades." Avatar's ironically named hero "Sully" has the opportunity via the advanced tech of his society, to join the Na'vi and--surprise-- become their leader. According to Newitz, "This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member." This is an old trope in US culture, dating from the 19th century (a la The Last of the Mohicans) that was incorporated into US cinema from its earliest beginnings. Of course there are many examples in US cinema throughout its history, for example Rudolph Valentino's Sheik turns out, by films end, to not be an Arab after all, but a European raised among them. Thus audiences got to have it both ways: they thrilled at the "Sheik's" seduction of a quivering white virgin... and had it reversed in the end, avoiding the messier social implications of miscegenation. As you can imagine, the responses to her essay in its comment thread have included the predictable rolled eyes for daring to mention race and/or venomous attacks that dismiss race as a topic of conversation entirely. As in (chosen at random):

theSkywalker: "... i don't care are about who is good, who is bad and who is the ugly. this is not the point of the Science Fiction."

KillianCrane: "
It just cracks me up how every race sees themselves in the likes of crap like blue people or jarjar binks or insect faced aliens. Sure there is always an aspect of race when you talk about something different than the main characters, that doesn't mean it's about you...

disatess: "it was meant to be film to be watched , not a film we all have to whine about ... get over this RACE CRAP !!! God when are going to grow UP."

carpe_k9006 :" Why are you being so damn analytical over something that's meant to entertain? Christ. Instead of pouring over a medium meant to entertain, go preach to inner-city youths that need this message more than some random network of websites dedicated to following popular modern culture.

Would you rather stereotypical popular black fantasy?


Or how about asian (sic) fantasy?


Either way, someone would complain. The issue is not with "white" or whatever color of the spectrum you deem fit, it's with people taking issue with something that really doesn't deserve it.

In short, get over yourself"

Um, yeah. So there are other goodies here and there among these comments (like the Islamophobic/orientalist sub-thread about the Dune books for e.g.) but I'm starting to feel dirty and not in a good way, so you can go check that out for yourselves. It is worth noting though that commenters at io9 have to "audition" and get approved before they can post--creating a smaller group of curated comments rather than an open-season free-for all and avoiding the necessity of enforcing an aggressive mod policy. So it begs the question: if these (and the others like them) are the best commenters io9 has why are they so afraid to explore the underlying themes of SF/pop culture on a site devoted to just that?

Tags: Culture is Politics, Race, Film, Review, Representation

4) Sikh Youth Attacked in Texas

According to the India Times, a Sikh Graduate student who was working as a pizza delivery person was brutally assaulted and terrorized by four young men when he showed up to bring them a pizza in West Texas. The Sikh Coalition reports that they hurled him into a swimming pool and wouldn't let him out as they hurled racial epithets at him. They allegedly yelled "I'm going to fuck you up in Iraq, I'm going to fuck you up in Afghanistan, I'm going to fuck you up over here" as he swam desperately for his life and they kicked him in the head and body. Eventually he was able to escape but the response of the local police, was *surprise* less than exemplary. Thus far the men have only been charged with a misdemeanor, which may mean they avoid jail altogether, instead of the more-obvious-in-this-instance but exponentially more legally serious "hate-crime."

This is so grotesque that it is hard to peel away the layers and look at the machinery behind an attack like this. But, can a quartet of West Texas rednecks be blamed for confusing Sikhs for Muslims, South Asians for Arabs and countries whose only common denominator is our interest in them when our own leaders can't be bothered to make these distinctions either? Attacks like these are like models of foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds rendered in miniature.

Tags: Race, Politics is Culture, Orientalism, Islamophobia

5) Burqa Barbie redux

An edited version of my "Burqa Barbie" post has been published at Altmuslimah.com. I am flattered to be included on the site and want to thank Asma, Arjun and Zahed for their interest and support. Fair warning, Internet: I am everywhere. Go check me out.

Tags: Shameless self promotion, Culture is Politics

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photographer Rania Matar Artist Talk at Cabinet

Across Histories Artist Talk Series:

Segregated Spaces — On Progress with Rania Matar
Ordinary Lives, discussion and book signing.

December 16, 2009
7 p.m.
Cabinet Magazine Space 300 Nevins Street Brooklyn, New York 11215

Curated by Lauren Pearson, Across Histories is a free monthly series centered on developing an ongoing critical discussion of artistic practices in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and their diasporas. Debuted at the Elizabeth Foundation Gallery in Manhattan in September 2008 and now housed at Brooklyn's Cabinet Magazine Space, Across Histories provides a compelling platform for artists, designers, curators and art critics to present and discuss their work, oeuvres, historical moments, theories, writings and exhibitions that have had the most impact on their professional practices.

Photographer Rania Matar's work focuses on the Middle East, in particular women and children in Lebanon, a country said to be "the gate to the Middle East, between the West and the Arab world." In in her first book, Ordinary Lives, Matar who grew up in Lebanon and the United States — an outsider and an insider in both worlds — collects a large body of work pertaining to war, the spread of the veil, Palestinian refugee camps and Christian life in the Middle East.

Rania Matar's Bio:

Born and raised in Lebanon Matar moved to the United States in 1984. She was trained (AUB and Cornell University) and worked as an architect before studying photography at New England School of Photography and Maine Photographic Workshops in Mexico with Magnum photographer Constantine Manos. She currently works full-time as a photographer, and teaches photography to teenage girls in Lebanon's refugee camps and to teenage refugees in Boston.

Matar's work has been published in photography and art magazines and exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions in the United States and internationally. She has won many awards including an artist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, first prize in New England Photographers Biennial, first prize in Women in Photography International, and honorable mentions at Prix de la Photographie Paris Px3 “The Human Condition.” In 2008 she was selected one of Top 100 Distinguished Women Photographers by Women in Photography, and was a finalist for the prestigious Foster award at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston with an accompanying exhibition.

Her images are in the permanent collection of many museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park; the Danforth Museum of Art; the Kresge Art Museum; the Southeast Museum of Photography; and of private collections including the Anthony and Beth Terrana Collection, the John Cleary Estate and the Emir of Kuweit Collection.

Her first book, Ordinary Lives is published by the Quantuck Lane Press and WW Norton.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Skateistan — To Live and Skate in Kabul

Conflict Nations Program: Afghanistan

Zero Film Fest

December 10, 2009
7 p.m.
Issue Project Room 232 3rd Street Brooklyn, New York 11215

ArteEast is pleased to co-sponsor the Conflict Nations Program: Afghanistan at the Zero Film Fest.

In a time when the majority of festivals are Hollywood marketing campaigns, and even “indie” and “underground” festivals screen financed films, the Zero Film Fest offers something different—recognizing authentically independent films and filmmakers who take risks and fight the odds to see their visions through.

The Conflict Nations Program is a muti-disciplinary exploration of the Afghan experience including a visual art installation, guest speakers, readings and film screenings.

Readings by Afghan American writers:

Sahar Muradi
Zohra Saed
Masood Kamandy
Naheed Elyasi

Film Screenings:

Skateistan — To Live and Skate in Kabul, Kai Sehr (7 mins) Documentary Preview

Inspired by Skateistan, Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school, this emotional feature-length documentary is a journey deep into the lives of Afghanistan’s urban youth. It chronicles the efforts of a grass-roots organization to build the first skate hall in Kabul, follows the first international crew of pro skaters on their visit to Afghanistan and tells a tale of the irrepressible hope found within a nation’s children.

Rethink Afghanistan, Robert Greenwald (62 mins) Feature Documentary

Greenwald portrays Afghanistan as a nation — or, more accurately, a collection of tribal affiliations — that has never been pacified by force in its long history and the present American endeavor as doomed to failure.

Rethink Afghanistan, from Robert Greenwald, the man behind Outfoxed, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and Iraq For Sale, "presents the complex, harsh and enduring legacy of the Afghan War."
- Joel Epstein, Huffington Post

For more information, please visit Zero Film Festival.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Awesome Artwork of Princess Hijab

In light of the-- lets go with "spirited"-- response to the "Burqa Barbie" post I thought I'd offer these images, created by Parisian guerilla street artist Princess Hijab, for your contemplation. I am a huge fan of her work, which is inspired by an anti-consumerist stance, not a religious or even overtly Islamist philosophy. Given the tensions in France and throughout Europe between white Europeans and Arab and Muslim immigrant populations this work is subversive on many levels at once. And it illustrates the ambiguity inherent in covering, a practice that "means" many different things--sometimes all at once.

Princess Hijab's true identity is unclear and it is uncertain whether or not she is an Arab, Muslim or even a "she." Nevertheless, she uses black pens and spray paint to superimpose the iconic black veil onto fashion advertising (featuring women and men), pastes "Hijab Ads" on the streets of Paris and creates wholly original images (see above). See her website for further examples of her work, including her newer web animations.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wherein Joe Argues With the Voice in His Head About President Obama

January 21, 2009

Dear Voice in My Head,
Why aren’t you happier today? Barack Obama is President! We did it! The page has turned and history has been made. And Bush flew away in a helicopter. Sure, it didn’t crash into the side of a mountain but you can’t have everything. Besides, God threw you a bone and Cheney was in a wheelchair. This is what you wanted. Millions of people are celebrating today. So…why are you finding it so hard to give in to the feeling and just be happy?

Dear Joe,
Thanks for asking. I have been feeling guilty all day but while everyone else is misty-eyed and joyous, I am worried. I just can’t stop thinking about the Middle East. I know, I know. But I can’t help it. Instead of going to an inauguration party, I am up at 2am watching Tequila Sunrise on cable and thinking about Gaza. Barack Obama inspires such confidence... but I just am not sure if I can trust where he is coming from on the Middle East. Sure, he said a lot of great things about Iraq but then he pranced like a show dog at AIPAC. For every plus there has been a minus. I'm not naive, I know he did what he had to do but... I just don't know.

May 21, 2009

Dear Joe,
Did you hear President Obama's speech on national security just now? He talked about the "fiber of his being" and "our fundamental values" and then he said we would need "new tools" to prevent attacks against the United States. (Why does that sound so familiar?) And then he proposed a law that would allow "preventive detentions." It allows indefinite imprisonment not based on proven crimes or past violations of law, but of those deemed generally "dangerous" by the Government for various reason. In other words, to imprison people because the Government claims they are likely to engage in violent acts in the future. And this isn't just for "terrorists" the law could be applied to anyone, anywhere in the world, alleged to be an "enemy combatant."
Oh wait. Now I know why this sounds so familiar...

Dear Voice in My Head,
Come on, that isn't all he said. He talked about how Guantanamo was a mistake and how he is going to close it. He said the "enhanced interrogations" don't keep us safe and he won't be using them... This is all the stuff we have been waiting for. The Bush craziness is over... Isn't it?

September 1, 2009

Dear Joe,
Guantanamo Bay is still open.

That is all.

Dear Voice in My Head,
Shut up.

December 5, 2009

Dear Joe,
Obama has decided to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. He ignores Palestine and ever since the election he runs the other way from anything even vaguely Arab or Muslim with his arms waving over his head like Elmo.

Oh, and Guantanamo is still open. That is all.

Dear Voice in My Head,
Sigh. I know.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The New Inquisition Pt. 2

Swiss Propaganda Image in support of a ban on minarets (2009)

The New Inquisition (cont'd)

By Laila Lalami via the Nation

"Although a large proportion of Europe's immigrants are not Muslim, and although the continent has faced serious economic, political and social challenges at various times over the past fifty years, European Muslims are held to blame for the rise in crime, violence against women, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and homegrown terrorism. For instance, Caldwell examines rates of incarceration in Europe, finds them proportionately higher for Muslims and attributes this finding to their religion and their culture, neither of which, in his view, equip them with the necessary tools for succeeding in the West. Missing from this grim assessment is the stubborn fact that Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be prosecuted for minor offenses. In France, where judges and prosecutors have large discretionary powers, noncitizens are significantly more likely to be forced into pretrial detention while their case is being investigated. The sociologist Devah Pager, who teaches at Princeton, also found a strong correlation between crime-control strategies in French local jurisdictions and the ethnic heterogeneity of these jurisdictions. To put it more plainly, crime is not policed in the same way for everyone. Researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands found a similar pattern; they recently published the result of a study showing that Moroccans sit in jail for lighter crimes than ethnic Dutch.

At no time was the question of crime in Muslim neighborhoods debated more hotly than in the fall of 2005, when the Parisian banlieues erupted in riots that lasted three weeks, leading then-President Chirac to declare a state of emergency. The riots were triggered by the deaths of two teenage boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who, while fleeing the police, hid in a power station and were electrocuted. Initially, Sarkozy, at the time Chirac's interior minister, claimed that the boys were suspected of robbery, but there was no solid evidence that they committed a crime--they had been playing soccer in a field when they saw police officers and fled to avoid a lengthy process of interrogation. In interviews after the riots, the people of the banlieues often described the teenagers' deaths as a spark but cited as fuel discrimination, isolation and joblessness. The banlieues are ghettos, and as James Baldwin once wrote, "To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need." Though Pascal Mailhos, the head of the French national intelligence services, flatly stated that religious beliefs played no part in the riots, several French politicians blamed, persistently and exclusively, Islam. So does Caldwell: "Even if they did not believe in Islam, they believed in Team Islam." The point here, I suppose, is that Muslims are acting collectively even when they tell you they're not.

Caldwell also suggests that Muslims are far more likely to commit violence against women. Under the heading "Virginity and violence," he writes that "there were forty-five [honor killings] in Germany alone in the first half of the decade." Since the argument here is that Muslims are more inclined to commit homicides against women in the context of "some trespass against sexual propriety," it would have been helpful if Caldwell had included, for the sake of contrast, the number of ethnic German women killed in incidents of domestic violence, as well as numbers for an entirely distinct and recent immigrant group, such as Eastern Europeans. Without such empirical comparisons, it is difficult to see how he can reach the conclusion he does, which is that "such acts make law. They assert sovereignty over a certain part of European territory for a different sexual regime." The label "honor killing" makes violence against women and girls sound like an exotic import rather than the pernicious and all-too-frequent reality that it is. Caldwell doesn't mention that domestic violence has been treated as a criminal problem in Europe thanks to the work of European feminists in the 1960s and '70s, and that now European Muslim feminists are working to create a similar zero-tolerance level about honor killings. Encouragingly, a recent Gallup study found that Muslims in Paris, Berlin and London disapproved of honor killings and crimes of passion about as much as the general French, German and British populations.

One of Caldwell's frequent arguments is that Europeans should be worried about the Islamization of their continent because Muslim women are having children in greater numbers than non-Muslims. As proof for this claim, he cites a working paper from the Vienna Institute of Demography. But recent studies show that birthrates among European Muslim women are declining sharply; for instance, the fertility rate in the Netherlands for Moroccan-born women fell from 4.9 to 2.9 between 1990 and 2005. Turkish-born women had 3.2 children in 1990 and 1.9 in 2005. Similar patterns have been observed in France and Germany. Martin Walker, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, points out that, "broadly speaking, birthrates among immigrants tend to rise or fall to the local statistical norm within two generations." Moreover, the Financial Times, the newspaper for which Caldwell is a columnist, recently published an article that belied all the alarmist claims about Muslim birthrates, concluding, "in short, Islamicisation--let alone sharia law--is not a demographic prospect for Europe."

The fundamental problem with Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is that Caldwell focuses exclusively on the problems with Muslim immigrants without stepping back to assess the general status of the European Muslim community. While he frequently denounces idleness, urban separation and crime by Muslims, he does not see fit to devote any space to the discrimination they face in employment, housing or the justice system, or the successes they have had in fields like science, sports, arts and entertainment. The French even have a term for this wave of young successful Muslims; they call it beurgeoisie. (The word beur is French slang for "North African.")

This flaw in Caldwell's approach is, unfortunately, entirely intentional. Reflections, he writes in his introduction, is a book about Europe, immigration and the place of Islam and Muslims in it, not "a book about the difficulties faced by immigrants and ethnic minorities." He stresses that he will use the term "native" to refer to those of European blood and "immigrant" to refer to those who are from outside Europe, even when they have been citizens of European countries for two or three generations. But by simplifying his terminology and focusing exclusively on the problems immigrants cause, not on those they face, Caldwell has tilted the scales: he does not present a complete view of the relationship between immigrant and native. On the rare occasions (I counted two) when he does mention discrimination, it is to minimize it: "There was certainly measurable discrimination in the European job and housing markets, although it was mild alongside what one might have found in the United States four decades ago." How easy it is to dismiss discrimination when one is not on the receiving end of it. But the statistics on job discrimination defy minimization: while 27 percent of beur university graduates are unemployed in France, the overall unemployment rate for university graduates is just 5 percent.

In effect, this lack of context mirrors the way Muslim immigrants (even those in second and third generations, or those who are probably Muslim in name only) are talked about in newspapers and magazines, on the radio and television: their religion is at the center of any discussion, as if the only thing that defines their political convictions, their votes, their relationship with their neighbors, with people of other religions or with members of the opposite sex is their ability to tell their nisab from their khums.

The thesis that only Islam is to blame for Muslims' supposed inability to assimilate in Europe is far too simplistic to stand the test of reality. In fact, it's just as simplistic as the argument peddled by the Muslim right wing, which is that Islam is the only cure for whatever ails Muslims. When one looks at Muslims on another continent (America, say) the pattern that Caldwell insists has been replicated throughout Europe (ghettoization, crime, violence against women, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, homegrown terrorism and demands for accommodation) does not obtain. In fact, income and education levels of Muslims in America mirror those of the general public. But save for two paragraphs, which appear ten pages before the end of the book, Caldwell avoids this comparison, presumably because it does not fit with his theory.

Caldwell does contrast Muslim immigration to Europe with Latin immigration to America. "The cultural peculiarities of Latin American immigrants," he argues, "are generally antiquated versions of American ones. Latinos have less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates, more frequent church attendance...lousier diets, and higher rates of military enlistment than native-born Americans." This, he says, makes Latino culture "perfectly intelligible to any patient American who has ever had a conversation about the past with his parents." But intelligibility did not prevent Glenn Beck from claiming that immigrants were "trying to conquer our culture" or Lou Dobbs from suggesting that the "invasion of illegal aliens" was responsible for a huge (and undocumented) rise in leprosy cases in the United States. The scholar Anouar Majid has cataloged many similarities between the treatment of Latino immigrants in the United States and Muslim immigrants in Europe in his book We Are All Moors. Ironically, Caldwell behaves much like a new convert to a religion: having found an ideology he agrees with, he looks only for the evidence that confirms his beliefs and disregards everything else.

Not surprisingly, Caldwell's assessment of Europe, like his assessment of European Muslims, leaves little room for nuance or complexity. He portrays the continent as a racially, culturally and politically homogenous place and its natives as extremely tolerant, respectful of human rights and largely secular. In his view, Europeans naïvely believed that Muslim workers who came after World War II would not stay. They welcomed the immigrants and muted their own concerns because they were afraid to be called racist. Caldwell makes the entire process of immigration seem like a giant hoax devious Muslims perpetrated on innocent Europeans. "European natives," he writes, "have become steadily less forthright, or more frightened, about expressing their opposition to immigration in public."

But the truth is that Europeans, particularly of the right-wing persuasion, have not been shy at all about opposing immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment is as old as immigration itself, and Europe is no exception. Over the past few decades, immigration policy has repeatedly been a major theme of general elections in several European countries, including France, Italy and Spain. Still, the typical European one encounters in Reflections is ashamed of his country and unable to stand up to immigrants. Caldwell writes, rather preposterously, "The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans." Elsewhere, he argues that European natives have become so enamored with the idea of multiculturalism that they "know more about Arabic calligraphy and kente cloth" than they know about "Montaigne and Goethe." Of course, this is hyperbole. But strikingly, Caldwell does not wonder how much European Muslims, a great many of whom are graduates of European schools on the continent or outside it, know about these subjects.

While Caldwell blames Muslim immigrants for a range of problems, he reserves part of his scorn for "the spiritual tawdriness" of Europe--which, in his estimation, may be the "biggest liability in preserving its culture." The increasing secularization of Europe caused it to lose its bearings and gradually become vulnerable to "colonization" by "primitive" cultures. "Along the road of European modernization," he writes, "lie the shopping mall, the pierced navel, online gambling, a 50 percent divorce rate, and a high rate of anomie and self-loathing. What makes us so certain that that Europeanization is a road that immigrants will want to travel?" But in fact polls show that attitudes of European Muslims vary from country to country and often display the same regional differences seen among various European publics. For instance, Gallup polls show that Parisian Muslims are more likely than Muslims in Berlin or London to consider adultery "morally acceptable," a pattern that mirrors the larger proportions of native French who find adultery acceptable when compared with Britons or Germans.

For Caldwell, there is a quality of "Europeanness" that, on the one hand, is in danger of being lost because of the mass immigration of Muslims, and, on the other hand, is so idiosyncratic that it is not easily passed to new generations of European Muslims. He appears to suggest that this quality is innate: "[EU expansion] raised hopes that Western European labor needs could be filled by people who more or less thought like Europeans (say, maids from Hungary and machinists from Bulgaria) rather than people who did not (say, maids and machinists from Pakistan and Algeria)." The emphasis is his.

Caldwell argues that intra-European immigration had a higher degree of success because the immigrants who moved within Europe shared religious and cultural beliefs with the natives. Such an optimistic view leaves out inconvenient facts of history. In the early decades of the twentieth century, France brought thousands of Polish workers to its factories and its mines; many lived in suburban ghettos and, despite being Christian, were deemed by the natives to be too attached to their culture and too religious (they were referred to as calotins, or "Holy Joes"). Some French intellectuals and politicians began speaking of "invasion." (Similar accusations were made about Spaniards, Italians and Belgians who later migrated to France.) When the recession of the 1930s put a crunch on the French economy, the government forcibly put Polish immigrants on trains and sent them back home. So the process by which immigrants integrate in European societies has historically been a slow one, even when immigrants "think" like Europeans.

This undiscerning approach leads Caldwell to severe errors of judgment. It is exceedingly disturbing to find so many right-wing leaders receive one form or another of rehabilitation in Reflections. The British conservative politician Enoch Powell--who famously warned that if Britain didn't stop letting in nonwhite immigrants, it would soon be "foaming with much blood"--is described as "morally" wrong but "factually" right. Elsewhere, Caldwell decries the Dutch media's portrayal of the far-right leader Geert Wilders as a "paranoid and sinister bumpkin," while those who speak more conciliatorily about Islam are "spared ridicule." Wilders once compared the Koran with Mein Kampf and proposed that it be banned. This past September, he argued that a tax of 1,000 euros should be levied against Muslim women who wear a headscarf because they "pollute" the landscape.

Pim Fortuyn, the notorious Dutch far-right leader, "was not a racist," Caldwell informs us, "and his colorful repartee about the Moroccan men he had slept with was adequate to place him above the suspicion of being one." By the same logic, should one forget that Strom Thurmond supported racist laws just because he had a black child? Caldwell writes wistfully that "Fortuyn could well have become prime minister had he not been shot dead days before national elections in May 2002, by an animal rights activist who claimed to be acting to protect Dutch Muslims." Even though Muslims had nothing to do with Fortuyn's murder, this formulation suggests that, somehow, they did.

Not coincidentally, several of the loudest forecasters of European doom were previously best known for their anti-Semitic views. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, once called the Holocaust an "extremely profitable lie." Nowadays, he asks that Muslims be prevented from flying into or out of Britain and runs ads with the slogan Enoch Powell Was Right. Vlaams Belang, the Flemish far-right party, has also had Holocaust deniers in its leadership, though now they seem most preoccupied with preventing Muslim women who wear the headscarf from working for local councils. And Le Pen, the founder of the French National Front, once described gas chambers as "a mere detail of history" and called a political opponent named Michel Durafour "Durafour crématoire" (the pun can be loosely translated as "Michel-hard-to-cook-in-a-gas-chamber"). Now he warns that it is only a matter of time before the mayor of Marseille will no longer be Mr. Gaudin but Mr. "Ben Gaudin." Recently it emerged that the Vlaams Belang and other far-right groups have formed a coalition called "Cities Against Islamisation." Europe has gone down this road before, and it did not emerge the better for it.

The societies of Europe are undergoing demographic changes, which have economic, social and educational consequences. So far, the debate on these changes has focused exclusively on Islam in Europe. Yet no one in the chattering classes seems to have noticed that the voices of European Muslims are seldom heard. This is a debate about them--not with them. And indeed Reflections on the Revolution in Europe has been reviewed in the American press mostly by people who are not European, much less Muslim. Not surprisingly, the argument that Muslims are collectively trying to "conquer" Europe "street by street" in order to turn it into an outpost of Islam has been taken at face value. But this argument is not serious criticism because it is not based on thorough empirical evidence; it is racism.

When European Muslims are heard from, it is often on the topic of religion, and usually immediately after some disaster caused by one of their co-religionists. Political leaders, eager to show that they are in dialogue with the "immigrants" (large proportions of whom are second- or third-generation citizens), quote from the Koran or invite some imam to tea at the presidential palace. The conversation turns into a battle over religion, over who has the right interpretation of what verse, instead of being expanded to the issues most relevant to the integration of European Muslims--issues like jobs, housing, education and civil rights.

The current debate places far too much emphasis on Islam as a set of codes and on the Koran as a literal text, rather than on Islam as it is lived and the Koran as an experienced text. A Moroccan man may be very devout and yet work as a sommelier in a restaurant in Paris. A Turkish teenager may not be particularly faithful and yet keep Ramadan because it is the only time of year she gets to connect with her community. An Algerian elder may be the imam of his mosque and yet carry credit card debt. Islam is not just its texts; it is millions of people, each one of whom has found an idiosyncratic way of adapting faith to modern life. Our religious beliefs are not the sum total of our lives. To discuss them as if they were puts our very lives up for debate.

The challenge of immigration is not Europe's alone. In our increasingly globalized world, immigrants are moving in all directions, across large distances and at faster rates than ever before. What Europeans--what all of us--need to face is the unavoidability of living together. Caldwell has culled two tercets from W.H. Auden's "The Quest" as the epigraph for his book:

Could he forget a child's ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He'd tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father's house and speak his mother tongue.

Yet when I read Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, I was reminded of another poem, one Auden had written a year earlier, at the onset of World War II; and though the poet came to look with disfavor on the line, its truth is the one I would rather cling to: 'We must love one another or die.'"

Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The New Inquisition Pt. 1

This essay by Laila Lalami appears in the December 14, 2009 issue of the Nation magazine. You can also find it on the Nation's website (link below) and on Lalami's blog. It's excellent but it's long so I am breaking it into two parts and the second part will run tomorrow.

The New Inquisition

By Laila Lalami via the Nation

"At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was "Morocco," he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France--at which point the French writer declared, "If they were all like you, there wouldn't be a problem."

His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration--had he asked about them--he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of "Muslimness."

Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant--the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.

In any case, the man's assertion was a purely theoretical speculation. In practice, there is little evidence that even inconspicuous Muslims are fully accepted in France, or elsewhere in Europe. This was made abundantly clear in September, when Le Monde released video footage from an encounter between Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister of France, and Amine Benalia-Brouch, a young Algerian-French activist. Hortefeux and Benalia-Brouch, who were both attending the summer congress of the center-right party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, were asked to pose for a photograph. A female onlooker touched Benalia-Brouch on the cheek and, in a voice ringing with approbation, said, "[Benalia-Brouch] is Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer." "That is true," replied Benalia-Brouch, smiling. "He is our little Arab," the woman continued. Hortefeux added, "Very well. We always need one. When there's one, that's all right. It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems."

However offensive Hortefeux's statements may be, they are not particularly remarkable. In French politics, anti-immigrant posturing is something of a rite, often performed at the height of election season. When he was still mayor of Paris, and preparing to run for the presidency under the banner of the center-right party Rassemblement pour la République, Jacques Chirac bemoaned the plight of the 'French worker,' who was driven "mad" by "the noise and the smell" of the immigrant family next door, "with a father, three or four wives, twenty kids, taking in 50,000 Francs in welfare payments without working." After serving a term as president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing took to the pages of Le Figaro Magazine to argue passionately that citizenship laws needed to replace the "right of land" (jus soli, automatic citizenship for those born on French soil) with the "right of blood" (jus sanguinis, citizenship determined through French ancestry). If such a distinction were not made, he warned, France would face "an invasion." The "right of blood" definition of citizenship, depending on how it is interpreted, could have ruled out the writer Alexandre Dumas, the footballer Michel Platini, the actress Isabelle Adjani, the physicist Marie Curie, the composer Maurice Ravel, the singer Charles Aznavour, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of France, but perhaps Giscard d'Estaing felt his country could have done without any of them. (France eliminated the jus soli definition of citizenship in 1993 and then reinstated it in a limited form in 1997.)

In 2002 Manuel Valls, the mayor of Evry and a member of the Parti Socialiste, shot to national prominence when he tried to close down a halal supermarket because it did not carry pork or wine. He claimed the store had to "help us maintain some diversity." Two years before his election to the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy promised he would "hose down" the "scum" of the Paris suburbs, where many of the city's Muslims reside. Declarations such as these cut across party lines and constitute what the French press euphemistically calls dérapages, or blunders.

The reactions to the dérapages are also something of a tradition. Members of the offending politician's party rally behind him, while members of the opposition call him a racist. Meanwhile, leaders of the far right gloat that--at long last!--the mainstream is recognizing something they have been saying for years. After Chirac's infamous "noise and smell" comments, for instance, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the avowedly racist and anti-Semitic leader of the Front National, gleefully insisted that the French would always prefer "the original to a copy."

So it would seem that the perfect Muslim immigrant in France is one who cleans the house, picks up the trash, attends to the infant or, increasingly, fixes the computer, heals the sick and runs the bank, and then disappears in a wisp of smoke, before his presence, his beliefs, his customs, his way of dress, his "noise and smell" offend the particular sensibilities of the general population. France is not alone in wishing that its Muslims were invisible. As anyone who has visited Western Europe in the past few years will tell you, the "Muslim question" is a matter of grave concern.

European Muslims have unintentionally revived a whole genre of nonfiction--the alarmist tract, billed as a "searing" yet "necessary" exposé on Europe's impending demise now that it has allowed so many millions of Muslims to settle on its shores. The titles are each more ominous than the last: The Rage and the Pride, by Oriana Fallaci (2002); Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, by Bat Ye'Or (2005); Londonistan, by Melanie Phillips (2006); Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis Is America's Too, by Claire Berlinski (2006); and While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, by Bruce Bawer (2006). The authors rely mostly on tabloid or newspaper accounts; the arguments are simple, or, more accurately, simplistic, and the preferred method of inference is extrapolation.

The latest offering in this genre is Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, by Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to the Financial Times, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. However, just as Chirac and Sarkozy prefer to say more carefully what Le Pen says bluntly, Caldwell articulates in polite and embellished language what Bawer and others have been saying aggressively for years: Europe is being overrun by Muslim immigrants; these immigrants show no sign of assimilating to European culture and social mores; and as a result, Europe is in danger of becoming an outpost of the Islamic empire.

According to Caldwell, European "political and commercial elites" invited immigrants to work on the continent in order to help rebuild the infrastructure that had been destroyed during World War II. These immigrants were expected to take up jobs in construction and, in later waves, jobs that were deemed too menial or too low-paying for 'European natives.' Immigrants revitalized industries like car manufacturing in the 1950s, but by the 1960s they were already propping up those, like textile mills, that were failing. Deindustrialization, combined with the 1973 oil crisis, resulted in the closing of factories and the loss of thousands of jobs. By then, the immigrants had already settled in Europe indefinitely, had married or brought spouses and had children. "Decade in, decade out," Caldwell writes, "the sentiment of Western European publics, as measured by opinion polls, has been resolutely opposed to mass immigration. But that is the beginning, not the end of our story."

That story, in Caldwell's telling, focuses on the Muslim communities of Europe. The plot involves the physical isolation of rapidly growing numbers of Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Turks, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians in suburban neighborhoods; high rates of crime and imprisonment; misogynistic practices and anti-Semitic confrontations; and general cultural tensions with mainstream society. The story's climax is the Muslim minority's "demands" for concessions to its religion, laws and customs. The other characters in this high drama are the "self-loathing" European elites, who are in love with the idea of a multicultural society and who close their eyes to any negativity because they feel they have to atone for centuries of colonialism.

However, Caldwell argues, "immigration is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it." European Muslims, he warns, are having children at a rate unmatched by the secularized natives. As of 2005, there were approximately 5 million Muslims in France; 3 million in Germany; 1.6 million in Britain; 1 million in Spain; and fewer than 1 million in the Netherlands and in Italy. All told, Muslims account for about 5 percent of the total population of Western Europe; but that may be 5 percent too many, because in Caldwell's estimation, "if one abandons the idea that Western Europeans are rapacious and exploitative by nature, and that Africans, Asians, and other would-be immigrants are inevitably their victims, then the fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration ceases to be obvious."

The comparison between labor migrations of the past fifty years and colonization--the most memorable example of which, in recent history, is European colonialism in Africa and Asia--leaves out such details as invasions by armed troops; the systematic expropriation of land; the exploitation of natural resources to the sole benefit of the settlers; genocide, as happened to an estimated 10 million Congolese; wars of independence that cost millions of lives; and the installation of brutal dictatorships. Unbelievably, Caldwell insists that the immigration of individuals, each one acting independently and for economic or political reasons, not in obeisance to a collective supranational policy or religious mission, is nothing short of colonization.

To continue with Caldwell's story, the Muslims of Europe--and, naturally, the elites who enable them--have led each major European country to a national tragedy: the London underground bombing; the Madrid commuter train attacks; the Paris riots; the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands; and the cartoon crisis in Denmark. He concludes by sounding a pessimistic note on Europe's chances of winning this existential fight for its cultural survival. "Europe finds itself in a contest with Islam for the allegiance of its newcomers," he writes. "For now, Islam is the stronger party in that contest, in an obvious demographic way and in a less obvious philosophical way. In such circumstances, words like 'majority' and 'minority' mean little. When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctriness, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter."

The assumption here is that Europe's culture was a rigid construct that remained unchanged until the immigrants arrived. But cultures are not static; they change all the time. Of course Europe's culture will change as a result of its demographic shifts, but that change need not (indeed, it should not) be turned into a culture war between Islam and the West. Caldwell's conclusion is also contradictory, coming as it does after 300 pages in which he has argued just the opposite: that Muslims are backward, unemployed, criminal and, until recently, disengaged from the political process. By the time he ends the book, they are suddenly and inexplicably strong enough to "conquer" Europe.

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is the kind of book that will reaffirm the opinions of those who already agree with its author. If you happen to think that the establishment of what is now called "Eurabia" is a matter of time, you will find plenty of support in the many statistics and anecdotes Caldwell culls from newspaper and magazine reports. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more reasoned and complex view of the issues, the simplifications, contradictions and errors in this book will fail to persuade you. Caldwell repeats the thoroughly debunked canard that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were roundly celebrated in the Muslim world: "It was a day of joy in much of the Muslim world, including parts of Muslim Europe." On the contrary, there were demonstrations of solidarity with the families of the victims in nearly every major Muslim capital, from Rabat to Cairo to Tehran. More to the point, when the United States invaded Iraq, under the spurious claim that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein had helped plot the 9/11 attacks, were the bombings not greeted with shouts of "U-S-A" in this country? That does not mean that the vast majority of Americans approved of the wholesale killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Simplifying the facts is expedient for Caldwell, however, as it helps bolster the argument he is trying to make, which is that Islam is locked in an inevitable and perpetual civilizational conflict with the West."


Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jiggly Boo Dance Crew Seeks Fat* Dancers

Jiggly Boo Dance Crew Is Seeking:

Dancers/movers who identify as having a “non-traditional” dancer’s body, specifically a “fat”* body. Dancers need not have “formal” training, and may come from any kind of movement/dance background.

For: Participation in a spring semester series of workshops, discussions, movement, exercises, which will culminate in a final collaborative performance in April 2010.

When: Tentatively Sundays, January 24 – April 18, 2010, 4-6pm

Location: On NYU Campus, details TBA.

Additional information: Please see included information below. For any additional questions or if interested, please email JigglyBooDanceCrew@gmail.com

About Jiggly Boo Dance Crew:

"Jiggly Boo Dance Crew is a much needed project for exploring the intellectual and creative potential of the fat dancing body. Within the Western performance context, fat bodies are systematically excluded or typecast into demeaning or ancillary roles.

Within this framework, Jiggly Boo Dance Crew (founded by Alice Fu and Kantara Souffrant) will run a series of workshops which will culminate in a performance. These workshops will create a space in which other self-identified female “fat” dancers, movers, and performers, can dialogue about the following questions: What is a "fat dancing body"? How are fat bodies read, understood, felt (emotively and viscerally) and represented? What does it mean to identify oneself as a “fat dancing body” and what are the political implications of identifying oneself as such? How can (re)presentations of fat dancing bodies be understood alongside critical discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and the political movement of bodies that have been traditionally marginalized and invisibilized within Western stage dance?

Through these workshops, which will build towards a final performance, we hope to personalize and politicize the fat dancing body and the fat dancer. Jiggly Boo Dance Crew hopes to re-write and re-imagine these scripts of the fat dancing body. We are neither invisible, nor hyper-visible objects of ridicule.

Workshops will be based on movement, academics, as well as the participants' personal experiences as dancers. By marrying readings from fields such as fat studies; critical race theory; gender, sex, and sexuality studies; (dis)ability studies; and dance and performance studies with sessions that emphasize movement, gesture, and performance, we will create a space that views theory and praxis as mutually informative and necessary for achieving our goals.

*On the usage of “fat”: Jiggly Boo Dance Crew intentionally reclaims and uses the word "fat" as opposed to other euphemisms (i.e. "plus-sized" or "big-boned") to explore the politics of size-deviant bodies. Our reclamatory gesture also pays homage to area studies, such as queer studies, that have viewed the reappropriation of words as part of a larger political process of creating visibility and challenging hegemonic discourses and systems of oppression."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On "Burqa Barbie": Girls, You Can Be Whatever You Want! Except a Muslim.


Italian designer
Eliana Lorena created over 500 Barbie dolls for an auction hosted by Sotheby's for Save the Children. The dolls, created to coincide with Barbie's 50th anniversary, represent women from all over the world and three of the 500+ are meant to be from Islamic cultures and are covered to varying degrees.

The UK Daily Mail article on the exhibition (titled "It's Barbie in a burkha: World-famous doll gets a makeover to go under the hammer for 50th anniversary") quotes a Barbie collector with over 250 dolls in her collection who said, "I think this is really important for girls, wherever they are from they should have the opportunity to play with a Barbie that they feel represents them... I know Barbie was something seen as bad before as an image for girls, but in actual fact the message with Barbie for women is you can be whatever you want to be." This response, while decidedly Barbie-centric (more on that later), is a pretty reasonable assessment of the goal of the project, which was designed to be inclusive.

Nevertheless, the presence of dolls representing covered, Muslim women has driven a strange-bedfellows-coalition of establishment feminists, Zionists and Christo-conservatives completely APESHIT. The dolls are not being mass produced, but were designed for the purpose of the charity auction, however the fear-mongering rhetoric around the auction has suggested otherwise. While such Islamophobic/Orientalist rhetoric itself is nothing new, the dust up over the production of so-called "burqa Barbies" is instructive of the way these particular racist themes are expressed on the western Right AND Left. Let's have a look, shall we?

The amusingly-named blog Angry White Dude (which is subtitled, In defense of the the most ridiculed and unappreciated being on the planet... THE WHITE MALE. I am not making this up), covers the Barbie-imbroglio thusly:

"Just forcing the burkha upon women is terribly degrading. When one considers the horrible culture of genital mutliation, stonings, honor killings and the rest of the degradation forced upon Muslim women, it is appalling a doll maker or any other organization would manufacture the Burkha Barbie. Islam is deeply seated in barbarism and violence. There is no good that comes from this “religion.” Only death and violence. All the PC wishes in the progressive world cannot hide or deny the violence perpetuated by Islam and its followers. Of course, you will hear nothing about Burkha Barbie from the mainstream media and (lesbian and ugly) women’s groups such as NOW. Women’s groups don’t care about women…they only care about women aborting babies."

In other words, for the "Dude" the Arab/Islamic world is a single monoculture wherein every bad thing that happens to women at the hands of men is permitted, justified by religion and even celebrated. And that is Bad. However, homegrown American feminists are ugly, abortion-loving lesbians. This dynamic, justifying colonial violence under the premise of feminist concern while simultaneously denigrating western women who demand rights like reproductive freedom at home, is an old patriarchal trick designed to use the concerns of women against them. But apparently no one seems to notice (or care) that such "civilization-building" projects are less about freeing Arab/Muslim women from local patriarchy than it is about installing a new-and-improved colonial version. Or, that the loudest male western voices critiquing the position of women in the Arab and Islamic worlds often actively work against the rights of women in their home countries.

However, despite his thoughtful analysis, it turns out the "Dude" is wrong, mainstream feminists are all over this Barbie thing. Marcia Pappas, President of the New York State National Organization of Women (NOW) released this statement,

“As feminists we believe that women must be able to make their own choices and that includes choices about the clothing they wear. But the burqa is more than a choice. Women are forced to wear the burqua or risk being murdered. Mattel should be ashamed. Making a profit by selling a doll that is clearly wearing a symbol of violence is not acceptable and there should be a public outcry to take this doll off the market.”

Okey-doke. So: covering is always about men controlling women. (Scary, violent, mostly Brown men who will murder you as soon as look at you! Because hey, if history has taught us nothing it's that white, Christian, European men LOVE women's rights. Love 'em!) In this paradigm Muslim and Arab women have no agency whatsoever to make choices that shape their lives. They need white feminists to save them. So that's the liberal feminist position. Check. And if we go a bit further to the right?

Feminist/Orientalist/Zionist Phylis Chesler's article on the dolls screeches, " What will they think of next? A be-headed doll?" (I wonder who she means by "they"? The list of related articles running alongside Chesler's "Boycott Burqa Barbie" includes, "Under the Islamic Veil: Faces Disfigured by Acid", so that should give you an idea where she is coming from). She writes,

"A wonderful Muslim feminist hero just stayed with me for a week. She is a lawyer and an author. Her name is Seyran Ates, she is a Turkish-German, and she lives in Berlin. Like Algerian-American professor Marnia Lazreg, whose book about the Islamic Veil I’ve previously discussed, Ates absolutely opposes the veil in any form. She will not wear a headscarf. Ates is a religious Muslim woman."

Oh, okay. You know a Muslim woman and she agrees with you. Well that changes everything.

My bad.

Although... if there are religious Muslim women who don't wear the scarf --and become lawyers and scholars and get to stay in your guestroom even-- then there must not be a direct relationship between Islam, covering and violence against women after all? Or are they safe from such oppression only in the West? And because they are halfsies? Is that the point, that their big brown badness has been properly diluted by western blood and culture? Ahhh, so it's not Islam per se, but rather those scary brown men of Africa/The Middle East/ South Asia who are racially predisposed to violence, you have to get rid of. Got it. Chesler concludes, "Mattel: take Burqa Barbie off the market. Parents: Boycott it. Calling all Charities: Save the children from it." Like her left-er leaning colleagues Chesler is calling for a boycott of Mattel for daring to acknowledge that covered women even exist. The logical paradox here: that the best way to support such women is to not allow them to be represented at all, seems to not bother anyone.

And a tick or two further Right on the crazy-lady meter?

Pin-up girl for internalized racial/orientalist self-hatred, Michelle Malkin writes, "No word yet on whether the dolls will be subjected to female genital mutilation or come with stoning pits in order to accurately represent their 'diversity.'" Yeah, diversity really sucks, Michelle. It inevitably leads to female genital cutting. Let's burn some books!

Malkin echoes the Dude's earlier point about genital cutting--a chorus that is echoed throughout the blogosphere, equating covering with genital cutting and then globalizing both throughout the entire Arab and Islamic worlds. Once again, these conflations rely on a blatantly racialized imaginary Islam, which flattens cultural differences between countries and confuses cultural practices for religious ones. Cutting is practiced mostly in Africa and Asia while Muslims live all over the world. The styles and requirements around covering differ greatly throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Even within single countries covering is not always consistent and there is no direct relationship between covering and religious piety. And there are significant historical examples of women assuming the veil specifically to frustrate their colonizers, as in Algeria and Palestine... But you probably knew that already, right?

As I've said before, I have no attachment to covering one way or the other. It isn't a religious or cultural value in my family. And like a lot of people who write about the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia I am weary of rehashing the same arguments about covering over and over. Which is not say that covering, like pretty much everything else connected to women can't be used against them. But the point I consistently return to is: what do Muslim feminists have to say about the practice? And then I take my cues from them. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that all of this "outrage" and "concern" for Muslim and Arab women doesn't ever translate into a large-scale western platform for their voices tells the tale.

Neither am I especially interested in the gender politics around Barbie dolls, whose dubious history as icons of femininity has been well-documented by others. Like the veil, Barbie has been reviled as a tool of the patriarchy and celebrated as a strategic weapon against it. I have no problem admitting that I have no idea which is the proper take, although it seems to me that such a range of interpretations suggests that simple answers are reductive and arbitrary. And, not incidentally, politically motivated.

So for me the element of this Barbie scandal that is most telling is that it was instigated merely through the presence of dolls representing unambiguously Islamic women. Imagine what might happen if they actually spoke.

The entire spectrum of western politics is invested in the silence of Muslimahs, from aggrieved white men to mainstream feminists whose common concern, the overriding threat of super-violent, oppressive maleness emanating from the East, unites them. So in the end, this conflict over Barbie dolls is not about Arab and Islamic women at all. If it were, someone might have asked them how they felt and taken their thoughts into consideration before making sweeping racist, culturally and historically inaccurate statements. Rather, this--like almost everything else-- is really about the threatening specters of Arab and Islamic boogeymen, who must be conquered, controlled and/or destroyed to preserve "our" way of life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Paucity of Hope

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States, a holiday devoted to being thankful for the bounty we enjoy, which has a dubious colonial history, my thoughts turn again to Palestine. I have been struggling to express my disappointment with the Obama administration about its Middle East policies. As I write this the prison and interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay remains open, Iraq is in shambles, we are sending more troops into Afghanistan and Palestine... sigh. This essay by Yousef Munayyer, the Executive Director of the Palestine Center describes the current situation in Palestine eloquently.

By Yousef Munayyer (via the Palestine Center)

"Ibrahim Abu Jayyab, 23, was a big Barack Obama supporter and during the election campaign he spent hours phone-banking for him. However, unlike some of Ibrahim’s Palestinian-American counterparts, he was calling from Gaza, dialing internationally to American households, urging votes for Obama.

Today, a year since the election, prospects for “hope and change” coming to the people of Palestine have all but vanished. Despite fifteen years of talk of creating a Palestinian state, Palestinians have seen only increased illegal Israeli colonization of the land that was supposed to be their future state. A devastating assault on Gaza which left over 1,400 people, mostly civilians dead, was the culmination of eight years of failed George W. Bush administration policy. Still, you cannot blame Ibrahim and his fellow Palestinians for being hopeful when Barack Obama first took office.

Things could not seem worse during the Bush administration for the Palestinians, so Obama was an improvement before his first day in office. Many Palestinians felt President Obama would carry out an evenhanded policy for the first time. His lofty and populist rhetoric during the campaign resonated with a people long trying to appeal to a sense of international equality and justice. Despite failed peace efforts and a heinous attack on an already suffocated Gaza, many still remained hopeful.

However, the only real change taking place since Obama’s election is Israel’s continued illegal geographic expansion in the West Bank and increased defiance of international law. Israel continues unchecked settlement expansion and evicting scores of Palestinians and demolishing their houses in Jerusalem, defying their obligations under the 2003 Road Map for Peace.

Factually, there is little change between the Bush and Obama administrations’ approaches to the peace process. Both administrations have failed to enforce Israel’s obligations under the Road Map. Furthermore, the Obama administration has adopted the Bush administration’s failed and flawed policy of supporting one Palestinian faction against the other, rather than unite them under a common theme of mutual interest.

Despite repeated requests from the Obama administration for Israel to stop colonizing Palestinian land, the colonization continues unabated. Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has openly defied and publicly ridiculed U.S. policy.

Yesterday, Israel announced the expansion of yet another illegal settlement. The Obama administration’s response was a toothless statement expressing “dismay”. The failure of successive U.S. administrations to increase political and financial pressure on Israel for violations of international law and U.S. policy has led to a West Bank littered with Israeli settlements and only emboldened the Israeli government to defy us further. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has put what little domestic legitimacy he had left on the line to participate in fruitless negotiations, said yesterday that Obama is “doing nothing” to advance the peace-process right now.

Today the effect of this, especially at this moment in history, is devastating. Palestinians were at the brink after the attacks on Gaza and the only thing that brought them back from the edge was optimism about the future. The focus now has returned to the pain of Gaza and years of wasted time invested in a process that has only resulted in dispossession of the Palestinian people.

There is a communication gap between the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians when defining the goal of a “peace process”. Palestinians, and most of the world, believed the goal was to end the illegal occupation that started in 1967, creating a state in that territory for Palestinians which would ultimately lead to peace in the region. However, Israel’s actions continue to defy that goal. The Israeli government’s continued apartheid-styled occupation jokingly refers to a “piece process” as it continues to carve up Palestinian land one piece at a time. The world is not laughing.

The United States must immediately define to Israel and the Palestinians clear goals with specific and reasonable time tables enforced with tough political and financial repercussions for any party that fails to follow obligations.

Palestinian youth are unlikely to dedicate time to volunteer for President Obama’s re-election and, the way things are going, are unlikely to be living in a free and independent state of Palestine by that time either. The future of the next generation of Palestinians, their ambitions, hopes and desires reflect our policies. So far, these policies have been hopeless."

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.