Being Black, Being Muslim: On Being Hated and Afraid
I’m a bit angry tonight and I don’t know why. So I’ve decided to do some free-writing. Let’s see how it goes.
Today is September 11th. We Muslims are also still celebrating Eid al Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan.
It’s a strange time to be Muslim here in Ottawa. Three men from Ottawa have been arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack as a result of a CSIS-RCMP investigation called…ahem…Project Samossa. The last and youngest man to be arrested, Awso Peshdary, is well known and respected by his fellow young Muslims, who have rallied around him in his defense.
Although I feel that your average Canadian is beginning to realize that judging Islam based on the actions of The Taliban and al Quaida is like judging Christianity based on the actions of The Ku Klux Klan, I am still afraid.
In the fallout of all this, a colleague of mine said that non-Muslims are probably more afraid than Muslims in Ottawa are, what with the alleged plot to attack our city.
Well, I have to disagree. As a Muslim living in Ottawa, I am pretty afraid, of a lot of things. For one thing, if there actually was an attack on Ottawa, I could be killed, just like a whole lot of other Muslims living in Ottawa where we are a highly visible minority (There are about 65,000 of us in Ottawa). Actually, when one looks at terrorist attacks around the world, it’s mostly Muslims who are dying in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and it’s not like no Muslims died in London or New York. But this strangely gets forgotten when discussions about Muslims and terrorists begin.
I also have to be afraid of hate crimes. I have to be afraid that I, as a “visible Muslim” because I wear hijab, might be attacked, even killed by someone who decides to hold me personally accountable for whatever threat that he or she perceives Muslims to present. Like poor Ahmed Sharif, a taxi driver originally from Bangladesh, who was recently stabbed by a 21 year old film student for the crime of being Muslim. There is worry that Islamophobic rhetoric is actually escalating, particularly in the wake of the proposal to build the Cordoba House near Ground Zero in New York.
Now, let me make it clear, being hated isn’t anything new to me. I’ve been hated long before I became Muslim. I grew up on welfare, living in subsidized housing here in Ottawa. I was called names by fellow students like trailer trash and welfare trash. I got to see my mother and my neighbours referred to as white trash…sometimes even by my teachers. My guidance counsellor advised me and my friend that we were a burden on hard-working taxpayers like himself and he didn’t know why schools had to waste time with kids like us seeing as we were just going to drop out and get pregnant and go on welfare like our mothers did. Our mothers who were trash. I grew up accepting that the people who really mattered, not people like us but people who worked who didn’t have to depend on charity and the goodwill of taxpayers, thought we were as good as garbage. I dropped out in junior high because I felt like I was a burden to my teacher, seeing as I was reading at a Grade 2 level in 8th grade…
During the Mike Harris years, there was a sharp escalation of hatred towards people on social assistance and the poor in general. I had to get used to Lowell Green’s tirades about welfare bums and editorials in the Ottawa Citizen about how people like myself, my mother and my neighbours were plotting to defraud the system. As if we lived just to piss taxpayers off. I remember being so afraid that we would be cut off, that our neighbourhood would be sold off to Minto and we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, that we would end up homeless, and that no one would care because we deserved this…because we had not earned the right to exist.
My fears proved all too real. John Baird, who is now a minister in the cabinet of Stephen Harper but was then a minister in the cabinet of Mike Harris, was involved in implementing a policy of zero-tolerance for “welfare cheats” that placed life time bans on people convicted of welfare fraud. Kimberly Rogers, who was placed under house arrest for welfare fraud for receiving welfare along with student loans (Before changes made by the Harris government, people could receive welfare to cover living expenses and separate student loans to cover the cost of studies, under Harris this changed, meaning that people had to take student loans to cover their living expenses as well). The judge who convicted Rogers told her the following:
This is how serious the matter is, Ms. Rogers. There is a jail term that is going to be involved, it just happens to be a jail term that will be served in your home, and not at the expense of the community. You have taken enough from the community.
Rogers was required to stay under house arrest while pregnant. She was only allowed to go out three hours per week. She had to pay rent and buy food without any income. She committed suicide in her apartment during a heatwave in August of 2001. The coroner’s jury at the inquest into Rogers’ death recommended that the Harris government’s zero tolerance policy needed to be scrapped or more people would die. I feared that someday this could be me or my mother.
There were times when the level of hate rhetoric got so high that I really thought people were going to come to our neighbourhoods and lynch us. Kind of like how Premier Ralph Klein got drunk and went to a homeless shelter and verbally attacked the homeless…for being unemployed!
That’s the kind of hatred I grew up with.
So, when I became Muslim in the post 9/11 world, I had some idea what it would be like to be hated.
As a Black person, I was familiar with being called names. Being a Black Muslim just means that on top of being called a nigger, I am now also called a sandnigger (interesting variation on the original) and a paki, my personal favourite as it hold so much irony. Paki means purified so although it is intended as an insult it’s actually a compliment. One of the significant changes has just been that I now have more than hateful words thrown at me. I have trash thrown at me as I walk along the road-I once had an egg sandwich thrown at me when I was pushing my friend’s baby in a stroller and recently I had a can of beer thrown at me. At least it’s not stones.
However, I have been pretty disappointed to experience the level of anti-Black racism that exists in Ottawa’s Muslim communities, particularly those that are more affluent and therefore less likely to interact with Blacks, at least within Ottawa’s Anglophone communities…there is more interaction with Blacks among Francophone Muslims, most of whom are North Africans. When you are poor and live in a poorer neighbourhood you eventually learn to get along with everyone. In my neighbourhood, I can chill with Afghans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Kurds, Iranians, and a vast assortment of Arabs with no problems or off the cuff ignorant remarks. We are all struggling and many are or at some time were on social assistance so no one has any business turning their noses up at anyone else. But among the middle to upper middle classes it’s tough, you have to face a lot of ignorance due to a lack of experience interacting with Black people-from listening to bizarre stories of how some “uncle” threatened his parents that he’d marry a Black woman if they didn’t let him choose his own wife, with such a threat hanging over their heads they acquieced-“How Funny Ha Ha Hee Hee!”-to people expressing surprise if you are a Black person who can express yourself in English fluently-“Well, you don’t sound Black”-To commiserating with Black Muslims who had been rejected by their South Asian or Arab fiance’s family because they were Black-“What would the children look like? What would the community think?”-To comforting Black Muslim kids who’ve moved to the more affluent suburbs and have difficulty making friends with their Arab and South Asian counterparts…sometimes even being shouted at by these children’s parents-To volunteering to collect and distribute halal meat for Eid and being told that it shouldn’t go to those “Somalis“-To watching a Muslim woman call Black Muslims in Africa “savages” during an interreligious dialogue and having to be the only one in a room of over ten people willing to confront her. Being Black among the “established” Muslims of Ottawa can feel like death by a million papercuts, which is why I prefer to spend my time in the ghetto among poorer Muslims. I’m scared of being hurt. Muslims my age and younger are learning to overcome these prejudices but people my age and younger don’t make up much of our community’s leadership. The newly formed Muslim Coordinating Council did put in its constitution that a least one member of their board had to be of African descent, demonstrating how much of an issue Black exclusion from leadership in Ottawa’s Anglophone Muslim communities really has been.
I then have to cope with the rampant Islamophobia within Ottawa’s Black communities. Some of this comes from ignorance, some of it comes from actually lived experiences of oppression by Muslims, some of it comes from Christian religious zeal, some of it comes from a bizarre anti-immigrant sentiment that exists particularly among Blacks who are the descendents of slaves and often also gets directed towards any immigrants including non-Muslim Black immigrants.
The ignorance factor is the easiest to resolve. Again, regular interaction between non-Muslim Blacks and Muslims of whatever race helps. This depends on both communities as the anti-Black racism in Muslim communities can prevent this interaction as much as the Islamophobia of Black communities. I would like to see interreligious dialogue groups exclusively for Blacks of all faiths. This is actually pretty important as I haven’t seen many Blacks, either Muslim or non-Muslim, actively involved in Ottawa’s interreligous dialogue groups. Why I say these groups should be exclusive to Blacks, at least to start, is to address the “actual lived experiences of oppression” of Blacks by Muslims, and vice versa, and the ignorance and resentment that Blacks have about each other is probably best aired amongst Blacks. These dialogue groups should be focused on conflict resolution, reconciliation and finding common causes for action and solidarity…and should prioritize representation from people under the age of 40 as both Black and Muslim communities are both younger than the mainstream Canadian community and I feel that younger Blacks and Muslims are more open-minded than our elders…call me ageist but this has been my experience. I’ve met people who I know will never change their minds and seem to want to take any and every opportunity to make hateful statements; I don’t see the point of wasting time with them. By the same token, I’d love to see entirely South Asian interreligious dialogue groups that bring together Muslims (of all sects), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians etc. to achieve similar objectives. I’d love to see dialogue groups between people of colour and the indigenous peoples of Canada with similar objectives. A girl can dream. But for now, I also tend to avoid the “established” Black community, because I’m scared.
Truth be told I avoid the middle to upper middle class of all communities, Muslim or non-Muslim, Black or whatever, because I am afraid of them…I am afraid of what they will say to people like me or about people like me…my early experiences of hatred as a child growing up on welfare have shaped how I interact with people and what spaces I can feel safe in.
The Islamophobia of the mainstream Canadian and American community has taken familiar forms. Daniel Luban, in his article The New Anti-Semitism, outlines the similarities between Islamophobia and the fear and hatred of members of the Jewish community. This fear and hatred usually revolves around a belief that Jews are conspiring to control the world. They are therefore dangerous and All of Them must be considered suspect. The Old anti-Semitism is still very much alive and well and I have come face to face with it on a regular basis among Muslims, Blacks, and mainstream White Canadians. Whenever I am faced with another person’s hatred for a community that I don’t belong to, I actually get more scared than if I was the one having hatred directed at me. This is because I don’t want to become complicit in their hatred by not being brave enough to confront them and I always wonder why they feel comfortable saying these things to me…why don’t they realize that their hatred horrifies me…do I come off as a bigot, someone who would sympathize with them? I feel the same way when people express homophobia to me; they think that because I am a practicing Muslim I must also hate all Gay people. Last year, I was let in on the global conspiracy of gays to convert Africans, particularly children to homosexuality, which is just one part of their grand plan to take over the world. As the details of this diabolical plan were laid out to me by a young African academic with a Master’s Degree, I had to restrain my laughter and dispute her assertions calmly and reasonably. So, it looks like some people think Jews and Gays are conspiring to control the world…
Muslims also appear to be jumping on the world domination bandwagon. Well, at least according to Islamophobes. We’ve planted Barack Obama into the Oval Office, we are using the constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights to defend our barbaric religious practices, and we are breeding like rabbits in order to populate Europe and North America with Muslims until we devour the remains of Western civilization like a swarm of locusts. I remember reading comments about the Octo-Mom, Nadya Suleman, whose father is Middle Eastern, stating that she was a Muslim (She’s not) participating in Biological Jihad against the United States. Luban rightfully compares this with Anti-Catholicism as well, something that Canada is very familiar with (It was Catholics’ fear of Protestant exclusion that made it necessary to include the public funding of Catholic schools in Canada’s first constitution, in the British North America Act). The current Pope has also gone on the record stating his fear of the high Muslim birth rate and the need for Christian Europeans to get with the program and start making more babies.
After the arrests in Project Samossa, so many media reports emphasized how “normal” the suspects were. The point that they were trying to get across was that a terrorist could be anyone…well at least anyone Muslim. I feared that maybe my colleagues and acquaintances would come to suspect me. “Well, she seems fine now, but who knows what she’s really plotting? You never can tell with these people.”
How do you prove that you don’t want to take over the world? Particularly, if you are someone like me, who is quite opinionated and does want to make change? How do I prove that I am a loyal Canadian citizen if I openly criticize our government and its policies? Does wanting to hold your government accountable to your ideal of human rights and social justice make you less of a patriot? And what is patriotism anyway? As the daughter of a deportee (See Note below), who has also seen friends and neighbours deported after spending years in this country, I know that Canadian identity is a pretty precarious thing. I am angry that people I know and love have been ripped from their families, often arbitrarily, never to be able to return. Does being angry mean I am not a Good Canadian? Will I someday have to sign a special loyalty oath? Because I am a Muslim, and therefore suspect will I someday be interned like Japanese Americans and Canadians were during World War II?
People might think I’m overreacting. I don’t think I am. Because it’s been nine years since 9/11 but it feels like only yesterday. Because the fears I have carried with me since childhood are still all too real. Because my fears aren’t based on ignorance but experience. Because our Prime Minister is talking about Russian airplanes invading Canada although the Cold War’s been over for 20 years. Because we are still at war and there seems to be no end in sight.
So, I’ve always been hated and I’ve always been afraid but I guess I still haven’t gotten used to it.
But I know that my creator won’t give me anything I can’t handle. And just as I am learning to overcome the deep sense of shame and worthlessness that the hatred I faced as a child growing up on welfare fostered in me, I won’t let myself be ashamed for choosing Islam as my religion. And I won’t be silent and I won’t “keep my head down” for fear of being seen as unpatriotic because I believe in democracy, and democracy can only survive if citizens hold their governments accountable. I don’t want September 11th to become a day of mourning for Canadian democracy the way it is for Chileans, who mourn the 1973 US-supported military coup that overthrew their democratically elected government. I will end my reflection with words borrowed from Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman, whose sentiments I share:
The terrorists have wanted to single out and isolate the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations and men and women who have been the object of American arrogance and intervention reject – as I categorically do – this demonization. It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world, the offers of help, the expressions of solidarity, the determination to claim the dead of this mass murder as our dead.
It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the mightiest power on this planet will be reciprocated. It is still not clear if the United States – a country formed in great measure by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution – it is far from certain that the men and women of this nation so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other outcast members of our species. We will find out in the days and years to come if the new Americans forged in pain and resurrection are ready and open and willing to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, our damaged humanity. Creating, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament not one more, not even one more terrifying 11 September.
NOTE: My father’s defense lawyer when he was trying to appeal his deportation on human rights grounds was Lawrence Greenspon, the same lawyer who defended Momin Khawaja. I guess Greenspon likes a challenge. I would like to think that Laurence Greenspon is the only connection I have to Khawaja…well that and a love for hip hop. If I ever had a chance to meet Khawaja I would take him to task on his use of the word nigga seeing as he constantly referred to his friends as his niggas and they referred to him as their nigga. Is there a word yet for Middle Class South Asian kids who act like they are Black Americans from the ‘hood, claiming everything but the burden of Blackness and Poverty? Keep me posted.
Tracking Attacks on Muslims This Summer by Seth Freed Wessler (article available online)
New York Taxi Workers Alliance: Ahmed Sharif Family Support Fund Info
Ground Zero’s Slave Graves by Jamilah King (article available online)
When will those brave critics of Islam decry this mob hate? by Pankaj Mishra (article available online)
Muslim Presence Website (on bilingual Muslim Canadian organization promoting peace and community engagement among Muslims in Ottawa and Montreal)
Welfare Fraud, Necessity, and Moral Judgement by E. Kimel (Rutgers Journal of Law and Public Policy article about the Kimberly Rogers case)
The New Anti-Semiticism by Daniel Luban (article available online)
Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia, a new report by the Rev. Kapya Kaoma (report available online)
The last September 11th by Ariel Dorfman (article available online)
Nigs R Us or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects by Greg Tate (excerpt available online)