This past winter, Canadian MP Iqra Khalid put forth the now-infamous Motion 103 in the Canadian parliament – a 125 word document which recognizes the existence of Islamophobia and other discriminations, and categorically condemns them. Similar motions have passed in the past, including those condemning anti-Semitism and racism. What had previously been a straight-forward process turned into a ridiculous attack on both the motion and the MP with Khalid receiving tens of thousands of pieces of hate mail about the wording of the motion. While the motion thankfully passed, that hasn’t stopped the deluge of hateful rhetoric around the motion, nor its rippling social after-effects as people continue repeat the same intellectually-impoverished arguments about Islamophobia. So-called critics published op-eds in conservative tabloids and on social media platforms claiming the following:

  1. The concept of Islamophobia infringes on the right to free speech. People actually tried to claim that naming a discrimination meant they could no longer criticize Muslim countries or Islam itself. Forgive me while I take a second to crack my knuckles and wipe my glasses before I get on the debunking bullshit train. First of all, critique is an intrinsic part of the Muslim tradition and has been that way for centuries. The history of Islam is literally one scholarly critique after another to infinitude. Have people making this claim even read Islamic legal texts? The cross-pollination of past case studies and rebuttals of other scholars is nothing but criticism. But one would never know that if they actually believed that, for example,  criticizing Saudi Arabia’s laws against the mobility of women were the same thing as say, calling a Muslim a sand n*gger before ripping their hijab off. Clearly not the same thing. Maybe if the same people weren’t so busy trying to pretend that critique of Israel was anti-Semitic they wouldn’t have such a hard time separating concepts that literally no one else conflates. Also, what makes half of the people making this claim think they know enough about Islam to genuinely critique beyond the usual “Muslim women are oppressed” and “Mohammed was a false prophet” arguments we have been hearing since literally the medieval period? Practicing Muslims themselves are barely qualified to engage critically with discourses on Islamic law simply because they are not trained in that disciplinary field. You wouldn’t ask someone without at least a theology degree to start questioning philosophical claims made by the Pope, but suddenly everyone is an expert on complex Islamic ethics, philosophy and law? Alright then.

Secondly, nothing about the motion was enforceable at all. Why can’t people understand anything about Canadian political processes? Was no one paying attention in Junior High School? Also, a similar motion passed unanimously in October 2016 that also used the word Islamophobia. Why is the short-term memory in this country completely non-existent? Does no one value even the most contemporary of histories? I have more faith in the historical narratives of goldfish at this point. I mean, really.

Thirdly, even if it was enforceable, we don’t actually have free speech in Canada – we have freedom of expression. Hate speech is not included in that so if someone’s idea of criticizing Islam is actually just Muslim bashing and spreading hatred and inciting people to violence: guess what? This isn’t America. That’s a punishable offence in Canada, thank God. The only people I ever see going on and on univocally about free speech are pseudo-neo-Nazis, real neo-Nazis or The New Atheists (not to be confused with regular atheists) who use that argument as a crutch for pushing their hateful agendas. Yes, we need to be free to express ourselves, and we need to protect that right especially in the press, but hate speech isn’t a part of that.

  1. The motion was giving Muslims special rights. Nope. Also, even if it did, the social marginalization endured by Muslims would mean that anything that gave them some “privileges” would just be for the purpose of buffering the effect systemic violence against them: but, you know, equality always feels like oppression to those in power. As usual. Also, this is the same argument that racist people have used about Indigenous people for years. Complaining about peoples’ “special rights” (most of which are total myths) when the system one benefits from has spent generations committing cultural genocide against them is just blind hypocrisy.
  2. Islamophobia doesn’t exist. Yes, people actually tried to claim this. They tried to claim that Muslims are treated identically to white Christoform secular people in this country. Riiiiiight. Newsflash people: denying Islamophobia exists is Islamophobia. Just stop. When marginalized people tell you they are marginalized, your only job is to listen and to do everything in your power to dismantle the systems which cause it. If someone is not doing this for Muslims, I really hate to think how they treat people who confide in them about their physical or mental illnesses, or people who have endured trauma. The empathy gap among people who identify to the right of the political spectrum is startling and needs to be better examined.

Sure, Islamophobia might not accurately convey anti-Muslim bigotry or racialized hatred endured by Muslims but that is a completely different discussion that these groups were simply not willing to have because they don’t actually care. By putting all of the micro-aggressions Muslims endure under the categories of only hatred and bigotry, it also undermines the actual fear that perpetrators feel about Muslims, most of which is stirred up by a global Islamophobia industry in which a hell of a lot of states and transnational entities are fully-invested. This is the modern crusading ethos in action, and there is money to be made by the manufactured social consent acquired when people are made to either hate or fear Muslims. It’s why  a lot of people no longer bat an eyelash when the MOAB is dropped on Afghanistan (yes, even if it “only” killed a few dozen people and militants) or #45 does missile strikes in Syria without seeking government approval. It’s why people even cheer this crap on.

Pretending Islamophobia doesn’t exist is what happens when people haven’t gotten out of their own privileged echo chambers to actually listen to the real, living, breathing human beings around them. They don’t even know how fully fabricated their worldview is by powers who seek only their own entrenchment and gain. They don’t recognize that even having to manufacture public consent for Islamophobia is indicative of how powerful that public could truly be if they only knew to rise up against the machine that harms all of us.  And, as a result, Muslims continue to be utterly dehumanized, marginalized and murdered in the process.

Should I tell you how I really feel?


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

This one is going to be uncomfortable, folks. Cultural appropriation is an ever-present hot topic these days and nowhere is this truer than on The Drawing Board blog where our posts on the subject have continuously garnered more traffic than most others in the archive. It is especially something to be talking about with Halloween being yesterday as brutally offensive costumes will have been worn all over North America (and they were). Something happened on social media recently that gave me some time and space to think about this still-emerging phenomenon (particularly among yogi New Age communities in the West) and even though it has raised hell on my emotions about the subject (there is still bitterness in my words that I cannot expunge), I want to take you through my thought process so we can all work it out together. At this point, I am inviting conversation about this issue. So here’s what happened:

A white girl started posting pictures of herself in religious head-gear* on her social media accounts.

*This is me being purposefully cryptic.

The first time I saw her picture, I thought: that is a nice colour. But I was unsettled by the whole thing so I tried to process how I was feeling for myself. What bothered me about this picture of a white woman wearing what can be described as a turban? Do I have a right to be bothered by this picture as a veiled convert to Islam myself? Maybe this person became a Sikh as their style of turban would suggest. Do I have a right to ask? Do I really just want to know her story or do I want to know if her head wrapping is “authentic”? Does the authenticity of her conviction behind the turban make a difference to her right to wear it? Do I have a right, as a feminist, to question what this woman is choosing to wear?

Then, I forgot about it. Or, more aptly, I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t properly process the answers to those questions and didn’t know how to venture a few questions of my own to ask.

But these things never go away for long. And soon enough, she had posted another picture of herself in a turban with friends “Oohing and Awwing” over it (something I am sure POC who wear them are not accustomed to, especially during their formative years when they get bullied for being alive, never mind wearing something on their heads). One person, however, decided to take a courageous step that I hadn’t and asked this woman’s thoughts on recent articles about the turban and cultural appropriations by white women by simply asking if she had thought about it before donning the turbans. It was a way of starting a conversation by asking a pretty straightforward question.

I added my two cents that I wanted to know if she had had a “conversion” experience – knowing full well that conversion is a very complicated topic and usually involves acculturation rather than solely the adoption of inner beliefs. The idea that accepting “inner beliefs” of a “religion” hinges on an orthodox Christiano-form secular definition of religion about private beliefs being more important than outward practices – a definition that doesn’t apply to most of the rest of the world’s so-called religions, or as I call them cultural systems/ways of life. It’s complicated. If she had converted, I would be very much interested to hear that story as a convert myself, even though – at the end of the day – I could live without hearing it.

I felt alright about my follow-up question. I thought this person would be open to conversation, to sharing their experiences for the rest of us who were curious about the new-found knowledge that led to such a drastic change in appearances. (As I have been open upon being asked about my conversion to Islam and donning of the hijab countless times).

Instead, we were met with a defensive response that was so quintessentially typical of the white, colonial, privileged mentality, I found that I could barely articulate a response and kept writing and deleting again and again.

At first, she started by mentioning that she had just finished a Kundalini yoga teacher training in the Sikh community and mentioned that you don’t need to be Sikh to wear a turban. Fair enough. This is actually true: Sikhs do not own the turban, and –for that matter- neither does the Indian subcontinent, where most people think of it as originating. That we didn’t know that at the time isn’t great, but it also goes to show what happens when you reverse the typical white-POC positions: normally turbaned people are being asked by ignorant white people about stuff they wear on their heads. This time it was a white person….and boy, did she not *like* being asked.

She could have acknowledged that some people have an issue with white women wearing it, but that is not true in the circles she had adopted it from. She could have disagreed with them. In that sense, she could have left it at that, having educated us that this was, indeed, an appropriate expression, and moved on. The turban, after all, doesn’t have the same connotations as the hijab does (being a commandment from Allah), nor is it made into a caricature as often as the hijab is (see: Halloween costume niqabis that crop up every October).

But then the response turned into something quite different: she actually tried to shut down the conversation by stopping us from either judging or “questioning” her. She asked why everything has to turn into a socially appropriate question. She asked “What if I follow my own religion called the (HER NAME) religion?” like an island unto herself?

*ahem*

I have had to let this sit for a number of weeks before responding via blog and I have had to cut out a hell of a lot of profanities at this point because: Come. tf. on.

I recently read an article on how toxic Call Out culture has become with activists shitting on people left and right in an effort to just be right. They do this publicly and in humiliating ways that shut down conversation, instead of opening it up**, but sometimes (like in this situation) calling-in is not possible and it is usually because white people are shutting down the conversation. Or trying to. Enter: the internet.

So, here is my contribution to the above-described discussion. I am keeping it broader than this single incident in an effort to not be a total, calling-out douche-bag and because this is the kind of distorted logic many people who engage in cultural appropriation use. And I think a broader discussion provides some serious food for thought for any white person choosing to wear things that have been typically, culturally, and religiously worn by POC:

Dear White People (even with the best of intentions and even when you are right),

Here is the thing about listening to people of colour about their religio-cultural traditions more than one listens to other white people: you just might learn something. I know I have and that’s why I am being an ally and talking to you about it today. You don’t exist as an island and you never will. Social meaning is shared at the most basic level of language and spatial orientation. Society not only flows through your memories and your reality, it shapes it. You might consider yourself part of an ascetic tradition that tries to negate the social to the point that some pure “human essence” remains (you might even call that “divine” as many New Agers have been wont to) but here’s the point that most modern New Age Yogis miss: that process is continuous, forever, until the grave. You don’t ever actually achieve a state of human essence-ness. Society cannot be negated away forever. It flows back into every moment. Or, more aptly, it never leaves just because we achieve “being present.” The concept of being present is, in itself, a deeply temporal, human and (therefore) social experience.

I know a lot of people will argue with me on the epistemology of that statement, but I am hard-pressed to find a convincing argument otherwise. Further, it makes my next point ever more crucial: if everything is socially shared, then everything is a socially appropriate question.

Yes, everything. Some things are less of an issue than others, but since this person is white and white people have been wearing people of colour as costumes for centuries without any regard for the deep social meanings found and shared in these items, then turban-wearing white yogis are just going to have to suck it up when people ask them about the authenticity of their conviction to wear them. Shutting down the conversation is what white people have done for centuries.

And if you are going to get all flustered and start telling me that I am judging you on the colour of your skin: my response is, quite simply – now you know how it feels. I had to feel that too and I felt it when a black friend of mine kindly reminded me that I can remove my hijab but she cannot remove her skin. That doesn’t negate my experience of daily Islamophobia, but it sure as hell made me think a lot about my privilege.

I am not judging you on the colour of your skin, by the way, but trying to help you see the historical privilege you have inherited by virtue of it. Part of becoming self-aware is recognizing these historical and genealogical inheritances and the socio-economic spheres we subsequently inhabit because of them. The road to self-actualization is a lot easier when you are at the top of the social food chain. Let that sink in for a second. You aren’t entitled to anything, except by virtue of the fact that you are part of a neo-colonial system of white supremacy that happens to privilege what you were born into.

As for the comment that turbans just look “pretty”- that’s fair, but one friend put it best when they said that that’s like coming across a white guy in an Indigenous headdress at Coachella who just “likes feathers”.

Well… to put it bluntly: who says we need to care about white preferences?

People of colour have been made to tiptoe around white preferences for centuries: preferences that orientalise their men, exoticise their women, make their style into child-labour-made-home-décor-shit you can buy at HomeSense and make their clothing choices into Halloween outfits. You might have every right to wear a turban or whatever you want on your head, as we have established, but the duty to question what unreflective white people are doing in the public sphere is – at this particular point in time – #stillrelevant.

**My argument against the claim that call-out culture is always toxic can be found here.

Image Credit: AZ Mag


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Edmonton Public Library ought to be ashamed of themselves. Last night, I attended their lecture series on Freedom of Expression headed by Salman Rushdie. For people who have come to know Rushdie’s work over the years, we knew what to expect from him: the cognitive dissonance experienced when trying to reconcile two images of a man – a brilliant and evocative writer and a public speaker who revels in blasphemies, insults and what has come to be called (glorified) “trolling”. I attended because I love some of his novels purely for the craft and I received a free ticket from a colleague of mine at the University of Alberta. I also wanted to see what he could possibly have to say that would fly with an open Canadian audience that prides itself on pluralism. What happened at the event, was far more sinister than anything I could have anticipated and is something that EPL should not be proud of.

Rushdie purported to be talking about freedom of expression and censorship – issues that he has built his personality cult around. And yet, his discourse on the subject is not very well-thought out and lacks significant nuance. That is, of course, giving him too much credit. It could just be that he actually believes that freedom of expression means never having any censorship whatsoever, including for spreading hate propaganda and denying that certain phenomena actually exists. Hard to believe that someone could buy that, but he does. Denying the Holocaust as a counter-argument to this “expression free-for-all” is the first thing that usually comes to mind as something that should (and often is) legislated against. (And before any ill-informed Judeophobes get up in arms, let me be clear: historical discussion is not denial. Ever.)

But Rushdie didn’t take his own argument to those problematic ends. Instead he blatantly denied that a different kind of harmful phenomena exists: Islamophobia. He dismissed Islamophobia (a word he allegedly “doesn’t like”) as a relatively recent innovation designed by Daesh (ISIS) apologists (see: all Muslims) to stop genuine criticism of Islam.

Excuse me? Sit down, Sir.

For people who live with the vile discrimination of Islamophobia every single day, dismissing their lived reality as part of a conspiratorial global Muslim plot to make the world more PC is part and parcel of the rest of the Islamophobia we endure daily. Rushdie’s reified Clash of Civilizations narrative wouldn’t even fly in an intro to Poli Sci class at the University so why the hell is EPL giving this fool a podium to spew it so unapologetically?

Here’s a fact: polarizing rhetoric polarizes. They become self-fulfilling prophecies because they don’t describe the world, they prescribe it and in swallowing such quantifiably impoverished arguments, bigots allow the work done to reconcile alienated communities get thrown under the bus immediately. And for him to put all of this under the self-defensive, circular argument of “freedom of expression” is no better than the unreflective xenophobes I am accustomed to dealing with in much less distinguished settings.

At one point, Rushdie actually said he should have the right to disrespect religions and then proceeded to make an argument for the freedom to hate, coupled with jokes that emulated Trump’s pussy-grabbing sexual assault “quips” and quite literally made fun of transgender women for not having vaginas. He did this while painting the artist/writer as a victim of censorship to a room full of people who, astonishingly, swallowed his intellectually devoid argument and laughed along with his hateful one-liners, including politicians and senior city bureaucrats. As a writer, I was appalled.

Rushdie spreads hate under the mandate of anti-censorship so that any legitimate critique of his neo-liberal, anti-religion, secular homogenizing agenda is dismissed as either anti-modern or Islamist.

And isn’t that the tactic of every colonizer to dismiss his critics as being “uncivilized”?

In Rushdie’s Lilliputian world, I am simply a reactive, anti-modern because I don’t think we should give intolerant hacks the time of day – especially not to massive, sold-out crowds at a huge downtown hotel in our capital city. He would simply cry “Censorship” and believe that that should silence me. Point to my hijab and shout “extremist” because I disagree with him. And that should somehow silence me? The caveat of his argument about freedom of expression is that freedom of expression is for all except people who actually recognize how harmful hateful rhetoric is, who devote their lives to studying and preventing it, who don’t believe that people have an intuitive “bullshit radar” (if they did, they wouldn’t have been laughing so hard at his gay-bashing jokes last night and we wouldn’t be dealing with the gongshow of an American election right now) and who know how easily people are manipulated and made to hate by stories told in defense of their social position and power.

But this isn’t about Rushdie. At all. He is so predictable, it hurts.

We all know what to expect from this pandering neo-liberal fool who positively ejaculates every time one of his books is put on a banned list because he gets to self-fellatiate in front of global press audiences. We all know that virulent liberal secularist proponents are the least reflective and least self-critical non-thinkers on the planet. My God, they barely even know that they too operate under an actual cultural system that is not, impossibly, outside ”culture” itself while reifying Christianoform time, rituals and rhetoric unquestioningly as an allegedly non-religious zombie of the Western European tradition.

No, the real problem here is that a community institution, the Edmonton Public Library, attacked Canadian pluralism in bringing him here and simultaneously undermined the difficult and incredible work their staff does daily to establish safe spaces in their libraries for people of colour, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people. I won’t go so far as to say people like him should remain silent or be made silent because I don’t think that is the case. A community institution giving Rushdie’s blatant intolerance a speaking platform and a large audience is entirely another story.  I did not feel safe in an EPL-created space last night and I know a lot of other people who didn’t either. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know I am.