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.

As a non-Muslim ally, you might be watching the current state of affairs with regards to how Muslims are treated in the West, in Western political rhetoric and while being massacred in their homelands, and you just might be wondering what you can do about it. Or at least you should be wondering that. It is entirely understandable that you might feel overwhelmed by the deluge of hatred being lobbed at Muslims these days and you might not even look to yourself as the source of the antidote to this hatred. But you are.

Here is a quick list (literally off the top of my head) of 20 things you can easily do to combat Islamophobia starting right now. You might look at some of these items and think you lack the capability to do some of these things but I am here to assuage some of your concerns. Firstly, you don’t have to do all 20 at once. Combatting Islamophobia is an ongoing and never-ending process. Islamophobia has been an issue since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, and it periodically rises and falls depending on a lot of converging factors. We happen to be at a time when Islamophobia is at a fever pitch, mainly because of geopolitical problems and hideous orange cheeto-puffs who think they can say whatever they want when running for the US presidency.

The second thing to bear in mind is that yes, you can do all of these things. There is no magic to becoming an activist. It isn’t something you study in University (although studying a lot of other things helps build the necessary mindset because: “knowledge = power” but that is beside the point). Anyone and everyone with a kernel of compassion in their heart can help do many of the things contained on this list and would go a long way to fulfilling your duties as a non-Muslim ally. Yes, you have duties.

If you are wondering how and why any of this applies to you, know this: Muslim or not, Islamophobia affects all of us. It divides our world. Its end logic is genocide. If you want any part of making this world a better place and preventing harm against a marginalized group (which, frankly, should be all of you out there), then this list is for you. Get on it.

Self

  1. Call it what it is. And know where it comes from. Some people are hesitant to use the word Islamophobia. Heck, I even attended a lecture recently by washed-up writing troll in which he declared that Islamophobia is a term created by all Muslims to apologize for Daesh. What?

Islamophobia is real. It affects Muslims every single day. There are a lot of definitions for it rolling around the ol’ internet but mainly it is “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” as well as describing an attitude that addresses “the discriminations faced by Muslims that [can] not be explained by their race, class or immigration status.” Although, I would like to point out that the latter points often go hand-in-hand with fear of Muslims and ignorance of Islam.

This is going to sound really harsh but one has to remember that, sometimes, describing the facts is difficult to accept: part of knowing where Islamophobia comes from is recognizing that it is a cultural problem. Islamophobia dominates in white, Western culture. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will list now:

  • As hard as this is going to be for Westerners to accept, we are way more isolated than other cultural groups. We tend to be withdrawn and get most of our information about other cultures from mass media rather than actually interacting with them. Add to this fact that the mass media is far from impartial about Muslims (in particular) and the air is rife with possibilities for Islamophobia. Misinformation and a lack of information are some of the largest contributing factors to a prejudiced worldview. Simply recognizing this fact is crucial to moving forward.
  • Islamophobia does not have its origins in white, Western culture (after all, the first Islamophobes tended to be members of whichever dominant culture Muslims found themselves in), however, it is fairly common to this culture because (believe it or not) white, Western culture tends to define itself on what it thinks it is not. And historically, because of close proximity and the legacy of colonialism, the “others” against which white, Western cultures have defined themselves are, not surprisingly, Muslim cultures.

Why is it important to recognize in which cultural contexts Islamophobia typically dwells? Well, if we know where something flourishes, we can better address it. If you are a white, Western, non-Muslim, the chances are much higher that Islamophobia is part of your subtextual daily narrative, particularly if you consume mass media in any way (which is most of us). It might even be an intrinsic part of how you define yourself without your realizing this to be the case. Learning that and recognizing it is critical to challenging that narrative and then abolishing it entirely. It is also important to recognize how certain cultural contexts will create negative associations with groups we perceive as “Others” at an unconscious level in our minds.

  1. Look inward at your implicit bias. Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people, as an example.

  1. Do a de-bias cleanse periodically. Yes, this is an actual thing and it represents the ultimate responsibility taken by an individual seeking to live in a way that reduces their harm on others. You can consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself. Other important steps include:
  • Raising awareness of implicit Islamophobia
  • Identifying and acknowledging differences between you and Muslims and knowing that those differences are OK
  • Checking your thought processes and decisions for bias
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment. These tend to force reversion back to stereotypical associations in our mind and therefore habitually harmful behaviours.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms. Get your friends to tell you how you are doing. It’s a thing and will likely inspire them to begin this process in themselves.
  1. Educate your children. Prejudice starts young and begins with the messages we are taught in adolescence. If these messages of prejudice are consistent growing up, the possibility of growing up Islamophobic is very high. Educating your children includes teaching them about Islam and Muslims directly (yes, you can do this! There are many resources out there!), visiting a mosque as a family, getting to know your Muslim neighbours, attending Ramadan fast-breaking meals (iftar), and much more. Educating your children about Islam also means a less-direct approach by which you limit the negative messaging around Islam from coming into your home. This means scrutinizing what media your children are consuming and replacing it with more diverse educational options. If you think that is too much work, take one look at the state of our world right now and recognize what could have been prevented if even a few more parents did this.
  2. Visit a mosque and speak to people there. Don’t be shy. Mosques are typically inviting places – albeit they can a bit disorganized. Recognize that most Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing and trying to convert people so you don’t have to worry about any uncomfortable conversations or ulterior motives in people being excited that you have appeared. Introduce yourself to people inside, let them know why you are there, maybe watch a prayer in action. You will be shocked at the response when people thank you for taking the time to learn about Islam and Muslims. And you might just learn something and make some new friends to boot. A mosque is more aptly called a “masjid” or “Jamia” in Arabic – meaning a place to gather together to submit oneself. This doesn’t only mean a place that Muslims put their faces on the ground to pray – often mosques are community centers which house language classes, knowledge courses, counselling services and much more. If you live with a mosque in your community, you are more than welcome to join in the community activities provided therein.
  3. Join an interfaith coalition. There are a great many of them and they are always looking for more participants. If you do not belong to an identifiable religious group or you consider yourself an atheist, fear not. You are still welcome. Approach organizers and find out how you can contribute to the conversation and, most importantly, learn from members of other faith groups. You can take that knowledge back to your family and your communities as well.
  4. Become friends with Muslims. This is easier than people realize. First of all, you might already be friends with a Muslim and not even realize it. Not everyone is “visibly” Muslim as the media would have us believe. Second of all, visiting mosques and joining interfaith coalitions is a sure-fire way to meet them. The next step is initiating friendship – not so that you can have your token Muslim friend that you reference every time someone mentions anything about Islam or says something Islamophobic, but simply to branch out, know someone from a community and way of life different than yours. Muslims are just like regular people because they are people. Some Muslims may be more approachable and socially adept – others, not so much. Regardless, taking the initiative to get to know others and forge lasting bonds goes a long way to bridging false differences and divided communities.
  5. Visit a Muslim country. Who doesn’t love traveling?! Of course, you want to pick one of the few that is not on fire right now, but visiting a Muslim country is one of the quickest ways to learn a whole lot about Islam and Muslims and to see that they are just living their lives like the rest of the world. Speaking in generalizations, you are bound to get some delicious food and incredible hospitality along the way. Plus, hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day is beautiful and a totally unique experience. Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and many others are on the list of those filled with wanderlust so be sure to get them on your list too!

Preventative

  1. Interrupt Islamophobia every single time you encounter it. This is the principle behind the recent anti-discrimination #makeitawkward campaign. Every time you hear someone uttering falsehoods about Muslims, or generalizing about Islam: speak up. Every time you are watching a film or television show with others and Muslims are depicted in a harmful light: speak up. It doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require follow-up. A simple “That kind of harmful stereotyping is unacceptable here” will do. It takes practice to be assertive but once people realize that being prejudiced around you is not allowed, they might think twice about doing it altogether.
  2. Start a conversation circle in your community. Do you know people who are scared of Muslims or hate them? Why not take a tiny bit of initiative and start a discussion group? There are surely organizations in your community that would be willing to join forces and support such an initiative but really it doesn’t take much more than getting some people around a table to have a conversation. The power of this kind of initiative is in its simplicity. Making safe space for people to be real about their concerns and simultaneously un-learn harmful behaviours is a crucial way forward.
  3. Meet with local Muslim leaders to find out what they need. Yes, you can do this all on your own. It will likely help you to understand how interrupting Islamophobia can best be done and how to initiate conversation circles to exact actual change. By backing those actions up with knowledge of what marginalized people need from their mouths directly is extremely powerful. Start by asking at the mosque and keeping your eye on local media stories to find out who the important Muslim leaders are in your community.
  4. Spread the word on social media. Don’t be afraid to share positive stories about Muslims on your social media accounts, even if you don’t have a single Muslim friend or ally on your page to back you up. You do not have a single need to respond to haters so let them fill the comments sections how they want – for every ten haters your posts attract, there are likely double that amount of sensible people, watching in the shadows, learning from the information you put out there and changing their worldviews as a result.
  5. Talk with family and friends. Painful conversations need to be had around familial prejudices that you will no longer stand for. Be direct and unemotional letting your family members and friends know that you will not stand for Islamophobia in your midst. Or ask them to explain their Islamophobic jokes because you don’t understand why they are funny. Be compassionate and patient. With time, love and kindness will conquer anyone – it is just a matter of being consistent with your message. Interrupt prejudice every time it arises and don’t be afraid of being the only person standing for compassion and justice in a room full of your peers.
  6. If you’re a business owner, hire Muslims. Diversify your staff. Give others the opportunity to learn about Muslims through proximity to their coworkers. Just make sure you educate yourself first on typical Muslim etiquette and holidays, and if there is anything you are unsure of, just ask them. Most Muslims with culturally-sensitive employers would have nothing but respect for someone who took the time to learn what makes them comfortable in their working environments.
  7. If you’re a journalist, share good news about Muslims. Take the time to find the positive stories (and there are plenty) that have Muslims at their heart. Use these narratives as a way to counter the overwhelming deluge of Muslim stereotypes found in mainstream media today. At the very least, use measured and mindful language when writing about negative stories that might involve Muslims and be aware of double standards employed against them when they are not even involved. A case in point is the fact that the term terrorist is only associated with acts of violence perpetuated by Muslims, whether or not that individual acted alone or was mentally unstable. In the cases of white violence, mental illness excuses pervade. Changing those narratives subtly by vocabulary shifts has a bigger impact than can be measured.
  8. Don’t be afraid to plan ways to educate others about Islam. Do you belong to a church group or youth organization? Do you sit on the board of a community league? Why not take your social position within specific organizations as an opportunity to advocate for some knowledge about Islam to be disseminated. This could mean bringing in a Muslim lecturer to talk about Islam generally; it could be facilitating interfaith dialogue; it could be joining forces with Muslim organizations to get advocacy work done. Whatever you decide to do, you can take seemingly small, simple opportunities to make a world of difference.

Reactive

  1. Stay calm and step in when it is safe to do so. When something terrible happens to Muslims in your community or a Muslim in front of you, the first step is to remain calm. Do not panic. Someone hurling insults at a hijabi on the train might become violent but they are less likely to do so if other people step in. You do not even need to address such a person. Simply sit down next to the Muslim person and engage them in conversation as though you have known them your entire life. They know why you are helping them and they appreciate it. Stay with them until their attacker stops and leaves.

If a Muslim is being physically attacked, start hollering and get others to do so too. Get someone to call 911 immediately in the meantime. Get someone else to take pictures of an attacker. Get the group to lay into them to stop violence against their victim. If you are alone and witnessing an attack, stepping in while screaming and swinging will usually send someone running. Being witnessed has the power to send an attacker running alone.

  1. File a report. This is crucial for agencies that are trying to track data on Islamophobic incidences. In Alberta, you can file a report with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council Islamophobia hotline at 1-800-607-3312. They will then refer you to either mental health professionals, legal counseling or law enforcement agencies to take appropriate further action.
  2. Contact the police. Although many agencies such as AMPAC will forward some incidents to police for charges to be laid or further investigation, you can always take it upon yourself to also file a police report of a specific incident you witnessed or came upon. Anti-Muslim graffiti, hate flyers and other such issues qualify as Hate Crimes under the Canadian criminal code (not “free speech” here!) and should be prosecuted as such.
  3. Thank other allies and join forces in denouncing hatred. Once you start on this journey, you will find that you are not alone. A great many other allies from all walks of life are taking a stand against Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. When those individuals and groups do so, take the time to thank them for their efforts and note that they do not go unnoticed. Solidarity against hatred is the way of the future and allies are a crucial part of dismantling the systems which allow for it to continue.

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.

We are pleased to announce that The Drawing Board blog has officially surpassed 10,000 readers for the year 2016. As it is only August, we anticipate further growth right until the end of the year as we build our international writing audience.

Thank you for being part of our writing, social justice, feminist and activist communities. Without readers like you, these would just be unread words in cyber space. Instead, your feedback and support have nourished our skills and the home where they are honed.

We hope to find you reading and sharing your thoughts more and more as the year goes on.

In solidarity,

Nakita Valerio

Owner, Editor in Chief

The Drawing Board

The ease by which we can get sucked into pessimism about humanity and the state of the world these days is startling. Not only do we have more and more continuing oppressions coming to light through the voice of the internet (see: growing vocalizations of white supremacists all over the world, violence against people of color, increased terrorism etc), but we also have pretty unique moments in history arising because of these circumstances – one example being the absolute freak show that is the American election where, frankly, there hasn’t been much hope since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic candidate race. (Although I heard just yesterday that his name is still going to be on the ballot at the Democratic National Convention – do I dare to dream?)

Part of the problem is how we receive our information: particularly through Facebook. A lot of people don’t realize that this particular social media platform operates based on complex algorithms designed to show you what you are most likely to click on. The more doom and gloom you are engaging with, the more you will find in your newsfeed. There isn’t really a way to get around this and stay informed, unless you want to take the time to outsmart your Facebook account. This is my first tip for shifting over to optimism. A lot of people will simply disconnect or disengage from their social media accounts and that’s great if that’s what they really want to do – but for people like me, whose livelihood is connected to being a netizen and whose clients are managed under my general account, that’s not really an option. Every time I have tried to delete the Facebook app off my phone (even without deactivating my account), it takes less than half an hour for a client to message me asking me to post something. Contrary to appearances, I’m not sitting in front of my computer all day and even if I was, I can’t just connect to the internet through magical computer data, so I’m stuck with my phone and with Facebook burning an ever-growing hole of pessimism in my literal pocket.

hope and dreams

What to do then? You can start by liking positive stories or commenting on them. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a content developer and I want you to engage more with the barrage of things people post on the internet. This is not shameless self-advertising (even though it takes place on my business blog haha). Rather, liking positive stories is simply the quickest way to get more of them in your newsfeed – and, by extension, more positive people as well. Surrounding yourself with positive stories and positive people will start to shift the messages that are filtering into your brain every day.

Of course, I am not advocated shutting off completely. At. All. People absolutely have an ethical obligation to stay informed and educated about the issues we face in the world today and they absolutely must keep informed about political movements that will dramatically affect the countries in which they take place, and (in the case of America especially) every other damn country on the face of the earth. I am simply advocating for a little softness in the harshness that is the world, and to remember (or learn) that there really is more good than bad, or at the very least some good and a whole lot of neutral or irrelevant.

hopeful hearts

The other place that I have been finding solace lately will not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me is having faith. I was sitting in a grassy field with a new friend of mine the other night and she was talking about horrible atrocities against Muslim women who have come under the enslavement of various oppressors like ISIS. She was talking about how they had asked sheikhs for dispensation to commit suicide in the event that they will certainly face unspeakable and unending torture until they die. And she also mentioned how a sheikh she knew had gone from a hard-lined answer on this ruling to being unsure and simply stating that “he doesn’t know” if suicide is still forbidden to these unfortunate souls.

Regardless, when she was telling this story to me, she mentioned how this particular sheikh was different than other people – that he had a real kind of faith which, even if the face of hideous and cruel oppression, violence and death, still holds hope about the idea that justice will eventually be served by a Merciful God.

When she said that, I thought of my past self when I first converted to Islam, right up until the time I nearly died in a traumatic child birth in which I was repeatedly assaulted and had my rights violated. Until that time, I held out hope for justice no matter what the world was faced with – constant and persistent hope. Perhaps when I had faced true oppression from another still-unpunished person (and the profound disappointment in humanity that comes with that) and when the veil started lifting on just how much of it is out there, is when I started to operate in a pessimistic framework, I’m not sure. It certainly feels like I am always waffling between the two and some days are better than others.

My friend’s words in that field, however, reminded me what faith can do for people in terms of hope. Militant atheists are probably going to jump all over me for pushing my hope onto a transcendental entity, to which I would reply that hope for future justice need not be in a different metaphysical realm. It can mean hope for justice right here, right now, wrought by over hands – and, as a believing Muslim, that still comes from Allah for me even if it doesn’t for people who don’t believe. The type of justice that can be brought in this life, however, is often not enough and this is where I take comfort in my belief in a Merciful and Just God. One sheikh was talking about how, if Hitler hadn’t gotten away with suicide, and the court had had their way with him regarding the Holocaust, there is still no way to achieve a certain level of justice necessary to account for the six to eight million lives he extinguished (never mind those lost in the war he instigated). Only with Allah can we be certain that, for such an individual, it is possible to be awoken and killed six million times throughout the rest of eternity.

But having faith is not only about hoping that criminals get their due punishments (while, very often in this life, they go free). It is also about having faith that we can garner the strength and energy needed to bring mercy and justice to this life as well. At the Black Lives Matter rally downtown a few weeks ago, I met an amazing couple of sisters who I instantly connected with. In talking with one of them, I was discussing the prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) about the end of time and how many people claim (and have also claimed at other unstable times in history) that that time is now because some of the signs appear to be upon us. How, then, can we be certain that all of this is not in vain and that things just won’t get irrevocably worse as we move towards the Last Day? All of that (I should note) fits into warped terroristic worldviews as they seek to bring about the apocalypse with their apocalyptic atrocities.

One of the sisters, however, was quick to state that even though that prophecy will inevitably be true, it does not have to be now. Doom and total destruction is not necessarily on the horizon for us because we can simply choose to live justly, seeking justice and doing good deeds together. We don’t have to give in to the rhetoric of fear, division and pessimism and, as a result, we can work towards a more optimistic future. Sounds pretty damn hopeful to me and something simple enough to be empowering and therefore doable.

hopefulness

The other inspiring thing I have been up to is working on my thesis. And while, for many disenchanted grad students (I’ve been there!), that can seem like a pretty weird place to find hope for the future (aren’t we all supposed to be procrastinating and eating cheerios while watching Netflix in bed?), it’s actually not that surprising. When you follow your passions, you will certainly find hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people right there with you. And that kind of unspoken community is enough alone to give you hope. After writing a thesis outline the other day, I went through a list of authors whose works I need to compile to inform my theoretical framework. Somehow, writing this book list to get from the library made me positively giddy. I started to literally swoon at my desk just thinking about all of the brilliant ideas that I would find between the covers of these books – all the information and careful thought put into assembling it, all the delightful analysis and discussion that would take place, all the changes in my own patterns of thinking that would take place, and that I would be bearing witness to all the time people had spent developing discourse on philosophical or historical ideas instead of time spent killing and oppressing each other. It was a sober reminder that there are libraries full of books, full of information, full of art, full of poetry, full of life and when we choose to engage with it, we come alive again too.

As of late, I have also been going back to nature to get recharged and renewed. That is not to say that we are somehow separate from nature, nor are we actually going back to it just by sitting in a forest instead of a city somewhere. Nature is not only all around us, it is us. “Going back to nature” is as simply as eating mindfully: chewing your food slowly and really seeing, smelling and tasting it. “Going back to nature” can happen in a concrete jungle simply by watching the ants move, or watching the wind whisper through the grass of your suburban lawn. Constructed nature tamed by humans is still nature and frankly, if you are always waiting for that trip to the mountains to slow down, recharge and marvel in the incredible and insane miracle of life, you’re probably going to fall into despair a lot faster than you need to.

Don’t lose hold of the mundane and sublime absurdity that is this life – the fact that we are water-based beings in hairy sacks of skin, occupying a blue and green planet in space and when we put the stuff that grows on this planet into our mouths, we somehow extract energy contained in it from a burning star to continue living for years. This place is pure magic and totally insane. In the relentless agony that is human politics, it can be very easy to forget that fact which is too bad because it certainly makes all that nasty human crap melt away pretty fast, doesn’t it?

What are your strategies for remaining hopeful?

I have some people that I keep at bay on Facebook and other social media outlets. Most people who know me, know that I don’t take lightly to removing people from social media pages because I see it as a loss for potential education on critical issues. I have seen incredible growth and understanding about social justice issues in general and Islam in particular from people I know, and I am regularly thanked for offering this information freely and unceasingly. However, during the last Canadian federal election in 2015, there was such hateful rhetoric being spewed out of the timelines of people I have known my entire life that I had to take what I consider to be drastic action and put them under a privacy setting so that they don’t appear in my newsfeed. I’m torn about this because the flipside is that I no longer appear in theirs; however, I’m not too sad about it because they have continued to engage with certain posts of mine which means that they are, indeed, going out of their way to check up on me without me having to be subjected to the vile poison they put into the world daily.

These people are my dirty little secret because I know exactly how they think and how they will act. I know this because I study the Holocaust for a living. I know exactly what kind of illogical thought processes go through the minds of those who hate, even if they are totally unconscious of their hatred. I have a strange ritual I go through whenever a terrorist attack happens or a shooting or some other equally hideous event: after properly mourning, I go look at the pages of these people to see if my assumptions about their thought processes are correct, to see if they will continue to err on the side of reckless, prejudiced thinking and behaviour. And I’m always right. They have no idea how predictable they are and how much they lack a genuine original thought. Harsh, yeah, but I hardly think pandering to xenophobes and how they feel about anything makes much sense.

It doesn’t matter what has happened in the world, whether an attack against Muslims in a Muslim country somewhere, whether a coup in an increasingly authoritarian country (which they may be hard-pressed to actually find on a map) or whether it is another black person of countless black people gunned down in the streets of America…whatever it is, you will find them blaming all Muslims, saying that not all religions are the same, that some are worse than others, saying that all lives matter, saying that blue lives matter, saying that any life matters unless they are black and brown and Muslim lives. They even go so far as to regurgitate blatantly misogynistic bullshit while often being women themselves, not realizing the violence they are doing to themselves or not realizing the privilege they have if such misogyny doesn’t touch them. They remain silent when the victims are from the LGBTQ community or pretend that, because the shooter in Orlando had Muslim lineage, Christians would never do this to gay people because Christianity is “different”. For the love of God, open a history book. Just once.

Regardless of how they frame it: what I continually see is a lack of knowledge and empathy. Half the time, these things aren’t even spelled correctly which only adds to me feeling disheartened. These are the same people calling educated people like me “Libtards” (which is a profoundly offensive term, especially to those who care for and love individuals living with disabilities). These are the same people claiming that I’m not more educated than them because I spend thousands of hours of my life studying in University (sorry, but that’s exactly what it means – I have no more value than you intrinsically, but I’m still more educated than you). These are the same people who pride themselves on calling other people out, not for the sake of justice, but to win an argument, to be “right” even though any half-educated person knows these days that the idea of “right” is nebulous and socially constructed. There is no greater arrogance than this because it causes the harm of others for the sake of satiating an insatiable ego.

So, they never stop.

In the current political climate, all red lines have been obliterated.

Just the other day, I had to remove Holocaust deniers from my pages. Shortly thereafter, I nearly spit my coffee all over my phone when I saw one of these individuals claiming that black people and the Black Lives Matter movement “has become a group of brats who say everything and anything is racist if it involves someone of colour.”

Excuse me for a moment………………. are you f*cking kidding me?

These types of people support Donald Trump. Like, actually support him. Like think he would be a good president kind of support.* In a world full of critics and just regular goddamn people who can’t even believe he has made it this far (because: what an insane, horrible, nightmare-ish joke that just won’t end, am I right?)… there are people out there WHO I KNOW who watched the Republican National Convention and shouted “All Lives Matter” along with these lunatic fascists. Lifelong Republicans who believe in the party of Lincoln no longer recognize this mutated far-right, gun-toting, skin-bleaching zombie that is the GOP. They are committing party suicide left and right, trying to distance themselves from the hateful rhetoric that shitheads like David Goddamn Duke delightfully retweet.

(*Note: my loathing of Donald Trump is in NO WAY indicative of any support for Hillary Clinton.)

Yes, that’s right. I have people I have known my entire life, still in my life, who consciously defend white supremacy and white supremacists. There is no other way to frame it. Their entire identity is enshrouded in their whiteness and they spend their time defending any ill-perceived attack on it from those “darkies” that keep shouting for their own freedom. I’m included in that lot because I’m an educated, veiled “Libtard” with a husband and kid from Africa.

Like many activists, and especially like many historians, and ESPECIALLY like many historians of the Third Reich and Holocaust, I have no clue what to do any longer and am horrified to watch elements of history repeating itself as people get their lesser-educated minds washed and manipulated by dangerous fools with a microphone.

I’m tired.

There is a tidal wave of bitter insanity brewing in these people who barely stop short of shouting “white genocide” from their gentrified neighbourhood rooftops.

I’m so very tired.

How do we continue slogging? How do we, who have taken NEVER AGAIN into the depths of our being, stop a train wreck while it is happening, while the cars collide and screech towards what can only be a supremely violent end? How do we stop a tsunami with what seems to be only a few sandbags?

I don’t know how to put any of this very eloquently despite the fact that writing is my vocation, so I’m just going to list some things we can all do to hopefully avoid political catastrophe in the coming while. I have to believe that we avoided this kind of disaster in Canada by saying “No, absolutely not” to the divisive, xenophobic rhetoric of the Conservatives (regardless about how you feel about ANY other political party in this country) and I have to believe that if it is possible here, it is possible anywhere, anytime and about any issue.

Apologies to those who like things framed positively, but some of these things are direct references to harmful behaviour that people DO so the advice needs to be framed as a DON’T.

  1. Take care of yourself. There are a lot of articles out there about activist burnout and the fact that no one can serve from an empty vessel. These articles and ideas are true. While some people equate occasionally disconnecting for the purposes of self-care with privilege, this is not always the case. In fact, for those of us who have to be traumatized every time we see our brothers and sisters bombed or shot to oblivion in our newsfeeds, this is an important first step in grounding yourself. You can know that there is immeasurable pain in the world, take care of yourself and still be active in mitigating injustice in the best ways you know how. These things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, that knowledge and desire to be active necessitates that you take care of yourself lest you be dragged down into the deep hole of depression. Trust me, I’ve been there. I go there a lot. But people need me and my voice more than that hole can serve me, so I have to care of myself guilt-free. We need you around too. We need your bleeding heart. So turn off, tune out, feel the sunshine on your skin, enjoy coffee with a friend, pamper yourself at the spa – do whatever it is that you need to do to take care of yourself before you get back in the trenches. The rest of us will understand and be waiting.
  2. Have painful conversations, if you can, with everyone you know. Maintain contact. The more these people are isolated, the more warped their worldviews become. This one is tough but necessary if you are able to do it. There is absolutely nothing that works better for immediate social change than inviting people to have a conversation… or many of them. Even if those conversations get heated or uncomfortable. Even if they don’t have the results you hope for – they are helpful. A conversation does not have to be an invitation to tea. It can be as simple as asking someone to clarify what they mean when they make racist jokes. It can be as uneventful as calling someone out for an Islamophobic post and asking them what exactly they meant by that. You will find that after all the brainwashed rhetoric has been spewed and the dust settles, they likely didn’t know what they meant by it (“Why did you shoot me?” “I don’t know”) and at the heart of everything is fear and a genuine lack of knowledge. Even for the craziest, consciously racist white supremacists. Their hatred is born in ignorance and the antidote to ignorance is awareness, then education.
  3. Don’t stop sounding the alarm. The fight against the darkness of ignorance and hatred is unrelenting. People devote their lives and careers to trying to protect themselves and others from harmful rhetoric and violence. You don’t necessarily have to do this on your social media accounts, but you can definitely do it in everyday, real life. Every time someone makes a Judeophobic comment about Jewish world conspiracies or claims that all Muslims are terrorists or make queerphobic comments about transpeople in washrooms, you should say something. Even when other people won’t have your back. This isn’t really something we can do once, for one group even, and then call it a day. I’ve been accused of jumping on every social justice bandwagon out there, of capitalizing on the oppression of others by making myself look good. People who hate you will pull any argument out of the hat to besmirch your image. Continue sounding the alarm anyway because your concern is born out of love, not hatred. For me, if I’m known for standing up for society’s most vulnerable individuals and for sounding the alarm on their oppression again and again, no matter which demographic they belong to, I’m going to wear that with pride.
  4. Don’t shit on activists who are doing more than you. This is a tough one. There are a lot of well meaning, non-racist people out there who take it upon themselves to write stupid posts about how “talking about politics and religion on Facebook lacks taste”. Like, what do you even gain from this? What are you contributing to the conversation? When I hear this stuff, I hear people saying “I don’t see colour” – using their privilege to erase other people raising their voices about things that matter to them. Elsewhere, I have written that the internet has become a vehicle for connecting liminal, minority groups and what we are seeing is a dramatic increase in critical awareness for a variety of minority issues. The result is an influx of posts, videos and pages devoted to the causes of those marginalized in regular society. Almost immediately, people in positions of privilege have criticized these movements as minorities being overly-sensitive, rolling their eyes at the proliferation of trigger warnings, or jumping to defend those who have been brought to justice by bringing their injustices to light online. What these individuals don’t realize is three-fold:
  • These oppressed people have always been around you. They just have a larger collectivity now because of the internet and their voice is much louder because of the heavy use and reliance on this technology today.
  • Oppressed people who cannot find justice in their everyday lives will use every means at their disposal – outside of the collectively prescribed methods – to achieve their justice.
  • If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Challenging the arbitrarily-legitimate and hegemonic-heteronormative social order is what the internet does best. If you don’t like the sound of rallying cries from all directions of oppressed society – you’re probably part of the problem.
  1. Read more. And not just articles you find on the internet. We have to keep educating ourselves in history, philosophy and the social sciences. Other pools of knowledge are also critical: anything and everything that engages our critical thinking and analytical skills to keep us on our toes. Reading stuff that confirms your well-intentioned biases does little to stimulate your mind or increase your knowledge base. The more you know is the more you know and that, in itself, is priceless. Since hatred is rooted in ignorance, I have said time and time again, the primary antidote is education. Facts aren’t enough but they are a good start. Seeking out wisdom through critique is the next step too.
  2. Do more stuff. Yeah, it can seem like a full-time job and I know that it is for me too. But you have to actually do things that make a difference in your community. These things do not need to be complicated. It can be a letter to the editor. It can be forming a small reading group to read the TRC or black history. It can be signing a petition. It can be making a donation or helping an agency committed to fighting discrimination. We have to put our beliefs and ideas into practice. You will be shocked how fast change accumulates when we all put a little extra effort in.
  3. Don’t hate on yourself for only making local change. You don’t have to save the world and, more importantly, you can’t. You can, however, change spaces that you move through and communities that you subscribe to. In fact, this is more important than anything else you are likely to do. Change starts locally and builds momentum outwards and it starts with people being committed to get together and strategize ways to make that change from all possible angles. What you are doing is critically important – don’t worry about living on in the pages of history.
  4. Don’t give up. Bailing out a sinking ship is exhausting if you are doing it alone. Banding together with others, learning to swim or building a better ship in the first place might be better strategies. Either way, we can’t give up, no matter how shell-shocked we feel. People can change; people do change. You have changed and learned and grown – so why can’t others? Part of never giving up is recognizing that this isn’t a one-person show to save the world. You do what you do with your strengths and join hands with others who have their own strengths to stand together. Even if, for every step you take forward, you end up taking two steps back, we have to continue stepping forward. Period.
  5. Take solace in the fact that there is no essential human character. Human beings are neither essentially good, nor essentially evil. We are socially constructed and even though this means that goodness and evil are also socially constructed, it also means we can build the society we need to, together, through dutiful and purposeful education and inculcation. I’m prone to saying BAH at the darkness of humanity and writing all of us off, but I exist and you exist – therefore, it is possible for other compassionate, caring and self-reflective activists to also exist and bring change.

I invite other ideas for staying active and sane. We are, after all, in this together.

In solidarity,

Nakita

 

Tonight, a new friend came to visit me. She is the wife of a mentor and colleague of mine and I have been meaning to connect with her for awhile. Our visit was simple enough – talking over coffee and a platter of fruit while my daughter chattered away, excited about this new friend in our home. I watched as my daughter fed her grapes and placed a hand on her shoulder – simple, immediate intimacy with someone she had only just met. Our conversation was punctuated with finding my little one in hiding as she shrieked with delight from behind the cupboard.

I had been promising my daughter this visit all day, mentioning that this friend was coming over and that we would all go to the nearby park together, which we eventually did. While my kid made instant friends with another girl  on the slides, we talked about our experiences living in different places around the world – Morocco, Pakistan, the United States and Canada.

“What was it like living in America?” I asked. We both knew what this question meant without further elaboration. It meant, what was it like living as a veiled Muslim in America? It meant, had you experienced discrimination or violence there? It meant, did you live in fear there?

She told me about some of her experiences, narrowing in on the fact that Americans tell it like it is – for better or for worse – and that this is something she found surprisingly refreshing. People sometimes shouted out that they liked her clothes. Or they would smile at her out of nowhere.

“I think people have forgotten how to love one another,” she said. “Especially the Ummah” she added, referring to the global Muslim community.

“People don’t even compliment each other any more,” she added. “Something as simple as ‘you have beautiful eyes’,” she stated, nodding towards mine.

I hadn’t received a compliment in a very long time and didn’t even know how to react, but my body did. I had a huge smile plastered on my face and my heart lifted up for a minute. She was right. A compliment is something so simple and is, in itself a form of love, of uplifting one another just for its own sake.

How long had it been since I complimented someone?

I recalled a cartoon that had been making its way on social media – an image of a man and his son. He turns to another man wearing a hat and says “Nice hat!” When the hat-wearer smiles, the man turns to his son and says: “See? Look at his face change: Everyone can have magic powers!”

And it’s true. Heartfelt words are magical and they are powerful. They can disarm hostility and relax a hardened heart. They come unexpectedly and so they take us off-guard. We feel vulnerable because we are so used to being in defensive mode. We laugh it off as a reflex.

After she left, I decided to try out her simple strategy for social change and I started on my mother. It helped that she arrived within a few moments and she looked absolutely beautiful. I took the moment to compliment her on her shiny new eyeliner, noting that, in fact, her whole outfit was put-together and nice. She looked lovely.

“Ok….” She didn’t know what to say as a smile slowly crept onto her face.

“You look beautiful, Nanna,” my little one echoed, smiling as well.

The car filled with love as we drove away together.

One thing I have learned time and time again is that the most meaningful and lasting social change comes from the simplest of continuous interactions and compliments are yet another tool in our arsenal of tools aimed at compassion and acceptance.

I challenge everyone reading this to #complimentsomeone in our #drawingboardchallenge. Spend the next month making the conscious effort to compliment at least one person per day, whether or not you know them. That person might be you some days because, let’s face it, a whole lot of us are going a very long time without having anything nice to say about ourselves.

In a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain and where meaningful and purposeful interaction is diminishing, break down your fears and connect with others: no matter how far someone might feel to you, they are usually only a smile away.