Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CNN Article on Chicago's Muslim Takin it to the Streets Festival

I will devote my posts this week to my observations and video footage of last weekend's Muslim Arts and Music Festival on Chicago's South Side. Here is a CNN blog article on the event:

Editor's Note: Maytha Alhassen is a Ph.D. student studing Muslim American identity at the University of Southern California.

By Maytha Alhassen, Special to CNN

Some have facetiously referred to it as the Muslim Woodstock.

But for all the differences between 1969’s three days of peace and music and Saturday’s Takin' it to the Streets festival in Chicago—a daylong Muslim-led arts and music festival—there is some truth to the comparison.

The differences: high on drugs vs. high on dkihr—a prayer that involves reciting the names of God—and free love vs. free tai chi lessons.

The similarity: As Woodstock defined the hippie generation, so might Takin' it to the Streets 2010, organized by the Chicago-based group Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), define a generation of Muslim Americans.

For those in attendance it was clear that spiritually fueled, socially concerned and politically minded art aimed at serving and inspiring will be at the center of defining our Muslim American experience.

The event crystallized what our generation is becoming: one that acts locally and thinks globally through politics, the arts, spirituality, community service and social justice organizing. The festival, a biannual event for the last 13 years, featured health and wellness booths, hip hop and world music stages, live mural painting stations, and rows of halal food.

It showed that Muslim Americans are tied to both the U.S. and our diapora experience, that we acknowledge our transnational connectedness while working with our local communities.

Examples of our domestic and global action include providing free health care clinics—including IMAN’s in Chicago —protesting Arizona’s immigration bill, as the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations did, and praying for a solution to the Gulf oil spill.

At Takin' it to the Streets, the local/global dynamic saw us rocking out to Malian desert blues group Tinariwen after listening to Reverend Jesse Jackson explain the significance of Marquette Park in the history of the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march against an all-white house area there in 1966).

As the transnational aspect of the Muslim American experience was celebrated, we were reminded of our domestic ties and internal Muslim American struggles. Imam Zaid Shakir addressed the oversaturation of Muslim-owned liquor stores in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, meanwhile, shared his thoughts about the significance of the day to Muslim Americans. “What this day says to the Muslim community is that Islam is not just a list of ‘don’ts,’—things you can’t do,” he told me. “It is a way of life that includes joy, happiness, love, fun, appreciation and this is what’s going on. This is the safest place in Chicago right now.”

What message would non-Muslims take from the event? “We are your friends, neighbors and family members,” Ellison said. “There is more to these Muslims than not eating mama’s ham.”
A professor of mine once said that crisis is not necessarily a bad thing—it signals an opportunity.

For me, 9/11 was a crisis that signaled an opportunity. As Muslim Americans were catapulted into the center of a new national discourse on terrorism and forcibly removed from cocoons of invisibility to answer questions of “why” and “who,” we were subjected to pointed fingers and heightened profiling.
And yet there was also an opportunity for us to speak with studied precision and heart.

This year’s Takin' it to the Streets signaled an expressive culmination of the response taken by Muslim Americans to transform crisis into opportunity, to make sense of our multi-faceted identities and to deliver to our local communities the wonderful fruits of our faith in action.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maytha Alhassen

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Anti-Mosque Protest and Arabic-speaking Christians

This past weekend the SIAO (Stop the Islamization of America Organization) led a rally against the construction of an Islamic community center within a few blocks of Ground Zero. Left-wing media spokespersons (bloggers, journalists, pundits, etc.) have called attention to an incedent of intolerance at the event, in which police rescued 2 Egyptian Christians who were surrounded and heckled by other protesters for speaking Arabic. Keith Olberman featured this story in his 'Worst Person in the World' segment last night.

The print media source for the story comes from an article on

"At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.
"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.

"Get out," others shouted.

In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.

"I'm a Christian," Nassralla shouted to the crowd, his eyes bulging and beads of sweat rolling down his face.

But it was no use. The protesters had become so angry at what they thought were Muslims that New York City police officers had to rush in and pull Nassralla and El Masry to safety.

"I flew nine hours in an airplane to come here," a frustrated Nassralla said afterward.

The incident underscores how contentious — and, perhaps, how irrational — the debate over the mosque has become."

Notice that the quoted jeers from the crowd were anti-immigrant slogans: get out, go home. So, speaking Arabic at this event is comparable to speaking Spanish at an anti-Immigration rally. We must not forget that the anti-Muslim rhetoric post-9/11 is linked to the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well. Now, according to the AAI (Arab-American Institute) the majority of Americans whose families are originally from Arabic-speaking countries are mostly Christian and not Muslim, despite the common sense association of Arabic as being unmistakably Muslim. For Arabic-speaking Christians, speaking the language does not mean that they are ethnically Arab, even though in the US speaking Arabic or having an Arabic name is how someone would be identified as Arab. It is much easier to have this more nuanced discussion of confusing identity issues online than it would be standing in a protest full of people congregating to express sloganeering anger about Muslims in America, in which speaking Arabic would immediately arouse suspicion. I would not expect nuanced conversations
in such a context, and I wouldn't expect people's sentiments to convey much nuance either.

It seems to me that the media coverage of this issue is mistaken because you cannot criticize people for being intolerant when the people who were agressors (group who harassed Egyptians) and victims (Egyptian Copts speaking Arabic) were both there to espouse intolerance. Let's just be glad that the police were there to protect the Egyptians from their ideological allies, because those whom they sided with on this issue viewed them to be on the other side of the ethnic/linguistic/religious/political/ideological fence. When dealing with populist anger you never know where that anger might turn, and it can just as easily turn against those who support it because you never know where others in the crowd are going to draw the line so as to identify someone else as a target of the angry crowd.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Unraveling Muslim Media Stereotypes: Arab-Muslim Miss USA and Comedian Aziz Ansari

Mona Eltahawy is a talented Egyptian journalist based in the US. I include her piece, What Does a Muslim Look Like?, in my first lecture to my university course on Islam because she shows that the media typically limits representations of Muslims to the angry bearded man and the oppressed covered in black woman. Well, this video is Mona's response that young Muslims are attracting media coverage that completely undermines the standard stereotypical representations of Muslims in the media. Miss USA, Rima Fakih, happens to be an Arab Lebanese-born Muslim raised in the US, and she certainly is not your silenced and oppressed veiled Muslim woman that the media puts on tv so often. Likewise, Muslim comedians such as Aziz Ansari are definitely nothing like the bearded Muslim man paraded on the nightly news burning an American flag. Perhaps a shift in media representation is underway precisely because Muslim-Americans are quite visibly breaking down stereotypes in ways that have been going on for years, except that now they cannot be ignored because of the high tv ratings they attract.      

Muslim Demographic Threat Video

This video presents a typical anti-Muslim argument by political and/or religious camps in various countries. The argument proposes that since Muslim families generally tend to have more kids, they are a threat because even though they are generally poorer than the larger society they will eventually become the majority. For those who hold this position, they assert that Muslims are basically just waiting until they have the numbers to revolt and create Islamic governments in all corners of the globe. Yet, they overlook the fact that many Muslims strongly oppose forming Islamic states, and that most Muslims are quite assimilated culturally, economically, and politically into their country of residence/nationality. Similar arguments have been made by whites in California and Texas where Hispanics are now the majority population, even though there has been no radical political shift to take over power in any dramatic form. On the contrary, in most instances when various groups bring up the Muslim demographic threat they do not use it as a call for their own ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups to reproduce more. No, usually the suggestion is that the countries need to consider removing Muslims by deportation, exile, or even outright mass murder (for example, Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims on basis of demographic threat). This video calls for better missionary work to overcome the demographic discrepancy, even though the most obvious case would simply be to call on members of their group to have more kids. So, no matter the group making the case for the Muslim demographic threat (see: Israel, France, UK, Germany, among others), the point is always the same: we need to somehow push back against this conspiratorial plan by Muslims to take over the world. When all is said and done, Muslims or Mexicans come out like some evil comic book character, when they are usually well-assimilated, hard-working, and good-natured people. Apparently that is just part of their secret beware!           

Same Building Serves as Synagogue & Mosque

This is an older piece of news, but one that is worth the extra attention to show that Jews and Muslims are not always at odds.
clipped from

RESTON: On Friday afternoons, the people coming to pray at this building take off their shoes, unfurl rugs to kneel on and pray in Arabic. The ones that come Friday evenings put on yarmulkes, light candles and pray in Hebrew.

The building is a synagogue on a tree-lined street in suburban Virginia, but for the past few weeks — during the Muslim holy month of Ramazan — it has also been doubling daily as a mosque. Synagogue members suggested their building after hearing the Muslim congregation was looking to rent a place for overflow crowds.
Both groups say the relationship won’t be over when Ramazan ends in North America over the weekend. The rabbi and imam are talking about possibly even making a joint trip to the Middle East, and Friday prayers will still be held at the synagogue.
 blog it

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Afghan Women Banned from Shrine

Here is a good article on a recent ban on women visiting a shrine in western Afghanistan. Shrines in Islam have been more historically open to women since in many times and places mosques were men's only sacred spaces. Shrines have thus served for ages as places for women to worship, congregate, and seek spiritual and physical health for themselves and their families. Shrines have also been one of the most controversial issues in the modern era (18th century-present) because reformist Muslim groups (similar to Protestants) have opposed belief in saints and the spiritual powers associated with their tombs. However, saint shrines were often the primary source for conversion in places beyond the Arab world, such as West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Southeastern Europe.