Trump’s sherwani-clad opponent is a man on a mission


Pakistani-American student Saqib Javed made headlines when he spoke out against Donald Trump. Although he didn’t have any big plans to disrupt Donald Trump’s campaign, he knew he wanted to say something to the conservative candidate running for US President whose racist remarks against Muslims and other minorities have stirred controversy since the beginning of elections. And when he heard Trump was coming to his city of Warren, Michigan, he decided to attend the rally and challenge Trump’s racist fear-mongering.

“The original plan was to go with a couple of people,” says Javed, the 22-year-old son of Pakistani immigrants. “But the rally was early in the morning. I don’t know why they didn’t come or what really happened, but I was alone,” he says.


Javed attended the event in a gold-embroidered black sherwani. “The reason I wore this outfit was to show Trump this is not just ‘white America’. There’s a lot of diversity in America, racially and ethnically, and they are just as important as the majority,” he explains. The choice of attire – formal by Pakistani standards and outlandish by American standards – impressed people at the rally, making them believe Javed was a celebrity supporting Trump. This landed him a spot in the front row. “I was five feet away from Trump,” says Javed.

Javed heard Trump’s speech for a full 40 minutes before deciding to interrupt.  In a popular footage of the incident that went viral in March, Javed, clad in a sherwani and stylish sunglasses, is seen shouting “Not all Mexicans are rapists! Not all Muslims are terrorists!” before being dragged out of the rally.


Committed to the cause

The incident drew attention from both American and Pakistani media, making Javed famous overnight. But Javed has been politically active for years. When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against Gaza in 2014, killing over 2,000 Palestinians, Javed was protesting on the frontlines outside the White House. “One of the protestors got arrested for climbing up on the pole and putting up a Palestinian flag,” recalls Javed. “I saw them putting him in the car and I ran to the front and started screaming at the officers and they pushed me down,” he adds.

Javed stands up for minorities because of his own experience of being bullied in high school. The discrimination he faced made him passionate about advocating for the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion. “In high school, I was very close to my faith and I kept my religious values,” he recollects. “I didn’t have a girlfriend. I wouldn’t shake hands with the opposite sex. I wouldn’t do certain things because of religious reasons and because of this I got bullied a lot.” Growing up, Javed was called “Osama bin Laden” and taunted whenever a terrorist attack took place, but this only made him stronger.


“Bullying didn’t faze me. I really didn’t care what people said or thought,” says Javed. “When I was in 11th and 12th grades, my popularity increased because of this. People looked at me in a different way. They said, ‘this kid is not going to change’.” And during his final year, many were convinced Javed will most likely end up changing the world by standing firm in his beliefs.

Currently, Javed studies criminal justice at Wayne State University, where he is an active member of the Muslim Student Association and Islamic Society of AhlulBayt. “We work together to fight Islamophobia and educate people about it,” he says. “[We] educate people about Islam, not to convert them, but just so they know that Islam is a religion of peace.”

In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shooting in 2015, when three young Muslim-Americans were shot dead, Javed organised an event to spread awareness about Islam, handing out roses and pamphlets of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) sayings. “I am here to stand against what’s wrong and to educate people,” he insists, adding that his aim is encourage respect for all belief systems.


One rule for all

Javed’s peace activism comes at a crucial time in the US and Pakistan both. While hate crimes and racism have always plagued America, Trump’s racist rhetoric has contributed to the rising fascist climate in the US. After the Chapel Hill shooting, three black Muslim-American men were shot dead in Indiana, a Latino man was assaulted in Boston, a Moroccan-Muslim was attacked in Philadelphia, and nine people were killed in a mass shooting of a black church in 2015. Similarly, in Pakistan sectarian attacks and discrimination against religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Shias and Ahmadis, is on the rise.

“Western media hides our genocide, making it seem as if ISIS is the main representation of Islam,” Javed says. “Many American don’t know or are ignorant to the fact that a lot of Muslims are being killed [by terrorists],” he adds. According to Javed, Trump ignores the fact that many of the refugees are victims of ISIS. “It’s frustrating to see that the people we are not allowing in this country are the same people being killed by ISIS,” he laments.

Javed believes Muslims are obligated to ally with the oppressed, regardless of their background. “If we’re going to condemn one thing, we have to condemn everything else that’s wrong,” he urges. “I’m doing this for humanity; I’m not just doing this for my people.”

When Javed travelled to Chicago to attend another Trump rally, he discovered he didn’t have to disrupt Trump’s speech because he never showed up. Trump was forced to cancel his speech in Chicago after Black, Latino and Muslim activists spent days organising to shut down his rally. While Javed is only one individual, his activism reflects the solidarity that’s gripping young people in America today.

This article originally appeared in The Express Tribune.

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Filed under Antifascism, diaspora, Islam, Islamophobia, Pakistan, Political Organizing, Resistance, Solidarity

Happy Birthday, Faiz


I am writing from the future. If Faiz Ahmed Faiz was still alive today, he would be a 105 years old. He would be a grandparent, a great-grandparent, a witness to the indelible cruelties and overwhelming endurance of human life that we have seen–that Pakistan has seen–in the last 68 years. He would be a critic, perhaps still coherent enough in his old age to make the statements life and politics demanded of him. He would be venerable, an extension of the teacher and poet, who died at 73. For, after all, in spite of prison, exile, and efforts to silence him, Faiz did not die a martyr. He did not die in exile either. He died in Pakistan, still not having witnessed the day he wrote of in his classic poem, “Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness).”

In the poem, Faiz writes, “We shall witness, when the massive mountains of tyranny will blow away like cotton. When the earth will throb deafeningly and on the heads of our rulers when lightning will strike.” He writes of the total destruction of hierarchy and oppression, a destruction that is apocalyptic and divine in its proportions for “Only God’s name will survive.” But it is a picture of Faiz’s revolution, a revolution informed by Islamic imagery and consciousness, a revolution in which “the last will be the first”, and a revolution in which the people will claim their birthright and rise to the power that truly belongs to them.

Faiz died without seeing that day, and today, we have not yet seen that day. Not in Pakistan, and not elsewhere. We see small triumphs that are great, suffer profound losses that remind us that we are human, and we endure the constant numbness and deprivation of feeling that capitalism imposes on us. We struggle against that too. That is what matters. Pakistan is built on blood, but it’s built on blood because it’s built on life. The blood runs hot through our watan, our homeland, and it’s still alive, and we’re still alive, and I know Faiz and all those who came before him, and all those who came after him–the people snatched away too soon, the people we still wished were here to guide us through our trials and sanctions–would take pride, if not in our resilience (an overused word), then in our determination to live and make life better for ourselves and our people.

Iqbal Bano sings Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge.

But while Faiz died without seeing that day, he did not die without the certainty he would see that day. He never stopped working for what was right. In his role as an acclaimed poet, he did not balk at organizing for the people. In prison, he did not flinch away from escape. In exile, he did not stop loving his country (humein kiya bura tha marna). And when he returned, he still persisted in doing what was right. Two years later in 1984, he was dead, shortly after hearing he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Faiz was the living embodiment of revolutionary love. He did what he did in love for the people, for a cause and nation that was greater than himself. He embodied revolutionary hope. In this climate of fear and bitterness and fucked if you are, fucked if you aren’t, clinging to hope is an everyday challenge that we contend with. I was talking to my friend the other day of some youth we know, boys and girls no different from us, who will criticize but aren’t willing to design a workable apparatus to dismantle the system. Boys and girls like me and him, who want to destroy, but cannot conceive of what we will build in its place. And I said, “These people have never seen what hope looks like.” And it’s true. In the bitter disillusionment that has become our lives, even among activists and critics, there is a deprivation of hope.

But we need hope to build. We need hope to love the people and the causes that are so much greater than ourselves. We need the same hope and faith that made the certainty of Faiz’s eloquent proclamation possible, “We shall witness.” We shall witness because the day will come, even if it’s not in our lifetimes. We shall witness because like Faiz, we must understand that humanity is so much more powerful than ourselves and we serve the generations that come after us, even if we don’t live to experience them. We shall witness, because whether you believe in God or not, only His name will survive in the ashes and ruin of the destroyed tyrants, and we will inherit the earth He made for us.

When Faiz died, he did not go unmourned, just as he does not go unremembered today. He was Pakistan’s unofficial poet laureate. Now, I don’t know who Pakistan’s official poet laureate is, but nothing that happens in Pakistan that actually matters is state or government-sanctioned. In our oppression, we have found a strange kind of freedom, gleaned an agency and creative way of practicing our lives that’s unrivaled anywhere else. Because in Pakistan it is mainstream–the people who are on the margins in fact dominate the vast, far-flung nuclei of society, because they are the secret majority. There is power there, even if it is not perfect, even if it has contradictions that we need to resolve through unity and transformation. Through dictatorship, we learned dissent. And Faiz is a household name. He is a communist, he is a poet, he is a longtime political activist against the regimes that oppressed the people, and he is a household name in Pakistan.

Today, we can follow Faiz’s example through hope. The day will come, and we must struggle against the doubt, the disillusionment, the biting cynicism that threatens to dominate us all and extinguish our work. We must struggle against losing faith in the inevitability of the day and the necessity of transformation. The day will come, and the people will inherit the earth that belongs to us. We will better prepare ourselves for heaven. And while I’m a day late for his birthday, which was on February 13, this is the lesson we can learn from Faiz’s 105th birthday and carry it into the rest of the year, and the years after that, and after that too when we’re nothing but a lump of clay in the earth. Faiz is remembered 32 years after his death. Even in death, the flame of hope will not disappear. Because humanity lives against all the odds.

Happy birthday, ustadh.

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Filed under Communism, Dictatorship, Imperialism, Islam, Literature, Pakistan, Resistance

Speaking Truth to Power Is An Islamic Responsibility: Decolonial Thinking in Al-Andalus

Granada is renowned as the last stronghold of Andalusian Muslims before the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition descended on the entire peninsula and drove them out. It is the inspiration of teary poets reminiscing of the bygone Golden Age of the Muslim ummah, and the site of political nostalgia among Muslim nationalists. Recently, it has also become a center of epistemic resistance among people from around the world and across different faith groups, nationalities and academic disciplines.

A program called Critical Muslim Studies (CMS), an intensive two-week summer school, convened there in early June with activists, intellectuals and professors who specialize in liberation theology and believe in utilizing religion and spirituality to achieve political justice. Roberto Hernandez — a Latino professor and activist, who had been involved in the Berkeley student strike of 1999 when students took to the streets because the university was disbanding the Ethnic Studies department — was the director of this program.

The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain. (photo by Iman Sultan)

The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain.

The location proved key. Ramon Grosfoguel, an ethnic studies professor and critical scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, explained why we were in Granada. The historical city was not only the last outpost of Muslim civilization in Spain, it was the first victim of colonial modernity that was about to sweep the world, and which the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were forging.  The same tactics used in the Inquisition, he explained, were used in the conquest of the Americas and and in the genocide of indigenous and African peoples. Current-day Granada is fraught with this history and divisive consciousness. Near Plaza Nueva, a public square filled with restaurants and shops, a gigantic statue of Columbus kneeling at Isabella’s feet and giving her his plans for conquest rises into the sky with the beacon of the Alhambra gleaming on the horizon.

Grosfoguel postulated that the Muslim conquest of Iberia was in fact not a conquest, but a liberation. In the 8th century, Spain did not exist as we know it today, but constituted different languages and peoples. The Iberian people were primarily Unitarian Christians and Jews, suffering under the boot of foreign Visigothic rule. An army of 8,000 Muslims (at the most) defeated an army of 150,000 Visigoths in only three years, a seemingly impossible feat. What enabled the Muslims to triumph? The answer lay in the people. The inhabitants of Iberia had not only joined the incoming Muslim armies in liberating themselves, they had also appealed to Morocco several times for help. What resulted? Interfaith relations flourished and there was unity amongst these Mediterranean peoples. The invisible line in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, West and East, did not exist at the time, but only appeared with The Inquisition and the advent of colonialism.

(In current-day Andalusia, this history is repressed, but not forgotten. Many Spanish people are reverting, discovering their own Muslim history – that their Muslim ancestors (moriscos) had been forcibly converted to Christianity. )

Grosfoguel, himself Puerto Rican, linked what happened in Granada to the conquest of the Americas. “Latin America began in Granada,” he said. Its history is not in isolation.

Group tours to the Alhambra palace were told from an Islamic perspective.

1492 marked the beginning of this colonial project. With the dawn of “modernity,” Muslims were displaced as Europe re-constructed itself and designated them as ‘Other’ and a threat.

When the Spanish and Portuguese colonists discovered what they called the New World, they branded the indigenous non-Christian Taino people as not having a soul, thus seeing them as less than human and part of another race. Similarly, Africans were associated with Muslims or ‘Moors’ in the Western imaginary (whether they were Muslim or not), and their enslavement initiated biological racism. Just as The Inquisition influenced the conquest of the Americas, the colonization of the Americas affected the Spanish monarchy’s treatment of forcibly converted Muslims and Jews in Europe.

The point of contestation went beyond the religious identity of the moriscos and marranos, to their very humanity. The notion of Taino people lacking a soul (because they were not Christian) irrevocably impacted Iberian Muslims and Jews, who were then seen as not merely non-Christian, but soul-less as well. Conversion, previously the key to integration, didn’t really work to integrate Jews and Muslims in Europe, but marked the inception of Islamophobia and anti-Semitsim. They were surveilled and repressed for generations.

My biggest take-away from the summer program was the importance of understanding that knowledge and education as we know it was shaped primarily by the colonialist West and perpetuated by the Westernized university, and that we must, therefore, decolonize the mind.

The professors at CMS endeavored to shine a light on the role of spirituality and religion in producing knowledge and ways of understanding that are often discredited in the Western university — discredited because they are believed to clash with the secularism and modernity promoted by a Western and Christian-centric epistemology. CMS’ collaboration with the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), led by Tariq Ramadan, brought Islamic knowledge to the fore.

Tariq Ramadan began his lecture by affirming that everything was political, whether we liked it or not. “But how do we deal with power?” he asked. In order to deal with power, initiative must come from within the Muslim community, he said. We must use an Islamic frame of reference as our point of departure. Freeing the ego, or the heart, must be the initiation of any political project of liberation and progress, he said. Ramadan also insisted that politics were not disembodied from culture, and that it’s imperative for Muslims themselves to work on transforming civil society and revolutionizing education, community programs, and youth engagement if we want to improve the future of Muslims.

Hatem Bazian, founder of Zaytuna College and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), spoke on pre-modern Islamic knowledge and thinking. He explained that educational structures imposed by Western colonialism destroyed Muslim societies, exemplified in how the infrastructure of Al-Azhar (an Islamic university of higher learning in Egypt) was changed by British rule. Throughout the Muslim world, Islamic languages like Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic were uprooted by Western languages like English and French, rendering past scholarship and religious texts inaccessible to incoming generations. Multilingual societies degenerated as the colonial language was prioritized at the expense of other languages. “Nothing we see as Muslims is untouched by Eurocentricism,” Bazian, who lectures at UC Berkeley, concluded.

Activists against Islamophobia from Europe also participated in the summer school. Houria Bouteldja, a French Algerian Muslim activist and co-founder of the Party for the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR), a decolonial organization that battles racism and Islamophobia in France, spoke about the role of Muslims in the recent wave of antisemitism in France, particularly in the context of the pro-Palestine protests in 2014, which were banned by the government in a direct affront to freedom of speech.

According to Bouteldja, the French state instrumentalizes Jewish people against other minorities, not unlike the French colonial empire’s past usage of Senegalese foot soldiers in colonizing myriad parts of Africa; horrified by the destruction of their homes, Moroccans and Malagasy people alike began to see their oppressor as Senegalese. In the end, she explained, French imperialism and racism diverted the blame onto their chosen scapegoat to better conceal the ills of their own culture and society.

Dew Baboeram, a Dutch Surinamese activist, spoke about the necessity of solidarity, love and mutual respect in organizing against oppression, and specifically about the intersection of the pro-Palestine and Black solidarity movements in the Netherlands. For Baboeram, communities ravaged by white supremacy and colonialism need love and humility to rebuild, and require connecting with different people and stepping out of insular comfort zones.

There are similarities to be found between the radical politics of European antiracist activists and a similar movement within the American Muslim community to stand with their African-American brethren and their supporters in a nationwide movement against police brutality against black people and anti-black racism — though there has been some internal dissent within the American Muslim community as to how the community can best do this.

We must struggle for solidarity and respect if we want to serve our communities and progress into the future.

Every speaker, professor and activist emphasized the importance of civic responsibility, and the necessity to improve society by strengthening our communities and building bridges with communities who share our struggles. There is an Islamic responsibility to speak truth to power as a way to practice our religion, and this lies at the heart of Islam itself.

Tawhid,” Grosfoguel explained, “is a powerful way of epistemically thinking. It says that because you are not God, you are submitted to critique.”

This article originally appeared in ISLAMiCommentary.

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The Aesthetics of Empowered Womanhood: Jasmine Wahi’s Zabardust at Twelve Gates Arts

In a conversation between Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and British-Jamaican novelist Zadie Smith, Adichie reflects on a question she is continually asked, “Your female characters are so strong, why are you doing that?” She goes on to muse, “[F]or me, I’m writing about women who are familiar. Not to say all the women I know are strong. . . they’re not. But to say that idea of a woman being strong—simply being strong, not to prove anything, or not to be unusual—is normal to me.” Adichie understands the necessity of strength and confidence in women without pretense or contrivance, what Smith elucidates as “women who don’t have a moment’s doubt about speaking their mind, who are somehow always themselves, always confident.” The simple, easy and yet immeasurably powerful phenomenon of women just existing unhampered by imposed stereotype, pretense or scrutiny manifests in Pakistani-American curator Jasmine Wahi’s art exhibition Zabardust, which collects and showcases a series of pieces exposing the aplomb of women and articulating their aesthetic empowerment.

"The Least Dutiful Wife" by Anjali Bhargava

“The Least Dutiful Wife” (digital print, Anjali Bhargava and Swati Khurana)

Zabardust premiered early February at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia, a gallery and nonprofit organization that specializes in South Asian art and displays intellectual handiwork on the progressive margins of society. The unique and rhotic title of the exhibition catches the regular passerby off-guard, for the word Zabardust is not in English, and its bursting immediacy captures an exoticism that simultaneously affronts and intrigues, but which is deconstructed by the sheer force of its aesthetic and eclectic flavor. For Urdu-speakers, Zabardust means ‘terrific’ or ‘excellent’, always conveyed in an exclamatory style and never with cursory boredom or indifference. The title of the exhibit is only microcosmic of the show itself, which assembles diverse depictions of women—from majestic Bollywood heroine to pop cultural icons to human rights victim to girl next door—and posits them in a humanizing light, illuminating their essential and abstract personhood.

Untitled (mixed media in lightbox, Leila Lal)

In a sense, Zabardust vocalizes the untold stories of women forgotten by history or rendered voiceless on the margins of society. Angela Fraleigh’s sensuous, sweeping oil paintings choose as their subject the nude woman lounging in the background of many a painting in Western art history, dominated by the men around her, and objectified by the viewer. Fraleigh paints from the vantage point of this minor character, amplifying her perspective with sumptuous color and lush strokes of oil on canvas. Similarly, Mata Ruda’s haunting portrait of a Latina woman with her eyes squeezed shut, blood and dirt matted on her skin, face tensed in dire anticipation, and the symbolic fish and knife hanging over her head, captures an episode in the life of an undocumented woman. Incisively titled, “Six Out of Ten (Women Are Sexually Abused While Crossing the Border)”, the painting shows the daily reality of the undocumented woman worker who is abused and exploited, without relegating her to one-dimensional victim or the object of contrived dogma, but allows the viewer to witness the intimate pain and exhaustion of her struggle.

“I Am Your Air” (collage, Maria Berrio)

Indeed, the exhibition is about women taking control of their own images and subverting the objectifying gaze that constructs them as dehumanized Other, whether that gaze is male, white supremacist, or fundamentalist. Anjali Bhargava’s photographic portraits of South Asian women, excerpted from her “UnSuitable Girls” series, play with popular stereotypes of the oppressed brown woman, attaching a negative superlative to traditional, sanctified titles, resulting in “The Least Orthodox Goddess” and “The Least Dutiful Wife.” Bhargava’s subjects tantalize patriarchal convention by assuming egregious poses in sacrosanct settings. “The Least Orthodox Goddess” portrays a woman sitting atop the marble-white altar of a church, the half-naked, chiseled body of a man lying prone across her lap, and “The Least Dutiful Wife” shows a woman lounging on her bed in the domestic household, surrounded by teeming towers of books and several teacups that presumably are not for her husband. Bhargava rewards her subjects for subverting the monolithic view of submission when it comes to brown women with physical trophies created by Swati Khurana, which are present in the digital prints. At the crux of Bhargava’s work is South Asian women reclaiming and asserting agency over their own images, making it even more significant that the artists are women themselves. Wahi, who modeled for “The Least Orthodox Goddess”, called the project a “self-elective environment. . . It’s women-created stuff.”

Mixed-media doll sculptures (Rachel Mason)

Maria Berrio’s mixed media collages continue the theme of gender subversion albeit in the new light of South American folklore. Her collages “I am your earth” and “I am your air” illustrate children with emblematic infants bundled in verdure on their laps. But the specific genders of the children are not readily apparent, throwing them in esoteric ambiguity and perhaps alluding to pre-colonial gender paradigms. Berrio suffuses “I am your air” with rhinestones illustrating the transcendence of the folkloric subject matter. This same epic quality affects other artworks in the exhibit that more explicitly aestheticize iconography, such as Leila Lal’s mixed media artwork of Rekha in the classic Bollywood film Umraao Jaan, a regal, crimson-attired heroine, juxtaposed against the golden milieu of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and glowing in a lightbox. Rachel Mason’s caricatural doll sculptures of artistic and pop cultural icons like PJ Harvey, Beyoncé, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo are clad in jagged shards of mirror, signifying the fractiousness of creativity and how women who rise to fame and make a name for themselves are anything but palatable.

Zabardust is an energetic assortment of artworks representing diverse forms and depictions of women. When asked what inspired the title of the exhibition, Wahi smiled self-effacingly and replied, “This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but it was a word my mom always said.” Indeed, the theme of Zabardust always circulates back to womanhood and the under-appreciated vitality of women in art, and it’s no surprise the very title of the exhibit was inspired by a strong woman in Wahi’s life. On a panel of the artists and curator hosted by Twelve Gates subsequent the premiere, Fraleigh reported that only five percent of Chelsea art galleries have female artist representation. Zabardust vitalizes representation of women in art, but resists a singular and monolithic characterization of womanhood, instead arraying a diverse picture of who and what women are. It posits contrasting images of women, the undocumented worker of Mata Ruda’s painting polarized with Mason’s dolls of celebrities, some of whom enjoy net-worths of millions. Fraleigh’s Western-centric art and illustrations of white women diverge from the women of color predominating the rest of the exhibit. This variegated, and at times contradictory assemblage of feminist artworks embodies the multiplicity of feminisms existent in the world today. At the exhibition’s heart lies the innate confidence of women, a confidence that surpasses borders, ethnicity and ideology. “It’s about being who you are, and being strong,” Wahi explains. Zabardust unapologetically illustrates these contesting feminisms, culminating in a pluralizing vision of womanhood.

This article originally appeared in The Friday Times.

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Pakistan’s Leftist Literature of Resistance

When people think of Pakistan, a failed state crippled by military dictatorship, civil unrest and religiously-derived terrorism immediately springs to mind. If most foreign analysis on the country since 9/11 is to be believed, Pakistan is a dangerous, suffering region that serves primarily as the focal battleground in the global War on Terror. The Pakistani people themselves are automatically depicted as brainwashed, dictatorship-loving drones or hawkish, anti-Americanist religious fundamentalists, sometimes both.

For all its popularity, this one-dimensional discourse on Pakistan obscures two key attributes of the country’s society. It obscures Pakistani cultural and artistic contribution, which continues to flourish even with endemic bombings and outbreak of violence. And it utterly elides the historical resistance among the Pakistani people against the corrupt military and regressive nonstate forces. Because of restrictions imposed on left-wing organizations by dictators and liberal parties alike, antiestablishment ideas, protest and resistance proliferated into the cultural sphere. This enmeshing of culture with political resistance dates back since before the country’s inception, most significantly with the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) and its post-independence counterpart, the All Pakistan Progressive Writer’s Association (APPWA). What resulted was a flowering in film, literature, and poetry that struck the very heart of Pakistani consciousness and artfully conveyed the challenges confronting  the young country.

From the beginning, the PWA had a strong communist membership and held close ties with leftist politics in Pakistan. It served as the guiding light for the establishment of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), having predated its existence. Sajjad Zaheer, the cofounder of the PWA alongside other progressive Indian writers, migrated to Pakistan and became the secretary general of the CPP. In 1951, he was embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, wherein he and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, esteemed Urdu poet and member of the PWA, were punished for conspiring to overthrow the liberal and increasingly authoritarian Muslim League government. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was the pivotal point in an ongoing and aggressive assault on the CPP and its associates. It resulted not only in the banning of the CPP in 1954, but led to the further censorship and ultimate banning of the PWA, which was declared a political party despite being a literary organization. However, far from paralyzing the Pakistani Left, these repressive measures only mobilized it. As popular poet and progressive Habib Jalib said, “After the creation of Pakistan, as one by one our dreams were shattered, we looked for people who shared our ideals, to see how we could establish democracy and freedom in our country.”

Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Both of these communist writers were imprisoned together in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.

Indeed, the angst in the wake of Partition and the botched independence that caused the deaths of at least one million people, effected widespread displacement and triggered countless rapes, was most honestly and devastatingly captured by the Progressives and their leftist associates. Faiz’s “Subh-e-Azaadi” (“The Dawn of Freedom”) laments the systemic suffering and denial of rights on the day India and Pakistan gained their hard-won freedom from the colonial power, Britain. An associate and dabbler in the PWA, short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto explored the psychological and ironic violence that characterized Partition and transcended communal, national and religious loyalties. His short story “Khol Do” (“Open”)  depicts a Muslim girl and refugee raped by a group of young men who belong to her own religion and nationality, a vicious irony that conveys the universalizing reality of rape in Partition. Yet, there was a gem of optimism and vigilance in this literature. “The Dawn of Freedom” closes with the lines, “Friends come away from this false light/Come, we must search for that promised dawn.” This epitomized the leftist investment in nation-building and improving the lives of the Pakistani people, which would persevere for decades to come even under the fierce onslaught of religious reaction and nationalist suppression.

This leftward and progressive creativity wasn’t just limited to the realm of literature, however, but came to inspire cinema in Pakistan. The 50s and 60s saw a boundless flourishing in film, the promise of which current-day Pakistani filmmakers are still trying to fulfill. The revolutionary poets Jalib and Faiz were intimately involved in filmmaking and song-writing behind-the-scenes. Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) was the first Pakistani submission to the Oscars in the category for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was set in rural Bengal, then a part of Pakistan, and focused on the problems of an impoverished Bengali family, who relied on fishing for their survival. Faiz wrote the screenplay and the cast was drawn from both West and East Pakistan. Its focus on the working class earned it the Golden Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival of 1959.

The 1969 movie poster for Zarqa.

The 1969 movie poster for Zarqa.

Riaz Shahid was another emerging progressive filmmaker. His 1969 film Zarqa illuminated the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli colonization and starred famous actress Neelo as the titular heroine. The violence Zarqa endures in the fictional film did not only represent the Palestinians, but hit too close to home for Pakistani movie-goers as well. Popular legend dictates that Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, forced Neelo to dance for the Shah of Iran while the latter was on an official state visit. Because of this, Neelo attempted to commit suicide. Jalib channeled his anguish for the actress’ plight in a poem titled “Neelo”, which was later adapted into a song for Zarqa and became an anthem against oppression. Zarqa was also an example of decades-long transnational solidarity between Palestine and the Pakistani people, and Shahid is famous for donating the financial proceeds from the film to Fatah, the political branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Neelo as the Palestinian heroine and freedom fighter, Zarqa.

Neelo as the Palestinian heroine and freedom fighter, Zarqa. Jalib wrote the song “Raqs e Zanjeer” (“Dance of Chains”).

Zia Ul-Haq, Pakistan’s sordid and longest-ruling dictator, seized power in a military coup in 1977. While all prior dictators had been jointly allied with religious fundamentalist parties, Zia took it to a new level and imposed an Islamization program that marginalized religious minorities and women. Faiz was imprisoned and then driven into exile in Beirut. Jalib protested against Zia and languished in jail. But in the character of Pakistani resistance, this repression did not inhibit dissident art and literature. On the contrary, it only bred progressive enterprises. The theater group Ajoka was founded as a performing arts counter to the regime. Tehreek-e-Niswan and Lok Rehas followed suit.  A new generation of feminist poets was born. Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz gave brazen and stunning indictments against the misogyny of the Zia regime through the medium of poetry. Their poems correlated with the mass mobilization of women activists and protesters against the regime, who faced severe police brutality at their rallies. Both poets paid personally for their endeavors. Riaz confronted sedition charges and Naheed lost her job. Jalib encapsulated the Zia era in his poem, “Zulmat ko Zia” (“Darkness Called Light”) wherein he asks the dictator, “How can I write that a human is a God?” Pakistani rock band Laal has since adapted the poem into a song.

A women's protest against Zia. Women lawyers were at the vanguard of the charge against the regime's misogyny.

A women’s protest against Zia. Women lawyers were at the vanguard of the charge against the regime’s misogyny.

Jalib faces police brutality at a protest against Zia.

Jalib faces police brutality while protesting the Zia regime.

This is the culture and tradition in which Pakistanis create art and write literature. This is the legacy they inherit. It’s true that the political landscape is abundant with military dictators, religious fundamentalists, and corrupt politicians. But the fact that Faiz to this day is a household name in Pakistan and considered the country’s unofficial poet laureate reveals the people’s defiance against these hegemonic forces and their sincere desire for progress. For too long, Pakistan’s rich cultural and literary heritage has been undermined and ignored. It is time to shed some light on its existence, and on its crucial connection with dissident politics. No vilification and stereotyping of Pakistanis, however rampant, changes or mitigates this history. It was as Eqbal Ahmad, political scientist and commentator, said in his criticism of V. S. Naipual’s reductive take on Pakistan, “You describe Pakistan as an Islamic state under General Mohammed Zia-ul Haq.  You describe it throughout as if this government represented that country and was supported by its people. It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the state of affairs you are describing there was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including all the known poets and writers and artists of Pakistan, without exception. That our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile, our best poets were in prison or exile. “

The Awami Workers Party is a merger of leftist parties, founded in 2012. Already workers are organizing in the thousands, signaling a hope for progress in Pakistan.

The Awami Workers Party is a merger of leftist parties founded in 2012. Already workers are organizing in the thousands, signaling a hope for progress in Pakistan.

Today’s Pakistan isn’t the same as Zia’s Pakistan, but many of its problems, including that of the Taliban, directly result from the Zia dictatorship. Pakistanis continue to fight, resist, and challenge the military and the religious fundamentalist threat, whether it’s nonstate militant outfits or institutionalized blasphemy laws and Islamist parties. Given the constant milieu of violence, they resist at the risk of their personal safety and happiness. This resistance is nothing new. It’s confirmed by the country’s history. And if history repeats itself, then this resistance will grow and thrive in the face of oppression.


Filed under Communism, Literary criticism, Literature, Pakistan

The Noor Inayat Khan Story: A Double-Edged Sword

On September 13, 1944, a political prisoner was executed in Dachau Concentration Camp at the hands of the Nazis.  The political prisoner was a woman, an Indian, and a Muslim. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan and she was one of millions of dissidents that died fighting Hitler. Both Muslims and Westerners are unfamiliar with her story, but a recent and heart-wrenching documentary, Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, shines a light on this forgotten Muslim freedom fighter. Noor worked for the English Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her decision to join the resistance against Germany bespoke a rare bravery and selflessness, which the film frames as the result of her father’s Sufi teachings. Her eventual capture and murder immortalizes her in history as a heroine, who made the ultimate sacrifice in defying evil. Her story is exceedingly relevant to times when the Muslim community remains fraught with antisemitism, and relations between Jews and Muslims are contentious. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) produced this film and premiered it in Washington, D.C. in February at the regal and velvety Warner Theatre. However, the film and the program that preceded it posed a paradox. Anti-oppression was emphasized, but it served a very specific interest. Indeed, the film premiere was a coup for an interfaith that accomplishes bridge-building, but not without making significant concessions to powers that generate oppression.


Noor Inayat Khan was only 30 years old when she was killed by Nazis.

To further delve into this, it’s necessary to examine Noor’s positionality as an Indian woman in that time period and relative to the colonial government she was working for. In the 1940s, India was colonized by Britain and had suffered colonial and imperialist exploitation by various Western powers for more than three hundred years. With the onset of World War II, some Indians pursued a loyalist line, others allied with the Axis powers, and still some others stayed neutral in a contention where they would be the ultimate losers as colonized subjects. The colonial violence enacted on the Quit India Movement championed by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress confirmed this. Even more denigrating was the mass famine of 1943 that killed at least three million Bengalis, a starvation deliberately engineered by the British, who diverted food from Bengal to other areas in the empire and prevented India from using its ships for food imports. When asked about the famine, Churchill famously remarked that it did not matter because the Indians would go on “breeding like rabbits.”

Noor Inayat Khan therefore compromised a dual and challenging role, as a dissenter of fascism and a woman with a colonized and racialized heritage. But her predicament wasn’t rare. It was reminiscent of the Maghrebi Muslims in France who fought the Nazis even as they were colonized and maltreated by the French. It was this story that UPF originally started researching and co-founder Alex Kronemer mentioned this in his preliminary speech. Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Muslims protected both French and North African Jews from the occupation forces. The Grand Mosque of Paris issued false certificates and provided shelter to the persecuted minority, including a famous Algerian cabaret singer, Salim Halali. This event was dramatized in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Free Men, a French-language film starring award-winning actor Tahar Rahim as the Algerian Muslim protagonist. But where Free Men succeeds and Enemy of the Reich fails is in the consolidation of these polarized identities and the recognition of these Muslim characters as essentially colonized. “We will never be free unless we wage war on colonialism and fascism,” a resistance fighter cries in a memorable scene in Free Men. ”Down with colonialism! Down with fascism!”

The parallel of colonialism with fascism isn’t coincidental. Enemy of the Reich, however, fails to approach that. There are limitations to every project, of course. Free Men was a historically-derived fictional film whereas Enemy of the Reich was a documentary. But there were numerous opportunities. Noor’s ancestor, Tipu Sultan, is mentioned, but the film does not elaborate on what he is famous for, which was anticolonial resistance against the British. Noor’s overseers refer to her as brainless and she is betrayed ultimately by a woman on her team, but racism isn’t even speculated as the motivating factor for these happenstances.

In many ways, the accompanying program suited the film. The speakers emphasized the importance of this historical story to current times, and they were right.  But not precisely in the ways they claimed. The subtextual message was that Noor fought against extremism, and that it’s the duty of today’s Muslims to fight against Islamic extremism, delineating a parallel between Nazi fascism and Islamic fundamentalism. But there was another insidious, uncanny parallel that was tailored to the one-sided theme of the film, and which the speakers failed to mention. Suhail Khan, a representative of the Institute of Global Exchange, was the first guest speaker. He described his experience on an interfaith voyage to “the holy land.” In an age where Palestinian refugees cannot return to their homeland, Khan didn’t just go to Israel in the name of “bridge-building.” He called it “this troubled corner of the world” in his speech, refusing to recognize the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state. Ira Forman, a state-appointed envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and a former lawyer for AIPAC, was the next guest speaker. He condemned the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, French Muslims, and the Muslims of the Central African Republic, but Palestinian Muslims were conspicuously missing from his speech. This deliberate conflation of antisemitism with anti-Israel sentiment served the specific interest of normalizing Israeli colonialism. It fit in perfectly with the documentary’s silence on the colonization and destruction of Noor’s country of origin, India.

Closer to India, Eileen O’Connor was an impromptu speaker. The deputy assistant secretary to the bureau of South and Central Asian affairs, she name-dropped her specialty, that iconic term, “Af-Pak.”  She talked about how she worked with “moderate Imams” in Afghanistan who “counter voices of radicalization”, a tacit justification of American occupation in Afghanistan and imperialist presence in Pakistan. Afghan civilians are drone striked, shot, and raped by American forces in the name of fighting terrorism, but O’Connor maintained that the Taliban was the sole evil obstructing peace with Muslims. So did Alex Kronemer, the co-founder of UPF. The 9/11 terrorists wanted to “create a wedge between the Muslim world and the West”, he orated, and UPF was combating that. What he does not realize is that the wedge, rather the gaping disparity, existed already. And only radical change in foreign policy can bridge it, and even that doesn’t heal the residual scars of empire, which are painful and irrevocable.

The Nazis were terrible, destructive, and oppressive, but so were the imperialists. As Aimé Césaire wrote in his renowned anticolonial treatise Discourse On Colonialism, “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois” of the West cannot forgive the Nazis because they “applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.” Fighting fascism is a necessary lesson to every Muslim in the world, and it’s what the community can learn from Noor. But so is fighting colonialism and imperialism. Condemning one without the other reveals a deficiency in principle and sustains the oppression of Muslims and other imperialized peoples in the world.

This article originally appeared in The Islamic Monthly.

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Filed under Antifascism, Colonialism, Imperialism, Islam, Media

Melting Pot Multiculturalism: Mistaking the Coca Cola Super Bowl Commercial for Progress

By now, everyone’s heard of the Coca Cola commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and the racist response it provoked from right wing politicians, tweeters, bloggers and news personalities. Former Representative Allen West said that the ad promoted “the balkanization of America” and that the use of non-English languages was fundamentally un-American. Glenn Beck echoed his sentiments, asserting that depicting America’s ethnic and linguistic diversity advocated disunity and was meant to “divide us politically.” Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham took this opportunity to use the slur “illegal” against undocumented individuals, reflecting the larger debate on immigration and the resulting nationalist anxieties.


They were joined in by dozens of other Americans displeased with Coca Cola’s apparently multicultural agenda, some users resorting to using racial slurs and other racially charged appellations like “terrorist.”



Because of its original multilingual and multicultural content and the right-wing vitriol it incurred, people are lauding the Coca Cola commercial a triumph for antiracism and media representation. Many users on Twitter and the general blogosphere praised the commercial as a way to counteract the online racism against it. Forbes went so far as to connect it to immigration reform in Congress and branded the commercial “a huge success.” On the surface, it definitely seems to be in favor for people of color. After all, it represents and humanizes people of different ethnicities, it normalizes their oft-erased or vilified languages, it affirms the American-ness of a girl in hijab and it even depicts an interracial gay couple, striking two marginalized identities at the same time. The ad is a seeming godsend; what could possibly be wrong with it?

There is, however, a critical similarity in both the Coca Cola ad and the rhetoric of the conservatives who attacked it. Both support American patriotism and the racism it produces albeit in different ways. Even Amy Davidson of The New Yorker, a proponent of the commercial, affirms, “. . .the Coke ad was. . . in the better sense, patriotic.”

The Intersection of American Patriotism with Multiculturalism

The Coca Cola ad opened with “America the Beautiful” and the patriotic song played throughout the rest of the ad in several different languages, including Keres, an indigenous language, all of which are spoken in the United States. It was reminiscent of the larger patriotic theme pushed by liberal integrationists, antiracism activists and multiculturalists: America is a melting pot, constituted of immigrated peoples whose diversity binds the richness of the nation and both literally and figuratively makes America. This theme invokes the verses written by Russian immigrant Emma Lazarus, which are inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” There is nothing more consummately American than immigration. This melting pot multiculturalism diverges from the assimilationist model that tends to Americanize immigrated diasporas.

This emerging narrative, for all its idealism, ignores the sinister but absolute fact of America’s inception, which is the genocide of several million Native Americans, the colonization of their land, and their persisting disenfranchisement (see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World). Every immigrant and descendant of immigrants is a beneficiary of settler colonialism, the feasible exception being Mexicans and other people of indigenous ancestry. (As acclaimed Spokane writer Sherman Alexie summed it up, “Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mexican immigration is an oxymoron. Mexicans are indigenous.”) The other exception entails African Americans, whose ancestors’ arrival in both colonial and democratic America was deployed against their will with the transatlantic slave trade.

Melting pot multiculturalism is therefore designed to integrate people into the American fabric without dismantling the country’s oppressive structures, including the genocidal legacy that enabled its founding. It also seeks to assimilate nonwhite minorities into its hegemony, either as agents or passive victims. Barack Obama is frequently cited as proof of a post-racial America, his evident blackness obscuring his regressive and harmful policies. His systematic increase in drone strikes, the accelerated rate of deportations of undocumented people, and his deployment of troops to Afghanistan, Uganda, Libya and Mali enact violence on people of color, be they at home or abroad.

This hyper-visibility of nonwhite minorities in media, government, business and other leadership positions disguises the systematic nature of racism and limits it to an individual, even isolated phenomenon. The conservatives and American nationalists repulsed by this ad are constructed as the zealot minority of the American populace by media, even if state policy and other institutional elements enforce their perceptions. This racism in a way is worst than more blatant iterations, because it is more insidious and more difficult to discern and confront. Most debilitatingly, it appeases people agitating for genuine social change by subduing their radical, antiestablishment tendency. The Coca Cola commercial does the same thing. By tokenizing various nonwhite faces, hijab-clad girls, and the assorted languages of these people through a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful”, it promotes the American patriotism that produces and continually perpetuates systems of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Coke fails to challenge hegemonic narratives of patriotism, but merely gives it a diverse face. The commercial embodies multiculturalism as defined by Japanese-Canadian feminist scholar Setsu Shigematsu,  that is “a policy of selective inclusion of racial and ethnic ‘minorities,’ to promote an image of diversity, obscuring continuing forms of structural inequities and institutional racism.”

It’s fitting, of course. The foremost inequity that Coca Cola masks with its diverse imagery is its own egregious capitalism and neocolonialism in global southern countries.

“Multiculturalism As a Tool for Corporate America”: Coca Cola and Global Capitalism

In her incisive critique of multiculturalism, “The Paradox of Diversity” featured in the essay anthology The Dark Side of the Nation, Marxist feminist sociologist Himani Bannerji engages with the work of civil rights legend Angela Davis. She writes, “A scathing critique of multiculturalism as a tool for corporate America, both in terms of its internal diversity management and international capitalism or globalization, features in the essays. . . by Angela Davis.” Nothing is more applicable to Coca Cola, which used multiculturalism and curried praise of progress despite being a neocolonialist, capitalist organization.

Coca Cola’s tokenism of minorities diverts attention from the company’s worldwide employment of sweatshop labor and theft of water that local populations rely on for subsistence. It’s easy for Coca Cola to make a commercial partially in Hindi, but are people familiar with their disastrous history in India? In 2006, Indian farmers in the state of Rajasthan could not irrigate their fields because of a Coke plant. In Kerala, the company contaminated local water. It currently has 58 plants in Uttar Pradesh that induce water depletion and are a major source of contention for native Indians. What makes Coca Cola’s crimes worst is that they’re exercised on vulnerable, impoverished populations that are disproportionately poorer than those in the global north.

The company is also responsible for abuses of workers’ rights. Besides sweatshop labor, Coke has displayed horrific anti-union activity in Colombia, which culminated in illegal murder. It’s exercised similar machinations in other parts of Latin America. It has an abundant history of racial discrimination, some of which were as recent as 2012. Given Coca Cola’s disgraceful and publicized track record, it’s readily apparent their multicultural ad wasn’t evident of a crusade in favor of minorities, but served the specific purpose of abating criticism and lobbying that can lead to a change in their widespread human rights abuses.

By filming a multilingual, multicultural commercial seemingly on the side of minorities, Coca Cola screens its past and current abuses and allocates the discussion on its racial abuse to its commercial. The culprit, the oppressor, is not the beverage company, but merely the right-wing zealots, who are hindering the purveyor of true progress, Coca Cola. The response from liberal media only affirms this, and the impact of the commercial is over-stated. Contrary to Forbes, the commercial will probably not move Congress. Coke only advocates a softer American nationalism, that is less hawkish, but no less jingoistic. Its message is loud and clear: Spanish is only valued when it’s being used to sing patriotic music.

Coca Cola attempts to compensate with this ad, but a short and insubstantial film cannot compensate for water depletion, employee discrimination, inhibition of unions, murder of workers via paramilitary forces, theft of natural resources and engineered starvation. In a way, the ad is symptomatic of the larger culture of feel-good liberal diversity that reduces faces of color to mere and lifeless tokens and refuses to grant them rights and agency. The marketing towards minorities is also counterproductive. Jill Filipovic of The Guardian notes that marketing soda to poorer, vulnerable communities of color only increases health risks among them. 

 A multinational corporation, Coca Cola is responsible for terrible human rights abuses and continues to commit them with relative impunity even in the face of damning criticism. Angela Davis’ thesis has come true. Multiculturalism has become an effective tool for corporate America, both in marketing, silencing criticism of capitalism and validating the continued perpetuation of its crimes. Parts of the antiracist American public have been duped into viewing the ad as progressive, and it is perhaps this taming of radical tendency that is the saddest outcome of Coke’s media stunt. By placating progressives with a multicultural commercial, their activism weakens, and true change is prevented from materializing.


Filed under Capitalism, Media, Multiculturalism