Opinion

A Letter from a Muslim Woman to Her Liberal Friends

Rabia Mir wonders why expressions of solidarity are stressing her out.

By Rabia Mir 7 Feb 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Rabia Mir is a graduate student in Vancouver and works at the Global Reporting Centre. She does not know how to answer simple questions like, “where are you from?” as she has worked and studied in multiple countries in different fields. Her current project is to understand if she can decolonize her own education.

Dear liberal friends,

I have been increasingly confused and overwhelmed by the variety of emails that I am getting. Countless people around the world are standing alongside Muslims, sympathizing with their situation and voicing their outrage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an attack on Quebec’s mosque a terrorist attack. But some 1.3 million people have died since the West launched its “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, thousands and thousands in ways too similar to those murdered in Quebec City. Maybe the tide is turning, so why am I stressing out reading “well meaning” messages?

Maybe because while the outrage is new, the attacks on Muslims and those associated with majority Muslim countries are old. Dehumanizing practices, pointless detentions and humiliation in airports worldwide is a not a new thing for me as a Pakistani Muslim woman. Last time I entered the United States, they asked to strip search my daughter (who at the time was 18 months old). When I refused, I was asked, “Why do you have to be such a bitch about it?” I have been physically attacked in the U.S. when I covered my head, as I was easily identifiable as a Muslim woman. But I would never call the police about these issues because law enforcement officials terrify me.

Now, as an aspiring academic in Canada, I hear calls for solidarity with scholars banned from the seven majority-Muslim countries by boycotting academic conferences in the U.S. I wonder: do I show solidarity and not go to conferences, or do I choose to travel because my research is about perspectives of Muslim women, a topic not well covered in western academia?

The hate is not new. Trump’s attempted immigration ban did not appear out of thin air. Even the list of countries on the ban is not new — the list was drawn up by the previous Obama administration, which was viewed by many liberals as friendly to Muslim countries.

The idea of a Muslim registry was not Donald Trump or Steve Bannon’s either. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System registered more than 80,000 men from 24 Muslim countries and North Korea after 9/11 (The NSEERS program ended last year).

Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting, Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, NYPD surveillance on U.S. Muslims, and secret evidence law are all legal U.S. government initiatives that have been in place, some as early as 1996. This has been written about by U.S. journalists but has remained in the shadows of liberal audiences while affecting countless Muslims across the U.S.

Living in British Columbia and studying at the University of British Columbia, I have often been in meetings that start with the acknowledgement of being on unceded Musqueam territory. Even after years of living on Turtle Island (the name of North America for some Indigenous groups), I had not reflected on my position as a visitor on settlers’ land until I came to B.C. We are all guilty of our own blind spots. The First Nations acknowledgement has also made me acutely aware of the colonial history in the Islam versus West discourse. For example, the geographical term Middle East — middle of what? East of where?

Can you name five countries in the world that have the highest Muslim population? When I have asked this question to my friends, I have often gotten Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, some have offered Indonesia and Malaysia as well, while others have contributed names like France and U.K.! The actual answer is: Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Muslim population within these countries account for about 47 per cent of the Muslim population in the world. All non-Arab countries. Yet the Middle Eastern Arabic speaking image is the one that stands most prominently as the “Muslim” in North America.

Muslims are more than 1.6 billion people in the world, who speak more than 50 languages among themselves. We are not a homogeneous group. There are internal tensions, animosities and politics as well.

I only speak for myself. I urge you all to challenge your own assumptions. I am encouraged by people showing concern, but I am also disturbed by a somewhat reductionist approach it has taken. The hatred and discrimination run much deeper than the ban and therefore, should be resisted against as such.

With respect and much confusion,

Rabia Mir

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