Declining the State Department's Invitation, Again

Sep 14, 2012

In the wake of protests against the U.S. at embassies throughout the Middle East, Shenaaz Janmohamed looks at the narrow and racist roles of "good Muslim, bad Muslim" propped up by the U.S. State Department, and the need for new social and political openings for Muslim activists and communities in the United States, and around the world. 

Last week I logged into my email account and saw, yet again, an invitation from the U.S. State Department to join Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (and about 150 others) for a dinner commemorating Eid-ul Fitr, the closing day of Ramadanwhich is the Muslim month of fasting. Never mind that they are about three weeks late for an Eid-ul Fitr celebration, what was more offensive was receiving this invitation moments after reading the news of yet more drone attacks. This time they were in Yemen, where at least 29 people were killed. 

As a Muslim-American who has worked in the nonprofit sector for a number of years and held some focus on organizing Muslims, I have been targeted by the State Department, and I imagine other federal agencies, in a courting of American Muslim “exceptionalism.”

I accepted the first invitation from the State Department in 2010.  I did this in large part because I was unemployed at the time. Having excited parents who offered to help with travel costs made my remote curiosity swell into an agreement to attend. All this fanfare provoked an opportunity to self-reflect on the nature of my work with community. How would I feel attending such an event, and did it make me compliant to this token gesture? What does it mean to be invited to such an event, and more telling, what does this say about the nature of my political work?  Specifically how effectively was I contributing my voice of dissent to the U.S.’ ongoing project of war and the erosion of civil rights and liberties in the name of so-called national security?

As the event approached it became clear that the invited Muslims were celebrated for being the ‘good muslims’, those who walked a moderate political line that did not threaten the state. We were corralled to hear about what it meant to be a good citizen, and invited to act as soft informants and monitor any extremism or ‘problems’ in our respective communities. The message was: the state is who we should trust and turn to during times of hardship (not in fact, the architect of the conditions of war in most Muslim States).

During the event, I found a few other misfits – the queers, a high school student, and those that felt more comfortable to be smoking on the patio than hearing Ms. Clinton’s minor attempts at placation.  We shared feelings of displacement and sadness at who was being seen at the moment, as leaders in our communities.  It was in those moments on the balcony that I committed to never again attend such a charade, but instead, to complicate the discourse within Muslim communities and resist the external forces of islamophobia. 

I realized that I needed to do more to lift up the voices of politically radical Muslims who struggle, every day, for justice. My own voice, for example, and those who connect the conditions of Muslims in this political moment to those of other communities in struggle, which have resisted and organized in the face of a pervasive white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This moment of awakening also made me understand that I have the privilege of taking more risks (having “passed” I presume, my FBI check in November 2001), and am situated in the uncomfortable but critical place of pushing my own communities to hold broader Muslim narratives, expressions, and critical politics. 

It has been a couple of years since I attended the Washington D.C. event, but the feelings of fire beneath me have not subsided. So when I received the third invitation to dine at the State Department I felt in touch with my fatigue, sadness, and frustration of having still not found much of my political values reflected in national Muslim organizations and public personas. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the dilemma of the narrow path we are made to feel we walk upon in the face of continued FBI repression, coupled with continued hate and violence inflicted on Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. But all throughout history there have been those who have taken brave steps to ask for – and at times demand – more. 

Now if I come across sounding as if I am turning against my own Muslim communities, or being hyper-critical or self-righteous, that is not my intention.  My intention and commitment is to be heard, with a voice calling for more than just a plate at the dinner table. What good is that plate after all, if the meal is infused with false notions of well-being, safety, and health? The conditions of Muslims and other oppressed communities within the U.S. is awful. Unemployment rates, lack of access to social welfare programs, incarceration of black men and boys, the school systems’ crumbling, veteran suicides, and yet a continued obsession with war and imperialism.  Add a layer of xenophobia and criminalization toward immigrants, the presence of FBI informants encroaching on our Muslim communities’ working to stifle political participation and silence critical left voices within them.  For some, whose fate tragically and unnecessarily ends because of this so-called war on terror, the cost of islamophobia means years of being silenced only to end in death.

So what is the way forward, 11 years into the Afghanistan War and nine years into the Iraq War, and countless years of drone attacks? I do not see much value is making a circle fit into a square, and similarly my objective is not to critique but to complicate and widen the space. Over the last several years, I have met many fierce Muslims in various political projects and wanted to elevate this fantastic chorus of grounded, justice seeking, anti-imperialist perspective. I decided it was time for me to start writing and no longer be afraid of ‘airing internal conflicts’ and the perspectives of Muslim misfits.  It was time to push back on the good-Muslim/bad-Muslim binary and proclaim my location within the varied, complex and yes, critical, experience of being a Muslim in this political moment. 

Totally Radical Muslims was born. We started with a zine confronting islamophobia, and drew a standing-only crowd of over 120 people at its release event in Oakland. The reception to our project has been overwhelming positive and encouraging. People, like myself, are thirsty for this perspective and have awaited these narratives within social justice movements. If the State Department entertained responses as to why I was declining their invitation, perhaps I would borrow from a comrades words.  We are nuanced, complex and hold multiple identities in addition to our Muslim-ness -  “our intention is to confuse the [email protected] out of you!”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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