“Too often when we think of Muslims in America we think only of the immigrant experience,” said Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student at Columbia University who studies America’s indigenous, primarily African-American and Latino, converts to Islam. “Islam is no stranger to black art…Islam is not ‘foreign’ to hip hop.”
Ali served as an advisor for “New Muslim Cool,” a thought-provoking documentary that tells the story of Puerto-Rican Muslim convert Hamza Perez and his hip-hop group, The Mujahideen Team. The documentary was screened on Thursday, January 14, in front of an audience of approximately 100 students, professors, and members of the general public at Columbia’s Altschul Auditorium.
Sherene Razack, Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, prefaced the screening with a keynote address entitled, “Western Responses to the Torture of Muslims.” While the documentary provided a powerful reminder of how religious practice can be a means to confront prejudice, drug abuse, and gang activity in the inner-city, Razack’s divisive lecture belied the more conciliatory themes of the film.
Razack began by discussing the 2004 incidents of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, insisting that the broader American public was complicit in allowing the abusive treatment of the Iraqi insurgents held there.
“Torture is permissible for people we have evicted from personhood,” Razack said, explaining that the War on Terror must be seen as an imperial project that dehumanizes its victims. “You can’t make sense of [Abu Ghraib] unless you see it in the context of imperial practice.”
Though Razack’s use of “we” would seem to imply that she also considers herself complicit in America’s “imperial policies,” she later claimed to speak for all Western Muslims in identifying with the Iraqi insurgents, not American servicemen.
“[Abu Ghraib] reminds those of us who share a culture or religion with [the Iraqi prisoners] that we are similarly valued…. We are reminded that our bodies, the bodies of our brothers and sons, are violateable [sic].”
According to Razack, torture is a “source of social integration” that is “intrinsically about engraving [Western] civilization on the bodies [of the insurgents].” She further argued that this assertion of the superiority of Western civilization was expressed through “sexualized torture” at Abu Ghraib because of “Orientalist” claims that Arabs are “sexually repressed and homophobic.”
Razack then stated that the foundation of America’s policy in the Middle East is based on “the same old Anglo-Saxon racialist arguments that have resurfaced post-9/11 as [Samuel Huntington’s] ‘Clash of Civilizations’.”
Having conflated race and culture, Razack went on to say that the “Anglo cluster”—the US, Britain, et al.—is dedicated to “upholding white supremacy.” In this context, Razack further claimed that, “Muslim is a racial category; you can’t disassociate from it.”
Razack seemed to suggest that the current War on Terror is an irreconcilable conflict between the Islamic world and the West, with all Western Muslims identifying with the former. Ironically, “New Muslim Cool,” which was screened following Razack’s address, provided a fundamentally different perspective, portraying American Muslims as part and parcel of America’s cultural milieu.
The movie not only addresses issues in the inner-city, such as crime and drug abuse, but also promotes inter-religious dialogue. Its main character, Hamza Perez, is shown progressing from a drug dealer to an angry Muslim youth to a mature man of religion seeking dialogue with Jews, Christians, and governmental institutions.
“When I was 21 my street side died in me and I became a Muslim,” Perez tells a group of inmates at a jail in Pittsburgh at which he serves as a chaplain. At the start of the film, Perez’s lyrics voice his disdain for the establishment, with assertions like “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects” and “Zionist business controls America.”
However, as the film progresses, Perez finds a wife, settles down, and begins to confront his anger at the outside world. He works with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inmates, telling them, “The highest form of brotherhood is the brotherhood of companionship of people you’re with to get closer to God.” Perez explains that for him “jihad,” which in standard use means holy war, is not in fact about holy war, but about overcoming “our lower desires,” including drug abuse. The choice to include the word “mujahideen,” or practitioners of jihad, in his hip-hop group’s name reflects Perez’s own rendering of the Arabic term.
When Perez’s security clearance at the prison where he works is revoked because the FBI finds out about his earlier political activism, he realizes that he cannot escape the hateful messages he had espoused in the past. After reading a passage from an interview he gave in 2003 in which he attacked the U.S. government, Perez reflects, “I got a little raw. That’s so young of me.”
Perez is ultimately allowed to return to his job at the prison. In a poignant scene at the movie’s end, he talks about how his moderate vision of Islam has inspired his personal progression. “The more you study the life of the Prophet [Muhammad]…the more merciful you become. If you’re not becoming more merciful and you’re becoming more harsh, then you’re not studying it properly.”
While “New Muslim Cool” periodically fails its moderate message by justifying FBI conspiracy theories and neglecting the opportunity to address the issue of radicalized American Muslims, it clearly places the onus for reform and dialogue on the leaders of the Western Muslim communities.
Razack’s message, on the other hand, portrayed Muslims, including Western Muslims, as perpetual victims of “imperial practices” and as outsiders who are prevented from integrating because of Western “racism”—a bizarre argument that took cynical intellectual acrobatics to defend. Razack’s position justifies the self-segregation of Western Muslims, which not only undermines the cohesiveness of our society, but may also perpetuate the underlying causes of homegrown terrorism.
Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.