Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Blueprint for Muslim-American Activism

(You can also read the article here.)

In his powerful and propulsive speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia last week, former President Bill Clinton made a compelling case for Hillary Clinton’s presidency. 

As a Muslim American, however, I was most captivated when he said, “If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.”

I heard in those words a blueprint for action that has been missing in the discourse of Muslim Americans. If we can act on this blueprint in this consequential election year, it can empower us to control our destiny and help shape the destiny of our country.

The first order of business for us is to stop wallowing in self-pity.

We cannot help Democrats win and make a future together - the overwhelming majority of the registered voters among the 3 million Muslim Americans are Democrats - if we waste time collecting grievances. Yes, Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from coming to America. Yes, Newt Gingrich wants to “test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported."

But for every Trump and Gingrich, there are many more politicians and our fellow-Americans who condemn their bigotry and xenophobia and offer their support for us.

Unfortunately, by focusing more on the former and less on the latter, many of us assume the default mode of passivity. For many Muslim Americans, political activism begins and ends with making an occasional subversive post on social media. It is time we realized that keyboard warriors rarely accomplish anything, while grassroots activists accomplish much, even if at a great cost.

I found it telling that at the DNC, many speakers, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, quoted and alluded to Theodore Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who does actually strive to do the deeds … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Muslim Americans must refuse to be timid souls (a synonym for grievance collectors) and fence-sitters during this election year and throw themselves whole-heartedly into the arena.

This demands that we engage in the kind of activism that can be cathartic for us and transformational for our country.

This also means that we must do whatever it takes to help Hillary Clinton become the President of the United States even if we have serious disagreements with her on serious issues, because the alternative is too nightmarish to contemplate.

We cannot just talk the talk. We must also walk the walk. Literally. We have to walk the precincts. We have to knock on doors. We have to work the phones. We have to register unregistered voters and organize rallies. We have to train ourselves to be articulate in making the case for our candidate. There are lots of undecided voters out there who can have a disproportionately large impact on the outcome of this election. If each one of us commit to convincing only one undecided or apathetic voter into voting for Hillary Clinton, we can not only help her win, we can also change our mindset about our ability to make our society more inclusive and just.

In today’s America, it is tough to be a Muslim American. Anti-Muslim sentiments, fanned by Donald Trump and his likes, continue to frustrate and frighten some of us. We are numbed by the terrorism of Muslims who give our religion a black eye. Think of the mass killings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas (2009), Tsarnaev Brothers at Boston (2013), Mohammed Abdulazeez at Chattanooga, Tennessee (2015), the Muslim Bonnie-and-Clyde-duo of Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Mailk at San Bernardino, California (2015), and Omar Mateen at Orlando, Florida (2016).

But we cannot use these horrific events as an excuse to sit on the sidelines and watch a demagogue tear apart the social fabric of our country. For inspiration, we need look no further than Khizr Khan, father of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty, who challenged Donald Trump at the DNC to read the U.S. Constitution and understand the meaning of words like ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ By this singularly symbolic act, he showed how a Muslim American can influence countless hearts and minds across our nation and around the world.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Reversing Bangladesh's Descent into Anarchy

(You can also read the article here and here)

Bangladesh is slowly but surely descending into anarchy.

The time to reverse the descent is now, or it may be too late.

The carnage at an upscale eatery in the diplomatic enclave in the capital city of Dhaka on 1st July, in which twenty hostages, mostly foreigners, were killed with cleavers and long knives, was only a continuation of the butchery of about 40 secular bloggers, university professors, gay rights activists, writers, publishers, foreigners and members of religious minorities, including Shia and Sufi Muslims, Hindus and Christians, since 2013.

The virus of extremism and religious fanaticism is rapidly spreading, infecting a segment of the population that includes estranged and affluent educated young men in their teens and 20's who hate openly and kill wantonly.

ISIS, the death-cult organization, has taken credit for the carnage. Latest reports suggest that the seven young attackers were driven by the nihilistic goals of ISIS, although they probably received military training from homegrown terrorist organizations like Ansar
al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

It is a tragedy of gigantic proportion that the Wisconsin-sized nation of 160 million, held up as a symbol of Muslim moderation not too long ago, has become a pawn, perhaps even a player, in the deadly game of global jihadism.

What can Bangladesh do to reverse its descent into the abyss and restore its reputation as a moderate nation?

First, the government must acknowledge that terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida have planted themselves in Bangladesh, with local fanatics ready to respond to their evil messages with extreme violence. One can fight the enemy only if one identifies who the enemy is. Last month, the government arrested over 11,000 people in a supposed crackdown on terrorism but critics, national and international, complained that many of those arrested were supporters of opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that Prime Minister Hasina is determined to undermine under any pretext.

Second, the conditions that foster the growth of jihadist movements must be eradicated with as much fervor and foresight as the jihadist movements themselves. For Bangladesh, this means giving up its obsession with the past and focusing more on the future.

ISIS-inspired killers in Bangladesh did not grow in a vacuum. A major factor in their rise has been the government’s relentless pursuit of Bangladeshis responsible for war-crimes committed during the nation’s bloody war of independence in 1971. While most Bangladeshis supported the idea of their trial, what was not acceptable was the utter lack of transparency of the so-called “International Crimes Tribunal” established in 2010. There was nothing ‘international’ about the tribunal. Filled with party hacks, it resembled a kangaroo court more than it did any genuine dispenser of justice. The tribunal hanged several members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, including its leader Motiur Rahman Nizami in May this year. This helped radicalize some Bangladeshis who were convinced that Islam itself was under siege by Sheikh Hasina’s government, despite the fact that the prime minister is a devout Muslim herself.

A corollary of this unfortunate development is the opportunity it has given ISIS looking for soft targets around the world after losing territories in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that it has found one in Bangladesh where general lawlessness, corruption, nepotism, violence and partisan politics have combined to make it a prime target for terrorist organizations.

As an American of Bangladeshi origin, I have been visiting the country of my birth every year for the last several years. The reason for my visit is to be with my octogenarian mother battling several physical ailments. Prophet Muhammad taught that paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers. That, combined with respect and gratitude for the woman who instilled in me the importance of having a purposeful life, used to fill me with happiness every time I boarded the flight from San Francisco on my way to Dhaka.

In the last couple of years, however, my attitude has changed. For one thing, it just isn’t safe there anymore. Anything can happen. Family and friends warn me not to venture outside after dark. News of kidnapping, killing, mugging, bombing and assorted violence fill the daily media. For another, the disintegration of the civil society is too jarring to accept. The opening line of the national anthem of Bangladesh reads: “My Golden Bengal, I love you.” For the common man, that Golden Bengal of yesteryear has degenerated into a cruel and callous country where trust, security and honesty seem quaint relics.

The day after the attack in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech in which she said: “We will turn Bangladesh into a peaceful state by eliminating the terrorists from their roots. No conspiracy can hinder our advancement.”

For the sake of Bangladesh, and the world, we can only hope that the Prime Minister will take rational, practical steps to keep her promise, instead of resorting to policies mired in the past and driven by the idea of revenge.