It’s not that “ISIL is not Islamic;” it’s that ISIL shouldn’t be called ISIL at all

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the social media world surrounding Obama’s statement that “ISIL is not Islamic.” If they’re called the “Islamic State,” the argument goes, doesn’t that make them “Islamic”? But that logic seems a bit absurd. Is West Boro Baptist Church a church? Is it Baptist? Baptists are, generally-speaking, Christians. Are the members of West Boro Christian? After all, they’re technically using the same holy book as Christians. And they are steeped in much of the same language Evangelical Christians use. But most Christians would distance themselves from a “church” that protests at military funerals. Some might even argue that Christians don’t share the same holy text with West Boro, since the passages that are most important to West Boro focus solely on wrath and vengeance. It’s as if they’re working with a different “canon within a canon” that everyone else is using.

Of course, if we decide that West Boro is Christian, just an extremist version of Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that West Boro isn’t cutting off anyone’s heads or surrounding anyone’s towns until they starve. If they were, would they still be Christian extremists? At what point does an extremist view of an ideology become a separate ideology altogether? Moreover, who decides when that line has been crossed? To confess an ideology in name only, while simultaneously doing the opposite of what most people come to expect from that ideology, seems a good reason to call it something else.

And in fact, if I have a beef with Obama saying “ISIL is not Islamic,” the beef is that we shouldn’t allow “ISIL” to call themselves “the Islamic State” in the first place. I’ve written about this before when pointing out the dangers of letting extremist groups like the “Taliban,” or the “students,” or the “Shabaab,” or “the youth,” hijack language without a fight that counters their use of that language. George Bush was actually good at this when he employed terms like “evildoers.” So, why not call them something else – something that more accurately depicts what they’re doing? We’ve gone from “ISIS” to “ISIL” to “IS” anyway and all in deference to what the extremists are choosing to call themselves.

And just as we have the power to call them what we want to call them, I think it’s worth noting whose responsibility it is to deal with them. That is, while I reject the notion that West Boro Baptist is a Christian church, it’s very much a Christian problem. And an American problem. Because those are the cultural contexts that birthed West Boro. If a child in a family does something terrible, the family has two choices: either disown the child or bring the child into line. In the case of West Boro, I’d argue they’re already disowned in that most Christians would not associate themselves as being “brothers and sisters” to the members of West Boro unless those members indicated a desire to change their ideology. So, too, if a group is extremist enough, sometimes you have to go beyond merely disowning them in name and find a way to remove them from society or from harming others, as well. Similarly, the “Islamic State” is, to me, both an Islamic problem and a Western problem. Because those are the cultures that birthed this form of extremism. To say “ISIL is not Islamic,” is the clarification – in case anyone needed it – that they have been disowned. Now comes the harder task of removing them from society so they can harm no more. And maybe it’s best to begin this task by disempowering them from the very language they might use to describe themselves, especially when that language is the opposite of who they really are.

The Terror of the Shabaab, or why we’re our own worst enemies

My job when I worked in Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps was to work with the shabaab, that is the “youth” of Morocco. I worked out of a youth center, or Dar Shabaab (literally: youth house), which was akin something like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club. In North Africa, “youth” is defined as those folks who are between the ages of, say, their tweens to about thirty years-old or so (or until a person is married). So, it’s a little different from the way we define it in America.

If you keep up with the news, you already know this Arabic word. In the wake of some terrorist attacks, most recently those at a Kenyan mall, everyone is talking about an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group called “Al Shabaab.” There’s a few things about this that deeply bother me.

The first is the way the media pronounces the definitive article “al” before the word “shabaab.” This shows a lack of understanding of Arabic. There are two types of letters in the Arabic alphabet – moon and sun letters. When you begin a word with a moon letter, you pronounce the “al” before the letter for a definitive article. However, with sun letters, like the “sh,” or sheen, in “shabaab,” the sun letter absorbs the “al” such that you don’t pronounce it. So, for some words, like “Al Qaeda,” the definitive article is pronounced before the root word, whilst for others it is not. This video takes you through which letters are sun letters (shamsiya letters) and which are moon (qamirya letters).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the unfortunate reality that this terrorist group has chosen a catch-all term with a positive connotation and shoved it out into the world as though it’s all-encompassing of Muslim “youth.” This terminology is incredibly damaging to the Arab world (which I’m distinguishing from “Muslim world” here to refer to countries where Arabic is dominate, since “shabaab” is an Arabic word). I don’t think it’s good to allow these groups to get away with using this kind of terminology. It’s happened before; the word “taliban” really just means “the students.” It’s a little ridiculous that, after 9/11, we declared war on “the students” and today the world is fighting “the youth.” Can you imagine if the Nazi party had been called “the Peaceful Ones”? We probably would have changed their name.

Which is what I would advocate here. Instead of calling them “Al Shabaab,” we need new terminology. I’d argue for “the Cowards”: Al Jubna’a. By the way, similar to the Shabaab, you don’t pronounce the definitive article “al,” so it would just be “the Jubna’a” if transliterated into English.

What is truly scary about the Jubna’a, though, is their make-up: there were American teens among the members of the attackers on the mall in Kenya. The presumed leader of the group is a British female known as “the white widow.” There were also other Britons, Canadians, Somalis, Kenyans, and strangely enough, folks from Finland all involved in this terrorist cell. So, what’s that mean? The world’s new terrorists are, increasingly, radicalized westerners. 

After a Moroccan was jailed for planning an attack on the US Capitol building in early 2012, I wrote in my blog at the time,

I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what ‘radicalized’ him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?  On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified. And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all. We can’t assume in a ‘war’ where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect. We’re not responsible for changing them. We’re responsible for changing us. And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole ‘war on terrorism’ so mixed up.

Now that radicalized westerners are the new rage among terrorist cells, I still stand by those words. These cowards, the Jubna’a, didn’t turn to terrorism overnight. This is a situation where the bullied became the bully. The way our society treats the Muslim community is deeply disconcerting and worrisome, and while our actions don’t justify theirs, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at the way we really “love one another.” It’s time to ask who the cowards really are.

From Fallen Towers to Chemical Weapons, or why non-intervention may be just as inhuman as intervening

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that today was 9/11, to be honest. In the past, that’s been a big thing for me – something I blogged about fairy regularly. Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Africa, acquainting myself somewhat with Arab culture, I gained a new perspective on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Or rather the fact that the two should never be equated. 9/11 for me became a day to highlight our humanity and not solely who we are as Americans. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in remembrance. When I was younger, I even wrote poetry to commemorate 9/11. But today just sort of went by. I didn’t stop and think about the planes or the towers falling. Or about where I was when it happened. I didn’t really stop and think about terrorism or our response to it. I just went about my day.

I remember that’s what we were told to do on 9/12. If we didn’t go about life like it was “business as usual,” then “the terrorists were winning.” They wanted to disrupt our norm, so we shouldn’t let them. But then, ironically, we rushed off to war, and in a way, that began to feel like the terrorists were winning. Our norm was disrupted. We became reactive instead of proactive. Two wars, actually, dwindled on for a decade and a little more.

In the wake of those wars, we’ve become a country both weary and wary of fighting. Our unwillingness to intervene in Syria probably stems from our worries about the failures of Iraq and Libya. It’s perfectly understandable. What’s happening in Syria is awful, and yet, we now realize that our intervention there probably won’t make anything any better.

“I am not my brother’s keeper,” we seem to say. Some of us would go further: “That’s not even my brother.”

I have struggled with what I think about the crisis in Syria, though. Maybe it’s the little Arabic I can pick up and understand as I watch what’s happening. Maybe it’s how similar Syria looks in video to me from my little village in the Middle Atlas mountains. Maybe it’s because, in a way, I do see the Syrians as our “brothers,” even Assad, even the rebels, even the terrorists. If you’re part of a family where one brother goes astray or attacks other members of the family, disowning both members of the family just doesn’t make sense to me. So, as much as I lament the fact that these problems always seem to fall in the lap of the United States when it should be the responsibility of the whole world, I also find myself wondering and wanting to ask, “Are you your brother’s keeper? Are they your brothers?”

I’m not making an argument that we should go bomb Syria. Or put troops on the ground. I certainly think the Russian proposal kicked off by Secretary Kerry inadvertently was probably a stumble in the right direction. Regardless of what we do or don’t do, though, I think the way we approach the question of action may need rethinking. And I’m referring less to what the government does or doesn’t do and just as much to what the average Joe-Schmoe posts in a social media forum saying ill-informed things, like “America shouldn’t be fighting for Al Qaeda.” I think we need to try our best to humanize our “enemies” in every circumstance even if doing so might make us look “weak” to the rest of the world. When I hear that “we need to take care of our own,” I agree with that. America seems to be tumbling toward another financial decline – not that it has gotten better since 2007. And yet, I think “taking care of our own” misunderstands that, in the global marketplace, they are very much us. And from a loving, moral perspective that seeks to find compassion and empathy, their problems are very much ours.

So, I guess I worry about this attitude of non-intervention or how close it sits to good old isolationist ideals of the early 20th century. And lately, I’ve wondered whether history just repeats itself. Is a great war brewing? Is a financial collapse worse than the depression brewing? It all sounds so doom-and-gloom and fodder for conspiracy theorists to almost be laughable. And yet, should America ever begin to go the way of the dodo, I sure hope there’ll be someone out there who is willing to say about us, willing to fight for us – “I am my brother’s keeper, and we’ll figure this out together.”

Why Being a PCV in Morocco Matters

To my friends still there, I came across an article this morning about six Fezi youth who were recruiting for Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

It’s Christmas Day, and I know not all volunteers are with family or friends.  It can be a rather lonely time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I know when you read this, you’ll think of some of the faces of the youth you know and work with and how much we come to care for our friends there.  There is no better fight against terrorism than the good work volunteers do.  There is no better fight against terrorism than simply loving our neighbors, and it’s sad to see guns and militarism unraveling the good work being done.  There are some of us who are still dreamers that for every bomb dropped or gun fired, we might double our efforts to provide aid where it’s needed and welcome.  Keep up the work you’re doing, the simple work of just caring for someone for the sake of caring for them.  It matters.

You’re all missed.  Happy Christmas.  M’brouk l3id dyalna.

Homeland, or the American Media and the Stories that Just Aren’t True

I sometimes have a bad habit of saying slightly controversial things on the blog.  A lot of that stems from suddenly plopping myself into a Muslim country as a Peace Corps Volunteer and having to step back and say, “Wait a minute, these people aren’t the terrorists television in America makes them out to be.”  I talk about that a lot, actually.  Probably too much.  That’s because, on the one hand, I came here having majored in religion, having studied (a very little) Islam, and so I already knew that Islam was not the big, bad religion a lot of people make it out to be, or at the very least, I knew from a Christian education to “judge not lest ye be judged.”  But I should step back for a second and admit something that I find slightly embarrassing, something I haven’t yet admitted on the blog —

I was a little scared when I first set foot on Moroccan soil.  I was intimidated by how different this place was from my life in America.  And I’m sure, on some level at least, that would’ve been true no matter where I’d been sent.  That’s just Culture Shock 101.  But, again, it’s probably a bit different dealing with culture shock here after having been constantly fed images of this culture in America vs. culture shock in, say, Jamaica.  Rastafarian’s don’t really scare me (though maybe they should).

But those first few days in Morocco were unnerving for me in a way I don’t like to admit, because it made me feel prejudiced.  And let’s face it, I was prejudiced.  I caught myself on more than one occasion encountering an image that I absolutely associated with terrorism, an image that was simply everyday Middle-Eastern dress.  I very vividly remember the first time we went “outside” on our own to walk the streets of Kenitra, and part of this “fear” may stem from the fact that the Gendarmes were following us around to “protect” us (although, over a year later, and I’m not really sure what they were “protecting” but I have a feeling it had more to do with making us feel welcome and making them look more serious and caring than anything else).  I remember seeing a dirty street, hearing the strange sounds of Arabic, the loud call-to-prayer ringing off the bustling concrete walls, and realizing that my every move was being watched with suspicious eyes – “Who are these foreigners?”  But at the time, I had no clue that I was as foreign and as scary to them, perhaps, as they were to me.

There were a few occasions where I’d lie awake and think through what I’d do if someone from Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb showed up and tried to kidnap me.  I’d picture myself, of course, fending them off with my impeccable strength and becoming an American hero.  Silly.  Just absolutely silly in every possible way.  And it’s even sillier the longer I’ve been here that those kinds of prejudiced thoughts would even enter my mind.  I didn’t have dreams about being mugged when I traveled to New York (probably should have, though), so why worry about something that’s such a small, unlikely threat?

It took getting to know people to help me realize how silly and prejudiced that was.  It took sitting down over tea and bread, hearing my host mother echo the only English she knew – “I love you; you are my son.”  It took hours of goofing off with Khalil or dancing with Omar and Hamza in their house.  It even took frustrating moments and arguments with Moroccans before I settled into the fact that I had been duped, that I had been sold a lie about an entire race of people, and how?  9/11?  The television show 24?  Constant news reports about terrorism?  The fact that other hate crimes are not called “terrorism” if they aren’t committed by “Muslims”?

I guess when I realized I’d been duped, it gave me some sense of urgency to say back home, “Hey guys, don’t listen to all that stuff: it’s not true.”  I’m just one little guy living in one little place, and there’s even been a bombing in Morocco since I’ve been here.  That story eclipses my own work, my own interactions, and it’s so much louder.  But I wish it weren’t.

All that is to say, why would anybody listen to me?  Why would I have anything worthwhile to contribute to that conversation?  I sometimes fear my one little experience can’t fight the power behind a media that has socialized an entire generation to, well, think that Muslims are bad people (or the reverse, that Christians or Jews or whoever else are somehow “better”).  No human beings are “better” because of a political view or a religious view.  I don’t agree very often with my conservative friends, but I am not “better” than them, and they are not “better” than me.  Being “better” in my opinion really just means recognizing in painful honesty what makes us worse: a humble love that says there is no better; there’s only who we are and we have to work with and through that.

Lately, some volunteers have been passing around a television show that’s apparently popular in America on Showtime called “Homeland.”  Have a look see for yourself:

The premise of the show is that there’s an American who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda during the Iraq War and during his kidnapping is “turned” to the other side.  Actually, the show has several characters who fit that description, one of whom serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan and then returns to America to plot a terrorist attack.  Really?  A Peace Corps Volunteer?  You had to go there, Showtime writers?  It would almost be funny if it weren’t so insulting on some level, because there’s a scary implication in the show that anyone who can respect a different religion might become a terrorist.

I had this strange experience of moving from watching an episode of the show to going to teach English classes with a group of hilarious Moroccan youth to coming back to watch more of the show to going to eat couscous with a family that had begged me to come for dinner, and juxtaposing the show with my real life actually made me sit back and think, “Wow, this form of media is really powerful.  And kind of dangerous.”  It also reminded me (as has my mom) that the people back home reading good ole Phil’s blog aren’t the ones sitting down having tea or encountering Moroccan hospitality.  You can read these words, read about this experience, but at the end of the day, your news channel still tells you something absolutely negative about the world I live in.  And I just can’t compete with that.

So, I don’t know what we do.  I don’t know how we demand better of our media, how we ask to hear more positive stories and less negative ones.  Unless we just share them ourselves, one story at a time.  That’s the most I can do.  And it’s what I’ll try to keep doing.

Remembering 11 September

I remember sitting in my desk laughing at the television when all planes were diverted to Canada.  Someone in the class busted out with a joke, “Yeah, screw Canada,” and we all started laughing desperate to find something to keep us from crying.  Mrs. Hardin, our senior English teacher who deserved more love than she received for how much she challenged us, turned off the television and began to cry herself, “You guys don’t get it, do you?  People are dying.  God only knows how many people are dying, and you’re laughing.  What’s happening right now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.”

We sat there in silence.  I’ve never felt so guilty in my life, but a few minutes later, Mrs. Hardin turned the television back on as the images bounced back and forth between the Pentagon and the Trade Towers, what was left of them.  And black smoke; lots of it.  I became obsessed with the images, unable to look away from the television.

By third block, there were confirmations that the attacks were likely the result of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  Images on the television showed Middle Easterners dancing in the streets and cheering.  “They’re dancing today,” I said in fury to my Calculus teacher, “But tomorrow they’ll all be dead.”  She agreed.  But I didn’t really understand what I was saying.   I knew nothing about them.  Nothing.  To me, they were just a different color and for some reason, they wanted to kill us.  So the natural response seemed to be that we would have to retaliate.  Yet, for every part of me that was ready for vengeance by mid-afternoon, I carried this sickening feeling buried deep down as I looked around at my peers thinking we’d find a way to overplay the need for “justice,” that nothing positive could come from the possibility that all those dancing Muslims could soon be dead.  I was deeply conflicted, a part of me ready to fight; another part of me believing that couldn’t be the answer.  And what was worse, I knew nothing about Islam, mostly because in American high schools, we were taught nothing about religion, lest someone complain about the separation of church and state.  The attempts to keep Christianity out of the public sphere had made us all stupid when it came to other religions.

By fourth block, I sat in an art class with Mrs. Haubold.  She turned on the television for Tony Blair’s speech, but a few other students wanted it off.  A couple of girls in the class passed notes around about their most recent relationship issues, which made me even more furious.  In Tennessee, it seemed, what had happened that morning so far off and in New York or Pennsylvania was already forgotten by some.  I didn’t understand students who weren’t obsessed with what was taking place.  But Mrs. Hardin’s words sunk deep within me, “What’s happening now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.”  I had to “get it.”  I had to figure out what Mrs. Hardin meant.

And so it’s been ten years, and now I’m surrounded by Islam and working in the Arab world.  I’ve even taken on an Arabic name, Fouad, which means heart.  I sometimes wonder here what Fouad could’ve said to that young, naive Philip sitting in the classroom watching the television angrily and building up stereotypes and generalizations for an entire race of people I knew absolutely nothing about.  I wonder if I had been educated on Islam, would I have been able to say on that first 9/11, “Hey, that’s not Islam.  That’s a twisted, extremist take on a beautiful religion.”  Would I have been so quick to suggest that hate was the answer to hate?  Would I have been able to ask myself deep questions about why this tragedy was happening or about how to handle the grief in an appropriate way?

I don’t know.  I don’t know if I could have been educated to think about what was happening in a more critical way.  But part of why my work here, my blog, my need to speak out against injustice toward Muslims, my need to speak positively about a religion that is not my own… all stems from my need to recognize that if I had not bothered to educate myself about Islam or to think critically about the tragedy of 9/11, I might still be that young man who answered hate with hate.  I might still be advocating stereotypes and passing judgments on many Muslim Americans who are supposed to have the same rights as any other Americans.

And so remembering has become incredibly important to me but only where remembrance breeds humility, understanding, and peace, never vengeance.  Do you get it?  Do you understand what happened or why it happened or how it changed our lives?  A lot of Americans today will pray for the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 or for the American troops fighting overseas.  I believe firmly that we should add to that list of prayers our brothers and sisters in America and abroad who have had to feel the impact of our choices to answer hate with hate rather than to seek peace and understanding.  And I would add a prayer that educating ourselves to think critically about this tragedy and others like it, becomes a priority for us in the hope that nothing like 9/11 or the responses to it could ever happen again.

AQIM in Morocco?

Just wanted to get some questions answered here for folks back home.  I don’t have a whole lot of time this morning, as I am at a volunteerism workshop in Ouzzane, which is close to Chefaouen until heading out to Fes soon.  But I know you’d been wondering, so here is the skinny:

Yes, there was an apparently “remotely detonated bomb” (so not a suicide bombing) that went off in a popular cafe in Marrakesh (popular meaning, yes, I have friends in the Peace Corps who frequented that cafe, though no volunteers were there or hurt).  I live some eleven odd hours away, have not gone to Marrakesh yet, and am not expected to go there until June.

Yes, some people are suggesting that the bomb can be linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), suggesting that it looks similar to their work.  I, personally, think that’s a drastic claim when it seems like AQIM would want to take responsibility for it, and so far, no one has.

Yes, almost every news article I come across goes from talking about the bombing to then immediately blabbing on about the “peaceful protests” that are happening here in Morocco, like the rest of the Arab world (Sundays protests are expected to be huge), but I find this to be media hype.  Whether someone thought there was or not, I see no connection between Moroccans protesting peacefully for a better government and Al Qaeda wanting to harm foreigners.

Yes, the French are taking especially sharp aim at what happened, going as far as claiming that French people were the primary targets.  Leave it to the French to think it’s all about them.

Here is a link to the article that I found most interesting and helpful.

I guess the two biggest things I want to say are this –

First, Peace Corps is taking really seriously our safety.  Although, the truth is, a suicide bombing here or there, and it’s still more likely I’ll blow myself up on accident cooking with buta gaz.  It’s still more likely that one of you will, statistically speaking, get mugged walking down a street in a big, American city than it is that anything would ever happen to me.  I’m making a point to be vigilant and to be prepared whether we should need to consolidate (it’s not looking like it will come to that currently) or not.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t want the message back home to conjure up negative views of Morocco, to suggest this country is unsafe or that these people are not the loving, kind-hearted people that they are.  Moroccans are as devastated by this as anyone else, and they are committed to fighting terrorism.  Unfortunately, no matter how committed a country can be to fighting terrorism, terrorism still happens.  There are still bad people out there.  Oh well.

To make a long story short, I’m safe and still happy as ever.  I think the part of the country I am in right now is some of the most beautiful parts of Morocco I’ve seen thus far.  I’ll try to get you more information as it comes my way.