“The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy.” — Deepa Iyer 

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

41j8PRILBzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 29, 2015:

A vibrant multiracial America is emerging right before our eyes.  According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.” (“Multiracial in America,” June 11, 2015).

Deepa Iyer takes a looks at the struggles behind this momentous change in the United States and the challenges ahead in We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, November 2015).  She writes that America “has yet to fully confront the scope and effects of racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that have permeated our national narratives and policies in the years since 9/11.  We must change this legal, cultural, and political climate of hostility and suspicion, especially as communities perceived as ‘others’ change American cities, schools, and neighborhoods due to population increases and migration patterns.”

A native of Kerala, India, Deepa Iyer immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her parents and brother to Louisville, Kentucky.  In a 2014 interview, she reflected on her early experiences as an immigrant to America: “It did not take long to find out I was on the margins, that I was not mainstream. In the mid-80s in Kentucky, people were used to a black or white racial paradigm.  People like me fit neither.  I definitely had my share of experiencing some bullying and harassment at school, which shaped my sense of being different.”

Iyer, currently a Senior Fellow at Center for Social Inclusion, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame Law School.  An activist, writer and lawyer, she has served as a Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). 

Her work on immigrant and civil rights issues began at the Asian American Justice Center in the late 1990s. While at SAALT for nearly a decade, she shaped the formation of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), a network of local South Asian groups, and served as Chair of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Iyer’s essays on immigration, the post 9/11 backlash, and racism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Al-Jazeera and the Nation.

With contentious national debates on race, religion, and immigration making the news every day, We Too Sing America is a fresh voice in the conversation.

Deepa Iyer discusses her new book in this exclusive interview.

Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)
Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)

Why did you choose to take the title of your book from a Langston Hughes poem?  Does the poem have special meaning for you as an activist for social justice?

Almost ninety years ago, Langston Hughes wrote a poem about how Black people, though they were marginalized and rejected in all aspects of American society, grew stronger and wiser. He wrote that they too “sing America.” The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy. That is why the poem resonated with me. Continue reading

by GALYM ZHUSSIPBEK for ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 18, 2015:

Galym Zhussipbek
Galym Zhussipbek

It can be argued that all radical Muslims who claim to act in the name of Islam, in reality, quite ironically, do not properly understand the very basic pillar of the Islamic creed — Oneness of God (Tawheed) — which they pretend to defend or restore. But the proper belief in Tawheed signifies the utmost humility and an acceptance of diversity and respect for human-kind.

This is currently one of the most-contested principles in Islam, though an Islamic world-view centered around Oneness of God (Tawheed) necessitates the genuine acceptance of pluralism.

There are some powerful calls for a reformation of Islam — propelled by gross human rights violations of human rights perpetrated by some Muslims or by people acting in the name of Islam who have zero tolerance for pluralism and the diversity of human-kind.

Many people, including Muslims themselves may wonder what connects Islamic creed (aqeedah) and this preference for peace and acceptance of pluralism. Continue reading

ABOUT THE ABOVE RECORDING:

Maqam Rast (two parts)
Muhammad al-Qubbanchi
First Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932)
Cairo, Egypt. 78rpm recording.

Maqam Rast by Muhammad al-Qubbanchi and members of the Iraqi delegation to the First Cairo Congress of Arab Music (Le Congrès du Caire) in Egypt, ِ1932. The poetry sung here is a takhmis by Sayyid Ja’far al-Hilli al-Najafi (1861-1898) of a poem by Muhammad Sa’id al-Habbubi (1849-1916).

by ABDUL SATTAR JAWAD for ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 16, 2015: 

Remembering Baghdad in the salad days or during the monarchy era, seems now as if retrieving a reverie from the time of yore or as the Arab narrative goes : kan ya ma kan. What happened to Baghdad, Scheherazade’s abode, in the last sixty years or so, invites a flow of memories and emotions.

Having been born in a mixed neighborhood of this cosmopolitan city in 1943 , I still long for a time when religion was not an issue. Tolerance was a value to maintain and honor. Everyone cherished it. Continue reading


by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 14, 2015: 

Earlier this month, the Duke Middle East Studies Center, in partnership with the Duke Center for Jewish Studies and the Duke University Program in Arts of the Moving Image,  screened Sajil Ana Arabi (“Write Down, I am an Arab”) — the 2014 documentary film about “one of the most influential writers of the Arab world” Mahmoud Darwish. It’s the ninth film of award-winning Israeli director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin.

As written in the official description of the film:

“Write Down, I am an Arab” tells the story of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet and one of the most influential writers of the Arab world. His writing shaped Palestinian identity and helped galvanize generations of Palestinians to their cause. Born in the Galilee, Darwish’s family fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and returned a few years later to a ruined homeland. These early experiences would provide the foundation for a writing career that would come to define an entire nation. 

Like other Palestinian citizens of Israel at the time, Mahmoud Darwish grew up under military law that prevented freedom of movement. In 1964 his defiant poem, “Write Down, I am an Arab”, lands him in prison and turns him into an icon of the Arab world. At the same time, he meets and falls in love with Tamar Ben-Ami, a young Jewish-Israeli. He sends her intimate love letters in Hebrew which she keeps secret for decades. The affair ends when Tamar joins the army. 

Darwish leaves Israel in the 1970s, moving to Beirut just before the outbreak of the civil war, where he connects with the PLO leadership and becomes speech writer and confidant to Yasir Arafat. He returns to Palestine in 1995 after years of exile and continues to be the biting and powerful voice of the Palestinian people until his death in 2008. 

“Write Down, I am Arab” is a personal and social portrait of the poet and national myth, Mahmoud Darwish. Through his poetry, secret love letters, and exclusive archival materials, we unearth the story behind the man who became the mouthpiece of the Palestinian people.

Following the documentary screening, Shai Ginsburg (an associate professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University who researches Hebrew literature, Israeli Cinema, and critical theory) engaged the audience in a free-flowing discussion about the life of the famed writer and the literature and politics that informed his work, as well as the state of the Israeli film industry today.

ISLAMiCommentary conducted a written Q & A (below) with Ginsburg to elaborate on these themes and also spoke with miriam cooke (Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University) about Darwish. Iraq-native Abdul Sattar Jawad (professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Duke University) traveled in some of the same Arab writer’s circles as Darwish from the ‘70s through to 2003. He got to know the writer personally, and has also added some of his reflections to the Q & A. Continue reading

by IMAN SULTAN for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on AUGUST 24, 2015:

Iman Sultan
Iman Sultan

Granada is renowned as the last stronghold of Andalusian Muslims before the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition descended on the entire peninsula and drove them out. It is the inspiration of teary poets reminiscing of the bygone Golden Age of the Muslim ummah, and the site of political nostalgia among Muslim nationalists. Recently, it has also become a center of epistemic resistance among people from around the world and across different faith groups, nationalities and academic disciplines.

A program called Critical Muslim Studies (CMS), an intensive two-week summer school, convened there in early June with activists, intellectuals and professors who specialize in liberation theology and believe in utilizing religion and spirituality to achieve political justice. Roberto Hernandez — a Latino professor and activist, who had been involved in the Berkeley student strike of 1999 when students took to the streets because the university was disbanding the Ethnic Studies department — was the director of this program.

The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain. (photo by Iman Sultan)
The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain. (photo by Iman Sultan)

The location proved key. Ramon Grosfoguel, an ethnic studies professor and critical scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, explained why we were in Granada. The historical city was not only the last outpost of Muslim civilization in Spain, it was the first victim of colonial modernity that was about to sweep the world, and which the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were forging.  The same tactics used in the Inquisition, he explained, were used in the conquest of the Americas and and in the genocide of indigenous and African peoples. Current-day Granada is fraught with this history and divisive consciousness. Near Plaza Nueva, a public square filled with restaurants and shops, a gigantic statue of Columbus kneeling at Isabella’s feet and giving her his plans for conquest rises into the sky with the beacon of the Alhambra gleaming on the horizon.

Grosfoguel postulated that the Muslim conquest of Iberia was in fact not a conquest, but a liberation. In the 8th century, Spain did not exist as we know it today, but constituted different languages and peoples. The Iberian people were primarily Unitarian Christians and Jews, suffering under the boot of foreign Visigothic rule. An army of 8,000 Muslims (at the most) defeated an army of 150,000 Visigoths in only three years, a seemingly impossible feat. What enabled the Muslims to triumph? The answer lay in the people. The inhabitants of Iberia had not only joined the incoming Muslim armies in liberating themselves, they had also appealed to Morocco several times for help. What resulted? Interfaith relations flourished and there was unity amongst these Mediterranean peoples. The invisible line in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, West and East, did not exist at the time, but only appeared with The Inquisition and the advent of colonialism.

Continue reading