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Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields

July 12, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

     I suspect most Americans would approve of what they understand to be this nation’s global cultural reach as expressed through its ‘soft power’. A term coined by an American political scientist, soft power “involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. Contrasted with coercive measures, it’s achieved largely through cultural means, although nevertheless a feature of foreign policy. Probably as old as politics itself.

     Soft power politics are long-term, sociable and gentle. (Certainly nothing dangerous!) To say that they’re ideologically driven would be guileless. Some definitions are less circumspect, describing soft power as “using positive attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives”. When at work domestically, it may be akin to kneeling-softly-on-the-neck, persuading Americans how this is a land of equality and unparalleled freedom.

     U.S. citizens may even consider America’s soft power abroad with pride: “This is how we’re helping others-- securing democratic principles, sharing advanced (sic) intellectual, medical and cultural resources. American films, so popular (and lucrative) globally, augmented by satellite-enabled news and entertainment channels are, I would argue, among the most effective examples of this power. Music and literature cannot be excluded too.

     Boosting commercially-driven exports are government-funded programs like Peace Corps, high school scholarships, youth exchanges, anthropological research and conferences. All proceed at an undiminished pace, whichever party rules. These programs also carry that ‘cold light of reason’ imparted to foreign peoples held to be short on ‘objectivity’ or ‘reason’. Implicit in this largesse is an intellectual and aesthetic superiority on the part of the donor.

     Globally, tens of millions indiscriminately embrace soft power projects originating in European (white) nations. They search them out and compete for any awards offered. Soft power programs can foster the belief in people that their own government is evil, hopeless— at least uncaring -- leading such romantics to conclude it should be overthrown-- if not internally, then by an invading force. They feel they are a doomed, emotional people unable to advance as long as they live in the smothering atmosphere of ‘tradition’ and of ‘tribalism’. To escape they must remodel their hair, learn to wear neckties and speak correctly, eat with a fork and acquire quality foreign accoutrements—from mountain bikes, Cuisinart toasters and Victoria’s Secret underwear, to Boeing fighter jets.

     Let’s face it: that cultural bounty and the fabulous stuff associated with it is propaganda. Originator of the term soft power, Joseph Nye, admits “the best propaganda is not propaganda".

     What’s propaganda and what’s not is an ongoing debate. Leading American critics of imperialism as it’s dispensed via soft power include Edward Said, Malcolm X and Cornel West. They join generations of intellectuals and dissenters warning of its hazards. Across the world the destructive impact of that soft power is not wholly unopposed. Political prisoners and martyrs, armed rebels—women and men engage in the eternal struggle to lift off the imperial “knee on their neck”—both its soft and coercive iterations.

      That oppressive “knee on their neck” has become the symbol of the American police state, manifest so compellingly and undeniably in the famous video of George Floyd’s murder.

     America’s Black, Brown and Native populations are familiar with the brute force of that killer knee. They equally recognize the effectiveness of the knee’s soft power (unnoticed by others) in maintaining the status quo. The soft knee works into centuries of renegotiated treaties, temporary fixes, pleas for more time; it resists reform; it offers gratuitous sympathy, compromises and inclusion programs. Soft power is powerfully seductive, reinforced among all classes by a steady diet of Hollywood’s white savior tropes.

     Often people are mollified by small gains and minor adjustments. Many become weary; they simply surrender. She learns to hold her breath, turn her eyes down and rush away to weep and scream in private. Daughter removes her head covering; brother marries out of his faith, shaves his beard; mother joins a temple or mosque.

     Demanding real change is very risky. In 2016, a short-lived event although less dramatic than the removal of an inglorious military statue poignantly carries the weight of America’s soft-power-enforced history. Corey Menafee, a longtime kitchen employee at Yale University regularly passed under an image, a stained glass window which others, if they even noticed it, may have viewed as inconsequential, a quaint reference to the distant past. But Menafee’s ire rose each time he thought about it. He may have vowed to either leave his job or formally appeal for the image’s removal. To Menafee, it was a symbol of his enslaved ancestors and a romanticization of America’s crime of racism. That image of Black women cotton pickers reminded this man of the exploitation of his people: -- a crime neither recognized, seen nor felt by others.

     Surely knowing it would cost him dearly Menafee made a courageous decision: he smashed the window. That supreme act may seem reckless but to this Black American-- to anyone who knows the insult that that image speaks and the risk involved in challenging it-- it’s a big deal, a very big deal.

     This kind of protest, a mark of the Black American movement’s mission, compels us to recognize the seemingly innocuous effect of the soft power we inhale every day. That unchallenged window in a reputedly liberal university suggested that there’s no political implication there; it’s just art, just culture, decorative and hardly noteworthy.

     To Black Americans it is an agonizing image, one of millions existing across our cultural and linguistic landscape. It’s more egregious, the rising call to action more urgent, because whites do not perceive their racial implications. That window remained embedded in the wall, year after year, generation after generation, seen by thousands of smart (sic) people while its hurtful and humiliating power went unopposed.

     Al Sharpton, in his peerless eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis, helped define American history for us this way:

     “George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to being is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter then the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck. What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks. That’s the problem no matter who you are. We thought maybe we had […], maybe it was just us, but even blacks that broke through, you kept your knee on that neck. Michael Jordan won all of these championships, and you kept digging for mess because you got to put a knee on our neck. White housewives would run home to see a black woman on TV named Oprah Winfrey and you messed with her because you just can’t take your knee off our neck. A man comes out of a single parent home, educates himself and rises up and becomes the President of the United States and you ask him for his birth certificate because you can’t take your knee off our neck. The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck. We don’t want no favors, just get up off of us and we can be and do whatever we can be.”

     That knee on the neck is more than a physical force. It’s the cultural conditioning, the light of cold reason, the deflection, the imbibed message that Blacks are not quite up to the arbitrary standard set and maintained within soft (white) power. That folksy depiction of women in the cotton field is simply a pleasing piece of art. The slave supporting the warrior that crowns a national museum is just an aesthetic compliment to its central (white) figure! African and Muslim headwear is impractical. Lungi wraps on men are unprofessional. And on and on.

     Soft power is so dominant and simultaneously appears so innocuous, so embedded and integrated into white privilege and white’s assumptions of their dominant historical place that they fail to see its propaganda. It also works on newcomers, notably Asian and Arab immigrants, who buy into the American dream. Having absorbed a steady diet of soft power in their homelands, they easily sanction and join the American status quo.

     (Anthropologists --and I am one--are slow to admit their role in advancing the soft power of imperialism. After all, anthropology itself emerged hand-in-hand with the expansion of European imperial rule. We might do better to turn our analytical skills to exposing the soft-knee-on-the neck and vigorously work to demolish it.)  END

[ Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields ]

Muslim Heroines Find Their Way into New American Literature

June 22, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Years ago, in John Killens'  Brooklyn writers’ workshop of largely African Americans, one member woefully explains the thwarted plot of her novel in progress: -- how, despite her effort to feature a Black hero: “By the second chapter, I had killed him off”. That Black character, even in her imagination, was irretrievably doomed; in a fictional scenario she still can’t rescue a Brother from his overriding Black American destiny.

            My memory of that dilemma becomes personal as I review more and more books authored by American Muslims. These writers may find themselves in a similar quandary, namely how to overcome, in our case, the established Muslim terror scenario, and re-imagine our heroes.

            Forty years ago, our history included no 911 attacks, no American assaults on Middle East nations, and only a handful of Muslim mosques. Most of us originating from those yet-to-be-targeted lands were not ‘Muslims’ then; we were simply immigrants-- Arab, Turkish, Iranian --trying our best to pass unnoticed.

            How fellow Americans view Arabs and how we perceive ourselves under their gaze has dramatically changed these past decades. Today, while scanning the range of our literary output, I wonder: will we ever break through our fraught and stereotyped identities?

            Racist-based school bullying of our children, endless wars in our homelands, misconceptions of our faith, alarming news headlines and pressures from our overriding culture are so insistent, we feel compelled, even through art, to explain ourselves in terms of the smothering American framework.

            Muslim writers are caught in this net. Honing our artistic skills and determined to speak for ourselves, we are turning to fiction, devising new themes and redefining our heroes. Still, unceasing references to terror threats and pressure to explain or defend our faith worm their way into novels, even by writers only faintly Muslim.   

            Afaf Rahman is the heroine in The Beauty of Your Face, a first novel by Chicago-based writer Sahar Mustafah. We’re just introduced to challenges Rahman faces as headmistress of Nurrideen School for Girls when a crisis explodes:--the school is under armed siege. But we barely detect the attack when the author abruptly transports us back when Afaf was 10 and one of three children in a family of struggling Arab immigrants. Alienated from the surrounding American culture, the Rahmans are adrift with no cultural or religious bonds to anchor them.

            Nada the oldest child has run away leaving Afaf and her brother to muddle on, their fate complicated by an embittered mother and an inattentive, discomfited father. We follow Afaf through her teenage years, aimless and friendless, incapable of dealing with bullying classmates and the disdain of teachers. How this floundering child stumbles through a tangle of impediments becomes the core of the novel.

            This portrait of Arab and other peasant immigrants who settled in the U.S. between World Wars I and II isn’t completely fictional. With ties to their homelands ruptured, many newcomers lacked meaningful cultural foundations, including religious faith.  (To personify that cultural barrenness, the author gives us Muntaha, Afaf’s hapless mother. Muntaha’s perfunctory offerings of Arab food are no substitute for love; they neither save her marriage nor redeem her children.)

            Ongoing crises in the Rahman family reach a climax when the father, a heavy drinker, has an auto accident. After members of a local mosque reach out to assist him, he begins to rebuild his life, joined by Afaf but not Muntaha or his son. (Mosque membership is not the answer for everyone.) 

            The author, drawing on a sober picture of Arab-American life, offers her heroine redemption less through lofty Islamic ideals than from solid emotional sustenance proffered by a community of confident women. Among those sisters, Afaf finds friendship and respect she’d never known. Moving forward with pride and direction, she learns to pray with others and covers her hair in a gentle rite of passage.

            The only interlude in this long narrative is a brief return to the siege where we find ourselves with the killer rampaging through the school. We learn how his own unhappy childhood, a lost brother, and his personal failures had bred the vengeance he eventually directs at Muslims.

            The siege ends. Afaf recovers from a gunshot wound, although many students have perished. And the terrorist is captured and convicted.

            The issue of how Muslims might move on after such trauma is never resolved, however. This dilemma is manifest in Afaf’s naïve determination to visit and dialogue with the imprisoned killer. There’s no satisfactory resolution. Although Afaf resumes her life reasonably healed, her society is unrepentant.

            Another newly released Muslim family’s story is No True Believers. It’s by Rabiah York Lumbard, an award-winning children’s author, also Muslim-American. The heroine in this invigorating, fast-paced conspiracy thriller for young readers is 18-year-old Salma Bakkioui, a computer geek at Franklin High in Arlington, Virginia, where we (again) find anti-Muslim bullying entrenched.

            Unlike Afaf, Salma enjoys solid friendships and savvy parents (Moroccan-origin father and Georgia-born Muslim-convert mother) who are with her all the way. This spunky, non-nonsense teenager invokes her hacking skills to counter attacks by fellow students whose spite and bias are reinforced by school staff and police.

            Author Lumbard exhibits masterful skill in contemporary teen language while her young Muslim sleuth uncovers and foils a white supremacist plot against the town. It’s a fast moving adventure offering suspense, action and a rich cast of characters at the same time that it educates readers about the ‘cool’ daily life of a hip Muslim family.

            These two novels signal a real advance in Muslim literary narratives. Yet, terror threats seem to remain essential to their plots.  

[ Muslim Heroines Find Their Way into New American Literature ]

Eight Minutes, Forty-six Seconds

June 05, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Eight minutes, forty-six seconds is a long time: a long time when you are meditating; a long time while waiting for a protest march to pass; a long time with your finger on the video button of your phone following a scene of terror; an unimaginable time when you are being slowly crushed by human weights on your neck, perhaps detecting some mildly agitated bystanders through the haze of your dying brain.

            I realized how very, very long 8:46 minutes can be when participating by video in George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis Thursday evening. I activate the PBS video link to the celebration and eulogy, then without knowing how it will end, I find myself compelled to follow the entire recording.

            At 1:32:25, following Rev. Al Sharpton’s rousing and resolute eulogy, this indefatigable American activist invites us to join their 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent tribute to George Floyd.

            Sharpton does not end his summons here. He challenges me in the next 8:46 minutes, to ‘feel’ what this space-in-time meant to George Floyd, namely the extinguishing of the person George Floyd, pinned under three American policemen, crushed to death, with the man’s final three lifeless minutes held there by their combined contempt.

            In the past, I have bowed in prayer for 1 minute, even for 2 minutes in tribute to I-cannot-recall-what. I’ve kept abreast of news reports of Back Americans murdered and brutalized by police. I know the names and some details of the most notorious cases—twelve or fifteen in recent years. I’ve viewed historical footage of public lynchings of our Black Americans. I review videos of U.S. police terrorizing citizens, of guards brutalizing prisoners, of U.S. troops wantonly humiliating Arab and Asian captives.

            I claim I can share the anger of Black colleagues, the fears of parents of Black children, the conviction of their prayers and abiding faith. I’ve listened attentively to African American civil rights orators. I post quotes by Martin Luther King Jr., invoke the simple counsel of Jesse Jackson, reference Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, celebrate Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking the knee’, scrutinize essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and repeat Maya Angelou’s pithy wisdoms. Yet, I’d never directed my compassion for eight minutes and 46 seconds—neither during an anthem, nor Barack Obama intoning Amazing Grace, nor a Qur’anic ayah or Arab nasheed, nor any Christian psalm – on the concept of an individual’s martyrdom in a finite incident of Black American life.

            This 8 minutes and 46 seconds is inimitable.

            The almost two hour pre-recorded ceremony ends in 15 minutes. Here in my home it’s approaching midnight; I could fast-forward this segment or watch just one minute of the 8:46 minutes. I could simply close my computer.

            No. I cannot disengage from this call to prayer.

            My concentration breaks after a few seconds, distracted by camera shots scanning the room of weeping, embracing mourners. I resume my meditation, taking up Sharpton’s invitation to enter the body of George Floyd lying on the street for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I concentrate for a further minute as I gaze at that gleaming copper coffin cradling Floyd’s body. My meditation breaks again. I refocus: feel Floyd’s weakening heart beats; listen to the murderers’ mocking; then hear George Floyd’s final call: “Mama”.

            “America?”

 

 

 

[ Eight Minutes, Forty-six Seconds ]

Mocking Birds in 2020 Spring

May 20, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Our seas and rivers look clearer; our air feels fresher, quieter; our streets and roadways are abandoned. Panic shopping for household supplies has passed, only to be replaced by lines of mothers and fathers at food banks while UberEats and Grubhub hand-deliver to others at any cost. In U.S. detention camps, miserable crowds are shamelessly left to an undetermined fate while our prisoners and nursing home residents haven’t even the solace of an occasional visitor even at Easter-time and for Eid Al-Fitr.

            Every human activity is not only in transition. We dwell in a state of abeyance. With our singular awareness of ‘self’, we turn to poets, musicians and philosophers to guide us. If they cannot move us forward, at least their voices might ease us through this night.

            Ironically, while we wonder and fret, measure and blame, other sentients sharing this earth appear newly liberated. I can’t plan a family visit or my book release, but tulip blooms emerge on schedule, their color a deeper, more resolute hue than I remember; bright petals open despite how readily they attract white-tailed deer and burrowing rabbits.

            Look there: a fortnight longer than normal, my fickle forsythia bush is clothed in yellow flowers! (So it’s prospering.) Clusters of wild fern slowly unfold exactly where they do every year in that corner of the field; even the bothersome Japanese knotweed looks certain to endure, driving upwards day-by-day through mud in the riverbank.

            Migrating merganser ducks arrived in late winter, and by the time Covid-19 reached our neighborhood, their nests were readied. Now the males have left their mates to mind the brood while they dash upriver, so swift and low, over the water’s surface.    

            This pattern of normality is reassuring; I should be comforted. I am… to a degree.

            Frankly speaking, I’m peeved. It’s off-putting that these neighbors of mine seem so unaware of how my routine, all my expectations, all my personal relations have collapsed in total disarray.

            Winged creatures are especially annoying, flitting and diving so determinedly outside my window. Even as I refill the feeders to draw them near, I’m miffed by their urgent calls. I awaken to their sweet morning melodies to find my day is still under threat. How can they be so unaware of my fear, my unhinged life?

            “Don’t you know what’s happening?” I whisper to them. “Aren’t you nervous about our monster virus crawling into your throats too?”

            I don’t want all your lives suspended as ours have been. Not at all. But we’d been working hard on your behalf:-- building bee hives, lobbying against plastics, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and carbon-based fuels, over-fishing and excessive meat consumption.

            That wasn’t for us only; it was for you too. We had begun to realize how, with your loss, our demise would inevitably follow. You were the focus of our noble struggle; you were the declining, threatened species down the food chain. Now, when our vulnerability is so exposed, you seem immune, so carefree, mocking us with your twitters and chirps. How can I continue to protect you if, so preoccupied with my own race my power is undermined? END

[ Mocking Birds in 2020 Spring ]

Family Stories from Ground Zero by a New Generation of Filmmakers

May 03, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For two decades now, following U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and as we approach ten years of upheaval in Syria and five in Yemen, interpretation of these wars has been the domain of western observers— journalists, occupying soldiers, and politicians. With others, I pored over and reviewed dozens what regrettably becomes those nations’ modern history.

            Now, a new generation of citizens in these besieged lands may overturn what essentially constituted a colonialist record of their lives.

            Many writers, mainly Arab and Iranian women (including an active Palestinian literary community) who fled their homelands in the wake of ethnic clashes, devastation and hopelessness, contribute to a growing archive of their national histories. Powerful new film productions (again with women in the forefront, e.g. Mai Masri, Nadine Labaki, and Cherien Debis) join our rich library of published memoirs.

            "For Sama", the award-winning chronicle a Syrian filmmaker’s young family, is joined by a second remarkable although less celebrated citizen-journalist’ biopic:—"Midnight Traveler". This Afghan production, an equally compelling story, is extraordinary for being originally recorded on iphones only. (That may also account for the degree of intimacy it captures.)   

            Midnight Traveler and For Sama are both autobiographical family dramas by individuals, themselves the main characters in these war chronicles. Both are in real time, not recollections retold at a safe distance. Our storytellers do not speak to the camera; the camera hears and sees them in their intimate, vulnerable, endearing moments:--under siege, in hiding, learning the fate of friends left behind, quietly sharing a meal uncertain what tomorrow might offer, then fleeing onwards to they-don’t-know-where.

            Midnight Traveler is a record of a capricious 3,500 mile journey by Fatima Hossaini and husband Hassan Fazili (both artists, with Fazili credited as director), and their daughters Nargis (about 7 when the journey begins) and Zahra (aged 4 or 5).   

            From Tajikistan where their asylum applications to Australia and elsewhere are unsuccessful, they return to Afghanistan to attempt another escape route-- a costly, illegal overland trek to Western Europe. Their handlers seem to be a humane lot, neither unkind nor ruthless; but this is not a story about the smuggling business or threats from the Taliban who forced this flight.

            The film’s focus is this small family ‘being together’—always. We witness casual, endearing moments between husband and wife, shared silences, candid exchanges, and vignettes of Nargis and Zahra that highlight the vicissitudes of a long, uncertain but determined journey. Those quiet exchanges are threaded with reminders that they are, in fact, fugitives:-- scurrying across a border, sleeping in forests, confronting hostile townspeople, and waiting idly in one camp after another until they receive permission to proceed.

            The story is not a portrayal of victims however. Intimacy and solidarity dominate this family’s narrative. Nargis emerges as the enchanting hero: indefatigable, companionless, in her private reverie dancing to Michael Jackson, shedding tears of boredom, shyly confessing her cold feet during a sleepless night in a wet field, and her poetic encounter with splashing waves on a rocky seafront in Turkey.

            Endless columns of refugees making their way by foot --from Afghanistan and Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Pakistan through Turkey and Greece to Western Europe-- became a daily news spectacle and a documentary film by artist Ai Weiwei.

            One might argue that the Fazili family’s account ignores Taliban excesses that drove them from their homeland. But whatever references the filmmakers include are convincing enough of the risks they faced there.  

            This 90-minute film, a small fraction of three years of cell-camera footage, is what the Fazili family chose to share with us. Their multilayered account from the frontline, Midnight Travelers can stand alone.  END

[ Family Stories from Ground Zero by a New Generation of Filmmakers ]
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