Reflections on 9/11 & Racialized Leaders

A Call for Feminist Refugee Epistemology

CONTENT WARNING: The following essay covers themes of war, death, islamophobia, hate crime. Exercising self-care is advised.

The Edward Said quote that inspires my writing process. Poster purchased at Watan Palestine

As a child, I remember my Palestinian Baba saying:

“You don’t know how lucky you are to live in a country that has stable political institutions. People here don’t know what goes on around them and its shameful. When you travel, Sarah, people will ask you about politics and if you know nothing, it’s not nice. It’s unbecoming.”

Baba isn’t wrong.

Canadians talk more about the weather than our own politics. We’re more invested in the spectacle of American politics than investigating our own dark histories and geopolitical involvements. Saviourism fuels our arrogance. Indeed, there’s no honour in ignorance.

The greatest gifts my Palestinian Baba and Malay Mak gave me is my love for learning — a household that encouraged political discourse and critical thinking.

Mak, the sociology scholar, taught us white privilege before it was mainstream.

Baba took us to the polls when we reached voting age. He has a way of taking ‘complex’ Middle Eastern histories and politics and explaining it in everyday language. A true talent. Canadians that claim geopolitics is “too complex” to understand are willfully ignorant. If my father can deliberate these “complex” issues in his second-language, what’s stopping us from informing ourselves in our first-language — the global colonial English language.

I was 8 years old in 2001. In less than 1 month, it will be exactly 20 years post 9/11, a historic date that will likely haunt me for the rest of my lifetime.

I wrote a personal essay documenting my traumatizing experiences of racism and islamophobia in response to the tragic death of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, my hometown. I ended Alhamdullilah, I left London by saying:

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists, and arm-chair allies:

Attending marches, changing display pictures, and eating speciality coloured Tim Horton donut sprinkles will not cure racism and islamophobia.

No. Neoliberalism will not solve islamophobia.

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists, and arm-chair allies:

I need to see y’all sweat for change. I’ll be watching the work you get done.

To no surprise, white feminists of London, Ontario did just that.

On June 18 2021, white feminists gathered in Victoria Park marching in hijabs as an “action against Islamophobia”. Wallahi, I wish I was making this up. Perhaps what makes it worse is the CBC article written by Angela Innes, a white woman journalist, captures the celebration without a critical or nuanced angle. No mention of cultural appropriation — nada.

20 years of post 9/11 propaganda is suppose to be challenged by a performance in the park? Cute.

Does this neoliberal performative effort surprise me? No. I’ve only ever known Muslims to be reduced to costumes and caricatures by mainstream media.

If this was a genuine effort of wanting to support the Muslim community, it would’ve involved more listening and less assuming.

Questions to consider:

Who were the Muslim women consulted on this event?

Can these Muslim women verify these conversations?

Have Muslim women been deliberately asked what is needed during this period of grieving?

Also, what is everyone’s obsession with hijabs?!

As I enter my late-twenties, I’m confused as to how it doesn’t occur to the public that conversations had about hijabs are by led by Muslim Men and Non-Muslims — everyone but Muslim WOMEN?!

Because Muslim women need saving, right?

Should we applaud the white women lawyers’ ‘good intentions’? No. Why should we applaud privileged leaders for a job bad done? Are we not allowed to expect innovative ideas from highly educated individuals?

My Tiger Mom raised me to strive for excellence. Ineffective leadership is not excellence. London leadership has already failed to protect Muslims, members of its vulnerable communities. Now they fail to effectively address structural change? Unacceptable.

How many more think tanks and national summits do we need? 9/11 happened two decades ago. How are there no imaginative solutions? Where’s innovation outside ‘research and development’? At what point do reports stand as bureaucratic jargon for procrastination?

There is an entire generation of people who don’t know a life outside the haunting ramifications of September 11, 2001.

The haunting ramifications of 20 years of post 9/11 islamophobia along with Western imperialism and saviourism inspired the creation of The London School of Racialized Leaders.

In Alhamdullilah, I left London, I wrote:

I say all this to say hate crimes don’t exist in isolation. Hate crimes don’t happen because of one bad apple. No. Hate crimes happen because there are entire institutions and cultural ecosystems at play that uphold and foster hateful beliefs.

To begin, let’s explore how geopolitics and narrative power shape cultural ecosystems, starting with Laura Bush’s national radio address on November 16, 2001:

“The Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable…The fight against terrorism is also a fight for rights and dignity for women,”.

Laura Bush’s national address is highlighted by several academic scholars as the propagated narrative used to legitimize the Bush administration’s War on Terror — the machine that fuels Islamophobia.

Twenty years later, this narrative lives on.

White feminism or Imperial feminism as some say, situates women of the Global South as passive agents in need of Western forces to come to the rescue. Saviourism acts as a benevolent veneer to mask imperial intentions — exploitation of resources, death and dispossession. Women of the Global South are stripped of agency and acknowledgement of resistance and self-determination.

With sincere humility, I admit I have a lot to learn about Afghanistan’s histories of resistance and the geopolitics of the region. However, it doesn’t take a PHD in Afghan history to acknowledge Laura’s lies. 20 years later, death and destruction continues to plague the region. Islamophobia runs rampant and global leaders continue to pander.

I write this love letter as an act of solidarity for my beloved Afghan roommate, Tina, my sister who shares a mixed-race, diasporic, existential wound. A love letter for us and our displaced Babas. I intend to exercise my due diligence to study and honour our histories of resistance.

On April 9 2021, I had the privilege of attending the Association of Asian American Studies conference for the first time. I was introduced to the concept of Feminist Refugee Epistomology during the seminar session Unsettling Displacement: The Creative and the Critical in Refugee Epistemologies. I was able to unpack complex emotions when Professor Yến Lê Espiritu read an excerpt of their text A Refugee Critique of Humanitarianism: An Ode to Ungratefulness. According to Professor Yến Lê Espiritu, the refugee story is broken down into 3 acts.

Act One: The refugee is introduced as a victim of crises produced by faraway tragedies.

Act Two: The refugee is rescued by humanitarian organizations and citizens of Global North nations.

Act Three: The refugee is prodded to profess eternal gratitude as tribute to their rescuers.

Canada takes in Afghan refugees but can we, members of civil society, guarantee refugees won’t be run over by another 20-year-old white supremacist?! Astaghfiruallhalatheem.

It’s a sick cycle when you think about it. The same countries that destabilize our ancestral lands dehumanize us daily through systemic neglect (on the better days) and (state) violence (on the worse days) but tell us we should be grateful we weren’t left behind to die.

Then we’re told we’re a burden to greater society because we’re a waste of tax dollars.

Because Black and Brown Bodies don’t move and shape economies? Indeed, that is why we’re called the working class: we’re put to work.

Why are we, victims of imperial greed, the target of world dilemmas? Why aren’t the powers responsible for displacing us held accountable for their despicable desire to hoard wealth?

Professor Yến Lê Espiritu taught me the grateful refugee is a key component to a saviour complex.

Canada is a nation-state that brands itself on “saviourism”. Hijabs for Harmony is simply a sophisticated flavour of saviourism. Explain to me how putting on a hijab for a few hours will equip marginalized Muslims in the rise of inhuman incels and white supremacists?

Afghan women as with women across geographies lead in resistance. To say otherwise is not only dehumanizing — it is destructive.

Following Derrida’s theory of binary opposition, Islamophobic propaganda traps Muslims into a dichotomy: instigators of violence or victims of violence.

Our humanities reduced to kill or be killed.

Feminist Refugee Epistemology acknowledges the power dynamics at play. Refugee women are political pawns that serve political propaganda.

As my colonized tongue would have it, in French we say “une nation” and in Spanish “una nación” — in both romance languages the nation is gendered as feminine. Alas, when we hear “motherland” do we not think woman?

The feminization of land and heritage paints women as passive agents to uphold the patriarchal assertion of dominance through “protection” (of bodies, nations, values, etc, etc).

Patriarchy and its pathetic need to assert dominance by way of aggression and dispossession in the name of protection and ‘power’: Police brutality. Occupation. Imperialism.

Patriotism and war propaganda never made any sense to me. What? Do we really believe ruling class men send their precious sons to war? No. They pamper their sons with prestige and are the first to escape chaos and conflict.

The sons left to die are the sons not ‘worth’ saving.

Muslim oil and minerals are expensive while Muslim blood is cheap.

In my third year sociolinguistics seminar, I learned there’s a global trend of sociolinguists who study the linguistic pattern of upper-middle-class women to predict the national speech pattern of the upcoming generation.

Think about it.

Following the logic of gender roles and caretaking assigned to women, children interact with women in authority in their primary speech development years — be it through mothers, aunts, grandmothers, daycare workers, babysitters, primary school teachers, etc. Take in how powerful that is.

Women transfer knowledge.

Women shape culture.

Women shape language.

Language shapes our perceived reality.

Language is power.

Knowledge is power.

On this note of language, I chose the name “Racialized Leaders” with the intent to subvert the term “visible minorities” — a term that needed to be retired in the 80s.

Is a white person on a wheelchair not visibly a minority?

Let’s face it, the term is reserved for “people of color” who experience racialization; so why not call it racialized?

Racialized acknowledges systemic racism, exclusion, and neglect as part of our lived experience. But of course, that’s too discomforting for complicit Canadians to acknowledge out loud.

Capital R for “Resilience”? Sure. How about Capital R for: Resistance.

I am determined to embrace the active tense in the face of white supremacy.

Passive language is passé. In academia, we’re taught to use the active tense over the passive tense, so repeat after me: RACIALIZED.

Feminist Refugee Epistemology acknowledges refugees as active agents and knowledge producers. I channeled this framework in the peak of frustration when hearing about Hijabs for Harmony. My feelings of frustration inspired: The London School of Racialized Leaders.

Wallahi, on some days I still laugh at myself. In Alhamdullilah, I left London, I wrote:

Fauxgressives, lipservice liberals, white feminists and arm-chair allies, do not ask Women of Color to clean up your messes.

But alas, what are we to do when ineffective leaders lack the imagination needed to propose innovative solutions.

As economist Esther Boserup famously said: “Necessity is the mother of invention” (1965).

Out of necessity, I conceptualized a political and media stream to empower racialized youth into transformational leaders by skill-building and reclaiming narrative power.

While inspiration came to me in the midst of grief, I contacted my beloved Syrian sister, Noor, and beloved Sudanese sister, Raghad, as an exercise of intersectional solidarity. As a believer in lateral leadership, I approached them with the intent to share this vision as an avenue of healing our collective grief.

Never again do I want to be told “be grateful” when it is ineffective leaders that should be grateful we, working class sisters, immigrant daughters, racialized Muslim women, who are channeling our trauma-informed brilliance into transformational leadership in the wake of domestic terrorism.

Grateful immigrant — Ungrateful immigrant: Does it matter? White supremacists want us dead either way.

I echo the wise words of Professor Yến Lê Espiritu’s concluding remarks at the 2021 Association of Asian American Studies conference:

“We are not grateful. We are rageful”.

Millennials and Zoomers: I call for us to channel our grief, sorrow, and rage into action by way of civic engagement this upcoming snap election.

We are officially the biggest voting demographic. Being a-political isn’t cute anymore. It’s high time we exercise our civic responsibilities as members of the civil society and support courageous leaders who have the audacity to challenge the status quo.

Let’s get to work.

In Solidarity,

Sarah

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Sarah Barzak

Sarah Barzak

Born in Milwaukee, raised in Canada, I am Kak Long, an eldest immigrant daughter of Malay-Palestinian descent. Cultural Critic & Producer @sarah.barzak on IG