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Mona Eltahawy

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Muslims in America: A Year In Review

Posted: 12/29/10 07:07 PM ET

Take one comedian, mix in a beauty queen, throw in some bigots and an exploding crow and you'll open an unorthodox window into the past year for Muslims in America.

It's been a tough year, so let's start with the crow.

One of the stupendously stupid protagonists of the British film Four Lions wires a crow to explode by remote control as part of the wannabe-jihadi schemes dreamed up by the film's eponymous four British Muslims. The smartest one of them uses The Lion King to explain to his young son the concept of holy war in the name of Islam, hence the "Lions" of the title.

I watched the film in New York City. And I knew the people laughing the loudest in the theater were Muslims: they got all the references to "Shaytan" (Satan), they got turns of phrases lifted verbatim from radical Islamic rhetoric masquerading as "authentic" Islam and they got the Arabic and Urdu curse words.

You almost expected a cameo from Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni radical cleric dubbed a "Jihadi all-star" by a right-wing blog. Awlaki, who issued a call for the murder of American "devils," has been linked to last year's Ft. Hood shootings and the failed Christmas Day "underwear" bombing. Not many leaps of the imagination from exploding underwear to exploding crows.

Although it was set in the U.K., this NYC Muslim laughed so hard exactly because it was satire as revenge. What a relief to laugh at that madness at the end of a year when to look in the mirror as a Muslim in America was to have a scary radical -- stupid or not -- yell "boo" back at you. Who put him there? Watching the news often felt like an out of body experience in which we were all morphed into one ugly, scary reflection.

Or else Muslims were being asked to choose between two uglies: the radical super-imposed reflection or some politician claiming to take a swipe at those radicals but, in swinging so hard, he revealed his bigotry instead.

Take State Representative Rex Duncan's constitutional amendment to outlaw Islamic law from Oklahoma courtrooms which passed with 70 percent of the vote during the Republican mid-term landslide in November. No one had asked for Islamic law, but Duncan, a Republican, had called the constitutional amendment a part of "a war for the survival of America" and "a pre-emptive strike." Clearly, "pre-emptive strikes" have now moved from Bush war doctrine into legislation.

A federal judge temporarily blocked the state from putting it into effect, saying it didn't pass constitutional muster because it conveyed a message that the state favors one religion or particular belief over others.

None of the Muslims in the U.S. I know wants Islamic law. It has been interpreted differently and too often in a misogynistic way, but now, as the Council on American Islamic Relations (a civil liberties group which leans more conservative than many American Muslims) has gone to bat for Islamic law, we're squeezed into the false choice of conservatives versus bigots.

How about neither?

We are many in the U.S. who refuse that "choice." In 2005, I supported Canadian Muslim groups in their opposition to faith-based arbitration based on Islamic law in Ontario province. But that opposition clearly called for a ban on all faith-based arbitration. Ontario Premier Dalton MacGuinty wisely prohibited all religious-based tribunals to settle family disputes. Take a look at Jewish law and you'll find an uncanny pro-male bias in cases of family disputes.

Comedian Jon Stewart popped the bubble of bias wherever it popped up. More than anyone in 2010 -- Muslim or not -- he most eloquently and surgically unpacked the bigotry that fueled too many conversations about Muslims in the U.S., especially around the Park51 Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero.

It was difficult to find something to laugh at but the priceless heart of Stewart's comedy lies exactly where investigative journalism's fails to beat. For example, when he pointed out that a Saudi prince was a partner in News Corp, the parent company of Fox News, one of the loudest and most deceptive purveyors of the "Ground Zero Mosque" and the idea that foreign funding would help Muslims build a "victory mosque."

Park51 itself created an interesting dispute among Muslims in the U.S. Tariq Ramadan, author and professor of Islamic Studies who was once banned from entry into the U.S., suggested moving Park51 would be "symbolic and wise." Salman Rushdie, subject of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini for his book, Satanic Verses, supported Park51's right to stay right where it was as part of First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion and speech.

Shock! Muslim views are not a monolithic blob.

Enter Rima Fakih, the Lebanese-American who became the first Muslim Miss USA. As allergic as I am to beauty pageants, I have a huge girl crush on Rima: for her bikini that made even me struggle to concentrate, for thanking her mother for her support, for receiving glowing praise from an aunt in a headscarf in Lebanon who called Rima the "pride of southern Lebanon" and for wrong-footing many Muslims unsure whether to cheer or condemn a Muslim beauty queen.

But the Wrong Footing Prize -- or rather Shoot Yourself in the Foot Prize -- must surely go to Pastor Terry Jones who captivated too many with his threats to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Surely as much as I hate looking in the media mirror and seeing "all-star Jihadis" reflected back, no Christian American wanted a media-hungry book burner as a template.

As Duke University's first Muslim Chaplain Abullah T. Antepli so aptly put it when we recorded a Bloggingheads TV conversation, Jones was a reminder that "Muslims didn't own the crazies."

It's an important reminder for 2011: The "crazies" of all stripes are on one side, demanding from the rest of us a false choice, "us" or "them" over and over.

One of the most bitter sweet scenes in Four Lions involves a would-be "jihadi" dancing with a non-Muslim neighbor who has no idea she's standing in a safe-house being used to store explosives. The two of them, headphones on, yelling out the lyrics to "Dancing in the Moonlight" are happily oblivious to the world and the explosives until the Four Lions and their "us" and "them" rhetoric return.

Jon, keep popping those bubbles for us all in 2011.

 

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