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Sunrise Over the Euphrates: Sarah’s Story of Asian Twitter, ISIS, Guilt and the Targeting of Young Women

Saba Syed (Umm Reem)

Published

People striving to find peace, who are religiously motivated but with little knowledge and often ridden by guilt are easy targets for political movements and militants who are using Islam for their political schemes.

To expose ISIS’s satanic tactics of misusing Islam to lure young women in their trap, I have interviewed a British Muslim teen who was caught by the ISIS trap but got out before she drowned. Sarah* is a young 17 year old from the United Kingdom. For her safety, I have decided not to use her real name, Twitter/Whatsapp screen shot conversations between her and other people who have joined ISIS, or disclose her whereabouts.

Sarah talks about a number of people who became friends online through Twitter 3-4 years ago. They regularly interacted on that platform and started referring to themselves as the “Asian Community” on Twitter. Over the time, hundreds joined their “Twitter group”*, many had 1000+ followers. They went through the pro Syrian War phases, many members took strong position during [the] Syrian rebellion, but earlier last year the group broke off as ISIS emerged and friends had to chose sides, while some turned into ISIS online recruiters and even took a few of them back to Syria. The Group was lost, grief was uncontrollable, friends turned foe but Sarah got out, and now wants to help keep as many girls from ISIS as she can.

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UR: How long had you have your Twitter account?

Sarah: A bunch of my friends convinced me to make one around 3 or 4 years ago

UR: So you were on Twitter before ISIS?

Sarah: Yes, that’s how I got to know a lot of the people before they got brainwashed by ISIS. A lot of them went through phases with different religious or political groups before completely giving in to ISIS.

UR: What do you recall from before ISIS made an appearance?

Sarah: Before ISIS became the talk of the TL (Twitter vocabulary: the timeline) we were all a really close group of friends, not all of us knew each other in real life. Some had met up but the majority of us simply enjoyed each others online presence. We were known for our humor, no way would you scroll down your TL and not burst out laughing at the things people were tweeting. it was quite nice having people from the same religious and cultural background to talk to, at any hour of the day and i think that was what made everyone so close.

UR: How did it take a “religious” turn? Were all of you religious or were the conversations always about religion?

Sarah: Religion was always a main part of our discussions or jokes, again it is what brought us all together. These presumably “religious” Muslims who were super chill and super funny helping each other become better Muslims. Not everyone on what we called “Asian Twitter” was practicing, I remember some sisters didn’t even used to wear hijab or they would pluck their eyebrows. But after interacting with our group they started to take that kind of stuff more seriously. I think i would say it took a major turn when the war in Syria [Free Syrian Army– pre ISIS] had started and was getting more media coverage.

UR: Tell me about the conversations about Jihad or Khilafah?

Sarah: As I said after the war, the topic of conversation changed a lot on the TL. Jihad in defence of the innocent Syrians became a main topic. But not only that, both religious and non-religious brothers and sisters consistently romanticised jihad. This whole “loving someone completely for the sake of Allah and Islam” and sacrificing the  “materialistic world” for jihad and the hereafter, it had such an impact on these people. The mixture of simplicity, violence and romance was a thrilling and exciting concept to them.

UR: So there were those who were already pro-Jihad (fight) and they were convincing others into it?

Sarah: Yes. There were many of those who wanted to engage in fight and they would just romanticize it and convince others, like the “J” brothers.

UR: Who were the “J” brothers?

Sarah: The “J” brothers were honestly some of the most sincere and genuine people I have ever known. They didn’t care about online popularity, they just really valued their religion and wanted to help everyone be a better Muslim. They were always advising others and getting asked for religious verdicts. But never the less after one of the brothers passed away when he went to fight for “Free Syrian Army. He went for a good cause, there wasn’t any ISIS at that time. But after his martyrdom everyone’s emotions were really high because we lost a “brother”. Then ISIS began getting really popular because of this whole khilafah thing, they began supporting and openly advocating what ISIS was doing. They had thousands of followers and i think they didn’t realise to what extent they were unconsciously bringing people to ISIS. At first it was fine but then they supported the destruction of churches and the murder of Shias and Christians etc.

UR: So is it fair to say that the people who were already pro-Jihad became the main ISIS supporters and recruiters?

Sarah: Yes. Not all became official recruiters but you don’t have to be officially involved with ISIS to recruit for them. Sometimes just supporting the ISIS-cause can make you an indirect recruiter.

UR: Why were all these concepts of physically fighting and sacrificing the luxurious life exciting for people?

Sarah: No offense to a lot of these people, they led such boring lives. Most of them, even my friends were really anti-social in their colleges and universities.  The only fun they had was on social networking sites (especially Twitter), it gave them a lot of confidence and they did on there, whatever they felt they couldn’t in real life. So for people who led extremely monotonous lives anything out of their daily routines or understanding would be extremely exciting or infatuating, hence the attraction to the concepts previously mentioned.

Sarah speaks to young women in the following video

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muAvVeHFxFQ[/youtube]

UR: How did you know Aqsa Mahmood? What was she like on Twitter? Was she very religious? How did she become a part of ISIS?

Sarah: Aqsa and I met on Twitter then we followed each other’s blogs on Tumblr; we had also started talking on Whatsapp and Kik. We practically followed the same people and had the same friends. She wasn’t always as religious. I remember, she was super into Harry Potter and loved music.  When she started getting more into her religion she stopped plucking her eyebrows and listened to lectures on YouTube. That was when her personality and online persona took a turn. She began getting extremely involved with the war in Syria, the lectures she listened to completely changed a lot of her views. We didn’t take note of these changes or class them as extreme at the time because a lot of our other tweeps (Twitter peeps) were already like that.

UR: You also knew Hoda? How would you describe her and why do you think ISIS attracted her?

Sarah: I didn’t know Hoda for as long as I knew Aqsa but we were still pretty good friends. She was the most anti-social in real life, she barely talked or hung out with friends. From what she told us her family was pretty religious and she would always praise the way she was brought up thanking her parents for teaching her about Islam. See the thing with [our] Twitter is that the more “knowledge” you showed you had, the more popular you would be. And for someone this lonely and isolated in real life but gaining popularity on Twitter because of her online Islamically religious persona is quite obviously what drew her to ISIS as she was the type of girl they would want to lure in.

UR: So when did ISIS take over Twitter? Or start recruiting per se?

Sarah: I guess they had always been recruiting in a sense when they began advertising their activities, it was a slow sort of calling to people. Recruiting doesn’t always mean or start by openly telling people come join us. You only do that once you’ve sparked their attention, which is what ISIS did later on. They began by casually talking about defending the Muslims in Syria against oppression and Bashar’s forces. Once they built a fanbase that agreed with their theoretical concepts, they started using their media connections to share activities and went on to post of a video of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announcing him becoming the khalifah of the Muslims.

UR: Why do you think ISIS is so strong?

Sarah: What you can say is unique about ISIS and such extreme organizations is their ability to breach the isolated members of society. The strategic maneuvers in social media interactions and engagements along with their advertisements.

Not only are they strong militarily, they have created an extremely large fanbase; they have supporters all around the globe that if ordered can cause severe damage; they’ve planted recruiters. ISIS are well connected on the outside. The people who believe in them are extremely loyal because they’re only shown the positives. They are played [by] their emotions against oppressions and given ”religious motivation” to fight against injustice. So these supporters are stuck in a circle and they’re in denial of anything negative that comes up. Using the purity of the deen, transcending it materialistically, and transforming it into a main life goal. They reached out to everyone-”whatever you wanted you would find there”.

UR: Those people who were ISIS supporters, how would you highlight their main traits? Or what made them unique in their interaction with others online?

Sarah: I don’t know all of them but the ones I interacted with on Twitter were mostly antisocial in real life. A lot of these Twitter people were not raised on religion, but when they became religious they became harsh and extremely pro-refutations. Overnight Twitter scholars, they’d showcase their religion by “advising” anyone and everyone. They are not close to their families in the sense that they cannot open up to them. And they are looking for a “higher purpose” to live for.

ummreemisisarticle

UR: So they are the ones who take over online recruitment job, directly or indirectly?

Sarah: Pretty much. They are isolated from their Muslim communities and distant from their families. They just spend all the time online, supporting [the] ISIS cause, making young people feel guilty for living a comfortable life, and they target those who are either newly religious and looking for religious guidance, or the teens who have cultural[ly Muslim families who cannot understand their teens etc.

UR: Who would you say start “brainwashing” the girls into leaving their homes and joining ISIS? Who was convincing these girls into idealizing jihad or marrying soldiers?

Sarah: I am not sure because I never got to that point. But what some of us gathered from Aqsa, Hoda and other cases is that once these girls are manipulated through their emotions against injustice that is happening in Syria, Iraq and similar areas then they are thrown the religion bait for inspiration, and then everything becomes easier to motivate them to make big moves.

Also, another thing I noticed is that there is a lot of “mix interaction” [free interaction between the men and women] and a lot of male recruiters sweet talk these girls once they start chatting with them on Kik or Whatsapp. Girls are also complimented on their looks and beauty.

And quite frankly, girls always have a thing for “soldiers” and here they are told that not only they are soldiers but they are fighting for a higher purpose and they need support from these girls and that these girls will play crucial role in these strong, apparently good looking soldiers’ lives.

UR: How was your own take on ISIS initially?

Sarah: I agreed with their aim of having a khilafah and helping the Syrians. The “simplicity” and “humility” in the lifestyle appealed to me a lot.

When I was hearing good things, fighting corrupt govts and trying to establish “peaceful” khilafah. But who knows if that was even true or not.

UR: So what turned you away from ISIS?

Sarah: First beheading…

As far as I was in it, I was still a person of logic and in my 17 years of religious upbringing and studying, I had never come across anything that could justify an innocent person’s beheading. I did research [on] the person they beheaded, he was a good guy trying to help our kids, kids who’d been abandoned by so-called “Muslim” governments.

Nothing justifies that beheading and let alone publiciz[ing] it so audaciously. Since when did our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) ever allowed anyone to behead innocent people or even enemies on the streets of Madinah?! Since when did our sahabahs allowed their kids to roll the head of a dead person? Since when did that become an “Islamic” action?

“Sabaya” they brought back slavery. No one can enslave a free person. What do they think gives them the right to do that! They started demolishing places of worship and going against basic things in our religion. This completely made me back away from the whole idea of ISIS.

UR: You were a part of the same group from where a few girls left to join ISIS. You initially supported the idea of a Islamic khilafah, yet you completely turned away from ISIS. Why do you think these girls, who joined ISIS, can’t see what you are seeing?

Sarah: Because they are stuck in a box. When you are in it, you can’t see that you’re trapped. You’re forced into doing or watching whatever is given and shown to you. Some of these girls are extremely young, and they are brainwashed. I mean for a 16 year old to make the decision to leave home, she has to be brainwashed very well and then she is dropped into such a barbaric society. It’s extremely intimidating, or to be married to a man completely invested to the cause; it is hard to escape that mentality. The psychological stress it causes makes them block everything out and just continue on.

UR: These girls who left for Syria, get married there and then their husbands die and then they get remarried. What purpose do you think females are serving in ISIS? Do you think ISIS is giving them any leadership roles?

Sarah: ISIS show the rest of the world that they are offering these girls the opportunity to do something great. When recruiting they say that the girls will become something productive in the community and have influential leadership roles.  The fact that these girls are forced into marriages without even getting the permission of their wali (guardian) ISIS are making them overlook main requirements for a marriage to be valid. When the soldiers die, the women are sent back to the sister’s only maqqar (place of residence) until their mourning period is over, then they move on and are encouraged to get married again. It is basically well presented prostitution and sexual slavery. The only role they are truly playing is aid in continuous community growth and recruiting other young girls, and keep the ISIS militants sexually pleased and satisfied. That’s the role of the girls in ISIS!!

UR: Some of the girls who left for ISIS blog/tweet from Syria, and they make it sound like they are very happy and everything is good. What do you have to say about that? That even after getting a “dose of reality” they don’t wake up to reality?

ummreemisis2

Sarah: Think of it this way. When you’re struggling with something, the world doesn’t know, you smile and go through it. The girls who are tweeting from there, we don’t know the exact circumstances behind it at all!

What if they are being forced, watched or monitored. They might even have guns put to their heads…Nothing realistic is ever posted, neither do we hear anything negative. It’s all overly romanticised [their blogs and twitter accounts have beautiful pictures of sunsets in Syria showing how peaceful and “romantic” it is, posts about how girls get married. Marriage is portrayed as very simple without a fancy wedding gown and the mahr was just some ayahs of Qur’an, or how thrilling and romantic it is for a wife to wait for her soldier husband not knowing if he was alive or dead etc.]

Such posts don’t tell us anything, they’re trying so hard to portray normal lives but it’s so silly, the contradiction is crazy. These sunsets and food pictures you can see it anywhere…no one will move and leave everything for a sunset or the Euphrates River that considered a so called “hotspot for couples”. Let’s be honest half of these girls know they’ve made a mistake, now either they let ISIS know that they’re not into it anymore and most likely get killed or tortured or they make the most of it which is busy themselves with social networking.

UR: So it is possible that there are young women who want to run away but it is not easy for them to run away?

Sarah: Of course! Once a prey is caught in a trap, their fate lies in the hands of the hunter. So when ISIS paints the rituals such as: burning passports or cutting ties with family members who don’t agree with what is going on (like when Aqsa told her parents she would see them on the day of judgement) as brave and courageous, the girls are naturally going to go along with it. These acts isolate them and put all the power in ISIS’s hands. the fact that these girls are subconsciously forced into marriage by being told of the so called “benefits” that the “ government” provides or their aid in creating a generation that is more religious and not corrupt, strongly ties and roots them down to/with ISIS. Clearly the borders are under heavy control, and as they are so extreme, to them anyone who wants to leave is considered a traitor and will be executed. Their main objective in regards to these girls is to get them on the inside, without women they are nothing. They cannot satisfy their soldiers or keep a stable society going. They will never let these girls leave, once they are in and have realised their mistake, it is too late for most of them to turn back.

Also, keep in mind that one of the rituals that these girls have to do once they get to ISIS is burn their passports. So even if they want to run away it is almost impossible for them. But we know that there are girls who have ran away but they are too intimidated to speak about it or they don’t want to say anything to not make it hard for other girls who are thinking of leaving ISIS.

Also, there must have been other girls who are trying to run away but might have gotten caught and either killed by ISIS butchers or being tortured.

UR: If you get access to the girls in ISIS, what would you say to them?

Sarah: Honestly I don’t even know where to start. But I will ask them if they found what they were looking for. If they say, yes, then I would ask them to check their intentions, and sincerely ask Allah to guide them to the path that is pleasing to Him. I will try showing them how un-Islamic ISIS is but to be honest, if they can’t see the obvious, there is nothing we can do more than simply accepting them as gone case and just pray for them.

But if there are girls who are there and have realized their mistakes, I have one thing to say to them, “Run” as soon as you get an opportunity. And if they can’t then maybe they can serve the greater purpose by weakening ISIS from within in whatever way they can.

Lastly, I just want to remind everyone that the girls who are leaving, are not necessarily malicious, evil or with a history of violence. When there is a bigger scheme then innocent get hunted…

Usually innocent and stupid people get caught because they are stupid and they are genuinely innocent…However, their stupidity doesn’t undermine their genuine innocence.

*It wasn’t a group like Facebook group, rather certain people on Twitter who were following each other considered themselves a “group” and even gave themselves a name.

[divider]-[/divider]

When Iblees tempted Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to eat from the forbidden tree, he didn’t just appear in front of Adam and asked him to disobey Allah openly. That would have been too obvious and Shaytaan’s traps are almost always hidden tracks leading to haram.

Rather, Iblees coaxed Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) until he was deluded into believing that eating from that tree would make him from among the angels, “Your Lord didn’t forbid you this tree save you should become angels or become of the immortals.” After inviting them to disobey Allah, he then even swore by Allah to convince Adam of his sincerity, “And he (Shaytaan) swore by Allah to them both: ‘Verily I’m one of the sincere well-wisher for you both.’” (7:20)

Shaytaan’s tradition is to cause confusing in believers’ minds by disguising haraam with the cloak of “higher purpose”, or justifying end with impermissible means or taking permissible actions to such an extreme that they may actually become impermissible.

ISIS, the Hizb-as-Shaytaan, has also used the same tactics on many minds. Firstly, the members/recruiters portray to be very sincere and people of knowledge, quoting work of Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Taymiyyah and others to fool young minds into thinking that the knowledge being given to them is authentic, as many of these the girls being recruited by ISIS have recently started practicing Islam. Next, young minds are made to feel guilty because they haven’t done anything to help the suffering Muslims in the oppressed lands, rather live a luxurious life in the west. Then the idea of khilafah, jihad and physical sacrifices for the so-called “higher purpose” is thrown in, while misquoting the rewards in hereafter to bring them to a “religious high”. It is easy to strike when the iron is hot.

 

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Saba Syed (aka Umm Reem) is the author of International award winning novel, "An Acquaintance." Saba has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language & Literature at Qatar University and at Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi. She had been actively involved with Islamic community since 1995 through her MSA, and then as a founding member of TDC, and other community organizations. in 2002, she organized and hosted the very first "Musim Women's Conference" in Houston, TX. Since then, she's been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam. She is a pastoral counselor for marriage & family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas, also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    M.Mahmud

    June 14, 2015 at 10:41 PM

    I have heard that inshaa Allah a number of our brothers who were misled refused to fight once they realized their guns would be pointed at Muslims.

    I remember reading they were literally shot dead for that.

    May they get the highest rank in Jannah. Murdered by Khaawarij for refusing to kill Muslims.

    • Avatar

      Shabeeb

      July 9, 2015 at 3:10 PM

      SubhanAllah this is very insightful may Allah bless you for shedding light on the vicious nature of this group.

  2. Avatar

    Faadiel

    July 14, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    This is eye opening ecspecially since its from muslim girl who almost got trapped. I like many others have also wondered what ISIS recruits could possibly be telling these teen girls.

    The answers that Sarah gives are also well formed, see appears to be a smart girl and open minded about things.

    Since ISIS have killed so many muslims, I believe its more a responsiblity of muslims to put a stop to ISIS once and for all Insha Allah. Ameen.

    • Avatar

      Stardusty Psyche

      July 15, 2015 at 5:50 AM

      Brother Faadiel,
      I appreciate that you feel so strongly that Muslims must put a stop to ISIS. But ISIS has their own Islamic scholars that use words from the Qur’an and the Hadith to justify the actions of ISIS. How can Muslims counter or contradict such justifications?

      • Avatar

        Wali

        November 13, 2015 at 10:28 AM

        Dear Stardusty Psyche,
        While you are correct that ISIL does use Quran and Sunnah to justify their actions, they do two things very much in common with Islamophobes who want to portray Islam as an unjust, brutal, and violent religion.
        The first is the they cherry pick verses, copy and paste them to suit their needs and then point them out. For example one that both groups love to use is the Quran 2:190-191 “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” However they both will not quote further. The following verses command a halt to fighting if the enemy forces agree to stop fighting, ” And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah . But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” Islam does allow for fighting however, the Quran and Sunnah give very strict rules on who to fight, how to fight, where to fight, and what to do after the fighting. Here is a list of some of the rules:
        -Fight only soldiers who are fighting you ( Quran 2:190)
        -Do not harm women, children, the elderly, clergy, and noncombatants (Sunan Abu Dawud, Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal)
        -Do not cut down trees or destroy the land ( Sahih Bukhari)
        -Do not mutilate corpses (Muwata of Imam Malik)
        -Do not break a promise of peace (Muwata of Imam Malik)
        -Do not torture or mistreat POWs (Quran 76:8-9)

        The second thing that both groups do is to take things out of context. For example if I were a football coach and during a game I told my players to go and destroy the other team, we know exactly what I am taking about. I want my players to go and win, not let the other team get the ball back, and to play hard. However if one of my players took what I said and blew up the bus with the opponent team still in it and tried quoting me, everyone would know that he is wrong and that what I said was significant and relavent only for that particular instance. Again both groups love to use this ayah of the Quran, ” And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Quran 9:5″ However this was revealed during the time when the pagan tribes of Arabia vowed to join together to elimante the Muslims, so the Muslims were given permission by the All Mighty to fight these aggressive tribes whenever they encountered them.

        Finally most of the so called scholars of ISIL are not scholars. They are the equivalent of someone watching Grey’s Anatomy along with a few pages from a medical text book and saying that they are qualified doctors. they have no proper Islamic educational training, many of them have never even read the entire Quran. The few exceptions who are there are extremely fringe elements whose arguments are as weak as a house built by playing cards yet they make a facade that they are the greatest scholars who ever lived.

        In conclusion the best way to defeat their arguments is to use the Quran and Sunnah against them. They quote verses from the Quran to justify their behavior, and in turn we do the same to show how their behavior is a grave sin. Furthermore we would ask them for the exogensis which they would fail to use.

        Hope this helps.

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#Society

Beyond 2020: Grounding Our Politics in Community

Kyle Ismail, Guest Contributor

Published

As tense and agonizing as these unending election days have been, it pales in comparison to the last four years.  I plainly remember how it all began on the night of November 07, 2016. I watched as the political map of the US became increasingly red late into the night. All the social media banter, conspiracy theories and left-wing critiques of candidate Hillary Clinton, formed an amorphous blob of white noise as I heard Trump announced as the next president. Now that Trump has run for re-election, half the country was hoping for a repudiation but will have to settle for the fact that despite a small margin, Donald J. Trump will not have a second chance to erode our democratic institutions and divide us. But we can’t move forward until each of us acknowledges our own pathological role in what we’ve become as a deeply divided country. 

We need to grapple with how we can gradually improve the circus-like reality that has become our ordinary, daily politics. We’ll relive more and perhaps improved “Trumps” if we don’t accept our own responsibility in creating a divided America. This starts with being better members of local communities. Here are a few of Trump-induced realizations that I’ve come to accept:

  1. Caring about our immediate neighbors and listening to their challenges and concerns is the part of political engagement that we all have to embrace above and beyond actually voting if we hope to be more than a 50/50 nation.
  2. Social media and its profit-driven algorithms are actually eroding how we see each other but could also be altered to help better educate us about our local social/political landscape.
  3. Local Politics has direct impact on our lives and is also at the heart our religious obligations to our neighbors. It also sets the tone for where the federal level derives policies that prove to be best practices (some examples are included below).
  4. Agitation and protest are not the same as being politically organized on a local level. Protest is sometimes needed, but it will never replace consistent and patient work. We learned this lesson with the Arab Spring as that movement failed to transform into a movement that was able to govern effectively. And the same appears to be true about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The voting is over for now. But voting is really the smallest part of being committed to bettering our communities. It was Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) who gave the most specific definition of community/neighbor and encouraged his followers to guard the rights of the neighbor:

“Your neighbor is 40 houses ahead of you and 40 houses at your back, 40 houses to your left and 40 houses to your right” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

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Why does this relate to being politically organized?? The need for political organizing comes when any group of people want to create change in accordance with their values. We’ve all watched protest after protest that change little to nothing at the neighborhood level. This will continue to happen without organization, which span school boards, block clubs, nonprofits, and religious community outreach.  How can Muslims enjoin right and discourage wrong in any meaningful way? It comes through having authentic relationships with neighbors and turning that into organized and engaged communities.

Rosa Parks

Nothing illuminates the value of such relationships better than the story of Rosa Parks in her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People often think that she was the first brave soul to defy the custom of allowing whites to sit before African-Americans could be seated on her city’s buses. Nothing could be further from the truth. The difference was that her sets of relationships were so interwoven into her local community that it forced a massive response. Park’s connections spanned socioeconomic circles as she had close friendships from professors to field hands. She held memberships in a dozen local organizations including her church and the local NAACP. She was a volunteer seamstress in poor communities and provided the same for profit in wealthy white circles. When someone with her relational positioning was able to leverage the political organizing ability of MLK and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparked.

When something happens to Muslims, who can we mobilize to respond? Who becomes angry? Who do we work with in our communities to create policies that reflect our values And what are our internal barriers to such cooperation?

“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and that is the weakest of faith.” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

Our Predecessors Organized Locally

At some point in time voting became the sum total of political engagement in the minds of many and is now deemed by some as worthless. We quickly forget that the organizations that battled for voting rights were first locally organized to improve communities. SNCC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League all formed to create change in various ways and the fight for voting rights was a component of these local agendas. So when we’re tempted to believe that voting doesn’t matter, it’s likely due to our lack of engagement in local issues that form the contours of our community life. If you’ve ever heard of Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer (worth researching!), you probably never bought into this type of logic.

One of the many lessons we can pull from this rich history is that we cannot pursue policies, seek alliances, or negotiate a position with political parties (see Ice Cube’s debacle in negotiating with Trump) without first being organized from within. No set of friendships or outside philanthropic support can supplant the need for internal organization. This lack of organized political engagement has weakened Muslims in general but has fatally weakened African-American Muslims as voices within the larger Black community – a voice that gave Islam its first fully accepted and influential place in American society.

Immigrant-based Muslim communities could also benefit from a local approach because despite being several generations in America, their American bonafides are still not set in stone. Concerns about Islamophobia will not change outside of developing authentic relationships with non-Muslims.

This also pushes back against a culture shaped disproportionately by social media algorithms that promote isolation and division for the sake of profit. Our attention to the national news cycle also takes our attention away from local communities where our power is formed. In this type of political malaise, re-engagement in local politics and community relationships can bring us back to important principles that resonate with the values of Islam.

Local politics help shape federal policy

The final word on any law or policy rests with the federal government, but much of what becomes orthodoxy begins with a few concerned citizens in local communities. As with community policing, criminal justice reform, climate sustainability, or any issues that has not caught on, the federal government will often step back to see how a new law plays out at state and local levels. Illinois didn’t wait for Obamacare but has a well-established program to ensure that anyone 18 and younger in Illinois has health insurance through a program called All Kids . Colorado has, in the midst of protests against police brutality, altered their law of Qualified Immunity to make police more accountable. And California has advanced the conversation on reparations  by sanctioning a study to understand how the state could benefit by redressing the descendants of American slavery.

By advancing issues and electing representatives who support the causes we believe in, we insert ourselves into a narrative that would’ve otherwise been forged without us. There’s no shortcut in this process short of rolling up our sleeves to understand our local systems and existing organizations. Moneyed interests are prepare to control the narrative regardless of who the president is and we have to remake this system from the ground up. Our history provides us with a roadmap to do this and it goes far beyond being citizens who only argue over national issues while standing on the sidelines. Remembering our 40 neighbors as advised by the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the best place to start.

Some helpful links:

Local Elections

State Legislatures

School Boards

County Prosecutors

Mayors

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Why Boycotting France is the Wrong Response

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“I don’t think it’s safe to come visit you in France with your Aunt…she wears a hijab, and she will have trouble getting around”, my mother nervously quipped as we discussed travel arrangements for their trip. 

“Of course it’s safe! How could you say that? There are women wearing hijab all over this country!”  I protested, as I tried to assuage her concerns.

I was living as an expat in France when my family was planning their visit to the country last year. I was surprised to hear the reservations from my own folk; it went on to highlight the pre-conceived notions Muslims often have about the French. “They hate Muslims!” “They are racists” “They insult our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)!”. The list goes on.  

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Having spent a considerable amount of time in France, Quebec and Suisse-Romande, I’ve developed an affinity towards the French culture, language and people. I’ve never felt marginalized in these lands because of my dark skin, my Muslim faith, or my never-ending struggle with French conjugation. Yes, I am privileged in many ways, but that doesn’t negate the validity of my experiences. 

I was thus naturally taken aback by the recent calls to boycott France in light of the opportunistic and contemptable actions of Emmanuel Macron. If these boycotts made me uncomfortable, I can imagine how much more offended the average French person would have been. Macron’s decision to first politicize an unspeakable crime, and then to insult our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was a deplorable move. It exposed his true colors and showed us that he is just another disdainful politician who seeks to divide, rather than build bridges. 

As pitiful as Macron’s actions are, is the Muslim response calling for boycotts of France justified? Is it fair to hold all of France guilty for the comments made by its President? Are we not only advancing the ‘Us vs Them’ narrative that extremists on both sides want? No one holds all of America responsible for the ridiculous comments that Trump makes – why a different standard for France? 

Collective guilt is a serious disease that we must overcome. We need to stop holding a people accountable for the actions of a few. We need to stop blaming a people for the actions of their ancestors. French corporations, that employ thousands of Muslims across the world, did not insult the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) – so why take them to task? French Muslims have not called for these boycotts, so why are we advocating for them?  If we collectivize and boycott all of France, how are we any different from those who hold all Muslims responsible for the violence perpetrated by a few? 

We need to abandon the ‘Us vs Them’ mindset; this parochial idea of ‘Islam vs the West’ or ‘Islam vs France’. We need to adopt a post-nationalist worldview where we look at all people as one, as our own. There is no ‘Them’ – it is all ‘Us’. It is ‘Us’ against hatred, bigotry, divisiveness, and racism. It is ‘Us’ against those in power, on both sides, who seek to exploit ‘Us’ for political and personal gain. 

As one people, we should never advocate for boycotts which seek to create divisions and animosity between ‘Us’. Blanket consumer boycotts are short lived and have a minimal impact regardless. What lives long past the boycott are the feelings of resentment, hatred and enmity directed towards an entire nation. Our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is a prophet to all people, to the French people – our people. We must not partake in actions which alienate our kin from being receptive to his message.  

Know that paltry cartoons will not take away from the rank of the Chosen One. One of his miracles in these modern times, is that those wishing to disparage him have been unable to succeed. His enemies have caricaturized him over and over again, but none of their images have stuck around or gained acceptance. Despite all of these attempts, the only descriptor with which he continues to be universally recognized is that of prophethood. You read a headline: ‘Artist makes images of the Prophet’, and you know instantly who ‘the Prophet’ refers to regardless of who you are. Unqualified, the word always brings to mind the thought of one man!   

Even those that don’t believe in him call him ‘the Prophet Muhammad’ – lips refuse to utter his name with anything other than his noble epithet. So, fear not about the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) rank – for the one being praised by angels in the Heavens cannot be belittled by lowly men here on Earth. 

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OpED: Sri Preston Kulkarni’s War on Facts

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“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” — Dorothy Allison (American Writer)

By Ghazala Salam, Founder & President, Muslim Caucus

Elections are a time when stretching the truth is the norm rather than the exception, and “fact checking” an imperative for anyone who wants to make an informed decision about their vote. However, nowhere has the narrative collided as head on with the truth as in the campaign of Sri Preston Kulkarni, Democratic candidate for the Texas Congressional District #22. Such is the brazenness of Kulkarni’s lies that multiple groups that have vowed to vote President Trump out of office believe it is in the best interest of the district and the country if Kulkarni loses his second bid for a place in the US House of Representatives, his purported commitment to the Democratic platform notwithstanding.

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Many are understandably curious about the reason for so many Democrats turning against a candidate from the party they normally support. To be clear, it is not so much Kulkarni’s campaign narrative, as the conflict between that narrative and the truth. To many voters of District 22, Kulkarni’s campaign ostensibly stands for human rights and religious freedom, and against fascism and nationalism. Unfortunately, and as multiple exposes that are now going viral have demonstrated, Kulkarni’s association with fascist and nationalist elements both in India and the US run deep, and indeed are the key drivers of his candidacy.

Kulkarni is no ordinary immigrant success story, having come from a family with deep connections to India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is one of the world’s largest militia, and the ideological fountainhead of Hindutva, a fascist and supremacist ideology that seeks to turn India into a Hindu state, where Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities are relegated to the status of second-class citizens with few rights. In the last two decades, front organizations of the RSS in America have fielded multiple candidates for political office, some of whom have gone on to make significant contributions to advancing Hindutva’s agenda in Washington, DC. It is no surprise therefore, that the RSS’s American affiliate, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), are among the primary backers of Kulkarni’s candidacy. The irony of a man who claims to stand against racism, fascism and nationalism, being backed by the same forces that assassinated Mahatma Gandhi is something Kulkarni would prefer voters don’t pay attention to.

However, the connection with RSS is based on more than just mutual benefit. Kulkarni is the nephew of the late Pramod Mahajan, a highly influential Indian politician and minister, who was an RSS veteran and the BJP’s chief strategist. He held several important cabinet positions including Defense, and until his murder in 2006 by another uncle of Sri Kulkarni, Mahajan was considered the “heir apparent” to the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee. Mahajan was among the key organizers of L. K. Advani’s Rath Yatra, a campaign that finally led to the criminal demolition of the Babri Mosque and the subsequent killing of over 3,000 people in sectarian violence across India.

What is striking about Kulkarni’s candidacy is not just these RSS connections that are now falling out of the proverbial closet, but Kulkarni’s silly attempt at feigning ignorance about the RSS, claiming he did not know it was an organization until two years ago. This is rich, coming from a man who claims to have been a career diplomat, and whose next posting before he quit the Foreign Service was going to be in New Delhi. Kulkarni has gone on record to say that Ramesh Bhutada, the Vice-President of HSS, was “like a father,” to him, and his son Rishi Bhutada was among those without whose support the campaign itself might not have been possible.

Another relative of Sri Kulkarni is the well-known Indian politician Gopinath Munde, who married Mahajan’s sister. Munde was a member of Modi’s cabinet before his death in a road accident, and was once in charge of the RSS branches in the city of Pune. Kulkarni’s cousin Poonam Mahajan, currently a member of the Indian Parliament, was once the national President of the BJP “Youth Wing” and the Secretary of the BJP in 2013.

Much to Kulkarni’s discomfiture, his fascist friends are actually flaunting their connection to him, starting with BJP ideologue Subramanian Swamy, hailing Kulkarni’s candidacy as “Hindutva’s hope in Houston.” Yet, Kulkarni wants voters to believe him when he claims ignorance about the RSS.

The struggle with facts continues, with Kulkarni claiming without proof, a lineage from the famed General Sam Houston. Short on facts are also Kulkarni’s claims of expertise on issues of national security, as he has provided almost no details of his tenure in the Foreign Service. Kulkarni’s complete refusal to acknowledge his campaign’s connections to RSS should also be seen in light of the fact that the RSS’s nationalist and Islamophobic agenda finds a natural ally in the Republican Party, particularly in Donald Trump. It is no surprise therefore, that Prime Minister Modi was welcomed in Houston by President Trump and prominent Republicans at a massive “Howdy Modi” rally in September 2019. The same Rishi Bhutada who helped Kulkarni launch his campaign was one of the main organizers and spokesperson for the event. Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Modi broke protocol in giving President Trump a rousing endorsement for reelection during the latter’s visit to India.

None of these would have been uncomfortable truths for Kulkarni, had he been running as a Republican. However, Kulkarni’s candidacy as a Democrat flies in the face of facts, and the support he is getting from many of the district’s Democrat voters is more the result of revulsion against President Trump than a proper vetting of Kulkarni’s politics.

If Kulkarni makes it to Capitol Hill, expect stonewalling on issues of human rights and religious freedom by right wing forces around the world. With Kulkarni as their representative, South Asian voters can forget about any accountability for India, for its egregious violations of human rights and religious freedom. In a “letter to the Muslim community,” apparently conscious of the growing disquiet about his candidacy among Muslims, liberals and progressives, Kulkarni brags about having taken a stand on the “violence in Delhi” and the “situation in Kashmir,” as evidence of his commitment to human rights and religious freedom. In truth, both statements by Kulkarni are ritualistic expressions of standing for peace and human rights, while failing to call out the role of ideologically driven violence against religious minorities. The perpetrators of such violence are widely known to be proponents of the same ideology whose affiliates in the US are among his donors. Such statements are actually a disservice to the victims of sectarian violence for they seek to obfuscate the role of Hindu nationalism in driving such persecution.

Kulkarni’s has apparently promised to take a public position against the use of India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to strip citizenship away from India’s Muslim citizens. Absent from Kulkarni’s narrative is any mention of how the CAA and NRC are discriminatory in their essence against people of the Muslim faith, and a clear violation of India’s secular Constitution. Clearly Kulkarni is not on the same page as respected human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. How Kulkarni is expected to be vocal about civil rights in the US, while actively shielding those who are eroding these very rights abroad defies explanation.

Similarly, Kulkarni has issued a statement on the “situation” in Kashmir that does nothing to shine the light on the historic betrayal of the Kashmiri people represented by the revocation of Article 370, and the enormous human suffering caused by the Government of India’s tyrannical curfew and lockdown, imposed long before Covid-19. In this regard, Kulkarni apparently does not want to displease his RSS supporters by condemning the unprecedented human rights catastrophe in Kashmir, something many prominent Democrats have done, in the form of statements and House resolutions. For Kulkarni to call out the role of the India’s Hindu nationalist government in causing such suffering on Kashmir’s civilian population is unthinkable. In fact, Kulkarni is loath to even call out the Indian military’s tyranny in Kashmir, and instead prefers to advise the Indian government “behind closed doors,” through the “ladder of diplomacy.”

The truth about Sri Kulkarni’s campaign is closely tied to the money trail. Kulkarni has accepted in excess of $80,000 from just 10 families linked to RSS affiliates in the United States. Despite repeated demands by voters in his district to return such tainted donations, Kulkarni has instead doubled down, attacking those raising concerns as “nefarious actors,” while claiming he was unaware of the RSS as an organization.

It is possible that Kulkarni is genuine in his advocacy for the environment and his concern about gun violence. However, his janus-faced campaign is being weighed down by its own internal contradictions and his refusal to come clean on important facts that affect his prospective constituents. Among all the lies of the 2020 elections, Kulkarni’s claim that he is against fascism and nationalism must rank among the most brazen.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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