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Parenting Young Women in the Age of Extremism

Saba Syed (Umm Reem)

Published

By Umm Reem

Why Teen Girls maybe Joining ISIS

In retrospect I became a part of what I believe now was a cult because I had a strong personality, leadership qualities and I wanted to make a difference. But most importantly, I lacked a strong relationship with my parents. I was raised through typical “immigrant-parenting” where communication with my parents was limited. I shared the same cultural and generation gap with my parents as many do with their immigrant families.

Moreover, the Muslim community in my area didn’t offer any platform for girls my age. As I started becoming more spiritual, I wanted to be more active in our mosque. I was eager to organize and manage activities in the Muslim community but that yearning was often suppressed by the “aunties” politics in the masjids. Older aunties monopolized most of our local mosques’ boards and instead of offering us –youth- any key roles, they almost always took over any important roles and undermined youth’s ability to lead. Hence, when The Ameer Club* actually offered a role to girls of my age –even though it was under male leadership—it automatically attracted my attention, and increased my loyalty, attachment and dedication towards the organization because I didn’t have any other alternatives.

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Again, the only comparison between TAC and ISIS is the manipulation of impressionable teenage minds. Minds that are looking for a purpose to live for, looking for involvement to feel valuable, and all it takes to imprison such minds is to hunt them at the right time when they are feeling “religious high” and offer them what they are looking for, making them blind to the evil involved in the guise of “greater good”.

Let me point out certain factors that made me easy bait to a cult so others may understand why young female minds can be easily persuaded, and also to help parents review their parenting style and their relationship with their daughters, and help our mosques provide a stronger platform to teens looking to serve their communities.

[Disclaimer: I will be referring to some of the girls who left for ISIS, particularly their relationship with their families. By no means do I mean to criticize those families or be callous towards their situation. My ONE and ONLY purpose is to learn and extract lessons for myself and other parents. Nevertheless, we can’t guarantee anything no matter how excellent parents we may become. We can take precautions but only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) can protect our children.]

Lack of Relationship with Parents:

Young girls are looking for attention, and a way to communicate with people who understand them with love. Internet in my time was still in its early baby steps, but now it is far easier to form online connections and build bonds—bonds that must be offered at home by parents.

How can Parents Help:

Change Your Parenting Style: Typical parenting pushes our teens farther away. Parenting must be interactive, friendly, and more logical than typical.

One of the girls who left for ISIS described her parents as “very strict,” a fact that her father did not dispute. 

I will not deny that disciplining and setting rules/regulations are a part of parenting, however, how they are set and implemented can take a positive or negative turn. Every “NO” to a child should come with a reasonable discussion.

Communicate with your Daughter: Communication is the key to successful parenting. There shouldn’t be anything between you and your children that cannot be discussed freely. Share your life with your kids and facilitate for them to share theirs with you, without any intimidating/deterrent reaction from your side.

Double Standards of Raising a Girl vs. Boy: Parents need to get rid of double standard of raising a girl vs. a boy. Not only it is religiously wrong but also damages a daughter’s relationship with her parents and may implore her to rebel at some point in her life, most likely during her teen years. For instance, Hoda who left for ISIS, mentioned that her father kept a check on her phone and had restrictions that her brothers didn’t have to face.

“Although Hoda’s brothers and Mohammed himself have Facebook accounts — with pictures of themselves visible — the women of the family were not to have social media accounts or use messaging apps to communicate with anyone besides family members.” 

Parents must stop putting all the unfair pressure of upholding so-called “family honor” on girls. A strong bond must be created with daughters through justice, communication and understanding. The restrictions need to be same for a daughter and a son, as the advantages.

Compliment your Daughter: Of the reasons I believe girls slip for ISIS is because the ISIS recruiters are trained to cajole the young girls and give them the attention and compliments they feel deprived of—compliments that they crave and never received from their own families, especially fathers. A female always desires male attention, and one of the ways to control that emotion is by fathers and brothers complimenting their daughters/sisters.

Girls who are fulfilled and receive sufficient attention at home, including from the menfolk, may not fall for the first guy that shows them little or any attention.

As Sarah mentions, “most common tactics of ISIS recruiters is to praise the looks of the girl they are trying to entrap, and convince her to cover herself as her “beauty is precious”. Although the recruiters are inviting the girls to become more religious, it becomes okay for them to look at the girls’ pictures or webcam them and compliment their looks!”

Sarah mentioned that Aqsa Mahmood, who had been Sarah’s twitter friend for a couple years, had body image issues. She often talked to Sarah about her insecurities, but once Aqsa fell prey to an ISIS recruiter through WhatsApp, she started gaining confidence—confidence that should have been offered at home.

How can Community Help:

Losing our daughters to ISIS is not only a family problem, it is a community problem, it is OUR problem. We– Western Muslims– need to come together and offer a solution as a community. I urge all the mosques around the U.S., and Muslim communities to:

  •    Educate parents
  •    Offer Parent Child workshops

Finding Purpose of Life through Internet/Twitter

It is human nature to question the purpose of life, have someone explain it precisely and feel fulfilled by achieving that purpose. Our youth, too, look for a purpose in life and if they don’t find their answers at home or mosques, there are all sorts of answers available on the internet, including answers from fanatics that use religion to brainwash a young mind into religious extremism.

Whether it is a practicing household or a non-practicing family, sooner or later the young curious minds will question the very reason of their existence, what purpose they are serving in this world, so whatever their religious background maybe, these answers must not be sought out online.

[button color=”blue” size=”big” alignment=”center” rel=”follow” openin=”newwindow” url=”http://muslimmatters.org/2015/06/14/sunrise-euphrates-sarahs-story-asian-twitter-isis-guilt-targeting-young-women/”]Read Sarah’s entire Interview here[/button]

Sarah mentioned that a lot of girls who belonged to non-practicing Muslim families and were looking for spiritual change started getting their answers from those “Twitter Shayookh” who later became ISIS recruiters.

Hoda, who left for Syria, explained her religious awakening finding satisfaction online as well: “I started getting interested in my deen [religious life] around 2012,” Hoda said… “I felt like my life was so bland without it. Life has much more meaning when u know why you are here.”

The “internet/Twitter scholars” influenced her faith more than her local religious influences, according to Hoda.

How can Parents Help:

Engage Pre/Teens in Religious Discussions: The correct religious guidance–the middle path– is the key to counter violence and extremism amongst our youth. Teenagers must not be left on their own to find the purpose of life, but parents must help them understand. So parents who are religious but not involved in their children’s lives need to take a lot more friendly and congenial approach (as discussed above) towards their daughters. And those parents who have left religion in the backseat need to bring religion in their lives and their children’s lives to protect their children from discovering their faith on the hands of extremists.

Also, just because teens start showing signs of religiosity, doesn’t necessarily mean they are gaining the correct/positive message, and it also doesn’t mean that they are becoming radicalized.

In Hoda’s case, her family now mentions:

“Her family noticed her increased devotion to her religion, but assumed she was simply becoming a more ardent follower of the peaceful strain of the religion which they observe.”

Any positive/negative change in the children must be discussed rationally and respectfully. Engage your teens in discussion at dinner table, during school pickups, or randomly during the day. Know what is causing your child to change and in which direction are they steering their lives.

A positive religious change should involve the youth becoming more active in the community rather than withdrawing from the mosques. Hoda recalls, “As I grew closer to my deen, I lost all my friends, I found none in my community that desired to tread the path I was striving for…I didn’t like my Islamic community far too much.”

This attitude is alarming and parents must provide the help a child needs at such a crucial turn in their lives.

Discuss global/political issues: Political organizations use religion to gain support and use religious sentiments to control minds.

Discuss world’s situation with pre/teens. Don’t hesitate in pointing out the weaknesses of Muslim world, hypocrisy of Muslim politicians and make sure to clearly guide them through in separating religion from political/militant agendas.

Monitor Internet Activities: Parents also have to keep themselves fully integrated with THE internet world. Please know that the only “fitnah” online is not the opposite gender, but we have more serious theological issues to be concerned with.

“Mohammed would often check his daughter’s phone…”

Unfortunately though, Hoda’s father was only concerned with her being involved with boys online. Mohammad said, “What Hoda had on her phone, were Islamic apps. Nothing but hadiths, Qur’an, suras. Nothing suspicious that makes me worried about her actions. Nothing.”
Hoda’s parents were concerned that Hoda might be secretly talking to boys online, and as long as she wasn’t they didn’t feel alarmed with her isolation from mosques and learning more about her religion online. THe fact of the matter is that internet is not a very safe place to learn Islam. Parents must acknowledge that many political and militant organizations communicate and recruit online. I, as a parent, would be more concerned about my child’s religious activities online, especially if he/she starts isolating from main Muslim community.

How can Community Help:

  •       Keeping the girls engaged with appealing activities at mosque
  •       Educate them with exclusive lectures just for females
  •       Hold discussions with speakers who “click” with youth.
  •       Please avoid locking them in “penalty box” without giving them access to shayookh in an acceptable way.

I cannot appreciate enough how Clear Lake Islamic Center immediately addressed the ISIS issue openly in the mosque last summer. Quite frankly, that was my first source of information too on ISIS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjPk37AUQDA

Lack of Female Leadership

Females youth are looking for a place in their communities, and valuable roles. Muslim women’s position in our society is far more in spotlight than it was in my time, yet back then I felt left out and repressed by masjid-aunties. So imagine how much more teens of our time must feel deprived if they are not given a platform to lead and shine.

Also, in our times movies and literature with strong female protagonists are becoming exceptionally popular, and they have a direct impact on young minds. If we neglect the role of female youth in our communities, then even if they manage to stay protected from ISIS, the ultra “pheminists” would most likely hijack their minds, iyyadhobillah.

How can Parents Help:

Value your Daughters: It is a male dominant society and our girls have it tough. We cannot change the whole world, but we can change how females are viewed and valued within the four boundaries of our reign.

  • Let’s get rid of double standards between girls and boys.
  • Let our girls not feel any lesser than the boys at any point in their lives.
  • Let’s equip our daughters with confidence, stability, and fulfillment.
  • Let’s build bonds with our daughters so strong that our young girls help unwind the hijacked minds of the girls trapped with ISIS, rather than becoming a prey to ISIS.

How can Community Help:

The girls leaving for ISIS are responsible for their actions, but at such a tender age, how many teenagers make sensible decisions?

So let us help them make the right decision. Let that help be first and foremost available at home, and then within our Muslim communities. Our girls are the pioneers and the future of our ummah, they are the beacon of hope for our success, they are the backbones of our communities. Let our mosques and communities keep them involved within, so we don’t lose them, not even ONE girl, to the devils of ISIS.

  •    Aunties, please let go of your ego and let a younger one contribute.
  •    Allow girls to lead and let elders be there as a guide, not as a “takeover”.
  •    Give female speaker more platforms to speak. Muslim women cannot always relate to male shayookh and need a female to relate to.
  •    Offer female youth more leadership roles

After reading this article, some parents may worry about the changing status of their children/teenagers who may be becoming more religious. As I say, we live in a world where we have to constantly worry about our kids: If they are away from religion, we have to be concerned and if they are coming closer to religion then we must still worry that they don’t fall for extremism or political organizations that are using Islam to mobilize their political agenda.

The answer to this concern is “communication with your children.” Stay engaged with them, have free discussion about world and religion and keep up with their lives in a friendly way. These steps are the barricades we cause between them and ISIS, while holding tight to the weapon of du’a!

Make du’a for your children; make sincere du’a that comes from the bottom of your heart during the day and at night, during your salah and just randomly during the day.

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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.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Asma

    August 13, 2015 at 2:29 PM

    sister asalamualikum
    May Allah bless you. Such a useful discussion in this article. Parents relationship with daughters really matters because girls not only fell for ISIS but there are many other socially ill minded people who tries to trap teenage girls for other wrong means. May Allah protect us. Aameen
    JazakAllah Khair

  2. Avatar

    Diaby

    August 15, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    ?? brilliant article, spot one very helpful jzk

  3. Avatar

    Claude

    August 19, 2015 at 3:14 PM

    Excellent post, JAK!

  4. Avatar

    Zanika

    August 21, 2015 at 5:26 AM

    Zazakallahu khairan sister,

    Such a thought provoking article.

  5. Avatar

    nudrat

    August 21, 2015 at 9:05 PM

    Excellent, but parents as well as society is required to change their attitudes.

  6. Avatar

    Shamim

    August 22, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    can’t be offering female youth leadership options when you don’t offer them female leaders to follow and listen to. there are enough educated and pious muslim women out there to mentor these women. we need to empower the women to mentor younger women and give these younger women the love, as well as the positive role modelling, they need.

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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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#Current Affairs

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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#Current Affairs

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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