The Problem with The Utica Phoenix
by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
You may have seen the latest edition of the Utica Phoenix around town lately or perhaps you’ve read it online. I have been reading the Phoenix since shortly after it was launched. I even wrote for the Phoenix for about two years. When I read editor-in-chief Cassandra Harris-Lockwood’s latest article on the Phoenix’s website and then saw it again on the front page of the print edition I was shocked, dismayed and angered.
The article is titled “Muslims of America: A Question of Peace.” The whole article serves as an inflammatory, bigoted and racist piece, the likes of which can also be found on right-wing websites that regularly bash Islam and Muslims. I am only putting this mildly. I have been trying to grapple with how to respond to this over the last few days and have struggled over this, thought long and hard. So where does one start?
I could start with the idea of the Utica Phoenix, at least what it has meant to me, and perhaps others, over the years. When it was launched I was excited. Finally, an independent, alternative and non-corporate local news source. It was a voice for the voiceless and gave hope for the hopeless. Over the years, the Phoenix has covered stories of police corruption, local activism, community programs and the dreams and hopes of many people in Cornhill and the greater Utica community. News stories and opinions were direct, honest, unfiltered, authentic. In 2005 I decided to take a plunge into journalism and write for the Phoenix.
I thought that writing about Israel and Palestine would be a great topic and it just so happened that Ido Aharoni from the Israeli Consulate in New York City came to Utica to speak. I wrote about what he said in the spirit of the Phoenix – direct, honest, unfiltered, authentic – or so I thought. I also decided to write for Rochester Indymedia and initially published the article there.
The response from the Israeli Consulate was immediate. They called the Phoenix and complained. I was then told by the Cassandra Harris-Lockwood to write an article on Israel after I interviewed local rabbis about their personal opinions about Israel and Palestine. I did the interviews but I wanted to interview priests and imams to get a balanced view. I was told to stick with the rabbis.
It was also around this time that Walter Washington was shot and killed by the Utica Police Department. I wrote an investigative piece about his death and interviewed family members of Washington and witnesses to the police shooting. I uncovered what appeared to be the murder of an innocent, unarmed Black man. I was told in clear language that the Phoenix would only print my article on Walter Washington if I wrote an article on Israel and Palestine that was decidedly pro-Israel. I could not, in good conscience, sacrifice my integrity and core values and write a piece that was supportive of Israeli apartheid and the subjugation of the indigenous Palestinian population. I refused to finish the article. Thankfully, the Utica Tangerine decided to print my article on Walter Washington but I parted ways with the Phoenix for years.
Does this anecdote shed any light on the Phoenix today? Perhaps. That the editor was more interested in printing articles supportive of Israel than printing an investigative piece on the police shooting of an unarmed Black man is still lost on me. But after reading the editor’s most recent article about Islam, maybe it had something to do with her personal views about Muslims.
The Problem with Islam?
Cassandra Harris-Lockwood started her article by telling her readers that her friends cautioned her about writing it in the first place. The concern was over “possibly offending a Muslim who may feel it necessary to defend, even a perceived slight, with a violent and dangerous response.” The fear mongering over Muslims is right out in the open. It only gets worse.
The rest of the article ridicules and condemns not Muslim extremists and fringe conservatives but the entire religion. She states that “It’s easy, Islam is scary. It calls for wiping out civilization as we know it, without apology.” She argues that terrorism, war and violence are “part of the very fabric of the religion.” And in a statement that mirrors those given by politicians and pundits who aim to cause fear of Muslims, immigrants and, specifically, Syrian refugees she goes on at length:
“I think that most American’s [sic] wish it was easier to accept these Syrian Muslims amidst the continued assault by extremists who feel in every way they are justified by God to maim and kill in his name. But given the substance of the Koran [sic] as spelled out here, it is as though the Muslim religion has a built in ‘sleeper cell’ written into its tenets.”
There you have it. This is not coming from the demagoguery of Donald Trump, or even from the airwaves of Fox News, but from the editor-in-chief of Utica’s supposedly progressive, alternative and independent news source. The ideology of fringe, right wing Muslims is not to blame, but the core tenets of the entire Islamic faith. The rest of the article is filled with cherry-picked and greatly misinterpreted quotes from the Qur’an and calls for Muslims to do something about their violent, backwards, barbaric ways. I will just cover a few of these topics below.
Women and Islam
At first, the editor calls into question her perceived role of women in Islam. “I can’t reconcile, for my own sake, a religious and cultural misogyny that at its core has me and mine under wraps, sequestered, reduced and denied.” While patriarchy is a reality within Islam, this is also the case for all of the world’s major religions. I noticed this in the Hassidic Jewish community I once lived in located in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Women covered their heads and were forced to sit in segregated buses. But the same can be said of other faiths too. You find misogynists and feminists in every religion imaginable.
Islam is a deeply pluralistic faith which includes countless schools of thought, difference of opinion and incredible debate, including on topics concerning women, the rights of women and feminism. Some of the most venerated people in the Islamic faith happen to be women, especially Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadija was a powerful business woman, had a major influence on Muhammad and asked him to marry her. She was the very first Muslim, the mother of a world religion. She would only be the first of many Muslim women to fight for the rights of women.
There is much I can say about women in Islam but when it comes to feminism, there are many examples. The Middle Eastern Feminist website , the Arab Spring, and many new women’s liberation movements are just some examples. Perhaps the best example I can give of feminist Muslims today is the Rojava Revolution. It is a secular, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian and deeply feminist revolution going on right now, in the heart of the Middle East. The revolution directly involves 3 million people in Kurdistan (in northern Syria) and that number grows daily. It is being led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which was once communist but shed its authoritarian roots to embrace anarchism.
The revolution was launched in 2013 out of the chaos and ruin of the Syrian Civil War. Kurds and others involved in the revolution have set up a new society rooted in concepts of communalism, mutual aid and direct democracy. Neighborhood and community councils exist in revolutionary towns and women make up half of the councils. The PKK is also leading the fight against Daesh (otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State) and women have formed their own militias called the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) while all genders fight in the YPG (People’s Protection Units).
The leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, has written extensively about feminism and members of the PKK and the militias fighting Daesh, as well as those setting up this new society, not only study feminist theory but put this theory into practice. One thing that is so significant about this is that many of those involved in this revolution, although not all, are Muslim. A major feminist revolution that is simultaneously defeating Daesh is being fought by countless Muslims. Think about that for a moment. This is just one example of feminism in practice in the Islamic world but their are countless others. But this topic does bring up some other issues in the article in the Phoenix. That issue is terrorism.
Islam and Terrorism
Cassandra Harris-Lockwood proclaims, “Consider that there has never been a clamor for peace from the American Muslim community. Never has there been a broad call or general support in the Muslim community for ending terrorism or calling for an end to jihad.” Nothing can be further from the truth. The Rojava Revolution serves as a great example outside of the U.S. of many Muslims risking their lives and leading the battle against terrorism. There are however countless other examples of Muslims speaking out against Muslim extremism, terrorism, war and encouraging peace.
Muslims in the U.S. have consistently organized and spoken out against extremism and terrorism. I have experienced this on numerous occasions and seen it with my own eyes. I have had too many interactions to count with Muslims where they spoke out against extremism, reached out to other Muslims to discuss these issues, or even organized educational events and rallies denouncing war and extremism. On a national scale, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and civil liberties organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), is actively engaged in the efforts to stop extremism and terrorism. CAIR states that “The organization’s formula on terrorism is simple and comprehensive: CAIR condemns terrorism whenever it happens, wherever it happens, whoever commits it.” Hours after tragedy struck on 9/11/2001, CAIR condemned the terrorist attacks. They have sent out numerous denunciations condemning domestic and international terrorism before and since that day. These are just some examples. There are many more. Within the Muslim community in the U.S. there are core values, beliefs and actions to back up words in efforts to push back against terrorism and all forms of violence.
Here in Utica, Muslims regularly denounced terrorism and war in Cassandra Harris-Lockwood’s own newspaper on countless occasions under the monthly column the Islamic Corner. In May of 2015 Imam Najeeulah, in the Utica Phoenix stated, “The Muslim Community Association of The Mohawk Valley are United in our stand with those who condemn the brutal and indiscriminate murder, rape, and violence against innocent men, women, and children committed anywhere in the world. We further condemn the religious extremism of groups, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, perpetrated in the name of Al-Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This includes the invitation extended to Muslims to join their inhumane and un-Islamic terror campaigns that destroy the private properties and the houses of worship of Christians, Jews, Muslims and others.” This was not the only statement like this.
Even in the streets, local Muslims, many of them Bosnian, Somali-Bantu, and Palestinian, came out to a pro-refugee and anti-war rally recently, one that was even covered by the Utica Phoenix. The most popular sign at the rally was an anti-Daesh (ISIS) sign made by one of the protesters. Many young Muslim women and girls who attended the rally excitedly had their pictures taken next to the sign. The message was clear, Muslims locally were protesting Daesh and calling for peace. These rallies are quite common but the media rarely reports them. In Dearborn, Michigan, which boasts a large Muslim community, the group Dearborn Muslims Against Terrorism held an anti-Daesh rally this past November which attracted 100s of Muslims.
A great example of Muslims organizing against terrorism internationally is expressed by the group Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization with 50 million members. The organization created a film called “The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam” which was translated into Arabic and English and distributed around the world. The film was made for Daesh counter-recruitment. Members of Nahdlatul Ulama are actively organizing against Islamic extremism. Countless meetings, events and conferences have been set up by the group to address and organize against Daesh and similar groups. The New York Times quoted the organization’s spiritual leader A. Mustofa Bisri as saying, “According to the Sunni view of Islam, every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.” His views are less the exception in Islam and more the rule. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world condemn groups like Daesh, al-Qaeda and conservative governments like Saudi Arabia. They have been doing so for years. Many people may not get this idea from reading the latest Utica Phoenix.
In her article, Cassandra Harris-Lockwood describes a discussion she had with a local imam about the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks: “I remember right after 911 I asked a Muslim friend of mine who is an Imam, a Muslim priest, why there was no immediate and coordinated response by the Muslim community condemning the action. The response I got was, ‘We don’t do that.’ I responded, ‘Well, you should. This doesn’t look good for Muslims. Those guys are making your whole religion look bad.’” The anecdote is interesting but one imam does not speak for 1.6 billion Muslims. As stated above, Muslims did in fact immediately condemn the attacks. This happened on a global scale.
After 9/11/2001 the General-Secretariat of the League of Arab States made countless condemnations of the attacks and offered condolences and support for the American people. Muslim organizations, scholars, religious leaders, and activists also condemned the attacks and offered sympathy and assistance for those who were most affected by the attacks. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini condemned the attacks, a moment of silence was held at a soccer game in Tehran and candlelight vigils were held across the nation. Muslim heads of state called the White House to offer condolences, candle light vigils and prayer sessions were held in Muslim nations all over the world as imams and religious leaders gave sermons condemning the attacks. This sentiment continues to this very day. Muslims, are literally, on the front lines fighting terrorism.
If condemnations of terrorism by organizations, religious leaders, Muslim politicians and others, protests here and abroad against Daesh, groups with 50 million Muslims organizing against terrorism, and a major feminist revolution against Daesh being waged by many Muslims is not enough to convince the Utica Phoenix that Muslims are doing something to fight terrorism and war, I’m not sure what is. This is one major blind-spot of the editor of the Phoenix but not the only one.
American and Christian Exceptionalism
I could not help but notice the difference in tone and content when the article described Islam and Muslims on the one hand with the U.S. and Christianity on the other. It was quite simple: Muslims are violent, and support terrorism and war while Christians and Americans (those who are non Muslims) support peace, tolerance, pluralism, justice and democracy. There is a name for this: American (and in this particular case, also Christian) exceptionalism. It is the idea that the U.S. is uniquely democratic, just and free and can be compared with no other belief or political system in the world. In a word, it is exceptional. Similarly, Christianity is viewed as uniquely peaceful, loving, caring and democratic. This was evident in the article and Cassandra Harris-Lockwood did not hide behind her particular Christian beliefs.
Nothing is said of the brutal holy wars of conquest and plunder fought in the name of spreading Christianity. There is not enough space here to write about that. The expansion of the Holy Roman Empire across Europe, the Crusades, the Reconquista of Spain in 1492 which was a Catholic holy war that wanted to eradicate the peninsula of Muslims and Jews, the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Nothing is said of the genocide of 3 million indigenous Arawak committed by Columbus and his men in the name of Christianity, or the genocide of 10 million Congolese at the hands of the Belgians, or of the Indian Wars and manifest destiny fought by the U.S. Nothing is said of Christian terrorist groups like the KKK and various white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations. Why is that Muslims are expected to answer for the crimes committed by Muslim extremists while there is no expectation for all Christians, or Hindus, or Jews, to condemn acts of extremism and violence committed in their name. It is Islam, not Christianity apparently, that is the religion of violence and terrorism.
Nothing is also said of U.S. imperialism, capitalism and foreign policy and its bloody past and present. Invasion after invasion of nations all over the world, with notions of spreading Anglo-Saxon civilization, Christendom and capitalism have led to the deaths of millions and millions of people. One million dead in the Philippines because of the U.S. invasion in 1898, including 200,000 killed in concentration camps and massacres of 100s of defenseless Muslims in Mindanao. Five million killed in Korea. Three million in Southeast Asia. Three million in Iraq. The list continues. All of these wars had policies of mass incarceration, bombings and burnings of civilian areas, torture, and direct orders to “kill anything that moves.” The list of nations invaded by the U.S. is endless. But we are told, Islam is to blame for violence in the world, and Islam alone.
Nothing is said of the role of the West in general and the U.S. in particular in helping the rise of Muslim extremism. Never mind that Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Libya, Syria, Iraq and so many other nations in the Middle East and North Africa in the not too distant past had socialist or secular and nationalist governments, or at the very least mass socialist, nationalist and left wing movements. It was the Cold War and many of these governments, social movements and activists were considered enemies by the U.S., less so because of their politics and more so because they wanted domestic wealth and resources to be shared by their people rather than extracted for Western profit. This is something that U.S. corporations and the U.S. government would not stand for.
This is why the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically elected secular nationalist Mossadegh in Iran and helped install the dictatorship of the Shah. It is also why the U.S. backed and financed Osama bin Laden who was hailed as a hero in the West. It was open season on nationalists, socialists, union activists, feminists, and student activists across the Muslim world and the U.S. was busy at work, arming and financing the origins of groups that today are called al Qaeda, the Taliban and Daesh. But that history is not important to the Phoenix. Islam is to blame.
We are asked by the editor, “Where is the Gandhi of Islam? Where is the Christ of Islam?” The answers are quite simple. Christ is the Christ of Islam. Jesus is one of the most revered prophets in Islam and the most quoted prophet in the Qur’an. As for Gandhi, when asked if he was Hindu, his response was, “Yes I am.” But continued, “I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” Let us not forget that it was a Hindu terrorist that assassinated Gandhi, not a Muslim terrorist. Gandhi saw Islam as a religion of peace and was more afraid, as his assassination made clear, of Hindu extremism. But there are plenty of peace makers and those who stand up for justice in Islam in addition to the ones listed above. Noticeably absent from the article was the beloved Malcolm X. That exclusion speaks volumes about the nature of the politics espoused by the Utica Phoenix.
Where Does it End?
This is only the first of many other articles that will be written by myself and others concerning the topic of Islam. Brevity has been difficult in responding to this because it is a subject very close to my heart. I have said nothing of the Phoenix’s choice in cherry-picking quotes and misinterpreting and decontextualizing them from the Qur’an. I could easily respond with a long list of quotes that support violence, war, hatred and slavery in the Bible or Torah but I would be doing the same thing with those two religions as has been done by Cassandra Harris-Lockwood’s article on Islam. That is not my intent.
One need to look no further than the sources the Phoenix’s editor chose for her article – right wing websites waging their own crusade against Islam. Did she choose to consult any Muslims she has known for years to get their views or input on the intricacies and complexity of Islamic jurisprudence and theology? Did she listen to the voices made by Muslims in the past in the pages of the Utica Phoenix? Or the Muslims who attended the recent pro refugee rally in Utica? I called this article bigoted the other day online. The response from the Phoenix was to repost a video from the racist and decidedly anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim website established by none other than televangelist Pat Robertson called the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). We need to ask ourselves if the Utica Phoenix is truly a progressive, independent, alternative voice when its editor is pushing the same talking points touted by Donald Trump.
In a word, her article is dangerous. It is dangerous because it gives ammunition to those who hate immigrants, refugees, Muslims and Arabs. In a time when fear and hatred of Muslims in this country has far surpassed what it was in 2001, when Muslims are being attacked on the streets, people are burning Qur’ans, Muslim businesses and mosques to the ground, and right wing vigilantes are arming themselves to take over a federal building and indigenous land in Oregon, the Phoenix has been largely silent on these issues. On the subject of U.S. imperialism and war, especially in the Middle East, the Phoenix has also been noticeably silent. Rather than creating dialogue, this article has further antagonized the community and created increased fear, mistrust, misunderstandings and hatred of Muslims.
The true colors of the Utica Phoenix are out in the open for everyone to see. Utica needs a left wing, alternative and independent voice. It’s small, but it does exist. It’s called Love and Rage and it was established by a couple of former writers from the Utica Phoenix who left over a deep frustration with the paper. The best way to combat intolerance and bigotry in the media is to become the media and people will be doing that as the weeks unfold.
On a closing note, I propose a call to action. And this is something to think about in light of the rise in Islamophobia and racism in this country, in light of the endless War on Terror which has led to the deaths of millions of Muslims, in light of drone assassinations, invasions, bombings of villages and cities, and with the hope that we, the people, can change this mess we are in. There is in implicit call to action in the lines below in this famous quote from the Lutheran pastor, anti-Nazi activist and concentration camp survivor Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
If you have not spoken up yet and if you have not taken action, the time is not too late, but it may be at some juncture in the near future. When the message of hate and bigotry is not monopolized by the far right, when it seeps into local, progressive newspapers, then something terrible is in the works. An all out war, sometimes cultural, sometimes political, sometimes economic and sometimes violent, has been waging for quite some time domestically against poor people, people of color, Black people, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Internationally, it has been waged by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine, Yemen, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and so many other nations. We should not and will not be silent in times like these. Something must be done, before it is too late, like it was for Friedrich Niemöller.