The Absurdist Hijabs and Instagram Wizardry of One Millennial Artist

When the New York-based artist Meriem Bennani took off this past August for a two-month stint of surfing, filming and researching in her native Rabat, Morocco, the 27-year-old commemorated the occasion by posting a quick Instagram video of herself whizzing between New York and Morocco with a single swing of the camera. Two weeks later, Bennani posted from a shoot in Barcelona: stills from the latest episode of “Fardaous Funjab,” her fake reality TV show centered on a fictitious hijab designer and her absurdist headpieces. Playing on the idioms of post-Internet culture, the young video artist’s Instagram acts as an alternative outlet for her impressive skills as an animator and filmmaker, and for her outlandish sense of humor. “Reality TV and Instagram have their own languages,” says the Cooper Union graduate. “I like toying with the familiar and then making it into something else.”

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Review: Reviled French novel is no assault on Islam

The year is 2022 and France has elected a Muslim president.

This is the narrative shell of Submission, a controversial novel by Michel Houellebecq that arrives in Canada on Tuesday, about 10 months after it mangled sensibilities in France. Denounced as Islamophobic, lamented as a “gift” to the far right, the book earned an unsolicited testimonial from Prime Minster Manuel Valls, who declared: “France isn’t Michel Houellebecq. . . . It isn’t intolerance, hate, fear.”

In publishing, timing is crucial. But when Submission came out on Jan. 7, the scheduling proved more unfortunate than serendipitous. That morning, as Houellebecq did a radio interview to promote the book, two radical Islamist brothers stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 12 people.

A caricature of Houellebecq was on the cover of the satirical magazine that day. The country’s most famous living author was depicted in a magician’s hat with stars and crescent moons. In two speech balloons, he predicted his own future like a half-soused Nostradamus: “In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth,” “In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan.”

The image was a winking nod to Submission (Soumission, in French), to the polarizing author and his implausible notion the republic will be ruled by an Islamic political party seven years from now. In the haze of the massacre, amid roiling debates about assimilation and religious extremism, the cover also cemented Houellebecq’s reputation as a bête noir prone to that trinity of intolerance, hate, fear.

But as it turns out, Submission isn’t an assault on Islam at all.

It is an attack on liberal democracy. It is a search for meaning.

The book’s protagonist and narrator is François, a professor at the Sorbonne in his early 40s who specializes in the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans, the 19th-century novelist and catalyst in the Decadent movement.

François is emotionally stunted. He lives alone and has no friends. He beds nubile students, a different one each academic year, and has joyless sex with prostitutes. He is a misanthrope: “Humanity didn’t interest me — it disgusted me, actually.”

This other trinity — malaise, ennui, anomie — is not uncommon in French literature and cinema. François just wants to feel something, anything. The emptiness of his life is an albatross around his neck.

Then comes the election and François is yanked from his stupor.

There are allusions to violence in the streets, though Houellebecq never explains who is doing what and why. Maybe it’s the jihadists. Maybe it’s the nativists. Maybe it’s a collaboration. The menace is expressed in symbols: distant explosions, smoke rising in the sky, armed men roaming Paris at night.

The election has Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing National Front, ahead in the polls until the other parties form a coalition with the fictional Muslim Brotherhood and its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes.

He wins and soon France is living under sharia law.

If Houellebecq had set out to ridicule and inflame, this would be the logical starting point. Instead, Ben Abbes is presented as a saviour of a country in terminal decline. The benefits of his policies are trumpeted and the costs are muted, as if in parentheses: unemployment plummets (because women leave the workforce); universities are flush with cash (because they are now funded by Saudi sheiks); teaching salaries triple (only for those who convert to Islam); marriage is on the rise (because polygamy is now legal); France is on track to become a superpower (because it is collaborating with Islamic groups in England, Holland and Germany, while expanding the European Union to include Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and maybe even Egypt).

A geopolitical fever dream, to be sure. But within the borders of Houellebecq’s wild imagination, Islam is heralded as a kind of magical adhesive capable of regluing a society torn asunder by secular, post-Enlightenment values.

This is the opposite of Islamophobia. It is Islamanirvana.

Western civilization, with its material obsessions and smothering of religion, is in free fall. Say what you will about Islam, Houellebecq seems to be saying in his satire, but unlike François at least these people believe in something.

For an author who now requires round-the-clock police protection, for a man who was unsuccessfully sued after he called Islam “the dumbest religion,” Submission almost reads like a “well, you know, on second thought . . .”

Is Houellebecq having a Cat Stevens moment? Or underneath the mordant humour, behind the veil of this conversion parable, is his new target of scorn the craven mandarins in France and Europe who, from his jaundiced perspective, will gladly give up the controls of rudderless Western society if the price is right?

And if so, isn’t this what France deserves?

Houellebecq wrote Submission after the deaths of his parents, which caused him to question his own atheism. Just like his protagonist, it seems this lonely writer now wants to feel something, anything.

Germany: Assaults on Mosques and Anti-Muslim Racism

July 2014

In a recent interview Aiman A. Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, emphasized the increase of anti-Muslim racism in Germany. Mazyek stressed that assaults on mosques have increased in significant ways and urged to address this issue. First and foremost it would be necessary to accurately capture anti-Muslim racism. For this, it would be essential to have a distinct category which captures anti-Muslim offences. Other than that he suggested to implement special departments in political-administrative bodies of the state, dealing with and monitoring anti-Muslim racism in Germany.

In a different incident Nicolaus Fest, vice editor-in-chief for Bild am Sonntag, forwarded Islamophobe and anti-Muslim comments leading to a public outcry about his racist theses. In an op-ed article Nicolaus Fest not only stereotyped Muslim youth as being criminal in general, but equated Islam with oppressing women and homosexuals as well as encouraging forced marriage and honor killings. The editors-in-chief of the tabloid newspaper Bild, Kai Diekmann and Marion Horn, distanced themselves from these comments.

The British Muslim is truly one among us – and proud to be so

April 3, 2014

Those who believe in a clash of civilisations, in which British values are pitted against those of the Muslim world, have not been short of examples in the past few days. The BBC reports on an “Islamic takeover plot” by hardliners to seize control of several Birmingham state schools. Two Morrisons workers are suing the supermarket for not being able to take holiday during Ramadan, after being told that they submitted their applications too late. Such stories do make the blood boil, and may lead the less charitable to ask if such people should move to a country that better reflects their prejudices.

But one hears such complaints rarely, and this is what marks us out in a Europe that is paranoid about Islam and identity. Britain is, through empire, the original multi-ethnic state. When Churchill was writing for The Daily Telegraph as a war correspondent, his criticism of the Afghan tribesmen was that their behaviour was un-Islamic. “Their religion – fanatic though they are – is only respected when it incites to bloodshed and murder,” he wrote in December 1897. Then, the Queen had tens of millions of Islamic subjects and her ministers boasted of running the greatest Muslim power on earth. The integration of Muslims can now be seen as one of the great success stories of modern Britain. While the Dutch and the French have huge troubles with integration, and are caught in agonised struggles about their national identities, Britain is marked out by the trouble that we are not having. Dig a little deeper, and the real story is the striking amount of harmony.

Last year, for example, the Jews of Bradford were facing the closure of their synagogue. Its roof was leaking, and the few dozen remaining regulars could not afford the repairs. Its chairman, Rudi Leavor, made the decision to sell the building and face up to it being transformed into luxury flats. As things turned out, the synagogue was saved after a fundraising campaign led by a local mosque. Zulfi Karim, the secretary of Bradford’s Council of Mosques, now refers to Leavor – who fled the Nazis – as his “newfound brother”. He gave his support, he says, to protect the diversity of Bradford.

Such stories can be found the length and breadth of Britain, for those with an eye to see them. St John’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen last year agreed to accommodate neighbouring Muslims, who had outgrown their mosque and had taken to worshipping outside it. The Rev Isaac Poobalan said that allowing Muslims to pray in the wind and rain would mean abandoning “what the Bible teaches us about how we should treat our neighbours”. He argued that his church was empty on a Friday lunchtime, when Muslims needed to pray.

Anyone serious about either religion will know that they both worship the same God – and their stronger ties are, in part, forged by the knowledge that they have a common enemy in secularism. The kind of secularism that would stop people wearing crucifixes and skullcaps in public, as well as the niqab. When the Council of Europe came out against religious circumcision, it was natural that Manchester’s sizeable Jewish community would protest. But less expected for Manchester’s Muslims to join them.

The attempts by extremists to speak for Muslims in Britain is made a lot easier by the lack of an Islamic hierarchy, it’s also made easier by the understandable reluctance of ordinary British Muslims to get involved in the political side of their religion. When Channel 4 said that its 2006 Christmas message would be given by a Muslim in a full-face veil, it fitted the BNP narrative of a clash of civilisations. This is all the more surprising given the serious problems that Britain still faces with integration. British Muslims don’t really feel a sense of otherness. In fact, polls show they’re much more likely to identify with Britishness than the general population. The Citizenship Survey found that most Muslims agree with two propositions: that Islam is the most important thing in their life, and that their primary loyalty lies with the British state. Most are baffled by the idea of a tension between the two.

‘Tyrant,’ FX’s Middle East drama, draws complaints of Arab and Muslim stereotypes

June 25, 2014

It’s no secret that FX’s new drama “Tyrant” — about the son of a Middle Eastern dictator who leaves his comfortable California life to return to his troubled home country — has had problems since its inception. Ang Lee was supposed to direct the pilot, but dropped out. People criticized the hiring of a white lead actor to play the main Middle Eastern character. The Hollywood Reporter has a long story about the struggle of making the show, which involved lot of behind-the-scenes issues for its creators.

Most notably, however, as the first episode aired Tuesday night, the series is getting many complaints for one particular issue: Arab and Muslim stereotypes.

“In the pilot of FX’s ‘Tyrant,’ Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires and powerless female victims,” said CAIR’s national communications director, Ibrahim Hooper. “In ‘Tryant,’ even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”

Previously, CAIR had requested a meeting with FX to address potential “Islamophobic stereotyping.” Hooper did say that a producer told him that future episodes will be more nuanced. THR reported that showrunner Howard Gordon (behind “Homeland” and “24,” also heavy on Middle Eastern themes) has talked with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muslims on Screen and Television in regards to the show. He also hired a Palestinian to serve as a consultant on the series, which films in Israel.

In the Los Angeles Times, critic Mary McNamara said, “In attempting to mix West with Middle East, the show too often seems content with stereotyping both.” Time’s James Poniewozik pointed out in comparison to other shows, “If ‘Tyrant’ is meant to expand on the portrayals of the Middle Easterners peripheral to stories like ’24,’ it fails badly.”

NPR’s Eric Deggans sums up: “Most every Arab character outside of Bassam is seriously flawed,” he wrote, noting Jamal and another brutal general. “This is a show about the Middle East as seen through Americanized eyes, with little of the nuances in Arab or Muslim culture on display. The unfortunate effect is a constant, not-so-subtle message: If these people would just act like Americans, everything would be so much better.”

Happy British Muslims

April 18, 2014


The Happy British Muslims video was put together by a group of young British Muslims called the Honesty Policy, with a very simple aim: to spread positivity and a bit of empowerment along the way. Who are the Honesty Policy? They have chosen to remain anonymous. “Anonymity is a symbol of integrity, and integrity doesn’t need a face,” they state on their website.

Two days after the video was posted it has gained more than 570,000 views on YouTube, and counting. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, with thousands of messages of support, although some have criticised the video and labelled it as sinful. The Honesty Policy group stated that “If this video has done anything, it is to galvanise a tremendous, unified and coherent community voice in its defence. Cross-cultural, inter-organisational, multi-ethnic; we have all become one. And what has been the unifying force? Happiness.”

The video’s participants include politicians, journalists, students, families and community leaders. Timothy Winter of Cambridge University, also known as Abdul Hakim Murad, makes an appearance. Renowned among Muslim academics for his stoic nature, Winter doesn’t dance, but poses with a sign reading “I’m happy!”

Winter has released a statement of support stating: “I’m delighted to see the outcome of the Happy British Muslims video, which has unlocked a remarkable tide of goodwill around the world, and significantly tilted the image of Muslims among many sceptics. Islamophobes must be grinding their teeth to see Muslims of different races and age-groups united by happiness. No one will produce a Sharia argument against jumping for joy!”

Although throughout the release of the positive responses some have questioned the need for such a video, with some suggesting that Muslims have to dance to “happy” to prove they don’t mean harm! That the Muslim presence in the media and in social and public engagements is always about proving that Muslims are not a threat and just like everyone else.


The Independent

The Guardian

British rebel fighter offers rare insight into daily life of foreign jihadists

April 20, 2014


A British citizen who fights with the rebels in Syria has released a video tour of the home he shares with fellow fighters in the war-torn country. With security services in the UK growing increasingly concerned about the number of Britons travelling to join extremist groups in Syria, the video offers a unique insight into the daily lives of those who have already made the journey.

Abu Abdullah, thought to be a member of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has appeared in a number of similar videos in which he calls for British Muslims to join him in Syria. Whereas much of the output from jihadist organisations has sought to glamorise the life of a rebel fighter, Abu Abdullah’s video appears aimed at presenting a more realistic portrayal of the difficulties they face.

On Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, rebel groups with slick media operations post photographs and videos of their exploits on the battlefield and the video was uploaded by a group calling itself Rayat al Tawheed (Banner of God), which claims to be the English-language media arm of ISIS.


The Independent

Angry and fiery Hamza preached jihad court is told

April 20, 2014


Prosecutors will this week seek to build on their sweeping terror case against a former radical cleric from north London by calling a succession of former associates and followers as witnesses and playing recordings of his past sermons and statements in which he vilifies the West and praises al-Qa’ida. The stakes are high for the US government as the trial of Abu Hamza, former imam of the Finsbury Park mosque, north London, enters a second week. He was brought to the US in 2012 to stand trial on charges of fostering terror around the world after a years-long extradition battle. To lose would be a serious embarrassment.

Abu Hamza, 56, who has already served six years in Britain for inciting hatred and soliciting murder, faces 11 charges. He is accused of trying to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon, providing assistance to hostage-takers in an attack on western tourists in Yemen in 1998 that left four dead, and sending support and fighters to al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He denies all the charges.

Before making his statement, defence lawyer Joshua Dratel stood behind Abu Hamza, seated at the defence table, and clasped his shoulders in a gesture meant to relay to jurors that despite Hamza’s fiery reputation and appearance – he lost both hands and an eye in Afghanistan – he remains a human being. He confirmed that Abu Hamza will later take the stand.

The trial is due to last a month.


The Independent


The Telegraph