Author Archives: Sofia Ali-Khan

About Sofia Ali-Khan

Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer now writing and raising her kids outside of Philadelphia.

An Emblem, An Anthem, and a Uniform: Why Red Hats Matter

The MAGA hat is a stroke of genius.

National identities are built on purpose.  They are defined and described in ways that either encourage unity and engagement or simply affirm the powerful.  But there are three ways, in particular, that appear in the making and celebrating of nations around the world:  emblems, anthems and uniforms.

Athletes compete under their national flag at the Olympics, soldiers fight under their flag in war, emissaries plant their flag as a symbol of achievement or conquest.  Anthems are played to symbolize victory, unity, and pride. Uniforms vary depending on the context, but everyone recognizes a military uniform and many associate certain colors or a specific cultural dress with a nation or a people.

Not surprisingly, when a leader is looking to create a nation in his own image, rather than to serve a nation as it exists, that leader creates symbols representing the new national identity.  Hitler adopted the swastika and pasted it on the flag of the Third Reich. Moussolini made Giovinezza the unofficial national anthem of Italy between 1924 and 1943. During China’s Cultural Revolution, badges emblazoned with Mao Zedong’s face were obligatory, usually affixed to unisex, plain tunics and pants, varying to designate which industry the wearer worked in.

The Trump team introduced its “Make America Great Again” slogan affixed to a visible emblem in the color of the Republican Party early in the 2016 presidential race. In the years since, the red hat has become a uniform, more accessible than clothing and more convenient than a badge, but signifying allegiance and membership in the same ways.  Trump signs them for loyalists in the military and sells them on his campaign website, while enthusiasts advertise MAGA-hat giveaways. People who wear MAGA hats understand that it signifies not only their support for Trump, but for a host of regressive and racist policies that Trump has introduced.  And the Trump campaign can easily discern who is on their team.

It seems clear that the ‘again’ in ‘Make America Great Again’ refers to some time before Obama, before the nation’s first Black president.  Maybe it is a promise to return us to times before that:  when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to be starved and beaten in concentration camps euphemistically called boarding schools, or when enslaved Africans were bred as commodities and forced to do all of the manual labor that provided white Americans food, shelter, and transportation, when Japanese Americans were interned for the crime of being Japanese, when people of color across the country were efficiently ghettoized, and faced widespread discrimination and abuse without recourse.

Of course the latter never really ended, but strong social movements among people of color and allies, who will together form the majority of Americans by 2045, threaten to destabilize a white supremacist status quo as never before.

The Trump campaign has effectively collapsed signifiers of America, of white nationalism, and of party loyalty in that most casual, most accessible element of Americana:  the baseball hat.   Remarkably, it provides both instant identification:  “the MAGA hat wearing boys from Covington Catholic” and plausible deniability of what it represents:  “they didn’t say anything, they were just doing school chants and smiling.”  It’s just a baseball cap, and it’s not.  It’s a uniform, an emblem and an anthem, and it’s just a baseball cap.  It’s a white hood made new again, a swastika you can wear in public, a unisex uniform for every loyalist.


Celebrating Christmas with Abandon


This holiday season I’m fully embracing Christmas.  Those of you who know me know I’m not a little bit Muslim.  I’m ardently Muslim.  I love dhikr, I celebrate when my kids recite chapters of the Qur’an, I quote from its meaning in conversation, I talk about the meaning and solace I take from it and from the prophetic tradition as if I haven’t fully realized I live in North America in the 21stCentury.  Or maybe I talk about those things in a way only someone in North America in the 21stCentury would.  Either way, Christmas is in no way, for me, a repudiation of Islam.

Christmas started as a way to let my kids enjoy the lights in a dark season, to participate in the festivities that surrounded them.  But as they get older and ask more questions, as my son learns about Prophet Jesus, for whom he is named, it becomes clearer that Christmas is an opportunity for them to know and to live their faith.

The stories of the Abrahamic prophets are often told to emphasize their uniqueness from one another. We imagine Abraham smashing idols, and Noah on his ark; we imagine Joseph dreaming and Moses parting the sea; we imagine Jesus making a feast from five loaves and two fish, and Muhammad as a statesman.  But the stories of these men, and the women that weave in and out of their record, acknowledged increasingly as prophetic in their own right, are more alike than they are different.

They are the stories of people driven to solitude, and in their solitude, clinging to the Divine. Abraham and Muhammad are migrants, chased out of their homes for daring to challenge idolatry and corruption.  Hagar is a migrant, braving the desert wilderness with infant Ishmael, only faith to guide her.  Jacob arrives at the home of Laban with nothing.  Joseph is a stranger in Egypt, Moses and Aaron fled Egypt for freedom, Mary and Joseph fled King Herrod.

Jesus rejected and was rejected by his society for a humble life of preaching the Gospel with which he was inspired; Joseph told his divinely inspired dreams from a prison cell, and was elevated beyond his brothers, who disdained him.  Moses, stammering, hesitant Moses, believed he could not possibly lead a hungry nation to freedom through the desert.  Mary had to argue her chastity and give birth in isolation, in the elements.  Rachel and Leah and their sisters suffered the cruelty of their father only to become partners in the love and the labor of Jacob.

These are not stories of ease and plenty.  They aren’t stories of acceptance and belonging.  They are stories of people driven to rely on faith alone through hardship and grief.  To love more and better, to surrender to grace, in conditions that could easily drive one to overwhelming sadness and despair.  And they are the stories of goodness and Grace shining in landscapes built of corruption, drought and nihilism.

They are perhaps all shadows of the story of Mary (as told in the Qur’an), a woman as alone as a woman can ever be, birthing a child whose mysterious existence imperils her reputation and her place in society:

AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place and kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being.
She exclaimed: “Verily, ‘I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if thou art conscious of Him!”
[The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] `I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.'”
Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for, never have I been a loose woman!”
[The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, `This is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from US. And it was a thing decreed [by God]:
and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.
And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”
Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee;
and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee.
Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened! And if thou shouldst see any human being, convey this unto him: `Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.
And in time she returned to her people, carrying the child with her. They said: “O Mary! Thou hast indeed done an amazing thing!
O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man, nor was thy mother a loose woman!”
Thereupon she pointed to him. They exclaimed: “How can we talk to one who [as yet] is a little boy in the cradle?”
[But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet,
and made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live,
and [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.
“Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!”

Qur’an 19:17-36

And so I celebrate Christmas, in this time that is uncertain, in this world that is unstable, and I let it remind me that faith requires me to treat every suffering as my own, to give more than I can, to dare tell the truth, to love more than I ought, to work for justice and integrity, and to demand it through peaceful struggle, even when it is a hardship.

The Sound of Music and Partition and How Normal Everything Can Be Made to Seem

One of my favorite films growing up was the Sound of Music. I know, I know–but one of the scenes I found most confusing was towards the end, where the VonTrapps go perform in a show in a big theater just before fleeing the Nazi regime. I thought surely, in times such as those, no one would be performing in theaters and doing things that seemed at once so normal and so frivolous.

It turns out that this is a dangerous misunderstanding of how things work. Right now, American democracy is under serious attack and the federal government is being actively starved and narrowed to increasingly autocratic and erratic rule.

And yet, life goes on. We are, inevitably, preoccupied with the stuff of life. In some ways, this helps us retain our sanity—at least we aren’t those bizarre militia guys in the backwoods of Georgia preparing for a culture war by shooting guns in the woods. On the other hand, we spend a lot of time hoping that if we just do things as we always have, we’ll continue to have the lives that we’ve always had. When you’re Muslim in America today, this is both an exceptionally comforting and an exceptionally naïve approach.

While I was rambling about this very thing this morning, my husband reminded me that his mother and her family fled Hyderabad, India, by “going to the cinema.” As part of the Muslim Hyderabadi elite in the middle of what was suddenly a postcolonial Hindu state, his family was already under house arrest. The brutality of partition had begun, and they were certain that their lives were at risk. Still, on one occasion, they were permitted the seemingly innocuous freedom of a trip to the local cinema under armed guard. With the guards at the front of the theater and the movie underway, they slipped out the side doors, split up and made their way alternately westward across India to Pakistan, and (in the case of my mother-in-law, who was a young child, her siblings, and their Mum) toward what is now Bangladesh and onto a boat around the tip of India to rejoin the rest of the family.

That day, having legitimate fear that they would all be separated, dispossessed, and possibly executed in the place their family had called home for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, they went to the cinema. Which was still functioning. During partition, in which millions of people lost their lives in perhaps the largest mass relocation of humans in history, it was still normal enough to go to the cinema that it was not suspicious at all. Because everyone was still mostly pretending that nothing had changed.

So that’s what we’ve been chewing on around here.

What’s Headed for You

I’d like to point out that we’ve crossed well over the line into President Bannon’s vision for destabilizing America. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just google the key words from that sentence all together.) This isn’t about racism or bigotry or misogyny. Or at least, not just those things.

The Executive Order and budget proposal calling for agencies to kill entire departments? I’d put my money on every Office of Civil Rights across the executive branch. But beyond that, these agencies govern every service and protection that ordinary Americans—every last one of the 99%–rely on every day. Schools, hospitals, roads, food: all of them are envisioned, researched, organized, funded and regulated by the executive agencies. This is a war on the actual functioning of society, on the quality of life that the vast majority of Americans (even the ones who say they don’t) enjoy.

Stopping Canadian church groups from coming to do Hurricane Sandy clean-up in poor American neighborhoods? Canadian nurses from getting to their hospital jobs in Michigan? Those are white and mostly Christian folk. There’s not even an arguably racist “national security” motive there. That’s a very North Korea move to keep outsiders from seeing what’s actually happening in our neighborhoods and hospitals while our “Dear Leader” crows about making America great.

This administration is dismantling the government. Congress was already compromised, and so now are executive agencies. The only remaining “check or balance” besides you and I is the judiciary. You know what that reminds me of? Pakistan. And I love the people and cultures of Pakistan. But things run, mostly, like a donkey cart missing a wheel because people survive in spite of, not with the support of, their government. Meanwhile, government leaders have lives of unimaginable wealth and luxury. That’s what’s headed straight for you.

Dear Beloved Resistance

Dear Beloved Resistance,

We now have a President and Cabinet who almost certainly have no interest in the safety or well-being of their people. Many of us marched in the streets last weekend in an awesome show of solidarity against Trump and all that he promises and stands for. It was, by several accounts, the largest global protest in history.

But in the hours and days following the march, we began to size each other up, tear each other down, and occasionally thoughtfully critique each other’s politics and intentions. Donald Trump poses an unprecedented threat to all of us. It is true that some of us are more used to being targeted by the government than others of us. Some of us come from a history several generations long of being targeted by the government. But as far as I can tell, whoever we are and whatever our level of privilege, things are about to get a whole lot worse for every last one of us. Here are some uncomfortable truths, and some thoughts on what we need to do about them to succeed in the fight against Trump.

We all have limited resources. We can’t use them battling each other. However hurt your feelings are, however offended you might feel that your fellow resisters are not ideologically in line with you or woke enough or culturally sensitive enough, that’s nothing compared to what is on the horizon from your own government. That goes for everybody. Brown bodies, Black bodies, white bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, differently-abled bodies. A wise activist told me once to practice not being offended. Let’s practice not being offended so we can preserve our resources for the big battles.

On the other hand, we all need to practice being offended by things that do not directly affect us or our families. We can all find a few moments to think about what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. When you read the news, look for the attacks that won’t affect you directly, and try to imagine what they might mean for your neighbour or for the folks you marched with last weekend.

The more narrowly we define ourselves, the worse off we are. If we can act collectively as a broad coalition of people who do not want to live in an authoritarian state, that’s a LOT of people. A lot of people are harder to control than a few people. Let’s open up the tent. Hell, let’s ditch the tent and build the coalition we need right now.

Coalitions, by definition, contain people who are not alike. We are not going to build intimacy and radical love and acceptance among us overnight. We might not even learn to accept each other’s versions of history and reality. But we marched because we could agree on one thing: we see Donald Trump as an imminent threat to our bodies, to our country, to our families and our futures. Coalitions are strong because they aggregate the broadest divergent groups aimed at a narrow political goal. Coalitions have been used to effectively demand civil rights, suffrage, and justice throughout our history. Sometimes, the most vulnerable groups are overshadowed within a coalition. We should be conscious of this and correct for it. Sometimes, the most vulnerable groups have the most to gain from working in coalition. We are, indeed, stronger together.

Working in coalition means that we do not demand that the coalition represent our every interest, or act upon our every critique. When we choose to work together, there is a great potential benefit. There is also sometimes a cost. Whenever we work in coalition, our individual interests have to be negotiated with the group. We may not always feel heard or seen or understood. Individual members of the coalition may have good will, and may make space to learn more about others, but not everyone will. Sometimes we will have to accept not being fully met in order to reap the benefits of coalition, and to free the coalition up to achieve its objective.

“Consciousness raising” and “intersectional dialogue” in big public forums are easily manipulated by people who want to divide us. Right now, most of us feel targeted by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress. We feel targeted for any number of reasons: because we are women, we are Muslim, we are Black, we are Mexican, we are disabled, we are in need of reliable health care, we are immigrants, we are LGBTQ or gender nonconforming, we are human and would like clean drinking water, or any number of other situations. We do not come from the same places or experiences. We have a lot to learn about each other. Some of that needs to be worked out right this minute in order to have any coalition at all. And some of it can and should wait because those conversations are big and important, but also use up limited time and energy resources that we need to stop Trump. All of it needs to be done respectfully, and with integrity. The more successful we are, the more powerful the efforts to divide us will be. The more willing to trash each other we are, the less likely we are to succeed.

We can only stop the rapid decline of our democracy, as imperfect as it may be, if we act strategically, as a coalition. Identity politics get in the way of our mission. There are many important things that will not be accomplished by this mission. But none of those things will be accomplished without it.

Trump’s presidency promises a level of destruction and uncertainty that may make progress for any of us a distant dream. Stopping Trump may only be one step, but it is the most critical step and it is before us, all of us together, today.

Time for Discernment: A Muslim Women Calls on Her Buddhist Cousins in Faith

To read at Tricycle:
The last time I had worn a hijab, a headscarf, on the street was 11 years ago, when I was a practicing public interest attorney in Philadelphia. I’ve worn it for prayers since then, but this time I wore it to go to the grocery store near the small town on the Delaware River where I am raising my two young children. It was several days after our country elected Donald Trump, and I wanted to reassure myself that my world was still full of goodness and light. I wanted to watch others see past what I was wearing on my head. And because my local Trader Joe’s is in true-blue New Jersey, I got what I came for. It’s been important to remember that people are still mostly good and kind.

As with practices in every faith tradition, wearing hijab is meant to clear the excess away, to allow for some surrender of the stuff of this world, and to re-center the essential being-ness that abides in each of us. I have to admit, practice has been difficult for me of late. It’s been hard to find my way to the prayer mat. Everything feels a little off-kilter, and my priorities are not an exception. So while I am far more balanced when I am observing the ritual of prayer for a few minutes five times each day, it’s not been easy to rid myself of the mind chatter or to pull my focus away from the news cycle that always seems more pressing.

But practice is more important than ever. It’s in practice that we, from each of our faith traditions, learn to recognize ourselves in the other and to nourish our own capacities for discernment. And in this era of fake news and a president-elect who contradicts himself with alarming regularity, discernment is critical.

I am an American Muslim, born to Pakistani immigrants. During my childhood, my parents practiced Islam the way that fish swim in water. It was as unstudied as the air they breathed. But I grew up in conflict with the mix of religion and culture that they offered. In time, though, I found the element I had been missing in Sufi Muslim spirituality. I would only later learn that Sufism figured deeply in the original Islamic tradition of my family for generations, as it has for many millions of Muslims around the world. While Sufism is popularly understood to be a mystic branch of Islam, in truth it is not a branch but the very heart of Islam. It is that kernel of light at the heart of faith; the breath of wisdom and understanding without which practice feels empty. It looks like the spinning of the whirling dervish or the sound of zikr (chanting the names of the Divine), but for a devotee, it is ultimately the polishing of the inner self, the spirit.

And so, it is through practice that I am finding a way to both see and survive the ongoing drama of this presidential election. Sometimes, that practice is with the zikr circle to which my family belongs; sometimes it is in the constant test of patience that is parenting my two young children; sometimes it is in the act of prostrating in prayer. And I can see that this spiritual maintenance will be essential in the coming months and years. Before even taking office, Donald Trump has shaped public discourse in America so that it is now acceptable to publicly assert the malevolence of Muslims and the illegitimacy of Islam as a faith.

I once comforted myself that anti-Muslim bigotry was on the margins of our society, along with anti-Semitism and overt racism and misogyny. Both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush were careful to draw a distinction between the tiny minority of violent extremists who claim Islam as their own and Islam’s 1.6 billion peaceful adherents around the world. I, along with the vast majority of American Muslims, found shelter in the space they created to acknowledge us and our faith.

But that space has narrowed painfully, Continue reading