Of course the Calgary Stampede is bringing in Jeff Dunham to hold up a puppet with a turban on its head, put on a foreign accent and make it say “I keel you!” in exchange for several thousand Calgarian laughs (and dollars).
It’s easy to criticize the Stampede for this decision on the grounds that Dunham’s most famous act, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, which ranked as one of YouTube’s Top 10 most watched videos of all time in 2009, is a pretty fucking racist Muslim caricature and how dare we welcome him to our city.
But the real reason I get upset when I see that goddamn skeleton terrorist puppet is because it used to make me laugh, serving as one thread in the fabric of my fucked up history with Islamophobia.
It was the first day of Grade 9 and I was sitting in my Junior High homeroom, waiting to see all the friends I hadn’t seen over the summer. When one friend in particular showed up, I was shocked.
She was wearing a hijab. She had never worn one at school until now. And somehow, I had never realized she was Muslim until now either.
I had a string of earnest yet condescending questions for her – Why was she wearing it? Did her Dad make her wear it? Did she want to wear it?
She quietly tried to explain it to me, but I forget what she said because I had already made up my mind about her in my head. Though we often ate lunch together previously, she had now become someone foreign to me, a mystery, even a threat.
I didn’t hang out with her much that year.
Later on, I had a part time job at a pizza shop. There was this really cute Muslim boy who worked there. He invited me out to some parties. I was flattered, because turns out a hot boy is a hot boy, Muslim or not, and we ended up hanging out quite a bit.
All the while, and I shit you not, I was looking for signs to see if he was a terrorist, namely, by creeping his Facebook page to see if he had liked any Muslim groups that could be connected to extremism. CSIS would have been proud.
We eventually got into some arguments over MSN Messenger where I tried converting him to Christianity.
It didn’t work out between us.
My behaviour was not only condoned but applauded by my family and religious community who lead me to believe I was so bright and discerning for understanding the threat Muslims posed to our way of life.
I remember visiting a family friend, and we all huddled around a desktop computer in his basement as he showed us this really funny video he had found online. “I keel you!” said Achmed the Dead Terrorist. We laughed and kept doing impressions of him the entire night.
So what? I was a teenage sentient trashcan who laughed at some racist jokes and stopped being friends with some Muslim kids. Kids stop being friends with each other all the time, though, right? No one has it easy in high school. Kids are dicks.
Kids also grow up and do grown up things.
I volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces after I graduated high school in 2009. I had signed up for a program called Sar-El, which means “Service for Israel.” The program allows Zionist supporters from across the world to lend their services to the IDF in the form of manual labour.
This was four months after Operation Cast Lead: an Israeli military invasion of Gaza, widely criticized for its many violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, constituting war crimes and resulting in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians – the majority being civilians.
Most days, I cleaned and repainted radio mounts for tanks and trucks. A few times, I repaired radio microphones inside combat helmets.
Essentially, we were doing clean up on hardware that had been used on the ground.
I’m not even Jewish. I barely understood what I was doing there. Or rather, I thought I did.
My understanding was sourced in right wing ideology that identified Islam as a monolith and global threat. I visited blogs like Hot Air and Instapundit on a daily basis, developed a crush on Mark Steyn after reading America Alone, and applauded Ezra Levant’s ride or die cause of republishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons in the Western Standard. Shortly after my IDF excursion, I would attain the now-Rebel Commander’s autograph at an Ann Coulter talk.
My perspective was also tied up with a special brand of religious doctrine that saw supporting Israel as essential to bringing about God’s plan for the world – namely, hastening its destruction during a seven year tribulation period in which the four horsemen of the apocalypse would wreak havoc over the planet so God could ultimately bring about a new heavens and a new earth.
Yeah, my God was a bit of an accelerationist, I guess. But that’s not the point.
The point is that I, a nineteen year old white girl from Canada, ended up doing random shit in another country’s army in a conflict I hardly understood halfway across the planet.
So let’s talk about propaganda.
In 2015, former Minister of National Defense and current contender for Progressive Conservative party leadership in Alberta, Jason Kenney tweeted some photos.
The photos showed women wearing burkas in chains, whom he alleged were captured by ISIS.
In reality, these women were participating in a historical reenactment during a cultural event called Shia Ashura.
It’s like someone taking photos of the Passion Play in Drumheller and asserting that Albertans had revived the practice of crucifixion, one writer noted.
Kenney has said he wants to convey that ISIS is on the wrong side of history, “a gang of thugs, criminals and rapists” to deter radicalization among young people.
But his continued use of propaganda and inflammatory language (for example, the definitely not loaded terminology of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act), serves to cast fear and suspicion upon all Muslims and stoke the fires of white supremacy and extremism at home.
A recent study has found that white supremacy groups are on the rise in Canada, but they’re often overlooked in the media and by the government because they’re not seen as a threat to national security.
Which makes sense. White supremacist groups are a threat to the most marginal communities – people of colour, refugees, immigrants and LGBTQ individuals – those without power, not those with it.
Achmed the Dead Terrorist is just one tiny part of a larger mosaic of anti-Muslim propaganda. Dehumanizing caricatures, paired with fabricated or sensationalized narratives, create a landscape where aggressive policies and actions towards a particular group or country appear not only reasonable, but necessary.
In 2013, a survey found 46% of Canadians have negative views of Muslims.
Recently, Kenney lead the charge on banning the niqab during the Canadian citizenship ceremony, establishing a barbaric cultural practices hotline, and creating a tier of second class citizens. He also revoked health care access to refugees and gave himself unprecedented power to determine who could and could not qualify as a refugee when he was Minister of Immigration.
And now he has charged himself with uniting the right in Alberta. Everything’s fine.
Four years ago, I sat with Palestinian doctor and human rights activist Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish alone in conference room. I was interviewing him for a local publication when the world started to shrink.
He somberly recounted what it was like to walk into his daughters’ bedroom after the IDF shelled his home in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. His eldest daughter, Bessan, was decapitated. She was 21. His 15 year old daughter Mayar’s brain had been spattered across the ceiling. Aya, the youngest of the three at 13 years old, had her limbs dispersed throughout the room.
In an inevitable train of thought, I wondered if I had cleaned the radio mount of the vehicle that shelled their apartment.
Now, I was talking to their father – something Bessan, Mayar and Aya would never be able to do again.
My own religious extremism raised no flags whatsoever and carried no personal consequences because it served the interests of Harper, Kenney and and their political agenda. Signing up for the IDF was simply a matter of a few references and paperwork. Whereas simply being a Muslim (or Sikh, for that matter, same difference) often puts one in the category of a potential threat.
Anti-Muslim propaganda doesn’t exist to protect anyone. It exists to excuse and uphold white supremacy, both at home and abroad. It is a tool that can be used to promote the interests of those in power, and oh boy, with the xenophobic rhetoric that spurred on Brexit and a masse of Trump supporters south of the border, we really need to watch who we put in power and, most importantly, what exactly they’re saying to us.
So when I see Jeff Dunham holding up a caricature of a Muslim, making it say “I keel you!” I get angry that the Calgary Stampede isn’t ashamed to host him.
But then I remember that Dunham will perform at the Saddledome, AKA a 20,000 capacity stadium shaped like a horse’s saddle, serving as a monument to our city’s “cowboy” culture and a celebration of the settler-European way of life that requires the ongoing destruction of Indigenous land and peoples to thrive – AKA a monument to being pretty fucking racist – and then I realize there’s nowhere else in the world Dunham should feel more welcome than here.
Everything’s fine, just keep laughing.