City of Brass


Every year, I travel to attend the Ashara Mubaraka majlis (gathering), with the spiritual leader of my community, the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. Last year, I went to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the year before was on my home turf of Houston. I have been attending regularly for almost a decade now – starting with Colombo in 2008, Mombasa in 2009, and Marol (Mumbai) in 2010. This year, 2017 (1439H), I am headed to Karachi, the great metropolis of Pakistan.

Ashara is many things. On the most superficial level, it is an annual excuse to travel the world and meet people, many of whom actually read this blog. More importantly, Ashara is a religious rite, replete with sermons, elegies, and remembrance of the sacrifice of Imam Husain AS, not just for Shi’a, or for Muslims, but for all mankind.

Fundamentally, however, the purpose of Ashara is to mourn. As I wrote last year,

We mourn because we love. The stronger the love, the greater the mourning; the indifferent do not mourn. Love is the basis of our humanity; the very word insaan (human) is the root of the word anasat (intimacy) in Arabic. When anasat is betrayed, the human soul never fully recovers. The truer the love, the deeper the wound. Imagine, then, the wound upon insaniat (humanity) itself, when the truest love of all, that of the divine, was betrayed at Karbala? The violent irony of humanity’s own capacity for inhumanity is truly heart-breaking.

This year, I hope to reflect more on the meaning of Ashara in a personal sense and try to capture some of that experience for my own posterity. I also will be doing some photography of Karachi and environs while I am there, since this is my first visit to Pakistan in 20 years. Bookmark my geekblog,, for the artsy stuff and stay tuned here at City of Brass for the pseudo-intellectual rambling 🙂

Tomorrow I depart, inshallah. More to come. To everyone else also traveling to Karachi, Dua ni iltemas and mubarak!

Related: Reflections on Grief and the Remembrance of Imam Husain.

I don’t write about 9-11 every year, because on the 12th anniversary I looked back at over a decade of writing about it and realized I had nothing much left to say.

On the 13th anniversary, I said, and I still believe, that:

The simple truth is that our response to 9-11 – the Afghan campaign and the Iraq War – directly led to the chaos the region faces today, including ISIS – far worse chaos than before our intervention. Had Saddam Hussein stayed in power, we would have seen the Arab Spring reach Iraq on its own, and all the young men who join militias today, toddlers during the war, might have grown up dreamy-eyed revolutionaries for democracy rather than radicalized forces for sectarianism and/or jihad.

Two questions I asked 8 years ago still stand out in my mind as the most relevant to the modern age: is terrorism still a threat? and, was 9-11 an outlier?

These questions are inherently political, but there is data. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in April 2017 on Countering Violent Extremism was unequivocal:

Since September 12, 2001, the number of fatalities caused by domestic violent extremists has ranged from 1 to 49 in a given year. … Fatalities resulting from attacks by far-right wing violent extremists have exceeded those caused by radical Islamist violent extremists in 10 of the 15 years, and were the same in 3 of the years since September 12, 2001.

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).

[T]he total number of fatalities is about the same for far-right wing violent extremists and radical Islamist violent extremists over the approximately 15-year period… 41 percent of the deaths attributable to radical Islamist violent extremists occurred in a single event — an attack at an Orlando, Florida night club in 2016.

(emphasis mine). Looking at the data, then, 9-11 is an outlier in scale, in type, in casualty, in method, and in actor. The threat is domestic terror. Of these, extremist whites and extremist Muslims have the same body count, but right wingers are responsible for 3x as many actual incidents as Islamists.

Of course, terrorism is a threat. It probably always will be. But the T-word is inherently political:

The “political” component seems to provide convenient cover when there is reluctance to call an attack what it is. Terrorist action strives for specific ideological goals or expectations, which can be centered on race, religion, national origin, or other systems of issue-oriented priorities. Implicitly, every ideology entails a political tendency, and thus, by its very nature, terrorism is also political.

Wha this means is that terrorism is a category that will eventually expand. Terrorism is reactionary. There’s a reason antifa is back – and punching back. I would not be surprised if antifa started appearing on the fatality scoreboard in a decade or so. The pathway we are on empowers all angry actors, because we lack a political system for those actors to meaningfully influence the civic space. As Shadi Hamid said in an interview,

On a basic level, violence offers meaning. And that’s what makes it scary. In the broader sweep of history, mass violence and mass killing is actually the norm. It’s only in recent centuries that states and institutions have tried to persuade people to avoid such practices.

That also reminds us that when institutions and social norms are weakened, those base sentiments can rise up again quite easily.

The winter of 9-11 is behind us, and we are now entering the American Spring.

In just a few weeks, it will be Ashara. The faithful who remember Imam Husain tremble in anticipation…


(Photo by Alefiyah Shikari – Check out her photojournalism project, Unsung Echoes)

Houston has a large, diverse Muslim community, that is as much a part of the civic fabric of the city as any other group – and during Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s Muslims are doing their part.

My own community, the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat of Houston, engaged in rescue operations and fed evacuees en masse:

The National Guard delivered meals prepared in the FMB kitchen to the George Brown Convention centre where over 5000 evacuees from the floods have taken refuge. Here distribution was taken up by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and American Red Cross volunteers.

40 members of Saifee Guards Houston along with madrasah and Mahad-al-Quran students gathered to fill sand bags which were delivered to homes and neighbours including the Lifepath Church.

Saifee guards are coordinating with city authorities and the George Brown Convention center (shelter) and have committed to provide over 8000 meals (so far) to anyone affected by the disaster.

Saifee guards, along with physicians from the community are preparing a team of around 100 volunteers to help at area shelters in the next few days, as more and more evacuees are brought into these centers.

Photos: Dawoodi Bohra Muslims in Houston prepare food for food for the evacuees at George Brown Convention Center


Photos: Dawoodi Bohra Muslims engaged in community rescue operations


The Ahmaddiyya Muslim community also engaged in rescue and supply operations:

More than 100 members of Muslim Youth USA, and 40 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, passed out food, water, and other supplies in Houston, according to organisers. Both groups expect to gain more volunteers from surrounding cities when the roadways open up.

Madeel Abdullah, director of humanitarian affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, said more than 700 members of his organisation have been affected by the storm. But the volunteers, he said, are “helping anybody else that’s in distress”.

“We’ve already provided basic supplies such as food items and water bottles,” Mr Abdullah told The Independent, “and we have a few members who have boats who are going around making sure everyone is safe.”

Both youth groups were assisted by Humanity First, an Ahmadiyya Muslim charity dedicated to disaster relief. First founded in England, the charity has expanded to more than 40 countries in the last 25 years.

Photos: Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth helping evacuees and distributing supplies


Muslim organizations are also opening up their facilities as shelters to people trying to escape the flash floods and rising water. Examples include:

Islamic Center/Masjid Al-Mustafa: 17250 Coventry Park Dr, Houston, TX
Islamic Center/Masjid Al-Sabireen: 610 Brand Lane, Stafford TX
Islamic Center/Masjid Abu-Bakr: 8830 Old Galveston Rd, Houston TX

On Launchgood, there are several fundraising campaigns devoted to emergency relief, which have collectively raised (as of 8/29, 8am CST) about $40,000.

These are just examples – we will be surely hearing more stories of civic responsibility and everyday heroism in the wake of this history-defying storm, in the weeks to come. Muslims in Houston are answering the call just like their fellow citizens of all races and religions. This is what community looks like. And this is why we are all going to be ok.