Cyrus McGoldrick is an American Muslim of Iranian and Irish descent who worked at several civil rights organisations that fight against discrimination, such as CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, NCPCF, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedom and the Youth Coalition of South Florida.
Cyrus’ work as a human-rights activist, in fact, smoothly mixes with his artistic alter ego: the Raskol Khan. For many years, he’s been recording and performing his fusion of faith and hip hop for an ever growing fan base both within and outside the US. Yet, even though Islam is the focus of both his work and his music, Cyrus wasn’t raised as a Muslim. “A lot of people think that my Islam comes from my Iranian roots. But no, I took a rather ‘scenic route’,” he told me at the start of our very amicable conversation. My interest was immediately aroused.
What kind of ‘scenic route’ was that?
I was raised loosely Christian, but my parents weren’t dogmatic about it. In fact, they got married three times: once in city hall, once in a mosque and once in a church. They wanted to make sure it certainly counted, I guess. (Cyrus laughs.)
In our conversations about spiritual stuff, the focus was always on God and service – on being good, telling the truth and helping the community. But I actually wasn’t into religion when I was young.
It wasn’t until college that I started researching more about religion. At first, my interest was more the politics and anthropology of it, and then, when I eventually got into the spiritual side of it as well, the first book that had a real impact on me was the Bhagavad-Gita. For the first time, I felt the unity of creation. It all made sense to me and it all started to connect. It didn’t settle me on Hinduism, however. I continued searching and even got to a point where I was reading the Qur’an as well as trying to meditate, and none of it well. But, after a while, all the pieces started to come together and I simply realized Islam was the religion for me. There wasn’t any special epiphany. I just kind of flowed into Islam and I’ve always been very fulfilled by it.
I’ve read the Bhagavad-Gita numerous times myself and I would say that, in many ways, it’s a lot more ‘approachable’ than the Qur’an, at least for a Western public. To read the Qur’an, I always think you need quite a lot of theological background to be able to grasp it properly. How come it clicked with you?
When I started learning more about Islam, the first thing my teacher told me to read wasn’t the Qur’an, but a biography of the Prophet. And he was right to do that, because first we have to trust the sources. While learning more about the Prophet’s life, I came to realize why it’s obvious that the revelation came to him specifically. He’s the model of how to live according to the revelation. That’s why my teacher also said that someone who’s losing faith should read the biography of the Prophet and not necessarily the Qur’an. The Qur’an should be approached with the proper mindset and respect. If I don’t get something out of it, it’s my problem, not the problem of the book.
All of this explains how you became a Muslim, but how did an Irish-Iranian young man get into the hip hop scene?
When I came to New York, trying to adjust and find my way, I started playing music with friends, went to rooftop parties in Brooklyn, got involved with some bands, and before I knew it, some people that were light years ahead of me in experience got me to write some lyrics and record them. So, there I was, a bit of a ‘Caucasian anomaly’ among hip hop, reggae and calypso musicians, but I felt I became good at it and I got a lot of encouragement. At first I didn’t take it too seriously, but when I went traveling through Europe, I saw some great music, particularly folk bands, that really got to me and made me think about my own direction. An artist, to me, should have a kind of a ‘persona’, a style that differentiates his character and I wondered what that could be for me. In the years that followed, the Raskol Khan was born.
So how would you describe that ‘persona’ of the Raskol Khan?
Mainstream hip hop is based on that idea of consumption and waste. It’s about being proud that we can buy the waste, the poison that’s being sold to us. Hip hop started as an antagonistic and oppositional culture, but it got taken up by the mainstream culture and became a part of it and even started selling its materialism as something positive. The Raskol Khan is my way of starting from that point and then undermining it. I wanted to show that I was a victim of it as well and share my learning process. I haven’t always been a nice person. I haven’t always been spiritual. I’ve been a knucklehead, too. And the Raskol Khan offers me a way to express my experiences of what I’ve been through because I can use the music as a sort of common ground, yet once again, as a form of opposition.
You don’t look like a hip hop artist, however. As the Raskol Khan, you retain a very Islamic image.
You know, in American Islam, we don’t have too many role models outside of religious scholarship. Even the Muslims who do get some fame in the corporate world or the mainstream culture usually don’t look like me or most Muslims. They’re the ones that totally fit in, that pass. They gave up certain parts of their identity in order to succeed in others. And I don’t mean to demonize them, but it seems important to me that we also have some role models who practice Islam and who are proud of the external aspects of their identity. Otherwise, every time you see somebody on the news that looks like me, he wasn’t up to much good. It distorts the image. So, I kind of wanted to reclaim that as well.
Therefore, if I can boil down my music into two things, it’s reclaiming our religion and reclaiming our right to dissent. I’m pretty comfortable in that role and I’m going to stay in it because I realized that every individual is the battleground of everyone else’s rights.
So activism and advocacy are also a part of being the Raskol Khan?
It was, in fact, a turning point for me to figure out how I could use the Raskol Khan as a platform to get some messages across. Before that, I had ideas to express, but I didn’t like being on stage. My first inclination was to record, throw it online and let people listen to it. I didn’t want to be in the spotlight and draw attention to myself because it felt a bit awkward. But then one day I realized: “In one hand, I have a cause I deeply care about, and in the other, I have a stage and a spotlight . . . Perhaps I don’t have to talk about myself but I can put the message in the spotlight and let it speak for itself.” So I started seeing it as an educational opportunity both for the audience and myself.
It’s not all just politics though. To me, it’s more about ethics in the broader sense. I’ve never been able to disconnect faith and activism because, at the end of the day, I think it’s about service and human dignity. If, in any way, you believe that there’s a law higher than the law of the jungle, then we have something in common. So, I’m not going to try to convert anybody. I’d rather have people be a good Christian than a bad Muslim.
Imam Ali, the fourth caliph said: “Every person is either your brother in faith, or your brother in humanity.” A lot of people throw around the word ‘Ummah’ recklessly, however. They think it simply means ‘the Muslim community’. That’s a good way to think about it but not the only way. We need to get past the community ego a bit because we’re all in this together. To me, the Ummah is the greater humanity and that’s what we should be focused on.
In your daily work, you have a strong focus on human rights. Is there a lot of need in the US for an organization like CAIR or the NCPCF? Do Muslims encounter a lot of violations of their civil rights?
Our work is most certainly needed. To give you an example, the research of some journalists once exposed a covert surveillance program within our police department. The New York Police Department keeps files on every Friday sermon of all the mosques in New York and beyond. Sometimes they tape it, sometimes it’s just informants listening and taking notes. Muslims are closely watched in the US, in our schools, businesses, even homes, and anyone saying something a bit ‘different’ might get a visit from the police or the FBI. It should be no surprise then that a lot of Muslims have internalized the feeling of ‘being watched all the time’.
One of the very strange things in this post 9/11 era is that religious behaviour got criminalized. In 2007, the NYPD released a document called ‘Radicalization in the West’, written by some former CIA agents. That document alleges that every Muslim can somehow become a fully mobilized home grown terrorist. And the supposed signs of becoming a terrorist are things like growing a beard, frequenting mosques, going to bookstores and giving up smoking. So, in their logic, it’s only normal that they put surveillance on all mosques because everybody who’s practicing a religion is a potential threat.
I used to want to say it’s all a misunderstanding, but it’s difficult to still believe that because it’s gone way too far. It’s all part of the war-machine and we have to wake up to it.
We’re a very polarized country at the moment. Everybody used to run to the middle but these days it’s the Tea Party at one end and then a fragmented Left, but that Left is pretty much disconnected from mainstream institutions. So, there’s not much media speaking on our behalf or telling the truth as we know it.
In any polarized situation, the extremes amplify each other. So what about the rise of extremist ideas on the Muslim side in the US?
Some young people do tend to seek extremes in Islam and other ideologies. But the feeling that the so-called extremists actually feed on is the desire we have to save the world. Everyone is waiting for their letter from Hogwarts that shows them their destiny. That’s why they often leave their communities. They might still come to the mosques to pray but they don’t belong to the group anymore, partly because the group can’t handle their energy and partly because the youth see that the imams aren’t addressing the real issues, like the injustices done by the government or the worldwide oppression the Muslim community is going through.
So, if our spiritual leaders don’t dare to address crucial issues, and just want to wrap themselves in an American flag to appease others, we will lose a lot of good kids.
We need to be honest and dare to address the difficult issues. We should also talk about the idea of jihad, for example, or about what it means to be a mujahid. We need to explain how those concepts are realistic, but also above terrorism and have different, authentic meanings. Because if we don’t talk about it, they’ll go and listen to others who aren’t necessarily the right people. If you act as if the idea of jihad doesn’t exist in Islam, they’ll know you don’t know what you’re talking about and run to Internet shaykhs or others to find some answers that might lead them astray.
We don’t need to tell young kids – like some imams and speakers do – that they shouldn’t be outspoken. There really isn’t any need to water down our religion just to seem nice, because we can be truthful to our religion as well as outspoken and still find a lot that connects us to people of other faiths. One of those things is, for example, that it’s not only your Islamic duty but also your patriotic duty to uplift society to the best of your abilities.
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