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Hoda Katebi claps back after being called ‘Un-American’ during live TV

Hoda Katebi, a 23-year-old Irani-American fashion blogger was disturbed, but not completely surprised, when she was called “un-American” on live television.

Katebi runs a blog named Joo Joo Azad, which means “Free Bird” in Farsi. She regularly writes about ethical consumption, feminism, human rights violations and waste in fast fashion, and Islamophobia.

She was roused to start her blog in 2013 after an Anti-Muslim hate crime caused a woman in France to miscarry. Katebi grew up in Oklahoma with the pressure of assimilation and the post-9/11 judgement about the hijab and modest apparel.

Katebi created a platform as a call to action for social change and “a site of unapologetic identity reclamation…[to] challeng[e]…mainstream representation of Muslim women.”

She speaks at universities and to publications and is currently working on her own fashion line, which will employ a refugee cooperative in Chicago to sew the pieces.

Katebi made a guest appearance on Chicago’s WGN News morning show to discuss her new book, Tehran Streetstyle, which depicts the city’s vibrant and diverse fashion and how it departs from Western expectations and clothing regulations.

The now-viral interview, hosted by Robin Baumgarten and Larry Potash, began with smooth sailing. Katebi shared her childhood experiences and the continuing bias against Muslim garments.

Suddenly, Potash threw a jarring curveball. “Let’s talk about nuclear weapons. Some of our viewers say we cannot trust Iran,” he said. “What are your thoughts?”

A brief pause and a nervous laugh later, Katebi gave a composed and nuanced reply. “I mean, I don’t think we can trust this country. What has this country done to the majority of the countries in the Middle East?”

She spoke out against Iran having nuclear weapons, continuing

“I’m a pacifist; I don’t believe in violence. But also when we look at the legacy of imperialism and colonization in the Middle East and we see the legacy of this country and all of the violence that it has not only created but created the capacity for, a lot of these weapons are completely brought in by the United States.”

This led Baumgarten to remark that “A lot of Americans might take offense to that…you don’t sound like an American when you say that.”

Katebi, who studied international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the University of Chicago, responded that it’s “because I’ve read.”

She added that Americans have a lot to be proud of but need to look beyond “simple narratives” of nationalism and recognize “this country was literally built on the backs of Black slaves and after the genocide of indigenous people.”

After this civil but tense exchange, the hosts ended the interview abruptly; Katebi briefly spoke about her fashion collection. Viewers, followers, and netizens reacted strongly to the interview, some applauding and others criticizing.

Katebi posted her reflections on the interview on social media.

Although she believes the interviewers weren’t purposefully malicious, she explored in a blog post the absurdity and Islamophobic implications of the interview.

In an interview with RT, she stated that the sudden subject change and the hostility she received for questioning foreign policy astonished her. She said,

“It definitely took me off-guard. After the fact, I wasn’t too surprised because Muslims and people of color in this country and across the West are constantly put in positions where we are kind of seen as both the token but then also supposed to talk about everything relating to our identity, even if it’s not exactly related to the work we are doing at hand…respond for our policies abroad, but then having to blindly pray allegiance to this country.”

She also said that the interview-gone-wrong was a symptom of “underlying microaggresions” that occur so frequently toward Muslims that they are normalized.

She spoke out against the idea that Muslims have to “prove we’re American enough to deserve respect, not being bombed or banned…[or] criminalized.”

Robin Baumgarten, Larry Potash, and WGN Morning News have since extended apologies on-air, through social media, and personally to Katebi.

Katebi accepted the apology, expressing in a serious tweets that “[t]he apology was important, but it’s also important to be able to use this moment as a teaching tool, and prevent it from happening again. Let’s raise the bar.”

However, it seems that the tension hasn’t completely dissipated. In a Facebook post on February 16, Hoda Katebi wrote that she had attempted to schedule a redeeming interview with WGN but that it fell through.

She wrote,

“After a bit of hesitation, the producer accepted in part, and we went back and forth on the details. The morning of when the interview was set to go live (yesterday morning), the producer called me, furious (not sure if she just got off a call with advertisers/owners)…saying that they are no longer going to do this, and that instead I should come back to the station to do a pre-recorded interview that they would edit before airing…I refused to allow them control over my narrative and words, and said I would not come in on these terms. Larry called later and gave what seemed to be a forced apology, and hung up quickly. I don’t want this to be Hoda vs WGN…it’s about a larger context of anti-Muslim racism globally.”

Certainly, Hoda Katebi’s WGN interview is a byproduct of the times, as well as part of an overarching narrative. The label “un-American” has spanned many eras.

The term has applied to suspected communists in the Cold War and was the grounds for placing Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II.

Under a Donald Trump presidency, which instated the Muslim ban on January 27 in the name of national security, these labels and fears persist, so much so that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has removed “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Despite this, Hoda Katebi offers a challenge to the everyday prejudices that Muslims encounter and a radical rejection to the idea that they must apologetically endure.