The bizarre 48-hour news cycle when Philly police & Star Wars fans both discussed cutting off people's hands

Media critic and Muslim commentator Zaki Hasan offers a unique perspective.

By Zaki Hasan
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Jul. 23, 2014

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As someone who often finds his twin identities as a lifelong Muslim and a lifelong pop-culture geek juxtaposed against each other in a variety of sometimes curious ways, I was struck this Sunday when two news stories crossed my social media feeds in rapid succession that involved eerily similar imagery—but with wildly different overtones.

First up, let’s start with the good stuff: Devin Faraci over at the film website dropped a bit of bombshell news of what he claims is the planned storyline for next year’s impending revival of the Star Wars franchise. If Faraci’s supposed scoop is legit and not just another geek rumor, Episode VII of the new trilogy will feature as a key plot point the severed hand of a familiar character clutching a lightsaber.

While I don’t know that what he has to say is particularly spoilerific—and, again, it’s not even confirmed at this point—I’ll abstain from posting details here just to preserve the surprise for those who want it. But honestly, if you’re anything like me, just hearing that tantalizing bit of teasing was enough to get the follicles on the back of your neck bolting upright by providing just one more piece of confirmation that we are indeed barrelling towards yet another visit to that galaxy far, far away.

So, yeah. That story got me excited. But then came the very next story in my news feed. And that one wasn’t so cool.

Apparently, one leader of a West Philadelphia mosque is currently under arrest, and a second has a warrant out for his arrest, after they accused one of their congregants of stealing donation money from the organization and—here comes that synchronicity I alluded to earlier—they attempted to chop off his hand as penance. Without the benefit of a lightsaber, they instead used a dull machete blade, with predictably messy results: According to police, they “swung at his wrist, cut through his skin, and cut his tendons, but didn’t make it all the way.”

Luckily, the victim got away; reportedly, reconstructive surgery is indicated.

Beyond the general “ick” factor that such a story naturally stirs in anyone with a heart and/or a conscience, there’s also the unprompted “Here we go again” that I end up uttering. And while I don’t have any special knowledge of the individuals in question (nor do I particularly want any), and this news marks the first time I’ve ever heard of them (nor do I particularly want to read more), I’d wager the same applies for most of the people who’ll come across this news: “Here we go again.” Just more confirmation of their deepest fears about what Islam represents. What being Muslim represents.

For many who have prefigured images in their minds of honor killings happening half a world away, even as the nebulous concept of “Shariah law!” continues to worm its way through the American psyche—well, heck, this kind of thing happening practically down the street very neatly fits in right on that same continuum. But for me, as someone who does his level best to represent the American-Muslim experience in as positive a manner possible, whenever a story like this inevitably gains traction in the media, I can’t help but blanch.

Not at the media for covering it, mind you. After all, stories about severed hands, whether they come about via a beloved sci-fi franchise or two nutbars brandishing a dull blade, do tend to garner eyeballs. No, I blanch because it should be their nutbar-ness that’s used to classify them, as opposed to their Muslim-ness, but if history is our guide, that probably won’t end up being the case. As such, the actions of these two will just end up making it that much harder for run-of-the-mill American Muslims to live their American dream—which doesn’t involve anybody’s severed body parts, attempted or otherwise.

Just to be absolutely clear here: There’s no justification for what these guys did. None. Not even a little bit. First of all, the applicability of such a barbaric punishment under these circumstances would be questionable even in a primarily Islamic country, but given that these guys live in America, they’re bound by American laws, and as far as I know, “Off with his hands!” has never been one of the punishments doled out by Judge Judy.

Naturally, that hasn’t stopped the usual chorus of voices from the “Fear Islam!” crowd from chiming in on comments sections across the web. Was this an example of Sharia law? Perhaps some kind of stealth jihad?

No, to both.

As far as I know, there’s no groundswell in American congregations to extract a literal pound of flesh for perceived transgressions. We’re Americans. We have lawsuits for that. This terrible story is simply about two guys armed with a superiority complex—and, unfortunately, a machete—who went way too viciously far in confusing brutality for justice.

The fact is, human history—recent and otherwise—is rife with examples of horrible people finding ways to force-fit religion, race, nationality, education or economic class into justifications for their essential horribleness. Because the “dark side of the Force” we heard so much about in Star Wars is something universal, not religion-specific. That understanding speaks to something fundamental inside of us—which helps explain why Star Wars is one of the most popular mythologies of our time. We all have the capacity to fall from grace, but we also all have the ability to rise above our worse natures. Sometimes all we need is a hand up. 

Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies in the San Francisco Bay Area and co-founder of Mr. Boy Productions, an L.A.-based film and video company. A lifelong pop-culture buff, he is cohost of the MovieFilm Podcast, co-author of Quirk Books’
Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, and his work has been featured at Q-News, Illume and The Huffington Post. He has appeared as a panelist on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream and is a contributing editor at Find him at

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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 23, 2014 at 10:39PM

“Your response as a Muslim is respected for speaking out in condemnation of a Mosque leader and his assistant as brutal nut-cases. But this appears "the voice of one crying in the wilderness."
Where are more American Muslim leaders condemning this brutal application of punishment ?
They remain silent -- from fear ? or from belief no allegiance is owed to the American system?”

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2. Zaki said... on Jul 24, 2014 at 11:40AM

“Well, I'm hardly a lone voice in the wilderness. The overwhelming majority of I can say with some authority that a substantial number of Muslims in this country are speaking out against these kind of acts. They're not as "silent" as you think.”

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3. Bill McCormick said... on Jul 25, 2014 at 12:12PM

“I wonder if anonymous expects every single Christian leader to speak out every time some other Christian does something horrific? Or does he just take it as common sense that all the millions of other Christian's do not condone the despicable acts of a few?”


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