When you hear the term American Muslim or Muslim American, what do you see? To many non-Muslim Americans and certainly Fox News and their viewers, visions of Middle Eastern guys in long robes and turbans come to mind. Camels, Desert, women dressed in black, and a myriad of cultural stereotypes are often added in for good measure. So it should be no surprise that whenever there is a terrorist attack that involves a Muslim such as the tragedy that occurred at this year’s Boston Marathon, the immediate backlash is all manner of xenophobic commentary in conjunction with the usual “Islam is Evil” rhetoric from Islamophobes. But what happens when the attacker doesn’t look like an “Arab” or one of “Middle Eastern” descent? Does the commentary alluding to such end? Of course not, we know who we are dealing with here. However long the pause in their talking points are as they conjure up new insults for two “White” guys that belong to that “evil ideology” may take, eventually bigots circle the wagons and maintain their image of the desert Arab while causally writing off the new image presented as a sort of anomaly. It’s not as if Islamophobes didn’t look at a map real quick and search Wikipedia, and once they learned that Chechnya is a predominately Muslim country use it as more proof that all countries where the “religion of evil” exists should be destroyed, the problem is that even as they struggle to “educate” their followers, the image of the war-mongering, barbaric, Arab persists.
It is this image which bears no fruit in reality, that helps feed the beast that is Islamophobia. By having a defined image no matter how ludicrous, media outlets are able to promote, distribute, and further mold the perception that when it comes to Muslims and Islam, their viewers and listeners should always think, foreign, different, and overseas. The persistent drumbeat and promotion of an image of an entire religion who’s people don’t look or act like them is at the heart and root of Islamophobia in all its forms. In order to further the agenda of Islamophobes, there has to be an element of xenophobia intertwined. Islam and Muslims have to be consistently singled out as the “other” in order for Muslims as a bloc to be marginalized, berated, and hated. This is why when the images showing what looked like two white guys began to emerge contradicting the initial reports that singled out brown males, the media scrambled to make sense of what they were seeing and hearing. Unfortunately, their out for blood narrative which saw several brown and olive skinned males harassed one of whom was surprise, surprise a Saudi National who was injured in the attack and another a teen of Bengali descent who happened to attend the Marathon and thanks to the media blasting his image across the airwaves had to go into hiding along with his family, was never excused, apologized for, or recanted in any serious way. Saudi Arabia according to reports, arranged for their citizen to go home immediately, which of course sent out all kinds of red flags in the Islamophobic media, and there have been no updates about the teen and his family that I am aware. On top of that, countless reports of “Muslim looking” people being attacked both verbally and physically are being underreported and true to form, Fox News and the rest of the so-called Conservative media have continued their all out assault on Muslims and Islam with guests calling for deportation, a freeze on immigration, increased scrutiny and privacy violations, and in some cases calling for the outright slaughter and genocide of all Muslims in general. Ironically, the bulk of these comments come from those who claim to be Christians, a religion they say is peaceful compared to Islam.
Again, the comments that are well documented and oft-repeated in these circles all allude to the idea that Muslims in general are foreign and don’t look like the punditry, their viewers, or listeners, many of whom are older white males and make up the Republican Party base, and as such allow them with radical imagery at hand to craft this extremist idea that the way to solve the “Muslim problem” is to deport all the “Arabs” and don’t allow them to immigrate to the US. That and to wage war with Muslim nations until Muslims are destroyed of course. There’s just one problem with their sentiments outside of them being vile, wicked, disgusting, and not befitting of a human being to utter, let alone believe, just as the two terrorists proved, Muslims don’t look like the stereotype. Some are actually American citizens and some are “white”. Although it’s been argued that the younger of the pair wasn’t born here in the US and therefore still falls under the umbrella as the “other,” what isn’t being discussed is the actual makeup of Muslim Americans and what we actually look like by the numbers. I believe that if an accurate portrayal of the Muslim community in America and the world was presented in the media or wherever people get their information, the reality of the face of Islam in America and the world would not only shake up the perceptions that are the root of Islamophobic thought, it would totally obliterate them.
It is difficult to hate someone in who you share common traits and attributes with. Those who hate others based on ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin, often point out real or perceived differences in others as a focal point to channel their ignorance. This is why theologically speaking, Orientialism prevailed as the means by which ideas about Islam flourished in the West, many of these ideas are still used by Islamophobes, because Orientalists had to paint Islam as so different from Christianity that their co-religionists could never accept any commonality with the religion. Even to this day, your average Christian is shocked to learn that Islam shares many of the same beliefs with Christians and Jews for that matter concerning Biblical Prophets, ideas, and even share many of the same beliefs about Jesus. However, this has for centuries been an unreported fact, and hardly ever mentioned in any discussion about Christianity and Islam. Which is why many Islamophobes rant with impunity how different and evil Islam is, some even going so far as to call Islam no religion at all. So theologically speaking, the perception of Islam maintains a stronghold over the reality with many adherents to said perception even going as far as to claim close ties with Judaism in opposition to Islam, when in truth Islam is actually closer to Christianity than Judaism in many major theological components. My point in this segway is to illustrate that the depth of the disease that is Islamophobia contains both a theological and a physical xenophobic, component that should be understood in order to truly combat it.
When a theological falsehood that sees Islam as diametrically opposed and fundamentally different from the majority religion of the West is firmly in place, the next step that Islamphobes much like their Orientalist forefathers, impress on their followers is to give Islam a face that matches the manufactured comparisons that highlight division and otherness. The image and face given to Islam has to be different enough to never deter, confuse, or cause supporters to waver. These faces must never be similar to any readily identifiable in pop culture, in the family, or in places of worship. When these faces are seen they must always be seen in the context of something foreign, stereotypical, and always associated with distrust, ill-will, misgivings, and evil.
The majority of Muslims in the world are Asian, the next largest group of Muslims are African, followed distantly by those who are generally called Arab and or Middle Eastern. In America, the majority of Muslims are African American, followed by a bloc of immigrants consisting largely of members that are Persian and Southeast Asian, then distantly followed by Caucasian or White Americans. Yet, when the media talks about Muslims, we never see Asians, Africans or African Americans? No one whenever the question is asked “Where are the Muslims?” ever looks to these communities for answers. If you look at the all the major media outlets and count the total number of guests, interviews, op-eds, etc. given from members of the American Muslim community, you will find that by and large those sought out for answers whether in print, television, or radio are rarely African American, Asian, or African. Instead, even with media that isn’t as hostile to Muslims in general or are not known for promoting Islamophobic ideas, the preference appears to be those who are of “Middle Eastern” descent and heritage, or those who are mistaken to share a similar background.
Have you ever wondered why that is? I believe that whether the agenda is to continue the spread of Islamophobia or even if the honest intention is objectivity, the perception of the “other” is and continues to be at the forefront of the discussion and is an essential component of Islamophobia and the xenophobic commentary often associated with the extreme right of American political ideology. In order to correct the perception and ensure that reality reigns, members of the media as well as the American Muslim community itself, have to put forward an image of Muslims that accurately represents who we are. The idea that the majority of American Muslims for instance are immigrants recent or otherwise is false and to support that image by putting forward Muslims that represent this group of American Muslims, in my opinion only helps validate the arguments of Islamophobes everywhere. If Fox News pundits, though I believe any Muslim interviewing on the Fox Network is wasting their time, were confronted with more Muslims who were African American, Asian American, or Caucasion American, not only would the discussions and debate be different, but the image that forms this idea that Muslims are a bunch of desert Arabs from the Middle East, would force people to think different. Maybe it would be harder for agents of hate like Ann Coulter who said “Boston Muslim Bomber’s wife should be jailed for wearing a headbag” if she knew that thousands of American Muslim women who look like Ann Coulter both wear and don’t wear Hijab and are proud Muslims. Maybe it would be hard for Conservative Pundits and Celebrities like Erik Rush to Tweet things like “they’re (Muslims) evil. Let’s kill them all” if Erik an African American knew that the majority of American Muslims look like him and have a legacy that’s older than America itself and comprises American cultural icons, celebrities, and politicians like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mos Def, Dave Chappelle, and Congressmen Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, maybe he wouldn’t be so ready to advocate genocide.
Personally, when I think American Muslim I think of Malcolm X a myriad of musicians, actors, and entertainers and Muslim leaders like Zaid Shakir, the late Warith Deen Muhammad, Yusuf Estes, Suhaib Webb, and many others. These figures I believe, are more representative of what the American Muslim community looks like than the image that is promoted and used to further the perception that when it comes to Islam and Muslims, we should consistently see “other” and look to cultures and communities across oceans, thousands of miles away. The media is the major proponent of this agenda and unfortunately Muslims often play a role in this by putting forward spokespersons that represent the stereotype even when their intentions are far from that.