There are days when being an American Muslim can make you want to bang your head on your desk in frustration. For the most part, like most Americans regardless of the notorious hyphenation, as an American Muslim, I live, work, entertain, and spend time with family and friends, like any other citizen in the land of red, white, and blue. I go to see summer movies, check out the occasional horror flick, anxiously await the next Game Of Thrones novel, stand in line for my iPhone, and buy the latest Xbox games. Rarely am I ever questioned about my faith by others and rarely do I feel uncomfortable as a Muslim in the country where I was born and my forefathers enslaved.
That isn’t to say that my experience is typical of every American Muslim because it is not. First of all, I’m a Black male originally from New Jersey, and I don’t look stereotypically Muslim. I’m a convert, who’s family is uber Christian so I’m just as comfortable eating Kabob as I am a traditional Sunday dinner, minus the pork in my collard greens of course. To be honest, most Black American Muslims have experiences that are often completely different than our non-Black counterparts.
For example, when cable news spreads propaganda about my religion, as maddening as it is, I know that when I walk out the door, I’m going to be seen as just another Black guy, which can have it’s own issues in of itself, but I digress. I’m never looked at as a terrorist based on my ethnicity, or the way I dress whether it’s my suit and tie for work, or mundane clothing typical of my age/region. Though most won’t admit it, the brunt of anti-Islam rhetoric and it’s resulting prejudicial behavior in some, is usually levied against Muslim women who wear hijab and American Muslims of Arab, South East Asian, or similar ethnic descent. For the most part, if you’re a Black American Muslim who isn’t a woman wearing hijab or a man in “traditional” garb from Muslim countries, you’re just another Black guy or woman.
Which is why when I learned that a “convert” to Islam beheaded a co-worker in Oklahoma, I instantly got a little ill. I was mortified by the crime as any beheading should affect a normal human being with a heart, but I was also nauseated by the implications of what might come of the media blitz as they salivate over this disgusting, tragic event.
Say what you will, but I know I’m not the only Black American Muslim who upon reading the headlines, immediately hoped that the guy wasn’t Black. Let’s face it: If the headline had been “Muslim beheaded…” instead of “Muslim convert beheaded…” the mental imagery would have been different. We can blame the media and social engineering for this, but without going into a Sociology discussion, I’ll readily admit that I personally conjure up varying images based on the headline. “Muslim” without the convert addendum, would have made me think non-Black and “Muslim convert” made me instantly think Black guy. It’s a sad world we live in and I’m embarrassed to even write this.
Unfortunately, in our sensationalized, if it bleeds it leads, news programs, every time a convert to Islam is mentioned in connection with some crime, they are usually Black, and every time a Muslim in general, is mentioned in connection with some crime they were usually non-Black. I believe wholeheartedly that this is by design as not all converts to Islam are Black, nor the majority of non-Converts “Middle Eastern”. Nor are Muslims alone guilty of the crimes usually associated with us, which is why it’s always been shameful that the religion of the criminal is only mentioned when the criminal is Muslim. Which is why the news had to go through great lengths to explain the Boston Marathon bombers non-Arabness. In this “ISIS is the new Al-Qaeda” reality that we now live in, Muslims have once again been put on the defensive, having to explain away our religion, issue fatwas, hold press conferences, hold up signs, etc. etc. etc. etc. to state what should be apparent to any rational adult. I still find myself awestruck that people still believe that 1/3 of the Earth’s population believes that their religion teaches to kill all non-Muslims.
So what do you do when you’re a Black American Muslim, already feeling the pressures of just being a Black Man in America, in light of constant news reports of police brutality and rarely having to address your religion in your daily life, only to find out that you too have been dragged into the “homegrown” ISIS madness? As a parent, already used to having to explain to my sons why they can’t wear hoodies, play with things that can be “mistaken” for a gun, and to be mindful of where they are at all times, now I wonder if I have to add to the list, be careful of who you tell your name to, don’t get caught wearing a Kufi, and watch being seen entering and leaving the Mosque.
This whole media frenzy is getting out of hand and I fear that it will only get worse in light of this tragedy. What’s at stake here is not Islam or even the perception of what that means. This divisive rhetoric that has caused news anchors and politicians to feel comfortable freely calling American Muslims terrorists, un-patriotic, dangerous, and worse, is not only disgusting, but dangerous. How incidents like this beheading in Oklahoma are covered, only help to widen the net of bigotry toward Muslims by including more Americans as potential threats and targets of hate crimes. Though an entire industry of hate-speech against Muslims arose after 9/11, rarely have Muslims like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, and others been included in the stereotyping. With Nidal Hassan Malik, his crime was used to fuel the narrative that Muslims in the military were not to be trusted. This crime, will deliver the industry of sensationalism and hate against Muslims, the motive to include Black converts to Islam to their list of undesirables. The claim that ISIS is at your door is realized in one man’s actions and it would be a lie to say that I’m not fearful of what’s to come. I guess I might finally be able to truly relate to my Arab, Pakistani, Women, etc. American Muslim counterparts who’ve for years have had to walk on eggshells daily in this post-9/11 world.