As the news broke of the explosions at the Boston Marathon on Monday, I thought how horrific and tragic it was that people trained all year for a race that ended for some in the loss of limbs or even death.
Just as my heart went out to the victims of such terrifying violence, my mind raced to thoughts of the perpetrator: “Please don’t be Muslim,” I muttered to myself, joining what seemed to be a global chorus of Muslims on social media, fearing the kinds of ethnic and religious profiling that could fuel calls for violent reprisals against entire communities.
Conservative commentator Erik Rush’s tweet declaring Muslims, “evil” and urging “Let’s kill them all,” certainly did nothing to assuage my fears.
“Be careful,” my mother said to me when she called that day—careful that the Boston Marathon bombings might be part of a wave of more attacks to come in major cities like New York, and even more careful that people may mistakenly and unjustly think I had something to do with it because of my perceived ethnicity or religion.
We’ve got 99 problems
It certainly happened to a 20-year-old Saudi man, himself badly hurt from the Boston explosions, who was tackled by a bystander because people thought he looked suspicious. Being Muslim in post-9/11 America means worrying about being the victim of a terrorist attack and worrying that I might be blamed for that very attack; it means Muslim victims are invisible while Muslim perpetrators are the only Muslims we see.
If “Please don’t be Muslim” is the new choral response to a violent crime by an unknown perpetrator, it is only the newest verse in an old song. “Please don’t be black,” we used to sing (and still do!) when hearing news reports of a particularly heinous crime, especially serial murders and mass shootings.
We’ve got 99 problems, and the last thing we need to add is some deranged individual mucking it up for the rest of us. I still watch news reports of crimes, waiting with baited breath for the perpetrator’s description: If he or she is black or brown, the reporter will almost always say so; if he or she is white, it sometimes seems that particular descriptor goes unmentioned.
Terror comes in different shades
Profiling is of course a legitimate investigative tool; but racial, ethnic, and religious profiling constitute lazy law enforcement—a laziness that is the privilege and tool of a majority class that it seldom uses against itself. White criminals are invisible, as white criminals. Imagine a search for a “Christian terrorist” in a predominantly Christian country.
Even though America has had its fair share of white Christian terrorists (the Ku Klux Klan, Timothy McVeigh, etc.), there is an implicit understanding that there are many different kinds of white Christian men, so many different kinds in fact, mere religious and racial identifications are useless. In a country full of white men, a search for a white male suspect requires going beyond his racial or ethnic description to include more specific details—physical markings, behavioral patterns, signs of mental illness, etc.
Plurality and diversity (and even insanity) should not be a privilege accorded only to whites, but to all people. Without doubt, there have been Muslim perpetrators of terrorist acts; but they have been, and should be seen, as just as aberrational to our communities as white serial killers and mass shooters are to theirs. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are as law-abiding as any other religious group, and has repeatedly denounced terrorism.
Muslims are not monolithic
There are many different kinds of Muslims, too. Not all of us are black or brown—some of us are even white. And not all of us speak with a foreign accent—most of us do not. The diversity of our communities defies racial, ethnic, or religious profiling; attempts to flatten us into a singular profile are a disservice not just to us, but also to any serious law enforcement investigation.
So far, there have been no arrests, although authorities are developing leads in the case based on evidence from security cameras near the bomb site. On Monday, CNN provided the frame for a racial, ethnic, and religious profile when it reported that investigators were on the lookout for a “darker-skinned or black male with a possible foreign accent.”
Most in law enforcement, however, have followed the responsible lead of President Obama in cautioning against jumping to conclusions: “What we don’t know yet, however, is who carried out this attack or why, whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.”
The Boston Marathon bombing may well have been carried out by a self-identifying Muslim or a white Christian. If the suspect turns out to be a white domestic terrorist, I doubt white people in America will feel any collective guilt over the act of one individual, nor should they; if the suspect turns out to be a black or brown Muslim, neither should Muslim Americans feel any collective guilt for the act of one individual.
I know I won’t. But until we find out, I’ll still be saying, “Please don’t be Muslim.”