American Muslims must fight stereotypes, suspicion together

OPINION - The notion of what constitutes as Muslim is a fascinating one both to non-Muslims and within the larger Islamic community itself...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Whenever I tell people that I’m Muslim, they usually have a look of bewilderment about them.  ‘But … you don’t cover your hair’ is a common response, as is ‘you’re so modern though,’ and my personal favorite: ‘well, what exactly are you?’ The notion of what constitutes as Muslim is a fascinating one both to non-Muslims and within the larger Islamic community itself.

It wasn’t long after the horrendous attacks on 9/11 that many Muslims who didn’t wear a hijab (headscarf), or any traditional garb felt the need to earnestly separate themselves from the Muslims who did. Further marginalizing those who were on the conservative end of the spectrum, some Muslims hoped to present themselves as somehow more American than those who may pray five times a day or attend the mosque on a regular basis.  Primarily out of fear as hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim skyrocketed in the aftermath of that tragic day, and have only increased in subsequent years, these individuals created a false sense of security against the permeating backlash.

The ‘othering’ of Muslims

Though it’s rarely discussed, Muslims in America contributed to the ‘othering’ of Muslims in America. And yet, as media coverage of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two accused perpetrators of the horrific Boston Marathon bombings makes clear, Muslims who have assimilated well in the West are now just as suspect as the rest.

Since identified by law enforcement as the apparent culprits, the lives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar have been extensively parsed, as have the lives of those closest to them — and understandably so. However, prior to any definitive confirmation from authorities, most outlets had already branded them as ‘Islamic terrorists’ and focused on some sort of international connection.

While the possibility of co-conspirators or deeper layers of this incident are still very real and are currently under investigation, the framing of this story has already proved troubling. Continuously juxtaposing their actions with Islam, many networks and print outlets implicated a religion with 1.5 billion-plus followers along with the brothers.

Pundits discussed when and how Tamerlan became more religious, going so far as to highlighting the moment he went from praying once a day to five times a day, as if praying five times a day itself constitutes some sort of wrongdoing.  They spoke of his alleged attempts to convert an FBI agent to Islam, as if converting someone to Islam itself is equal to recruiting someone to terrorism.  They even scrutinized Tamerlan’s widow, continuously creating the narrative that she was a normal all-American girl who started covering her hair, as if covering one’s hair makes one automatically distrustful.  And then some political figures, like former Rep. Joe Walsh, went so far as to openly state that we need to profile our enemy:  ‘young Muslim men,’ while others, like Rep. Louie Gohmert, argued that ‘radical Islamists’ are ‘being trained to come in and act like Hispanics,’ and the always reliable Rep. Peter King suggested that Muslims should just flat out be put under surveillance.

Anti-Muslim hatred hits new heights

In other words, whether you have a long beard and travel overseas, or you’re an MC that just placed the final touches on your latest track, if you have a Muslim-sounding name or Islamic roots, you’re now guilty before proven innocent. The power of images, the way in which stories are framed and the verbiage used by both our media and politicians have far reaching implications for all Americans.  It’s this power that sold us the Iraq war under false pretenses, allowed for the indefinite detention of many without trial, justified warrantless wiretapping and all kinds of intrusions of privacy, created overreaching laws like the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allowed unchecked use of drones around the world and incited enough suspicion of our fellow Americans that even in 2010, anti-Muslim hate crimes soared by 50 percent.

Let me be clear: Muslims, like all Americans, condemn the tragedy in Boston and want any (and all) perpetrators to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  The killing of innocents cannot be tolerated anywhere, and Muslims – who are the largest victims of terrorism worldwide – mourn the loss and injury of their fellow Americans and international attendees who suffered during the Boston bombings.  But in the process of investigating this awful incident and preventing future ones, we cannot fall into the trap of fear mongering, scapegoating and hysteria.

Following last Monday’s attack, The New York Post misidentified a Saudi national as a suspect, and later plastered the faces and names of two other innocent young men on its front cover with the caption ‘BAG MEN:  Feds Seek These Two Pictured at Boston Marathon.’ A Muslim woman in the Boston area was reportedly attacked by a man who yelled ‘F*** you Muslims!’ while punching her in the shoulder.  A man of Bangladeshi background was apparently beaten by a group of men in the Bronx in an apparent Boston bombing ‘revenge attack.’

We cannot let the inexcusable actions of a few condemn millions in the United States, and billions around the world.

Now to my fellow Muslims:  whether you consider yourself devout or barely practicing, it’s important that we don’t separate ourselves along those lines.  Too often, whether it be out of fear or for selfish reasons, we don’t speak up when we see others being targeted unfairly.  Many times, we say to ourselves, ‘oh good thing I don’t cover my hair,’ or ‘good thing I don’t hang out with Muslims like that.’

We cannot allow going to the mosque, covering one’s hair or any other religious practice (by any faith for that matter) to be the means by which one is tried in the court of public opinion and/or in a court of law.  While we stand with others in solidarity against the attack in Boston, we must simultaneously stand with others against hate crimes and protect the very liberties that are a bedrock of this great country – freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, many still have an inaccurate representation of what a Muslim looks like.  Contrary to the images we often receive, most Muslims are actually non-Arab, and represent all the varying stripes of society.  Muslims have been in the U.S. since the days of slavery (some argue even before.)  Many were shocked to learn that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar could be both Caucasian and Muslim, as evidenced by CNN’s search for a ‘dark-skinned male’ with ‘a possible accent.’

A diverse collective

Muslims are a diverse collective representing all kinds of socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.  There are Muslim lawyers, politicians, rappers, doctors, journalists, NBA players, football stars, mechanics, nurses, teachers, business owners and many, many others from all facets of life.  It’s not OK to change our names with the hopes of deflecting negative unwarranted attention, and it’s not OK to look the other way when we see someone being discriminated against because of some perceived notion. As a wise person once said to me, Muslims are as wide-ranging as the human race itself.

The time to stop hiding in the shadows might be now, because as coverage over the past few days shows, even those westernized ones just might be guilty before proven innocent. While the nation continues to heal and hold those responsible for the Boston tragedy accountable, everyone should simultaneously denounce any backlash we see regardless of our own background — even if that be one of atheism.  Because as Martin Niemoller’s adage warns, we don’t want to be the ones left without anyone to speak up for us.

Nida Khan is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @NidaKhanNY