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     Volume 6 Issue 24 | June 22, 2007 |

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The Complicated Face of Islam in America

Ashna Ali

Airport security has become increasingly difficult

“Ma'am, you're going to have to go into this back room for a moment.” I hear these words when going through customs at JFK airport. Those of us with 'questionable' names and faces are ushered into the infamous White Room to be interrogated. “Why are you in America? Where were you born? What are you studying? What university? Where were you born?” Stone-faced officials rattle off standard questions, while we struggle to retain smiling faces. “Standard procedure, ma'am.” My name resonates closely with names on the terrorist list. Despite my U.S passport and having passed former screenings, I am detained. I emerge from the White Room insulted, but I am luckier than most. This is one of the few instances where my gender spares me. Women do not quite fit the profile.

Security officials maintain that no such profile exists, and that all checks are random. Incidents continue to occur at U.S. airports that suggest otherwise. A Bangladeshi friend with EU citizenship has been checked multiple times before each flight since September 2001. “It is absolutely clear that the so called 'blind' checks that are undertaken are rarely so,” he says, “The most uncomfortable thing about the whole process is the feeling that you are guilty until proven innocent, and this is based on your profile. Any other appearance, and the natural rule of law returns and you are innocent until proven guilty.” Everyone understands the need for security. Those stopped are as concerned for their safety as the passengers who are not. The treatment is standard procedure, and is therefore unapologetic. Friends have come away telling stories of being detained longer and being strip-searched when showing signs of irritation.

American Muslims protesting the war

Muslims, based on these experiences, learn to fear discrimination in America, their image irrevocably sullied by the heinous crimes committed on 9/11, in the name of a religion whose values they did not accurately represent. In 2006, a Washington Post and ABC News poll found that 46% of Americans view Muslims negatively, believing that they have a predilection for violence. This belief has most probably grown since then. Every night on the news, entire segments are dedicated to the terrorism and war, and politicians make speeches about “The Islamic Threat.” Such discourse is more rampant now that candidates for presidency must prove to their citizens the capacity to protect them. I watch as the Iraq War, dictatorship, weapons of mass destruction, the war in Afghanistan, the War on Terror, 9/11 and jihad are conflated and bombarded from headlines and TV screens alike. Rudy Guiliani, the mayor of New York City and presidential candidate said in a debate, “Iraq is part of an overall terrorist war against the U.S.” When the U.S went to war with Iraq, the issues at hand were the freedom of the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussain, and supposed weapons of mass destruction which were then never found. Saddam Hussain has no known relationship with Bin Laden, and Iraq, outside of its own borders, poses no tangible threat to the American people. Americans are afraid, and politicians must address the problem, but the ways in which issues are painted are a detriment to Americans, Muslim-American communities, and the universal image of Islam.

Artist sketches of bomb plot suspects

Ziad Muson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lehigh University, explains in an e-mail interview the dangers presented by misrepresentation. “Both Hamas and Hezbollah are more powerful today than they were five years ago, but the threat of terrorism has also been used by some political leaders in the U.S to create more fear among Americans. The current administration has not provided the American public with an accurate assessment of the threat we face… The idea that terrorism is a problem rooted in a few evildoers hiding out in Iraq, and thus can be solved through military operations, is a naive and dangerous bill of goods that the current administration has repeatedly tried to sell to the American public.” Naïve and dangerous as it may be, the idea is widely being accepted, and there are dire consequences. The evildoers are not only powerful in the minds of Americans, but inextricably connected with Islam. “Religion is not the cause of the terrorism in which many of these groups engage. Individual members of these groups may well be devout Muslims, but religious faith is not what leads to terrorism…Religion is frequently blamed for such violence because it offers a quick and simplistic way to explain what is a complex and difficult process. Instead, they latch on to the religious language that those who engage in terrorism themselves use to describe their actions.”

It is difficult to explain those afraid of Islam that it is a peaceful religion, when the select few who induce these fears use religion to justify their actions, bastardizing the faith in the eyes of America to their own radical ends. To cope with a difficult and threatening situation, the “other” is simplified into essentialist terms; Muslim, terrorist, extremist, jihadi. One fear triggers another. When one group of people simplifies another, they are in turn, also simplified. “White people,” a Lebanese friend claims, “just assume that as soon as I walk into a building or a plane, there's a chance that I'm going to blow things up. I'm tired of it.” These frustrations are justified. When one feels feared, they fear the image that is imposed on them. A Bangladeshi with a U.S passport said to me, “What's ridiculous is that if I shave and travel without a beard, I have fewer issues than if I travel with a clean-cut, trimmed goatee, despite being a U.S citizen. During the Iraq War while I was in college at Yale, I faced the same kind of fear and hatred. Someone even spat at me because I look like I could be Arab.” The anger rises on both sides.

Findings of pew research center

The Muslim sensitivity to such discrimination, though justified and natural, also has its negative effects. The deadly protests against Danish cartoons portraying Prophet Mohammed last year painted the Islamic community as over-sensitive and explosive in the eyes of many Americans. CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has launched a year-long advertising campaign after such events, placing small ads in local newspapers in Muslim communities advertising the normal, harmless nature of the average Muslim-American. “I am a doctor,” some say, “I help patients every day, live in a suburban home with my husband and have three children.” While these ads could be helpful, the Muslim communities do not need to hear this message as much as other communities. The first thing, however, that other communities were likely to have heard is that several CAIR leaders have been convicted of terror-related charges, and were accused by former counter-terrorism agents of being a “front group” for the Palestinian terror group Hamas. This cannot be helping the image of the religion, or the Muslim communities within America. Professor Munson believes that the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the country would wane if more attention where given in the media to Muslim communities in the United States. Most probably so, but the communities are featured far less than the terrorists, the insurgents, and the suspects.

I am one of the people angry with the imposition of the profile and stereotype. I watch friends and family suffer discrimination, but outside of the airport, most Muslims do not have much to fear. Plenty of American news sources stress that the Muslims who become militants and embrace violence are just a small fragment of the Muslims in the world. On May 22, 2007, The Pew Research Center released a report; “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” claiming that there are an estimated 2.35 million Muslims in America, the majority of which live safely and happily, feel integrated, integral to their workplaces and societies, and feel that their families are safe. They do, however, feel “singled out” by the policies created by the current administration.

Just as Muslims suffer stereotypes in America, American attitudes to Islam are stereotyped outside of America. While it is true that the current administration has not looked kindly upon Muslims because of the activities of terrorists and their own possible agendas, the opinions reflected by their policies do not extend across the entire American population. Many Americans have taken the opportunity of all the exposure to study Islam and gain a better understanding of the state of religious tensions in the world. Islam has also won many American converts in recent years. Just as regular Muslims indict terrorists for sullying their name, plenty of Americans fear that this fear is disgracing them, crippling their national image, and attracting harsh global criticism from which they may never recover. America is a country built originally upon the values of freedom, the celebration of diversity, and freedom of speech and religion. Many Americans are enraged that these values are so blatantly compromised by the policies following 9/11, just as Muslims are enraged by the image terrorists have acquired for them. As a Bangladeshi, I am angered by the discrimination against Muslims. As an American, I am angered by the compromise of national values. At the end of the day, political and economic agendas are stamped with religious and national labels so people can distance themselves from the 'other' for safety. By embracing these distances, regardless of faith and nationality, we sully our own images and curtail our own understanding, using information to keep us further ignorant rather than enlightened.



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