September 23, 2012

What Does it Mean to be a Muslim American?

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Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by news sources relaying all that has erupted in the Muslim world in the past few weeks. As many of you know, an obscure film portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a crude, negative light, surfaced in Arab media and has spread throughout the world via the Internet and news outlets. This set off a firestorm of worldwide responses. Protests, both violent and nonviolent, have sparked in several Muslim majority countries, and in a terrible sequence of events, extremists assassinated the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens; sadly, three other American lives were also lost in this deplorable act. Furthermore, countless others have fallen victim to death amidst the protests in the region. With the media in a frenzy, many have weighed in on why this unrest is spreading in the Muslim world.

So how does this violence and responses to it impact Muslim Americans? Muslims in the United States are in the stressful position of defending their faith or national origin as they face animosity from fellow Americans. When senseless acts of violence are carried out by extremists, who are out of touch with the tenets of Islam and represent only a small fraction of its followers, Muslim Americans are put in the position of proving their patriotism and condemning these acts of violence as if they were somehow involved in planning them.

We live in a world where the oppressed must constantly justify their existence and right to equitable inclusion. This theme extends within the LGBTQ community in their struggle against heterosexism and women in proving their gender is not a handicap. In the case of Muslims, there is an inherently problematic expectation from the American public for Muslim Americans to speak out against extremism, as if they were prone to sympathizing with it. This pressure to prove patriotism and loyalty is just one example of the struggles Muslim Americans currently face.

And when Muslim Americans do condemn violence and cite the peaceful qualities of their religion, many times their views are dismissed as anomalous. This oppressive silencing serves to perpetuate the extremist image of what a Muslim is and helps justify ongoing Islamophobia directed at innocent Muslim Americans or anyone that “looks Muslim,” as in the case of the Sikh Massacre in early August. In a post 9-11 America, fanaticism, terror and disloyalty have become synonymous with the Muslim American.

So what does a Muslim American look like? Images in the popular imagination have purposefully constructed Muslim men as violent, raging terrorists and Muslim women as submissive, oppressed victims. These images function together to justify everything from American military expansion in the Middle East to the legally sanctioned racial profiling of Muslim American and South Asian American youth.

For instance, Newsweek’s latest edition, Muslim Rage, has the image of a screaming turbaned man on its cover. We hope the American public assesses the underlying biases and realizes that Islamic vilification sells stories. It simplifies the issue of “violent Muslims” into digestible messages that serve special interest political groups. These longstanding images and stereotypes are crucial in fueling Islamophobia in this country, as they dehumanize all Muslims and portray them in hateful, extremist lights.

As a nation, we need to hit the pause button. We need to reevaluate our understanding of Islam, our images of Muslim Americans and our urge to categorize our Muslim friends as peaceful anomalies. We live in a country where 40 percent of Americans have unfavorable views of Muslims. Politicians have suggested putting Muslims on trial to prove their patriotism. In the last election cycle, attempts to discredit Barack Obama included accusing him of secretly being a Muslim; yet the American public did not respond with, “And so what if he is?”

Moving forward as a nation, we must humanize Muslims by reacquainting ourselves with the forgotten images of playful Muslim children, artists, musicians, empowered women, Nobel laureates and humanitarians. We must allow room for Muslim Americans to define themselves the way they see fit. Let us question why fear of Islam is pushed by the media and politicians, and why some Americans are comfortable with labeling more than a billion people in the world as “the enemy.”

Umbar Sattar ’13, Ghalib Shaikh ’13 and Aisha Sindhu ’14 contributed writing to this piece.

Adam Abboud is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at aa538@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Adam Abboud