The American identity is enriched by the fusion of many cultures and traditions stemming from a long history of multiculturalism and diversity. However, this process has not been an easy one, rather it was burdened with a historical past of discrimination and institutionalized racism. While European settlers have relied on similar religious and historical traditions to merge with the broader community, Muslims continue to find this process more and more challenging. Fast forward decades later and Muslims are still facing major obstacles in being accepted into society, living in constant fear and overt caution.
However the Muslim-American community experiences more than just living in trepidation, but they are stuck in a vicious cycle of vilification and disparagement that is way beyond its expiration date. For years Americans have been witnessing an oversimplified paradigm of the ‘good Muslim’ versus ‘bad Muslim’ that continues to be endlessly recycled in every political debate, newscast and dinner table conversations. This has only forced a vibrant and diverse community into a rigid black and white archetype of good versus evil. The characteristics of a complex, independent and intricate Muslim have been stripped from the minds of the followers of Islam across the globe. Rather they are forced to be pro-American or pro-extremism, a false paradigm created by an ethnocentric society modeled after the words of former president George Bush in September of 2001, ‘either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ This same rhetoric continues to domino into livelihoods of Muslims across the United States today, already answered by mainstream societal ideals that Muslims seem to always be with the terrorists.
But what happens when the victims are more than just Americans? What does it mean to when three young Americans are Muslims? When the victims identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, did not make headlines until almost 14 hours of their death provoked by a social media outrage? Were their deaths not newsworthy? These questions continue to fester into the mindsets of Muslims and even non-Muslims across the nation. What took so long for mainstream media to pick up the tragic deaths of these three students and would have the case been the same if the racial roles were reversed?
Although the answers to these questions are seemingly obvious, they are however are not new. For centuries the Muslim community has been vigorously attempting to prove their worth as human beings. Despite their longevity in American history, Muslims are yet incessantly regarded as visitors to their home countries. From the earliest depictions of orientalism to racist childhood movies like Aladdin all the way to the peak of Islamaphobia in the post 9/11 era, Muslims were always imputed with violence and irrationality throughout the years. So how do we end this? How do we begin to end the alienation of a community that has long withstood egregious reviling? As a Muslim-American, I may have a few ideas.
Take the time to understand
One of the major reasons people tend to fester a bias towards a community is because of ignorance. When a person does not understand how or why a person or a group of people act, drink, eats, live the way they do, it begins to brew resentment and anger. Why do groups like ISIS exist? What makes them different from my Muslim neighbors? Why does a woman wear a hijab or a burka? What’s the difference anyway?
A Pew research study conducted last year concluded that 62 percent of Americans don’t know a Muslim personally, which may explain why Americans viewed Islam “coolly” among other faiths. Although most of these questions are asked out of curiosity, some are asked to humiliate, put down and to fill a void of a societal inferiority complex. However it is time for Muslims to filter out the genuinely curious from the purposely ignorant and reach out to former and educate them before they are converted over to hatred. So that when a friendship is formed, those statistics can begin to change.
Stop Associating Bad Things to Us
Researchers say that negative associations have such power in most people’s minds because evolution prepared us to notice bad things more than good things. For example, a study once tested people’s tendency to form positive and negative associations by showing them written Chinese characters followed quickly by pictures of “good” things such as baby seals, flowers, and waterfalls or pictures of “bad” things, like mutilated faces, snarling dogs, and feces. The researchers concluded that “the negative associations were likely have such power in most people’s minds” and since each negative association has more weight in the brain, “one must overcompensate with many positive links just to get back to neutral.”
Therefore the idea with Muslim delineations is the same. When the word Islam is almost always paired with images of ninja looking, sword holding, foreign language speaking oppressive men that is all the general public is going to remember. There are no positive pictures to reinforce to go back to natural as the study suggests. However consumers of news and media are left with negative conditioning of an entire community with images of a few.
When the everyday Americans are not informed that Muslims donate the most to charity ahead of all other religions or are shown the picture of the victims of Chapel Hill handing out free dental care and food supplies to the poor and homeless, how will anyone realize that Muslims are also human? It is then the repetitive negative images that are consistently streamed throughout mainstream media that stick with the viewers that will formulate an underlying bias towards the Muslim community.
Talk to Us (and even hire us)
How many times have we seen mainstream media bring on legal analyst, political commentators and other pretentious so called professionals to discuss various topics on Islam, and Middle Eastern politics and yet all these people have the same thing in common; their WASPness. The Muslim community is rampant with more than qualified and brilliant young professionals among the academic, journalistic and political and legal fields however their services are never requested, or in fact, always denied.
This is painfully accurate particularly in the world of journalism. Rarely do we see a well-qualified guest brought to discuss the topics they know best, and even when they do, their time slots are shorter than advertisements on the network channels. The resources are out there and are beyond accessible, however truth is our institutions are refusing to utilize it.
Muslims are dominating these very fields that are discussed almost daily. When did you ever see a Syrian analyst speak about the conflict? Or how about a Palestinian speak, ever? Or a Muslim that wasn’t affiliated with an extremist group to discuss Islamic extremism? The very thought of reaching into a community to speak on their own affairs that isn’t an imam from a downtown mosque with a heavy accent (even though they have their wisdom and place) seems to be such a stretch that it’s become a comical irony.
The fact of the matter is Muslims will continue to be dehumanized, vilified and degraded as long as these practices of implicit and explicit racism continues. The worth of a human life is not defined by their color of their skin, the name of their religion or the place of their execution. Muslims are dying globally, from war crimes abroad and hate crimes at home, both circumstances that deserve recognition and grief. As Muslims continue to fight for their place in society, it is up to the mainstream media, corporate institutions and the US government to fulfill their due diligences to Americans in this country who happen to be Muslim. The current viewpoints on Islam will not change on its own. In order to prevent further atrocious hate crimes like the one at Chapel Hill, we must decrease the bigotry and racism fueled in our society with the help of these larger entities. American multiculturalism cannot and will not flourish if the Muslim community is not given proper recognition of their accomplishments and the opportunity to show the world who they really are as human beings.