Recent events have re-ignited the flames of hatred and opposition between Muslims and non-Muslims living in the West. The effects of this tension on Muslims was displayed in an interview last summer between Yousef Munayyer and Sean Hannity in which Munayyer was expected to speak for terrorism and Hamas in the broadest senses of both. The absurdity of such a demand, and the implicit responsibility that comes with it, indicate the anxiety of the West to find a blameworthy candidate as soon as possible. But the focused pinning of the weight of that anxiety on individual Muslims is particularly noteworthy.
While the West’s focus on more recent events like Charlie Hebdo and the Copenhagen attacks at the expense of other tragedies worries me, the self-preserving attitude of the West is not my focus here; rather, I’m interested in the impact that this backlash has had on Muslim communities throughout the Western world, and how that impact has been manifested in the Muslim psyche and behavior.
As America’s fixation on terror continues to grow, the readily available wealth of information denouncing and demonizing Islam and Muslims grows with it. According to the Boston Herald, the facticity of Islam’s guilt in these terror attacks is on par with the claim that the Earth is not flat. The New York Times recognized the “chorus of critics” who are unified in their assuredness of the causative nature of Islam with regards to terrorism.
Perhaps most jarringly, the recent New York Post front cover, depicting President Obama blindfolded in the face of “Islamic terror,” normalized the sense of Islam’s obvious culpability in global conflict. Satirical imagery concretizes as universally recognized fact the content of symbolic images, lending this cover an especially dangerous quality: Its appearance constructs Islam’s guilt as a foregone conclusion.
Now, the claim that Islam itself is responsible for terrorism is ridiculous, but I am not interested in arguing against it here. Leaving aside the questions of proxy wars, American global hegemony, war crimes, torture, coups, and drone strikes, we are left with the familiar reality: the dominant American assumption is that Islam is responsible for global violence, terrorism, and extremism. Given this, the question becomes, How does the demonization of all Muslims affect the attacked party: namely, Muslims, particularly those directly subject to the demonization—that is, Western Muslims.
Western Muslims have to bear the burden of living under the scrutinizing spotlights of the media, their neighbors, and community members, most of whom view them with distrust. Moreover, Muslims who are American citizens live with constant anxiety and fear, knowing that those in power have the extrajudicial capability to not only arrest and detain them, but even to assassinate them or torture them. This consciousness necessitates a great deal of performance: under the forces of public scrutiny and the ever-looming threat of those in power identifying Muslims collectively as threats, Muslims must transform themselves and their lives into spectacles of peacefulness, kindness, and proper American-ness.
Witness the recent proliferation of television appearances by academics and other prominent officials who identify as American Muslims: Reza Aslan, Hussam Ayloush and many others have been called in to news shows and late night TV shows to defend Muslims from unfair generalizations and calls to open war. Aslan in particular noted that anyone who still asks why Muslims aren’t denouncing violent attacks “doesn’t own Google,” highlighting the prominence that these appearances have achieved. Many Muslims have also contributed to the defense of Islam in other media, including newspapers, journals, radio, and magazines.
But what does all of this media outpouring of Islamic apology say about us as a society? This outward manifestation indicates a deeper crack in modern society. Muslims in American society—but also in French, German, and other European societies—sense a stinging attack on their faiths and identities radiating from all around. These Muslims write and speak out in defense of their faith, in defense of Islam, and in defense of their own personal and collective right to exist and live as Muslims in Western nations.
But this urge seems to stem from our multicultural society’s implicit and explicit division of its members along racial and cultural lines, taken up and reified by those whom it exploits most viciously. Muslims speaking out against the New York Posts of the world have legitimized the dehumanization and adversarialization of Muslims. We’ve turned the attack on Islam into a discourse, into an actual sphere of thought. We’ve allowed the verbal and, far too often, physical, assault on Muslims to take on the appearance of a legitimate conflict between disparate intranational interests.
The effect of it all is, American Muslims who speak out against the essentialization of Islam into a violent religion of hate have already bought into the legitimacy of that claim, and reify it with their responses to it. Calls for Muslims to publicly denounce terrorist attacks already place the guilt and blame for terrorism on all Muslims. The default setting cannot be oppositional essentialization. We have to take off the shackles of Islamophobia and live—perhaps that is the only answer we need.