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A View On Just Some Reasons For The Anti-Muslim Backlash In The US (originally published in 2002)
Alhamdulillah wa salaat wa salaam 'alaa Rasoolihi wa ba'd As a boy, I used to watch a lot of Popeye the Sailorman cartoons. I'll always remember one where Popeye - as usual - had to fight his arch nemesis Bluto but this time Bluto was Ali Bluto or something, the leader of the Forty Thieves. Of course Bluto was - as usual - his nasty bearded self and Popeye mopped him up - as usual - after a can of spinach. This was probably one of a long line of caricatures of Arabs or 'Moslems' I absorbed growing up as have many Americans over the years. It did not consciously register to me at the time however, that any particular ethnic group or religion was being portrayed. I didn't think of it really either when watching a corny movie where Hollywood heartthrob Tony Curtis played an Aladdin type character who had to win the hand of the sultan's daughter. There was a lot of praising "Ala", funny gestures of greeting and departure, and of course beautiful girls in diaphanous belly-button revealing outfits which I imagine was very hot stuff way back then. The American comedic legend, Johnny Carson, who for a quarter of a century was a staple of American television, used to periodically do a comic bit in a gigantic turban as "Karnak", a sort of Guru Eastern Holy man composite. He would make outlandish predictions along with imaginative hilarious curses that had me and half of America laughing in bed. Of course there were Aladdin and Crusader movies, and plenty more cartoons and caricatures through the ages, most recent being very popular animations, computer games - and let's not forget - the violent bad-guys that Hollywood heroes like "Ahnuld" and others blow away right and left. Is the film "The Siege" forgotten or are video rentals up? There have been television episodes like the one where a Pakistani man was convicted of murder because he allegedly knew if he sent his American wife to Pakistan to visit his brother's family to "reconnect" and rethink her life after he learned she had committed adultery, that his brother would kill her as an "act of honor" (of course it makes no sense but that‟s the point). There was the other thankfully defunct show where a sexually frustrated veiled woman undresses and demands that the male object of her lust "make her into a woman". Even science fiction is full of references taken directly from religious philosophies including Islam which are inserted in story lines that often go right over the heads of most people unless they are familiar and looking for them. However, certain themes and characteristics stick in the mind and enter the heart. Allah only knows what ugly caricatures Hollywood has in store. In many places, it is already bad enough that anyone with a beard is suspect. Certainly, veiled women cannot be trusted! I mean, who knows what they have under all that? Now photos and profiles of beardless hijackers make EVERYONE suspect! It is sad to think that any Muslim or his family may be in danger or harassed for outwardly looking like Muslims in their own country. It is also sad that many Muslims in America and elsewhere have chosen to discard any outward signs of being Muslims. It is ironic that those who do so are nevertheless still victims of harassment and attacks. Americans (and others) have for years largely been blocked from, or not exposed to, the full human picture of who and what Muslims are in reality, nor what they believe nor what they have suffered. I learned virtually nothing factual about Muslims or Arabs in my school days and whatever I studied was so insignificant that I forgot it all. I mostly remember the negative stereotypes or statements. Americans and many other westerners have been fed a steady diet of Muslims as radicals, fanatics, backwards, anti-modernity, and ready to die for any old wild-eyed preacher/fanatic. They are told religious Muslim intellectuals or Islamic scholars are all fools stuck in the 6th century. In the last thirty or so years (especially since the Oil Crisis, Iranian Revolution, Gulf War, embassy bombings and now September 11) they have been led to believe that Islam is a threat to all the values they hold dear with no distinctions made between what Islam says is destructive or constructive among them. There has up until now largely been no serious consideration or study of Islam, except in specialized circles. Few
people, including "expert" analysts seem to possess a really clear and accurate understanding or analysis of the Muslim world or it is tainted with biases and agendas. Americans have been largely prevented from or uninterested in seeing the horror that is life for Muslims living in refugee camps or as victims of mass slaughter and blocked from hearing and seeing the lives and stories of those who have lived through or seen the disease, torture and mutilation of their brethren because advertisers don't want their company's ads next to such pictures, among other reasons. They have been largely denied hearing the personal accounts of what it is like to be maimed or have loved one killed by American arms or chemicals since that would be unpatriotic, but certainly shown many images of the horror of others' pain and sorrow and the details thereof. Of course, there are exceptions to this and major news organizations and communications technology have brought a lot of things to the attention of the world that have helped to bring about more awareness and change attitudes for the better, but it obviously has not been enough, and is in danger of all being forgotten in the heat and rhetoric of war. The West, and particularly Americans, more easily get the graphic details of crimes both actually and allegedly committed by Muslims. Rarely do they hear of the many acts of charity, courage, enterprise etc. that are a daily occurrence among Muslims and even part of their principles, so they don't believe it even exists or they are so surprised when they find out they do. This in combination with Muslims spontaneous - but perhaps misdirected - expressions of joy at others pain are repeatedly televised while the thousands of others who see it as an inappropriate display and who relate to the pain of the slaughter, are not. While certain cultures are often portrayed as noble, dignified, or progressive, Muslims have been thoroughly demonized and Islamic culture has long been portrayed as an ancient, irrelevant, passé and even repressive civilization that only deserves a shelf on in the Eastern Philosophies section of the bookstore or library. At least that may be changing now since bookstores cannot keep enough books about Islam, Muslims or even translations of the Qur'aan (Koran) on their shelves. How many more negative portrayals or images can I recall? Plenty...but you get the point. Arabs or Muslims are by no means alone in being negatively portrayed as void of worthwhile human values. Racial stereotyping has a long and sordid history in America that no one can deny. Regardless of how many Americans personally find it repugnant, the influence of these images nevertheless persists. How long were American Indians portrayed as howling savages, African Americans as unintelligent, criminal and violent, Chinese-Americans as sniveling thieves, Italian-Americans as gangsters, Hispanic-Americans as slow and lazy, Irish-Americans as drunkards, Japanese-Americans as... you name it? Many groups or ethnicities have been targeted and widely accepted to be as stereotyped and some still haven't totally gotten beyond that negative historical portrayal, although things have gotten better, with the exception of… No doubt the images and sounds of Sept. 11 and since have left a bigger impact than all of that put together as far as Arabs or Muslims are concerned. The cumulative impact of it all has had terrible results. The worst images have been forever solidly cemented in the minds of millions. Should it then be any surprise as to why hostile reactions are directed at Muslims, Arabs, Eastern looking people or the idea persists that Islam has something inherent in its ideology that leads to mayhem? I once heard a radio interviewer allude to this in a question to a Muslim. I was hoping the Muslim would respond, "Your inference and question are misdirected at the outset. For example, would you not find it offensive for me to ask 'What is it as a white person that makes you inherently racist, or as a Jew that makes you inherently oppressive, or as a Black person inherently criminal, or as a Christian inherently violent?! We all know what the reaction to that would be!” On the other side of the coin, there was and is no dearth of comments from us like, "...they are all disbelievers and they just want to take us out of our religion", "They all hate us", "Their women can neither cook or take care of a house but they are easy to give themselves to any man", "They are a
violent society of drug addicts, rapists and criminals", etc. I knew several Muslims and Arabs who were long ago (pre-9/11) deathly afraid of going to America, not from any religious objections, which may be quite legitimate, as much as fear of being physically assaulted! How about now? Maybe the steady flow of sensational popular fare and images of Americans or westerners - also made in Hollywood I might emphasize - as being all-white, all-powerful, extremely violent, cunning, immoral worshippers of drugs, sex and rock and roll can account for more than a fair share of these perceptions. The fact is, as one educator put it on a radio show, "I know a lot of people, and not a single one of them knows ANYTHING about Islam!". He himself went on to ask a question that revealed his own knowledge was very limited, yet he was tasked with giving LECTURES to others about Islam! So many people really had no opinion for or against Muslims or Arabs unless it was given to them. Think about it. Correspondence sent to an Islamic website by an "average Joe" kind of puts it all in perspective. He wrote, after reading words of explanation similar to those above he wrote: “Wow! That was pretty deep. I am beginning to understand a little more. I don't think that Americans (most) would ever intentionally attempt to dehumanize other people (perhaps he doesn't watch TV or go to the movies). I just think that the Middle East is so far away and so different to America, that it is not a reality to us. I think that many Americans are ignorant of Middle Easterners because they are simply not interested and therefore we blow them off like they are not there. Sept 11th changed all that. Now rather than ignoring the Middle Easterners, many Americans hate Middle Easterners! I think that this is exactly what whoever did this wants!! It seems that they want westerners to use their ignorance against themselves ... It seemed as though my only worries were getting a college education and finding a good job. I would occasionally hear of bombings and hijackings around the world and say to myself 'man that is really F'd up!' I would feel bad for those people for a brief moment, then move on to my own concerns. Obviously those types of things affect one more the closer they are to home, because they become closer to reality.” Indeed. An effect of ignorance of others is that we exaggerate about them or underestimate them or their value as human beings or their capacity to possess as much intelligence, human feeling, ambition or any other virtue we believe ourselves to be our own. How arrogant or unjust it is to discount or demonize the entire civilization, culture, faith and history of a people and undervalue their invaluable contributions to the world? When people are demonized, their beliefs and culture minimized, marginalized and negatively caricatured, they become 'dehumanized' and we can believe what we want about them or just ignore them as irrelevant. It excuses us for whatever we do or whatever attitude we have towards them. For a bigot, it only takes an element of truth that is present in all stereotypes or a corroborating action by one in the group they dislike to justify judging all of them as being the same. This can create a mind set where ignorant rage can be aimed against anyone they think to be one of „them‟. Such persons, due to ignorance, are often quite incapable of making any distinctions between people and employing fairness matters little to them anyway - even if they are seeming "intellectual" or "responsible" people. September 11 and succeeding events, may have done the trick of convincing the average intelligent person who may not have had any particular stance or opinion regarding Islam or Muslims. We pray that clear thinkers whose minds and hearts can rise above that cumulative effect will win the day and it is in Allah we put our trust. Abdul-Qaadir Abdul-Khaaliq
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