Article published November 02, 2010
Maligning Muslims: The new chic
By MAHJABEEN ISLAM
Flying while Muslim used to be a personal ordeal. But when Juan Williams, the former National Public Radio analyst, talked about the “Muslim dilemma” with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, he thrust it to national attention — and added insult to injury.
Mr. Williams confessed to feeling nervous when he saw people in “Muslim garb” boarding planes. After he made those remarks, NPR fired him, saying his views “were inconsistent with NPR’s editorial standards and ... undermined his credibility as an analyst for NPR.” But he wasn’t unemployed long; Fox gave him a $2 million contract.
It’s a given that “Muslim garb” types, male or female, go through extra security. But my 23 and 24-year-old daughters, clad in jeans, were both pulled aside for checks before separate flights from the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., airport. Everyone picked for these “random” checks was brown or black.
Reports of men hauled off planes because their fellow passengers felt threatened are now common. Muslims are religiously mandated to pray five times a day; prayer on time earns you brownie points.
During travel, prayers are shortened to three times a day, and you can pray in your seat. But I wouldn’t dream of doing so on a flight, for fear of landing in jail.
Six imams sued after they were arrested in 2006 for praying in a public area. Although the flying imams won, and the judge in the case offered a scathing judgment of how the 15 security employees managed the situation, Muslim-Americans have taken heed.
My style now is cramped in all dimensions: spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual. My hair products can travel only in itsy-bitsy bottles. I cannot read Arabic or Urdu script on a flight.
Nor can I read The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a book by Tariq Ali, because its cover features an image of George W. Bush in a turban and beard and Osama bin Laden in a suit.
My brownness, my accent, my books, plus vigilante passengers — voila! The case is made and I might land in the arms of FBI agents.
Yet the issue is not just the profiling of Muslim passengers. Maligning Muslims everywhere is the new chic. When Mr. Williams tried to make it acceptable in national discourse, Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee were up in arms about the clipping of his free speech.
During the heated election campaign, national Tea Party leader Judson Phillips said Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) should be defeated as “the only Muslim member of Congress.” A Jewish or Mormon member of Congress could not be attacked with such impunity.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., summarized freedom of speech wonderfully: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
A black friend tried to be empathetic: “Sorry, but thank you for being the bad guys everyone loves to bash and laugh at now.”
Our nation must stay true to the vision of our Founding Fathers. We must protect our values and practice our principles. Maligning 7 million people — repeatedly — for the crimes of a handful endangers us even more.
What is classified as protected speech under the First Amendment? What conversation will shatter the already thin ice of our national calm? That is a debate we must have quickly and constructively.
We should not tolerate people who indulge in polarizing, maligning, and endangering speech and then offer excuses of various hues. The power of broadcast communication is beyond encapsulation, and the damage it can do is similarly exponential.
My co-religionists have damaged us the most. Depending on the viewer’s lens, we are perpetrators or victims. I’ve squashed my style and changed my ways, and I live in fearful anticipation.
And I see how the O’Reillys and Williamses promise to polarize America further.
Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician and firstname.lastname@example.org