I’m frightened, I’m frightening: I’m a Muslim in America

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PHOTO: AP

In the wake of the spate of global terror attacks, including the recent San Bernardino shooting in California, hateful rhetoric toward Muslim populations — residents, immigrants and refugees alike — has returned full force in the American media.

As I write these lines, TV presenters are spewing hate couched in nationalistic rhetoric and no one bats an eyelid.

Presidential candidates are free to outdo each other in inciting hatred by promising policies more ludicrous and extreme with each passing day, and they do so with full impunity.

As a Muslim and a South Asian, I see piercing eyes staring at me, simultaneously frightened and frightening at the same time.

I was not around to witness the Islamophobic rhetoric in the aftermath of 9/11, but in contemporary times, so powerful is the hate that it gives off an unwelcoming aura in the land of liberty and opportunity. In times such as these, the fact that Muslims who have made the United States their home — and made innumerable contributions to American society and economy — have earned every right to be here is simply lost.

The incoming Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq and other affected places by contrast are trapped in a situation with no escape and ask only for their human rights promised to universal populations but, in fact, applied extremely selectively in actuality.

At every turn these days, I’m witnessing in the US an ever-growing, repulsive cacophony that is drowning out the voices of reason.

I would not have spoken against the hateful rhetoric earlier, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of the small ways in which hate has grown, beyond the point where thick skin alone would not suffice to maintain the status quo.

The narrative around Islam is being hijacked while Muslims stand on the sidelines, too scared to speak a word, lest they be subjected to harsher treatments. It is with this in mind that I write these lines.

Much of the rising hate can be directly attributed to the Islamophobic rhetoric that is circulating the American airwaves in the guise of liberal morality, and I now realise that it is doubly important that Muslims stand up for themselves and reject the tyrannical, monolithic conceptions being imposed upon us.

Consequently, it is important to respond to the rhetoric if there is ever to be a hope of meaningful dialogue.

The rhetoric is problematic because first, its perpetrators all pretend to somehow understand Islam better than its practitioners. I cannot claim that all followers of Islam are an authority on the religion either but surely a lot is lost in translation when outsiders claim to understand the nuances of a religion that is multi-faceted and dynamic.

When hate-mongers and sympathisers come from similar backgrounds of ignorance, it is not entirely surprising to see the audience applaud stupidity and baulk at reason.

Second, the rhetoric is focused on ensuring that the primary image of Islam is put forth as a religion of violence and chaos, as if the more ‘peaceful’ of its followers are the exception.

It is unfortunate when TV presenters associate Islam with violence and atrocity in the first place, but it is even sadder to see sympathisers come to Islam’s rescue by quoting anecdotes from their lives that end up presenting the moderate people they have interacted with as few and far in between.

The truth is that just like any society, societies within various Muslim countries are composed of all kinds of people, some of which of course have a violent streak. But does that make the entire religion an ideology of mindless violence? Surely not.

Third, the rhetoric emphasises how Islamic values — perceived to be malignant and violent — are starkly different from the American creed. Before such claims can be analysed in detail, it would be helpful to understand precisely what those American values are.

Are the ‘liberal’ values that subjugated entire segments of society to a life of slavery and barbarity, American?

Or does the American creed comprise of values that ensure that marginalised sections of the American society, such as the poor, remain forever trapped in vicious cycles of alienation? I hope not.

So, if the American creed is defined by its focus on progress, growth and room for diversity, then why is it so easy for hate-mongers to somehow forget about all this when they are talking about Muslims?

Much in the same way that there is room for variations in the way ‘Americanism’ is practiced differently by different Americans, there exist all shades of personal interpretations and cultural manifestations of Islam within different countries as well.

So when Americans think about Muslims, they should allow room for doubt over the fact that the violence you see may be rooted in misinformed interpretations and crippling socio-economic grievances that have nothing to do with Islam.

Much in the same way that violent gun attacks or crimes related to race are automatically assumed to be non-representative of bigger populations in the US, it is only fair that us, Muslims, be given the benefit of doubt when it comes to reducing all of us to violent caricatures, devoid of aspirations, fears and deficiencies.

3916ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Syed Rashid Munir is a LUMS alumnus and an Erasmus Mundus Scholar, with degrees in Political Science and International Relations.

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