The Objectification of Muslims in America

In the wake of terrorist attacks, the United States shows the worst of its everyday bigotry.

A displaced Syrian girl protests outside of the United Nations in New York City in 2013. (Adrees Latif / Reuters)

The first Muslims who came to the United States were likely African slaves. Later, in the middle of the 19th century, Muslims emigrated from the territories that would become Syria and Lebanon and settled in places like Ohio and Michigan. They arrived around the same time as many Jews from Eastern Europe, and just a few decades after many Catholics came from Ireland.

And yet, discussions about Muslims in the United States are not the same as most discussions of Catholics or Jews or other religious minorities. It has been a little more than a week since the attacks in Paris, claimed by the Islamic State; it has been two days since attacks in Mali, in which hostages were reportedly asked to recite the Shahada, Islam’s testament of faith, in order to be let go. This kind of extreme violence seems to serve as the unspoken backstory for public comments by politicians and articles in the media. Muslims—whether they’ve been in the U.S. for generations or for just a few years; whether they’re white or South Asian or of Arab descent; whether they’re practicing or lapsed or somewhere in between—are often considered as a mass, and mostly in relation to terrorism.

This elision has tangible consequences. Donald Trump suggests that all Muslims in the U.S. should be registered, apparently in all seriousness. Congress moves to halt assistance and resettlement for refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Communities from Houston to Tampa to Omaha report threats and defacement of mosques. Students experience Islamophobia on their campuses. Passengers refuse to get on flights with people who look Muslim. Ben Carson likens violent extremists to “rabid dogs.”

It’s easy, and probably politically savvy, to wave away anti-Muslim sentiment with rhetoric about security and radicalization, as almost all the GOP presidential candidates have done. But the backlash against Muslims isn’t a temporally limited flare-up, tied only to recent violence and set to die down once the memories of Paris fade. No matter how tightly they wrap themselves in the American flag, Muslims are largely seen as other in the United States—not just now, but all the time.

Changing the way Islam is seen and represented in American culture is difficult, though, particularly because Muslims are often tokenized and twisted into a predictable set of narratives. In the wake of the Paris attacks, for example, the debates followed predictable forms: Is ISIS Islamic, or is it not? Should Muslims push back against extremism more than they have been—a challenge posed not by Republican politicians, but by President Obama?

Even apparently silly examples can sting. “One video that recently popped up that was really problematic for me … was the BuzzFeed video series, ‘I’m Muslim, But...’” said Laila Alawa, one of the co-founders of an opinion and news site called Coming of Faith. In the video, which has gotten more than 30 million views on Facebook, people stand up and say things like, “I’m Muslim, but I’m not a terrorist,” or “I’m Muslim, but I love Jews.” Alawa said she saw a lot of Muslims sharing the video. “They were excited by a media outlet that was giving them a chance to speak with their voices. But was still in essence silencing every other thing about them. When you’re saying ‘I’m Muslim, but,’ it’s like saying, ‘I’m a drug dealer, but...’”

This video is a mild, Millennial version of the Muslim public guilting that has come out in waves since the Paris attacks—Muslims performatively identifying and defying the blatant stereotypes about their religion, no matter how little their beliefs or communities or actions resemble one another’s. In every version of this performance, whether urgent or relatively anodyne, there is a genuine question. Should shared religious beliefs create a sense of responsibility, such that Muslims are expected to be the loudest voices in publicly protesting Islamist terrorism—especially when those beliefs are only distantly shared, as the vast majority of Muslims loudly deny the Islamic State’s interpretation of the Koran?

Alawa says no. “I don’t believe in apologizing [for] or condemning the actions of people who are, frankly, pieces of shit who happen to call themselves Muslims,” she said. Islam, like most religions, is not centralized and standardized; just because one group draws certain lessons from a set of texts doesn’t mean other groups believe and practice anything similar. The beliefs of ISIS are antithetical to American democracy; that does not mean Islam is as well.

“I think that coming out and publishing an apology recognizes that we’re not a part of the American diaspora,” Alawa said, “and instead tells America that we’re still not a part of it.”

“I don’t believe in apologizing or condemning the actions of people who are, frankly, pieces of shit who happen to call themselves Muslims."

Muslims are fundamentally not American, or need to prove themselves American: This is the latent idea lurking in most calls for Muslims to speak out or do some self-searching or acknowledge that ISIS also draws from Islamic texts. It is the basis for rejecting Muslim refugees, no matter how deftly politicians try to hide behind the excuse of “security.” And it is the dog whistle behind rhetoric from Trump, Carson, and others—Americans should fear Muslims, no matter how diverse and radically different from ISIS most members of that group may be.

It is, in a word, bigotry, and while it’s clearly visible right now, it is an every day fact of Muslim identity in American life. Alawa is one woman, representing one perspective, who is trying in a small way to make a different public space for Muslims in America. At Coming of Faith, she is amplifying and cultivating a cohort of young, female, mostly minority writers—including a significant number of Muslims who “just happen” to practice Islam. “My devious plan is for us to repackage our name [and] keep growing. People have already forgotten that we started out as mostly Muslim,” she said. They will be writers who can choose not to talk about extremism, because it is basically irrelevant to who they are and what they believe.