Muslim Americans Should Reject the Politics of Normalcy

Muslim Americans cannot prevent discrimination by trying to blend in.

People take photos of each other before a group prayer session for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., September 12, 2016.  (Stephanie Keith / Reuters )

It seems like every day, there is a new story involving Muslim Americans being kicked off of planes, harassed online, assaulted on the street, or worse. With news of each new terrorist attack perpetrated by extremists in the United States and abroad, Islamophobia is on the rise. Donald Trump has made suspicion of American Muslims a pillar of his campaign, and discussions of blanket bans and religious tests for immigrants have become so regular as to be mundane.

Muslims thus feel obligated to broadcast their all-American identity, whether by disguising their foreign-sounding names, changing their appearances, avoiding their native tongues, or obscuring their religious affiliations. Increasingly, Muslim Americans feel the need to make themselves appear as “normal” as possible by white, Christian standards. Whether through donning a hijab or appearing to speak Arabic, openly existing as Muslim has material consequences. Muslims thus attempt to combat Islamophobia by simply blending in. But true acceptance for Muslims will only come when those Muslims who wear their religious differences openly are seen as being just as American as those whose choices hew closer to the norm.

There is a parallel between the situation of American Muslims and the standards of “respectability” often demanded of African Americans. In order to deter discrimination or even violence, some black Americans have sought to present themselves a certain way by dressing, speaking, or behaving in ways that put white people at ease––in other words, they go out of their way to try to command the kind of respect whites can expect by default.

Many Muslims have been through this experience. Blacks make up one-third of the American Muslim population; they shoulder the double burden of prejudice based on both the color of their skin and their religious beliefs. But for black Americans, respectability politics have proven fruitless in tearing down the racism, both structural and personal, that they continue to face. Appearing “respectable” does not challenge society to actually reconsider its perceptions, it simply reinforces them. Prejudice persists, and the performance hinders black Americans’ ability to exist freely, encouraging not the abandonment of stereotype but the idea of exceptions to the rule. This experience should serve as a warning that Muslims’ efforts may be better spent elsewhere, rather than trying to adjust their behavior to suit their critics.

A pair of videos provides a quick glimpse into what making Muslims appear “normal” often looks like, as well as the problems these efforts can create. The clips, from BuzzFeed and the filmmaker Tara Miele, feature diverse Muslim Americans describing themselves with declarations such as, “I’m Muslim, but I’m not angry,” “I’m Muslim, and I love dancing,” “I am a human, I am a mom,” and “I actually, like, really love Christmas movies.”

While these clips may be designed to give Muslims a face and voice, they do so in a way that can undermine their aim.The videos include few traditional or conservative Muslims whose dress, accents, or descriptors are far from the norm. The implication that these Muslims are “normal” by American standards allows little space for Muslims who are not “normal”—even if that just means they don’t like Christmas movies. The Americanness of Muslims should not be predicated on their ability to blend in.

One of several response videos, which itself went viral, specifically critiques the mollifying aspect of these videos, preferring to assert political differences many Muslims may have. One participant sums up the response well: “I’m Muslim, but I don’t need to prove my loyalty to you or anyone else.”

Partway through Miele’s “Meet a Muslim” video, the participants speak about how fearful they have become. That can be a powerful motivation for wanting to appear “normal” to non-Muslims: At a time when hate crimes against Muslims are at a 15-year high, some feel they must employ all the tools at their disposal to protect themselves and those they love. Rather than attempting to expand the American norm to include Muslims of all stripes, the narrow standard for American normalcy is maintained.

Muslim youth who have grown up in the shadow of 9/11 often make a point of highlighting the rappers, athletes, and other celebrities who share their religion. Amid the constant criticism and threats, they might see figures like Lupe Fiasco and Dave Chappelle as evidence that young Muslims have a place in American culture; it’s proof that their way of life is something someone cool or influential would buy into, and that they aren't weird. Muhammad Ali’s death last June had the thinnest of silver linings: For a moment, America remembered that a black Muslim man could be a hero, one who was unapologetic about the way his religion and race imbued his actions with purpose.

Muslim women especially feel the burden to appear normal. Often, they are called upon to fit the Western image of a modern woman. With all the negative assumptions they face about their religion, they must actively assert their lack of oppression, rather than simply living it out in their daily lives. They may feel the need to minimize any complaints about their own Muslim communities so they do not add fire to accusations that Islam is uniformly hostile to women.

The hijab, a veil worn by some Muslim women, is perhaps the most obvious symbol of Muslim identity, and can therefore lead to discrimination and even violence. The decision to wear a hijab places a target on one’s back. Women like the Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, along with a plethora of fashion bloggers and Instagram stars, incorporate hijab into their daily, public lives, which will hopefully help to normalize the veil and reduce the risk other women face.

A recent, high-profile attempt to normalize American Muslims came in July at the Democratic National Convention. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of the Purple Heart recipient Humayun Khan, attempted to counter Donald Trump’s Islamophobia by talking about their son’s military service and death in Iraq. The gesture seemed to say, “Muslims are Americans because they, too, will fight and die in our wars." Yet it is as American to join the army as it is to oppose and protest these wars. The Khans’ contribution was great and their platform deserved, but they cannot offer a standard for all American Muslims.

If Trump’s attacks on the Khans are any indication, the speech did little to truly normalize or humanize Muslims in the eyes of those whose minds have been made up against them. While many who are not usually particularly friendly to Muslims came out to support the Khans, surveys show that many Americans share Trump’s suspicion of Muslims. In such a climate, even the ultimate sacrifice, and the ultimate display of American patriotism, managed to draw a backlash.

That seems to be the fate of all Muslims’ efforts to blend in: rejection. These efforts can only bring exhaustion, along with the loss of distinctive elements of Muslim culture. Only by organizing politically, asserting themselves in the most American way of all, can they hope to make their true voice heard and eventually ensure their relative safety. They should not be afraid of displaying their customs, views, or practices that may appear different.

Muslims should not shy away from the fact that their religion is different from the norm of their supposedly secular country. Rather, they must demand that their country accepts them as they are, for all the contributions they make, even if that means failing to look, sound, and act like what America has deemed “normal”.