Since September 11th, Islam has become more prominent in the western world, and many misconceptions have been created surrounding the religion. While I originally was going to write my term paper on Islamic extremism, I decided instead to focus on how Islam is perceived in the west, and the bigotry Muslims have endured, due to the actions of Muslim extremists. Little did I know that after September 11th that I would be exposed to prejudice in a way that can not be defined in any textbook. So many people pointed their fingers at anyone of Arab descent and especially those who practiced Islam. But at the time nobody really knew the facts about Islam. America and the west judged too soon and is still judging without understanding. I feel that since the religion of Islam has become widely misunderstood by western people. We need to realize that just become someone is Muslim, does not mean they are associated with terrorism.
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Muslim women choose to cover up due to modesty and for their own self interests. The hijab is a seeming less innocent article of clothing, yet due to recent events, non-Muslims have come to view the hijab, and other Islamic coverings, as a symbol of fear, anti-Western beliefs, and oppression. “Scholars have argued that, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the United States, the enormity of 9/11 impelled religious identity to become even more central to an individual’s sense of self” (Moore 239). Now, a Muslim woman’s sense of self is coming under attack. After the events of September 11th, which were carried out by an Islamic extremist terrorist organization, the hijab became a more identifiable symbol of Islam and soon after society associated Islam with terrorism. The hijab “[became] a placeholder for the fears, concerns, and moral condemnations that we-those in the non- Muslim world-hold for other seemingly undecipherable practices ascribed to Islam and Muslims, ranging indiscriminately from the intimate integration of religion with political life, to suicide bombings, to jihad, to terrorism” (Sheth). Women who wear the hijab became a target for prejudice acts and slurs. It seemed week after week another attack against a Muslim woman took place because her decision to dress modestly, inadvertently associated her with the extremists and their attacks. As reported by The Chicago Activist, which is the Council on American Islamic Relations’s (CAIR) official newsletter, a Muslim woman was denied services at a Citibank in Gresham, IL, “the guard said it was against Citibank’s policy for customers to transact business wearing head coverings.” This was not the end of the guard’s attacks, he reportedly followed the woman to the counter and stood behind her during the entire transaction and “objected to the woman receiving service because it would encourage more of ‘them’ to come into the bank.” Sadly, this was not the first attack on a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, nor the last. Muslim woman have had to endure not only verbal attacks and discrimination, but physical attacks as well, all because of society’s ignorance in regards to a widely practiced religion.
Islamic veils have become so controversial in the western world, that entire countries have taken initiatives to ban the head coverings. Most recently, France is in the process of what has been deemed the burqa ban. Despite the fact that France has the highest population of Muslims in Western Europe with 10% of France’s population being Muslim, France is still pushing through to ban the religious garb (Giovanni). French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been quoted saying in regards to the proposed burqa ban that the burqa “will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic” (Crumley). The French Government has already banned girls from wearing the headscarf to schools in 2004 (Giovanni). Now in 2010, the French President has asked for a law to be drafted that bans the roughly 2,000 women of France who wear the burqa or niqab to not be allowed to wear such attire at public places. “The move reflects concerns in France that the proliferation of women wearing Islamic scarves and veils is both a sign of growing Muslim fundamentalism and an overt challenge to the nation’s fierce secular tradition” (Crumley).
Ariane Quentier who currently is a writer in France but has also worked in Afghanistan expressed to Giovanni why she is against the burqa, “I’m totally against the burqa itself because it’s a sign of domination of women,” she says. “My French female ancestors fought for females to be free, and it’s betraying them.” It is apparent that Quentier is not the only one who feels strongly against the burqa in France. According to a CNN video report, France Moves Towards Partial Burqa Ban, three out of five French feel the burqa should be banned, and those found still wearing the covering could face roughly a $1,000 fine. However, the majority of women who wear the burqa or hijab not only in France, but in other countries as well, do so because they want to wear it, not because they are forced to. In CNN’s video report, Mabrouka Boujnah, a woman living in France who wears the burqa, was interviewed. Boujnah argues, “You are going to isolate these women and then you can’t say that it is Islam that has denied them freedom, but that the law has.” Wearing a burqa does not make the 2,000 women in France, any less of a French citizen, nor does it represent an increase in fundamentalism in France.
Muslim women who choose to veil themselves, are not supporting extremism or anti-feminism, in fact Muslim women who cover up feel quite the opposite, “Many veiled women report feeling full of dignity and self-esteem and enjoy that their physical, personal self does not enter into social interactions. As a result, many veiled women consider the hijab a symbol of freedom and liberation from men” (Kayyali 80-81). In their book, The Arab Americans, Kayyali quotes a Muslim woman living in America and how the hijab is a form of freedom for her, “‘My husband didn’t make me dress this way, and I’m not oppressed. I’m set free – free from the bondage of fashion, clothes, hair, shoes and the like” (81).
Due to racial profiling and hurtful comments, thirty-two year old Jafumba Asad stopped wearing her traditional dark robe, “It’s bad enough just wearing a head scarf. Wearing full cover scares people,” says Asad. USA Today’s article, USA’s Muslims Under a Cloud, reported that even Muslims who were born and raised in America, still feel their religious freedom has its limit. Nahia Jahbid, who worked on the ABC Primetime’s social experiment referenced earlier, who also wears a hijab, talked about her experience in growing up Muslim in America. She has been called terrorist, towel head, and camel jockey and has been physically abused numerous times. Jahbid also pointed out that people automatically assume that she is not from here and not American, and when she tells them she is they respond back “just because you’re born here doesn’t make you American” so what does make you an American? It’s not only a daily battle for her, but thousands of other Muslims living in America today, and they should not be subjected to this. Society knows Muslims should not be treated any differently from other Americans, but so many harbor fears and mistrust. A USA Today/Gallup Poll reported that 39% of Americans favored requiring Muslims, including US citizens, to carry a special form of identification. Islamaphobia is now unfortunately part of western society’s psyche.
The hate against Muslims does not only pertain to women who choose to veil themselves either. Unfortunately, people are taking their fears to new illogical lows. In the summer of 2004, three Arab Americans wanted to build a mosque in unincorporated Orland Park. There was widespread panic, for residents felt the mosque would bring terrorism into the community and another 9/11. A documentary, “Eyes of the Beholder: The Orland Park Mosque Controversy” filmed the village meetings. At the meetings Muslims explained that they wanted to live in peace with their neighbors and have a place to pray but these remarks were meet with jeers, deprecating comments, and name calling although no Muslim who spoke at the meeting used any name-calling in return. Sadly, the village was presented a petition of 3,800 signatures against the mosque. The construction of The Prayer Center of Orland Park was finally approved by the village’s board of trustees, but it was not an easy task for suburban Muslims to undertake. However, the mosque did get built, and now a Qur’an Academy has been built next to the mosque.
Besides the attacks of September 11th, where else are non-Muslims gaining fear about the religion of Islam? In the book, Homeland Insecurity, Samia Kulthum argues that the media is doing nothing but adding to people’s fears, “There is always a negative association with Islam on the news. That is what has affected our lives the most” (28). Society needs to remember that everyone in America was affected by the tragic terrorist attacks on New York City, and after the attacks all Muslims seemed to come under interrogation. “The big event that happened, 9/11, changed things. Everything changed in our lives here. We never really had any problems, but through the media. The media are against Muslims. They only show Muslims as terrorists”(28).
The media can be seen as having a negative effect on the way Americans view Arabs. In Dr. Jack Shaheen’s book and movie, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Dr. Shaheen exploits how the movie industry projects Arabs as the villain or portrays them as baboons for cheap laughs. It is also pointed out that 25% of all Hollywood movies that demean Arabs contain derogatory slurs or have them as the butt of the joke. Even in children’s movies Arabs are portrayed as evil. Dr. Shaheen explains that Aladdin is praised as one of the best children’s film, but it recycles Arabian stereotypes. The protagonists Aladdin and Jasmine have no Arab characteristics and look as if they are simply tan Caucasians. But the villains such as Jaffard, his helper, and the palace guards have predominantly displayed Arab features and are the only ones in the movie with such features. The opening of Aladdin even starts with the lyrics, “Where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” We have grown up with these images as the Middle East being this place where evil dwells and grows. We have grown up with the image that if you’re from the Middle east then your Muslim; even though there are 20 million Christians in the Middle East. Dr. Shaheen expresses that words such as Arab and Muslim are perceived as threatening words, and if the words are threatening, what about the images in movies? It is morally and ethically wrong to demoralize a people the way Hollywood does.
America is supposed to be a safe place to live where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and has freedoms that cannot be found in other countries in the world. Yet, in recent years, American Muslims began to feel unsafe in the country they call home. The attacks that Muslims and Arabs alike have endured have harmed them psychologically according to Samir Kulthum, “I get scared that if something happens they will come attack us here in our home. We all know what happened to the Japanese in World War II. They were Americans. But they put them in camps” (Cainkar 29). Also interviewed in the book, Homeland Insecurity, Layla, a Palestinian American Attorney argues that a lot of times it appears that you are only welcome in America, as long as you do not seem to have association with the Middle East, “It seems like you can live here as long as you blend in with the rest of us but if there is something that identifies you, it’s a stigma, we don’t want it here. I think most people are tolerant once they get to know you. But I hate the word ‘tolerance.’ That should not be our goal. It should be compassion and understanding. We need to go further” (38).
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Muslims across America have endured hateful remarks or feelings of isolation and fear in their own country, but it has not ended there. There have been cases across the nation where Arab Americans, even those who are not Muslim, have faced racial discrimination in the workplace, due to the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, or because of the sound of their name. Recently, Chicago’s chapter of The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR – Chicago), defended Abraham Yasin against the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, and made history when CAIR – Chicago won the legal case Yasin v. Sheriff of Cook County, because it was the first time in the U.S. a non-for-profit Muslim organization was the primary attorney on a major jury litigated case and won the case. According to the article in CAIR-Chicago’s 2009 Annual Report, Yasin was harassed by his fellow officers for years and was called names like terrorist, shoe bomber, bin Laden, sand ni**er, and camel jockey in person or over the radio and telephone at work. The Internal Affairs Division of the police department failed to take action despite the numerous reports Yasin gave to the department and his supervisors. Yasin contacted twelve attorneys prior to CAIR – Chicago, but no one would go up against the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, except for CAIR. Yasin won his case and received $200,000 in damages for harassments. Another workplace experience where a Muslim was exposed to prejudice was with Layla’s cousin who after they were hired and about to go through their training for the job was fired, but then told if she did not wear the hijab, Layla’s cousin could keep her position, “No one tells Christians to take off their crosses or Jews to take off their yarmulke” (Cainkar 41). This is a valid point, it is very rare to hear of an incident in America where someone at work is told they cannot wear a necklace with a cross on it. Since America is a country founded on the basis of religious freedom, there should never be religious discrimination not only in the workplace, but in society as well. Our ancestors all came here for the same reason, freedom.
Looking on a larger scale, even Barak Obama has experienced bigoted remarks against Islam, and he’s not even Muslim. According to an article in New York Times, “Obama and the Bigots,” whispering campaigns alleged that Obama was a secret Muslim planning to impose Islamic law on the United States and was even accused of being the Antichrist. The rumors circulating that Obama is a Muslim are not only inaccurate but also bring up the question “So what if he were?” A Los Angeles Times poll in 2006 found that 66% of respondents would not vote for a Muslim president. Many Americans see Obama’s respect for Islam as confirmation that he is a Sunni terrorist and is part of a terrorist back up plan that is if you can’t reach the Whitehouse with a hijacked plane, then storm the Oval office through the ballot box. During the election Hillary Clinton was asked in a TV interview whether Obama is a Muslim, she denied it firmly but then added at the end of her statement, “as far as I know.” Members of the Republican Party have tried to connect Obama to terrorism and are quoted as saying, “well you know Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” On Meet the Press, Collin Powell spoke against the claim saying that Obama is a Christian and always has been, but Powell also brought up the question what if Obama was a Muslim? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? As Powell said, “The answer is no, that’s not America. There shouldn’t be something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim kid thinking he can be president.” Throughout the election the references to “Barack Hussein Obama” and the lies of him going to a madrassa, as well as the controversial New Yorker cover are all the religious equivalent to racial slurs, and Obama is not even Muslim. However, in the political world, progress has been made in regards to Muslims holding office. In the 2007 Minnesota election the first Muslim was elected into Congress, and a Christian/ Jewish community elected him, and there are now two Muslims holding office in Congress.
Luckily, our court system has been standing up in helping eliminate the bigotry against Islam in America. In April 2006, 18-year-old David Huffman was prosecuted for battery after nearly pulling off a Muslim woman’s headscarf. Instead of paying a fine or jail time, Huffman was instead ordered to undergo tolerance education training at CAIR – Chicago. Huffman spent 40 hours listening and talking to Muslims, attending a 9/11 event and visiting area mosques, which before he thought were called synagogues. By the end of his training Huffman came to understand the religion and came to see that his previous opinions were because he never knew a Muslim.
The major problem of the bigotry towards Islam in America is that the majority of Americans are uneducated on the issue, and do not understand that there is more to Islam than what is negatively portrayed in the media. The article America’s Muslim Problem, posted on guardian.co.uk, brings up the point that the terrorists do not represent the true face of Islam any more than pedophilic clergy represent true Christianity. Many are blind to the fact that Islam has laid the major foundation for our western civilization from preserving the writings of the ancient Greeks to laying the scientific foundations for modern surgery and the microchip. Even everyday when we see numbers we use Arabic numbers, not the roman numerals. Yet Americans chose to ignore these facts, and still choose to be prejudice against Arabs. People founded America to escape religious persecution and still come to America today for that very reason. America was not founded as a Christian nation with a specific church, but was founded as a free nation where all can worship as they please. Our founders choice of a free nation means that there is noting incompatible about being a Muslim and an American so why do so many citizens make it a battle for those Muslim Americans every day? Amal Abusumayah who was attacked for wearing her hijab once said, “I tell them [people], ignoring it won’t solve anything, it’ll perpetuate the problem. The only way to stop discrimination is to stand-up and fight it.”
Islam is not a faith defined by political agendas. It needs to be understood that the extremist terrorist actions do not reflect the collective mindset of 1.3 billion people. No religion is exempt from terrorism. Roughly 1,200 Muslims were killed by the attacks on September 11th. I found a moving picture and article during my research in which Colin Powell spoke about a picture of a mother over her son’s grave at Arligton Cemetary. Her son received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He died while defending his country of America overseas in Iraq. On his head stone there is no cross or Star of David, instead there is the crescent and star of Islam. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan was 14 years old when 9/11 struck and the empowerment to protect his country lead him straight to serving in the armed forces where he died defending his lady America.
The bigotry against Islam in the west is a major problem facing Muslims today. All of Islam should not be condemned for the acts of radical Islam terrorist groups, just like all Irish Catholics should not be condemned for the acts of Timothy McVeigh. By spreading understanding of the religion of Islam, hopefully more people will not see Islam or Muslims in a negative or fearful light, and understand that terrorist organizations do not define the entire Muslim population.
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