Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Islamophobia (page 1 of 2)

Maine newspaper apologizes for acknowledging Muslims are human

from Jillian C. York
to rconnor@pressherald.com
date Tue, Sep 14, 2010 at 3:27 PM
subject Shame on you for issuing an apology!

Dear Mr. Connor:

As a researcher of the media and its interplay with the Internet, I am ashamed of your paper’s actions in regard to the apology you issued after complaints arose from a photograph you published that showed Muslims peacefully praying.

The way I see it is this: Your paper did the right thing by marking the end of Ramadan for your local Muslim community. Kudos to that, but that’s where my praise ends. What follows is this: You got some letters from bigoted “real Americans” who took offense at the very existence of Muslims in your community, and rather than defend those Muslims–who are both American and a very real part of your community–you took a different route, apologizing for treating them as equal human beings.

Mr. Connor, it seems that you–like many Americans who claim to be well-meaning–have fallen prey to the latest, rather insipid form of racism (yes, I know Muslims aren’t a race, but that doesn’t matter) penetrating this country. By apologizing to your mostly white constituency, you are essentially stating that your version of “American” is in fact more American than your Muslim citizens.

Shame on you and the Portland Press Herald.

Most Sincerely,

Jillian C. York

This isn’t fear, this is hate.

Not too long ago, at the late end of a conference day in some faraway country, I was having a beer with a journalist whose work (and choice of journalistic employers) I respect.  Palestine being much the topic of the day, our conversation started there and quickly evolved into media bias and American perceptions of the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims.

Though we tended to agree on media biases for the most part, my counterpart felt that human perception, American perception, was not so skewed.  He explained that, in his experience, mostly in the Midwest, he’d never come across anti-Arab or anti-Muslim rhetoric; that people were more likely to be completely ignorant of the Israeli-Palestinian issue than take one side or the other, and that he thought I was taking it too far.

I thought about his words for a long time; he was honest about his experience, and his truth wasn’t that far from mine: Neither growing up, nor now, have I heard many anti-Muslim sentiments. Sure, I’ve heard the ol’ “free the women from the veil” rhetoric, and support for the war, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen firsthand the kinds of sentiment we’re now seeing in the media.   That’s what makes it so shocking to me.

One in five Americans thinks Obama is a Muslim. 61% oppose an Islamic cultural center in an historically Muslim neighborhood. 56% view Islam unfavorably. Three months after that particular conversation in that faraway land, I’m left wondering: Who are these people? Three months after that evening, and I don’t think my conversation partner could have been more wrong.

“Islamophobia” was an accurate term immediately after 9/11.  However unjustified, people were afraid, and Islam was an easy target.  There were lots of questions from many different people, myself included, about what had caused people do something so horrific.  The study of Arabic immediately began to increase in the U.S.  Study abroad programs to the Middle East and North Africa picked up rather quickly (I did mine in 2004, just three years later).  People wanted to understand (they also wanted to join forces with the government against our “enemies,” but there’s only so much one can fit into a single blog post).

And then a curious thing happened: The word “jihad” seemed to enter everyone’s vocabulary.  Suddenly everyone was an expert on Islam, and the more you expressed hatred of it, the further you seemed to go in counterterrorism circles, journalism (see: Fox), and conservative politics (see: most of ’em).

Cut to 2010, and with the simultaneous dumbing down of America comes the rapidly increasing hatred toward Muslims, most of which can be deemed straight up racism. The identity of “Muslim” has always been a fairly racialized one, applying in the United States mainly to Arab, South Asian, and Black communities, and taking on racial characteristics (the inimitable Fatemeh Fakhraie has an excellent piece on the racialization of Muslims here). Muslims are painted in the media with one brush: they are the turbaned or veiled brown-skinned Other, shouting in the (Arab) street. They are dirty-footed brown skinned children lobbing rocks at the civilized (insert-your-country-here) military. Muslim identity in the United States (and certainly elsewhere) has become racialized and the sentiments expressed against Muslims of late is racism.

Thus, what’s happening today can no longer be described as “Islamophobia”, it is no longer an accurate term. People aren’t scared of Muslims, they flat-out hate them. They hear shrieks from the likes of Sarah Palin and Pamela Geller and come running, machetes “blood-dripped” “Sharia” signs in hand, ready to “fight the good fight.”

Image: New York Times

But what exactly are these people fighting? Sharia? Islamic values? Brown people? Whatever Fox news told them to? In one photograph, a protester is seen wearing a Confederate flag on his shirt, a fact which leads me to believe that a) these protesters are not New Yorkers and b) they’re, as I said before, just plain racist.

As Glenn Greenwald so aptly puts it, this “mosque” debate is not simply a distraction. Rather, it is bringing to light vicious hostilities that a large percentage of the American public holds toward Muslims. As Greenwald says, “The Park51 conflict is driven by, and reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority — one that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both domestically and internationally.”

I leave you not with my own thoughts (which are, in sum: I support my Muslim brothers and sisters and fear for my country) but with the words of none other than Dick Cavett, whose New York Times column left a smile on my face:

I remain amazed and really, sincerely, want to understand this. What can it be that is faulty in so many people’s thought processes, their ethics, their education, their experience of life, their understanding of their country, their what-have-you that blinds them to the fact that you can’t simultaneously maintain that you have nothing against members of any religion but are willing to penalize members of this one? Can you help me with this?

stuff white people do: mistake greeks for arabs, arabs for muslims, and muslims for terrorists

This is just a little something the wonderful Macon D of anti-racism blog stuff white people do allowed me to guest post over there…For those of you who may have missed it.


Last week, a few days after the horrific events of Fort Hood, a Marine reservist in Florida mistook a visiting Greek Orthodox priest for a “terrorist” and beat him with a tire iron.  The reservist (who was indeed white) made all sorts of wild claims — that the priest yelled “Allahu Akbar,” that he made a lewd hand gesture. . . claims that have been widely refuted.

What really happened is this: The Greek priest, Father Alexios Marakis, was visiting Florida for the purpose of blessing another priest.  He got lost while driving, and pulled over to ask for help.  He was dressed in a robe and did not speak English very well, so the Marine, Jasen Bruce (who is sticking to his story and refuses to apologize) got freaked out and beat the crap out of him.

Because he looked like a terrorist.
Which really means he looked Muslim.
Which really means he looked “Arab.”
Which really means he looked different, and that scares white people.

I don’t know exactly what it is about white Americans. . . I can say, from anecdotal personal experience, that Europeans and other white people traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa often make silly orientalist comments, and I’m fully aware of the idiotic British BNP (and other European right-wing parties) that would happily rid Europe of all Muslims. However, there seems to be a special kind of ignorance amongst white Americans when it comes to Muslims and Arabs.  It goes something like this:

1. They don’t know the difference between “Muslim” and “Arab.” Remember last year during one of McCain’s town hall meetings when a middle-aged white woman objected to Obama by saying, “but he’s-he’s-an ARAB!”?  It was obvious to many of us that what she really meant to object to was his religion — after all, it was part of the zany right-wing public debate at the time — but instead she just somehow got confused and cried “Arab.”  You know, because it doesn’t really matter right?  Which brings us to McCain’s response . . . “No, he’s not, ma’am, he’s a DECENT family man.” As if being an “Arab” disqualifies a man from being a decent family man.  Which leads to:

2.  They think “Muslim” and “good person” are mutually exclusive. McCain was quite aware that the woman meant to say “Muslim” and yet chose to defend Obama not just by saying “No, ma’am he’s not,” but also by feeling compelled to add “he’s a decent family man.”  The implication?  That one cannot be both an Arab (or Muslim, since that’s what we all know the woman meant) and a good man. I often hear comments about how obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in this country, but I’d like to argue that Islamophobia is far more widespread and accepted. Can you imagine if white people blatantly still said such horrible things about Black people? It’s completely unheard of in many parts of the United States for someone to say “nigger,” but “sandnigger”?  In many places in this country, that’s totally okay.

3. They don’t realize that most Muslims aren’t Arab. Going back to point #1, the imagery of what it means to be Muslim in the United States is so tied in with our images of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (not even the Arab world on the whole!) that even on progressive blogs, you will often see people refer in blanket terms to Muslim women’s dress as “the burqa.”  What they don’t seem to realize is that the countries with the largest Muslim population are all in Asia (where, mind you, women don’t even wear the burqa), and not Arab at all!

4. They mistake non-Muslims and non-Arabs for Muslims and Arabs.  In the years since 9/11 (though before as well), many groups have become collateral damage in racist attacks against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.  Iranians, Greeks, Sikhs, Hindus, and sometimes, anyone with a beard seems to be a target. 6 years ago, a Hindu was mistaken for a Muslim in Boston and beaten. . .and just last week, as noted above, it happened to a Greek priest.

5. They think “Middle Eastern” is a race.  Except on the census. While the region also known as the Middle East and North Africa is often referred to as “the Arab world,” the latter is somewhat of a misnomer and more accurately refers to a shared language (kind of like the way Latino is often used).  From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, there are Arabs, but there are also Amazigh (Berbers), Moors, Bedouins, and plenty of other native groups that prefer not to be referred to as “Arab.”  But when they come to the United States, it doesn’t matter anyway, as they’re expected to check the “White” box. . . imagine arriving from Mauritania, on the continent of Africa, and being told you can’t check the “African-American” box.  True story.

6. They assume that all Arabs are Muslim. I love this one. . . It never ceases to amaze me the blanket statements made about “that part of the world,” and “their practices.”  Nevermind the native Coptic, Maronite, and Orthodox Christian populations, the converts, the Jews, the Druze, the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i.  And if on the off chance you do meet someone who is aware of those other populations, they’re still likely to try to convince you that they’re those populations are all oppressed by the Muslims, anyway.  Which brings me to my last and most important point. . .

7. They pretend it’s not racism.  So, Islam is not a race, and to many, “Arab” isn’t either. . . It doesn’t matter: there is plenty of evidence of racism against all of the aforementioned groups. In fact, there’s significant evidence to suggest that systematic racism is practiced against Muslims and those with Muslim or Arab-sounding names (regardless of actual faith) in a number of places.  This BBC article discusses the racist practice of not hiring Arabs and Muslims based on name alone (in France). Though I’m not aware of any study, I’ve seen the same happen in the U.S. And the exclusion of North Africans from being qualified as “African-American” on the census and on scholarship applications (again, they’re supposed to check the “white” box) means they’re doubly discriminated against: Not really white, but not non-white enough to benefit from certain programs.

And that’s only the beginning — as we saw in a video Macon posted last week, Muslims (especially Muslim women who wear hijab) are often assumed not to be American, even when they were born here.  Arabs are pulled to the side for “random checks” nearly every time they fly.  And more often than not, when an Arab or Muslim does commit a crime, the entire Arab and Muslim communities are expected to speak out against it (ask yourself: would we expect the same every time a Christian or white person committed a crime?).

Here’s a thought: Perhaps if people, and the media, made more of an effort to know the difference between a Muslim, an Arab, a Persian, a Hindu. . . or better yet, a Moroccan, a Syrian, a Saudi, a Kuwaiti. . . Perhaps if everyone made more of an effort to see people as unique peoples from particular countries and cultures, or better yet — as individuals! — they would be less likely to commit atrocious acts against them based on assumptions.  Perhaps they would be less likely to expect Muslims as a group to speak for one individual Muslim, and perhaps they’d be more likely to understand that an entire mass of 325 million people who just happen to share a common language most certainly do not share a common perspective.

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