Stereotyping Muslims is not OK

Former NPR analyst Juan Williams’ comments reinforce paranoid stereotypes.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

“When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Those are the words that got news analyst Juan Williams fired from NPR when he said them during an interview by Fox NewsâÄô Bill OâÄôReilly last Monday.

IâÄôm not sure firing Williams was the right thing to do, considering the already charged debate about Muslims and AmericaâÄôs precarious relationship with Islam.

But WilliamsâÄô statement is not justified. In fact, his honesty reveals a much larger problem: that many, if not most, Americans still harbor stereotypes about Muslims based on what they look like and the religion they practice.

Williams said he is afraid of flying with Muslims. IâÄôm sure many Americans are. But this fear is irrational and Americans need to overcome it.

Chances are the Muslim sitting next to you on an airplane is minding his or her own business and is just as eager to land as you are. Even more likely is that the few Muslims you see at the airport are more paranoid about not coming off as threatening so as not to receive more scrutiny than we already do while flying. IâÄôm speaking from experience.

Controversies like the 2007 detainment of six imams at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wouldnâÄôt have happened if passengers understood that dressing in “Muslim garb” does not make you a threat and that praying does not mean youâÄôre going to hijack a plane.

This brings me back to Williams. The problem with his words is not that he told the truth about how he feels; itâÄôs that his stereotyping of Muslims effectively painted an entire group of people with a broad brush.

“Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy,” said NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard. “It puts people in categories, as types âÄî not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.”

Take his fear of “those who identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” I think itâÄôs common sense to say most Muslims would identify themselves as, well, Muslim.

Would identifying myself by something other than my religion make others fear me less? What would put the public at ease? Perhaps for Muslim women to wear miniskirts and for Muslims to stop practicing their religion altogether would suffice.

Speaking of dress, I challenge the notion of a common “Muslim garb,” and that such garb is a threat to our safety and values.

IâÄôve lived in quite a few countries and traveled to four continents. Along the way, IâÄôve met Muslims across a wide spectrum of cultures and races. IâÄôve seen variations of the headscarf and face veil and no veiling at all.

These people may or may not identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims, but they are Muslim. Muslims are just as diverse and eclectic as any other group of people.

And for the sake of argument, letâÄôs say there is a common “Muslim garb.” Perhaps a stereotypical Muslim would be a Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian man with a long beard and a kufi (round skull cap) or a turban. Why is that so scary?

Orthodox Jewish men wear a yarmulke and beard. Sikh men wear turbans. Hindu women and non-Muslim women in many African cultures cover their hair and wear long clothing.

The fact of the matter is there is no way of determining whether someone is a threat based on appearance or religion.

Arsalan Iftikhar rightly points out in his CNN commentary that: “As a historical fact, neither the 19 hijackers from Sept. 11 nor the failed âÄòshoe bomberâÄô nor the failed âÄòunderwear bomberâÄô ever wore any âÄòMuslim garbâÄô when committing their criminal acts of terrorism on an airplane.

“Once Williams made that factually wrong statement, he then no longer continued being a âÄònews analyst;âÄô he had crossed the line into simply voicing his paranoid and irrational fears to the general public.”

Conservative pundits have been quick to invoke the free speech argument in support of Williams. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee made WilliamsâÄô termination political by calling on Congress to cut federal funding for NPR.

But this is not about censorship, political correctness or free speech. It is about placing people into categories. It is about labeling Muslims as a threat when they are not.

When a prominent journalist publicly states his personal fears of an entire group of people, it unwittingly reinforces the paranoia against Muslims and legitimizes the hostility toward them.

For too long, the public and media have allowed comments like those of Williams to go without impunity.

But when Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas made viewpoint-based comments, there was public outrage, leading to their immediate
termination.

Last month, the Portland Press Herald in Maine published a positive front page story about Muslims. After a deluge of complaints about the newspaperâÄôs insensitivity to the memory of Sept. 11, the editor apologized.

Why is it offensive for journalists to sympathize with Muslims and infuriating when the media hold their journalists accountable for racist remarks about Muslims?

We are getting it wrong. Just like fear-mongering about blacks, Jews, Catholics and Japanese Americans is not OK, reinforcing racist stereotypes about Muslims should not be tolerated.

 

Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at
[email protected].