Muslims Beyond Caricatures

In the aftermath of Boston's tragedy, let's clear up the myths about the face of Islam in the U.S.

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Accepting this baseline logically compels agreement with the following counter-positive: that no Muslim, whether self-styled leader or layperson, need issue an apology on behalf of Islam or a few bad apples. Violence is part of American culture, and a common tool that influenced the Tsarnaevs and the masses of American terrorists and criminals who came before them. However, when is the last time a national "leader" felt compelled to issue an apology on behalf of America or American culture?

Indeed, "Islam doesn't speak. Muslims do." And the faces and voices of Muslims in America are as diverse as the country they call home. Muslim Americans are not only natives of Chechnya, but also indigenous to Chicago. They wear bowties and hawk bean pies, don Chuck Taylors and chinos, strap on high heels with hijabs, own NFL franchises and champion the enfranchisement of gay marriage.

Muslims in America are more commonly brown and black than they are Arab. They are also white. However, the essentialist dogma that drives actors on the extreme right and left, including many so-called leaders in the Muslim-American landscape, perpetuates caricatures of Islam as good or bad, moderate or deviant and Arab or South Asian.   

American terrorists are more often white than not, and right-wing extremism an overwhelmingly more common motive than Jihadism. Sarah Kendzoor masterfully illustrates how the Tsarnaev's Caucasian status (both Muslim and officially "white") did not extend the "white privilege" that domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh (and arguably, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza) possessed. 

White privilege within the sphere of terrorism is, as established by activist Tim Wise, "Knowing that [if a terrorist is white], his or her identity will not result in white folks generally being singled out for suspicion by law enforcement, or the TSA, or the FBI."

Although both Dhokhar Tsarnaev and the elder Tamerlan Tsarnaev fit within the official and the physical parameters of whiteness, Islam functioned as a proxy for otherness that extinguished any de facto claim (or perception) of whiteness. Adopting any caricature, such as "Muslims are good people" or the Eric Rush "Kill them all" worldview, which represent two extreme positions, solidifies the stereotype that Muslims are homogenous and identical. Apologies from Muslim Americans perpetuate this caricaturing, and silence efforts to quash the myth of a Muslim-American monolith.   

The essentializing of Islam as an American menace did not begin with 9/11, and surely will not end with Boston. As articulated in Robert Allison's Crescent Obscured, the "American crusade against Islam" proves instrumental to the molding of American identity. "Muslim America," during the embryonic stages of American nationhood, was populated by enslaved Africans (15 percent to 20 percent). That was, perhaps, the last and only time it was ever homogenous. 

Muslim Americans did not become "the new blacks" post-9/11. Muslim Americans were first and always black, and Islam today has broadened to represent the multidimensional diversity of the U.S. Despite the incessant question of "have Muslim Americans integrated into the American mainstream?" Shaq's familiar bass speaks to why this line of questioning is moot, and should be muted. 

Muslim America: Mosaic, Not Monolith

Muslim Americans, echoing the latter component of their identity, are deeply interwoven into American society and culture. Islam is but one element of their identities.