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.

Diversity of American Muslims includes Shaquille O'Neal (Getty), Shahid Khan (Getty) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (FBI handout).
Diversity of American Muslims includes Shaquille O'Neal (Getty), Shahid Khan (Getty) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (FBI handout).

(The Root) — Muslim-American commentators saturated the airwaves and social-media forums this past week, breaking down how the Boston explosions will affect Islam and its American following. Heads of organizations, political pundits and lay citizens voiced their viewpoints on every channel of the American-media gamut after the two suspected culprits, Dhzokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were identified as members of their flock.   

America was gripped by the compelling clash and manhunt for the younger Tsarnaev on Boston’s streets, and many of these Muslim commentators issued apologies on behalf of a socially constructed, monolithic Muslim culture or Muslim community. These leaders were not popularly elected, are distancing themselves from the pressing concerns and interests of most Muslim Americans on the ground and tend to subscribe to the twin fictions that Islam and Muslim America are both monoliths.    

I flipped the channel, finding a refreshing voice in a distinct brand of Muslim-American commentator who did not aim to speak on behalf of Islam or its diverse population in the United States. He, too, focused on Boston, but on another compelling clash involving residents of Beantown not named Tsarnaev.

Like millions of Americans tuning out the news and tuning in to TNT for temporary escape, I listened to every word coming out of Shaquille O’Neal’s mouth. I nodded and smiled as the Muslim-American pundit, of a different hue, broke down the playoff clash between the Boston Celtics and the hated New York Knicks. 

Islam Isn’t Black and White

While most Americans are unaware that Shaq is a Muslim, the once-dominant NBA big man turned TNT color commentator is emblematic of Muslim Americans in more ways than one. 

First, as an African American, O’Neal is part of the biggest plurality of Muslims in the U.S. (24 percent) in terms of ethnicity. Islam is incorrectly stereotyped with Arab identity, although in the U.S., 63 percent (pdf) of those with Arab ethnicity are Christian. This conflation not only overshadows the rich tradition of African-American Islam in the U.S., but the racially diverse tapestry Muslim America is today. 

Second, and more saliently, Shaq is an archetype for the vast majority of Muslim Americans who are inconspicuously Muslim — and cannot be profiled or “picked out” by physical appearance or self-expression. 

Yes, many of America’s favorite people are Muslim. However, winning a number of NBA titles does not, and should not, demand national praise of Islam or the extension of congratulations to every Muslim American on the street. 

Some of this country’s most hated people, like the Brothers Tsarnaev, are also Muslim. And, their horrific acts should not lead to wholesale demonization of Islam and collective indictments of its diverse followers stateside. 

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.