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).

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.   

Muslim America is at best a mosaic, and at worse, a loosely knitted tapestry of sewn-together traditions that often clash, compete and come apart at the seams. 

Muslim Americans are good and bad, observant and secular, and white, black and every socially constructed race in between. Like their fellow Christian, Jewish and atheist citizens, they represent nothing but themselves.    

Islam is anything but a monolith, and no Muslim American — leader or lay individual — holds the right to speak on its behalf. An apology, logically, accepts the myth of a monolithic Muslim America, which creates a platform for the speaker alone and issues license to drive forward the essentializing of Muslim Americans.  

So, save your apologies. The “black and white” fiction of a Muslim-American monolith must be tuned out.     

Khaled A. Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Fellow and Faculty at the UCLA School of Law. He is a native of Detroit. Follow him on Twitter.  

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