Muslims Beyond Caricatures

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.


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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