A Portrait of Islamophobia?

"A Home Revealed" as what? From the front page of the December 5 edition of the New York Times.

Click to enlarge.

On December 5th the New York Times published an editorial on its front page for the first time since 1920 to criticize politicians and call for more stringent gun control and regulation. But that was only half the story. The rest of the front page [image, right] featured four photographs, three of the apartment previously belonging to the San Benardino shooters and one of the female shooter’s face.

The largest image of the apartment includes a decorative wall-hanging with the 99 names of Allah woven in above a dining table strewn with random dining-table things like a wooden fruit bowl, a few artificial flowers, half a bottle of Sprite, and some phone chargers. The two smaller images feature the cluttered interior of a walk-in closet with a bunch of clothes and a faint family portrait on the wireframe shelf, and something that will be familiar to anyone with a newborn child: a rocking seat next to a pink and yellow baby mat. With the caption “A Home Revealed,” the audience is left to make sense of these household portraits that are almost boring in their everydayness (except perhaps for the wall-hanging written in Arabic).

In the right column is a headshot of Tashfeen Malik in a light peach hijab. To some, the collective assembly of these objects might be interpreted as what terrorism looks like. By that, I do not mean the individual objects themselves; after all, what about the dining table or hanging clothes scream terrorist? And yet there is something about the assemblage of pictures with the suggestive title “A Home Revealed.” Just what is being revealed? Aside from the mundane apartment, what is exceptional about this photo collection that it is worthy of front page news. I would argue that it’s the assemblage itself that shouts difference, specifically a Muslim difference. Or, to be more precise: nothing is remarkable about these images without the Allah wall-hanging and Malik’s headshot.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association in New York, sharply critiqued the cover on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, noting that “These are things that all Muslims have in their house. There’s nothing about that that tells you a story about what terrorism looks like. So you’re telling me that when my friends who are not Muslim come into my home and see a Koran and see frames on the wall with a scripture from my religion, is that supposed to tell you something? I mean, it’s absolutely outrageous.”

Sarsour’s observation of the lack of critical visuality by Times editors at the very moment they’re trying to point out the lack of criticality on gun violence by political leaders is remarkable. The Times is not an exception in the implicit, and sometimes explicit, Islamophobic textual and visual rhetoric that has become pervasive in the American public sphere. Is this what terrorism looks like? Perhaps we should reformulate the question to: Who thinks this is what terrorism looks like ? 

An ensemble of Other

Muslim-Americans, like many other minority groups, have become accustomed to not being included in the conceptualization of Americanness, with Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant campaign just being the most blatant example. When the media descended on the home of the San Bernardino shooters, it clearly lacked any restraint or sensitivity. I don’t recall a similar situation following the Charleston massacre or other white terrorist mass shootings. Sarsour was simply calling out this double standard as a marker of the ways that racist and xenophobic ideologies saturate the media cycle, and yet this was met with critique. Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple offered an almost nonsensical critique, including a snarky set of observations about Perry’s show and the argument that “[Sarsour’s] comments boil down to a critique of the New York Times over using newsworthy photographs.”

In this article and others, the dearth of criticality around images of the Other leads many white audience members to make quick assumptions using the quickest, stereotypic misunderstandings about the minority group in question. We saw the same during the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson and the media’s use of his image to portray a large, black male (read as ‘thuggish’), rather than an 18-year-old high school graduate about to start his college career. With hashtags (#IfTheyGunnedMeDown), Black Twitter immediately drew attention to the lack of media consciousness around how certain images, e.g. those marked by smiles and graduation caps, rendered Brown as humanized and valuable, while other images and discourses aligned him with a thuggish persona clearly framed as dangerous.

Similarly, the face of Tashfeen Malik is not what’s being read in her headshot. But the marker of Malik’s hijab, her dark, kohl-rimmed eyes and olive complexion, and the Arabic script on the wall form a collective ensemble of Other, of danger, of radicalized Muslim, of a threat to all that’s good, safe, and familiar about a particular version of America. If we turn our eyes to the not so distant past (a feat surprisingly easy given the digital archives of Holocaust museums), we can easily find images from the early 20th century that show a side profile of a Jewish man puckering his lips with an image of a chimpanzee to the right, clearly representing an anti-Semitic message. Was the man puckering his lips? Yes, but that’s not the point of putting his image next to a chimpanzee. The editors of this magazine were making a much more problematic and offensive statement with that photo assembly.

The markers themselves are not what’s problematic. It’s the uncritical assembly of these markers to make implicit arguments about value. The markers of Muslim-ness found in the NYT photos of the shooters’ homes, as Sarsour vocalized, can be seen in many Muslim-American women’s lives. It’s outrageous because of what’s being said about those of us who look like her; those of us who also have Arabic script as part of our home’s decorative arrangements. One can’t help but wonder when our friends come into our homes, do they think these markers are telling them something?

A few days later, a Republican presidential candidate offered the most extreme version of Islamophobic rhetoric we have seen thus far. In Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims—including any would-be immigrants, students, tourists and other visitors—from entering the country as a response to last week’s California shootings. He went on to defend this egregious statement on Good Morning America by comparing his plan as similar to FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This statement and the crowds of Trump supporters cheering for him have finally struck a chord in the US public sphere. The other candidates have called him out with House Speaker Paul Ryan clarifying how Trump’s ban on Muslims is “not what the [Republican] Party stands for.”

While it is the Republican Party’s responsibility to extend this critique into unequivocal opposition to Trump’s bid for presidency, the ban on Muslim rhetoric only feeds into the Islamophobic words and acts we see all over the country. From the death threat calls and messages to Islamic community centers and mosques, to a string of violent acts of hate—including a 6th grade Muslim-American girl in the Bronx, a Bangladeshi-American shop owner in Queens, and others—the perpetrators of hate against Muslim-Americans are working on more or less the same visible markers of Muslim difference that the Times put on its front page. Terrorism looks like a Muslim, or what someone thinks a Muslim looks like. Sadly, this has also been why Sikhs are mistaken as Muslims. Following 9-11, the first hate crime was when 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. When the police arrested the shooter, he said: “I’m a patriot and an American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.”

Muslim girl power

The fictional war between America and “Muslims” (including actual Muslims, those who “look like” Muslims, and those who live close to Muslims, like Iraqi Christians) is perpetuated and extended by the uncritical visuality of the news media. While I believe the war is based on fictional understandings of “Muslims,” and any link to radical terrorist groups, the war has very real implications. People are being discriminated against, beaten up, and killed based on these fictions. In the haze of all this gloom and doom, Linda Sarsour offers a welcome respite. Yes, she wears a hijab, just like Tashfeen Malik’s headshot shows her wearing a hijab. The optics are startlingly similar if that’s all you’re looking at. Fortunately, when Sarsour and others wear hijab on national television, they offer relief from the battle over what an American can look like.

As an Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities (a network of organizations across 11 states), Sarsour represents a strong, independent voice. She’s been selected as a “Champion of Change” by the White House, calls Trump a “fascist” on national television, has been arrested by the NYPD at a Black Lives Matter protest, and works tirelessly to advocate for social justice for all Americans. The power of having a Muslim-American woman speaking resolutely against Islamophobic sentiments is something to celebrate. As anthropologist and Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod argues in Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Muslim women are, and have always been, much more than the stereotype that assumes someone like Sarsour is an anomaly. Muslim-American women are powerhouses and it’s time for us to change the narrative and bring our voices and images to the fore.

Terrorism is not in the hijab. Terrorism is not in the verbal or textual use of Arabic. Terrorism is a sociohistorical fact that has religio-political, economic, and cultural roots that go far beyond the average, superficial conversations we see in the press. But when we don’t speak out and acknowledge what’s really happening when uncritical visuality and rhetoric is embraced by media, or when terrorism is easily laminated onto a few visual markers of Muslim difference, we’re putting Americans in danger because those who see “Muslims” as terrorists don’t then see Muslims as peaceful, law-abiding friends and neighbors. They don’t see their violent actions as the heinous, racist acts threatening national security that they arguably are; rather, these people see themselves as “patriots.” And while it’s imperative that the White House, Republican candidates, and other officials condemn Trump’s absurd ban on Muslim immigrants, it’s equally imperative that we turn our attention to the optics and rhetoric that make this kind of absurdity a possibility. The acceptability of anti-Muslim rhetoric has led us to this moment. It is our responsibility to change the conversation.

And I’d like to start the ball rolling with a small anecdote to end on a positive note. The other night as my first grader and I watched Linda Sarsour blast Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and critique Obama’s double standard to ask Muslims to root out extremism in their communities, something not asked of other communities, Sarsour said, “I’m tired of this idea that extremism can only mean Muslims or Islam or people who are associated with Islam. Extremism comes in all forms and we’ve seen that, but why is it that we’re only obsessed with Islam and Muslim communities?” Then, as Nadine and I turned back to watch Sarsour further dismantle the hypocrisy in her silver-speckled, dark-purple hijab, my daughter looked at me and said “Muslim girl power, mom!” And then we fist bumped.