Friday, October 22, 2010

Overcoming Prejudices Against Muslims?

Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker, really gets on my nerves. The first time she did, she accused Obama of not being 'manly' enough.

This time, she's arguing that we are overreacting to prejudices against Muslims, rather than trying to talk through it and overcome our prejudices. She's speaking specifically regarding comments made by (former) NPR analyst Juan Williams about how he gets nervous sitting next to presumed Muslims on airplanes, and about Bill O'Reilly's recent comments on The View that "Muslims killed us on 9/11."

I do agree with her in the sense that yes, we should be able to talk about our prejudices. I really do think that's the only way we can get over them. Most of the time we don't even recognize the prejudices we have, or why it is we have them. These are things that need to be addressed.

But were these overreactions? No. What Kathleen Parker doesn't understand is the effect that these comments and beliefs have on the people they are directed towards. It's as simple as trying to step in someone else's shoes for the day. How would you feel if someone you were sitting next to on an airplane didn't feel comfortable next to you because you "looked" like a potential terrorist? And this may not necessarily even be what you are wearing, but it could be the color of your skin, or what your name is. So no, it's not an overreaction, because it is placing the blame on people who aren't responsible for your prejudices.

Also, the language that she uses throughout her piece shows her lack of understanding of Islam and the difference between culture and religion. She otherizes Muslims by using phrases like "Muslim attire," and using the word "Allah" rather than God.

First of all, what is "Muslim attire?" Is it shalwar kameez, as common in Pakistan? Is it the thobe seen in Saudi Arabia? Is it all clothing that we seen worn in Muslim-majority countries? What about the religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries that wear the same clothes as Muslims in their country? Is it still considered "Muslim attire" then? What about Muslims in the West that wear western clothing? And of course, the hijab. That is likely a giveaway, isn't it? But what about in countries wear the hijab is mandatory (ex: Iran), and is not necessarily a sign of piety, or of adhering to Islam at all? Clothing in these examples is more about culture, not religion. The point is, she (although she is explaining Williams' comments, she still uses this in her own words) is making assumptions about how to identify a Muslim based on clothing, when they may not necessarily be an indicator.

Next, she uses "Allah" instead of God. Most people (including Parker, apparently) don't realize that "Allah" is merely the Arabic word for God. Arab Christians (gasps! yes, they exist), pray to Allah as well. According to Islam, God is the same in all three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), but this idea has not been so readily accepted by Christians. So, when we hear Christians (or even non-Christians, but perhaps just Westerners in general) continually referring to "Allah," when referring to the "Muslim God," it only reflects either a lack of understanding of both the word itself and the concept of God in Abrahamic traditions, or an unwillingness to accept the similarities between Islam and Christianity. (I am only referring to Christianity because this is where it has been the biggest issue, at least to my knowledge).

The point is, Parker's choice of language reflects an 'us vs. them' attitude and demonstrates either her lack of understanding of Islam, or her unwillingness to dismantle the religious hierarchy that she is perpetuating.

So yes, I agree that we do need to engage in dialogue if we ever want to overcome our prejudices. But at the same time, that doesn't mean we can dismiss these incidents as "overreactions." Doing so only permits the idea that it is ok that these prejudices exist, and as long as we keep doing that, it will be difficult to overcome them.


  1. hey! i really, really liked reading this, it was interesting and got me thinking. i really had to have some internal dialogue to decide where i stood on this issue. i started by clicking the links at the top-- and I have to confess that with the way calling someone a "girl" is too often an insult (like you wrote about before), I expected her first column to be kind of insulting. But when I read things like "I don't think that doing things a woman's way is evidence of deficiency but, rather, suggests an evolutionary achievement," that kind of changed my mind. But that's not the point of your post so I'll move on right now.
    I like your breakdown of her use of "Muslim attire," although I would actually think she probably realizes there is more to the issue and didn't want to get sidetracked in her writing (I think printed columnists have to limit their words carefully). Ideology-wise I'm definitely on board with you... I can't imagine any US writer using the phrase "Christian attire," for example: would that mean what Mormons wear, or a WWJD t-shirt, or what? Our country has more literacy when it comes to Christianity and using such a general "attire" term would be useless, but for a religion many of her readers may know little of, it invokes a single stereotyped image.
    I really like your discussion of using the word "Allah" or "God," I didn't think of that at all at first. My only question is that if she had used "God" instead of "Allah," would that also have been a little bit of a problem since she'd be sidestepping Muslims' use of Arabic just to cater to her audience, and is that her choice to make or is it a step that Muslims would have to take themselves first? I agree with you that using the same word as is currently used in everyday life here in US would actually be extremely helpful in fostering acceptance, but I get a little uneasy at the thought of it being a forced "Anglicization" of a word so many find important.
    I once saw the speaker Tim Wise, who is one of the most prominent white male anti-racist speakers/writers around. He mentioned how even he has some internal biases it's hard to shake, and has to kind of discuss things internally when he catches himself thinking biased thoughts. I would agree because I have to do that too, it's embarrassing to admit, but I would say that a person's own conscience should kick in if they have enough self-awareness (that apparently these 2 TV personalities lack).
    Sorry for the long comment, but I would have to agree Kathleen takes a kinda tone that "Muslims are weird and not like us but we have to accept them." Her post is a reflection of how far we've come since Islam was pure evil in the American mainstream, and how far we go before it is PART of the American mainstream. Thanks for writing this!!