Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Anti-Muslim Bias or Good Old Fashioned Racism?

Last night I watched ABC’s production of “What would you do?” The first portion of the show examined people’s reaction to "anti-Muslim bias." Says ABC, “ABC's production crew outfitted The Czech Stop, a bustling roadside bakery north of Waco, Texas, with hidden cameras and two actors. One played a female customer wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf, or hijab. The other acted as a sales clerk who refused to serve her and spouted common anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs.” The actor uttered some of the most offensive and racist comments a person could hear. Meanwhile, the cameras were waiting to gauge the reaction of customers who entering the bakery. Read about it here.

In the end the reactions were mixed. Some people did nothing, some people agreed with the sales clerk and others defended the actress/Muslim woman. According to ABC more than half of the reactions were as follows:
“Even though people seemed to have strong opinions on either side, more than half of the bystanders did or said absolutely nothing.”
To be honest with you, I wasn’t surprised in the least. As a Muslim woman who has worn hijab in the South, the Midwest, on the West coast and in the Northeast, I’ve had a range of reactions to my presence. The most severe reaction took place while I was in line at a South Florida post office. Basically a woman who possessed a concealed weapon threatened me in front of at least ten people. No one rushed to my defense and no one called 9-1-1. In fact, no one said anything. Though I really wanted to cuss her out, I’m not a fool. The woman had a weapon on her! I elected to ignore her and quickly make my way to my car.

Anyhow, while I’m happy ABC chose to take up this topic something disturbed me during the entire time I watched it. I kept waiting for people to identify the discrimination the actress/Muslim woman faced and the apathetic responses to the discrimination as racist. It never happened. ABC chose to label the treatment as “anti-Muslim bias” or “Islamophobia.” (And don’t get me wrong here; plenty of Muslims label such behavior as ‘Islamophobic’). I personally think when we use terms like that we’re somehow softening (and taking the sting out of) very racist actions and words. We’re creating a distance between something people of color experience in their daily lives (racism) and replacing it with a term that describes discrimination against a specific group of people. Not only do terms like “anti-Muslim bias” or “Islamophobia” isolate Muslims from the larger anti-racism movements, they don’t prick at the moral consciousness of the average American in the way that terms like “racist”, “racism” or “bigot” do. (After all, it is no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist).

ABC had a golden opportunity to address racism when they discussed how some people choose to define who is American and who is not.

"Jack Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University, said these men [racist men in several hidden camera scenes] seemed to define "American" based on the way people look. They connected with the sales clerk and considered our female actor an outsider. "When we as Americans feel threatened from the outside, we're going to define ourselves in very rigid fashions," Dovidio said. "Either you're with me, and if you're not really one of me, then you must be somebody else who's against me."

How about the fact that "Americanness" is often defined as "Whiteness?" And Whiteness is considered the norm. That is why some people are defining "American" based on "the way people look." Historically people of color have not been included in the definition of American. We have existed outside that definition. At one point during the show, ABC journalist John (I can't remember his last name) who is clearly a man of color, was told by one of the men who applauded the racist clerk/actor, that he is not American either.

As an African-American, I am all too familiar with racism. I know what it looks like, I know how it feels, and I know how to spot it in its smallest and simplest forms. The only thing I find surprising about the current climate of racism directed towards Muslims is how open people are about it and how socially acceptable it is. But then again, why should I be surprised? It only confirms what I have always known and what some people have been unwilling to accept or see- racism is alive and well in America...

But alhamdulillah, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There were people who entered The Czech Stop who were viciously opposed to the mistreatment of ABC's actress/Muslim woman. Some of them walked out, telling the clerk they would no longer patronize the bakery. Others stood there and argued on behalf of the actress/Muslim woman. I'm happy to know that there are people out there who will speak up when they see an injustice taking place. They gave me (the cynic) hope.

I'm curious to hear what some of you think. Are we doing a disservice to ourselves by labeling discrimination we face as Islamophobic rather than racist? Why or why not?


Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis:

The discrimination we are faced with at times is Islamaphobic because Muslims come from all races, including Caucasian.

If someone discriminated against me, for example, a Caucasian Muslim, how can that be racism if they are reacting to me as a Muslim?

Islam is for all people and for all time.

Muslims consist of many races and ethnic groups.

It's an interesting phrase, "Islamaphobia" and reminds me of one used for us when I was Jewish - "anti-semitism". People discrimination against us because we were Jewish. Jewish is not a race, but rather an ethnic group (as well as a religion).

Insha Allah I am making sense.

Very thought-provoking post sis. I'm sorry I missed the program.

Jamerican Muslimah said...


Yes. Muslims come in all races. This is true. However, if you look at the construction of Whiteness in America (because it is a construction) you will see that certain groups were "allowed" to become White; Jews, Irish, Italians, and until recently Arabs etc. By the same token, people can be stripped of their "Whiteness" as well. I argue that, that is exactly what has happened to some members of the Muslim community.

Though Muslims come in different colors and ethnicities, in the eyes of the majority we are NOT White therefore we are Black or "other". Even those whose skin is the Whitest of White. Even those who were once White (i.e. White Americans who are now Muslims). I'm not sure if you have experienced it but I know other White Muslims have. Painfully, many have been suddenly stripped of their White status once people find out they're "one of them." (Or for sisters by donning the hijab). What is one of the offensive terms we're called by racist people even if we are not from the Middle East or Arabs? Sandniggers.

It is clear to me that Muslims (regardless of skin color) are America's "new Niggers." We are the new "other." said...

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah
I pray that you are in the best of health & imaan.
This is a short message to notify you that this entry has been selected for publishing on, a venture to highlight the best of the Muslim blogosphere. Please visit the site to find out more about our initiative.
May Allah bless you for your noble efforts.

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

Salaam sister,

Thanks for the add. I see Ijtema has knocked on your door! I think the case can be made that what we see happening today is both religious discrimination and persecution, and also racism. It depends on many factors. I'd like to point out that being stripped of "Whiteness" when it refers to Whiteamerican Muslims(WAMs) denotes engaging in cultural apostacy but Whiteamerican non-Muslim men and women that date or marry Blacks specifically are considered 'n*&&@-lovers' and by extension are given that title. One other thing to consider is that prior to 9/11 many non-Black Muslims, with the exception of Pakistanis, referred to themselves as 'White' in census studies instead of 'Other'. Now, and I am speaking from personal experiences with surveys, questioners are being instructed to dissuade participants from declaring 'other' or 'White' if a more suitable selection is valid. Think about that.
Also, when Muslims use the term 'Islamophobia' it wreaks of historical illiteracy and shallowness on our part, that is to say, prejudicial issues in America have always centered around race as the horizontal and religion as the vertical. Consider Native Americans; before becoming Christian they were seen as savages and after converting to Christianity they were seen as Christian subordinates due to their lineage. The same case can be applied to African slaves or current day Egyptian-American Coptic Christians.

Jamerican Muslimah said...


My point exactly, certain people have been and can be stripped of their White status- that includes White non-Muslims as well.

Having been married to an Arab, I'm well aware of the fact that there were groups of Muslims who claimed White. (My ex's friends told him that's what he should claim). However, as you pointed out, nowadays people are discouraged from doing so. (And certainly won't be treated as such no matter how much they try to assimilate).

I don't want know why the general Muslim community refuses to acknowledge issues of race and racism in American society. Oh and I agree with you when you say, "prejudicial issues in America have always centered around race as the horizontal and religion as the vertical." So true.
I think that Muslims today are persecuted on the basis of religion yes but our image is racialized (complete with the carictures and everything).

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis:

Yes, I agree with you on that one. Umar Lee stated in one of his posts that whites lose their "white privilege" when they come to Islam. To mix the waters for me, I am married to an African-American. I was one of those "N-lovers" Charles refers to even before I became a Muslim! Go figure, lol. Mabrook on the Ijtema; your post deserves honorable mention!

muslimahlocs said...

as salaamu alaikum
"As a Muslim woman who has worn hijab in..." waco, texas i can tell you that they responses, or lack therof, come as know surprise to me. reminiscent of another era, there are just some places that you do not want to stop to use the bathroom even when nature calls. indeed, although waco is "down-south" it is just like many other places "up-south" in america.
masha Allah re: ijtema.

Anonymous said...

Yes Anti-Islam or Anti-Muslim is just a cover for racism. Being an open racist is not pc today and anti-Islam fills the void superbly. Examples are clearer in Europe with laws banned hijab, niqab and legal harassment. Practicing Muslims are in the minority in Europe, why so many laws against them? I lived in europe for 3 years and Muslims were some of the biggest crimminals there. Human trafficking, prostitution, drugs everything but all the media talks about is hijab and foreign born Imams.