Every Muslim in America should have encountered the recent slew of statements that have been made about Muslims and Islam over the past several weeks and months. Most notable among them are the following:
On September 7th, Martin Peretz, the owner of the magazine The New Republic, stated “…Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims…I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse”.
On October 7th, on the popular morning talk show The View, Bill O'Reilly, the conservative Fox News talk show host declared that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” Defending O'Reilly's egregious statement, Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of the programme Fox and Friends claimed that “not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims.” Fast-forward to October 19th, when Juan Williams divulged the following: “…when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” When examined collectively, all of these statements demonstrate a ratcheting up of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. Certainly, Muslims and Islam have become a hot button issue.
Following his statements, Juan Williams was immediately fired by NPR, a move which has unleashed a tidal wave of controversy. From the perspective of a Muslim American, the firing of Williams may have been greeted by some in the community with surprise and maybe even a little satisfaction. It is rare that public figures, such as Williams, suffer the consequences for making Islamophobic remarks. But those of us feeling this way should not get too carried away by NPR's decision because it looks like Williams's remarks about Muslims were the straw that broke the camel's back as NPR had previously expressed discontent with Williams's affiliation with Fox News. Some Muslims also believe that NPR's decision to fire Williams was misguided because of their understanding that Williams was simply expressing an opinion held by many Americans when they see Muslims at airports. But what if Williams had expressed the same fear about seeing black people or Jews? Would his statement be as easily brushed aside as a commonly held belief if other racial or minority groups were involved? That's just food for thought. Regardless of whether you think his firing was justified, at the end of the day, he violated NPR's code of ethics for journalistic neutrality, and that's what led to his dismissal.
So, with the discussion that the Williams firing has touched off, the question arises: how can Muslims in America go from being the “feared” minority to the “accepted” minority? I was reading the New York Times' opinion columns and I ran across a post that attempted to answer just that question.
Robert Wright, a columnist at the New York Times, answered the question in his recent article titled “Islamophobia and Homophobia.” Wright explores the reasons why homophobia, relative to Islamophobia, has declined in acceptance among the American public. Wright agrees that “playing the homophobia card is costlier than playing the Islamophobia card.” For any Muslim (and this should be every Muslim living in the America) concerned about how Islam can become integrated into the American social fabric, much like other minority groups i.e. blacks, Catholics, Jews, and gays before us, then this article is worth a read. But just in case you're pressed for time I will briefly summarize his argument below. Thereafter, I raise several points about what is problematic about his comparison between Islamophobia and homophobia.
Wright argues that homophobia is waning among many quarters across the country primarily because Americans have persistently been exposed to gay individuals over time. To support his claim Wright points to data showing that among frequent churchgoers in the US, attitudes towards homosexuals over the past three decades have warmed (today 70% of this group are okay with homosexuality). The theory that explains why homophobia has faded among conservative Christians is called the “bridging” model theory. This model holds that the closer one is to a member of the “out-group,” the more comfortable he or she will become with all adherents of that “out-group.” Wright illustrates: “If, say, your work brings you in touch with gay people or Muslims — and especially if your relationship with them is collaborative — this can brighten your attitude toward the whole tribe they're part of. And if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.”
Because of this “bridging” model, Wright argues that over time Americans have become more comfortable with gays. And as a result, “…by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridges had already been built.” Wright frames this phenomenon as a “vicious cycle,” 1) straight Americans accept gayness due to the bridge model 2) more gays feel comfortable uncovering their identity 3) the “more openly gay people there were, the more straight people there were who realized they had gay friends, and so on.” So, does the “bridge” model work for Muslims?
Unfortunately, based on the scientific explanations Wright uses to derive his conclusion, the “bridge” model will be unsuccessful in helping to integrate Muslims. The reason is that “being a small and geographically concentrated group makes it hard for many people to know you, so not much bridging naturally happens.” According to this theory, because Muslims are populated in enclaves throughout the US, there is less of a chance that they can socialize and interact with the broader society – thus making it difficult for them to change nasty public opinion about them. On the other hand, in terms of population, gays have historically been dispersed throughout the US – “the gay population, though not huge, was finely interspersed across the country, with representatives in virtually every high school, college and sizeable workplace. And straights had gotten to know them without even seeing the border they were crossing in the process.”
So what is the solution that Wright proposes? According to the columnist “it's a matter of bringing people into contact with the “other” in a benign context. And it's a matter of doing it fast, before the vicious circle takes hold, spawning appreciable homegrown terrorism and making fear of Muslims less irrational.” Is he correct, or are there more substantive explanations beyond this superficial one?
First, from taking several courses on race and ethnicity in college I learned that the oppressions faced by two minority groups can not be compared hierarchically. You can't say “black women are more oppressed than white women because black women are dually oppressed as a result of their gender and race.” I feel like the narrative of oppression for Muslims and gays in America are different – therefore making their comparison troubling from the outset. Beyond that, one missing piece of the puzzle that Wright overlooks is the media. One reason, I believe gay Americans have been able to better integrate into American culture is because of the way the media portrays them relative to how Muslims are portrayed. Even before 9/11, it is well documented that Arabs and Muslims were vilified in Hollywood movies and television – Lawrence of Arabia anyone? Yes, homosexuals haven't always been treated well in the media, but nowadays, shows such as “Modern Family” and “Grey's Anatomy” to name a few depict homosexuality as part of the cultural fabric. I don't think the same can be said for Muslims.
What about the power of lobbying? Combined, are CAIR and MPAC as strong as prominent gay rights advocacy groups on Capitol Hill? When you answer these questions for yourself, you find that Wright's comparison of these two groups is filled with blind spots and glaring omissions. Readers should feel free to fill them in also.
Perhaps the firing of Juan Williams was a monumental victory in the fight against hate speech toward Muslims – or was it? Contrast that to what happened when Anderson Cooper condemned the use of the word “gay” in the preview of the new movie “The Dilemma” starring the actor Vince Vaughn, Universal quickly cut out the scene. Hopefully, someday Muslim Americans will gain similar if not more of the political and social clout that many other minorities presently enjoy.