The following is a guest post by Our Shared Future opinion leader Mohamed Younis, who will be a panelist along with Rev. Welton Gaddy at our upcoming event “Reason vs. Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims.”
At this point you’ve probably read nearly a thousand blog entries, articles and reports on how the American media often caricatures Muslim Americans as either terrorists foaming at the mouth with hatred for “the West” or closet cheerleaders for the ones who are. Hundreds of conferences, essays, botched terrorism cases and two US wars later, whether you’re a sociologist, political scientist or activist, you’ve probably gathered that Muslims are quite an eclectic bunch and can’t be pigeonholed into a one-dimensional caricature.
But a new kind of American Muslim caricature (or Muslim American if you want to have that semantic tug of war) is now taking hold within pro-diversity circles: the hyper-modern, post-career Muslim superstar. These are Muslims (usually second-generation immigrants from the Middle East or Asia) who are artists, rappers, playwrights, marketing gurus, comedians and actors whose interests and passions completely defy the stereotypes of the past decade and represent a new post-modern Muslim American experience and way of life. Many of the most popular amongst them are my friends. I have their latest single on my iPod; I’m attending their latest play or exhibit sometime in the coming weeks or just got back from one. They are amazing people, but in an effort to counter the post-9/11 caricature, the diversity promotion community (mostly non-Muslim, strong and reliable allies of the Muslim American community) seem to have caricatured them as well.
You see, most Muslims in America are neither terrorists nor artists. They’re just everyday people looking for a good job, pursuing their dreams and passions and trying to make the varsity basketball team. Most of their daily experiences are not a cascade of taraweeh prayers or incidents of severe discrimination or hate crimes. Most of them have never been entrapped by local or federal counter-terrorism “informants,” nor are they secretly plotting the next shoe bombing. Not to say that these are not major challenges the community faces. But in an attempt to counter the terrorist caricature narrative we seem to have propagated a mirror opposite.
Part of this new post-9/11 caricature is the role of public intellectual. Just after 9/11, if you were Muslim and could speak intelligently in a public setting, you were basically thrust into the role of “expert on all things Muslim.” “What?! Your church wants to know ‘why they hate us’? Send Khadija from the local softball team.” “The FBI wants to do ‘culture-sensitivity training? Send Ali the grocer from down the street.” “Sean Hannity needs to mud wrestle on ‘Islamics’ and wants someone to support ‘the other side’? Send Ednan the local pediatrician.”
Many Muslims born in this country and others who weren’t stepped up to the plate in a major way, because back then with the little knowledge that was out there in the public, compared to most people in the community, school or office, they kind of were experts–or at least knew enough to warrant being a local resource for folks trying to understand why “they hate us.” But now, those days need to be over and done with. For American Muslim communities (yes that’s an ‘s’ at the end because there are several not just one), it is finally time for the post-caricature era! An era where Muslims in this country are not proverbially “fitted” by our friends and foes into one prototype or the other. You can just be an American. Most Muslims in this country are more worried about their kid being bullied in school and getting a good education than counter-terrorism policies or the war in Afghanistan. Those issues are extremely important, but no community should be expected to build its entire identity around “security threat” vs. “Muslim expert.” Your choices shouldn’t just be “terrorist sympathizer” vs. “public intellectual.”