VIEW: Muslims: everyone’s favourite punching bag —Dr Mahjabeen Islam - Friday, October 29, 2010

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Reports of men being hauled off planes because their fellow passengers felt threatened are now common news. During travel, Muslim prayers are shortened to three times a day and one can pray even sitting in one's seat. I would not dream of doing so on a flight though, for fear of landing up in jail

Muslim-bashing is not just totally acceptable these days, it is the new cool. Time was that derision and put-downs were slung at individuals. Flying while Muslim used to be a personal ordeal; Juan Williams, the former National Public Radio (NPR) analyst, while talking to Bill O’Reilly on Fox thrust it to national attention.

Bill O’Reilly and Juan Williams were discussing the ‘Muslim dilemma’ when Williams confessed to feeling fearful when he saw people in ‘Muslim garb’ boarding planes. Williams, already on probation with NPR for previous misuse of his NPR analyst title, was fired by NPR for “his views being inconsistent with NPR’s editorial standards and that they undermined his credibility as an analyst for NPR”. Williams was not unemployed long; Fox gave him a two million dollars contract.

Williams’ Muslim-garb types, male or female, go through extra security and that is a given. But my 23- and 24-year-old jeans-clad daughters on separate flights from Raleigh-Durham airport were pulled aside for ‘random’ checks. A black man himself, Juan Williams ought to know that the other people picked for ‘random’ checks were brown or black; white passengers were waved on through.

Reports of men being hauled off planes because their fellow passengers felt threatened are now common news. During travel, Muslim prayers are shortened to three times a day and one can pray even sitting in one’s seat. I would not dream of doing so on a flight though, for fear of landing up in jail. After all, six imams were arrested in 2006 for praying in a public area, trying to switch seats, asking for a seatbelt extension (one of them was 290 pounds) and cursing the US in Arabic. Mind you it ‘sounded’ as though they were cursing the US; Arabic is a very guttural language, normal conversation can sound like cursing.

Though the flying imams won and Judge Ann Montgomery gave a scathing judgment against the management of the situation by security personnel, who outnumbered the imams 15 to six, Muslim-Americans have taken heed.

My style is cramped in all dimensions: spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual. My hair products have to travel in itsy bitsy bottles and I have to do a careful survey of my reading material before stepping out. Cannot read Arabic or Urdu script or The Clash of Fundamentalisms by Tariq Ali on the flight; the cover of the book has George Bush in a beard and turban and Osama bin Laden in a suit. My brownness, my accent, my books plus vigilante passengers and voila, the case is made: I might just be landing into the arms of FBI agents.

And yet the issue is not just the profiling of Muslim passengers. Maligning Muslims is the new chic and Juan Williams tried to make acceptable in national media what is pervasive in personal Muslim experience. Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are up in arms about the clipping of free speech. They are also clamouring for NPR’s federal funding to end. The 1900s’ US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr summarised freedom of speech wonderfully: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

To malign seven million people for the crime of a handful, and to do so repeatedly, endangers us even further. The 9/11 hijackers, the underwear bomber and the many others were not in ‘Muslim garb’. A lot of them carried backpacks. Should backpacks be outlawed from flights?

Rick Sanchez was recently fired by CNN for calling The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart a bigot and making reference to the media being run by Jews. No one protested Rick Sanchez’s firing. Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas said, “The Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany.” There were loud calls for her termination and she was fired. Bashing Muslims is fine and one is only exercising one’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. But when Rick Sanchez and Helen Thomas express their views, they must be fired.

In 2004, President George Bush signed The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act into law. Under this legislation, anti-Semitism is a hate crime. The legislation makes it difficult to criticise Israel or the actions of individual Jews or Jewish organisations. Anti-Zionism can be quickly equated to anti-Semitism. Islamophobia, far from being a hate crime, is really a default explanation: must have been the Muslim(s).

Muslim-bashing is rampant at all levels. A black friend tried to be empathetic: “Sorry but thanks for being the new blacks that everyone can now laugh at, blame and be scared of.”

During the heated campaigning in the US Congressional election, the head of rightwing Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips said that incumbent Keith Ellison should be defeated as “he is the only Muslim member of Congress”.’s writer Justin Elliot wonders why such blatant racism has not been noticed and that it would be hard to imagine anyone targeting a Jewish or Mormon member of Congress for being Jewish or Mormon and getting away with it.

Then you have the self-hating Muslims who are whiter than whites themselves. Bashing everything Muslim and justifying the marginalising and persecution of Muslims is fine in their twisted minds. The irony remains that their own acceptance despite their wholesale sellout will never be complete. Brown we are and Muslim we shall remain in non-Muslim eyes, in case we think differently in our kala-angrez (black-white) minds.

What is classified as protected speech under the First Amendment and conversation that shatters the already thin ice of our national calm is a debate that we must have quickly and constructively. The power of television and radio communication is beyond encapsulation and the damage is similarly exponential.

My co-religionists damaged us the most and depending on the viewer’s lens, we are perpetrators or victims. I have squashed my style, changed my ways and live in fearful anticipation. Muslims as the overworked punching bag I am almost completely used to now.

The writer is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at

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