By Ramla Bile, Engage Minnesota
I witnessed political pundits attempt to capitalize on the public’s misconceptions about Islam and Muslims to delegitimize another candidate. The RNC and McCain repeatedly apologized over some “disparaging remarks” made by their supporters, primarily regarding the usage of the name Hussein, Obama’s middle name. An analyst on MSNBC’s “Hardball” even said, “Unfortunately, his middle name is Hussein,” as if there is something inherently tragic or wrong with having a Semitic name. A rather alarmist Rep. Steve King of Iowa recently said that if Obama is elected, Al-Qaida would be dancing in the streets.
We are witnessing the rejection of anything from or perceived to be from the broader Islamic world—even when they have no connection to Islam, the religion.
The most prominent indication of this rejection is the photo of Obama clad in what some viewed as “terrorist gear.” In a BBC interview, the Somali gentleman photographed with the Senator expressed remorse, saying if he had known the photo could potentially compromise Obama’s candidacy, he would never have made the request to dress him in the hidda iyo dhaqan, the Somali term for the popular garb worn by Christians, Jews and Muslims across the Horn of Africa. The garb is an integral part of the culture of East Africans, and it has been reduced to an iconic endorsement of terrorism. The premise is that Muslims are bad, and Somalis are mostly Muslims; therefore, a photo of Obama in an “African costume” alongside a Somali implies that he is a “terrorist sympathizer” by association. I fail to see how this translates, but this absurd idea appeals to core of Islamophobia.
The underlying assumptions entertain an inseparableness between Islam, religious fundamentalism, and terror. Muslims have become racialized, dehumanized, and reduced to a slew of stereotypes. Our very existence is characterized by violence and anti-modernity. The overwhelming response by commentators and candidates from all parties has been to address inaccuracies in the linking of Obama to Islam – not to question the roots of this bias or its context and reverberations in our society.
The recent discussions effectively imply that Muslims have no right to function or play a meaningful role as candidates in the political process. They completely disregard the six million American Muslims who are stakeholders and constituents of this country.
It may be impossible for some to comprehend the extent to which the post-9/11 backlash has fueled changes in government policies, often providing a legal mandate for profiling, as well as a shift in rhetoric and the ways in which we discuss “the other.” It is now acceptable to insult Muslims in media discourse, academic circles or in polite forums. The tone in which we discuss religious minorities, refugees, and immigrants have paved way for heightened levels of xenophobia. And instead of challenging such sentiment, the mass media echo and engage with this racism in the midst of a contested race
Muslim is the new black. The label instills foolish fears and promotes intolerance toward Muslims. Polls conducted by the Washington Post/ABC News and the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) after the infamous caricatures of Mohammed convey that anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. According to the first poll, more Americans believe that Muslims in disproportional numbers are prone to violence. Forty-six percent of Americans have negative views toward Islam, a greater proportion than immediately after 9/11. The CAIR poll revealed that almost half of Americans have negative views of Muslims, and a fourth of the population was found to have extreme anti-Muslim views. A recent Pew survey concludes that only 43 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Muslims, compared to a 60 percent favorable opinion of evangelicals and a 76 percent favorable view of Jews. Americans by and large are afraid of Muslims and continue to harbor misconceptions about this marginalized group. And now, in a crucial campaign season, a candidate’s credibility is being eroded by a false link to a religion scarred by post-9/11 backlash.
Throughout the process of the 2008 elections, the sensitivities of the Muslim community remain widely unacknowledged. This is the test of our time; I hope Islamophobia and religious McCarthyism will not be our legacy.
–Ramla Bile is the Assistant to the Executive Director at The Advocates for Human Rights. Prior to joining The Advocates, she worked as an editorial board member and columnist for The Minnesota Daily.