I Am Not Your Muslim : NPR

Valid points on pigeon-holing identities by Nesrine Malik:

But recent still-in-flux Muslim populations are being forced into an identity matrix that ends up serving the ultimate purpose of setting apart and alienating people in their own homes. Oxford-based freelance journalist Shaista Aziz said, “Younger Muslim women have said to me they feel under pressure to appear in an over styled, hypersexualized way in order to fit in — to wear flawless make up, a certain style of clothing and a certain style of hijab.” She said visibility for Muslim women is increasingly based on appearance. “The images are narrow and manipulated by a dominant media and commercial narrative. Muslim women who are given space to be visible in public spaces almost always have to be in hijabs? Why? All of this is dangerous and counterproductive.”

Today, Muslims are subjected to whatever the Muslim equivalent of “mansplaining” is. Non-Muslims tell us, with great certainty and in great detail, what Muslims are; or Muslims ventriloquizing on behalf of non-Muslims do the same, but not in a way that makes them consciously complicit.

Take the Khans of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for example. They are liberal America’s final answer to the right’s toxic messaging and Trump’s “Muslim ban” electioneering. Rather than countering simplistic and reductionist views of Muslims, they confirmed them — something that was not lost on many, despite how desperate the situation was. At the time, The New York Times reported that:

“The manner in which Mr. Khan was lionized in the American media also aroused discomfort and debate among other American Muslims. Some say it has resurrected the specter of the ‘good Muslim’ — the idea, born of the febrile post-2001 era, that Muslim-American patriotism can be measured only by the yardstick of terrorism and foreign policy. That raised a question: Did Mr. Khan’s testimony, determined and powerful as it was, show that it takes the death of a son, in a disputed war in a Muslim land, to prove you are a good American?”

As happened with the Khans, the identity matrix is a trap that presents itself as the answer to broad-brush generalizations about Muslims as terrorists or radicals, but actually ends up being similarly simplistic.

A whole cottage industry has taken root, one that presents different Muslim products, sometimes literally in a matrix. A popular video of different Muslims saying “I’m Muslim but I’m not [insert generically Muslim quality]” is a good example of this genre of well-intentioned efforts that legitimize all the questions hanging over Muslims. Hijabi women rap and pose on the cover of Playboy. Muslim reformers in hipster beards and skinny jeans are featured in magazines, reducing “empowerment” to lifestyle and perpetuating the trope of the good Muslim — a relatable, relatively affluent creature whose identity enables a non-Muslim to neatly annotate and categorize in a manner that does not challenge any latent prejudices or preconceptions.

Hijabi women for example, get most of the high profile exposure even though they are a minority within a minority. There are more Muslim women in hijab fronting social activism campaigns than there are that do not wear the headscarf. These are attractive strong women who are leaders in their fields, but part of their elevation is due to them making a more powerful point in their hijab, because it is the symbol most associated with Muslim subjugation of women.

Teen Vogue recently picked up a Webby award for a series “demolishing misconceptions about Muslim women.” Most of these women were in hijab, with a very distinct style image. Teen Vogue is indeed characterized by an aspirational lifestyle element, but it is part of a wider phenomenon and a continuation of the good Muslim trope. Those that adhere to the trend assume that an explanation of a certain point on the identity matrix where visibility and privilege intersect means that the entire scale of Muslim experience has been humanized.

However, to frame everything in terms of refutation is the opposite of empowerment.

Muslims genuinely trying to push back against negative stereotypes is no longer just a matter of representation, but survival. Liberal politicians and media are also keen to oppose right-wing views of Muslims, and the consumerist market in general sees Muslims as a new iteration of “behind the veil” tropes or Westernized “bad asses” (see Nike’s recent commercial starring Muslim women defying disapprovers as they sport their way to freedom). The commodification of Muslim identity is emerging as the most powerful influence in the process of identity formation. The interaction between the free market and the very narrow prism through which dominant establishment thinking is filtered has begun to treat Muslims like any other product.

This is not to suggest that Muslims have some innate authenticity that should transcend the inevitable and highly competitive market of merchandise whose subjects have very little say in what is amplified and what is not, but some refuse to resign themselves to it. The grotesque prejudice and violence against Muslims has created a counter push where only positive, stylized, aspirational, attractive, overly feminized, bourgeoisie Islam has flooded the zone. It is at once too much and not enough. An exercise in erasure.

If there were a James Baldwin of the Muslim diaspora, his rebuke to this race to the bottom would be “I am not your Muslim.”

Source: I Am Not Your Muslim : Code Switch : NPR

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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