s a good friend prepares to put together a book on the topic of hijab in America I referred her to an incident during then-Senator Barack Obama’s televised presidential campaign rally in Detroit when two hijabis were barred from sitting behind him. The event occurred at a time when there was close scrutiny of Obama’s identity: the phonetic similarity to Osama, his very Arab middle name, Hussein, and, of course, the rumors that he was actually a practicing Muslim, not that there was anything wrong with that, to borrow the inappropriate disclaimer. Obama apologized to the women and vowed to fight discrimination of this sort. To many American Muslims it was perplexing because much of the racism directed at Obama at the time was being couched in anti-Muslim bias. At that moment he was not Obama the inspiring candidate, but Obama the typical American who showed his own anti-Muslim bias.
In the wake of 9/11, American Muslims took to Islamophobia with some borrowed humor: ‘driving while black’ became ‘flying while Muslim.’ And so, as it is with wearing a hoodie, wearing a hijab elicits similar prejudices, as Geraldo Rivera reminded us during his TV appearance last week. In the same commentary where he claims Trayvon Martin was killed because of his sweatshirt, Rivera cites Juan Williams’ comments about being scared when he sees Muslims in religious garb at the airport (one presumes hijab is among the articles of clothing that terrify Williams). Rivera writes that Williams was copping to his fears, but it was a cowardly cover — if a black man like Williams, whom Rivera pointedly refers to as “among America’s sharpest commentators” can say he’s scared of Muslim women, it should be valid for him to say that a black kid in a hoodie had it coming. The implications of his comparison are unsettling.
While anti-Muslim bias is nowhere near on the same level as the racism encountered by generations of black Americans, for American Muslims there are some clear parallels. My veiled friends are often regarded with looks of confusion, disgust and/or plain fear. As a former hijabi, I know the stares. Shaima Alawadi, who wore a headscarf, died Saturday after being brutally beaten with a tire iron in her own home, ostensibly because she was Muslim and Arab, which are often erroneously conflated to be one and the same. She was just 32 and a mother of five. The Southern Poverty Law Center details similar hate incidents against Muslims dating between 2001-2011.
Interestingly, one of America’s earliest introductions to Islam came from the Nation of Islam. This introduction was accompanied by American fears of Black Muslim militancy. Decades later, public awareness of Islam has expanded beyond the NOI, but the associations and fear of violence remain. For Muslims — converts, immigrants and generations born here, Latinos, Asians, whites and others — Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are among our few mainstream representatives, but their black identity and struggle for civil rights is more established than their identity as Muslims. When Yassin Bey (Mos Def) raps “Black like the veil that the Muslimina wear … black like the slave ship belly that brought us here,” young American Muslims identify with the lyrics. We see a blending of Muslim identity with American history, but these representations are not quite cultural mainstream. Islam is primarily associated with Muslims outside of America, inspiring images of foreigners from strange lands, which in turn shaped perceptions of Muslims in America. Edward Said in his 1997 edition of Covering Islam details how U.S. media representations of Muslims contributed to negative public perceptions in the years before September 11. As DoNY contributor Bilen Misfen recently wrote, a large part of the problem is that a culture of fear continues to be reinforced by the media, contributing to the presumptions of guilt and suspicions, of black people as criminals and American Muslims as terrorists.
The hoodie and hijab also converge with the issue of civil rights. My generation was taught in American schools about melting pots. For a girl whose family migrated from xenophobic Germany to California in 1989, it was the kind of message that shaped my myth of America. Yet today American Muslims do not contend with Islamophobia alone, but with the very real possibility that a donation to a charity or a monitored phone call could warrant “material support” for terrorism. The surveillance of Muslim-owned restaurants by the NYPD and FBI programs that will be declassified in the distant future recall the era of COINTELPRO. Civil rights attacks are sometimes framed as controversies. They are not controversies — they are violations that apply to everyone, Muslim or not — and they’re a reminder of the scary powers of law enforcement when certain communities are targeted.
In the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Shaima Alawadi and others like them, I recall Malcolm X’s words: we don’t face a black problem, a religious problem, or even an American problem — it’s a human problem.