Sunday, November 23rd, 2008
In 2006-2007, I wrote monthly columns for SaudiDebate.com, an online liberal forum on the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is now defunct so I’ll be republishing here on my blog some of my favourite pieces that I wrote for them, starting with this one from February 2007.
What Does a Muslim Look Like?
By Mona Eltahawy
Feb. 11, 2007
What does a Muslim look like? What does a Muslim home look like? And just who exactly makes up the Muslim mainstream?
These questions came to mind after I took part in a panel discussion in New York City recently called “American Muslims”. It was meant to highlight the diversity of Muslim voices and experiences in the United States. My co-panelists and I thought we did a good job. They were Asra Nomani, the Indian-born journalist and author of “Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam” and Altaf Hussain, also Indian-born, a social worker and a member of the executive committee of the Muslim Alliance in North America. Both Nomani and Hussain moved to the United States as children. I was born in Egypt and have lived in the U.S. for almost seven years.
The panel moderator was Paul Barrett, who was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal for 18 years and currently directs the investigative reporting team at BusinessWeek. He is the author of the recently published “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion”.
Nomani, Hussain and I offered quite different views on a range of subjects that surely were proof of the vibrant debate among Muslims but despite our best efforts, not all were convinced apparently. Two women from the audience were later overheard saying “They’re trying to convince us they’re the mainstream? They’re not the mainstream.”
That, coupled with a question during the Q&A on “what does a Muslim home look like” (read: it can’t possibly look like a home I would recognise), got me wondering against whom my co-panelists and I were being compared.
I’m quite sure it’s Angry Bearded Muslim Man. And Covered in Black Muslim Woman.
My inkling that “Muslims like me” were losing the image war dawned on me the first time I appeared on U.S. television. I got an email a few hours later asking me if I was “sure I was a Muslim”. When I speak on panel discussion or give lectures on Muslim issues, a question I can almost guarantee getting is “how representative are you?”
Implicit in all these questions is the disturbingly prevalent view that there is only one way to be a Muslim. That kind of Muslim is a mainstay of television news around the world. Enter Angry Bearded Muslim Man and Covered in Black M Woman.
Angry Bearded Muslim Man is easily recognizable. He is usually yelling “Allahu Akbar” and burning something – an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush, an American flag or an Israeli flag, preferably all three.
Until his arrest and conviction a couple of years ago, Abu Hamza el-Masri, the London-based Egyptian cleric, was the archetypical Angry Bearded Muslim. With a hook for a hand and only one eye (he lost the other fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan), Masri – or Captain Hook as the tabloids called him – was the darling of the British media. He could always be counted on to make obligingly incendiary statements and for an added bonus the mere sight of him could scare you silly.
His international counterparts were the Angry Bearded Muslim always at the ready to avenge any perceived slight to Muslim sensibilities. This time last year, Angry Bearded Muslim seemed to fill every television screen, burning Danish flags and vowing to kill Danes. It was a year ago exactly that we saw full-steam manufactured outrage against Denmark over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that were published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. I say manufactured because the actual cartoons were published at the end of Sept. 2005 but it wasn’t until the end of January 2006 that Angry Bearded Muslim was mobilized by a series of dictators and clerics to vent on behalf of the Umma.
Judging by news footage, Pakistan seems to harbour the most Angry Bearded Muslim. It is as if a corps of Angry Bearded Muslim is always on the ready to hit the streets in its full glory of anger and zeal.
Angry Bearded Muslim’s female counterpart is Covered in Black Muslim Woman. She either walks silently behind Angry Bearded Muslim or she is the subject of countless books, magazine articles and documentaries about the miserable plight of Muslim women. While I do not doubt for a second that terrible abuses of women’s rights are sadly too often justified in the name of Islam, it is incredibly frustrating to feel one is always on the losing end of the authenticity battle. It feels at times as if I’m not Muslim enough simply by virtue of not needing to be rescued from an evil, abusive father, brother or husband.
As a journalist I am loathe to blame the media for all and any perceived ills. But in the case of Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman, the media really do have a lot to answer for. Whether it’s the laziness of television producers or the tight and rolling deadlines of the 24-hour news cycle, you can be sure that when it comes to representing Muslims I will always lose out to Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman. And it’s quite easy to see why. Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman make for sexy television. In 10 seconds they convey all you need to know about Muslims – angry men and subservient women. “Muslims like me” on the other hand need too much time to make our nuanced statements which often include complex things like double critiques that take on both Muslim fundamentalism and U.S. foreign policy, for example. We’re too complicated for the evening news. We will always lose out to Angry Bearded Muslim Man and Covered in Black Muslim Woman.
And if you doubt my words, here are just two examples of how “Muslims like me” are always pushed aside for our fundamentalist brothers and sisters.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a crew from the renowned U.S. television news programme “60 Minutes” stood outside a mosque in the Manhattan neighbourhood of Tribeca, waiting for worshippers to come out of Friday prayers. A little research would’ve shown this to be a liberal mosque. Once a week, a woman led the Sufi Zikr there and the deputy imam of the mosque has a pony tail.
As congregants began streaming out of the mosque, the crew approached a woman I know and told her they’d like to interview a Muslim woman. She told them she was a Muslim and would be happy to talk to them. Thanks, but no thanks, they told her. They wanted a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf. The woman was not Covered in Black Muslim Woman and her opinion therefore didn’t count apparently.
For the Muslim male equivalent of that story, I take you to the London neighbourhood of Whitechapel and the stairs of the Royal London Hospital, where a Muslim barrister I know, dressed in a suit, waited for his doctor friend, dressed in a white coat. Both men had just come out of Friday prayers at a nearby mosque. A television crew waited to talk to Muslim men who had just come out of the congregational prayers. They saw the barrister and the doctor but ignored them in favour of an elderly man with a beard who was dressed in a salwar kamees, the traditional garb of South Asians. The men were not Angry Bearded Muslim Men and apparently didn’t count as proper Muslims. Or the TV kind anyway.
Which takes me back to those comments overheard after the panel discussion in New York that implied my fellow panelists and I were not “the mainstream”? Who, but a Muslim, these days would ever be asked how representative they were of their community let alone 1.5 billion people? The idea that a Muslim must represent all others is not only ridiculous in its reductiveness but dangerous in its wish to ignore the real life Muslims on that podium at the New York panel I spoke on in favour of the televised images of Angry Bearded Muslim Man and Covered in Black Muslim Woman.
My solution to all that is to promote confusion.
The next time I’m asked how representative I am, I will ask back “What kind of Muslim do you want?” and quietly celebrate that I am obviously not what they had in mind. Angry Bearded Muslim Man and Covered in Black Muslim Woman are tenacious stereotypes to take on but steadily and daily we must dismantle them by confusing people with our diversity. We must learn to celebrate the inherent silliness of comments like “Are you sure you’re a Muslim” because they are code for “You’re confusing me. You’re not the kind of Muslim I’m used to seeing”.
It is by confusing people that we are allowed to be human beings, not Muslims, not Angry Bearded Muslim Man or Covered in Black Muslim Woman but human beings.