9/11: Five years later: TYPECASTING MUSLIMS AS A RACE
“Sam” Hachem, a Lebanese immigrant, is treated as an “Eastern European” until he tells people his first name is really Hussein, at which point they start talking about terrorism. Chronicle photo by Eric Luse
One in an occasional series of articles related to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks
As the war on terror heads into its sixth year, a new racial stereotype is emerging in America. Brown-skinned men with beards and women with head scarves are seen as “Muslims” — regardless of their actual faith or nationality.
Law enforcement measures, politicians, religious leaders and the media have contributed to stereotyping Muslims as a race — echoing the painful history of another faith.
“Muslims are the new Jews,” said Paul Silverstein, an anthropology professor at Reed College in Oregon who studies the intersection of race, immigration and Islam. “They’re the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with Muslims.”
The Muslim caricature has ensnared Hindus, Mexicans and others across the country with violence, suspicion and slurs. And it has given new form to this country’s age-old dance around racial identity.
With fair skin, green eyes and brown hair, Dailyah Patt is white. But when she puts on a head scarf, Patt has discovered, people see her as something altogether different.
The Modesto-born convert to Islam has had people categorize her as Palestinian, and she’s been told: “Go back to your own country.” So Patt removes the hijab, as the head scarf is commonly referred to, when she goes to job interviews or has to fly.
“I can pass as Christian,” said Patt, 27, a Palo Alto resident, who was frustrated by repeated airport security interrogations until she stopped wearing a scarf. She feels “oppressed” for feeling forced into shedding a required article of the faith.
Nida Khalil, on the other hand, is Palestinian, spent many of her teenage years in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and deeply identifies with Palestinian politics. A nonpracticing Muslim, she doesn’t wear a head scarf. People tell her they think she is Latino.
She can’t think of a single instance in the past five years when she’s felt harassed for looking like someone from the Middle East.
“I feel really badly for women who have to live in the U.S. that do wear hijab,” said Khalil, 26, a San Mateo resident. “I can’t even imagine all the snickers or stares … or the disrespect they get from Western fanatics.”
Patt and Khalil’s experiences show how race works, say scholars who study the phenomenon: People often project their assumptions onto others based on physical characteristics, even ignoring their own experiences.
Caricaturing a faith as a race poses particular problems because there is no set of shared physical characteristics. For example:
— Most Arabs in the United States, such as Ralph Nader, are not Muslims.
— Many Palestinians are Christian.
— Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, but its residents don’t resemble the stereotype.
— African Americans make up more than a quarter of the U.S. Muslim population, more than any other ethnicity. Complicating matters, Muslims who are black often are confused with Black Muslims, Nation of Islam followers, who abide different beliefs.
“You can’t define what a Muslim looks like,” said Saifulloh Amath, 23, a San Jose resident who is Cham, an ethnic group native to Vietnam and Cambodia.
His family has been Muslim as long as it can trace. But he is taken for a “devout Buddhist.”
“You can’t stereotype all of humanity under one dress code,” Amath said. “In the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, you have people who speak Arabic,” the language of the Quran.
For women, the stereotype revolves around wearing a scarf, which complies with a religious requirement to cover their hair.
For men, the caricature has almost nothing to do with faith because there’s no physical attribute unique to Muslim men. The male stereotype involves beards and skin, eye and hair color, and names.
“Sam” Hachem usually doesn’t introduce himself by his real first name. With sandy-brown hair and gray-green eyes, the clean-shaven Hachem said people often guess after hearing his accent that he is “Eastern European.”
But once he gets comfortable with someone, Hachem usually tells them his first name is Hussein and that he’s a Lebanese immigrant.
At that point, people react. They immediately move to subjects around terrorism.
Once when he revealed his name at a bar, someone joked and asked him if he was going to blow up the place. Hachem retorted, laughing, “No, there’s not enough people.”
“When they hear the name, I’m a totally different person,” said Hachem, 29, a nonpracticing Muslim. “They automatically think of trouble.”
The Oakland resident believes he could easily use his real name full time in the Bay Area, which he thinks is accepting of difference. It’s just easier to start off with Sam.
The idea of mass violence in the name of religion is a millennia-old theme in many faiths. But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks gave Americans their most dramatic and direct experience with violence under the banner of Islam. The act of 19 hijackers has been assumed to represent the beliefs of the estimated 6 million Muslims in America, regardless that few share their beliefs.
That narrow prism has been exaggerated by many factors, such as antagonism toward Islam among some evangelical Christians, who have described Islam as “evil” and have viewed the war in Iraq as an opportunity for conversions.
But beliefs are hard to spot on the street, said Professor Howard Winant, a sociologist of race at UC Santa Barbara and co-author of “Racial Formation in the United States.” And stigma demands a physical image.
“We have to get racial, because it’s got to work through appearance in some way,” Winant said.
Intensified law enforcement scrutiny, especially at airports, has played a large part in creating this new racial identity, say Winant and other academics who have studied the “racialization” of Muslims.
Immediately after Sept. 11, across the United States more than 1,000 men from Muslim countries were detained, mostly on immigration charges. The majority were deported.
The U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged that many of the accusations of terrorism that resulted in immigration arrests have been generated solely by race-based perceptions. In one instance — out of many cases revealed in 2003 by the department’s inspector general — a tipster called the FBI about a grocery store that he said was run by “Middle Eastern men” and seemed to have “too many people to run a small store.” One man was arrested.
Then, in 2002 and again in 2003, men and boys living in the United States from roughly 20 Muslim countries who didn’t have permanent residency were required to register with immigration officials or face deportation.
Politicians and military leaders have characterized Islam as evil. Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, an evangelical Christian, has told church groups that the U.S. war on terrorism has a religious foundation. “Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army,” he said in 2003.
And President Bush has been inconsistent in his characterizations of Islam. In 2003, making good on a campaign promise, he issued guidelines that banned racial profiling by federal law enforcement. But there was one exception: national security, including immigration.
Days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he denounced bigotry toward Muslims and declared from a Washington, D.C., mosque that “Islam is peace.” But this summer, after an alleged plan to blow up planes headed from London to the United States was thwarted, Bush said Aug. 10 that the United States “is at war with Islamic fascists.”
“The United States has always had this tendency to racialize its international conflicts domestically, to view international conflicts as domestic threats,” said Winant, the UC Santa Barbara professor. “As a nation of immigrants, it’s the easiest place in the world to internalize its external conflicts.”
During World War II, Germans, Italians and, in particular, Japanese were viewed as suspicious on national security grounds. Similarly, the rise of communism in the Soviet Union was paralleled by Red Scares at home in the 1920s and again in the 1950s.
Winant said the Arab-Israeli conflict has helped frame stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
“The U.S. is so heavily allied with Israel that the kind of day-in, day-out demonization of Arabs that is associated with that conflict comes home with a vengeance to the United States,” he said.
News and entertainment media also play a role in cultivating this new racial image, consciously or not.
The image of Muslims is closely associated with conflict — the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, or the Emmy Award-winning Fox show “24,” which has dramatized terrorism.
The news cycle’s barrage of images, from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to Iraq and Afghanistan, “gets transformed into an archetypal image of a terrorist,” said Professor Jess Ghannam, chief of medical psychology at UCSF. “That gets internalized very quickly into the ‘Muslim/Arab’ stereotype.”
This happens regardless of whether people know or meet individual Muslims, said Ghannam, affirming assertions made by several other scholars.
The media image has had a particularly devastating effect on men who are Sikh, a 500-year-old monotheistic faith indigenous to India.
Sikhs don’t cut their hair, so Sikh men have beards. They also wear turbans in public, which is very rare for an American Muslim man, particularly outside of a religious context. But Taliban members and al Qaeda leaders, whom few Americans have encountered, wear them. Sikhs have been repeatedly attacked and several killed as a result.
On July 30, a Santa Clara man stabbed a Sikh grandfather because, as a prosecutor said upon filing charges, the assailant “wanted to seek revenge for Sept. 11 and attack a member of the Taliban.”
Stereotyping Muslims has had other profound effects, with 60 percent of respondents to a national poll released Aug. 29 telling researchers with the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut that authorities should single out people who look “Middle Eastern” for security screening at locations such as airports and train stations.
Another national study released last month, by economics researchers at the University of Illinois, found that the earnings of Muslim and ethnically Arab men working in the United States dropped about 10 percent in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Ghannam, the UCSF professor, said it has also resulted in an increased number of Muslims suffering from anxiety, depression and traumatic stress.
“It’s a psychological assault on one’s identity,” he said.
Nonetheless, for many, the racialization of Muslims has become something to embrace.
Omair Ali was stunned by the perception that the religion of Islam would have anything to do with the terrorist attacks. Mirroring the story of many others in the Bay Area, the San Jose resident became more religious after the attacks. He started wearing a skullcap and grew a beard, only the latter of which is required by stricter observers of the faith.
Ali wants people to see his good acts in daily life as a testament to the faith. The physical image helps remind him to be righteous, he said.
“When you become a visible Muslim, people are watching you,” said Ali, 29. “If you do anything bad — if you cuss, or spit or cut someone off on the road — it goes directly back to the faith. It makes you more conscious.”
Racial stereotyping is also present within the Muslim community. Muslims were among the slaves imported from Africa at least as early as the 1600s. And African Americans later established mosques around the nation. Yet, African American Muslims have long complained that Arab Muslims don’t treat them as full members of the faith.
“When you’re an African American Muslim, you’re dealing with two kinds of bigotry: the bigotry of white America and also with Arab bigotry,” said Adisa Banjoko, 36.
Banjoko said that he’s had days where he’s been followed in a department store by security, believing his blackness gives him a propensity toward crime. Later, he’ll go to a store run by an Arab Muslim and greet the owner with the Arabic “Salaam alaikum,” a Muslim greeting that means “Peace be upon you,” but the store owner won’t return “the salaams.”
“Immigrants very quickly understand how racial categories in the U.S. work, the pecking order and the desire to whiten oneself,” said Michigan State Professor Salah Hassan, who has written about the post-Sept. 11 racialization of Muslims. “You definitely have that kind of bigotry.”
Silverstein, the Reed College anthropology professor, believes there is a potentially dangerous endgame to the racialization of Muslims, just as in France, where French-born Muslim youths reject French identity and conflicted with authorities last year.
By contrast, American Muslims have long been vigorously campaigning that there’s little dissonance between being Muslim and American.
But if through law enforcement and political measures “people are signaled long enough that they’re not American,” Silverstein said, “then America is going to stand in Muslim American minds as a bad thing, as something they would resist.”