If Islam were a skin color, there would be a sliding scale along which you could determine just how Muslim you are. On the extremely Muslim end, there would be classic identifiers — hijab or niqab for women, a beard and skullcap for men. On the light Muslim end, there would be those whose identity can only be determined because of a name or provenance, those who usually “pass” in public and are not immediately identifiable. Let’s call this the Identity Matrix.
In order to predict how likely it is that a Muslim will be discriminated against, another measurement needs to be overlaid over visibility — The Privilege Scale. Jobs, wealth, education and other markers of status interplay with the degree of perceived Muslimness that can confer or deny immunity. This is pretty much how identifiers are leavened with social status (or lack thereof) across minority groups in most parts of the world.
Certain attributes and accoutrements offer some Muslims a “pass.” Sara Yasin, a Palestinian American journalist, remarked on how comparatively easy her passage through life in the United States is due to her pale skin, hazel eyes and neutral first name. A pass almost always depends on the ease with which an individual can blend into the affluent dominant culture. It sounds dramatic, and it is.
The ways Muslims have been fingered, pathologized and persecuted mean that the Muslim identity is being calibrated and re-calibrated in order to settle upon one dominant narrative. During the presidential election, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims,” immediately casting suspicion upon any Muslim as a potential threat. He also suggested that Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parent who appeared alongside her husband to support Hillary Clinton, was “not allowed to speak,” because she was Muslim.
These broad strokes are not only the preserve of the political right. Liberals such as Bill Maher have been at it for years. On terrorism, Maher suggested that, “if Muslim men could get laid more, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
This drive to otherize and dehumanize Muslims is grotesque, and the speed and uncoordinated efficiency of it seems almost like a natural phenomenon. But it isn’t. It’s a confluence of unnatural, dynamic and calculated narrow interests that dictate who gets to be “mainstream.”
So several Muslim identities now jostle together in a marketplace of profiling.
The angry radicalized youth, as exemplified by Omar Mateen, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tashfeen Malik and Rizwan Farouq join the subjugated woman in a burqa that Laura Bush and Cherie Blair came out in support of in Afghanistan in 2001. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “Mipsters,” Muslim hipsters, and the latest entrants, the “hijababes.”
It’s important to note that this is all playing out predominantly in countries where Muslims are newly arrived immigrants or at most second generation. There is a different conversation, and sometimes violent struggle, taking place in Muslim countries in order to establish an overriding nationalist/religious identity, but the cataloguing of Muslims as a radical and sinister “other” is primarily a Western phenomenon where Muslims are relatively recent arrivals.
This is one of the main reasons the plot was lost by Muslims so early on in this othering process. We simply did not have enough time to accrue social and economic capital in our new countries of settlement, and thus did not have the chance to forge an identity that could transcend the flattening effect of an unrepresentative popular culture convulsing with shock after the Sept. 11 attacks. That and the fact that we are relatively few in number in our respective new countries.
Immigrants to the United Kingdom from South Asia suffered similar racial stigmatization in the 1970s and ’80s when the word “paki” was a common racial slur.
According to the Pew Research Center, American Muslims make up 1 percent of the U.S. population (around 3.3 million), and many are non-immigrant African-Americans, while Arab Muslims arrived in the country in the 20th century. In Europe, Muslims make up about 8 percent of the population, but that also includes indigenous Muslims in Russia and the Balkans who do not fall into the “migrant threat” category.
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.
Everyone else gets to be treated as an individual, complex and irreducible, while Muslims get treated as Muslims. The Muslim identity matrix is not to be conflated with a pride in identity. That is more of an effortless expression, un-demanded.
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.”
Nesrine Malik is a writer based in London whose work has appeared in The Guardian and The Independent in the United Kingdom.