Our mind automatically and inevitably categorizes people and things in stereotypes. It helps us make sense of the world and satisfies our need to understand and predict the social world. We categorize individuals as members of groups, and assign a defined set of characteristics to this group based on appearance or our assumptions. The tragic bombing in Boston evoked speculation on who fit the profile of the Boston Marathon bomber, and temptation to give in to stereotypes overpowered.
Upon learning that that the likely perpetrators of the attacks in Boston were Muslim, Congressman Peter King urged that what is “politically correct” be put aside and fortify a stereotype of American Muslims by intensifying a mass surveillance of them based simply on their faith. The FBI also singled out a young Saudi man injured at the scene and searched his apartment, even though his actions were no different from the hundreds of other individuals injured during the blast. Boston police surrounded a United Airlines plane after it was grounded based on reports of two men engaged in the “suspicious act of speaking Arabic.” However, this blatant targeting of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans began long before Boston.
Since September 11th, much of American politics and governance has centred on a “War on Terror” and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although there are differences between the two wars, they have a common feature: an interaction between the US and the Muslim world. The ‘enemy’ in this war on terror has repeatedly been identified by its religious identity and often through the rhetoric and reality of political leaders, the “War on Terror” implicates a subset of Muslims. Despite attempts to differentiate between groups like al-Qaeda from Islam and Muslims as a whole, public opinion about the War on Terror is that of having derogatory attitudes about Muslims.
From the PBS television program “Jihad in America” to the “Crimson Jihad” depicted in the film “True Lies,” the images of Muslims in the media is an increasing concern. The uses of the term jihad are illustrative of the problem. In Islam, the term jihad is used to define a personal struggle to make oneself a better Muslim, and in mainstream media the same term is used to illustrate a holy war.
This stereotype has crossed over into discriminatory policing efforts which have included planting undercover officers in mosques, restaurants and stores in New York City and New Jersey, without any evidence of wrong doing. American communities have been mapped on the basis of race, ethnicity, national original and religious, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are routinely harassing, intimidating and seizing data from Americans returning from abroad if agents perceive them to be Muslim. According to reports published by Muslim Advocates, CBP agents also ask travelers that appear to be Muslim about their political views, what they think of the War in Iraq, how they feel about the conflict in Kashmir, and what they think of the US President.
News stories about Muslims often involve crises, war, and conflict, and include terms such as fundamentalist, terrorist, militant, radical or extremist. The media’s portrayal and stereotypes of Muslims are not only demeaning, they are dangerous. There have been vicious attacks on innocent Muslims. Last November, a Queens, N.Y., man was stabbed six times as he stood outside his mosque by an attacker who shouted “F—— Muslim, I’ll kill you.” In the wake of the Boston bombing, a drunken Northern Virginia man reportedly attacked and broke the jaw of a cab driver after saying “If you’re a Muslim, you’re a jihadist. You are just as bad as the rest of them.” In Canada, in 2012 mosques were vandalised in Gatineau, Winnipeg, and Charlottetown, and veiled Muslim women attacked in Kingston, Ontario and New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. This is a disturbing but unsurprising result of the belief that Muslims are a threat because of their religion.
The worst instance of what was probably intended as anti-Muslim violence was the August 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Sikhs, who wear turbans, are frequently mistaken for Muslims. Wade Michael Page opened fire in the temple, killing six and wounding four, including a police officer, before turning the gun on himself. Page reportedly had links to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
Hollywood has had a consistent record of Muslim stereotyping and bashing. In 1897, Thomas Edison made a short film in which Muslim women with enticing clothing belly danced to seduce a male audience.
For years the trend shifted and during the oil crises in the seventies, Muslims were depicted as billionaires. However, in the last 30 years, the predominant stereotype by far has been the “Arab bombers.”
Even literature vilifies Muslims, and has historically been doing so. George Byron, in his 1810 story The Giaour, a Fragment of a Turkish Tale writes about a vile Muslim man who kidnaps and enslaves the western heroine, then throws her into the sea. A century later, John Lloyd Stevens wrote in his 1920’s travel narrative that “every devout Muslim man had thirty-six perpetual virgins to minister his needs.” The accompanying illustration displayed two nude women with the caption, “What every pious Muslim expects to find in paradise.” Paul Watkins, in his 1990 novel In the Blue Light of African Dreams writes that Moroccans use a Westerner’s skull as a paving stone for one of their mosques.
Although Islam is one of the three great monotheistic religions, most people know little about its teachings, its holy days, or its commonalities with Christianity and Judaism. Muslims believe in many of the same things as Jews and Christians, and in the same prophets. The social harmony with Christians and Jews has always been a central tenet of Islam, and on social problems there is almost complete agreement between believing Christians and Muslims.
Stereotypes are a way for us as individuals to function but the vilification of any race or religion is wrong. In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations, cataloguing mosques and harassing travellers at the borders, not one lead was generated nor did the information obtained trigger a terrorism investigation. From Sandy Hook to Aurora to Oak Creek to Tucson, mass killings have become a disturbing new reality for Americans. Moreover, targeting people based on race or religion has not helped law enforcement officials in their tasks of catching terrorists.
Unless proactive programs are constructed and implemented, nothing will change. Some stereotypes are maliciously wrong and hostile stereotyping can have horrible consequences.