On June 8, I wrote a column entitled “The Arab Spring & Big, Bad, Scary Muslims” about the depiction of Muslims in academia and media, citing the recent cover of “The Atlantic.” The truth is that I could write each and every day about the unfair depictions of Muslims and Arabs in the news, films, books, and by political pundits. But I’ll do my best to just do it two weeks in a row.
This was a bad news week for Muslims.
Republican congressman Peter King held hearings last week about Islamic radicalization in American prisons. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain proclaimed that he would not appoint any Muslim judges or cabinet members, since many American Muslims “are trying to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.” Syrian president Bashar Assad told the world that he was not killing peaceful protestors, but rather protecting his country from Islamic “armed gangs.”
Now, let me add a personal note here. I am, to put it mildly, not the most religious guy. I come from a Palestinian Christian father and a Palestinian Muslim mother. Religion was present in our house. We celebrated every holiday: Christmas, Eid, Easter, Eid. During Ramadan, we fasted… a little. I think my dad even fasted a few times. He must have pissed off my mom the day before. Religion was present, but not central. My siblings and I grew up as neither atheists nor fervent believers. I was baptized (which is maybe why my dad had to fast), but I was never pulled in either religious direction. As a Palestinian, every Abrahamic faith is part of my heritage. So a Christian-Muslim marriage seems natural. If my dad was Muslim, I guess he could have married another woman. I would have rooted for a Jew.
In any case, I find myself loudly criticizing the mis-characterizations of Islam and Muslims in the media. It feels natural, and not only because I am defending half of my DNA. As with anything else, there is much to be criticized in Islamic culture and political systems. There is much to be poked fun at. But blanket denouncements, like those of Peter King, or outright collective characterizations, like those of Herman Cain, or blatant and intentional misleading labels, like those of Bashar Assad, are illegitimate.
Islam, like the cultures and societies it influences, is complicated, varied, storied, and deep. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Gus, the irreverently proud Greek father, famously quipped, “When my people were developing philosophy, your people were still swinging from trees.” A Muslim could easily say, “We had 100 Shakespeares 500 years before you had one.”
The Arab Spring, in many ways, is a reclaiming of that deep pride. While the American mind might reach back a couple hundred years, the Arab/Muslim historical consciousness reaches back over 1500 years. To dismiss that history and simply paint Islam the way King, Cain, and Assad do is simply ignorant. It is meant only to instill fear. It differs little from the tactics of Al-Qaeda, which notoriously depicts Westerners in a way that simplifies and devalues them and their culture.
Perhaps Peter King should bring in prominent American Muslims to his hearings to speak about their thoughts. Maybe he could call in Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Fareed Zakaria. Or Shaquille O’Neal, Dave Chapelle, or Ice Cube. Or Barack Obama… wait, I think we’re still keeping that one a secret.
Do you really think Herman Cain wouldn’t hire Shaq? He’d make a great Secretary of Defense. No one would mess with us. He wouldn’t hire Dave Chapelle as his press secretary? Those would be fun news conferences.
Of course, what Assad is doing is much worse. King and Cain could be characterized as victims of a decades-long smear campaign against Muslims in American film, media, and politics. But Bashar knows better. He is using Western depictions of Islam to scare his own Arab people. And it’s not working.
So, yes, it was a bad couple weeks for Muslims in the news. And just when it couldn’t get worse, along came Anthony Weiner. He tweeted naked photos of himself to various women, all while married to a beautiful, educated Muslim woman, Huma Abedin. Only God knows what she must have gone through with her family just to marry him. And now this. Well, it turns out Arab and Muslim men aren’t the only philandering jerks. So are Jewish-American congressmen, Austrian-American governors, and French heads of the IMF.
Huma, you are Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman. I’m sure you guys have a lot to talk about now. But if you ever need to complain about your Jewish husband to a non-religious Christian-Muslim-Palestinian-American man… I’m here for you.