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Viewpoint: Looking beyond the Muslim label

BY ZEINAB KHALIL

Published October 11, 2012

I thought I could ignore it. But it’s hard to when it’s screamed at me from six television screens at the CCRB. It’s hard to avoid something that fills my inbox, demanding interview requests and providing unsolicited advice and commentary. And it’s almost impossible to ignore when it’s subversively brought up in class by the student sitting across from me — “I mean just look at what’s happening in the Muslim world!”

What’s happening in the Muslim world? What is the Muslim world? What do Muslims have to say about this madness? It’s not that I wanted to ignore these questions, but at some point, the painful images symbolizing what critics from all political spectrums have claimed as the epitome of the clash of civilizations have affected my social reality. All around me there have been conversations normalizing racism and vilifying Muslims.

There’s a lot to say. I could spend hours talking about the complex history and consequences of colonization in Muslim-majority countries. I could talk about the perception of U.S. hegemony in other countries as a result of years of systematic imperialistic foreign policies. I could spend a long time writing about who my compassionate Prophet Muhammad was, or how my faith encourages me to “repel (evil) with what is better” (Qur’an 41:34). I could write pages about the dangers of demonizing the Other — but this isn’t meant to be a classroom lecture. Rather, I will share my personal narrative, focusing on how these global events affect my daily life as a University of Michigan student.

Since the start of the school year, our lively board — made up of varying committee heads — has been working tirelessly with dedicated community members to organize a diverse range of activities, events and discussions. We hope this programming will improve and enhance the life of students on campus — for Muslim students and the greater campus community alike.

Like many students at the University, balancing school and work while leading a large and active campus organization takes a toll on my inbox (thank God for Gmail filters). It's constantly replenished with e-mails regarding event logistics, outreach with other student organizations and random requests on MSA listservs for textbooks, sewing kits and anything else you can imagine. Recently, the e-mails have continued, but with a new ring to them:

“Are you guys going to post a condemnation of the terrorist killing of a U.S. Ambassador? Might be a good idea.”

“Dear sir, You can see why Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is a false prophet by looking at what is going on in the Middle East. Muslims have raped, tortured, and killed our U.S. ambassador.”

“I'm doing a story localizing the controversial anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” to Michigan, speaking to representatives of the Islamic community here. YouTube is refusing to remove the video from their website, and I hope to talk to someone who can offer an opinion on the behalf of your organization on this issue.”

“Hi there. I am writing to ask for a brief over-the-phone interview from you. This is in light of the YouTube video and the events that have taken place in the Middle East as a result. I simply wish to ask your opinions regarding the video, the reaction to it and any future course of action you guys would like to see taken.”

Aside from the e-mails, I’ve been approached by a number of people who’ve asked me to provide them with MSA’s official statement regarding the recent protests around the world.

I’d like to hope that most of these requests are well-intentioned, or an attempt to put a local spin on an international story. I appreciate those individuals who want to provide Muslim students at Michigan the opportunity to share their opinions on this issue. But the fact that some media outlets and individuals reach out to us only in times of negative and unfortunate events makes me skeptical of their motives. The idea that the very diverse University Muslim community is expected to have a single “reaction” and be seeking a unified “course of action” is precisely the image of reactionary, threatening Muslims on which the media thrives. It’s understandable that some will want to hurry to condemn these senseless acts and defend our faith from prevalent prejudiced rhetoric, but it’s important to remember that this reactionist narrative is being pushed by racist, alarmist media that can’t be trusted to report honestly on Muslim Americans’ experiences and opinions. There’s very little evidence that this “film controversy” or these protests hold a priority in Muslims’s daily lives.

I’m tired of defending ignorant and reactionary people who do not represent me. I am also tired of being told to publicly condemn extremism or become apologetic for people I’ve never met.

For when I do, my voice seems to not be loud enough — my voice becomes ventriloquized and the spotlight stubbornly remains on fringe extremists anyway. Pushing us to consume our time and efforts with these issues is not only burdensome, it also poses a serious social justice issue for our community. When we are expected to spend our time focusing on responding to international events or reacting to incidents instead of being proactive and engaged activists within our communities, this causes a marginalized community to stay within the margins. Instead of focusing on the many incredible initiatives and proactive projects that our community puts together — things like the Civic Engagement Forum or Fast-a-thon or the Islam & Hip Hop Panel — we are pushed instead to narrow our focus on a defined set of issues and to let that consume our time and minds, limiting the scope and strength of our community.

I refuse to play by these preconditioned terms. I refuse to let anyone dictate the agenda for how our relationship with the greater community ought to be or how we should focus our energy on explaining ourselves instead of working on initiatives to create a more inclusive Muslim and campus community. I refuse to follow the script and act out the scenario that certain individuals want to see played out — these individuals benefit from perpetuating this narrative of a looming clash of civilizations and these individuals believe that as a Muslim, my voice is only valuable when condemning or reacting to a distant event. To ask me, an American citizen, how I feel about the killing of an American ambassador is a scathing insult. To ask me why Muslims are so angry and savage presumes that you’ve already made up your mind and are simply looking for a few words to affirm your preconceived notions. I am all for dialogue and effectively engaging different communities, but not when dialogical efforts further pigeonhole oppressed groups.

Until we come to see everybody as multidimensional individuals with complex identities, stories and histories; until we reach a point where we are able to appreciate the nuanced and diverse narratives we carry; until we reject absurd attempts to tokenize, homogenize and essentialize one another using ridiculous phrases like, “What is your reaction as a Muslim?” and “Muslim Rage” and false binaries like “Why do they hate us?” — until then, we cannot learn to shift paradigms and reclaim our voices.

Zeinab Khalil is an LSA junior.