Victims and Villains: How We Think About Our Muslim Neighbors Matters

This blog post was submitted by Nicholas R. Lang, a senior at DePaul University. Nick serves as Media Intern for the Interfaith Youth Core and is a resident of the Vincent and Louise House on campus. He is also a co-founder and co-president of DePaul A.V. Club.

When we talk about Islamophobia, we generally talk about such hate as a phenomenon very much in the present.  The Park51 and Shariah law controversies have made Americans and our media hyperaware of the state of Islamophobia in 2010, as if we are experiencing intolerance anew.

However, while watching the Muslim-Christian episode of Morgan Spurlock’s late, great reality series, “30 Days,” I made an interesting discovery.

For those who haven’t seen the program, each episode more or less follows a similar format.  People are made to live with each other for 30 days and at the beginning feel Very Different.  By the credits, they find out that they Aren’t Really That Different.

In the intro to this episode, a cartoon narrator explains that a wave of Islamophobia is “sweeping across the country.”  Spurlock then interviews a number of representatives of the common folk to ask their opinions of Muslims.  It doesn’t go well.  They play a free association game: When you hear the word terrorist, what do you think of?

The universal reply: Muslims.

Although that might be enough for your outrage button, here comes the real punch line.  We think about this sort of very forthright Islamophobia as being a relatively recent flare up, as Gallup polls suggest.  However: this episode aired back in 2005, five years before anybody got mad that they were “building a mosque on Ground Zero.”

New question: How can a wave of Islamophobia be sweeping across the country for five years?

Well, it can’t.

In “Reel Bad Arabs,” analyst Jack Shaheen discusses cinematic depictions of Arab culture, finding that if this wave has been “sweeping across the country,” it has been doing so for at least a hundred years.  To wit, way back in 1897, a short film by Thomas Edison depicted Arab women as sensual belly dancers.

In a post-Edward Said West, our media may have covered the dancing ladies and dropped the sex, but Those People remain the Other du jour.  Although the stereotypes used to be of “bellydancers, billionaires and bombers,” the last couple decades came to largely define the divide as between Good and Bad Arabs.

Back in the early 90’s, Disney’s Aladdin shows the Good Arabs to be a lot like us.  They have toothy smiles, non-regional American accents and get the girl in the end.  The bad Arabs talk funny, have twisty beards and cannot be trusted.  Watch out for their amulets, parrots and snakes and don’t, for Allah’s sake, give them a magic genie.

But although Disney let Aladdin be the hero, the Good/Bad dichotomy has become more explicitly defined after 9/11 as the tension between Villains and Victims.  Whereas the former dichotomy usually takes on cultural overtones, the Victim/Villain divide seems to only be used in explicitly religious contexts and became especially prevalent after the invasion of Iraq.

In rare cases, these dichotomies may be apt, but we need to get past this thinking about Muslims as Victims or Villains if we are to stop thinking about them as the Other.  We need to start thinking about them as Just People, who Really Aren’t That Different.

When have we seen a film in which a Muslim was Just a Person?  When was the last time we read a human-interest piece about a Muslim-American hero? Park51 became a media staple, so many Christians were furious that Arabs weren’t doing a better job of outreach to non-Muslim communities, to preach against Islamic fundamentalism.

But they don’t need to preach it; they live it. As an International Studies student and a queer agnostic ally, I stand with these sorts of heroes every day, Muslims committed to creating an American We that includes them.

It’s been nine years since the towers fell, and Muslims began to be afraid that Islamophobia was taking over America.  It’s been five years since Morgan Spurlock was afraid that Islamophobia was taking over America.  Four months after Park51, we have to ask ourselves: how long are we going to keep being afraid?

Our Muslim neighbors live in this America every day.  They are working to build a better one.

How long will it be before we join them?

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