I was on the evening train from Washington to New York, happily reading a book, when I overheard a sliver of conversation that would make it impossible to concentrate and remind me just what an uphill struggle it could be to be a Muslim in America, today. “And those cartoons! They get so angry about cartoons but planes flying into buildings? My God. Cartoons, said a woman. “That’s why the two people shouldn’t mix, is what I thought I heard the man next to her reply. I felt at once nauseous and invisible. I was sickened by the contempt for Muslims that was clear in the woman’s words. In my own writing, I have criticized as exaggerated the reaction by some Muslims to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. But I criticize as a Muslim who is proud to be identified as such. And I felt invisible because it was obvious that these two Americans never for a second thought a Muslim could be there on the train with them. To them, Muslims were “over there, somewhere primitive and far away, not on a train from Washington to New York, just like them. I tried to imagine what it would be like to ignore what I had heard. I tried to continue reading my book. On any other day it might have worked. But I had spent that day at the home of a friend and her family who were so absolutely and comfortably American and Muslim at the same time that it made even more absurd the notion of Muslims as “over there. And I could not ignore the comment that weekend, which I had spent at a conference of the Egyptian American Alliance for Youth in Virginia. Egyptian Americans had flown to the conference from more than 10 states. Not everyone was a Muslim, of course, but those who were managed to embrace all their identities seamlessly, further highlighting the absurdity of the idea of a clash of civilizations. These young people were the reason there wouldn’t be such a clash. It was impossible to ignore the conversation of course. And so I put my book away, pulled out two business cards from my bag, put a smile on my face and turned around to begin a conversation meant to remind my train companions that Muslims were “over here too. I reminded them of the many condemnations issued after September 11, 2001, and of the critical Muslim voices that did not always make it into the media they followed. But I also explained that Muslims were angry because something they held to be sacred had been insulted. And to the man who seemed to think the two people should not mix, I explained neither Muslims nor Westerners were monoliths. I told him I was sure he would hate to be lumped in with the stereotype of whatever the West or America was supposed to be. I told my train companions that I have had mirror conversations in the Middle East in which I’ve tried to explain that there is another America besides the cheap stereotype. Actually, we ended up having a good conversation that also touched on our views over what the U.S. should do about Iraq. Most importantly, by the time I turned around and resumed my reading, my train companions knew there was a Muslim sitting in front of them. My train companions were sad examples of the growing proportion of Americans who expressed unfavorable views of Islam, as documented in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. A majority of Americans now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence and nearly half of Americans, 46 percent, have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the months after the September 11 attacks, The Washington Post reported. According to the newspaper, experts said Americans’ attitudes about Islam were fueled in part by political statements and media reports focusing almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists. For example, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who were trying to block the Bush administration’s attempt to hire a Dubai company to manage operations at six American ports resorted to the worst kind of anti-Arab stereotypes. For many Americans, Arabs and Muslims are interchangeable. As for the media, you will invariably see more images of those Muslims angry at cartoons, angry, violent, and destructive, and of extremists whose views are obligingly black and white, than you will see Muslims who are able to present an argument that is both self-critical and nuanced. But to practice self-criticism of my own here, some Muslims have been all too willing to fit the stereotype. If it is not apparent already, the fallout of the cartoon controversy has caused untold damage to the way Muslims are perceived around the world. It feels at times as if Muslims, particularly those of us who live in the West, are firefighters, constantly on call to put out the fires of radical disasters, usually caused by Muslims who don’t live in the West. I dread Fridays sometimes. For it is on those days that it seems the entire world’s media decides to attend Friday prayers, listen to the sermon and then rush to report the latest radical proclamations of the imams, as if those imams speak for us all. It is tiring and tedious to always have to be ready with a statement of condemnation. But being a Muslim is a full-time job. Especially in the West.
Mona Eltahawy (www.monaeltahawy.com) is a New York-based commentator. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.