By Kamran Rastegar
San Francisco, California
I flew into London's Heathrow airport from New York City early in April, 1993. The customs agent I presented my passport to took a quick look at my name and asked me accusingly if it was Iranian. I nodded, a little surprised - when traveling, my American passport had always previously overridden any concerns about my heritage.
I was taken into another room and asked to fill out a sheet requesting details about my trip, the length of my visit, who I was staying with, what their address and phone number was, etc. I was bemused while filling it out; the implication of the questionnaire seemed so paranoid compared to the mundane plans of my visit. And yet I must have looked very suspicious to the agents: the family I was staying with had an Iranian name; I'd flown in on a Kuwait Air flight (the cheapest ticket available), I was visiting Birmingham, which has a sizable Islamic community, and my backpack had a small Palestinian flag pinned onto it.
Each detail seemed only to add to the mounting circumstantial evidence against me. The customs agent noted all of this evidence in a notebook, and a superior came by to ask me a few more questions before I was allowed to leave. They put their notes and my forms into a manila dossier, as if to forewarn me from any terroristic foolishness during my visit.
I left actually thankful for the relatively respectful treatment I'd gotten - I have friends who have been held in airports for hours for nothing more than traveling on Iranian passports. I have heard of middle-aged businessmen strip-searched and humiliated, families separated and questioned on no evidence but their national, ethnic or religious background. All things considered, I knew that I was lucky to have had an American passport to hide behind.
Islamophobia is a useful term when describing the gut-level prejudices that Westerners, particularly Americans, have with matters relating to the Middle East. These prejudices have their nexus in the real and perceived conflicts between Islam and Western culture (which is often posited as a conflict with Christianity).
Islamophobia is rooted deeply in the Western psyche and is manifested as biased views in news media depictions, reactionary foreign policy, negative depictions in popular culture, and hate crimes against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern ancestry. Prejudicial views in each of these fields create a symbiotic web of fear-based biases that are immensely difficult to counteract.
These fear-based prejudicial views then get translated into policy and action; cops in Texas question some men on suspicion of planting a pipe bomb solely because they're "Middle Eastern," a mob attacks a woman in Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Federal Building there because she's "Arab," the U.S. refuses to recognize the democratically-elected leaders of Algeria, because they are "fundamentalists."
In the U.S., the news media is one of the most potent voices in the chorus of Islamophobia. For example, last July 28th, the day after a pipe-bomb exploded in Olympic Centennial Park in Atlanta, an article released on the wire services reported that "several men" of "Middle Eastern extraction" were questioned and their house searched by FBI agents in San Antonio, Texas after returning from a trip to the Olympics. This fact was reported in the last paragraph of an article about the bombing without editorial comment. The underlying assumption was that the police were justified in detaining these men because their identification as being of "Middle Eastern extraction" was suspicion enough of potential complicity in a terrorist act.
That the identification of the men as "Middle Eastern" completely belies the fact that those of us who are "Middle Eastern" have our own ways of identifying ourselves: ethnically (Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, etc.); nationally (Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian, etc.); or religiously (Muslim, Christian, Bahaie, etc.) among myriad of other systems of identification. I have never described myself as a Middle Easterner, even to the most ignorant person unaware of the immense cultural differences between Iranians and Egyptians, Moroccans and Syrians, Druze and Zoroastrians, Shias and Sunnis.
That a major voice of the press - this was a wire piece, presumably picked up by dozens of papers - would not give us the benefit of being identified in the same way that the press would identify people from any other region of the world (when has any reporter called a Hungarian a "person of Eastern European extraction," or even a Japanese-American a "person of East Asian extraction?") is an indication of an ongoing problematic and clearly prejudicial view that the major media hold toward the peoples whom they identify as "Middle Eastern."
The almost unconscious links that the news media make between the terms "Middle East," "Islam," "Arab," and words like "terrorist," or "fundamentalist," are all circuitously connected so that the first three words can connote the second two words merely by insinuation.
Western culture has historically conceived of the region called the Middle East as being synonymous with a religion, Islam, and to a great extent an ethnic group, the Arabs. Similarly, news reporting about this region often reduces all other distinctions and cultural nuances into equations involving Islam and/or Arabs. Issues that fall outside this construct (like the Kurdish question) are brushed off as irrational conflicts, "age-old animosities" that cannot be understood through Western rationalist systems, thereby rendering the region as a monolithic and homogenous place.
What is almost never explicated is what the "Middle East" exactly is. Is it solely a geographic location? Or is it instead a term that holds a host of possible insinuations, mostly relating to Islam and by extension to the fear of Islamicist violence?
The name alone indicates that the way the region is viewed in the West is defined entirely by the West - Middle of what? East of where? Equating Islam and the Middle East betrays an incredible ignorance of both the region and the religion. For example, the largest Muslim population in the world is in Southeast Asia - in Indonesia. Fifty-five million Muslims live in Russia, 100 million are Indian. An estimated six million Muslims live in the U.S., of whom one million are African-American. Let's also not forget that Islam as a religion is practiced by peoples of over 4,000 ethnic groups. And yet, the idea of an "Islamic Threat" is almost always equated either with Iranians, Arabs, or the Middle East in general.
There is a great disparity in how Muslim and non-Muslim people who act under the auspices of faith are portrayed by Western media. Almost all political activity that identifies itself with Islam is quickly termed "fundamentalist," or "extremist." Political activity under the auspices of Christianity is rarely given this treatment by mainstream press. The view that Muslims are prone to extremism thereby makes public display of religious affiliation to Islam subject to suspicion.
News reporting also frames the development of U.S. policy toward Muslims and the Middle East. Witness syndicated columnist Jeffrey Hart's assertion in a piece on the TWA crash that "There is no reason not to treat Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya as a single entity." That the U.S. should treat two sovereign nations, Iran and Iraq, who have as many conflicting interests as common ones, as a "single entity" should seem absurd.
Although U.S. policymakers would never publicly be as simplistic as Hart, the U.S. does basically insist on the same isolate-and-punish approach with these nations. The U.S. even threatens other countries that try to foster more nuanced foreign policy in the region with lawsuits and sanctions. Western Europe's relationship with Iran is very different from the one fostered by the last several U.S. administrations, and is much more able to take advantage of the changes that take place in Iran's political fabric. And yet, the Clinton Administration has extended sanctions to penalize other countries who do business with Iran.
Many manifestations of Islamophobia are so understated and sublimated that identifying them can be very difficult. One example of this sort of nuanced racism came up during the San Francisco Examiner's coverage of the freestyle wrestling Olympic gold medal bout between an Iranian wrestler (Abbas Jadidi) and an American (Kurt Angle). Reporter Gwenn Knapp refers to Jadidi as the "bad guy" in the match and goes so far as to describe Jadidi's "thick facial hair," cinematizing the black-hat status of the Iranian wrestler. Is "thick facial hair" meant to signify fanatical Muslims, Western-hating terrorists? More to the point, though: is this responsible journalism for the sports page-what could "thick facial hair" possibly have to do with wrestling?
I know dozens of Iranian-Americans who still identify themselves as "Persian" because of anti-Iranian stereotyping like Knapp's. These encoded racist views support overtly racist activities such as hate crimes and Muslim bashing, both of which are continuing problems for American Muslims and people of color of Middle Eastern descent.
We must realize that American Muslims are the fastest growing religious community in the U.S., and are projected to become the second largest religion in the U.S. by the turn of the century. This culturally diverse community is working diligently to be portrayed as a dynamic and living part of U.S. society.
Islam, then, needs to be accepted as part of the essential fabric of a multi cultural America. The emerging America is significantly Muslim and racist media depictions, violence against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern ancestry, and Islamophobic domestic and foreign policy cannot justly continue within it.