When I walk into the airport in a few days, in the eyes of many people, I will be considered a threat to my country.
Let me back up and tell you a little about myself. I'm, 24, white American. I go to church, always pay my taxes, and to my knowledge have never committed a crime. I got a parking ticket once because I didn't know I had parked in a restricted parking lot but duly paid it and haven't had any run-ins with the law since.
I work a pretty ordinary job five days a week and enjoy reading and playing guitar. I've never fired a gun, much less owned one, and I don't know anything about explosives or martial arts.
|Stay tuned in the next couple weeks for another article about the results of my experiment!|
All of this to say that when it comes to threats to the American government I'm probably about as unsuspicious as anyone. But I'm guessing that when I leave my parents' house to fly home most of the people surrounding me will be viewing me with veiled suspicion at best or outright hostility at worst. The reason? I'm going to be doing my best to appear as a conservative Muslim.
To Look Like a Muslim
This idea may sound a little strange so I'd like to explain my reasons. The idea first occurred to me in October when Juan Williams, a commentator for American National Public Radio, was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. In the course of the interview Williams expressed some of his feelings about Muslims as follows:
"I'm not a bigot...but when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
|Who in right mind thinks someone who would blow up or hijack an American plane would try to draw attention to themselves by wearing Islamic dress?|
Now when I first heard this it struck me just as ignorant and almost funny. I have a number of close Muslim friends and so when I see someone dressed in traditional Islamic dress it tends to make me less nervous. I think: "Oh, this person is very religious. They'll probably be very pleasant and polite and maybe an interesting person to have a conversation with." And also, who in right mind thinks someone who would blow up or hijack an American plane would try to draw attention to themselves by wearing Islamic dress? It just seemed like a very small-minded but not very important thing, something that would be in the news for a day and then die.
But in the next few weeks controversy exploded over this statement. The liberal National Public Radio, Juan Williams' employer, fired him claiming that he had overstepped his boundaries as a journalist. Within a week the conservative Fox News hired Williams, applauding what they described as his honesty, and given him a five million dollar contract. People on the left and the right quickly took up sides either defending or condemning his statement.
The impact of the controversial statement exposed what, despite the many years since 9/11, remains a major debate in American public life: how should Americans think about Muslims in their society? Is fear of Muslims a form of bigotry and hatred that should be condemned or is it justified because of the terrorist attacks of the past several years? No one save the most radical American nationalists would say that all Muslims are to be feared but many conservatives talk about a "Muslim Problem" and say that some suspicion of people who identify themselves very visibly as religious Muslims is justified.
|Trying to walk in another person's shoes is always a positive exercise and my hope is that, in my own small way, I may help those like me to understand the experience of Muslims and also send a message to Muslims that as they face fear, suspicion, and discrimination they are not alone.|
Walking in Muslims’ Shoes
In a stunning example of this continued unease towards Muslim-Americans, Peter King, a committee head in the new conservative Republican congress has announced that he intends on holding special hearings investigating the public danger posed by American Muslims. While many have condemned this move as a form of racial profiling King has argued that these hearings are a necessary way to investigate the ways in which leaders in the Muslim community have aided potential terrorists within the United States.
And yet while liberals and conservatives argue back and forth something left out of the discussion far too often is the perspective of the Muslims in America themselves. How do they feel about the visible signs of their religion being perceived as threatening? And what might it feel like for a non-Muslim to walk in their shoes?
I was fascinated by these questions and so thought that a little "experiment in empathy" - flying home while dressed as a Muslim - could be enlightening, both for myself and for others who I could share my experience with.
The controversy over new "full-body scanners" that deeply invade individual privacy now being placed in American airports added a new sense of urgency to my desire to go through with this little "experiment."
In many ways I feel that the discussion about these scanners is a perfect example of the struggle in American society of how to act in the face of the threat of terrorism. Will our response be an increasingly neurotic fear of all that even vaguely appears to be different or dangerous? Or will we continue in our long tradition of "melting pot" cultural openness and acceptance?
As Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." How far will we go and how much will we sacrifice because we, the most powerful nation in the world, are afraid? The answers that Americans end up giving to those questions will have a global impact and every reasonable American has an obligation to play their part in deciding what those answers will be. In going into this experiment I don't intend to imply at all that I can truly understand what it's like to live as a Muslim in America, or that I can speak for the experiences of Muslims in America better than they can. I approach this with, I hope, a full humility as to how much I can truly come to know in such a small experience.
But trying to walk in another person's shoes is always a positive exercise and my hope is that, in my own small way, I may help those like me to understand the experience of Muslims and also send a message to Muslims that as they face fear, suspicion, and discrimination they are not alone.
Thoughtful people of all faiths stand beside them and condemn a fear that lumps a billion Muslims in with a handful of terrorists.