Muslim-Americans: Presumed guilty?

Rebuffing the collective guilt assigned to Muslims following the Oklahoma City beheading.

Alton Nolen allegedly beheaded a woman at a foods distribution plant in Oklahoma [EPA]

Since April 19, 1995, Oklahoma has held a special place in the US terror imagination. For Muslim-Americans, their current state as social pariah number one, holds unpleasant reminders of the post Oklahoma City indictment of Islam. Almost two decades later, conditions are being replicated following a beheading outside Oklahoma City on September 25. Alton Nolen, a 30-year-old local, severed the head of Colleen Hufford – a former colleague at the food-distribution company that had recently fired him.

Following the gruesome incident, media outlets immediately sought to link this savagery to the man’s recent conversion to Islam. His extensive criminal record was merely a sideshow, skipped over, in order to focus the public attention on the presupposed “guilt” of Islamic doctrine.

Naturally the subhuman violence popularised by ISIL, including, but not limited to beheading, allowed pundits with little information of the crime motives, to blithely connect Nolen’s act with a terrorist network. Worse still, for a community already under an aggressive media spotlight – clear efforts were made to seek a connection (however tenuous) between Muslim-Americans and ISIL.  

As the media hype about the first workplace beheading in the US reached fever pitch, it became nauseatingly clear that the true motive and the specific personality of the culprit were considered by news desks as something of an irrelevance to the story. Which by now had its own wrong-headed “terror-based” momentum.

But these days, no burden-of-guilt on the Muslim community is complete without a desperately worded and rushed out apology by community leaders and imams for crimes at home or abroad.

Politics of apology

These days, the quintessential hallmark of being Muslim in America is neither faith nor citizenship. Rather, the essence of Muslim-American identity right now is the collective fear which arises during national security crises. It is increasingly these “interim moments, between catastrophe and discovering the real culprits [of terrorism],” which most aptly defines so much of the experience of being Muslim and American today.

Although the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks are committed by non-Muslims, the prevailing narrative conflating mass violence with Islam trumps statistics, easily shifting the presumption of guilt onto every adherent of the faith, via hyped up news bulletins.

These days, no burden-of-guilt on the Muslim community is complete without a desperately worded and rushed out apology by community leaders and imams for crimes at home or abroad.     

The immediate search to indict Islam after every atrocious act has, systematically, bred a defensive posture among Muslim-American citizens and our institutions. The practice of assigning instant guilt, combined with the American understanding of Islam as a spiritual, ideological and demographical monolith, has pushed Muslim-Americans into the proverbial corner. Trapped between “supporting terrorism” and a hard place, Muslim-Americans are perpetually burdened with guilt by association of faith.

And we ourselves are not without blame for this sorry state of affairs. Muslim-American leaders (some self-appointed) and too many of our major institutions have largely ceded to intimidation. There are various elements at play.

Being the first to speak out when a new atrocity breaks, can mean a great deal of airtime and publicity for the “Muslim spokesperson”. And it is a long accepted fact that an invitation to White House dinners is on offer to Muslims who are willing to jump on the blame bandwagon. Those who sadly may be putting personal ambitions above long term community strategy, curry favour with government agencies that profile, prosecute, and persecute Muslim-Americans.

An apology is far more than an act of remorse when made to the media by Muslim-Americans. It is an admission of tacit guilt. Let me give you an example: If someone living on my road whom I’ve never met, steals your bike, do I apologise for it? And if I did, wouldn’t you wonder why I was linking myself to the crime?

Eroding stereotypes

Oklahoma, aptly named the “Sooner State” represents the American rush towards judging Islam as responsible for violent atrocities before facts are collected and assessed. This was the case in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing and with last week’s workplace beheading.

Now social media activists are seeking to breakaway from the confines of apologia. The Twitter hashtag kicked off by frustrated Muslim youth living in the West #MuslimApologies has brilliantly poked fun at the societal pressure to say sorry continually, nonsensically almost impulsively for all of the worlds ills – if you are Muslim.  

Deftly catching the real atmosphere in the Muslim community humour is soothing our community’s soul and giving others an insight into the ludicrous nature of our dilemma.

Assed Baig: “I’m sorry that we keep getting in the way of your drone strikes.” Or how about this from “Raz”: “I’m sorry my beard scares you. It’s hormonal, I swear.”

Choosing to demonstrate that Muslims are diverse, this budding outlook may very well offer the strategic means to move beyond the bleak, dated, sorry state, that grips many organisational gatekeepers, and fails all of us in the US with its vacuousness.  

Khaled A Beydoun is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.