Fifty pairs of empty shoes lined up outside a New Zealand church to commemorate 50 Muslim lives lost. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab. A prime minister who wore a headscarf when consoling the bereaved. A world leader who downplayed white nationalism even after a gunman stormed two mosques during Friday prayer.
Never before have American viewers seen Muslims covered by the media with such a broad range of images and narratives as they have this month. From Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s shrill proclamations that Omar honors Sharia law above the U.S. Constitution to the massive outpouring of grief and support for the victims and survivors of last week’s attacks, shifting politics and tragic events have forced a long overdue reckoning.
Most everything Americans thought they knew about Muslims here and abroad has been challenged, on screen, and at an unprecedented pace. Muslims are not only perpetrators of terror attacks, they are also victims. White separatists are not just an isolated group of the disenfranchised whose vitriol against Muslims is limited to hate speech. And Muslim women who cover their heads aren’t forbidden by their husbands from having something to say, as Donald Trump suggested of Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan during the 2016 Democratic convention. In fact, now he and many others on the right can’t wait for Omar to shut up.
Up until now, the West’s exposure to Muslims had been cultivated over decades and from afar. It arrived via news reports of Palestinian-Israeli fighting, hijackings, hostage taking, the Iranian revolution, Moammar Kadafi, Saddam Hussein, 9/11 and dozens of action movies and TV shows where swarthy men with names like mine hold their twitchy fingers over red detonator buttons.
Then came the shady websites with names that made them appear to be deep fonts of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East. I will not list them here, just as the media has largely withheld the identity of the mosque shooter, a white supremacist who subscribed to such garbage and livestreamed the killings with the hope it would go viral.
The last few weeks of rhetoric, debate and then tragedy have made it clear that irresponsible words and images have consequences, and we’ve been walking a dangerous road paved with fear and intolerance that inevitably leads to the type of unthinkable violence witnessed on March 15.
The Christchurch masjid shootings, which killed 50 people, including a bubbly 3-year-old boy named Mucad, were visceral proof that terrorists and victims come in all colors and faiths. White, right-wing extremists are the latest rising threat, though you’d never know it by listening to President Trump’s reaction to the massacre, or to the deadly terror attack at a 2017 Unite the Right KKK rally when a man plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville.
Trump condemned the New Zealand killings, yet offered no direct words of support to Muslims here or abroad. When asked if he thought white nationalism was a growing threat, he said, “I don't really. I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” He also told Fox News to “bring back Judge Jeanine Pirro” after the network publicly rebuked the host and pulled her show over her assertion that Omar couldn’t wear a head scarf and be a patriotic American. It’s one or the other in Pirro’s world.
As a woman who covers, Omar is the most visible Muslim in the country right now. The freshman congresswoman’s name alone has become shorthand for those celebrating progress and those who see her arrival as a sign of worrisome change. She’s a de facto lightning rod for the right and the left, and has set off a wave of Muslim panic among Islamophobes.
A poster recently on display at a Republican-sponsored public gathering at the West Virginia statehouse featured an image of Omar superimposed over a photo of the twin towers burning, “‘Never forget’ — you said,” read a caption at the top of the poster. “I am the proof — you have forgotten,” said a lower caption over the congresswoman’s image. It was taken down after House of Delegates representative Mike Pushkin tweeted his condemnation of the poster (“In 1933 in Berlin, they might have had a similar poster about somebody like me,” he said) and after a heated argument in the capitol’s hallway over the image, which led to the resignation of the state’s sergeant at arms. But little else in the way of an apology was heard from leaders on the right.
It’s not just Republicans who are dealing with the new reality of Muslim voices and immigrant perspectives on Capitol Hill. Democrats were split after Omar’s controversial comments criticizing the state of Israel and its lobbyists by using language that many felt upheld anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Omar’s comments touched off a heated debate between older House Democrats, who drafted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, and their younger, more liberal colleagues who felt Omar was being singled out because she is Muslim. In the end, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of hatred, including Islamophobia.
Media outlets apparently didn’t get the message of the resolution, because they’ve used equally offensive tropes when covering Omar. New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait suggested the Somali-born congresswoman was using the Palestinian cause “to smuggle in” ugly stereotypes.
Had Omar looked less, well, Muslim, and more like former Illinois Democratic Rep. Paul Findley, a frequent critic of Israel, it’s doubtful we’d even be having this conversation. In fact, there was no widespread public uproar in the 1980s when Findley, who is white, regularly spoke out for Palestinian rights and against unfettered U.S. support of Israel.
But we are talking now, and awkward as it may be, we need to.
Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are not at odds with each other. They spring from the same well of hate and fear and neither should be used to push political agendas.
It’s ironic given that it’s Muslim women, the very figures who have have widely been pitied in the West as silent victims of a patriarchal faith, are at the forefront of this cultural upheaval.
Indeed Trump’s comments disparaging the parents of slain American Muslim soldier Humayun Khan and other toxic remarks inspired an army of women to run for office — and resulted in Congress’ first female Muslim members, not just Omar but also Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Mumtaz, Mr. Trump.
The liberal-minded have also had had to reassess how they portray Muslims.
Tlaib appeared on CNN’s “State of the Nation” with Jake Tapper in the wake of New Zealand’s mosque attacks. He gave his condolences to her community, and asked her about the impact of the tragedy, and what she thought of the president’s comments denying that Islamophobia is a national problem.
“Not only once, but twice, three times, did we in this nation say to the world, and to everyone in this country, that Muslims don't belong here,” she said, “from the fact that every time we talk about a [border] wall, it's not about a structure, but about xenophobia. It's about racism.”
But it’s a slow learning curve, and Tapper spent the second half of the interview pressing the congresswoman to say something controversial about the fracas over Omar. Apparently, as Muslims, we all carry the burden of our brothers and sisters’ foibles, and even in mourning, need to prove our patriotism and commitment to this country. Never mind that Tlaib was born in Detroit, thousands of miles from Omar’s birthplace of Somalia. “I pause and think to myself 'is [the blowback] because she's a black American and she's Muslim?’ ” Tlaib said. “And so that's where I pause and say to myself, ‘Is there an issue here?’”
The interview set off a second, or was it a third, wave of angry rebuttals and accusations of bigotry. Pundit Alan Dershowitz was quick to say on "Fox & Friends" that Tlaib’s accusations claiming Islamophobia played a role in the furor over Omar’s comments are "designed to stifle debate" and act as a "new justification for anti-Semitism."
Meanwhile, real change appeared to be taking place in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a black head scarf when consoling the Islamic community outside a mosque and spoke eloquently of tightening gun laws.
She was doing all the things the leader of a developed, enlightened nation should do, all the things American leaders used to do.
“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion,” she told reporters directly after the massacre. “A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it… You may have chosen us,” she said of the gunman, “but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
POTUS did not step up in the same way, but the images of 50 pairs of shoes that will never be worn again, some as small as the palm of your hand, drove that point home. And now, America is grappling with Islam and Muslims like it never has before.