In times of racism, there is no such thing as a neutral articulation of culture. In fact, the practice of everyday culture becomes inherently threatening. The victim of racism cannot partake of even simple rites of identity without the racist interpreting those rites as proof of the victim’s inferiority.
This phenomenon has played out in the United States for centuries around forms of black and Native music, phenotype, dialect, fashion, language and spirituality. We now see it in paranoid and sometimes violent reaction to anything that signals Arab-ness, which itself, against the realities Arabs actually inhabit, signals a singular and immutable Islam.
A man in Philadelphia was recently beaten for speaking Arabic. A few months earlier, two Palestinians were prevented from boarding a flight at Chicago’s Midway Airport because another passenger heard the same terrifying sounds. After raising a fuss, the men were finally allowed on the plane. A skittish flier demanded to know what was in a box they carried, so the two men popped open the baklawa and a planeload of people (minus two, presumably) entered the sky full and happy.
On Martin Luther King Day, Delta removed “a random brown person” from a flight after a customer expressed apprehension. After his removal, surely a moment of terrible humiliation for him, a flight attendant thanked the passenger who had complained—an ideological act, no doubt, but one also intended to assuage potential guilt or discomfort. These gestures normalize the hierarchies that allow only the majority to access safety and dignity.
Arabs, and those who might be mistaken for one (however implausibly), have less to worry about from the Transportation Security Administration than they do from fellow travelers eager to fulfill their patriotic obligations.
People have been kicked off airplanes for speaking Arabic, holding the Quran, wearing strange regalia, reading Amin Maalouf’s "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes," or simply being brown. This discrimination is troublesome on its own, but consider: Which hijacker in the history of air travel announced his ill intentions by flaunting the same imagery everyone around him is conditioned to fear? American racism has always rendered itself indispensable by transforming the mundane into something spectacular or sinister.
The cultural artifacts of Arab-ness (themselves media inventions) would be inconsequential, at worst an exotic curiosity, if they didn’t illuminate the distressing fact that some people are incapable of becoming real Americans.
Why else do hyperpatriots regularly harass or assault women wearing hijab? They detest such dangerous symbols. The perception of danger is a byproduct of the hyperpatriot’s underactive imagination, which makes him even more apt to act on his angst. The hijab is the most brazen of the garments that trigger a vision of the future in which imperiled white Christians are subject to the barbarism of a new majority. The hyperpatriot isn’t threatened by theocracy, per se, for his own political idols implement theocratic laws in the United States. It is the prospect of a theocracy in which he isn’t cosseted as exceptional that so enrages him.
There is also the spectacle of confusing Sikhs with Muslims and in turn attacking them, a uniquely American phenomenon. In 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page, thinking they were Muslim, murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, one of the gravest examples of modern American terrorism. Despite endless discussion of terrorism in the United States, Page is virtually forgotten. The same media that hesitated to call him a terrorist reinforce the notions of an undifferentiated foreign threat that informed Page’s confusion.
That Sikhs are so easily conflated with Muslims is only the start of widespread racial confusion in today’s United States. In some ways, “Muslim” has become a catchall slur, applied to everybody from the president to undocumented workers—and, thanks to one persistent imbecile, the prime minister of Canada and the prince of Wales—but the slur can conceal other forms of racism whose articulation isn’t always so explicit.
We shouldn’t parcel racism into discrete categories despite its unevenness. The conflation of anything undesirable with “Islam” has deep antecedents in U.S. slavery and colonization, but Middle Easterners and South Asians are capable of replicating earlier epochs of racism even as they suffer the consequences of its continued existence. To untangle these complexities, we have to extricate ourselves from notions of racism that elide the ruling class and its stooges. We’ll get nowhere if we reproduce the imperatives of people invested in our confusion.
The Arabic language makes the hyperpatriot anxious, but it’s not the origin of his anxiety. Humanizing the Arab, then, is impossible if we ignore the conditions that demand the Arab’s inhumanity. Those conditions produced the America for which hyperpatriots are so nostalgic.
In the meantime, it’s useful to remember that a society afraid of cultural practices incompatible with crude nationalism isn’t worth saving. Transforming the innocuous into an existential dilemma is stupid, yes, but it’s also horribly boring. By criminalizing or brutalizing the simple actions that define our humanity, hyperpatriots essentially force us not to speak, not to clothe ourselves, not to seek spiritual peace—the perfect manifestation of neoliberal privation.
If some folks are intent on outlawing un-American vernacular, then other histories are worth remembering: the boarding schools of North America where Native children were beaten for using their own languages; centuries of forced assimilation through strict application of what Sarah Palin calls “speaking American”; the reduction of countless African linguistic groups to the master’s tongue; the colonial practice of educating local elites in the conqueror’s lexicon.
Most of the world now speaks English. It didn’t overtake the globe through lullabies and sweet nothings. The words that hyperpatriots lionize actually comprise, by no small coincidence, the world’s most dangerous language.