This is what Islamophobia looks like

April 22, 2013

Even before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured last Friday, people have been quick to assign blame for the explosions in Boston, assuaging their fears by holding someone responsible.

After rounding up the usual suspects, like Obama and the homosexuals, the sights were quickly pointed at Muslims. In response The Washington Post’s Max Fisher reported that in the hours following the blasts, Muslims across the world quickly denounced the act, begging those responsible not to be Muslims. Fisher writes,

“Libyan families waved signs in Arabic and English reading ‘Benghazi is against Terrorism,’ ‘Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam,’ ‘Chris Stevens was a Friend To all Libyans.’...A similar demonstration soon gathered in Tripoli. The tone at both rallies was positive and pro-American, but there was a second, subtler message being sent to the United States: We’re on your side, not theirs.”

The goal was to eschew radicalism by pointing out that “Muslims view ‘Islamic extremists’ the same way most Christians view the Westboro Baptist Church.” However, Muslims abroad and at home were also worried that Islamic involvement would incite the waves of Islamophobic attacks we saw after Park51, the community center in Lower Manhattan, was announced.

They wouldn't have to wait long for an answer. The day after the attack professional Islamophobe Pamela Geller was already trying to pin Boston on Muslims, labelling the act one of violent “jihad.” When @EliClifton attempted to call her out for being a bigot, Geller tweeted back that the “blood [is] on your hands.” According to Geller, anyone who tries to defend Muslims is as responsible as they are.

Sadly, her logic reflected the harsh reality of police profiling after the Boston attacks. A New Yorker article detailed the way one runner’s apartment was torn apart by the FBI while his neighbors watched, helpless to stop it. The man’s body was ripped to shreds by the explosion, a victim like many others that day.

What made him different from the others who were also treated in the hospital? What made him a suspect? He was Saudi.

However, Boston isn’t alone in this. A Salon article from March profiled the recent wave of Islamophobic surveillance in the NYPD police department. A report from the police force, called "Mapping Muslims," indicated that the “harassment and violations of civil liberties are constant facts of life for American Muslims today.” Salon's Falguni A. Sheth calls the program “dangerous, divisive, discriminatory, and deeply oppressive.”

This is the new culture of internment for Muslims. Despite being a citizen, Tsarnaev won’t even be read his Miranda rights, and some are using his citizenship to argue for stricter immigration laws. We are trying to systemically take away the few rights he has as a criminal, those allegedly offered to everyone guilty of a crime in the United States. You can tell a lot about a people by how they treat those they perceive as their enemies.

What does Islamophobia say about us? On Tuesday, a plane departing from Logan Airport in Boston was delayed after two of the passengers began to speak Arabic to each other. The following day, still two days prior to Tsarnaev’s capture, a Bangladeshi man was jumped outside of an Applebee’s and a Palestinian woman was assaulted in Medford, Mass.

While she was walking down the street with her friend, a white man came up to Hema Abolaban, a local physician, and started harassing her. He shouted, “F*** you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions!” He then punched Abolaban and kept insulting her as he walked away.

Abolaban claims that she didn’t say anything back to him, which is understandable. What do you say to someone who believes that you’re capable of unimaginable crimes, including the death of an 8-year-old child, because of the simple fact of your religion? All Americans were Bostonians last week. Why couldn’t that include Muslims?

Every year, as many people are killed by their household furniture as they are by terrorism, but we are not as concerned with the private, death by ottoman. We fear public terror, as fueled by footage of Newtown, Aurora, Hurricane Sandy and the threat of North Korea. In Mao II, Don DeLillo wrote that popular images of terror provide us with “an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere...We don’t even need catastrophes, necessarily. We only need the reports and predictions and warnings.”

In an essay for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik echoed DeLillo’s discourse of fear:

“The toxic combination of round-the-clock cable television—does anyone now recall the killer of Gianni Versace, who claimed exactly the same kind of attention then as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did today?—and an already exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism turned a horrible story of maiming and death and cruelty into a national epic of fear. What terrorists want is to terrify people; Americans always oblige.”

If the Tzarnaev brothers wanted to scare us, they hit us at the right time, when Americans are particularly vulnerable. We look at Congress’ inability to pass wildly popular gun control laws and feel powerless, the product of a broken system that no longer protects us. Every Boston is an affirmation of cultural pessimism, an empire in slow decline. Terrorists become ciphers for phantom neuroses we dare not name, and due to the role of Islamic extremism in 9/11, Islamophobia acts as the easy emotional shortcut for our feelings of loss.

As a culture, we often focus on the extremists who are destroying the world, rather than the everyday people who are working to make it better — like the countless millions whose thoughts were with the victims in Boston or Kevin James, the Muslim firefighter who was a first responder at Ground Zero. In a tragedy, Mr. Rogers famously advised, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Patton Oswalt echoed Rogers’ sentiments. Oswalt wrote, “You watch the videos of the carnage, and there are people running towards the destruction to help out.” For Oswalt, it’s a reminder to “look [evil] in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’"

This is how the world begins again — when we remember we aren't alone in it.

Take Marie Roberts. After her husband gunned down five children in an Amish school in 2006, Roberts went to the victims’ families to seek forgiveness and grace. In doing so, Roberts found strangers she learned to call neighbors, families she learned to call friends and a community she could call home again. There was no going back, but in building a bridge over the destruction, their families figured out a way to move forward.

Instead of continuing to hold Muslims responsible, we should ask what what we do if the culprits were "one of us." How would we help? Would we reach out as Muslims have? Would we shut down a city to hold a candlelight vigil, as Tehran did to support Americans after 9/11? Instead of forcing a nation of Muslims to be accountable for two radicals, we must all take responsibility for Boston. Each of us must clean up the mess by working together as a force for good, building a more peaceful, loving world.

Instead of searching for enemies in the wreckage, we need to start creating allies. All around the world, Muslims are standing with us. It’s time to stand with them.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can follow Nico on FacebookTwitter or Tumblr.