Islamophobia or Disposable Muslim Body Syndrome?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

By Nasreen Mohamed

The morning after 9/11, I was driving with a colleague to campus, and on the 10th Avenue Bridge a man stood holding a sign that read “Nuke ‘em.” This was in reaction to the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center Twin Towers. That moment is seared like a scar in my memory, and is re-awakened in my body as a queer Muslim immigrant every time there is an attack or act of violence perpetrated by a “Muslim.” Fifteen years ago, the reaction to these attacks created a collective fervor that defied logic and unleashed indiscriminate violence against Muslims, both within the country and abroad. The thousands of innocent families killed in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result, and the hundreds wrongly imprisoned and deported, have been forgotten. The numbers of dead and the loss of human potential from these acts of violence is devastating and indelible.

The recent resurgence of violence against Muslims after the attacks in Paris, France on November 13, 2015 and in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015 has reignited what has been just under the surface and hidden from view. We are experiencing today the same blueprint that occurred after 9/11. This plan reveals an architecture that has its roots in the history of racism, and the rhetoric of hate and violence that is rationalized both at personal and state levels. Some call this response “Islamophobia,” but that does not capture the depth and breadth of the assault on the Muslim body. 

The narrative of Muslims and Arabs as inherently violent has always been reinforced in popular media. It is what gives birth to the false narrative that the perpetrators of 9/11, France and San Bernardino - the acts of a few - are the acts of an entire community. And in turn, violence against innocent people rises, and the fear of that threat of violence permeates our daily lives.

This is in sharp contrast to the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, where 168 people were killed. Prior to 9/11, this was one of the the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, and it was carried out by two white, radical right-wing activists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.  What followed did not involve locking up and deporting all those who looked like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. This dehumanization  of “the other” is like an old habit, continually looping back to activate the same notions that allowed colonial settlers to steal land and labor, and to kill without remorse. This perpetration of violence against all those who do not fit the white supremacist image of who belongs and where is not something of the past, but is connected to the present. 

In order to address the culture that perpetuates these acts of violence, we must understand whether the language we use accurately frames the analysis of the experience we are attempting to characterize. The term “Islamophobia” has been used to describe the discrimination that Muslims experience, but the term does not accurately capture the reality and cause of violence. A person with a phobia does not manifest their phobia by attacking the object or person they fear. Rather, they withdraw or avoid what they fear. The use of the word “phobia” negates the underlying current of racism that dehumanizes brown and black bodies. To accurately describe what has been occurring, I would like to propose the term “disposable Muslim body syndrome,” to define the necessary conditions that make abuse of power and use of violence against Muslims acceptable. 

I have come to believe that there is a real gap in understanding how both personal and systemic actions create the conditions by which hatred is targeted towards a group of people. What we must understand is that when we address issues of violence as individual actions, we isolate the perpetrators as operating alone, rather than understanding how these individual acts are supported intricately by an entire system. Last year’s Washington Post article on how the US is banning Muslims outlines policies that deny, revoke, or delay immigration status to Muslims. The article illustrates how Donald Trump’s position is not isolated from contemporary U.S. policies, but rather is part of a larger political landscape. As much as I appreciate interfaith dialogues and actions about breaking down barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims, they do not address hatred as a dynamic process of interpersonal and systemic complicity.

Challenging this complicity by asking questions is a critical practice if we are to reimagine an undoing of violence and oppression. In the immediate post 9/11 era, we were drenched in a red, white and blue vision of blind patriotism. In this traumatized daze, we accepted laws that have changed our democracy to one that is carefully watched and under surveillance. We willingly gave up the right to question, and the loyalty of those who questioned was (and is) suspect.  Racial profiling has always existed, but 9/11 cemented the acceptance of the practice, and of surveillance, as necessary in exchange for “safety.” The safety negotiated was the safety that black and brown people were never afforded before or after 9/11.  

 I conclude with a story about an evening two months ago. After the ending of a successful program to welcome new international students, I noticed one of the students who attended the program struggling to figure out the bus route to get home. I stopped to assist her, and we ended up walking together as I happened to be going in the same direction. We struck up a conversation about walking on campus. She is a Lebanese Muslim woman who wears a hijab.  She asked me how safe it was for her to walk on campus. I gave her my administrative cautionary tale about taking safety precautions and avoiding walking alone late in the evening. After a pause, she asked me how safe it was to walk on campus as a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab. I realized in her pause and clarification that there was very little I could offer her in terms of a sense of safety. All I could do was to give her a realistic picture. I told her that there had been violence in the Twin Cities  and in Greater Minnesota, but nothing violent had occurred on campus. After I walked away, I realized that she will be met with the same micro aggressions that I had experienced post 9/11, and that our campus was still not equipped to protect her spirit.

If we are to create a sense of belonging for our Muslim students, we must find courage to look at the disposable Muslim body syndrome as connected to the history of genocide, racism, and colonialism. In order to shape the community we envision, we must place at the center of the work the voices that are most impacted by the violence. Having hope that is rooted in transformation requires us to reclaim our power to question policies and systems. We have to willingly address the fractures between us that appear and reappear in our daily lives.  We must get to the root of why these fractures exist and the systems that are in place to sustain them. Only then, can we create an environment that refuses to accept Muslim bodies as “disposable”.

Nasreen Mohamed is the Director for Student Engagement with International Student and Scholar Services.



University Affiliation: 

A very enlightening perspective--that "phobia" doesn't accurately describe the harm we're seeing. "Disposable" too almost seems too innocuous, as if the person doesn't care all that much one way or the other, whether Muslims are cared-for or not, when what we're seeing is actually so much more active and disturbing. I feel like "annihilative" is the terrible reality we're witnessing. Thanks for your call to action, Nasreen.


"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.