In October of 1998, Muslims across the United States rallied together in protest of 20th Century Fox's film debut of "The Siege." From San Francisco to New York, Muslims voiced vehement opposition to the film and picketed theaters in an attempt to inform and enlighten American moviegoers as to the gross misuse of stereotyping and biased imagery of Muslims in the film. To a great degree the campaign was successful. Prior to the film's release, Fox agreed to air an alternate commercial trailer of the film that eliminated images of and references to Muslims, Arabs, and Islam. During the period of post release picketing, protest coverage by the mainstream media was widespread. Mission accomplished, right?
While the rallying cry of American Muslims did elevate public awareness of the issue of Islamic stereotyping in the entertainment industry, it unfortunately fell short of addressing a key undertone common to both "The Siege" and to the American discourse on Islam and Muslims. Beyond the subliminal linkages between Islam and terrorism, beyond the overt portrayals and reports of violence and beyond the general vilification of the religion, there is something more divisive at work in America.
Since the disappearance of Communism as a major world political force, America has trod a steady path towards the alienation of Muslims and an estrangement of the religion of Islam. Gone are the days of the romanticized view of the Arab. No longer does one see Bob Hope or Rudolph Valentino marching across the screen in Arab garb. Instead the public sees sensational films, lopsided news reporting and clandestine activities by governments; elements which have combined to construct the myth of the conflicted Muslim.
Muslims are of course familiar with and fully capable of handling movie content, media coverage and government politicking. But have Muslims given full and thorough thought to the growing myth of the conflicted Muslim? Or would it be more appropriate to ask, do Muslims see themselves as conflicted?
Being conflicted is a pop-psychological concept that seems to have grown in strength over the past decade. The term "conflicted" is often used with reference to homosexuals who struggle with their own self-perception versus how society at large expects them to behave. But on a broader scale, the term can apply to any sort of internal turmoil an individual feels as he or she handles two diametrically opposed self-perceptions.
So is the Muslim inherently conflicted? Does the Muslim walk the streets of Chicago, New York, London, Paris, or Amman feeling torn between loyalties? Is there a daily battle going on inside the Muslim that causes him or her to question allegiances? Is there a tenuous hour to hour stand-off that has equal probability of ending in either contemplative reflection or violent tirade?
It is impossible to give straight "yes" or "no"answers to these questions. But it is safe to say that the Muslim is indeed conflicted at some level; but not any moreso than anyone else.
The fact of the matter is that we all are conflicted. African Americans no doubt feel that the United States has been less than equitable and even downright oppressive with them as a people; and that surely influences their internal thoughts and perceptions of themselves and their level of commitment to their country. Women the world over have felt the sting the inequity in both their personal and professional lives, which in turn creates internal conflict for them in their dealings with certain people and institutions.
We all experience internal conflict. But that does not necessarily result in a violent, personal or group backlash. When Muslims see their brethern being slowly starved to death in Iraq, they feel conflicted. When Muslims see the West stand idly by as thousands are murdered in Bosnia, they feel conflicted. When Muslims hear that some American businesses would rather fire a Muslim woman before letting her wear a head scarf, they feel conflicted. When Muslims see British and American workers walking the streets of Saudia Arabia earning sizable wages and occupying positions that could go to Saudis, they feel conflicted. But none of this in any way suggests that there is a ground swell of Muslim discontent, waiting to boil over into violent reprisal for perceived inequity or oppression.
In fact quite the opposite seems to be more likely. Just like African Americans, women, Native Americans, and a host of other groups, Muslims are using the constructive channels of change at their disposal to influence policy makers and the general population about issues of concern. Maybe if the mainstream media recognized this it would dispense with its fascination with the sensational.
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com