Stereotypes of Muslims as the Other
I am almost ashamed to admit this, but after making a vow never to travel to the United States again until the blanket visa restrictions on Muslim males has been lifted, I have found myself in the country labeled the 'Great Satan' by some on a number of occasions. The reason for this apparent U-turn on my part is quite simple: I was persuaded by my fellow academic colleagues that the best way to confront and correct the misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims in the Western media is by engaging with it directly. Thus I took the first flight that delivered me straight to the belly of the beast.
Little did I realize that I was about to be devoured.
On my recent trip to the US, I could not help but notice that I was the one being singled out for so-called 'routine' and 'random checks' time and again. It could not have been a coincidence that I was called to one side to open my bags, take off my shoes and explain the contents of my luggage while others were allowed to walk past.
But my latest encounter with US immigration officials was one worth recounting here. After a two-hour delay after I was asked to 'wait for a minute', I was finally granted an audience with the uniformed man behind the counter. He looked at my passport, and asked me why I had so many visas to other Muslim countries like Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Indonesia. What was I doing there, he asked me. Who did I meet and why? He then looked up at me and said: "You're from Malaysia- That's another Islamic state, isn't it?" "So I've been told", came my reply.
He then started fingering my passport and asked me why the back cover was thicker than the front. "It's an electronic passport", said I. "It has a smart card installed in it. That way, you can just slot it into the counter and we are cleared to enter and leave our country in seconds."
"You guys got electronic passports?" came the reply from the suit. "How come we never seen anything like this before? You sure you're telling me the truth?" He then tried to bend and fold the back cover, and at one point he even tried to tear the edges open with a penknife. I told him to stop, as he would damage the smart card imbedded in the page and thus render the passport ineffective. Before I could stop him doing any more damage, Mister officialdom shot me a scornful glance and said: "You see this badge on my arm? This means I'm the one who decides if you can come into this country or if we kick you back to wherever you came from on the next plane out."
I thought to myself "obviously our friend here thinks that the rest of the world belongs to bongo-bongo land and we third world types can't afford such luxuries like electronic passports." I was surprised he didn't ask me if I lived in a tree back home.
This short and unpleasant inter-cultural encounter summed of for me the predicament that we in the Muslim world now face when having to deal with the West in general and the United States in particular. Here was I, a citizen from a developing Muslim country, coming to the 'land of the free and the home of the brave' at the invitation of the citizens of the 'free world' themselves. Yet my entry into the socio-cultural and discursive space of the West was already a 'disabling entry', to quote the words of Edward Said. Even before stepping foot on American soil, my identity was already fixed and pre-judged. I was a Muslim, from a Muslim country, with the unhealthy tendency of traveling to other Muslim countries and talking to other dubious Muslims. A chain of equivalences was set into motion: 'Muslim' equals 'Islam', 'Islam' equals 'terrorism', 'terrorism' equals 'danger'.
There was almost no way to extricate myself from this symbolically loaded encounter where every figure and symbol was already over determined with political meaning. If, by definition, Islam and Muslims constitute a threat and danger to the 'land of the free', then how on earth could I convince this official that I was a 'good' Muslim? And how could I convince Mister powers-that-be that he ought to step out of his own shoes and look at the situation from another perspective?
It is prejudice of this sort; nurtured and reproduced in the media and via a skewered public educational system that compounds the problems we face in the world today. Both the media and our educational systems are responsible for the ways through which we construct our collective identities. Yet identities are relational, and unfortunately the human race has yet to evolve to a higher plane, which transcends the dialectical mentality, which invariably creates categories of 'inside' and 'outside', 'friends' and 'enemies'. Such dialectical thinking has to be overcome by emphasizing the common bonds of humanity that we all share, and by developing an ethics of relating to the Other which posits the other as a human subject endowed with the same reason, will and rights as ourselves. Even when we encounter genuine enemies who wish nothing but ill for us, we would still need to recognize them as human agents whose antipathy towards us needs to be understood, rather than misrepresented.
One of the ways to do this is by introducing a moment of dislocation, where such settled prejudices and misunderstandings can be interrupted. My tedious encounter with the official in the suit was getting both of us nowhere, and so I decided to cut things short with the only card left in my hand: irony.
Finally, the official asked me: "Why are you here in my country?" I replied: "I'm here at the invitation of your universities, to give a series of lectures of racist stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, and how the American public cannot seem to get over its fear of a culture and religion it still doesn't understand." That seemed to strike a resonant chord in him, for Mister officialdom was an African-American. I didn't waste anytime asking him how his ancestors found their way to the promised land that is America, or how they were perceived in the American media until not so long ago. Having made my point, I walked into the belly of the beast, electronic passport in hand.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist.
Topics: Muslim World