Here’s my latest theory on racism in America. Since the 1970s, and especially since 9/11, there’s been quite a bit of anti-Muslim hatred in America. My theory is that this racism falls into two categories.
First, there is anti-Muslim rhetoric that is the same thing as anti-Islamic rhetoric. Proponents of this type of rhetoric oppose Islam and the people who follow it.
The other type of anti-Muslim rhetoric? It’s not about followers of Islam per se. Rather, I suspect that many people who spew hatred about Muslims do not actually know what “Muslim” means. It seems that Americans have come to see the word “Muslim” as synonymous with “brown-skinned foreigner.” Or at least with brown-skinned foreigners who don’t fall easily into a category with whom many Americans are familiar. People from Mexico and China aren’t often “accused” of being Muslim. But people from Egypt, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Kenya — and Americans who descend from people from these nations? They’re all a bunch of “Muslims.”
And when I say that some Americans don’t understand that Islam is a religion, I don’t mean that these people are ignorant about the details of Islam. I mean that there’s a certain percentage of the population that literally doesn’t know that Islam = religion, just like Christianity = religion.
What made me conclude this? Just look at the bizarre anti-Muslim comments that spread throughout Twitter after the crowning of Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri. This woman is an American woman of Indian descent. Like most Indians and people of Indian descent, she’s not a Muslim. And yet you’d never know that from reading Twitter after the pageant. Here’s a representative tweet that declares that Miss America is a “Muslim”:
Of course, in lieu of actual information about Islam, Americans with this mindset “know” that Muslims are associated with terrorism. Hence, the Twittersphere was abuzz with accusations that Miss America is a terrorist:
Of course, this all relates to anti-Obama rhetoric that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Barack Obama has stated clearly that he’s a Christian, so people who “accuse” Obama of being a Muslim are (1) believers in the conspiracy theory that the president is lying about his religion and is part of a secret Muslim takeover or something like that, or (2) do not understand that “Christian” and “Muslim” are mutually exclusive categories. For people who define a Muslim as a “brown-skinned foreigner,” and who know that Obama’s father was from Kenya (and who was, indeed, a Muslim), then of course Obama’s a Muslim. I mean, just look at him!
Among other things, this makes for a more socially acceptable way to use a racial slur to describe the president. After all, it’s not socially acceptable to call him the n-word, much as some people would like to do this.
Of course, part of what’s infuriating about the “Miss America is a Muslim” rhetoric is that it demonstrates ignorance about the world. Anyone with basic knowledge of geography and culture knows that India is not located in the Middle East, and that dissimilar countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya can’t be lumped together as one homogenous group of brown-skinned people. But it’s more than just cultural ignorance. The “Miss America is a Muslim” rhetoric points to the birth of the term “Muslim” as a racial slur directed at an ill-defined group of brown-skinned people, some of whom of actually Muslim and some of whom are not.