by: Kara Crawford
Though I’m not currently in the US, it seems to me that the relatively new TLC show, “All-American Muslim,” was at its outset making quite the buzz. The majority of what I realistically know about the show is based on a Jon Stewart segment from December; however, from what I have seen of the actual show, I feel I have a decent grip on the basic message.
It seems to say “We may be different, but really we’re just the same,” or, as Stewart put it, “It seems to just show Muslims living their lives like the rest of us *%@<#$ idiots.” I think this is absolutely the wrong message to send.
Now, I am completely and in agreement with and supportive of the show’s apparent message, that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are really good people and are not at all what the US media would lead us to believe, and therefore provides a contrasting narrative which challenges the dominant images and portrayals of Muslims.
Upon watching the show’s official trailer, it came to my attention that the show also does interviews with the individuals involved in it about their lives, and some of them use that time to address the injustices which they face in their daily lives. This is an extremely important use of the show, as it is a very public space to talk about and denounce injustices against Muslims in the US.
However, these positive messages are unfortunately overshadowed by the first message, which is not favorable or even helpful framing. It is in the distinction between these two messages that the queer community can find spaces of solidarity and mutual understanding with Muslim communities in the US.
The message of “We may be different, but we’re really just the same” is both dictated by and reinforcing of the idea that dominant culture, religion, sexuality, etc. is the only legitimate one within a given society. It also implies that all who fall outside of what is dictated by dominant society must conform at least somewhat in order to be considered the least bit legitimate by society.
Now, I’m not saying this because I believe that the “average” US lifestyle is anything inherently abnormal for Muslims, particularly those living in the US, nor am I saying that they should live in a different way unless they so choose. Far from it. Instead, what I take issue with is again, the framing of the message.
I’m not at all opposed to the ideology that because we’re all human, we all have something inherently common about us. It’s a lovely idea which to some effect is very true, demonstrated by the fact that we’ve all got a mind-blowingly high percentage of DNA in common. As a human rights activist, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t believe there is some sort of universality which ties us all together. But beyond that, I don’t find the idea to be particularly useful.
Homo sapiens is an incredibly diverse species. Even with 7 billion on planet Earth, I am constantly astounded by the immense diversity of humanity. And when we follow up an acknowledgment of our diversity with “but” or any other way of obscuring an identity, it can be extremely harmful to that diversity and our treatment thereof. We are negating those identities and legitimizing the identities which hold dominant places in society.
I think of it as the commonly-stated image of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. It simply doesn’t fit; you need a round hole for the round peg and a square hole for the square peg, a triangle hole for the triangle peg and so forth. Dominant society expects marginalized identities – be they Muslim, queer, or otherwise – to conform to the square hole which society offers, which means that the round peg must be either carved down to be a square peg or must be carved down to be a smaller round peg, only part of what it had been before, in order to fit.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
What if instead of the peg needing to change, we changed the hole? What if we cut a larger hole, a hole in such a shape that all the possible pegs could fit? When we see the problem as the hole, the pegs have no need to change.
So it is with questions of conforming to society. “All-American Muslim” may be saying “We’re a round peg in a square hole, but at least the peg is small enough to fit into the hole. Some of the pegs are even square-shaped,” much in the way that I sometimes feel the queer community is saying “We want to be accepted by dominant [heteronormative] society and therefore want the exact same rights and treatment as the privileged identities, so if we have to publicly water down our identities for the sake of acceptance, we will.”
Instead, we should be saying, “Yes, we are different, and we deserve the same fundamental rights and treatment as privileged identities. But those rights and treatment should not hinge on conformity. Our diversity is something to be celebrated, not hidden.”
When we critique society, when we critique the size and shape of the hole, and demand that it change so that it can encompass all within it, so that all the pegs fit, we are imagining and envisioning something different, something new. We are constructing a new type of society – one which does not privilege certain identities over others, but rather makes room for, welcomes, affirms, and celebrates diversity.
The queer community and the Muslim community in the US, in my opinion, face very much the same beast in different forms. Messages like the major one I see emerging from “All-American Muslim” and similar sources do not help us in our struggles against Islamophobia, heterosexism, racism, sexism, transphobia, or any other of the multitude of -isms and -phobias which plague our society.
Instead we need to reclaim and reframe the conversation. Instead of simply jumping up and down flailing our arms and yelling “I’m here, and I should be socially acceptable enough for your standards!” we need to instead band together in solidarity with other marginalized groups and demand a change.
We must demand that society become a bigger hole to fit all of our pegs.
Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.