When did I Become the ‘Other’?

Being the “other” is a fairly new concept for me. While I’ve never liked being referred to as “the other daughter”, I’m accustomed to the label of “the other Fed Fund trader”, “the other parent volunteer” or “the other Sunday School teacher”.

By Dilara Hafiz

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Published: Sun 26 Oct 2008, 9:11 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:13 AM

And I’m certainly proud of the fact that I’ve never been “the other woman” or “the other wife”.

But do I want to be the “other” when it implies that I’m somehow less trustworthy, less American — even less human? I read Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent editorial, “The Push to ‘Otherise’ Obama”, with equal parts horror and dismay. While I realise that politics is a dirty game, the latest dirty tactic of “turning the candidate into a Muslim, maybe even the Antichrist” strikes me as wrong on so many levels that I’m left speechless.

Now that I’ve taken a deep breath and digested the implications of the current social environment, I can’t afford to be speechless any longer. Being identified as a Muslim is now officially considered a smear. Why should I have to speak out against this new form of religious prejudice? Well, if I don’t, then I can’t blame anyone for misunderstanding me. And there’s plenty of wilful misunderstanding going around these days.

The human tendency to “otherise” those whom we fear is nothing new, historically speaking. We just have to examine our treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, and Japanese during World War II, Jews, Catholics, and each successive wave of immigrants — the list is a long one. So it seems that today it’s the turn of Muslims to receive this dubiously preferential treatment — this time singled out as a religious group based upon the extremism of a few fanatics.

I am troubled by this push to single out Muslim Americans because it’s not being done to applaud our ingenuity or intelligence, but is rather based upon the notion that otherising us will make it easier to discriminate against us. If we’re not American enough, then we don’t deserve the civil liberties accorded to each citizen under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In the past year of participating in book presentations associated with the publication of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, my teenagers and I have had the unique opportunity to field questions from a cross-section of Americans — from students to seniors, from religious youth groups to lawyers, from interfaith activists to cynics.

The number one question asked by my fellow Americans is always the same: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against or condemn the acts of 9/11?” Seven years later, this question remains the biggest complaint against Muslims. Irrespective of our continual response — “Muslims did speak out, you just never heard us” — what more can we do to convince the average American that Muslims did not condone 9/11, that Islam is a religion of peace, that Muslim Americans believe in democracy and civil rights for all people?

It’s clear that mainstream America hasn’t heard us, even though many of us continue to emphatically denounce 9/11. But we need to move beyond the definitions of who we are not in order to better articulate who we are.

More troubling is the latest round of e-mails that seek to invalidate any Muslim spokesperson based upon the vastly misunderstood notion of taqiyya, or self-protection. I’m a Muslim, and I had never heard this term until last year, when someone from the audience during a book presentation said, “I know you’re lying because your religion tells you to deceive non-Muslims until you’ve taken over the world.”

Hmm, where in the Holy Quran is this claim made? The verse, “Whosoever denies having once believed, unless he is forced to do so... will suffer the wrath of God” (Holy Quran 16:106), is twisted to support the claim that the Qur’an encourages Muslims to lie, though the intent of this verse clearly states that the act of concealing one’s belief in Islam is only permissible when one is under threat of harm.

If you Google this term, you’ll find a string of (anti-Muslim) websites which distortedly explain this concept in a manner intended to instill fear of all Muslims in the reader. Even Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica weakly define this term, but still imply a level of deception on the part of Muslims. Yet no Muslim I’ve encountered believes that their religion condones, let alone demands, mendacity in any form. The mainstream media is largely silent on this topic. Maybe it hasn’t hit their radar yet. Maybe it’s just too confusing, especially to an outsider. Or maybe they’re still stuck on the “W” of journalism school (Who? What? When? Where? Why?). Instead of blaming Al Qaeda, somehow the entire Muslim population is in the crosshairs. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to reduce the misconceptions about Islam that abound across America.

The excuse that “I’m not a scholar” or “I don’t know what to say” will no longer suffice. People are clamouring to hear from a Muslim — any Muslim — so speak up! Explain what little you know and admit what you don’t. The important thing is to begin the dialogue.

Dilara Hafiz is a retired investment banker, Sunday school teacher, interfaith activist and co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook

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