Salaita: Dressing like a Terrorist

Steven Salaita writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Dressing Like a Terrorist

Like many others, I was dismayed to learn of the two imams wearing traditional Muslim garb who were forcibly removed a couple of weeks ago from an airplane that was to carry them to a conference on Islamophobia (the irrational fear of Islam!). The clothing of the passengers who were removed from a Delta/ASA flight in Memphis, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, apparently frightened other passengers and upset one of the pilots, who refused to fly with them on board. This act of bigotry was condemned in some quarters, but not everywhere. The Delta/ASA pilot and the frightened passengers have received support from numerous voices among the American commentariat.

The situation was a clear-cut case of ethnic profiling. On this everybody has to agree if they are being honest with themselves. I have been reading commentaries about the case with much interest. One argument in particular keeps arising: the notion that Rahman and Zaghloul deserve what happened to them because they dressed like terrorists. The reasoning goes like this: Muslims commit terrorism; Muslims look a certain way; a certain look thus portends the possibility of terrorism. In short, those who appear to be Muslim are worthy of extra scrutiny because they are more likely to be terrorists than other people.

The belief that Muslims are more likely than others to commit terrorism, however, is a myth. Europol reports that in 2010, out of 249 acts of terrorist violence in Europe, only 3 were attributable to Muslim extremists. Then there is the issue of what constitutes “Muslim” dress. Since the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world live everywhere from Sao Paolo to Djakarta and Johannesburg to Tashkent, they do not exactly have a prescribed uniform. Then, some of what Americans think is “Muslim” fashion isn’t. Bigots bother the poor Sikhs all the time for wearing a turban and tunic. Even Rahman and Zaghloul wore different types of clothing on the day they were profiled.

Here I’d like to focus on this notion of “dressing like a terrorist,” a phrase that has the peculiar intimation of a fashion statement. There is no quantifiable evidence to show that dress is a predictor of any sort of behavior, especially the behavior of terrorism. What we’re dealing with in the Rahman and Zaghloul case is an overwrought imagination that associates political violence what I call the terrorist costume.

The terrorist costume is a simulated reality, circulated in Hollywood and countless news broadcasts, that evokes a causal relation between appearance and action. The terrorist costume is familiar to nearly all Americans: a thick beard, an ashen robe, brown skin, sandals holding dirty feet, and some sort of headgear, usually a turban (Sikh style, of course). The terrorist wearing this costume often sports a Qu’ran, so the audience can be certain that he is a Muslim.

Yet the acts of terrorism that have been committed by radicals of Muslim heritage involved perpetrators, like Mohamed Atta, who didn’t at all resemble the image of the Hollywood terrorist. Rahman and Zaghloul dressed in a way that set off alarms in some of their American co-passengers because the latter entertained Orientalist fantasies. Ironically, Muslim-American clerics are among the more law-abiding people in the country.

To impugn Rahman and Zaghloul for their dress, then, not only robs them of their Constitutional rights but also violates the rules of basic logic. Perhaps because the United States is a country of immigrants and inherently multi-cultural, its people have a tradition of judging a book by its cover. Many Americans think that appearance (skin color, clothes, physiognomy, ethnic typology, gender, sexuality, possessions, and so forth) predicts attitude or behavior. But making judgments by stereotype is recognized by decent Americans as unethical, and there is a reason for which civil rights legislation has made it illegal in some circumstances.

Those who believe that Rahman and Zaghloul brought their unjust treatment on themselves ought to think about what their lives would be like if their own logic were applied to them. In the end, if we are to let fanciful stereotypes dictate access to basic rights of citizenship, then none of us will ever live up to the promise of our own worth, or to that of our nation.

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Steven Salaita is associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. His two latest books are Israel’s Dead Soul and Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. His website is here.