Are we, as American Muslims, guilty of discriminating our empathy?

by Mozzified Contributor Reema K Lateef

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As a collective, we American Muslims are guilty of discriminating our empathy.

Last month’s Paris attacks led to a collective outpour of apologetic responses from Muslims condemning the attacks on behalf of billions of Muslims.

Similarly, the San Bernardino shooting led to a collective response by Muslims denying the attacks as being representative of all Muslims.

Although our reaction may stem from a desire to reclaim our identity, whenever we interact with a stereotype, we inadvertently lend legitimacy to that stereotype. We attempt to shield ourselves from the backlash by saying, “I am not a violent Muslim.” But this kind of statement assumes that Muslims are violent.

The need to reclaim our identity from those perpetuating the notion that Muslims are terrorists assumes that our identity has been stolen. But has it?

As Muslims, we need to be seen for the work that we do as individuals rather than being reduced to one aspect of our identity. As such, it is counterproductive to build our Muslim identity out of an apology.

Engaging in an apologetic discourse constructs the American Muslim identity in terms of who we are not, rather than who we are. Building an identity based upon who we are not is disempowering. The apologetic discourse following these attacks reinforces our second-class citizen status as American Muslims.

As a minority, we’re not given the privilege of deciding whether or not we respond to such tragedies. As a minority, we are relegated to a position where we must respond. Therefore, our response should empower our positions as Americans.

Our response to such events determines what type of minority we want to be: defensive or empowered. If we want to be an empowered minority, then an apologetic discourse will not work in our favor. Taking a forward stance by asserting who we are – as the motivated student, the determined lawyer, the friendly neighbor, or the concerned American – allows Muslims to respond proactively.

Not only does this apologetic discourse delegitimize our various roles, it lends the image that we only condemn acts that pertain to our American Muslim identity.

If there’s one place American Muslims congregate – it’s not in mosques – it’s on social media platforms condemning the recent attacks.

It may be that we react to violence at the hands of Muslims terrorists because their actions directly influence larger conceptions of our American Muslim identity.

We condemn these attacks on the basis that our apologies will lead to a favorable image of American Muslims in the eyes of those who are hostile towards us. While an apologetic response may change the minds of a few individuals, this type of response preaches to the choir, to those who already view Muslims favorably.

And if our apologies do reach anti-Muslim fear-mongers, we add fuel to their anti-Muslim discourse – they retort by asking Muslims where our American identity is when it doesn’t pertain to a conception of our American Muslim identity. The American identity we appeal to in order to gain sympathy conveniently dissipates when a violent crime against another minority is just that – an act of violence against an individual, not an American.

Although part of the problem is that the media doesn’t highlight the social contributions of individual Muslims, the larger problem is that American Muslims don’t gather as a collective minority to denounce crimes against humanity unless we perceive them as a threat to our American Muslim identity.

This is why efforts like Linda Sarsour’s are critical. Her role as an activist in the United States extends to other minorities, not just Muslims who face discrimination. Amidst the Islamophobic climate following the San Bernardino and Paris attacks, she attended a protest calling for the firing of the police officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death. Sarsour didn’t allow the backlash to detract her from her role as a social advocate.

The rest of us must consider the question: why is an attack on Black Americans not seen as a crime against humanity, yet an attack on victims of the San Bernardino shooting is an “attack on us”?

Muslims are not a monolithic entity. It’s unreasonable to ask every Muslim to denounce every attack on every human. However, our desire to be seen as “normal” often supersedes our concern for other Americans facing acts of violence.

As a minority, Muslims can have a powerful impact when we unite on social media for issues that we find meaningful. This is evidenced by the campaign, “Muslims United for San Bernardino,” that has raised over $100k for the families of the 14 victims killed at San Bernardino.

If a threat to our identity shakes us so much, the cracks in our foundation will not be sealed with apologetic discourse, playing the victim card, and discriminating our sympathy. Proper identity formation is founded upon strengthening ourselves through a proactive discourse about who we are, rather than who we are not.


Reema is currently a student at Zaytuna College, where she is the Editor-in-Chief of Olea Press, Zaytuna’s Student Newspaper. Follow Reema @ReemaJaan15.

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