Stop using Islam as the yardstick for white terrorism

Stop using Islam as the yardstick for white terrorism
Comment: On her show, TV host Joy Reid cast Islam and Muslims as the standard for radicalisation in the US, ignoring the country's own violent history, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
6 min read
07 Sep, 2020
MSNBC anchor Joy Reid's [L] introduction played on dangerous anti-Muslim tropes [Twitter]

A recent episode of MSNBC show "The ReidOut" has resulted in widespread criticism and condemnation for promoting Islamophobia.

The 31 August segment in question focused on the volatile situation in the United States as right-wing Trump supporters attack demonstrators protesting against systemic racism and police brutality. In this tense environment, the president of the United States has failed to condemn such actions, even going so far as to defend the white nationalist gunman, Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two individuals in Kenosha, Washington.

This is hardly surprising, given the same president previously referred to neo-Nazis as "very fine people," and has publicly supported the congressional candidacy of Laura Loomer, a virulently anti-Muslim internet personality who's been banned on most social media platforms. 

In an effort to bring attention to the role Trump has played as a leader in promoting violence and amplifying hate, MSNBC host JoyAnn Reid stated:

"When leaders, let's say in the Muslim world, talk a lot of violent talk and encourage their supporters to be willing to commit violence, including on their own bodies, in order to win against whoever they decide is the enemy, we in the US media describe that as, 'They are radicalising those people,' particularly when they're radicalising young people. That's how we talk about the way Muslims act. When you see what Donald Trump is doing, is that any different from what we describe as radicalising people?"

While Reid may have been wanting to point out media double-standards when it comes to talking about white nationalist violence and violence committed by individuals who identify as Muslims, her statement is riddled with generalisations and plays on dangerous anti-Muslim tropes.

Reid isn't the first to deploy this analogy of 'Muslim radicalisation' and white nationalist violence

The most glaring example of this is, "the way Muslims act." If you want to understand why this is a problematic statement, just replace the word "Muslim" with any other identifier: Black people, Jews, women, etc. These words not only present Muslims, a population of 1.8 billion people from all walks of life across the globe, as a monolith but renders them a static collective. This leads to the dehumanisation of a community.

Further, her reference to "the Muslim world" is confusing given such a place doesn't exist; "It's a western idea built on the faulty racial logic that Muslims live in a world of their own - that Islam is an eastern, foreign religion that properly belongs in a distant, faraway, dusty place," writes Yale Professor Zareen Grewal.

And who exactly are the leaders Reid is referring to? Many Muslim-majority countries are run by dictators and authoritarians (often propped up by western governments) so they hardly represent the views of the people. Is she talking about leaders of militant groups? That makes little sense, given the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemn such individuals.

As Sana Saeed rightfully notes, "If she meant ppl like Baghdadi, well he isn't a 'Muslim leader'. Someone like Baghdadi is a political and spiritual leader of a non-state militant group. That's not a 'Muslim leader.'" 

We can, however, decipher what she meant by the "Muslim world" by placing it in the context of the broader statement, where she spoke about "leaders" who employ "violent talk" and "encourage their supporters to be willing to commit violence, including on their own bodies."

Read more: Trump, racism and America's original sin

The images that are conjured up with these words include the media's constant drumbeat of bearded Muslim men apparently calling for violence. The specific reference to committing violence with their own bodies, again points to the anti-Muslim trope identifying suicide bombings as an exclusively "Muslim behaviour," rather than a tactic employed throughout history by various militant groups and military personnel.

Instead of pointing out that such imagery linking Muslims to violence is racist and discriminatory, Reid uses it as the frame of reference to explain the dangers of white nationalist violence.

Reid isn't the first to deploy this analogy of "Muslim radicalisation" and white nationalist violence. Pointing to violence committed by individuals who identify as Muslims as the barometer of measurement for anything to do with "extremism," "radicalisation," and/or "terrorism" has been a constant theme within western discourse for the better part of the last two decades.

This is largely because the mainstreaming of such concepts occurred as the US inaugurated the global "War on Terror," and imposed this framework on any commentary relating to Islam and Muslims; in other words any discussion involving Muslims or Islam always pointed back to these faulty and ill-defined concepts.

The media in particular - countless 
studies have demonstrated  - has almost exclusively applied the terrorism label to violent acts committed by Muslims. 

Dr Hafsa Kanjwal elaborated on the dangers of such comparisons in 2018, noting that these analogies establish "Islam as the gold standard for religious extremism. It is as if religious extremism can only be understood through the actions of Muslims and, in fact, it never existed before Islam itself."

In the context of Reid's statement, it's as if Islam and Muslims are the standard for radicalisation and violence all together, and using it as a reference point is the only possible way to understand the severity of the current US domestic situation. Instead of employing Islamophobic tropes, Reid could have easily situated Trump's promotion and mainstreaming of white nationalism within the white supremacist rootings of the country.

Sadly, this isn't the first time Reid has made anti-Muslim statements, and it also reminds us that Islamophobia is a birpartisan political project. Two years ago, old posts resurfaced from her now-defunct blog including claims such as, "current iterations of Islam are largely incompatible with western notions of free speech and expression, and thus, I'd say, with the Bushian dream of western style democracy for all."

It has become acceptable and normalised to characterise Muslims across the globe under such a discriminatory banner

A few days before the August segment in question, Reid hosted the liberal political commentator, Bill Maher, who has a history of making anti-Muslim statementings including, describing Muslims as "threatening", and claiming that the "Muslim world" has "too much in common with ISIS." 

In reaction to the segment, many Muslim American organisations and activists called for an apology. Instead of issuing one, Reid stated "The way that I framed it obviously didn't work." Not only did it not work, it amplified and legitimised discriminatory and dangerous stereotypes that result in the vilification of billions.

Why is it so difficult for commentators to accept their wrongdoings, issue a straightforward apology, and move forward? Because it has become acceptable and normalised to characterise Muslims across the globe under such a discriminatory banner. Reid could have led the much needed change in this aspect by simply owning up to her mistake, apologising, and moving forward. Her failure to do so signals to the wider public that promoting such false takes is acceptable, even if the underlying analogy has no grounding in reality.

Not only does this fail to uphold journalistic integrity and standards, it further entrenches dangerous mischaracterisations of almost a quarter of the world's population. 

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.