Over the last two weeks, reactions have continued to surface in response to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then fiancé unconscious in an elevator. Amid calls for National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation and demands for the league to revamp its policy on domestic violence, one particularly problematic narrative also emerged: conflations of Rice’s violence with Islamophobic perceptions of the Muslim faith.
Ray Rice is not Muslim. Even so, many people on Twitter and other social media outlets found bigoted ways to link his actions to Islam. For instance, comedian and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder joked in a YouTube video with more than 57,000 views that when it comes to wife-beating, Rice should “step aside,” because he has “entire nations in front of [him]”—the insinuation being that domestic violence is normalized in Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Some Twitter users suggested that Rice should just move to those nations altogether, because there, “he could do what he pleases.” Still others opined that the media was paying too much attention to Rice’s individual reprehensible acts, given that “violence occurs against women in Muslim countries daily.” In fact, a few egregiously argued that had Rice been a Muslim, he could have defended his abuse by claiming his actions were protected under religious freedom.
The same kinds of conversations continued as more incidents of domestic abuse by athletes came to light. When news of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson using a switch to beat his son appeared across media platforms, so, too, did other Islamophobic posts about how Peterson might be Muslim or should consider converting.
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This hateful rhetoric is not confined to a few scattered tweets, however, or even to the anti-Islam think-pieces trotted out by right-wing websites in the wake of the reports. Rather, it is simply the latest example of popular culture’s monolithic portrayal of Muslim men as misogynistic, militant, and vicious.
In a post-9/11 world, the beliefs espoused by countless television shows, movies, and news media have created tropes that predetermine a grossly villainous reputation for all Muslim men, as well as a universally victimized one for Muslim women. And these stereotypes have, in turn, bloomed into Islamophobic government policies in the West. Far too often, Muslim men are presumed guilty without a crime.
Needless to say, these assumptions—that all Muslim men are supposedly more violent—are in stark contrast to the Islamic teachings espoused by those with whom I grew up.
My own father, for example, is a man whose practice of Islam encompasses his respect and honor of women. Yet when some people hear my father’s Muslim name and see his brown complexion, they automatically conclude that he must be barbaric and oppressive. As hard as my father tries to smile at strangers (something integrated into our Muslim faith) and as much as he attempted as a child to assimilate in Canada, a range of people—including strangers, neighbors, and even my previous teachers—have held loaded preconceived notions of him.
When I look at my father, I see a man who is soft, gentle, and kind to his core. I see a man who could not hold me without a pillow underneath for months after I was born, for fear of accidentally hurting me. I see a man who questions and challenges anyone who tells me that because of my age, I should consider getting married soon and stop focusing on school. In fact, my father is my biggest fighter in this regard, championing my autonomy to receive an education and make my own decisions for my future.
But despite the fact that my father has worked tirelessly to give the women in his life everything, I also see a man who has been pigeonholed falsely as a “wife-beater” and “honor killer”—along with my uncles, cousins, and brothers in faith.
Such stereotypes go beyond vilifying my father and the other men in my life. They falsely portray my existence and the existence of other Muslim women as deserving of pity. While attending university, for example, I worked as a peer counselor; in training sessions, I found myself having to disrupt group “educators” as they misinterpreted Islam as a reason for potential abuse. Today, I still must regularly dismantle the narrative that Muslim women are in need of saving from the savage men in their lives.
This automatic equation of Muslim men with domestic abuse, and vice versa, obscures the fact that the crime is not isolated to any region or group. As seen in the reactions to the Rice and Peterson cases, individual members of the public often ignorantly assume that all Muslims are citizens of Islamic countries. Thus, by suggesting that the NFL athletes are Muslim—or should be—these detractors take a twisted security in viewing domestic abusers as a part of the “other” and not American. In doing so, they effectively attempt to expunge responsibility for violence to foreign countries. Of course, domestic violence is a very real problem in the United States, where the Department of Justice has reported nearly 25 percent of women face domestic violence.
Such intentional distancing occurs on a wider scale, as well. When non-Muslim men commit grisly crimes, news media platforms frequently cite situational factors, such as mental health, to explain their actions as an anomaly. By contrast, when a perpetrator of violence does happen to be Muslim, his faith is always mentioned, therefore implying that it somehow played a part in his violence.
For example, a June 2014 headline in the Daily Mail identified a man who had stabbed a sex worker as Muslim in addition to drawing attention to the fact that he had done so “near a mosque.” By contrast, a non-Muslim man last Thursday had, according to media outlets, “no motive” for ruthlessly killing himself, his daughter, and six grandchildren. This was despite the fact that “law enforcement had been called to the residence in the past.” For that matter, it was not the first time he had harmed his family with a firearm. And his religion has yet to be mentioned with any sort of prominence.
The underlying message of this trend, of course, is that for Muslims, domestic violence is an inevitability; for non-Muslims, it is a shocking, tragic aberration.
Again, this attitude erases the fact that domestic violence is rampant and committed by a variety of people. It is also reminiscent of the discussions that take place when men of color attack women. When Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna, for instance, similar discourses arose, suggesting that “black and brown men do this, and white men would not do this.” Many Muslim men, too, are men of color, including my father; this intersection is often used to vilify them further, with voices in popular culture arguing that they are bound to be bad husbands, fathers, and brothers. They are people, in short, to be feared.
Islam is a religion with more than 1.6 billion followers worldwide, all of whom practice their faith differently. It gives women many rights, including honor and respect. Yet bigots paint all Muslims with the same brush, based on the actions of a few. This hurtful rhetoric is very specific to the Muslim community; cases of violence committed by Christian men, for instance, have never tainted all of Christianity in the same light.
For example, the media continuously regards the behavior of those in the radical Mormon sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) as an oddity and not representative of all Christians, or even all Mormons. In 2011, when FLDS leader Warren Jeffs stood trial for allegedly raping a 12-year-old girl, his violence appeared to be religiously charged: He was caught on tape ordering her to feel “the spirit of God.” Jeffs’ nephew also reported being raped at age 5. Afterwards, he claimed that Jeffs told him, “This is between me, you and God.” However, as with most non-Muslim cases, the media finds ways to view groups like this as a cult or sect, using non-condemnatory language like “alleged polygamists” and emphasizing the isolation of such incidents. Meanwhile, where Islam is concerned, Western society routinely refuses to differentiate among tenets of the faith and some of its followers.
When discussing the best ways to address and combat domestic violence, we must push for unbiased coverage that focuses on the individual rather than using their crime to propagate racist and bigoted tropes. My community, devout in its faith, is blatantly different than the false allegations we face. When Muslim men are violent, it is not, and should not be, a reflection of Islam as a whole.