Young Muslims Aren’t Villains—But You Wouldn’t Know It From the Media

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Commentary Media

Young Muslims Aren’t Villains—But You Wouldn’t Know It From the Media

Nashwa Khan

The vilification of Muslim children is not new, and it is far from limited to fictional instances. These media portrayals can translate into real-life repercussions in the lives of Muslim youth.

American Sniper, this winter’s controversial biopic about a Navy SEAL serving in the Iraq War, depicted four Muslim children, total. As AlterNet Senior Writer Max Blumenthal noted on Twitter, three out of four of these characters were either terrorists or the children of terrorists; the fourth was tortured to death. Journalist Rania Khalek made similar observations, saying that the film showed Iraqi “children as soulless monsters who Chris Kyle is forced to kill to protect invading US soldiers.”

Such vilification of Muslim children is not new. But it is far from limited to fictional instances—and these media portrayals can translate into real-life repercussions in the lives of Muslim youth.

Recently, a student named Asmaa Bana went missing from Toronto, Ontario. Bana, a young Muslim university student much like myself, had her story covered in the Toronto Star by Michelle Shephard. Shephard, the author of Guantanamo’s Child and the Star’s national security reporter, typically writes on drones, terrorism, bombings, and the Islamic State (ISIS). Furthermore, Shephard does not often cover other missing women in the Greater Toronto area; in fact, two went missing within the same month as Bana and were covered by someone else. So the editorial decision to assign her this piece seemed strange—unless Bana’s story had been assumed to fit Shephard’s beat, because Bana was visibly Muslim. Shephard herself linked to the Toronto Star feed covering ISIS’ activities within the piece, asking Bana’s family whether there was a possibility she had joined the fringe group. (The other two non-Muslim missing women’s families were not asked the same questions.)

Bana was thankfully found; she contacted the police the same day the story ran and met with them at a restaurant. Like many young people who “go missing” in their teens and 20s, she had left home for a personal reason and not to join a terrorist group, as insinuated by Shephard and the Star.

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The Star and Shephard are not alone in framing stories on young Muslims in a much different light from their non-Muslim peers. When a group of four non-Muslim young people allegedly planned a Valentine’s Day massacre in Halifax this year with an end goal to kill shoppers at the mall and then commit suicide, Justice Minister Peter McKay informed reporters that the plot “was not motivated by terrorism.” By contrast, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police deemed Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Muslim convert with mental health concerns who had sought help but fell through cracks of the mental health system, a terrorist for the shooting he committed in October. Clearly, these were both horrifying incidents; the discrepancy in officials’ approach to them, however, is indicative of the prevailing narrative disproportionately blaming extremist ideology for Muslim actions.

Commentators and the public even made jokes rooted in stereotypes when 22-year-old Zayn Malik left the band One Direction for a mental health break. Islamophobic commentary ensued, implying that Malik had either gone to join ISIS or to recruit young girls to the group, demonstrating that Muslim kids do not get breaks, even when they are half white like Malik. This, after the Daily Show arguably insinuated that he was a terrorist—an implication the show later dismissed.

Meanwhile, CNN continues to suggest that Muslim children and young women can be enticed to join ISIS by Nutella, kittens, and emojis. This kind of newscast feeds into a simplistic narrative that paints young Muslim women as gullible, derailing the real reasons people are lured to join a group like ISIS. Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor who studies jihadist groups, has stated “the vast majority of Westerners joining up with ISIS are extraordinarily ignorant when it comes to religion.” Nutella and kittens are not a driving force in the small number of Muslims joining ISIS; CNN’s oversimplification implies that many Muslims are just a few steps away from allying with extremist groups at every moment.

How are we meant to live and thrive in a world that uses any excuse to paint us as violent criminals from a young age and that, as a result, punishes us for others’ crimes? This puts Muslims in real, present danger. For example, France faced a surge in Islamophobic attacks after the shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris. I do not condone the acts of violence, but all Muslims in that community are being asked to repent for the actions of those two Muslim men. Young white men as a whole, meanwhile, have never been asked to apologize and explain their identities in relation to violence. This is because we have accepted non-Muslim school shooters, serial killers, bombers, and rapists as individuals, not representative of all white people.

This continuous questioning of our every action has lasting, real-life consequences on young Muslims. Being a young Muslim and growing up as an object of hyper-surveillance by default of identity, we represent a whole people, rarely given room to grow up and make mistakes. Mental health concerns are not always addressed in the Muslim community due to stigma, a lack of culturally competent services, and other confounding factors such as immigration and socioeconomic adjustment taking priority over health concerns. And because we are held to unrealistic standards from a young age, our mental health needs are often overlooked outside of our communities as well as within them. Given that mental health needs remain stigmatized in non-Muslim communities too, a dual identity of Muslim and mentally unwell can cause a greater burden on an individual, particularly one who feels the pressure to be “perfect” lest they or others be treated with suspicion. Take the aforementioned Zehaf-Bibeau, who wanted to go to jail to get the medical help he needed. Instead of the administration acknowledging his record of mental health concerns, they labeled him a terrorist. In the media and the public eye, Muslims are implicated as terrorists, whereas white individuals are motivated by other factors.

The trend of framing stories with subtext alluding to Muslim youth joining radical groups like ISIS is exposing an entire generation to stereotypes we will not be able to break free from anytime soon. As witnessed with Bana, we cannot even go missing without commentary and national attention being given by a reporter who typically covers terrorism. We automatically are presumed guilty; lack of evidence or context does not negate this guilty presumption. Innocent until proven guilty may only apply to white, non-Muslim boys and girls.

This hyper-surveillance manifests itself as a fracturing of identity in many young Western Muslims on a day-to-day basis as well. Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims, a report that was produced to summarize surveillance in New York City after 9/11, had findings that resonated with many on a national scale. The report noted, “almost all our interviewees noted that appearing Muslim, or appearing to be a certain type of Muslim, invites unwanted attention or surveillance from law enforcement.” One interviewee stated, “There’s always been a sense of stereotyping about dress. But now the veil thing has become more than just about being different. It has become charged with suspicion.”

The report continues, “Interviewees stress that the ever-present surveillance chills—or completely silences—their speech whether they are engaging in political debate, commenting on current events, encouraging community mobilization or joking around with friends. Political organizing, civic engagement and activism are among the first casualties.” This personally resonates with me and my Muslim peers: Our parents have discouraged us from taking bold public political stances, because our Muslim identity already speaks volumes. I, too, wonder frequently about whether I will face backlash for my points of view that non-Muslims would not.

The writer Tasbeeh Herwees recently tweeted about the work that goes into debunking stereotypes and the stigma that is often affiliated with a Muslim identity. She said, “so much of my daily emotional energy is spent smiling and joking to disarm people who may be guarded in my presence & it’s exhausting.” In subsequent tweet, she stated, “the hijab walks into the room before I do. sometimes ppl mistake me for other hijabi because they’ve never bothered to look at our faces,” concluding with, “it’s just safer to be bubbly than it is to be serious when you’re visibly muslim.”

Being young and Muslim, I am coming to terms with how I have been enlisted in a war of image that I never signed up for. If I run away, my country’s most popular newspaper may have their national security reporter ask my parents and friends about ISIS prematurely because of my name. They will face a type of psychological violence by way of premature profiling.

Our accomplishments are not necessarily highlighted concurrently with our Muslim identities. Our Muslim otherness will always haunt us, never emerging when we contribute to society in positive ways but a key component of any headline when one Muslim out of more than 1.5 billion commits an act of violence—or even disappears.