My wife is an unusually sociable woman. She makes friends easily. People gravitate toward her, and she can strike up a conversation with virtually anyone, anywhere, and make them like her. Of Egyptian descent, she’s American-born and -raised. She founded and directs a cooperative centre for homeschooling mothers in Eastern Toronto while also pursuing a Master’s degree. She’s smart and funny and infectiously pleasant—a woman with strong ideas and the will and energy to bring them to fruition.
And she wears hijab.
Surprised? If so, shame on you, but you’re hardly alone. She started wearing it in college years before I ever met her, and entirely of her own accord. She debunks just about every myth and stereotype about hijab out there, and she’s turned out to be an interesting test case that's gotten me thinking.
She often comes home from some outing telling me about a conversation she got into with one stranger or another. These conversations are not about hijab. They’re not about Islam, or women’s rights. But they start because she feels someone staring at her and decides to strike up a conversation. She knows it’s an opportunity to readjust someone’s preconceptions about Islam and Muslim women.
So what, then, are these conversations about? A surprising number of them are about the other person in the conversation wanting more religion in his or her life—feeling a spiritual void in life that they want to fill, but aren’t sure quite how to in this secular/scientific/acquisitive society we’re so entrenched in. So what could this mean? Is this what’s really going on in people’s minds when they see a headscarf, underneath a superficial red herring of women’s oppression? Could it be that what people really feel is a kind of admiration that this woman in front of them feels so deeply about her faith that she’s willing to endure stares, judgments, and more? After all, didn’t Pope John Paul II once say that he admired Muslims that they would stop what they were doing and pray anywhere—in an airport, a shopping mall, or even in the street?
For myself, a white Anglo-Saxon Muslim, I can tell you honestly that I have never experienced anything like what gets called Islamophobia. When I tell non-Muslims that I am Muslim, I find that I become an object of interest, but never an object of hatred. I don’t mean to suggest that my Muslim brethren are simply imagining the prejudice they experience in Western countries. Far otherwise, I have no doubt it is real. What I’m suggesting is that it isn’t really a fear or hatred of Islam. It surely sounds like it, and the perpetrators may have an investment in believing that it is actually a hatred of Islam. But the signs indicate otherwise.
I believe it is sadly nothing more than plain, old, garden variety, run-of-the-mill racism—a fear of the Other. But why must both the perpetrator and victim of such hatred perform such cartwheels to convince themselves that what is going on is Islamphobia rather than racism. America (and its neighbour Canada to a lesser degree) has a complicated and painful relationship with racism going back to the days of slavery. In our liberal times today, racism has become the cardinal sin of the American way of life. Even southern rednecks would feel defensive about being accused of racism, while perhaps having no qualms with Islamophobia. Europeans, on the other hand, are much more honest about their racism. They don’t have big problems with Islam, as long as it’s kept in Muslim countries. It’s immigrants from other cultures—‘Others’—that they have serious problems with. We North Americans are the ones who have to dress up the Emperor, Racism, in the liberal new clothes of ‘opposition to women’s oppression’, or the conservative ‘new’ clothes of ‘defending God and democracy from the Islamic menace’. I’m perfectly willing to be the lone child who cries out that our racism is ‘naked’. Honestly, my sisters’ headscarves are nothing compared to the wraps under which my countrymen cloak their racism.
I hope that in unveiling this problem, I can help us tackle the issue more directly, for as things are now, our efforts at healing will always be misdirected. One thing that is bound to help the healing is increased contact across cultural boundaries—not just seeing different peoples on the streets and in the stores, as is common in a place like where I live, in Toronto, but qualitative contact that can open minds—like my wife is so expert at orchestrating. Perhaps the most fertile ground for this kind of contact is the blogs and social media of Film Annex. With its strong global foundation, and especially strong base in Muslim countries and amongst women in Afghanistan, we can build real communication without borders.