Three years ago, my husband and I were walking through London’s Heathrow Airport on the way to our honeymoon in Italy. Men in the traditional Islamic garb of Saudi Arabia were walking through the security checkpoints behind us.
To my surprise, my husband, a man who was raised by an observant Muslim mother, stopped to watch as they went through security. He wanted to make sure the employees checked each man thoroughly. My husband had just returned from his homeland of Iraq, where he had been working as an Arabic translator with U.S. soldiers. When my husband saw certain Muslim garb, he naturally felt nervous.
His niece, an observant Muslim who fasts during Ramadan even though it leaves her parched and tired at work, feels nervous when she sees men whose appearance expresses extreme Muslim observance, such as men with a long, thick beards without mustaches. While she lived in Iraq, she learned to fear those who wanted to imitate most closely seventh-century norms of dress. Why? One day when she was in a salon in Baghdad, men came in and told her in threatening tones that her dress was “un-Islamic.” They told her she needed to change her clothes or she would “be punished.” She never understood why. She was wearing the hijab and covering her arms and legs. The men waited for her in a car outside the salon. Out of fear, my niece called male relatives to come and pick her up. Now that she is in the United States, she will walk out of Starbucks, never mind an airplane, if she sees men dressed in Islamic styles associated with hard-line ideas, even though she knows the hard-liners in Iraq often dressed in Western clothes in order to blend in.
Is my husband or his niece anti-Muslim? Absolutely not, but they have been deeply scarred by the radicalism they witnessed in a majority Muslim land. They themselves would say that the majority of the Muslims they know are peaceful and loving people, but, like the bullies in a classroom, the extremists cause everyone to be on edge.
In Ed Husain’s excellent book, “The Islamist” (Penguin Global, 2008), the author describes how older and devoutly Muslim parents of Southeast Asian heritage in London feel nervous when their children adopt seventh-century Middle Eastern styles. Such dress is foreign to their heritage. The parents are not bigots. They are concerned with the radicalism the dress can sometimes indicate.
If these moderate Muslims can worry at the sight of certain expressions of Muslim dress, why then was Juan Williams fired for expressing a similar feeling? He was not proud of this feeling. He did not consider it a positive thing. If you watch the Fox News video in full, you see that he was actually trying to counter arguments that would portray all Muslims as radicals.
The question of what even qualifies as “Muslim garb” is a complicated one. For some Muslims, a proper Muslim woman should wear the nikab, the full-face covering that leaves only a slit in the eyes. Yet more moderate Muslim women find the nikab offensive. They feel uncomfortable when women wear it.
Juan Williams opened up a perfectly legitimate discussion by acknowledging uncomfortable feelings while at the same time insisting that it is wrong to paint all Muslims as extremists. Perhaps the upper management at NPR believes they are being more sensitive to Muslims than Mr. Williams by firing him. In truth, they are being more condescending to them.
Elise Ehrhard lives in Northern Virginia.
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