After a powerful address by Dr. Homayra Ziad at the BHC Sisterhood's Interfaith Institute earlier this year, I decided to continue to pursue the stories of Muslims making their way in a world that regards them with suspicion. Dr. Ziad's talk was compelling, in part, because it skillfully wove personal stories with a sociological and historical analysis of the geopolitical reality that created Al Quaeda and ISIS. Since my goal is always greater empathy, I decided to assign an article that would share more personal stories of a Muslim man navigating his way through the US and UK cultures. In Typecast as a Terrorist, actor Riz Ahmed invites the reader into his experience traveling back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K. as he works on films.
When a small group of folks gathered to discuss it the article, we noted that our conversations about code switching after reading D. Watkins, were interestingly relevant. While Watkins revealed something about the how and why of code switching Black Americans must do to succeed in White America, Ahmed shows us the code switching he learns to do to pacify (White) law enforcement officials, especially at airports. At one point he writes of his response to a border officer’s question “Do you know anyone who wants to do harm to the United States?”:
“I shook my head and made Hugh Grant noises, venturing a ‘gosh!’ in there somewhere.”
Ahmed is an entertaining writer. His words made me laugh, even as I cringed. He relates a story of trying to relax with friends in New York after three hours of interrogation at a the airport:
I joined a friend in Manhattan for dinner, apologising for being three hours late, and zoned out while they discussed astrology. Someone at the dinner turned to me.
“You’re such a terrorist,” she said.
I blinked. What the fuck? My face screwed itself into the expression I wish I’d pulled instead of mewling apologetically at the border officers.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
My friend put her arm on mine and squeezed.
“Riz, she asked if you’re a Sagittarius.”
I swallowed. Baffled faces pinned me with concern.
“Right. Sorry. Yeah. Yes I am,” I said.
Our discussion group, all women on this occasion, talked about the similarities and differences to the navigation and performances that women find themselves expected to enact. The bending of ourselves into pretzels to please the person on the other side of a desk/interview/what have you. We noted that it is the same—insofar as we are expected to show up with less-than our true selves in order to avoid another’s discomfort—and not the same—since the consequences of not-contorting are less likely to lead to violence or trouble with the law (though both are possible consequences for non-conforming women).
We empathized with Ahmed’s experience of having that contortion enforced on you can color future encounters, like his “such a terrorist / sagittarius” experience. That led us to extrapolate to the experiences of all people of color in America—when you encounter suspicion and stereotyping at every turn, you expect suspicion and stereotyping, and take on a defensive posture. One of the participants started to wonder about when code switching is just a matter of language and when it is a sign of oppression. Together we talked about the difference between mastering a different language in order to be better understood, and being forced to adopt a different language to avoid injury or death.
Dr. Ziad told a story about her brother at the Interfaith institute, that highlighted this distinction. I think it is worth quoting at length to close:
Almost every American Muslim has an intimate knowledge of NSEERS. My brother was 22 years old when NSEERS was instituted. He had lived in the U.S. since he was three years old in multi-cultural, multi-religious neighborhood, with six years overseas in the middle. My father worked in international development. He had just graduated from Yale University and started work at a consulting firm in DC on a work visa with plans of becoming a permanent resident very soon. He was a citizen of Pakistan.
Every single time he entered and exited the country, for work, for vacations, to visit family, my brother had to register on the way in and out. He registered approximately 130 times between 2002 and 2011 (when the program was finally dismantled by President Obama). Special registration was a mess. No one knew the rules and regulations, least of all the officials charged with handling the process. Registration became a way for anyone with racist tendencies to take out their hate and anger on the person they were interrogating. My brother was often detained for five hours at a time. He was mocked at, laughed at, shouted at, subject to trick questions and rapid-fire interrogation, called a terrorist multiple times, asked in excruciating detail about his religious practice: what he thought of certain religious groups, what mosques he attended. He was accused of lying about being a graduate of Yale University. During one especially grueling interrogation, an official misunderstood something my brother said.
Flanked by police, made to walk like a prisoner in front of fellow passengers, my brother was placed in an armored transport vehicle and put back on the plane he arrived in. He was then forced to pay for his own ticket back. And he was afraid to say anything – because word on the street was that the government would disappear you, that Muslims had no more rights under the Patriot Act. For years after that, each time my brother came close to an airport, train station, border, or even a tollbooth, he would start shaking uncontrollably.
Eventually my brother decided he didn’t want to be an American citizen. He asked his firm to relocate him to Montreal and a few years later he became a citizen of Canada. The government of the country that he had grown up in, that he considered his home, the country that he still loves, had forsaken him. It permanently changed his relationship with the state into one of trepidation and sadness.