Islamophobia is the acceptable face of racism

The truth, it seems, is that if you’re born Muslim, or are of Muslim heritage, and live or travel to the West, you will have to contend with some level of suspicion for the rest of your life.

The news that British Muslims were being stopped from traveling to the US did not come as a surprise. Last month, a few days after the Paris attacks, I landed in JFK international airport in New York. As is almost always the case when I go to the US, the immigration officer went through my passport (I was traveling on my British passport, I also have an Egyptian one), then politely escorted me, my passport in her hand, to another room.

This other room, which I remembered from my previous visit, had a couple of dozen other people waiting. From what I could gather from conversations the other “guests” were having with immigration officers, most people were going through additional immigration or security checks.

When I walked into the room, I couldn’t help but notice the diverse ethnicities — with the notable exception of any white person. To be fair, a little later, a white couple came in and were interviewed — but it was in relation to some court order, rather than an immigration manner. But I digress, this is about religion, not race. Or is it?

In the US, as is the case in the UK and many European countries, racism is frowned upon. There is racism, for sure — but expressing overtly racist views, or adopting overtly racist politics, is not acceptable. Some far right politicians even make it a point to extoll how friendly they are to people of other races and regularly reaffirm that their parties are not racists. That’s not a bad thing, and one would hope that eventually, disguised racism will also disappear from western societies. Racism is really the stupidest of human traits — absent any evidence, people believing that their racial or ethnic grouping is superior to others because of its innate external physical characteristics, is about as idiotic as humanity gets.

So racism is bad and we all mostly either agree with this or pretend to. Islamophobia, however, is treated differently. In the brave times that followed 9/11, the world was divided into us and them. Who “us” where and who “them” were was never made very clear by the people who made the division. For millions of people, things became very confusing. If you, like me, abhorred terrorism, opposed the invasion of Iraq, supported human rights, (or where even Muslim! and Arab!!), were you an “us” or a “them”?

To me both sides were “them”. On one side were murderous fanatics with no regard for human life, and on the other were irresponsible statesmen (you will find that the stupidest political decisions are made by statesmen rather than stateswomen) who had little qualms about bombing civilians to smithereens or torturing people in secret prisons. No, thank you. I was in that third, annoying, camp that both sides didn’t like.

As lucky as I was, with fluent English, a good education and a good job at an internationally recognized organization, I still had to contend with having an unmistakably Muslim name and an Egyptian passport. To be absolutely clear here, I’ve only suffered some relatively minor annoyances over the years, compared to the suspicion and abuse that many Muslims in the west have to deal with (see for example this, this, and this).

Back to JFK. I ended up spending 2.5 hours in that other room. Apart from a few questions (e.g. my eye colour??) I was not asked about what I was coming to do in the US, my political views or anything else of substance. I was told a few times that I had a “common name”. I’ve heard other waiting people being told the same thing. My name is not that common — the components of my name are, but not the combination. But that’s not the issue.

I’ve been to the US several times in the last six years — I even lived there for a whole year during this period. To get my student visa then, my application was sent for “further administrative processing”. It took about four weeks, following an interview where I gave every detail I thought possible about my life and family. My understanding of this additional processing is that the file makes the rounds of US security agencies. So at this point, having been cleared, gotten the visa, lived for a year in the US, you would think my identity would be well established. No, I still have a “common name”.

After the Paris attacks, I was told I should convince people who want to attack the west not to. As many people have pointed out, this kind of thinking is no different than telling a Christian person that they are somewhat responsible for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, or more comically, that white people are responsible for Nickelback (who actually have a couple of really good songs).

As a liberal, secular Muslim working on human rights, I can assure you that I am about as likely to be listened to as Donald Trump is to host a Syrian refugee family in his home. Possible, but rather improbable. Also, you might not want to believe this, but the vast majority of Muslims (as in more than 99% not a British electoral majority) don’t know anyone who wants to blow themselves up, so we wouldn’t really know where to start.

The truth, it seems, is that if you’re born Muslim, or are of Muslim heritage, and live or travel to the West, you will have to contend with some level of suspicion for the rest of your life. This terrifies me. Not for myself; I hate being profiled but I learned to live with being called out for one more “random” check at the airport. I have two small kids who — no matter what they choose to believe or do in their lives — will always have that suspicion attached to them. They could change their name and it wouldn’t make any difference. They will be profiled for who they are and who their parents are.

Could my daughter one day have to explain that she doesn’t support terrorism when all she did was talk about eco-activism? Or could my son get arrested for bringing a science project to school? Will they have to constantly watch what they say and how they act to avoid unjustified suspicion? They have the right to grow and discover the world freely, not constantly be on the defensive.

Islamophobia may not be, technically-speaking, racism, but it has all its hallmarks. It is both unfair and wrong. It stigmatises people and puts them at a disadvantage. It judges them for who they were born as. If you catch yourself being a bit Islamophobic, know that you are acting no better than the racists you scorn.

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