Clinging to hateful stereotypes

September 19, 2012

The last week provided another chapter in the ugly story of Islamophobia in the U.S. as the media obsessed about "anti-American" demonstrations in the Middle East that were sparked by a racist film. Amid all this, at the University of Texas at Austin, school officials publicly reported that a bomb threat on campus--which turned out to be a hoax--came from someone with a "Middle Eastern accent" and connections to al-Qaeda.

On September 17, UT English professor Snehal Shingavi opened his class on "Literature of Islamophobia" to the public for a discussion about this bigoted response. Here, he discusses how stereotypes and distortions replace real questioning about the causes of violence.

THE BOMB threats that were delivered to five American universities--University of (UT) Texas at Austin, North Dakota State, Valparaiso, Louisiana State and UT- Brownsville--in the last five days should be an occasion to consider the world we live in and how it affects us.

College campuses have never really been immune from broader historical forces, nor have they been protected from violence. But what is striking about the conversation that emerged in the tense atmosphere following bomb threats that turned out to be largely hoaxes is how remarkably flat it is. Once the terms "Arab" or "Islam" or their synonyms are thrown around, there seems to be little attention paid to what is going on or why.

This last point bears underlining because it is the one claim that few are willing to concede in liberal America. Yet "Islam" and "Arabs" seem only to appear in the media or in conversation when the subject is about violence or terrorism, with the effect that Islam has become interchangeable with violence. Intelligent conversation then stops, and the participants nod in agreement: of course, those Muslims are always up to something. It was perhaps convenient to the stereotypes that angry Arabs were in the streets protesting as fake bomb threats were being made.

Students return to the UT Austin campus after an evacuation
Students return to the UT Austin campus after an evacuation

But even when it came to the recent protests in the Middle East over a vile Islamophobic film, we encountered the same flat narrative. Angry Muslims were responding irrationally to the liberal values of the West (free speech). Then the vague "anti-American" label got repeated.

Few people were talking about the film and the provocative circumstances of its production--the connections of the producer to far-right, Islamophobic organizations, for instance. Even fewer were talking about the cynical way that certain marginalized Muslim organizations were using the controversy around the film to reignite their celebrity.

These protests, like the bomb threats, were supposed to be proof of the truism that passes for scrutiny: Muslims are illiberal and dangerous.

THAT SUCH intellectual laziness happens is not surprising. We live in a country where one presidential candidate won't be photographed next to a Muslim and the other cannot be bothered to learn how to pronounce a single Arab or Muslim name correctly. That mosques are routinely vandalized and torched without any mention only serves to highlight the quiet acceptance of this mainstream political consensus. Muslims are merely tolerated here--they endure American multiculturalism at their own peril.

But the fact that such intellectual laziness happens at a college campus is maddening.

At two different University of Texas campuses, the specter of Islam was raised as the source of two very different alleged plots.

In Austin, a caller identified by one UT staff person as having a "light Middle Eastern accent" and connections to al-Qaeda made a bomb threat. Despite recognizing early on that the call was likely a hoax and taking emergency measures only as a precaution, the university still released details about the caller's supposed identity. The possibility that the hoax could have encompassed the accent and the al-Qaeda affiliation did not stop the administration from defending their racial profile of the caller.

At UT-Brownsville, another bomb threat, also a hoax, was made by Henry Dewitt McFarland, a veteran of the U.S. Marines who served time in Afghanistan, via the National Veteran's Crisis Hotline. McFarland, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was considering conversion to Islam. He threatened to blow up a classmate who made derogatory comments about his new religion with a bomb he claimed to have in his apartment. The authorities found nothing in his apartment to suggest the threat was serious.

In both instances, the story required the sensationalism that only Islam and Muslims could provide. Neither possible exam-related hoaxes--earlier in the week, fire alarms were pulled in eight buildings at UT Austin--nor soldiers returning with PTSD from their time abroad are the way we talk about our state of permanent insecurity on college campuses, even though those stories help to unpack the new realities of university life.

Without Islam, we would be forced to ask much harder questions about the skyrocketing costs of higher education or the conditions that U.S. soldiers face. We might be forced to ask why American drone aircraft violate national sovereignty and kill with impunity. Much easier that we talk about Muslims.

And when critics raise the problems with this interpretation--that it eliminates the deadliness of American foreign policy, that it lumps all Arabs and Muslims together, that violent protests are almost always the work of fringe groups--we are accused of naively pandering to the protocols of political correctness.

Most bomb threats at college campuses are connected to two things: exams and major (usually sporting) events. Colleges and universities have well-developed protocols to deal with these threats because they have been a regular part of their operations for years. One UT official explained that the school gets four or five of these every year. Most go unannounced.

In the four years that I have worked at UT, I have only been evacuated once. This is not to say that we shouldn't take bomb threats seriously. But we ought to ask how we determine which ones we do take seriously, and why.

The majority of the insecurity that we face on college campuses has very little to do with Islam. The events of Virginia Tech a few years ago serve as a reminder that colleges and universities are not ivory towers disconnected from real issues. We might add that the incessant cuts to university budgets and the rising costs of tuition have also produced new, difficult conditions for everyone on campus. That there are fewer health and psychological services to deal with the problems these create is at least part of the problem, too.

THERE IS another story that we are not telling, either. Since 9/11, every Muslim organization on a college campus has been audited by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security at least once. At UCLA, Muslims are the subject of constant law enforcement surveillance. Most Muslim students keep to themselves and associate only with other Muslims as a way to defend themselves from racism. Few speak out about it because law enforcement has been woefully inadequate about doing anything.

In fact, later this week, ACLU representatives will testify at Congressional hearings about the failure of law enforcement agencies to do anything when credible threats are made against Muslims and mosques.

In one incident in Antioch, Calif., authorities did nothing after they were notified about threats against a mosque--it was set on fire in 2007. The authorities even refuse to call this a hate crime.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say that I am named in the ACLU's documents. In 2007, death threats were made against me. The ACLU discovered that my political activism was ostensibly the reason that law enforcement did not investigate the death threats or take them seriously. There is a reason that we don't have good numbers on the real harassment, discrimination, violence and fear that Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. feel.

There are real stories to tell here and real questions to ask--questions that, when answered, might lead to real solutions to the insecurities we all face on college campuses. But the story about Islam and terrorism is too convenient. It lets everyone off the hook. And it keeps everyone permanently insecure.

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