A few months ago, I was having lunch with a friend. When her dramatically inclined 6-year-old son wrapped a scarf around his head, she offhandedly commented, "Careful, or we'll have to put you through a metal detector."
Weeks after that, I was lucky enough to join one of the Navy's tours of its aircraft carriers — I got to go on the new USS George H. W. Bush — and a well-intentioned colleague said he was surprised they let me on board, given my Pakistani roots. (The Navy itself had no qualms about my place of birth.) That comment was followed the next week by another joke about terrorism and Pakistanis.
And just a few weeks ago, I ran into a friend and his brother at the airport. The brother heard my friend, who is not Pakistani, speak a few words of Urdu to me, and warned jokingly that he might be detained at security for his utterances.
A common defense of such ethnic stereotyping is that it is based in truth. In this case, my friends were making light reference to some undisputed facts: that most terrorists nowadays are Muslim and originate from Muslim countries, including Pakistan.
This is similar to noting any mundane fact about any ethnic group — for example, that there are high crime rates in black communities, or that a disproportionate number of black men are in jail. Those particular observations, however, do not give most Americans license to make an offhand joke about a black friend or colleague being a criminal. On the contrary, comments like that would be deemed racist at best and good material for a workplace lawsuit at worst.
In front of children, in professional settings and in polite company, most Americans no longer think it is OK to make racist jokes about black people. We recognize that it is both hurtful and inaccurate to judge someone's intentions by their skin color or ethnic origin. But when it comes to Muslims and people from Muslim countries, we lose those same sensibilities. So why do my kind, liberal-minded friends make such comments without realizing the offense they're causing?
The answer, I think, is that despite our post-civil rights era mindset of cultural sensitivity, we Americans are deeply uncomfortable with Islam. This discomfort has roots that go beyond the fact that we are at war with Islamic extremist groups or occupying Muslim countries. It is more personal and more deep-seated than that. And understanding its roots is the first step in moving past it.
After Sept. 11, President George W. Bush and countless politicians and commentators told us, "Islam is a religion of peace." One of the subtexts of this assertion was that "Muslims are just like us. Their religion, like ours, preaches peace." In other words, the narrative we developed to combat prejudice against Muslims asserted that Muslim-Americans were just like other Americans. And where it counts, this is true: Muslim Americans, like other Americans, support democracy, individual rights and the rule of law.
Yet, Islamic practices do not look like mainstream American religious practices, and this makes the assertion that Muslims are just like the rest of us ring a bit hollow. Beards, prayer by prostration and headscarves are among the aesthetics of Islamic practice that seem "foreign."
It will take time — decades — for the practice of Islam to start looking "American" to the rest of America. This will be a process of give and take. Muslim worship in America will likely change; new "reform" mosques are already loosening some of the strictures of orthodox Islamic practice. And Americans will also get more comfortable with Islam's philosophy and practices.
Today, however, many Americans are personally uncomfortable with Islam. One kind of discomfort is actual Islamophobia — and it is usually easy to spot. There are many more voices that decry obvious anti-Muslim statements and actions than support them. The second kind is more subtle but still hurtful. It includes the behavior of my friends, who are not anti-Muslim at all but nevertheless say unkind things sometimes.
Over the decades since the civil rights movement, most Americans have learned to reject even subtle racial insults. We now react unfavorably to racist comments, and we are careful about the timing and placement of race-based banter.
Until such a sensitivity toward Muslims develops, Americans should "fake it till we make it." We should remember that in most cases, it is not OK to call your Pakistani or Muslim colleague a terrorist, no matter how jovial and light-hearted you thought you were being. It is usually not OK to make jokes about headscarves and metal detectors — even if you didn't mean anything by it.
Unless uttered by very close friends or in very comfortable company, those things sound the same to my Muslim ears as they would to your black friend if you made a joke implying that her brother robs liquor stores. In some ways, actually, it feels worse to be called a terrorist, because in addition to implying that you are a criminal, it impugns your patriotism.
I look forward to a time when it is politically incorrect to make lighthearted terrorist comments about Muslims. There are appropriate times and places to joke about and explore our stereotypes and biases, perhaps. But a little self-censorship wouldn't hurt.
Rameez Abbas is coordinator of the MA program in Global Security Studies for the Johns Hopkins University. Her email is email@example.com.