If Islam were a skin color, there would be a sliding scale along which you could determine just how Muslim you are. On the extremely Muslim end, there would be classic identifiers — hijab or niqab for women, a beard and skullcap for men. On the light Muslim end, there would be those whose identity can only be determined because of a name or provenance, those who usually “pass” in public and are not immediately identifiable. Let’s call this the Identity Matrix.
In order to predict how likely it is that a Muslim will be discriminated against, another measurement needs to be overlaid over visibility — The Privilege Scale. Jobs, wealth, education and other markers of status interplay with the degree of perceived Muslimness that can confer or deny immunity. This is pretty much how identifiers are leavened with social status (or lack thereof) across minority groups in most parts of the world.
Certain attributes and accoutrements offer some Muslims a “pass.” Sara Yasin, a Palestinian American journalist, remarked on how comparatively easy her passage through life in the United States is due to her pale skin, hazel eyes and neutral first name. A pass almost always depends on the ease with which an individual can blend into the affluent dominant culture. It sounds dramatic, and it is.
The ways Muslims have been fingered, pathologized and persecuted mean that the Muslim identity is being calibrated and re-calibrated in order to settle upon one dominant narrative. During the presidential election, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims,” immediately casting suspicion upon any Muslim as a potential threat. He also suggested that Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parent who appeared alongside her husband to support Hillary Clinton, was “not allowed to speak,” because she was Muslim.
These broad strokes are not only the preserve of the political right. Liberals such as Bill Maher have been at it for years. On terrorism, Maher suggested that, “if Muslim men could get laid more, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
This drive to otherize and dehumanize Muslims is grotesque, and the speed and uncoordinated efficiency of it seems almost like a natural phenomenon. But it isn’t. It’s a confluence of unnatural, dynamic and calculated narrow interests that dictate who gets to be “mainstream.”