Earlier this month, Juan Williams, a high-ranking News Analyst, made some off-the-cuff comments on “The O’Reilly Factor” that cost him his job at NPR. He explained to Bill O’Reilly that he was no bigot, adding the qualification: “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Perhaps it is Williams’ track record as a renowned historian of the Civil Rights movement that made his unsavory comments all the more unpalatable.
As might be expected, the words hit a nerve with Muslims in America who already feel they are unduly targeted for supposedly “random searches” in airport security, sometimes held for hours so as to miss connecting flights. Following these controversial events, one young woman decided to offer her own creative contribution to the debate. Razia, who chose not to provide her last name, took the initiative to create Muslims Wearing Things: Muslims Dressed in their Garb. Humbly professing that she had no idea her “wee blog” would garner such interest, the site has now become an overnight internet sensation since its creation last Thursday. The site boasts ever-increasing pages of photographs depicting Muslims the world over with their choice of “Muslim garb” described through witty one-liners. This concept is simple enough, but the content gets at something a bit deeper.
Indeed, the blog singularly reveals what so many civil rights activists and interfaith advocates have only ever rambled on about by effectively highlighting the diversity of Muslims the world over, not only through the variety of ways in which they dress, but also through their myriad occupations and accomplishments.
Working against notions that Muslims can be characterized by their clothing, and that a choice of attire bears weight upon their character, Razia says she “wanted to showcase an honest spectrum of what Muslims look like, and perhaps crack a smile or two along the way.” How the blog has garnered such a following is a mystery to its 30-year-old creator who has always aimed to stand true to her beliefs and concerns, voicing them, as she says, “in my own quirky way.”
The Islamic faith of hip-hop moguls such as Akon, T-Pain, Lupe Fiasco and Busta Rhymes might contrast with images of these individuals among their fans, as will those of numerous sports stars—male and female. Featured in their element, Iranian racecar driver Laleh Seddigh and Bahraini Olympic sprinter Roqaya Al-Gassara easily undermine stereotypes about women in the Muslim world. From Congressman Keith Ellison to recently crowned Miss USA Rima Fakih, the site shows that Muslims are not the invariably radical or fully covered figures depicted in mainstream news media.
Some less famous figures prove no less deserving of the notoriety offered them through a spot on the site. Take for example the following strikingly poignant caption: “US Army Specialist and Muslim Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan wore camouflage, up until the day he was killed in combat in Iraq, fighting for his country. Not pictured: the bronze star and purple heart he earned posthumously.”
While Muslims Wearing Things squarely refutes the belief that there exists any sort of Islamic uniform, it is unable to fully confront all the negative feelings provoked by those those guilty of “flying while Muslim,” especially since outward assimilation apparently offers a sense of safety to Williams, and likely many others as well. Accepting Muslims as dynamic individuals no matter what they wear and where they wear it—whether 30,000 feet above ground or in French government offices remains the real issue.
While Razia believes that people have a right to the sorts of fears articulated by Williams, she says “The problem comes when you rationalize those fears, and give them serious credence. You can’t collectively blame, punish, hate, discriminate, or judge all Muslims based on the actions of a few who just so happen to share that very broad label.”
Still, amid the rising tide of Islamophobia, Muslims Wearing Things reveals that contrary to what they think, most Americans probably do know a good few Muslims—and they probably won’t be able to pick them out by their clothing. Hopefully through seeing members of the Islamic community as servicemen and policewomen, authors and astronauts, Nobel Laureates and NBA all-stars, the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists can be at least slightly dispelled.
Beenish Ahmed recently completed an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge through a Fulbright Scholarship to the United Kingdom. She is an award-winning writer, freelance journalist, and social justice activist.