The happy Muslims who confuse you

I love to confuse people by subverting the stereotype of Muslims that they always see and hear from. I believe that breaking the false equation between conservatism and authenticity is the best way to end the monopoly over religious thought by radicals and their supporters.

There’s something wrong with the pictures coming out of Pakistan these days. Ever since Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reinstated the country’s chief justice, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was.

And then it hit me. Happiness. Joy. Celebration.

How often do we see pictures of happy Muslim men? What a relief too that they were Pakistani.

I’ve developed a theory about the Muslims we see on our television screens and front pages and who are usually from Pakistan.

Angry Bearded Muslim Man is the favorite. Whenever the Muslim world is supposed to be upset or offended, invariably that story is illustrated by images of Angry Bearded Muslim man: marching (usually in Pakistan), shouting (fists raised in the air in righteous anger), and burning something (an American flag, an Israeli flag, preferably both!)

His female counterpart is Covered in Black Muslim Woman. She’s seen, never heard. Visible only in her invisibility under that black chador, burqa, face veil, etc.

In those images you have conveyed all you want to say about Muslims: the men are angry, dangerous and want to hurt us; the women are just covered in black.

While there are indeed some Muslim men and women who fit both such descriptions they are by no means the majority and they are utterly insufficient in describing the diversity of views, appearances and attitudes among Muslims.

As a journalist I am loathe to blame the media for all and any perceived ills. But in the case of Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman, the media really do have a lot to answer for. Whether it’s the laziness of television producers or the tight and rolling deadlines of the 24-hour news cycle, you can be sure that when it comes to representing Muslims I will always lose out to Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman.

And it’s quite easy to see why – they make for sexy TV and enticing front page photos. And they are my biggest competitors and nemeses when I give lectures or appear on television here in the U.S.

My first U.S. TV appearance was on the Fox News Network on a show called “The O’Reilly Factor”. The host of the show, Bill O’Reilly is known for his conservative views and his confrontational style which often provokes guests with the result that O’Reilly and the guest shout at each other. It’s more entertainment than news or information.

After my appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor”, some viewers sent me email asking “Are you sure you’re a Muslim? Where’s the headgear?” Others wanted to know why I spoke English so well. Clearly, I did not fit the image of the Covered in Black Muslim Woman that many American viewers are used to. I was confusing them.

People don’t like to be confused. I discovered that during a panel discussion I took part in at a cultural centre in New York City in 2007 in which the questions “What does a Muslim look like? What does a Muslim home look like? And just who exactly makes up the Muslim mainstream?” seemed to be the ones foremost on the audience’s mind.

The panel discussion was meant to highlight the diversity of Muslim voices and experiences in the United States. My fellow speakers and I offered quite different views on a range of subjects that surely were proof of the vibrant debate among Muslims but despite our best efforts, not all were convinced apparently. Two women from the audience were later overheard saying “They’re trying to convince us they’re the mainstream? They’re not the mainstream.”

That, coupled with a question during the question and answer session on “what does a Muslim home look like” (implied was that it can’t possibly look like a home any normal person would recognise), got me wondering against whom my co-panelists and I were being compared. I’m quite sure it’s Angry Bearded Muslim Man. And Covered in Black Muslim Woman.

Which brings me back to the happy Pakistanis – men and women – in our newspapers these days. While I’m the last person to deny the danger of radicals in the Muslim world – much of my time and effort go into denouncing violence in the name of religion – I am also a proud liberal, secular Muslim.

I love to confuse people by subverting the stereotype of Muslims that they always see and hear from. I believe that breaking the false equation between conservatism and authenticity is the best way to end the monopoly over religious thought by radicals and their supporters.

When we stop equating conservative with authentic, we recognize the diversity of Muslim views and refuse to allow one voice to speak for us all. Only then can we be recognized as human beings, in all our differences.

It is by confusing people that we are allowed to be human beings, not Muslims, not Angry Bearded Muslim Man or Covered in Black Muslim Woman but human beings. That will become possible when we see more Happy Muslim Men and Women Who Confuse You.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is based in New York.


  • Akenanubis says:

    Angry Bearded Muslim and Covered in Black Muslim Woman>>>>

    Let’s not be ageist. Don’t forget their Son, Jihad Rage Boy.

  • UmmAngela says:

    Really, you fit the stereotype too.  Sure, there are FOX News viewers who may be shocked (among some others) but in all honesty, within the Muslim community, we have seen your stereotype before.  There are two, the secular Muslim and the Practicing Muslim…but not just practicing but practicing with “angry views” (and poor manners to boot).  You’re the only two groups that make it on TV. Neither of you really speak for ME.

    I do agree with you though on one thing.  We are a diverse lot, Muslims, and we come in all different shades (not just in color of skin but in colors of hijabs and thoughts as well).  A lot of people would be surprised by the liberal ideas of many women in niqab here in the states and by the angry and strict regimented feelings of men without beards. 

    What I want to know is why they never put a knowledgeable PRACTICING (in other words, not just praying but covering etc) Muslim woman on TV (unless of course she is a member of MADD or some other group and she makes that news segment “sexy”). I’m talking about using them on TV in regards to speaking about Islam and Muslims.  We are out here, we have voices and we want to be heard!

  • Venus says:

    Regarding the comments made by UmmAngela:

    I understand the desire of women who “cover” to be used as experts on Islam and Muslims (and I agree diversity of voice is needed).

    I find it problematic that you consider those who cover as the only standard of a practicing Muslim (at least that’s what it seems from your sentence). What says that Ms. Eltahawy is not “a knowledge practicing…Muslim woman”?

    But now I’m curious – you mention “liberal ideas of many women in niqab” and I am actually interested to read or hear about that. Are there any specific articles, blogs, or whatever you had in mind that I can read? Many thanks!

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