Dressing Like a Terrorist

Like many others, I was dismayed to learn of the two imams wearing traditional Muslim garb who were forcibly removed from an airplane that was to carry them to a conference on Islamophobia.  The passengers who were removed from a Delta/ASA flight in Memphis, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, apparently frightened other passengers and upset one of the pilots, who refused to fly with them on board.  Not everybody was dismayed, however.  The Delta/ASA pilot and the frightened passengers have received support from numerous voices among the American commentariat.

The situation was a clear-cut case of ethnic profiling.  On this everybody should agree.  Some of those who support the pilot’s action want to disclaim their support of profiling, but such a desire is dishonest.  People need to accept the realities of the positions they express, even if those positions attach to descriptors that have negative connotations.  If you support the pilot, you are supporting an instance of ethnic profiling.  Either accept that fact or develop a different opinion.

I have been reading commentaries about the case with much interest.  One argument in particular keeps arising:  the notion that Rahman and Zaghloul deserve what happened to them because they dressed like terrorists.  The reasoning goes like this:  Muslims commit terrorism; Muslims look a certain way; a certain look thus portends the possibility of terrorism.  In short, those who appear to be Muslim are worthy of extra scrutiny because they are more likely to be terrorists than other people.

I want to leave aside the fact that the belief that Muslims are more likely than others to commit terrorism is a myth with no basis in factual evidence.  I also do not have the space to illustrate that there are thousands of variations of traditional Muslim dress.  Even Rahman and Zaghloul wore different types of clothing on the day they were profiled.

I’d like instead to focus on this notion of “dressing like a terrorist,” a phrase that has the peculiar intimation of a fashion statement.  There is no quantifiable evidence to show that dress is a predictor of any sort of behavior, especially the behavior of terrorism.  What we’re dealing with in the Rahman and Zaghloul case is an overexerted imagination that associates political violence what I call the terrorist costume.

The terrorist costume is a simulated reality, circulated in Hollywood and countless news broadcasts, that evokes a causal relation between appearance and action.  The terrorist costume is familiar to nearly all Americans:  a thick beard, an ashen robe, brown skin, sandals holding dirty feet, and some sort of headgear, usually a Sikh-style turban.  The terrorist wearing this costume often sports a Qu’ran, so the audience can be certain that he is a Muslim.

Yet the acts of terrorism that have been committed by Muslims involved perpetrators, like Mohamed Atta, who didn’t at all resemble the image of the Hollywood terrorist.  Rahman and Zaghloul unfortunately resembled a racist simulation that could define them to an American audience.  But that simulation has never actually been implicated in a real crime.

To impugn Rahman and Zaghloul for their dress, then, is to engage in highly troublesome judgment, one that not only contravenes their Constitutional rights, but also the rules of basic logic.  The United States has long been a place where appearance is believed to foreground attitude or behavior (vis-à-vis skin color, clothes, physiognomy, ethnic typology, gender, sexuality, possessions, and so forth).  Yet judgment by appearance is a terribly ineffective indicator of either attitude or behavior, not to mention being highly unethical and often illegal.

Those who believe that Rahman and Zaghloul brought their unjust treatment on themselves ought to think about what their lives would be like if their own logic were applied to them.  In the end, if we are to let fanciful stereotypes dictate access to basic rights of citizenship, then none of us will ever live up to the grandiose promise of our own worthiness.

2 thoughts on “Dressing Like a Terrorist”

  1. What really gets me is that the two men were screened no less than THREE TIMES by airport security:


    Twice before they boarded and again following their removal from the flight. After all this, the pilot still “absolutely refused” to allow them back on. Unbelievable.

    It also worries me that people actually defend this racist’s actions. Someone ought to ask him how many more times “brown people in Muslim garb” should be screened compared to everyone else.

  2. Great post! I heard something the other day that goes like this (and I can’t remember all of it…groan) It’s called the Prosecutor’s Dilemma or the Prosecutor’s Argument or something like that.

    If A shoots B, then it’s certain that A has gunpowder on his hand. If C, who lives 1,000 miles away, has gunpowder on his hand, it’s less certain that C shot B.

    That’s what all this nonsense sounds like. Memphis was the scene of a great investigative series last fall by the Religion writer, Bob Smietana, for The Tennessean, who wrote about Frank Gaffney and his pals scaring up Islamofascism in the area.

    “Brannon Wheeler, history professor and director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy, said critics of Islam mistakenly assume that Shariah law is a set of fixed principles that apply to every Muslim, everywhere.

    That’s not the case, he said, making clear that he speaks as an expert and not for the Navy or the Naval Academy.

    While French, for example, has put together his ‘Sharia Law for Non-Muslims’, no similar book exists for Muslims.

    “There’s no text that is entitled The Shariah,” Wheeler said. “It’s not a code of law. It’s not like you could go to the library and get the 12 volumes of Shariah law.”

    Instead, Shariah is flexible, and applies differently in different contexts. It comes from clerics’ and scholars’ interpretations of the Quran and other holy books.

    Wheeler also had harsh words for Gaffney’s report, which claims Shariah is an imminent threat to America.

    “He makes the Shariah look absurd and insidious by trolling through and finding outrageous rulings and then making them universal for all time,” Wheeler said. “It’s ridiculous.””

    This is the dark underbelly of Christian Zionism.

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