I have been scaring people with Muslim garb all my life, and I can remember the first time I did so. It was when I was 4 years old and my mom dressed my twin brother and I up in ethnic Indian clothing for a local Halloween party. She clearly didn’t intend for me to look scary, but the way she dressed me nearly 40 years ago was an eerie precursor for the reality of today, when people like former NPR analyst and current Fox contributor Juan Williams express their fear of people wearing “Muslim garb” on planes.
That was another time, in the days before Muslims were a visible “other” in American society. We were unthreatening enough that we could wear the clothing of our native or ancestral backgrounds and be thought of as quaint or ethnically cute. I got away with it for a while, even dressing up with little fanfare in Arab clothing I had purchased while on the hajj as a teenager.
Today is a different story, of course. I understand why people like Mr. Williams find themselves terrified when they see folks in “Muslim garb” (whatever that is, but that’s another story). We’ve all been conditioned to associate terrorism with “Muslim garb” through decades of images of angry protesting Muslims superimposed with the aftermath of terror attacks. It has come to the point where many of my Muslim friends have decided to forego any sort of ethnic dress when out in public, especially when at the airport. And that’s a sad thing.
It’s sad not because normal people are denied the pleasure of wearing clothes that they feel expresses their identity, but because as a society we have allowed irrational fear to control our actions. And to act on the fear of Muslim clothing in an airport is clearly irrational. At no time since (and including) 9/11 have people in “Muslim garb” ever endangered an airplane. The terrorists who have done so all had one thing in common – they studiously avoided “Muslim garb” so as to go as unnoticed as possible.
We live in an age where Americans are under threat of terrorism, and all of us – Muslims especially – should be aware of dangers in our midst and act accordingly to ensure our collective safety. But acting on irrational fears directly undermines our vigilance and as a consequence makes us less safe.
I point out the irrationality of Mr. Williams fear not because I care about my right to wear “Muslim garb” unmolested (personally, I have only worn such clothing at Muslim weddings, an unlikely target). I do so because he and others like him are Pied Pipers leading all of us down a road of false security which ultimately leaves us vulnerable.
And though I can’t help but make light of the situation by suggesting that DC-area Muslims go trick-or-treating at Juan Williams’ house wearing “Muslim garb” in order to scare him, in the end it isn’t really a laughing matter.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com. This article was previously featured at Washington Post/On Faith.