On Being Mistaken for a Muslim

Twice, that I can remember, I have been mistaken for a Muslim.  It may have happened more often than that, but only twice did the person making the mistake call themselves to my attention.   The reason for this mistake is really quite simple:  in colder weather I wear a keffiyeh as a scarf.  I started doing this about thirty years ago on my honeymoon.  Keffiyehs were popular with German university students as scarves, and I bought a cheap one since the weather that trip was unusually cold.  Since them I have bought them at the Rastro, the big flea market in Madrid.  My most recent one, however, was a gift from my son Francisco, who bought it for me in the old city in Akko, Israel.   On occasion I add a beaded skull cap.  Mine is originally from Morocco (I think—I bought it in Granada, Spain as a souvenir) but I have seem similar ones from countries ranging from North Africa to Afghanistan.  It is warm and also serves quite well as a kippah when I am invited to a synagogue:  I do not need bobby pins to keep it on!  kheffiyah-kinghat(personal photo of author)


It seems reasonable, given my beard and olive complexion, that I would be mistaken for someone from the Middle East.  Indeed, a Palestinian graduate student once told me that if he saw me on the streets of Cairo (even without the Keffiyeh), he would immediately speak to me in Arabic.

But as to being actually mistaken for a Muslim:  the first time was in Hartford, CT, about 10 years ago.  I was walking to work wearing my keffiyeh and skull cap.  A car going down the street actually stopped,  and the driver leaned out and called to me, “Are you a Muslim?”  Given that he was olive-skinned, bearded and was wearing a white skull cap, I think that he himself was Muslim.  I demurred and told him I was Christian, and he drove off.  I have always wondered if there was some specific reason he had for asking.

The second time, and the reason for this post, occurred a few days ago.  I was walking home from the office at twilight.  The weather had been cold that morning, so I had worn a sweater and my keffiyeh.  It had warmed up, so the sweater was in my bag, but I kept the keffiyeh around my neck.   At a busy intersection I was waiting for the light when a pick up truck going by slowed down and honked its horn.  I looked up in time to see the driver glaring at me and giving me the finger before he sped off.  I found this discomfiting:  so much so that I took the precaution of turning on my cellphone for the remainder of my walk.

I have been thinking about this incident a lot since it happened.  Admittedly, I have no direct evidence that the driver gave me  the finger because he thought I was a Muslim.  But I would be willing to bet on it:  there is simply no other likely explanation:  I didn’t know him, I have not yet pissed off any students, and I was not wearing the colors of Auburn or LSU (the arch-rivals of Alabama in football).   He saw the keffiyeh and assumed that I was a Muslim and/or Arab and thus a target for his bigotry.

The first instance remains sui generis.  But the second is somewhat striking:  why did this happen to me now, and never before?  One possibility is that I am now living in the deep South.   The South, as I am discovering, is not more racist than the rest of the country—as an old saying goes, “a Black man in America has two choices:  he can live down South or up South.”  (I heard this attributed to Dick Gregory, but a Google search did not turn up a definite source.)   But here in Alabama I have found that racism is expressed in ways that are different from what I have experienced elsewhere, simultaneously more subtle and more blatant.    So this incident could have been an ugly manifestation of a racialized social matrix I am still learning to navigate.

But I do not think that is the whole story.   Since 9/11 there has been a simmering undercurrent of anti-Muslim bigotry in America, one that bubbles to the surface periodically.   Republican anti-immigration rhetoric has always been accompanied by nativist xenophobia:  most Republicans were not guilty of this, but it has been a constant theme of the far right, and the efforts by mainstream Republicans to separate themselves and their party from it have often seemed half-hearted at best.   In the 90’s the targets were immigrants from Mexico and Central America.  The 9/11 attack and then the interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq added Muslims to the mix.    One notable exception was George W. Bush, who made a point of speaking out on this subject in the years after 9/11.  I will fault him for many things, but he is to be praised for speaking out forcefully against anti-Muslim bigotry.

During the current Republican presidential campaign anti-immigrant bigotry in general and anti-Muslim attacks in particular have become more vitriolic and much more part of the mainstream.   This has been stoked in particular by Donald Trump, whose reckless rhetoric dominates campaign coverage, but it has been copied by a number of his rivals and picked up by others in and out of government.  The terrorist attack in Paris made things much worse.    Thirty one state governors (all but one a Republican) tried to ban Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states.  The Republican controlled House passed a bill to suspend resettlement until “security issues” were resolved—ignoring the already strict scrutiny Syrian refugees face before being allowed into America (or the fact that the Paris attacks were carried out by French and Belgian citizens and not by refugees).  In Tennessee, a Republican leader called for the National Guard to be dispatched to round up the handful of Syrian refugees already resettled in the state.

Given this febrile atmosphere, it is really no surprise that some random individual decided I deserved to be flipped off for wearing a keffiyeh.  Or that protesters, most of them armed and many wearing masks, should demonstrate outside a Texas mosque.  Or that the leader of the group would publish a list of local Muslims and “Muslim sympathizers”.

In fairness, the blog posts from the Dallas Morning News also record an outpouring of support for the mosque from the local community.  And nationally, there has been other signs of support for Muslims:  not least of which has been the clear statements from the USCCB and many individual bishops in support of Syrian refugees and condemning anti-Muslim bigotry.

But the fact remains that such bigotry has been increasing, and now seems more mainstream and acceptable than before.  Polling data strongly suggests that negative opinions about Muslims (and Arabs in particular, though these are often interchangeable in the popular imagination) are increasing.   This hate filled response to my keffiyeh was minor and I could just shrug it off.  But it does make me wonder:  is this just another moment in which a nastier side of American culture have surfaced but will again sink back into the Stygian depths?  Or, given the prominent role that bigotry and hate are playing in our political debate, and the continued strong support being shown for Trump and his vile opinions, does this moment represent the beginning of something worrisome?  And if the latter, how to fight against it?

Please join me in praying for peace and offering such support as you can for material and spiritual needs of all refugees and Muslims in our midst:  “Do not oppress the alien among you, for you yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (cf. Ex 22:21).


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  • http://jacktheladwr.wordpress.com Jack The Lad

    It’s because that scare represents Palestine, it is a way of showing solidarity

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I was once asked when I was a student at Berkeley if I was wearing it for that reason. I have no idea why German students were wearing them back in the 1980s. And, truthfully, solidarity with Palestine has not been in the forefront of my mind when I wear it.

  • http://jacktheladwr.wordpress.com Jack The Lad

    People ask if you are muslim so they can embrace you and wish peace upon you

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Alas, the evidence suggests otherwise.

  • http://jacktheladwr.wordpress.com Jack The Lad

    But yes we muslim do get hassled by nazis just the other day my sister was on the train and a white man pull of her scarf and spat at her before running away, may allah protect us all ameen

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS


  • Ronald King

    David, Thank you so much for hanging in and keeping this blog alive! Your sensitivity and intelligence are indispensable ingredients which contribute to the wisdom you express in your posts. I would like to add prayers for those who bring violence and death into the lives of innocents who only desire a world created for love and peace.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thank you Ronald. Your prayers are very much in order these days.

  • Brian Martin

    The question always needs to be “Why”. Why do people fear the other? I suspect that most hatred and anger come from other emotions. We have to be careful about the assumptions we make about other people as well. Why did the person feel the need to flip you off? It is easy to say he was a bigot or racist or ignorant asshole…but there is no way to know what was in his heart. Perhaps he lost a friend in Paris, or in the twin towers. Perhaps he has been harmed personally by Muslims. Or perhaps he is just afraid, because of the ongoing violence and because of the fact that the jihadi’s go out of their way to attack civilians…muslims, christian, jews etc. Or maybe he is just ignorant. The challenge of our Catholic faith is that it calls us beyond our own emotional responses and assumptions.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      You are right Brian, I cannot directly know his heart. But his actions were bigoted: even if you posit any or all of the things you list, they do not justify his response, which was to slow down, honk his horn, and give the finger to a stranger who was wearing a keffiyeh. They may mitigate his subjective culpability, but they do not change the objective nature of his act.

      But beyond him personally, I am more interested in the larger social forces which which shape his actions and lead to his response. To what extent does hateful political rhetoric drive him to respond in this way to his own anger, or fear, or loss or ignorance?

      • Brian Martin

        That is a very good question. The sad thing is that in the face of this kind of fear and anger, reasoned, logical answers often accomplish little….and people are uninterested in dialogue. People…fueled by the political rhetoric and by the media..are more interested in spouting off their feelings and opinions. Speaking of the media, why is it that the fact that Across France, Imams were preaching against the violence gets very little play as news, but all kinds of coverage is given to the raging lunatics on all sides

  • Tatiana Durbak

    I would think that the fact that you wear that style of skull cap would be good reason for someone to take you for a Muslim. And, just for the record — there is no one way that Muslims look.
    But on a more interesting note:
    I think that the current demonization of Muslims is yet another misbegotten attempt by many to try to avoid the scary reality that we cannot control danger in our lives. It seems that rather than admit that there is a limit to precautions that can be taken, it’s easier to blame a group of people who is different from “us” — whoever “we” may be at any given moment. From my perspective, what makes this worse is the fact that some of our presidential candidates, more than 1/2 of our governors, and many of our legislators are fanning the flames and encouraging the corrosive hatred of the other.
    Those are my thoughts ……

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I agree, there is no one way that Muslims look. As for the skullcap: in a different context I could easily be mistaken for a Conservative Jew with funky tastes. A friend told me that kippot like my skull cap are fashionable in Israel, but I have never confirmed this. But at a Bat Mitzvah I was at a couple years ago, one of the elderly relatives present was sporting this totally awesome kippah with beadwork and embroidery that made mine look drab.

      • Mark VA

        Please forgive my third rate muse (again), but here she goes:

        Inteligenty delight in garb that’s exotic,
        Oddly shaped, floral, slightly quixotic;
        They make our streets bright, happy, and diverse –
        But often cause yokels to be digitally terse.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Alas, not always terse. I have had them go on and on (and on and on and on) on various Facebook posts when I call out racism. :-(

        • Mark VA

          I know what you mean. I also see this when they are lecturing the immigrants about learning English, often with admonitions full of simple grammatical errors:

          “There, their, and they’re, your and you’re, its and it’s, etc.”

          No big deal in any other context, but in this one it’s like the “Theater of the Absurd”.