One month ago, the worst mass shooting in the United States took the lives of 49 innocent people. I still recall my initial reaction — I hoped the shooter was not somehow connected to Islam, which is often my first thought whenever I see a headline with a phrase like “mass shooting” or “explosion kills 20.”
The shooter, it turned out, was Muslim: a member of my Muslim-American community, and a follower of my religious culture who used Islam to justify his actions. This was a tragedy that we, as Americans — as people — should have been able to mourn together, as equals and without defensiveness. But after reading a joint statement signed by multiple Muslim-American leaders such as Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, it was clear that their statement was written with a voice seemed to imply Muslim-Americans were not American, and that they were a category outside of American.
The statement started off with an offer of condolences and an affirmation that Islam, like other religions, does not approve of any use of violence or hatred. That is where the statement should have stopped, but instead it went on to talk about how after 9/11, Muslim Americans “have been victims of collective guilt,” and essentially asked that the Muslim-American community not be blamed for the shooting.
There are several things wrong about this. First, the Orlando shooting was an attack on the individuals in the bar that night, and no one should be referred to as a victim other than the 49 people who lost their lives. I take issue with the joint Muslim statement for not focusing on this point. Rather than simply acknowledging the tragedy that occurred and offering condolences as fellow Americans, the piece emphasized how the Muslim community is now likely to face repercussions.
The statement demonstrated everything wrong with identity politics in the United States. For these community leaders, the fact that Muslim Americans feel a responsibility to feel guilty or have to explain themselves is wrong and fuels an idea that a Muslim and American identity are mutually exclusive. By emphasizing the idea that the Orlando shooting will negatively impact Muslim Americans specifically, it puts Muslim Americans into a category of their own and causes more of a distancing between themselves and other Americans. With the statement, we see how the Muslim community itself is enforcing the idea that Muslim Americans do not get to be regular Americans.
No amount of Islamophobia aimed at the Muslim-American community could ever be remotely as detrimental as the community’s own belief that it will be guilty for actions committed by individuals in the community. This reaction is not unwarranted, given the existence of individuals who do blame Muslims for these tragedies. But the fact that Muslim Americans feel they need to be defensive about their community every time a crime related to Islam occurs fuels a notion that they are seen as different from other Americans. It is one thing to have members of the non-Muslim community place blame on Muslim Americans, but for the Muslim community to let itself be ruled by this narrative is to effectively distance itself from non-Muslim Americans.
I hold my breath every time I see a breaking news report, and I am sure other Muslim Americans do to. But I do not let the worry of backlash color the way I view my position in the United States. Yet the aforementioned Muslim-American statement was immediately on the defensive, making it clear — whether it was meant to or not — that Muslim Americans had something to be concerned about. Once the Muslim community buys into the ideal that its identity is problematic, it narrowly reduces individuals down to one factor and makes it difficult for Muslim Americans to ever let themselves be defined beyond their Muslim identity.
The Orlando statement should have been about Muslim Americans offering their condolences like any other American. Instead identity politics skewed the focus away from the tragedy that took place and only served to further alienate Muslim Americans from the grouping they should belong to just like everyone one else in the country: Americans.
Laila Brothers is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Identity Crossing appears every other Monday.
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