Image Problem

Why are Muslims required to explain themselves in a world where whites, males, and other oppressor types have no such obligations? Fayes T Kantawala investigates

Image Problem
There was a guy I went to university with whose name was Gerhardt Von Vinkleman. I love anything that reminds me of The Sound of Music, even tangentially, so I obviously became friends with him. He was lanky with thinning white-blond hair and wrinkled blue eyes. His accent was almost a parody of a Southern California beach bum, the kind that allows the use of terms like “rad” and “dude” without irony or self-consciousness. Gerhardt, or Jerry as he liked to be called, shared lots of classes with me over the years, and through the terms I learned quite a bit about him. I knew he was a drummer, he was into deep hipster music and B-movie posters from the late 70s and enjoyed surfing. I thought I knew enough to file him in my mental cabinet under “West Coast Surfer Bum”.

Then one day mid-semester, Jerry came into class with a weathered leather box under his arm. It was a cultural criticism class, if I remember correctly, and classes like that have a way of turning into long meandering outpourings of people’s feelings with no end in sight (“So, like, I’m not totally sure but, like, I feel like...”). I wasn’t surprised, therefore, by the prospect of another Show-and-Tell. Once class began Jerry casually opened the box while telling us that he discovered it in the attic of his late grandfather. Steadily he extracted from the box an arm band, a badge and some other small objects. We all leaned in to take a closer look, which is when I realized this was a box full of real Nazi memorabilia.
The other day in New York City a white supremacist stabbed and killed a black man with a sword. A sword!

It took a while for the class to get its act together. The teacher was visibly shocked, and no one else really knew how to react to the casual acknowledgement of Grandfather Von Vinkleman’s card-carrying enlistment in the Nazi party, to say nothing of the Nazi accessories that had been saved by his family with apparent care. To be clear, Jerry was not a Nazi, nor was he racially prejudiced in any way I can think of. He talked about the idea of how “weird” it was to see these things in the attic and brought them in as a sort of catalyst for conversation.

Well, let me tell you: nothing kills conversation in America like a Nazi swastika embroidered on an armband. I had seen stuff like this in museums and movies (#thehillsarealive) but never before in real life, and the experience was disturbing. They exuded an aura of evil, like the horcruxes from Harry Potter. Jerry’s file name now had to be updated to “West Coast Surfer Bum Nazi descendent” and I was having a bit of a systems failure doing it.

There were Israelis in my class, as well as American Jews whose families had fled from Nazi Germany, but everyone knew Jerry well enough to know that he wasn’t bringing in this stuff just to piss people off but rather because he was just that disarming. We also knew that what his dead grandfather did or didn’t do was not a reflection of Jerry, who had never met the man and was talking about the box as a family secret shame. We ended up treating the objects as relics of a darker time in history. None of it was mentioned again, mainly because there are limited ways one can insert “Your Nazi Grandfather” into casual conversation without seeming aggressive.

Commentators argue that it is difficult to imagine such pressure today on other communities which produced violent extremists

I thought about that box this week when I saw a picture on my Instagram of a long line of hijabi women interlocking hands and standing in the shadow of Big Ben and Parliament House in London. The point of the image, I knew, was to show Muslims condemning the recent terror attack in Westminster. It was an awful attack and is obviously condemnable. But I am becoming increasingly frustrated with this media-mandated need for all Muslims to pose a unified front against “Terror” and issue statements of condemnation that should be fairly obvious to anyone with a heart. Why is it that Muslims have to constantly “apologise” for terrorist attacks over the world that they have absolutely nothing to do with?

The other day in New York City a white supremacist stabbed and killed a black man with a sword. A sword! The only apology he gave was to say he would rather have killed a more “successful” black man and admitted to having taken a bus to NYC to “hunt” black men. He was a white American Christian, and I didn’t see a long line of WASPS standing in lines interlocking fingers to prove to the world that they condemn racist hate crimes. The act didn’t reflect on all Christians, or Americans, or Whites.

Similarly, I don’t expect all Buddhists to constantly apologize for atrocities in Myanmar, or for all Indians to expressly articulate that they are against gang-rapes every time one happens.

To question whether or not Muslims “condemn” an attack every bloody time it happens is to question whether Muslims have any humanity. It’s insulting, and the double standard is frustrating. The picture of the Muslim women outside Parliament and the countless people who shared it made me think of Jerry and his Nazi Box of Horrors. We didn’t have to ask Jerry whether or not he believed the Nazis were wrong, because we gave him the benefit of the doubt of his humanity. To constantly require 1.6 billion people from across the world to unify and soothe the fears of racist xenophobes every time something happens in the world where the reverse is almost never true is an untenable situation. This is especially true when you single out Muslims at airports, ban away their laptops, litigate their religious rights and dissuade their travel, all the while bombing their countries.

So enough. I am not going to “condemn” every terrorist attack, not because I don’t think they are repugnant, but precisely because I do. And I don’t work for a Muslim Press Office. No one does. No one should have to.

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