Editor’s note: Maytha Alhassen is a doctoral student in American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California, a performer for “Hijabi Monologues,” and a contributor to ” I Speak For Myself,” a book on American Muslim women’s narratives.
By Maytha Alhassen, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Shaima Alawadi was killed in her home. The note next to her severely beaten body read “go back to your country, you terrorist,” according to her daughter. She was a 32-year-old Iraqi mother who wore a hijab. Was this why she was murdered? Did this piece of clothing frighten someone so much that they were motivated to end another human being’s life?
The fatal beating of Alawadi in El Cajon, California – in the midst of nationwide Million Hoodie Marches, hoodie solidarity commemorations on Facebook and Twitter, “I Could Be Trayvon” Tumblr pages and viral petitions to prosecute 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s killer – must push us to change the national dialogue to that of transforming the conditions that created these murders: the institutionalized fear industry that is fueled by this country’s fixation on war and incarceration.
For the past decade, there have been more young black men in prison than in college. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” reveals another astounding statistical feat achieved by our modern America: there are more black men in prison, on parole or probation now then there were enslaved in 1850. And yet we are a society that uses black men like rappers Lil Wayne to 50 Cent to sell us products, uses black men almost exclusively to entertain us on basketball courts and football fields and uses black men’s labor inside prisons to make us anything from bras to brooms to diploma covers.
For the past decade, America has also been equating Arab and Muslim to terrorism and terrorists (and not to mention the lazy conflation of Arab and Muslim.) Wars have been waged in Afghanistan and Iraq to catch the “evil-doers” as part of a “war on terror” advanced by the Bush Doctrine. We have witnessed that war extend itself to catch “home-grown terrorists” with a special emphasis on the possible radicalization of African-Americans in prison and more recently, Muslim college students in elite East Coast schools.
We have seen states introduce “anti-Sharia” legislation. And we watched home improvement chain Lowe’s cave into anti-Muslim fears by pulling their ads from “All-American Muslim,” a TLC channel reality show that followed Arab Muslim families from Dearborn, Michigan. Apparently they were convinced by the Florida Family Association’s reasoning that the show transmits, “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.”
When Major Nidal Malik Hasan massacred 12 individuals at the Fort Hood military base in 2009, there were immediate attempts to link him to the 9/11 hijackers. But when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 17 Afghani civilians earlier this month, did we ever think to link him to the U.S. institutionalized fear industry?
Is it possible to go to war with two Muslim countries and imprison millions of black men and not face any repercussions? Is it possible that the racist and xenophobic discourse and cinematic images that have been consistently used to legitimize increased mass incarceration of black men and killing of Arabs and Afghanis abroad could not be internalized by the population? Is there an impact on the public when it consumes vitriolic hate speech and repeated stereotypical portraits of black gang-bangers, drug dealers and rapists or Muslim terrorists, “jihadi fighters” and submissive, veiled wives on a continuous loop on TV and in film? What about when it trickles down to the campaign ads of politicians who want to keep America “safe” from the threat of “Sharia takeover” and “black welfare” spending?
In all these ways, Arabs, Muslims and African-Americans have been thoroughly dehumanized, which makes it easier to lock them up at Rikers Island or Guantanamo Bay, shoot them execution style in subway stations, massacre 17 of them in Afghanistan, advocate for them to be profiled by law enforcement, ignore their murders and disappearances, and lastly to kill them. If they are robbed of their humanity, then we can blindly justify their inhumane treatment.
This is beyond a hijab and a hoodie. From prisons to wars, this is about an industry of institutionalized fear that needs a population’s fears, created via political hate speech and TV and film to fuel sectors of privatized profiteering off wars and prisons.
Almost 50 years later after his assassination, Malcolm X’s words from his 1965 “After the Bombing” speech, days before his murder, about indictment based on skin color still dishearteningly resonate:
“When you judge a man because of the color of his skin, then you’re committing a crime, because that’s the worst kind of judgment…the Black man can’t hide. When they start indicting us because of our color that means we’re indicted before we’re born, which is the worst kind of crime that can be committed.”
Justice for Martin and Alawadi requires more than the arrest of George Zimmerman or Alawadi’s killer. We need to form societal consensus to guarantee that no human will or can ever be indicted for his or her skin color or choice of clothing.
Let this upcoming election cycle be worth something substantial, something beyond which presidential candidate is the most fit bounty hunter at capturing the jihadi boogeyman or the one most able to curtail “black welfare.”
Instead, demand that Martin and Alawadi’s circumstances never happen again. Demand responsibility is taken for hateful speech and images. Demand that we restore humanity to the dehumanized. Demand that we resurrect Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Jesus’ messages of social justice and human dignity. Because in the process of dehumanizing another or accepting his or her dehumanization, we too lose our humanity. Let us reclaim our humanity by dismantling the institutionalized fear industry.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maytha Alhassen.