Thy Muslim Neighbor
Jennifer P. Sims, Ph.D., Contributing Writer
Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism addresses Westerners’ general notions of “the East.” This includes our ideas of what Middle Eastern and Asian countries are like and our stereotypes about the people who live in or come from these places. In light of President Trump’s Executive Order banning citizens of a set of Muslim majority countries from entering the US, though, I would argue that mainstream Western images of Middle Eastern Muslims, in particular men, are actually no longer mere stereotypes but instead have become what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images.”
Controlling images are a particular type of stereotype that does not just assume given traits of all members of a group but, in so assuming, functions to support the material oppression of members of the group and others. The controlling image of the lazy, black welfare queen, for example, has been used as a political tool to justify decreasing public assistance to low income families of all races. The stereotype of the vapid, yoga-pants clad white woman who drinks pumpkin spice lattes, by contrast, has not been marshaled to support policies that would have negative material consequences for multiple demographic groups of Americans. Stereotypes simply assume characteristics; controlling images enable material oppression.
Despite the reality that non-Muslim white men commit the most acts of mass violence in the US, the controlling image of the turban wearing, Middle Eastern Muslim male terrorist is now a staple in the Western mind. As with the controlling images of blacks that Hill Collins discusses, this controlling image of Muslim men is being used as justification for proposing and now actually implementing oppressive policies that negatively affect millions of men, women, and children of multiple faiths.
Resistance to the Muslim Ban Executive Order was shift and immediate; and I cannot help but wonder if, like me, others simply have too many personal and positive images of Muslims to fall under the spell of the controlling image of terrorist. I wonder if other Christians have been able to spend Christmas with their families only because a Muslim coworker agreed to swap shifts at work. I wonder if other graduates only passed a difficult class because a teacher who was Muslim patiently explained the material until they understood. I also wonder if other parents have smiled as their child played with a child of another religion in that adorable way that only babies who are oblivious to the social divisions the world wants to erect between them can play.
In addition to the lawyers in the courts and the protestors in the streets, we who believe in both freedom of religion and the welcoming words on our Statue of Liberty need to also do the inner personal work of rejecting, and teaching our children to reject, controlling images of minority groups. For if we reject the ratings-driven news’ and Hollywood movies’ controlling images of the welfare queen, gang thug, illegal immigrant, and Muslim terrorist then restrictionists’ policies can be plainly seen for what they are: xenophobically ignoring the multi-faith (and humanist) mandate to protect the vulnerable and to love thy neighbor—including thy Muslim neighbor.
Jennifer P. Sims, Ph.D. is a sociologist specializing in the ways persons of mixed-race navigate societies. She has published several academic articles and edited volumes. Dr. Sims is on faculty at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls.