Sanna Naqash of Virginia, age 22, was scheduled to fly to New Delhi via Paris on December 27, 2007, where she was to have a brief layover. Upon reaching Paris, she rested in the airport before heading towards the special security line for transit passengers with connecting flights. Although she was aware of the hijab ban in France and had heard of many instances in which European Muslims were discriminated against on the basis of religion, Sanna hardly anticipated that her decision to wear the hijab would make her the subject of humiliation in front of crowds of people.
Rather than cover her hair with a traditional headscarf, Sanna had decided on that particular day to cover her hair with a cap and wrap her neck with a scarf to make her journey as comfortable as possible. As she placed her items in the bins, a lady security officer asked her to remove her cap and hoodie. Sanna politely informed the woman that due to her religious beliefs, she would be unable to remove her cap, scarf, and hoodie, as such an action would expose her skin and thus violate the tenets of hijab, which encourage a Muslim woman to maintain her modesty by covering her body in front of non-familial males. Unfortunately, the concept of hijab has been deeply misunderstood by non-Muslims, who forget that at one point in history, Christian nuns were widely respected for their decision to guard their chastity by adorning their bodies with loose fitted clothing and a similar head covering.
The security officers remained adamant in demanding that Sanna remove her articles of clothing, claiming that they were required to abide by certain security standards. Frustrated and afraid, Sanna asked to be taken to a private corner or room where a woman officer could search her. After a lady official threatened to file a report with the police station, Sanna unwillingly complied by removing her cap and hoodie and used the scarf around her neck to cover her head and upper body. Crying out of humiliation and dishonor, Sanna went through the security check without a single apologetic look from the security guards. Her body had been violated, her religion disgraced, and her self-worth attacked.
Since 9/11, many Muslims have faced similar experiences as the media, politicians, and governments collaborate to perpetuate fear and hatred towards the international Muslim community to justify foreign policies related to the “war on terror.” Movie plots and television shows often feature terrorists who are Middle Eastern or South Asian, as if radicalism is so easily equated with region or race. Muslims have been denied basic rights on the basis of such propaganda—rights which would otherwise protect them from abuses of the legal system. Accommodations based on religion are no longer granted for religious devotees, as institutions increasingly play the secular card, maintaining their desire to subject all individuals to the same set of guidelines.
During fall 2007, David Horowitz, a conservative American writer and activist, organized a campaign called “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” across college campuses in the United States, including my own university, UC-Berkeley. The effort was intended to mobilize college students in support of the “war on terror.” While the David Horowitz Freedom Center claims to promote academic freedom and intellectual diversity, in reality its mission is to identify conservatives as the “true liberals” by aligning them against “Islamo-Fascism,” a rather hollow theory that equates the religion of Islam with World War II-era fascism.
Horowitz’s personal biography provides interesting context for his current activities. Born to Jewish parents who were ardent supporters of the Communist Party, Horowitz was at one time a member of the New Left. He has since established himself as a right-wing neo-conservative who opposes policies such as affirmative action and reparations for slavery. He also vehemently voices, in books such as The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in Americaand Unholly Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left, his distaste for those he perceives to be radical leftwing politicians, activists, and academics.
To spread awareness of his campaign, Horowitz’s supporters have utilized the image of an oppressed Muslim woman to make bigoted claims regarding the evil nature of Islamic patriarchy, thus supposedly justifying the intervention of Western saviors wishing to rescue female victims of Arab-Islamic culture.
Just how effective was Horowitz’s campaign? Contrary to what the local news relayed to the public, many Berkeley students did not support the racist, reactionary effort. Instead, Horowitz’s decision to create an alliance with the UC Berkeley College Republicans led to student-wide protests in October 2007, which united much of our campus against the denigration of Islam and the use of false constructions such as Islamo-fascism. Students of all races, ethnicities, and religions, as well as academics and community members, stood in solidarity with each other to celebrate UC Berkeley’s rich history and to support the Peace Not Prejudice counter-campaign.
With the upcoming presidential elections, some candidates are strategically propagating elements of Horowitz’s message in an attempt to secure votes from scared citizens. They claim that, if elected, they will tighten security policies against “future terrorists” (i.e. Muslims) and take preemptive measures to protect Americans from harm. It’s no surprise, given the nature of modern American political rhetoric, that the Muslim world is beginning to fuel its discontent, albeit not always in peaceful manner.
If candidates really seek to promote peace within the international community and secure Muslim votes, they will need to soften their image and undo the work of neo-conservatives like Horowitz. America’s next president will need to come to terms with the fact that Muslims do not constitute one monolithic population, that religion cannot be inextricably tied to violence, and that non-Western women are more often harmed by foreign intervention than saved.
America is in urgent need for a moral reformation that will live up to the ideals of its long celebrated Constitution and make up for its historical mistakes. Are we ready to seek atonement for our transgressions?
Samma Ishaq is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in History and Global Poverty Studies.