Twitter doesn’t always make me happy. But when it does, it usually involves pictures of cute kids.
— Alefyah Taqui (@Alfurenna) December 10, 2015
On Wednesday evening, December 9, – perhaps in a serendipitous nod to U.N. Human Rights Day, which is celebrated on December 10 – the hashtag #MuslimAmericanFaces began to gain traction on Twitter. Hashtag creator Benjamin Witte, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Refinery29 he simply hoped “to remind people that painting with a broad brush is always stupid … it’s really important to remember that you’re talking about a very diverse community.” As users posted selfies of their American Muslim selves, they encouraged others to “post three more.” Within a few hours, tweeps had sent out snaps of their laughing friends, smiling grandmothers, adorable children, and effervescent selfies. None of these (with the exception of a few dogged and unsuccessful trolls) depicted the sensationalized avatar of violent, Islamic extremism that some Americans (and their politicians) like to present as the face of Islam in America.
The photos ranged from the historical (like this oil painting of freed Muslim slave Yarrow Marmout) to the adorable (hello, small child in a superman cape) to the anatomically observant (#eyebrowsonfleek) to the practical (this Muslim mom is mining the hashtag for a husband for her daughter), but were similar in their casual, warm approach to their subjects. The clear objective for many of those using the hashtag was to present Muslims doing some fairly boring American stuff. While many of the activities captured by the images – volunteering at a food bank, sipping on a McCafe, dominating a high school wrestling match – fall squarely into the category of “look how normal Muslims are,” some Tweeps also began to push back against the injustice that sparked the hashtag in the first place.
There’s something inherently sad about having to humanise ourselves to be accepted. #MuslimAmericanFaces
— Ruwayda Mustafah (@RuwaydaMustafah) December 9, 2015
One user asserted that of all the groups needing to “justify their humanity” with a hashtag, it should be “white people,” not Muslims.
Amidst a mostly-congenial Twitter love fest, such valid tweets sting for a few reasons. Many of these comments got to the heart of the disturbing reality that only certain types of Americans are compelled to shout their Americanness (and humanity) from flag-covered rooftops. Only certain faces in America are read religion first, nationality second; only certain religions are presumed to be antithetical to American values.
The need for a hashtag that highlights the nuances in Islam (as Mr. Witte noted), Americanizes the religion (as many Tweets tried to do), and humanizes Muslims (as others critiqued) all speak to the manner in which Muslims are simultaneously homogenized and demonized in America. Some Twitter users struggled about whether to engage at all with the #MuslimAmericanFaces discussion. Photographer and “New Afrikan Muslim” Rasheed Shabazz tweeted that while he would like to add his to the many faces that are both American and Muslim, the reality that slavery is the genesis of his and other Americans’ citizenship is not lost on him.
American Muslims are increasingly called on to condemn and atone for the sins of radical, violent “Muslims” all over the world, but these demands erase their right to grapple with the stuggle between religious identity and national allegiance. This is a struggle integral to American life, one that other religious groups in the United States have freely experienced. Equality-loving Catholic Americans who watched their church leaders condemn the Supreme Court marriage ruling this summer have a right to wrestle with that juxtaposition, as do Jewish Americans who must contend with how the United States treated Jewish victims of Nazi Germany in the early 1940s. By the same token, Catholic Americans who opposed marriage equality on “religious grounds” did not have their Americanness called into question when they proclaimed “We are going to maintain our biblical faith and uphold our convictions regardless of the consequences” and promised they were “going to fight” against U.S. government decisions that contradicted their faith.
Rather than interrogating how U.S. policies and politics have affected their lives, Muslim Americans are forced to either ignore comments about Islam being antithetical to vaguely-defined American values, or try and prove the opposite. No public space for analysis, interrogation, or disruption of what it means to be American and Muslim is allowed.
Indeed, Rasheed can and should refuse to blindly accept the call to proudly declare that his Americanness is not in conflict with his religious identity. For Rasheed, that conflict is the product of a historical reality, in which American slave traders violated the rights and humanity of his Muslim ancestors (as his Tweet implies) hundreds of years ago. If Rasheed is a descendent of Muslim slaves, he has every right to grapple with the implications of this hyphenated (or hashtagged) identity.
Trolls aside, #MuslimAmericanFaces is a beautiful testament to the gorgeous Muslim faces living in America. But it should not let us forget that everyone, Muslims included, have the right to question, critique, and struggle with their messy human identities. Living the tension between religious inclination and nationalistic compulsion is part of the American experience. Muslim American faces have just as much right to interrogate these intersecting identities as any other American face.