Muslims & Respectability Politics

Kezia Aria

Muslim Women’s Day was last week, around the same time Muslim women joined non-Muslim women hand-in-hand for a vigil to condemn the London “terror” attacks. Quotation marks used here because violent acts such as these are subjective: according to the world at large these incidences only classify as “terror” if the perpetrator is Muslim or “Muslim-appearing”. This is why Islamophobes always justify saying, “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim”. Linguistically-speaking they’re kind of correct, but that’s a whole other issue.

I have been active on social media for a while now and I’ve seen the dominant discourse surrounding “terror” attacks and the portrayal of Islam evolve among both Muslims and non-Muslims. I’ve found community in Muslim women: we share similar opinions, and my views have been shaped and influenced by these intelligent, passionate people.

Time and time again, Muslims are called on by non-Muslims to condemn these acts of terror. Does this not astound you? By now you must have seen variations of the meme: Regular Muslim hits up ISIS on WhatsApp saying, “Hey guys, could u please stop with the terrorism? White people are conflating u with my faith. Thx for understanding.” (This is even funnier because Daily Mail somehow got access to a screenshot of an ISIS group chat.) A result of the constant media pressure and environment of microaggressions around us, some Muslims felt the need to assimilate, bend over backwards to be seen as humans by the very people who will always consider us “less than”.

Such endeavors include, but are not limited to:

• Free Hugs/“Hug me, I’m Muslim” — Muslim men stand blindfolded (making them approachable in their hyper-vulnerability) in the middle of busy streets and invite strangers to hug them.

• ‘Meet A Muslim’ — events that provide free Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee.

• Online video campaigns, e.g. “I’m Muslim but…” — attempts to humanise us, to enable non-Muslims to empathise with us.

• Open Mosque days — non-Muslims can speak to Imams and Islamic academics.

It’s heartbreaking when I see Muslims attempting to render our faith more palatable for the white gaze, trying to humanise and normalise our existence — something that should need no justification. This is respectability politics, a phenomenon that requires marginalised groups act, dress, or speak a certain way (generally, more like white people — the racial dominant in Western society) in order to be respected.

But you shouldn’t need to look or act ‘respectable’ to be respected! It’s just human decency. You simply can’t — and shouldn’t — rationalise respectability politics.

We. Deserve. Better.

Of course, I’m not here to shame Muslims who aim to tackle Islamophobia with love, kindness, and education — power to those who do. I do, however, want to justify Muslim women who don’t cater to white people. Those who are angry and frustrated and exhausted. The onus shouldn’t be on us to be exceptionally kind, or to contribute greatly to society (see: the liberal, pro-refugee discourse that lists what successful refugees and immigrants have done for our society).

We just want the right to exist.