I was shocked a couple of weeks ago when the National Public Radio (NPR) commentator Juan Williams, while discussing "political correctness" on The O'Reilly Factor,said that whenever he sees someone in Muslim garb boarding his flight he gets scared. His reasoning was that "they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims. I get worried. I get nervous".
In disappointing evidence of America's political polarisation, NPR announced that it was firing Williams for his comments, but hours later Fox News expanded his duties at the top-rated cable news channel with a three-year, US$2 million (Dh7.3 million) contract.
As a woman who often gets mistaken for everything from Ethiopian to Puerto Rican to Brazilian, depending on my outfit and hairstyle, I'm trying to figure out how someone can try to argue that appearance is more than a superficial marker. While something such as a hijab or a cassock can be a direct indication of which faith an individual chooses to identify with, it doesn't justify any further assumptions about the person. To say that traditional "Muslim garb" (whatever that might mean, seeing as Islam has adapted itself differently to cultures around the world) spurs fear is disrespectful and ignorant.
Furthermore, Williams's comments seemed even more ludicrous coming from someone who has worked in the African-American civil rights movement. It wasn't long ago that skin colour in US society was used as a basis for many unpleasant assumptions.
Although I feel a bit shielded living in New York City, where there are so many people of different backgrounds, there is a real - but irrational - fear of Muslims in America. The effects can be stifling, to the point where even I catch myself looking twice at someone who "looks Muslim" when I travel.
The way to deal with such situations lies in exposure. It's a matter of bringing people into contact with the "other" in a benign context. And doing it fast, before the anxieties alienate Muslim communities even more and potentially spawn a backlash. History has taught us that marginalising a group can incite some individuals to act in the manner that provoked the unwarranted fear.
A blog called Muslims Wearing Things appeared on the internet quickly after Williams's comments in order to dispel the claim that you can identify Muslims based on what they wear, and to lightheartedly confront this problem in mainstream America. In what has grown to at least 14 pages of pictures of Muslims wearing everything from Star Trek outfits to sport uniforms, the creator wants to refute the notion that there is such a thing as "Muslim garb" or a single Muslim look. To me, the website is hilarious as it demonstrates further how ridiculous a comment such as Williams's is. But certain pictures, such as the one of a Muslim American in his military uniform aboard a plane, resonate.
Although philanthropic foundations spent a lot of money arranging confabs after 9/11, these "Islam and the West" meetings aren't enough. While they might have brought together community and religious leaders, exposure must reach the average American.
This needs to happen so that people realise that a) Muslims are not a foreign element to American society and b) it's unacceptable to make comments of this nature.
Although stereotypes can be harmless and even funny, they are just stereotypes. Considering the delicate circumstances, we can't allow the propagation of negative ones when they have such power on people's perceptions.
Whether I'm in an abaya or in a T-shirt, there is no justification for someone to claim that my identification as a Muslim is a reasonable cause for fear; no more so than my skin colour, my brown eyes or my curly hair.