x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

What's in a beard? False stereotypes in a post-9/11 age

More than a decade after the attacks of September 11, Muslims around the world are still the victims of prejudice and misunderstanding.

More than 10 years later, the consequences of the September 11 attacks are still being felt by Muslims all over the world. There are still stories about Muslim Americans having to hide their religion, by changing their names or appearance, or by practising their faith discreetly. A cloud of distrust still hangs over many ordinary Muslims, not only in the United States, but around the globe.

In one terrible moment, the disgraceful attacks of 2001 tarnished the name of Islam. What was once known as a peaceful, loving religion is now mistakenly identified by some as a backward faith that promotes aggression and oppression.

Friends returning from studies in the US describe their experiences as filled with caution. The change in attitudes towards Muslims was almost simultaneous with the attacks. For the prejudiced, Muslim identity is no longer a statement of faith but an insult or an accusation.

Undoubtedly, media have played a major role in the misrepresentation of Muslims in the subsequent 10 years. Video, print and online content disseminates images such as those of Muslims pumping their rifles in the air in Afghanistan. This has little to do with faith. Images depict Muslim men as being uneducated, dangerous extremists while Muslim women are shown as oppressed.

September 11 was a sad day for all faiths, but Muslims in particular continue to feel the repercussions.

For Hollywood, we have become the bad guys. Movies, TV series and even comedy shows write "the Muslim terrorist" stock character into the script as the main villain. News reports play up the images of Islamist training camps and suicide bombers, enforcing the stereotype that Muslims are extremists by nature.

Having a long beard, wearing a hijab or headscarf, or praying in a mosque is now grounds to be harassed, and in some cases attacked, by ignorant groups or individuals. Many Muslims, including American citizens who had spent years building their lives in the US, have begun practising their faith more discretely or have even returned to their countries of origin out of fear for their safety.

In the UAE, we have the advantages of a rich, multicultural society that allows religious and cultural tolerance in our daily lives, at work, in schools and in public. Yet that is not to say that we don't have our own fair share of stereotypes. It is only natural to draw conclusions about a faith, nationality or group characteristic, sometimes based on superficial traits.

Whether we like it or not, everyone's subconscious automatically makes assumptions and builds them into stereotypes, regardless of how open-minded we believe we are.

And while we can fairly condemn discrimination against Muslims in the United States, it cannot be denied that we have inherited our own stereotypes, in the UAE and in many other Arab and Muslim countries, directed towards people based on how they practise their faiths.

An easily visible manifestation of this relates to men who choose to grow out their beards. Many times, I have overheard sniggering comments made about long-bearded men. Behind closed doors, accusations of extremism are made, perhaps in jest, but these ideas take root and can become damaging innuendo and rumour.

I saw this firsthand when a colleague of mine decided to grow out his beard. He was on the front line of our organisation and dealing with customers, and so his beard - bizarrely - became an issue of concern for colleagues and management. At first, it was a few harmful jokes about its length; later, a "friendly" suggestion to shave was passed down from management; and, in the end, an indirect threat was made.

My colleague, being one of the most peaceful and patient men I know, decided to stay the course. And his efforts paid off. After exhaustive efforts, he was able to convince management of his ability to do his job, and even outperformed most of his colleagues to prove that he was an asset. Even with a beard.

This is what many fail to understand about men who choose to demonstrate their faith by growing out their beards. Just as with other faiths, piety in Islam does not imply extremism, but rather a commitment to peaceful existence with everything and everyone around you. In the UAE, a Muslim country and also a tolerant one, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of stereotyping religious men and women.

Quite the opposite in fact, we must continue to promote the truth about Islam as a peaceful religion and its powerful benefits for a person's life at work, at home and as a part of a community. In that way, we can persuade the rest of the world that the harmful stereotypes that followed September 11 have nothing to do with Islam.

 

Taryam Al Subaihi is an Abu Dhabi-based political and social commentator who specialises in corporate communications

On Twitter: @TaryamAlSubaihi