By Farooq A.Kperogi
The intense anxiety and unease that Nigerians in the diaspora now feel in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab’s attempted terrorist attack on a Delta/Northwest Airline reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a new Iranian doctoral student in my school. Out of the blues, he asked me if I had ever experienced any overt or covert discrimination here on account of my faith.
This wiry, petite, self-contained, almost timid, and apparently good-natured Iranian is less than four months old in America. But in his very first week here, he was racially profiled by—wait for it— an African American janitor who was sufficiently terrified by the sight of a Middle Eastern-looking man in the communication building that she called the police. She thought the man had come to blow off the building!
(A somewhat similar incident happened two years ago. One of my students told me she came late to class because she was compelled to hurriedly get off the train before she reached her destination. Reason: she saw two Middle-Eastern-looking men arguing and speaking “what sounded like Arabic.” So she thought they were planning to bomb the train!)
Anyway, back to the original story. The police arrived within minutes and accosted the Iranian. It turned out that he was a harmless new PhD student who just happened to be Middle Eastern—a part of the world that is now invariably associated with terrorism. The police apologized and left the poor guy alone. This disconcerting baptismal encounter with racial profiling, borne out of the stereotype that all Middle Easterners are America-hating terrorists, shook him deeply.
Although he routinely seeks my counsel to navigate the often difficult contours that the American education system can be for international students, he never discussed his experience with me. I heard it from the Black American janitor who reported him to the police. (She told me triumphantly that she’d just aborted a terrorist plot!)
But exactly a week before Abdul-Mutallab’s unfortunate attempted terrorist act, the Iranian student asked me if I had ever suffered any form of religious bigotry in America. And my response was “no.”
Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab
I then proceeded to explain to him why this might be so. When people see me in America, I said, they just see a generic “black male.” But when I speak with my non-American accent, they further redefine me as an “African” male. And when they get to know my first name, they might conclude that I am an “African Muslim.” If they get even closer and find that I am from Nigeria, they might narrow down their definition of me to a “Nigerian Muslim,” and probably a “northern Nigerian Muslim.”
Historically, I continued, the American public has never associated “African Islam,” however this is defined, with terrorism in spite of the episodic eruptions of senseless religious violence in northern Nigeria. In fact, many American scholars of African Islam have cautioned against making connections between the periodic slaughterous religious upheavals in northern Nigeria and al-Qaeda’s ideology of visceral and murderous hate for America and the West. I cited a few scholars to support my position. (Somalia is the exception).
Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab
Although the stereotyping of Middle Easterners as terrorists is inspired largely by the fact of their being predominantly Muslims, it is still more racial than religious, I argued. A Coptic Christian from Egypt or a Maronite Christian from Lebanon has as much chance to be profiled as a potential terrorist as any Middle-Eastern Muslim, I said.
That’s why Edward Said, the late legendary Columbia University professor who was of Palestinian Christian heritage, invested more intellectual energy defending Islam than any Arab Muslim scholar I know. He knew that, however hard he tried, he couldn’t escape the courtesy stigma that comes from the association of the entire Middle East with so-called Islamic terrorism.
Conversely, a citizen of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, doesn’t have to worry about being stereotyped as a terrorist. Except he dresses in prototypic Muslim attires and keeps a long beard, he is likely to be perceived by the Western mind as simply an “Asian” or, if you like, a “Southeast Asian.” The Iranian was persuaded.
But exactly a week after this conversation, the young Abdul-Mutallab struck—or attempted to strike. And the narrative has changed. My logic has been rudely subverted. Now, because of the isolated, misguided action of one crazed, fanatical, spoiled brat who has spent more time outside Nigeria than he spent in it, all Nigerians are labeled potential terrorists—at least for now. So no longer will the perception of me as an “African” or “Nigerian” Muslim conjure notions of tolerant, non-violent Islam. In my own case, I share the same first name with the would-be terrorist. My luck can’t get any tougher than this.
I started feeling the pangs of this ill-luck rather early. My American friend who invited me to his home for a Christmas dinner joked that I would now henceforth always have to introduce myself to Americans by saying, “I’m Farooq from Nigeria and I’m not a terrorist.”
But this isn’t even a joke any more. On December 27 a Nigerian passenger on a Delta/Northwest flight was harassed and detained at the Detroit Metro Airport because he allegedly spent too much time in the toilet and was therefore assumed to be brewing some terroristic machinations. The poor man was most probably even a Christian. But he nonetheless committed a new crime in America: flying while Nigerian.
Now, if you're Nigerian, and you head into the toilet on an airline, better not release gas too loudly! That may be mistaken for a terrorist bomb. You know, stereotyping is a great time-saver; it enables lazy people to rush to quick judgment without the pesky encumbrance of nuance and factual information.