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Many Faces Of Islam

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By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, March 9, 2002; Page A23

When Pat Robertson declared recently that Islam was a violent religion and bemoaned U.S. immigration policies that "introduced these people [Muslims] into our midst," I was not surprised. Outraged perhaps, but not surprised.

This is, after all, the man who agreed with Jerry Falwell when Falwell suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were God's revenge for a host of liberal sins.

I am a Muslim in America, and it's not just the outrageous comments of bigots that concern me. I'm more worried about the way Muslims are portrayed in books, on television and in film -- and about the ensuing stereotypes.

I feel at times that I fail to live up to my stereotype. When I appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" a few weeks ago, two people I had never met before sent me messages telling me I didn't "look like a Muslim."

What does a Muslim look like? The man asked why I didn't wear the "traditional headgear." The woman wondered why I sounded so "British and proper."

So I should have been covered in layers of veils and spoken with an incomprehensibly thick accent, no doubt peppering my sentences with "Allah" and "jihad"?

Had I been a Muslim man, I should have worn an unruly beard and wrapped a turban around my head for that extra ethnic touch. I would also probably be on a list compiled by the FBI, as someone the bureau would need to ask that pressing question: Did I know anyone who celebrated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11?

I'm here to tell you that we aren't all like that. I shouldn't even use "we," because Muslims are as diverse as any other religious group. What do Christians look like? What do Jews look like? What do Buddhists look like?

In the post-Sept. 11 world, much is made of the lessons in Islam that are on offer to Americans at their local bookstores. Books on Islam, we are told, have raced up the bestseller lists. But exactly what is on offer?

In a walk through my local bookstore, I found that the titles of these books are usually variants on "Warriors of the Prophet," "American Jihad," "Holy War Inc.," "Terror in America," "Soldiers of God." The cover art is either that poster child of jihad, Osama bin Laden, or a group of angry, usually bearded, men. If there is one adjective that comes up again and again whenever Muslim men are portrayed, be it on television or on bookshelves, it is angry. Always.

And where are the women? A book that typifies the coverage Muslim women get is "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women," complete with a picture of a woman covered in head-to-toe black on the cover, of course. Another popular one: "Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World." Are Scheherazade and her "Tales of a Thousand and One Nights" the only template for the portrayal of Muslim women?

Where am I in these books? Where are my physician parents? Where is my husband, the Internet entrepreneur? Where is my friend the human rights activist? Where are all those Muslims who are not angry or covered in black?

Most of these books were written before Sept. 11, so it's not as if they were a reaction to that day's horrendous events. Muslims have had an image problem in this country for a while.

A few months after I arrived in the United States, I called NBC to complain about a joke Jay Leno made. It was around the time that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was rumored to have written a romance novel, and it went something like this:

"Did you hear about Saddam Hussein's book? The plot is boy meets girl, girl forgets veil at home, girl gets executed in a public square."

The struggle ahead for Muslims in the United States is similar to that faced by other minorities. Just as African Americans have fought for years against their typecasting as gang members and drug dealers in films, so must Muslims fight the terrorist/woman of the harem stereotypes.

"Muslims Against Terrorism," an organization set up by young Muslims in New York in the wake of Sept. 11, is a good start. Let's be the loud majority for a change.

We need to be heard too, and it would help if TV producers, directors and publishers made room for more people who "don't look like Muslims."

The writer reported from the Middle East before moving to the United States.

2002 The Washington Post Company