By Fairooz Adams, Outreach Director
Outrage proliferated social media when a YouTube celebrity was allegedly booted from a flight for speaking Arabic on his phone to his mother. If it is determined that the incident is what the social media celebrity claims it is, then the airliner’s unceremonious ejection of the passenger was an overreaction. One must be cautious, nevertheless, as the alleged victim has a reputation of being a hoaxer. Incidents like this beg the question: what is the proper line between due caution and avoiding offense? I speak personally to the experience of being wrongfully accused due to my appearance. In middle school, I was called into the Vice Principal’s office because students had joked I that I would blow up the school. After multiple meetings and calling my parents, the school rightly determined that I was not, in fact, plotting to blow up the school. In hindsight, taking children’s crude racist jokes seriously (I have a Persian name and South Asian complexion) was a gross overreaction. As embarrassing as the incident was, I came to realize that the administration took the proper course of action.
I was reminded of this during the outrage in light of an Irving, Texas school’s overreaction not far from my hometown where the “clock boy” was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school that appeared to some to look like a bomb. On it’s face, this appears silly. In the United States, terrorist attacks from ultra-right-wing groups are by far considered to be the largest threat, even as terrorists and terrorism victims worldwide come overwhelmingly from Muslim majority countries.
Then again, there was the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino attackers, and recently Abdul Artan at the Ohio State University. In all cases, the assailants, who were described by some others as normal, harbored a fanatical hatred. Which leaves us wondering: how did we miss the signs?
I am not suggesting widespread discrimination is needed or justified, which would in fact be counterproductive. Though I have no religion, as someone with a Persian name and South Asian complexion, I have a strong incentive to discourage discrimination against those who look as though they may be Muslim. Unlike European states, America does a far better job of assimilating its immigrants. As a result, the United States produced far fewer ISIS fighters. As British Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz has claimed, alienation and segregation are the pathways to radicalization. Embracing Americans of all faiths into the nation’s fabric is the best way to thwart jihadism.
So often the most dispassionately rational course of action also risks causing emotional harms. We must bring into balance two aims that seemingly cannot be reconciled. How do we create a nation that respects all Americans and treats them equally regardless of appearance and beliefs while at times precautions? I propose the following: we ought never encourage legal discrimination. In our culture, we must ensure all Americans feel included as Americans, but there must come to be an understanding at a cultural level that taking extra precautions, when it comes to any demographic, are perfectly fine. This is not confined to those who look like me or have names that sound like mine, either. In fact, we are already encouraged to be on the lookout for children that may engage in school shootings. No, people who look like me are not especially fragile. If other groups of people that are statistically predisposed to certain crimes can be profiled, then people that look like me can handle that as well.
Legal discrimination and a culture of exclusion will exacerbate problems and absolutely must be discouraged, and yet people must not be fearful of being labelled as bigots for taking extra caution. This sounds like a contradictory aim, and perhaps that is true to a certain level. But there is, in fact, a fine line. There is a difference between being able to include all Americans amongst one’s friends and being willing to take extra precautions in general. Indeed, while not everyone that looks like me will engage in this violence, too many people that look like me do. There exists a fundamental difference between being able to recognize this fact and harboring actual hatred and malice towards certain racial minority groups. Ultimately, this comes down to a philosophical question. How many people is it worth offending for the sake of stopping the miniscule possibility of losing lives? I would say the number is incalculable. Instead of focusing the ire on those that overreact and have taken excessive precautions, the focus must always be on the extremists who makes everyone else’s lives harder.