The following commentary, written by Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah, asks us to think about how our reactions to the recent Tucson shootings might have been different if the perpetrator were Muslim.
New York City (CNN) —“When the news first broke that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at a political event, all Americans were united in our response of shock and outrage.
Shortly afterward, the media reported that a 22-year-old male had been arrested in the shooting. His name had not yet been released. I believe your reaction to that piece of news depended greatly on your status in American society — namely, whether you’re a Muslim.
If you are a typical white person, I would imagine your initial response was relief the suspect was caught, and an attempt to make sense of why he committed this horrible crime.
But if you are Muslim or of Arab heritage, your reaction to the news of the arrest was likely: “Please don’t let him be Arab … please don’t let him be Muslim.” Believe me, that was my reaction.
This reaction in not unique to American Arabs and Muslims — most minorities in America have a similar response when a horrific crime has been committed and the identity of the suspect is still unknown.
We desperately don’t want the person to be one of “us,” for fear that our entire minority group will suffer a backlash.
I doubt any white people hope a suspect isn’t one of them — it’s just not relevant. They don’t suffer as a group because of the actions of a few bad white people such as Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph.
Americans are trying to figure out why someone committed this heinous act. Was it because he was ostracized by society, or because his parents didn’t hug him enough?
But let’s be brutally honest. If the suspect’s name wasn’t Jared but was Jamil or Mahmud instead, America’s reaction might have been different. What if a Muslim-American had made anti-government statements and shot a U.S. congresswoman at a political event?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week called the suspect Jared Loughner an “extremist” — but not a terrorist. Would Clinton and others be so hesitant to apply the terrorist label to an American Muslim or Arab-American?
In contrast, after Nidal Hasan, a Muslim-American, committed the despicable Fort Hood shootings, many called for him to be labeled a terrorist, including Rep. Peter King, R-New York.
Indeed, in King’s op-ed in December 2010, he labeled Hasan a “home-grown terrorist” and a big part of the reason his Homeland Security Committee will investigate “the radicalization of Muslims in America.” It’s unknown whether King has any interest in investigating non-Muslim threats to America, such as the ones that led to the attack on Giffords.
Yes, I know Nidal yelled “Allah Akbar” at the time of the shooting, but does that mean he had a political agenda or was he just a delusional, sick person no different from Jared? When you compare the psychological profiles the media has painted of both, they are very similar: “Outsiders,” “troubled,” “loner.” Even their photos share the same crazed look in their eyes, but because one American is Muslim and the other isn’t, the presumption of terrorism differs.
Why can’t a Muslim-American be considered a crazed lone gunman? I’m not a psychiatrist, but I doubt mental illness distinguishes between religions.
And why is that every time a white American commits a horrible act — be it flying a plane into an IRS building or attacking a Muslim cab driver in New York City because he is opposed the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero — the presumption is that he is not a terrorist, just a poor delusional guy who has lost his mind.
My point is not to divide us as a nation any further — we are polarized enough by angry politics, race and, sadly, religion. But as we look for ways to heal our nation, which desperately needs it, applying the same standards to all Americans would be a great step.
If a Muslim-American is a terrorist under U.S. law, I have no problem applying that label, if the same goes for a non-Muslim.
As our Declaration of Independence famously states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” and I believe they should be treated that way as well.”