Editor's note: In light of recent developments and securitization of Muslim identities , we are publishing a reflection by one of our advisory board members, Sumaiya Hamdani, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University. The episode took place in 2016 at the Smithsonian's Freer-Sackler Museum and although the Museum extended an apology to Dr. Hamdani and her father, Professor Abbas Hamdani, we are publishing this important reflection as a reminder that the current troubling trends have been rampant for quite some time.
It was New Year’s Day 2016, I had received notices that the Freer Gallery in DC would be closing for renovations, so I suggested to my family that we should visit the museum to have one last look at its collections (including the small but lovely room exhibiting Islamic art) before then. As we arrived, we noticed the police cars parked outside the museum, enforcing the extra precautions authorities were taking against a possible terrorist attack. (And as it would turn out, my family.) Already the presidential campaigns were underway, and Donald Trump had announced the need for a “Muslim ban”.
Once inside the Freer we toured the exhibits, ending up at the Islamic Art room. I was explaining to my daughter the skill involved in creating an illuminated Persian manuscript, my father was admiring some delicate Turkish ceramics alongside a young woman. He commented to her how tragic it was that groups like ISIS were destroying such treasures. He is 90 years old, hard of hearing and so his comment rang loudly in the room. (He is also an emeritus professor of Islamic history and known, among other things, for his interfaith efforts in his former hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
“…As I pulled the car up alongside the front door, two security guards approached…”
We finished our tour and I left my father and daughter to wait at the Gallery’s main entrance while I went to retrieve our car to pick them up. As I pulled the car up alongside the front door, two security guards approached. I thought they were coming to let me know that I was not allowed to stop the car at that spot. I rolled down the window. Instead I was informed that my father was overheard making comments about ISIS. I was also asked to verify that I was in fact the daughter he claimed was about to pick him up.
I was dumbstruck. He was deploring ISIS for crying out loud I said! But it apparently was not what my father actually said, or what we were actually doing in visiting the museum and admiring its collection, or what we actually believe as Muslims about the abuse of Islam by terrorists and their destruction of its heritage of tolerance and obliteration of its civilizational achievements. Rather, it was that he as a brown man, with a slightly foreign accent, uttered the word ISIS, and so the few other patrons in the museum alerted the guards. They questioned him and warned me, presumably to ascertain whether he was packing a bomb in his tweed jacket, and whether I was driving his getaway car?
“… it was that he as a brown man, with a slightly foreign accent, uttered the word ISIS, and so the few other patrons in the museum alerted the guards.”
My 9-year old daughter was naturally disturbed by this encounter. We don’t usually get stopped and questioned by police of any kind. What struck her was that we were questioned about who we were. On the way home she asked me why we are Muslim, if it gets us in trouble. Again I was stunned. I explained to her that even if we don’t pray regularly, we believe that God is good, that believing in Him helps to remind us to also be good, and to denounce the bad around us. And I thought to myself, how can we be accused of not speaking out against the bad around us (as we often are), if we are not allowed to speak?
Our museum experience made me realize that the crude racialization of Islam which dominates the public sphere obviously extends even to those of us Muslims who appear and behave in the American cultural mainstream.
“Our museum experience made me realize that the crude racialization of Islam which dominates the public sphere obviously extends even to those of us Muslims who appear and behave in the American cultural mainstream.”Such that one is stopped, questioned, censored, possibly “banned”? Worse perhaps is that while this crude racialization is easy to identify if not counter (after all what can you say to an armed guard who warns you not to speak?), it is nourished by a subtler and very long-standing racism in the west that has also appeared in coverage of events such as the bombing of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan or Roman temples in Palmyra or Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
This coverage argues that Islam enjoins Muslims to destroy art, beauty, free and creative expression. Never mind that for over 1400 years, Muslims have and continue to create art (hence the Islamic art exhibit at the Freer), never mind that their art has incorporated all manner of inspiration (including the figural) and has in turn inspired others, never mind that the very statues, temples and non-Muslim sacred spaces ISIS, the Taliban and their like blow up today in fact survived centuries unmolested in Islam’s heartlands, and never mind that free and creative expression are the very bedrock of classics in Islamic literature that celebrate the absurd, and regale with mockery.
“Only an enlightened west, according to this narrative, has valued, preserved and protected Islam’s own art in its museums, in which members of the Muslim public like my family are but interlopers, trespassing by our very presence and speech…”
Against these facts, the long-standing orientalist and Islamophobic narrative stands firm in its assessment of Islam’s anti-civilizational jihad, its ignorance of and violence toward even its own heritage. Only an enlightened west, according to this narrative, has valued, preserved and protected Islam’s own art in its museums, in which members of the Muslim public like my family are but interlopers, trespassing by our very presence and speech, the privilege of consuming our art to which the white western public is entitled.