CNN recently ran a story on its website, “‘I am you:’ American Muslims on faith — and fear,” featuring five American Muslims. The piece introduced a range of Muslims to the wider American public in a report replete with text, videos and statistical charts. The people featured came from different backgrounds, ages, and careers. But their diversity was all meant to show one thing: these Muslim Americans are human, just like “you.” Whoever that “you” is.
Simultaneously, CNN also ran the story as a Snapchat Discover story. Snapchat Discover, for those without Snapchat, is a way to view multiple 10-second videos from various news and entertainment channels. The videos are only available for a 24 hour period. This CNN Discover Story allowed Snapchat users to experience video of statistics (most of which can be found in the long form article on CNN’s website) on Muslims in America and highlighted a few more Muslims we could get to know and learn about. As a Muslim, I appreciated the effort. It wasn’t hard hitting journalism, but it was a snapshot of these people’s lives and further proof they are “just like you.”
My major problem with this piece, aside from the fact that it’s needed at all, is the picture they chose to use as the cover for this Snapchat story. If the story is meant to show diversity and how Muslims are just like the regular American next door, then why put this woman in an American flag niqab? If hijab is controversial, than niqab is downright inflammatory. When Saba Ahmed, leader of the Republican Muslim Coalition, appeared on FOX News wearing an American flag hijab, the comments were less than flattering. People accused her of “disrespecting the flag” and accused her of having no right to wear it. Even as an American. Even as plenty of American flag bikinis grace the beaches every July 4th. So is the question really about using the flag as apparel or just who is wearing it? Ironically enough, after 9/11, Muslims were told to be more patriotic: to choose a side. Now it doesn’t seem to make a difference, as evidenced by the constant need for these human interest stories.
The American Flag, for many Americans, is the symbol of Freedom and of the “America” people hold so dear. But that freedom, clearly, does not extend to all.
Most Americans feel Muslims do not share their values. There are states opposing imaginary attempts to enact Shariah laws in the United States. The point is the fear of Islam and its takeover of America is real. Therefore, when CNN uses a picture like this, it plays right into that fear. The attempt to make Muslim Americans seem as American as apple pie gets lost when they use an image like this. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and as I stare at this picture declaring “I AM YOU”(ironically, this quote came from one of the men featured in the piece) I’m thinking, but that’s not me. That’s not what I look like.
The percentage of women who wear niqab in America is hard to quantify, and there are no readily available statistics but the consensus is that it’s a pretty low number. So why use this image? Why use a brown woman clad in an American flag niqab? To me, she looks rather unhappy. Her eyes are looking dead ahead, no crinkles around them to suggest she’s smiling under her niqab. Critics of niqab usually suggest the argument against it is that the woman is trying to hide her face or being hidden away from the world. Well then, going by that line of thinking, wrapped in the American flag, this woman might as well be a thief in the night trying to steal America. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, wow, she’s reading a lot into this. But the facts remain that Islamophobia is on the rise. Donald Trump, Republican candidate for President of the United States keeps upping the ante by making more and more erroneous claims about Muslims and the havoc they plan to wreak on America.
Many articles about Muslim women tend to feature pictures of women in niqab, whether or not the story itself has anything to do with niqab. Topics ranging from sex, feminism and empowerment to demystifying stereotypes all have these images attached to them. For many Americans who don’t know much about Islam, this image becomes solidified in their minds as the image of a Muslim woman. It is not. It is clickbait. News outlets know the power of an image. The collage of images used for the story on the CNN website doesn’t feature a single woman wearing niqab. In fact, none of the interviewees wear niqab either. I tried contacting the producer of this piece, Jareen Imam, on Twitter to ask about the image but I didn’t receive a response.
Muslim Americans are a very diverse group of people. The CNN story and Snapchat story was a good example of highlighting that. Again, it was a nice effort and I appreciate the gesture. I just wish the cover image reflected the substance within.
Thank you for you engaging piece. I’m a Muslim woman in South Africa. I also wear hijab, am a wife and mother, run my own business and am proudly South African .
What I see in the image you unpacked is simply an expression of patriotism – the very value that Americans who fear Islam claim Muslims threaten. While I acknowledge that niqab wearing Muslim women are a minority within a minority in both our countries, I believe the point made is precisely that our outer appearance isn’t where to look for what we have in common as people. The image is powerfully paradoxical. Freedom, Self – expression and National pride are inner values that we may each express very differently. I have seen images of American flag underwear that people don’t find inflammatory or degrading. I think the image under discussion pushes us to confront what we DO have in common even when on the surface, it looks otherwise…or to acknowledge the conditional nature we bring to inclusiveness. “I am you – but only when… it’s obvious?”
It’s time we were all willing to find ways of identifying with people who appear radically different to us. Perhaps then we’ll learn something about our own humanity.