By Saadia Faruqi
Over the Eid weekend, a Muslim woman made headlines by calling out the Houston Police Department for their lack of cultural awareness. She alleged that she was frisked by HPD in a way she deemed offensive. Thankfully she hasn’t sued yet (although that might change depending on who’s advising her), but once again the cultural clash between “us and them” seems more prominent than ever. Islamophobia is alive and well in the world today, but one should also carefully consider if every case is in fact one of Islam-bashing. To me, this doesn’t look like it.
As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and an outer garment, I understand Ilana Alazzeh’s consternation at having her headscarf removed. I too, would be overwrought if that were to happen to me, which is why I don’t participate in public protests. Much as I appreciate the freedom of speech that this great country has awarded me, I also never put myself in a position that may compromise my hijab. My obligation towards God trumps my choice to protest on behalf of whatever cause I feel strongly towards. I have watched enough cops shows to know what is likely to happen to those who protest in the middle of busy intersections. Since it is my first and foremost duty to protect my dignity, I personally would have tried to find other ways to support an important cause like janitorial wage equality. I could have written articles about it, started a petition, donated my money, or made phone calls to congressmen… any number of things to help them out. But she chose this route. What followed was almost to be expected.
For Muslims who tout the Islamophobia card once too often, I say this: safety is more important than our cultural feelings. If someone can hide explosives in their underwear, they can do the same in their headscarf as well. That’s why whenever I travel on a plane I stand without complaint for half an hour while the TSA officers find a female to pat me down, and test my little ones’ sippy cups. They’re just doing their jobs, give them a little bit of credit. Of course, that’s not to say that HPD in this case was without blame. They could have handled it better, knowing that women in headscarves typically don’t take well too having them removed in public. Cultural sensitivity isn’t rocket science, and police departments across the country can easily offer some basic cultural awareness training to their staff to avoid public relation nightmares like this.
But it is also important for Muslims to understand that an entire culture of thousands cannot be changed overnight. What happened last week should never have happened, but since it did, perhaps it can set the ground for true discussion and understanding. I applaud Ms. Alazzeh’s actions… so far she has only reminded the HPD of what they can do to set things right. Whether the HPD listens remains to be seen. Let no one point fingers, but instead try to work towards mutual respect and understanding. Surely that isn’t too much to ask?
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.