May 10, 2013

Does Religious Freedom Allow Stereotyping?

By Saadia Faruqi
Source: Tikkun Daily 
These days, anything and everything can be uttered under the guise of free speech. We can hurt the religious sensitivities of others, call people names, stomp our foot on someone considered the son of God by billions. It’s all protected in the name of free speech. Don’t get me wrong, as an American Muslim I am indescribably thankful for the freedoms I receive in this great nation of ours. Without the First Amendment, I’d be unable to practice my religion freely, take time off for Friday prayers, invite friends over to my local mosque or even write posts such as this one in a Jewish publication. No doubt about it, freedom of speech is probably the greatest liberty and blessing we all enjoy here in the United States. But sometimes I think we misunderstand this freedom altogether. 
I’m not talking about cartoon caricatures or disgusting films. I’m not even talking about equating prayers with terrorism. Regardless of how I or other Muslims may feel about such “free speech”, I think we can agree that people have the right to state their opinions, even when those opinions reflect the filth of their own minds. But sometimes we as Americans use this precious freedom to instigate, encourage and incite negative thoughts and actions against a group of people. Take the example of calling African Americans lazy… it’s not only highly offensive in principle but in practice such speech perpetuates negative stereotypes that belittle an entire group of people. I don’t think anyone, no matter how patriotic an American he or she may be, would condone such speech. 

So when a card maker in New Jersey made a birthday greeting card portraying a little Muslim girl as a terrorist, I was surprised to see many pull out the free speech card. That the card included descriptions such as “She’ll blow your brains out” and “Hope your birthday is a blow out!” was more mystifying than anything else. What is the card maker trying to say? Are there many little-girl terrorists in the world today? Is there a connection between the hijab, which the girl was wearing, and terrorism or extremism, even though thousands of American women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, cover their hair in some fashion. The Chicago store carrying the card specializes in offensive material, but I call this more than offensive. After all, free speech can certainly be offensive speech, but should it be false or dangerous speech? Should we have the right to create myths and stereotypes about any group of people, be they African Americans, Jews, Asians or Muslims?  

The Chicago Monitor, which covered the story, explains it best: "Notice that nothing identifies this doll as a terrorist in the minds of the card designers other than that she wears a Hijab," Chicago Monitor wrote. "Moreover, she – like many Muslim girls who choose to wear the Hijab – is a smiling, non-threatening normal-looking female wearing a pink Hijab and a flower-patterned dress. The unmistakable message behind the “humor” is that even the most peaceful looking Muslims are synonymous and exchangeable with terrorists."

It goes without saying that many Muslims called the store to complain about the card. I encourage people of other faiths, or no faith, to do the same. The precious freedom of speech we all hold dear should never be limited, but stereotyping isn’t free speech. It’s a harmful, dangerous yet insidious way to hold down a group and deny them equality. Let’s not go down that road.

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.


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