It's not up to Muslims and other marginalised groups to prove they are human

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Ruby Hamad

"I'm Muslim, but I don't scream Allahu Akbar randomly out loud."

"I'm Muslim, but I don't scream Allahu Akbar randomly out loud." Photo: YouTube/Buzzfeed

Last month, Buzzfeed released a video with the intention of smashing Muslim stereotypes. I'm Muslim, But I'm Not… featured a bevy of young Americans assuring viewers of such things as, "I'm Muslim but I'm not angry" and "I'm Muslim but I'm not a terrorist".

Ironically, the video was criticised for doing the opposite of what it purports to do. Italian Muslim writer David Mastracci deemed the video ineffective "largely because it attempts to find exceptions to the stereotype, instead of addressing the problematic nature of the stereotype at its core.

"Is it a stereotype that all Muslims are angry? Yes. Is the man an exception? Yes. But that's not relevant here," he writes. 

"What should instead be challenged is the idea that it's wrong for Muslims to be angry, or that Muslims have no reason to be angry."

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Indeed, I'm Muslim, But I'm Not... inspired a response from some Australian Muslims in which they unapologetically confirm, "I'm a Muslim but I am angry," and "I'm a Muslim but it's not my job to soothe your anxieties".

However, Buzzfeed does not appear to have taken the criticism on board. Just a few days ago I'm Aboriginal, But I'm Not… hit the internet, this time featuring Indigenous Australians imploring, "I'm Aboriginal but I don't steal".

As-well intentioned as they are, it's hard not cringe watching both of these videos. The most glaring problem being, as Mastracci implied above, they inadvertently give legitimacy to prevailing stereotypes by putting the onus on the members of marginalised groups to plead their innocence.

Someone who already distrusts all Muslims is hardly likely to be convinced by a video of Muslim strangers begging them to believe they "embrace everyone". Moreover, it is not - or at least it shouldn't be - up to ostracised groups to prove their humanity. The only reason we expect them to is because of society's tendency to view these groups as a monolith rather than as a loose affiliation of individuals.

When, for instance, was the last time young white men had to record themselves imploring, "I'm white but I'm not a mass shooter" or "I'm white but I don't make rape threats to women online"? It doesn't happen because we take their individual innocence for granted.

Of course, this is not just about a series of viral videos. Every now and then a feel-good story about Muslims doing something noble or generous hits the headlines, and while the intention is to impress us with their kindness, there is also a disturbing subtext: we are also meant to be surprised by it.

In August, a Turkish bride and groom made worldwide news when they spent their wedding day distributing food to Syrian refugees. Without discounting their generosity, I also did feel more than a whiff of desperation to prove that Muslims are really not all bad, that we do actually belong in the humanity camp. 

Another image making the rounds at the same time was that of two Palestinian men shielding an Israeli policewoman from stones that were being thrown by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Again, the reason this made such an impact is because people generally believe the opposite to be true: that Arabs are more likely to harm others than to help them.

The framing of these stories effectively makes them seem exceptions to the rule. It's not that a bride gave out food on her wedding, or that a couple of men protected a policewoman from danger, it's that it was Muslims doing these things that made them so noteworthy.

It is demoralising that Muslims are compelled to prove their humanity in this way. Not least because of the futility of doing so. The real tragedy is no amount of generosity is ever going to be enough. In the panic over the migrant crisis, for example, scant attention has been given to those Muslim-majority nations who welcomed millions more refugees than the west. Compare this to the obsessive focus on uncooperative rich Gulf States who inspired many scornful memes and headlines such as Why Aren't Gulf States Taking Them In?

How convenient for the west to be able to compare itself with Saudi Arabia and come out on top, even as tiny Lebanon, with population of a mere 4.5 million people, managed to absorb more than 1.5 million refugees, while Jordan has taken in close to a million (and if you think this is only because these countries share a border with Syria, I have bad news for you. Israel, which also shares a border with the ravaged country, has not only taken zero refugees, it is planning on building a wall to ensure they stay out).

But such humanity defies the trope of the callous Muslim who is fundamentally incompatible with 'benevolent' western values; a trope that can be traced back to the Crusades and is still invoked by certain sections of our media and political class, as demonstrated in this week's non-controversy over Muslim students walking out during the national anthem (spoiler: they walked out because it is a designated month of mourning in the Shia faith during which all "joyous celebrations" are prohibited).

Ultimately, it's not up to marginalised groups to prove their humanity; it's up to those who hate them to stop dehumanising them.