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Opinion: Hoodie, hijab killings rooted in U.S. 'fear industry'
Maytha Alhassen says the dehumanization of Arabs, Muslims and African-Americans goes beyond the hoodie and hijab.
March 30th, 2012
12:39 PM ET

Opinion: Hoodie, hijab killings rooted in U.S. 'fear industry'

Editor's note: Maytha Alhassen is a doctoral student in American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California, a performer for "Hijabi Monologues," and a contributor to "I Speak For Myself," a book on American Muslim women's narratives.

By Maytha Alhassen, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Shaima Alawadi was killed in her home. The note next to her severely beaten body read “go back to your country, you terrorist," according to her daughter.  She was a 32-year-old Iraqi mother who wore a hijab. Was this why she was murdered?  Did this piece of clothing frighten someone so much that they were motivated to end another human being’s life?

The fatal beating of Alawadi in El Cajon, California - in the midst of nationwide Million Hoodie Marches, hoodie solidarity commemorations on Facebook and Twitter, "I Could Be Trayvon" Tumblr pages and viral petitions to prosecute 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's killer - must push us to change the national dialogue to that of transforming the conditions that created these murders: the institutionalized fear industry that is fueled by this country’s fixation on war and incarceration.

For the past decade, there have been more young black men in prison than in college. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” reveals another astounding statistical feat achieved by our modern America: there are more black men in prison, on parole or probation now then there were enslaved in 1850.  And yet we are a society that uses black men like rappers Lil Wayne to 50 Cent to sell us products, uses black men almost exclusively to entertain us on basketball courts and football fields and uses black men’s labor inside prisons to make us anything from bras to brooms to diploma covers.

For the past decade, America has also been equating Arab and Muslim to terrorism and terrorists (and not to mention the lazy conflation of Arab and Muslim.) Wars have been waged in Afghanistan and Iraq to catch the “evil-doers” as part of a “war on terror” advanced by the Bush Doctrine.  We have witnessed that war extend itself to catch “home-grown terrorists” with a special emphasis on the possible radicalization of African-Americans in prison and more recently, Muslim college students in elite East Coast schools.

We have seen states introduce “anti-Sharia” legislation. And we watched home improvement chain Lowe’s cave into anti-Muslim fears by pulling their ads from “All-American Muslim,” a TLC channel reality show that followed Arab Muslim families from Dearborn, Michigan. Apparently they were convinced by the Florida Family Association’s reasoning that the show transmits, "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."

When Major Nidal Malik Hasan massacred 12 individuals at the Fort Hood military base in 2009, there were immediate attempts to link him to the 9/11 hijackers. But when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 17 Afghani civilians earlier this month, did we ever think to link him to the U.S. institutionalized fear industry?

Is it possible to go to war with two Muslim countries and imprison millions of black men and not face any repercussions? Is it possible that the racist and xenophobic discourse and cinematic images that have been consistently used to legitimize increased mass incarceration of black men and killing of Arabs and Afghanis abroad could not be internalized by the population? Is there an impact on the public when it consumes vitriolic hate speech and repeated stereotypical portraits of black gang-bangers, drug dealers and rapists or Muslim terrorists, "jihadi fighters" and submissive, veiled wives on a continuous loop on TV and in film? What about when it trickles down to the campaign ads of politicians who want to keep America “safe” from the threat of "Sharia takeover" and "black welfare” spending?

In all these ways, Arabs, Muslims and African-Americans have been thoroughly dehumanized, which makes it easier to lock them up at Rikers Island or Guantanamo Bay, shoot them execution style in subway stations, massacre 17 of them in Afghanistan, advocate for them to be profiled by law enforcement, ignore their murders and disappearances, and lastly to kill them. If they are robbed of their humanity, then we can blindly justify their inhumane treatment.

This is beyond a hijab and a hoodie. From prisons to wars, this is about an industry of institutionalized fear that needs a population’s fears, created via political hate speech and TV and film to fuel sectors of privatized profiteering off wars and prisons.

Almost 50 years later after his assassination, Malcolm X's words from his 1965 "After the Bombing" speech, days before his murder, about indictment based on skin color still dishearteningly resonate:

"When you judge a man because of the color of his skin, then you're committing a crime, because that's the worst kind of judgment...the Black man can't hide. When they start indicting us because of our color that means we're indicted before we're born, which is the worst kind of crime that can be committed."

Justice for Martin and Alawadi requires more than the arrest of George Zimmerman or Alawadi’s killer. We need to form societal consensus to guarantee that no human will or can ever be indicted for his or her skin color or choice of clothing.

Let this upcoming election cycle be worth something substantial, something beyond which presidential candidate is the most fit bounty hunter at capturing the jihadi boogeyman or the one most able to curtail “black welfare."

Instead, demand that Martin and Alawadi's circumstances never happen again. Demand responsibility is taken for hateful speech and images. Demand that we restore humanity to the dehumanized. Demand that we resurrect Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Jesus' messages of social justice and human dignity. Because in the process of dehumanizing another or accepting his or her dehumanization, we too lose our humanity. Let us reclaim our humanity by dismantling the institutionalized fear industry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maytha Alhassen.

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Filed under: Black in America • Discrimination • Ethnicity • How we look • Race • Social justice • What we think
soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. L

    What a powerful articulation, illumination and summary of so many issues that we've been hearing about for so many years. Thank you!

    April 5, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. Lost

    It is quite clear that now is the time for people of color to stop referring to themselves as "Colored", whether it may be termed Latino, Asian, African, etc... This article and many incidences that relate to it, is reason why these people need to unite and support, and fight for one another. Just one marginalized group can't fight this war alone. All people have the right to a live a life of dignity and well-being. No one, just because they are used to being the majority and are unable to see beyond their own greed and prejudice has the right to keep all of humanity from these vital basics. The time is now, to stand up and fight, and cast off the real hindrance to knowledge and freedom. Non-whites give more power to whites just by staying divided and defeated. Develop a mutual dialogue, code, conduct, and cultural base that will build an impenetrable force that will help us all rise above and eradicate racism.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Andy

    This article is spot on. The comments are very scary. The only thing I fear is that the racists in these comments are not a small minority, but a large swath of our nation.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Why36knot

    I can barely believe I wasted my time reading this garbage. Where in the wide world of reason does CNN get these people?

    April 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • May

      Thank you for reading. I appreciate the time you spent and recognize your humanity :)

      April 2, 2012 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Was it too difficult for you to follow? Or, as I suspect, did you deplore the Major Hasan murders and condone the Sgt. bales' murders because you believe in the fear?

      April 18, 2012 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  5. Kelly

    Ms. Alhassen, your simplistic approach to this does a disservice to your reported education. Did Muslim terroists kill 3,000 in NY on 09/11? Did the Black men who are in prison commit crimes? Why do you not address those issues and why the Muslim community makes it so easy for extremists to exist? Did Muslim extremists cut the heads off of hostages and then post videos of it to cheering crowds? Why not address that? I could go on an on, but you get the point. Treyvon's case is still being investigated and it will not surprise me if Zimmerman is eventually charged with a crime. The suspect in the Afghan shootings has been arrested and charged. If found guilty he faces the death penalty. The investigation is ongoing for the woman who was killed in her home. As of this date we do not know why she was killed, or who killed her, but you feel free to jump to the conclusion that it was because of her Jihab!! You pick isolated incidents and use them to paint a broad picture, otherwise known as prejudice.. Where were you educated?????

    April 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Roland

      You must be one these people who say "look at what everyone else does not what white people do". You made a statement about Muslim "extremists" cutting off heads in front of a cheering crowd, you need to go to Google images and look up lynching and you'll see Christian extremists doing the the exact same thing except that they would burn the body while it was hanging and white men and women would be pointing and laughing. It's obvious you need to learn the history of the U.S. Where were you educated? It must have been a school were history had been whitewashed. You especially need to read up on the Jim Crow laws in the south and people like bull connor.

      April 2, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Kelly, did a Christian terrorist murder Dr. George Tiller? Or just a terrorist? Or are you going to condemn all Christians because of the act of one deranged "Christian"? You are part of the fear mongering if you cannot figure that out and that's the point of the article.

      April 18, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ed

    Thank you very much Curt for validating the entire article with your post. The anonymity provided by the internet allows you a clear view into the minds of people, and it can sometimes be a terrifying glimpse.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  7. kenintexas

    The people in prison are there because they are criminals who were caught and convicted. If so many are black maybe it's because they committed the crimes. If you don't want to go to jail don't break the law. Simple isn't it?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Curt

      Right! Except its not maybe they did the crime ... its because they did the crime. As I see it Blacks are much much more racia than whites ... yet its whites always blamed for being racist. How many white men died in the civil war to free blacks? im guessing that there's one white group that blacks are kind to ... white doctors when they have a serious illness and need to be saved.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ed

    Few nowadays are willing to discuss the racial problems still plaguing this country. It is simply thought of as "a thing of the past", and when someone does bring it up, they're demonized for stirring up debate on a sensitive issue. If the article isnt convincing enough, read some of the comments posted here. Scary stuff.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  9. james

    If black people would get rid of their att..itude they would be a lot better off.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tony Kaye

    Brought to you by CNN...your anti-white 24-hour news site.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tony Kaye

    What...I can't mention the story about the two kids murdered in Sarasota on vacation from England. Murdered as they begged for their lives by a black youth? Why does this post consistently get censored by CNN?

    March 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Umera

    I agree about ur comments w/Saudi and exercising free speech; however, I do not know how reflective of Islam that is. I also don't know how many American Muslims you've met or even known throughout your life...anywho it seems mere generalization of a popular stereotype on your part for the entire Muslim community in the U.S. I can say this from my personal experience that Muslims in America do struggle! and articles like these serve the purpose of education rather defending selves as Victims. I just hope that you take time to self-reflect on your knowledge base about Muslim community in the U.S.

    March 31, 2012 at 3:03 am | Report abuse |
  13. Gonzo

    You can't post inst**ution without getting censored. That's not as amazing.

    March 31, 2012 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
  14. Gonzo

    "the ins***utionalized fear industry that is fueled by this country’s fixation on war and incarceration."

    March 31, 2012 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  15. Gonzo

    Did I just read that in a MSM editorial? Amazing. There's hope for humanity yet.

    March 31, 2012 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  16. Gonzo

    test

    March 31, 2012 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
  17. Gijoe

    Walking down an alley late at night, you look behind you, would you rather see a black or a non black? CASE CLOSED! Blacks are prone to violence

    March 31, 2012 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      Yes, a clear example: Charles Manson and his gang of killers.

      April 19, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  18. M Alhassen

    Jose M. Pulido, Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment.

    May you know love and joy in its fullest form on your path and hope you have a blessed day.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  19. FatherXmas

    Dear author:

    Are you suggesting that these two cases are even remotely similar? Are you also suggesting that the only reason that Martin was killed was his choice of clothing (aside from attacking a law-abiding citizen)?

    March 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • M Alhassen

      Oh not at all! I should have been more clear in attempting to draw the correlation of the two tragedies. There was an interesting phenomenon that occurred on social media the day the Shaima story broke. That day, I observed Twitter and Facebook users draw connections like "from hoodie to hijab" or "hoodie to hijab, what next?" I myself wondered why there seemed to be an organic link being made by users in these online communities. Was it because they stood as symbols of an undercurrent of discrimination rarely openly discussed in national conversations? What do they stand for as symbols? What is the larger picture? And importantly, how can these symbols create a catalytic space for a long-overdue conversation about wars and incarceration, that a young black male like Trayvon and an Iraqi refugee like Shaima are inextricably linked to?

      March 31, 2012 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
      • dfox

        I understand your article but i personally think your looking in the wrong direction. When you mention that there are more african americans in jail than in college thats a given but not because this "fear industry" put them there. im pretty sure if you go to any court in this country you wont be charged with being black or muslim there is no crime in if you go to jail in this country its because you broke the law plain and simple. in case you havent noticed there are other factors that lead to more black people going to jail than other minorities or even whites. poor financial status, poor parenting, etc and as far as the killer of mrs Al Awadi lets wait until the facts come out and we actually have a killer. all the police have are two notes that could have been written by anybody including her own husband. I was in Iraq and beatings of women are common there also in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc. If it turns out that it was an honor killing i dont expect you would be willing to put out an article critical of that will you?

        April 1, 2012 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
    • ad

      Yeah they are related. These people were killed for the stereotypes society has taken as a fact rather than an opinion. You see a black man you think murder, Muslim terrorist. You never sit down and talk to a muslim or a black person. You do not understand what they go through because you are white and no one ever says anything about them. you guys are not discriminated against. White people have been living it up.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
      • Pants

        Unless you are LGBT and white or are in poverty and white then you get discriminated against like any other minority group. Especially by the "upper class".

        April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
      • Pants

        Try being told that youre "too stupid to know how to use white advantage". Only the "elite" Are free of discrimination, and even then its arguable.

        April 1, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  20. juki629

    How much sadness can our country continually handle? A young man dies in FL and a young mother is murdered in CA. Until we feel the sadness and loss of these two useless death we will have learned nothing. I don't know what happened in FL, but it is apparent that this young woman was murdered! By whom? It doesn't benefit anyone to know that answer other then the killer. It is a valuable life snuffed out! Where are the marchers and the screamers yelling for justice for her? I feel the media is only intent on what lines their pockets. They are devoid of caring where justice lies and waiting for all facts! What sadness a caring, sensitive person must feel for the loved ones of the two involved in FL and those in CA. How sad that we Americans believe what the media feeds us instead of investigating and trying to learn the truth minus all the hype! What a tragedy for those in FL and CA, but more so for Americans.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Pamela C.

    The fact that we as a people cannot get past the stereotypes of all people is sad. We are always talking about being united, yet are extremely divided. We, as a people, need to learn to love and allow hate to be for someone else's demise.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  22. M Alhassen

    And thank you for your comment Merc80!

    March 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  23. M Alhassen

    Jose M. Pulido, Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment.

    May you know love and joy in its fullest form on your path and hope you have a blessed day.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Merc80

    Yes.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |