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Dressing Like a Terrorist

Even cats sometimes wear the terrorist costume Even cats sometimes wear the terrorist costume

Like many others, I was dismayed to learn of the two imams wearing traditional Muslim garb who were forcibly removed from an airplane that was to carry them to a conference on Islamophobia. The passengers who were removed from a Delta/ASA flight in Memphis, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, apparently frightened other passengers and upset one of the pilots, who refused to fly with them on board. Not everybody was dismayed, however. The Delta/ASA pilot and the frightened passengers have received support from numerous voices among the American commentariat. 

The situation was a clear-cut case of ethnic profiling. On this everybody should agree. Some of those who support the pilot’s action want to disclaim their support of profiling, but such a desire is dishonest. People need to accept the realities of the positions they express, even if those positions attach to descriptors that have negative connotations. If you support the pilot, you are supporting an instance of ethnic profiling. Either accept that fact or develop a different opinion.

I have been reading commentaries about the case with much interest. One argument in particular keeps arising: the notion that Rahman and Zaghloul deserve what happened to them because they dressed like terrorists. The reasoning goes like this: Muslims commit terrorism; Muslims look a certain way; a certain look thus portends the possibility of terrorism. In short, those who appear to be Muslim are worthy of extra scrutiny because they are more likely to be terrorists than other people. 

I want to leave aside the fact that the belief that Muslims are more likely than others to commit terrorism is a myth with no basis in factual evidence. I also do not have the space to illustrate that there are thousands of variations of traditional Muslim dress. Even Rahman and Zaghloul wore different types of clothing on the day they were profiled. 

 I’d like instead to focus on this notion of “dressing like a terrorist,” a phrase that has the peculiar intimation of a fashion statement. There is no quantifiable evidence to show that dress is a predictor of any sort of behavior, especially the behavior of terrorism. What we’re dealing with in the Rahman and Zaghloul case is an overexerted imagination that associates political violence what I call the terrorist costume.

The terrorist costume is a simulated reality, circulated in Hollywood and countless news broadcasts, that evokes a causal relation between appearance and action. The terrorist costume is familiar to nearly all Americans: a thick beard, an ashen robe, brown skin, sandals holding dirty feet, and some sort of headgear, usually a Sikh-style turban. The terrorist wearing this costume often sports a Qu’ran, so the audience can be certain that he is a Muslim.

Yet the acts of terrorism that have been committed by Muslims involved perpetrators, like Mohamed Atta, who didn’t at all resemble the image of the Hollywood terrorist. Rahman and Zaghloul unfortunately resembled a racist simulation that could define them to an American audience. But that simulation has never actually been implicated in a real crime.

To impugn Rahman and Zaghloul for their dress, then, is to engage in highly troublesome judgment, one that not only contravenes their Constitutional rights, but also the rules of basic logic. The United States has long been a place where appearance is believed to foreground attitude or behavior (vis-à-vis skin color, clothes, physiognomy, ethnic typology, gender, sexuality, possessions, and so forth). Yet judgment by appearance is a terribly ineffective indicator of either attitude or behavior, not to mention being highly unethical and often illegal.

Those who believe that Rahman and Zaghloul brought their unjust treatment on themselves ought to think about what their lives would be like if their own logic were applied to them. In the end, if we are to let fanciful stereotypes dictate access to basic rights of citizenship, then none of us will ever live up to the grandiose promise of our own worthiness.

5 comments for "Dressing Like a Terrorist"


Just as one believes that every woman wearing a tank top and a miniskirt is NOT a prostitute or should that be assumed? Ethnic profiling (especially due to clothing) is a sign of a weak intellect that is preferring to be told what to think rather than actually using their God-given faculties to make a rational decision.

Dr. "K" wrote on May 19, 2011 at 01:48 PM

I believe that the passengers on board this plane were in the right. Maybe the men who were arrested were acting in a suspicious manner and though it seemed natural to them the passengers didn't feel the same way. Regardless of how just or unjust their arrest was, Mr. Sailata completely contradicts his notions of ethnic profiling by performing the same profiling himself, as the ones he accuses. His argument in this article is meant to persuade us that ALL americans are guilty of profiling on race alone, and that everytime we see a muslim or one who looks "muslim" we automatically assume terrorist. True or not true, the fact remains that muslim looking and, in fact, muslims did commit horrible atrocities in the past and continue the threat to do so. If we are to remain safe from future attack we must remain on guard in situations that pose a imminent threat. On a plane, with muslim looking men who might have been talking loudly or speaking aggresively in arabic, I think qualifies as possible threat.

If you dont like the facts, Mr. Sailata, you can go live in Iran or Pakistan and see if you can have a nicew cushy life as a professor to a bunch of alcoholic white young people.

Mr. B wrote on May 19, 2011 at 03:35 PM

"On a plane, with muslim looking men who might have been talking loudly or speaking aggresively in arabic, I think qualifies as possible threat."

... Mr. B, Your incredibly weak argument embodies everything that is wrong with mainstream Western perceptions of culture.

Professor Salaita, please don't leave the United States. We need your astute rhetoric and sound critiques far too much, especially with imbeciles like Mr. B postulating such xenophobia and bigotry.

ceegee wrote on May 19, 2011 at 05:17 PM

I think Mr. Salaita is missing the point completely. It is dogs, not cats, that are the true terrorist. Do cats make dogs live in fear daily? No, but each day dogs terrorize innocent cats. Something needs to be done. I ask you Mr. B to help stop the injustices.

Ben wrote on May 19, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Mr. B., and all the brilliant people who support your argument: if we are to profile selectively on narrow grounds, anyone who looks like or wears like George W. Bush should not be voted into office, for the crimes he committed against humanity in Iraq and elsewhere. (except that his crimes are much bigger crimes in terms of casualties than the fanatics who committed the 9-11 crimes).

Mr. B., you and many like you, decent people i'm sure, can only see one set of crimes. It's ok. with time, you or your grandchildren will be able to see atrocity based on the crime itself, not the purported criminal. It's inevitable, like the abolition of slavery was in US history.

Samir M. wrote on May 20, 2011 at 09:53 PM

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