The endless ‘war on terror’ has created a social climate in which not only all Muslims, but all Arabs, are seen as the enemy. As more stories surface of Arabic speakers being removed from planes because other passengers feel ‘unsafe,’ the suspicion is so rife even children are implicated.
Across the Western world children as young as four are increasingly being perceived as potential terrorists. Earlier this month, a Texas teacher was placed on leave after she called her 12 year old Muslim student a “terrorist.” According to The Independent, the class was watching Bend It Like Beckham when the student, Waleed Abushaaban, laughed along with the rest of the class. “I wouldn’t be laughing if I was you,” the teacher allegedly warned. When he asked why, she responded, “Because we all think you’re a terrorist.
The teacher claims she only meant to highlight the danger of stereotypes, but Abushaaban says that her remarks encouraged his fellow pupils to taunt him, as they added comments like, “I see a bomb”.
This story comes just six months after Ahmed Mohamed, the so-called “Clock Boy,” was arrested by police - also in Texas - when he brought a homemade clock to school to show his favourite teachers, only to be accused of trying to make a home-made bomb.
This fear has not come about by accident and it has little to do with the actual threat Muslims in the West pose.
Even pre-school aged children are not spared. In the UK, where teachers are absurdly tasked with identifying possible terrorist threats as part of the government’s anti-terrorism Prevent program, a four-year-old boy was recently threatened with referral to an anti-radicalisation program after nursery school staff thought he had described his drawing of his father making a “cooker bomb”. It was of his father cutting a cucumber.
This fear has not come about by accident and it has little to do with the actual threat Muslims in the West pose. Indeed, with incidents of Islamic terrorism on Western soil remaining low, studies show that male whites are the biggest domestic terror threats in the United States.
So what is driving this fear? Two things. First, there is the tendency to strip non-white racial groups of individuality. Fear of the unknown other casts people of colour as a dangerous monolith and Muslims are not the first to feel the brunt of this collective blame. Angry and disaffected white guys shooting up movie theatres and public schools - despite their alarming frequency - doesn’t create widespread fear of young, white males because they are viewed as individuals; their actions reflect on them alone. Contrarily, any violent crime committed by people of colour immediately implicates their entire racial group, often with deadly consequences as some black communities have long known.
“Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people,” says African-American poet Claudia Rankine, describing an “out of control” fear of blackness that instantly demonises and criminalises black people – particularly men and boys. White people don’t see black people as they are but as they imagine them to be. Despite the fact that white Americans are far more likely to be killed by other white people, fear of blackness continues to play out in the form of police brutality across the United States.
White people don’t see black people as they are but as they imagine them to be.
This “out of control fear” has long ensnared black children in its trap. After 12-year-old African-American Tamir Rice was shot to death by Cleveland police for brandishing a toy gun, his death was widely excused with such justifications as “he was big for his age”. The police in his case were cleared of any wrong-doing as was officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson Missouri. Wilson described Brown as a “demon”. Even when children of colour have paid the biggest price of white fear – their lives – they are still denied their youth and innocence.
The second, and crucial, factor is the way the media reports on racial minorities, including Muslims and Arabs. News coming out of the Middle East, or pertaining to Muslim communities in the diaspora, are rarely positive, or even neutral. One US study, for example, found that media portrayal of Muslims was even more negative in 2014 than it was right after September 11. According to researchers MediaTenor, “Most coverage depicted Islam, Muslims, and Muslim organisations as a source of violence and a security risk, but seldom dealt with the lives of ordinary Muslims. In 2014, negative coverage of Islam reached an all-time high, as ISIS gained a foothold in Iraq and in American news headlines.”
Moreover, the same researchers found that while Christianity and Judaism received positive media coverage, Islam received almost none. “While mainstream religious leaders like Pope Francis were often the face of Catholicism in the media, fringe extremists like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the face of Islam.”
Even when children of colour have paid the biggest price of white fear – their lives – they are still denied their youth and innocence.
When almost the sum total of information available in the media about on entire racial and religious group is negative, it is not surprising that this leads to a less than positive perception of the group among the public. And the fear strikes so deep, it comes to view everyone who belongs to that group as explicitly guilty. Including children.
This fear permeates every aspect of a child’s life. Children from racial minorities – especially black children – are criminalised at an early age, facing harsher discipline that their white counterparts, for instance, being far more likely to be suspended or expelled for the same behaviour.
These punitive punishments set children up for a lifetime of marginalisation. In Australia, Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to end up in custody than non-Indigenous kids. Is it any wonder people of some racial groups are overly represented in the criminal justice system, when they are treated as criminals from as young as the age of four?
This is the dark consequence of an ill-informed white fear that sees brown and black people as an intrinsic threat; children of colour are being robbed of their childhood.
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