On Being Muslim and "Dark-Skinned" After Boston

Yassine Zaime and Salah Barhoun are both innocent, but worried that this New York Post cover could affect the rest of their lives

Yassine Zaime and Salah Barhoun are both innocent, but worried that this New York Post cover could affect the rest of their lives

By Ali Zafar


Last Monday’s trending hashtag intensified my suffocating sense of dread, the one that’s ebbed and flowed since Sept. 11, 2001.


That dirty word stripped Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of his white privilege: he had been identified in news reports as a Chechen, terrorist and radical, but never American.

Because he’s Muslim. Like me.

I’d logged off from the 24-hour cycle of the world’s misfortunes that afternoon, deciding to take a breather before my workday started. I always expect something big to be breaking when I show up for my evening newsroom shift, but the news of the Boston Marathon bombings was still a shock. My stomach churned as I looked at graphic images on the newswire: the blood-splattered streets, the volunteers racing to help a man in a wheelchair with a missing leg.

And my heart dropped when I logged onto Twitter and saw #Muslims trending alongside #PrayforBoston. Was it possible that a person who calls himself a Muslim was behind those horrific images? What if his first name was Mohammad? Like mine? What if he had dark hair? Dark skin? Like me?

Anxiety, embarrassment and a shade of fear began bubbling inside me like a violent thunderstorm. Watching the news made it worse.

I watched as CNN's John King described a “dark-skinned” male suspect under arrest.

There was no arrest.

I watched as a Saudi-born marathon onlooker, his body torn by the impact of the explosions, was plucked out of the crowd, chased and tackled by bystanders. His apartment was searched by police while he was in hospital recovering, as the New York Post crowed “FBI grills Saudi man in Boston bombings.”

He turned out to be innocent.

Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student with a non-Anglo name and biracial brown skin, was incorrectly labeled as a suspect by the crowd-sourcing website Reddit.

That turned out to be utterly false.

Also making the cover of the New York Post last week were friends Yassine Zaime and Salah Barhoun—“Bag Men,” read the headline, falsely declaring that the FBI were looking for the two men.

They, too, were innocent. But Google is forever, and 17-year-old Barhoun, who moved to America from Morocco, says he now worries about his chances of getting into college.

If the past week has illustrated anything, it's that our collective psyche sees both Muslims and brown males as an existential threat to Western society. U.S. TV commentator and frequent Fox News guest Erik Rush decided the only recourse was genocide of all Muslims. “... They're evil,” he tweeted. “Let's kill them all.”

Toronto is a big, diverse city, one where people seem enlightened enough to question the prejudices floating around in their subconscious. But as I watched the barrage of bias, I asked myself how many people here also suspected a dark-skinned or Muslim male of planning the Boston bombings, and whether those suspicions would somehow reflect on me.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were light-skinned, yes, but their unwieldy names and suspicious faith entrenched their un-Americanness, something made evident in a question posed to the estranged uncle of the brothers. “How do you feel about America, what do you think about the United States?” a reporter asked Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Maryland.

After an emotional Tsarni proclaimed his love and respect for his adopted country repeatedly, again and again, he also felt the need to distance his entire community from his 19-year-old nephew. “He put shame on our family,” Tsarni cried out. “He put shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”

I don't remember members of the Anglo-Saxon ethnicity drowning in guilt when Newtown killer Adam Lanza, suspected theatre-killer James Holmes or Tucson shooter Jared Loughner were implicated.

I don’t remember chants of “USA! USA!” when Holmes or Loughner were arrested (Lanza took his own life), a chant I clearly heard when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested Friday night.

Lanza, Holmes and Loughner terrorized many through their heinous actions, but they're not grouped with the entire “race” of anglo-white males. When the media refers to them, it’s by their names, not their ethnicity or beliefs, no matter how violent those beliefs were. They're seen as lone wolves, individuals, perhaps mentally ill individuals, but individuals whose American identity was never questioned.

Yet the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers sees the alleged actions of his estranged nephew as a smear “on the entire Chechen ethnicity.” I'm disturbed and appalled that "minority" groups are expected to feel a collective guilt after "one of ours" commits a crime, that Chechens, or Muslims, are forced to feel shame after the Boston bombings. It's an irritating double standard.

The blame for that doesn't fall only on “the media,” which in the end is just made up of members of society who often regurgitate the same biases held by the public. Instead, I blame our own inability to question subliminal biases that whisper that Muslims and dark-skinned males are dangers to our way of life. This bigotry often comes out when we're at our worst, in situations of fear and uncertainty. It's always convenient to distance ourselves from heinous acts, like the Boston bombings, by illustrating the suspect as nothing like us, relying on our biases for this reinforcement.

I hope people have the ability to grasp the alleged actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an American, one whose twisted beliefs led to the maiming and killing of innocent people, without linking him to the religion that more than a billion others use on a daily basis to live a life of peace—myself included.

Ali Zafar is a Toronto-based journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @MohammadAliZ.