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The Media Loves Muslims Right Now. So Why Are Hate Crimes Against Them Up 91%?

Headscarves are bringing in big money — but representation isn't the same thing as progress.

Image via Vogue Arabia.

This week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report finding anti-Muslim incidents in the United States are up 91% so far in 2017 over the same period last year. The most common of these incidents are nonviolent “harassments,” and the second most common are termed “hate crimes,” which describe physical violence or property damage.

“The presidential election campaign and the Trump administration have tapped into a seam of bigotry and hate that has resulted in the targeting of American Muslims and other minority groups,” said Zainab Arain, a CAIR representative, in the press release. “If acts of bias impacting the American Muslim community continue as they have been, 2017 could be one of the worst years ever for such incidents.”

The findings come at a time when Muslims are increasingly visible — even if representations of them remain narrowly defined. No longer sequestered to the realm of cable TV broadcasts about violence in other parts of the world, images of Muslims — and particularly Muslim women — have become commonplace in the cultural landscape: co-opted in protest art, appearing on TV shows and in films, as part product advertisements, and dominating magazine covers.

When I read CAIR’s report, my mind didn’t go to front-page stories about terrorist attacks. I thought, instead, about the headscarved Muslim woman I saw last weekend in a Gap ad at L.A.’s capitalist mecca The Grove.

H&M's 2015 ad campaign featuring model Mariah Idrissi.

Often, these cultural shifts feel like significant social change, and new representations are celebrated as progress. When H&M used a hijab-wearing model in a fashion campaign in September 2015, one Muslim fashion blogger wrote for Elle magazine’s site: “Brands are finally taking note of what I've been advocating since I founded the fashion brand Haute Hijab in 2010 – that Muslims (in this case Muslim women) are a thriving, fully-functioning and active segment of society who deserve to be acknowledged and heard.”

Two years later, brands and corporations are more aware of Muslim women than ever, especially as they comprise a significant portion of the American consumer base; for example, a Reuters study reported that Muslim consumers spent $243 billion on clothing in the global market in 2015. “Diverse” casting, too, has proven to be profitable for the film and TV industry. “The Bold Type,” a new show on ABC’s cable channel Freeform, features a hijab-wearing Muslim lesbian in its first few episodes. Pepsi and Coke have both made headlines for including hijab-wearing Muslim women in their Super Bowl ads. Hijab-wearing Somali-American Muslim model Halima Aden made a splash on the catwalks for Yeezy, Max Mara, and Aberta Ferretti early this year and became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to cover an issue of Vogue.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Images of Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are becoming more and more common, but so is the harassment against them.[/quote]

This all feels very exciting. But it means nothing when Muslim Americans are still being targeted for harassment and hate crimes by their neighbors or singled out for screening by TSA at the airport or surveilled by national security organizations under the guise of public safety. Or when a large-scale travel ban is proposed to keep them from entering the country. Images of Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are becoming more and more common, but so is the harassment against them. This is why it becomes tricky for me to celebrate a movie like “The Big Sick” — written by and starring a man who comes from a Muslim family but relies on one-dimensional representations of them — or the “sensitive” casting of “Aladdin,” a fictional tale about fictional people wherein a half-white, half-South-Asian woman is set to play his Arabian romantic interest.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the Muslim American community. For the past few years, cultural commentators have heralded a “transgender moment.” Suddenly, transgender people were showing up in TV and film and magazine covers. And yet, 2016 was reportedly one of the deadliest years to date for transgender people in the U.S., with 27 of them killed, the majority of them women of color.

Representation is not justice and is a poor substitution for it.

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