By Krystina Friedlander
1 May 2013
The early photographs of Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, wife of Boston marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are unsettling. They are unsettling not only because she looks frightened, but because she looks kind of like me. Though our lives are different, we are both young, white women, and we are American converts to Islam. The media's coverage of Ms. Russell has been overwhelmingly negative, understandable considering the role that her late husband played in the trauma that shook Boston, where I live. But it has also portrayed her as an "all-American" girl "brainwashed" into converting to Islam.
In her case, the story goes that she was victimised by an overbearing boyfriend, later husband, and "totally changed" when she dropped out of college, put on a headscarf, and had a baby at age 21. Maybe that's true, and maybe not. The truth is that her voice is not part of the conversation. We don't really know anything about her choices, but we use her faith to tell a story about who we think she is. What I find most deeply problematic -- and what should concern us all -- is that by saying that she went from being "all-American" to being Muslim, the media is telling us who an American is, or can be.
The Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum found that more than a quarter of Americans have left the faith they were raised in, some for other denominations within their tradition, others for different religions, and others for no religion at all. America is the world's most religiously diverse nation. Converting to another faith is a very American thing to do. It's also a particularly Muslim thing to do; around 25 percent of America's Muslims are converts, and the majority of recent converts are women. The characterization of converts as somehow trading their identities as Americans for a Muslim identity also tells us that Muslims are still not seen as American, and that Islam doesn't fit in among American faiths nor is it seen as compatible with American values.
Female Muslim converts are particularly mischaracterized by the media, which portrays them as brainwashed, weak-willed and easily misled by Muslim men.
Deanna Othman writes that the female Muslim convert "provides a spectacle for the public to shake their heads at because she is a tragic character, and her tragic flaw is her conversion" to Islam. That women who convert to Islam are viewed as foolish is no clearer than in Norway, where also in April the sketch comedy show "Ann-Kat Hærland" dared Justin Bieber fans to "convert to Islam" on camera and don black headscarves "to find out how far Norwegian Beliebers are willing to go for tickets."
Conversion to Islam is seen as a pathetic spectacle that desperate women do for men, whether for the love of Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- fitting the stereotype of the violent Muslim man -- or for Justin Bieber.
But there's something else going on here. JoNel Aleccia at NBC News features three converts who "speak out" following the Boston bombings. Each wears a headscarf, which Aleccia refers to as “traditional Islamic dress," and all three are young and white. This is hardly representative of American converts, and not just because we don't all wear headscarves.
The largest ethnic group among Muslim Americans is African Americans, who also make up about 60 percent of all American converts to Islam according to the Pew Research Centre. Only this January, NPR reported that one of the most significant new groups of converts to Islam are in fact Latinos. Why aren't we interested in them? Another Muslim convert who barely made headlines this month despite her immense celebrity is Janet Jackson (who, it seems, has indeed been swept off her feet by a handsome Arab billionaire). So why the denigration of Katherine Russell's faith but not Janet Jackson's?
It's not just who Ms. Russell's husband is, though that certainly makes her an interesting character in the story. Do a Google image search for "female convert to Islam" and you'll see almost as many white faces as if you searched "beauty." What is it about being a white convert that is particularly fascinating? Is Janet Jackson still "all-American"? Or was she ever?
Conversion to Islam by white women is more of a spectacle because of what it says about us. Here we have a white woman characterized as the "all-American" girl before converting, and that identification is at the heart of the public fascination with white converts. One convert quoted in the Salt Lake City Tribune put it this way:
"I believe [the negative perception of female converts] is partially due to white privilege in that there is not an understanding [of] why an 'all-American girl' would give up her privilege-assumed, carefree lifestyle."
I would add that only white women are perceived to give up their racial privilege by becoming not white (people often assume that I'm Arab), and sometimes marrying partners who are not white, and having kids who are not white. I can't help but think of this nation's deep and complicated history of anti-miscegenation laws, where whites who sided with the African American community during the Civil Rights Movement or those who were in relationships with black partners were labelled as "race traitors."
If Muslims aren't "all-American," and if "all-American" is used to describe white women before they convert to a racialised faith, then assumptions about who is "all-American" not only deny 3 million Muslims of their national and cultural identity as Americans, but they deny full Americanness to anyone who isn't white. The framing of racialised Muslims in the media as un-American should therefore concern everyone, not just the Muslim community, because it is about all of us.
As far as the Muslim community goes, it's hard to say how long it will take for Muslims to become fully American in the public eye, but in the meantime, Muslims of incredibly different backgrounds (among them a great number who don't practice at all) will continue to be our neighbours. And most of those people will identify as American.
We don't yet know Katherine Russell's story. As of right now, the New York Times reports that authorities are investigating whether DNA found on one of the bombs is hers, which could make her complicit in her husband's crimes. If she is innocent, then she is an American woman who has lost her husband and the father of her child under deeply disturbing and tragic circumstances, another victim of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's crime. Theirs was a complicated and difficult relationship, and, like many American couples', it was physically and emotionally abusive. It's not that her faith is unimportant, and she may indeed have been manipulated into choosing an identity that wasn't really hers. The point is that she isn't any less American for being Muslim, even if she turns out to be an all-American criminal.