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‘Serial’ whodunit shows how perceptions of Muslims have changed (COMMENTARY)

Hussein Rashid is a professor of Religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art, and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

(RNS) The podcast “Serial” is an addictive radio documentary that revolves around a real-life whodunit: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for the crime.

It also illustrates how our thinking about Muslims has changed.

"Serial" podcast logo, courtesy of Serial.

The podcast “Serial” is an addictive radio documentary that revolves around a real-life whodunit: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for the crime. Photo courtesy of Serial.

This pre-9/11 story has prosecutors calling Syed’s piety into doubt as they build their case against him. The prosecution argues that because Syed smoked weed and had premarital sex, he was not an observant Muslim. Therefore, they say, not only did he lie to his parents about his activities, but he also pretended to be religious to hide his murderous instinct.

At one point in our history, a prosecutor could argue that an outwardly observant Muslim was unlikely to kill someone. Changing political realities have altered that logic. By 2007, the New York Police Department released a document saying that if a young man grows a beard and stops playing video games, that person is a potential terrorist. While these criteria may also describe Jews and Sikhs, it is really meant to signify a particular manifestation of Islam. In less than 10 years, the “good Muslim” has switched from one who is observant to one who isn’t.

This sort of reversal is an ongoing theme through American history. The Founding Fathers explicitly included Muslims when debating who would be welcome in the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, in his 1786 bill establishing religious freedom in Virginia, argued for the inclusion of Jews and Muslims. During the ratification of the Constitution, the ban on religious tests (Article 6.3) was designed to allow Jews, Muslims or atheists to become president.

In the 21st century, elected representatives talk not only of stripping Muslims of their citizenship by virtue of their faith, but also of committing violence against them. In 2010, former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman was one of the first to ask for Muslims affiliated with terrorist groups to be stripped of citizenship. Last year, Barry West, a county commissioner in Tennessee, posted a photo on Facebook suggesting Muslims should be shot.

Muslim sentiments have changed in other ways, too. Starting in the 19th century, the U.S. developed a fascination with Moorish-style architecture, so churches, synagogues and community centers were built to resemble mosques. The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles is one of the most famous examples of this style.

Yet, just over 100 years later, people are protesting the building of actual mosques, many of which look no different than the surrounding buildings. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is on record as early as 2007 saying that there are too many mosques in this country.

These transformations of views of Muslims reflect geopolitical changes. Unfortunately, they are also based on amnesia. A large number of slaves were Muslim, including Nicholas Said, who served as a Union soldier in the Civil War.  There are famous authors, artists, actors and athletes who are Muslim, as well as the Muslims we interact with on a daily basis — our doctors, cab drivers and neighbors.

Hussein Rashid is a professor of Religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art, and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

Hussein Rashid is a professor of religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

The 10th episode of “Serial,” which airs Thursday (Dec. 4),  is a powerful contribution to reviving long-form journalism. Syed’s case demonstrates the shifting ways we create belonging in this country. By highlighting the ways in which our perception of Muslims is different now than it was in the recent past, it may allow us to question our assumptions about the place of Muslims in American society.

(Hussein Rashid is a professor of religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art and national identity.)

YS/MG END RASHID

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