“You wouldn’t call all Muslims terrorists, would you?”
There’s been a piece of rhetoric that is being passed around circles of #GamerGate when faced with questions about the people in the movement responsible for harassment and attacks. The gist of it is a common idea, the one that the actions of those people don’t represent the whole. Then come the analogies “you wouldn’t call every Muslim a terrorist, right?” This upsets me. In fact, it infuriates me. But I wasn’t exactly sure why, so I decided that I’d take a step back and figure it all out.
First of all, let me give you some background. I am a child of mixed race, part Egyptian and part Filipino. My father is a Muslim and my mother Christian, and under Muslim tradition my brothers and I were raised Muslim. This didn’t prevent us from attending church in addition to mosques, but it did define a lot of our upbringing. Today I identify as an atheist, though I still believe that Islam was integral both to my cultural identity and played a part in developing my values. It may take me a few tries to recall it, but I can recite Al-Fatiha from memory. I’m happy to greet people’s “assalamualaikum”s with “wa ‘alaykum al-salaam“. I believe that it is your responsibility to help others, and hold that find that a lot of the principles behind Zakat still hold true for me. I consider myself in ways a cultural Muslim, though not a religious one, similar to those who relate culturally to their Jewish heritage . I realize that this is a very specific, and limited perspective and I want to be clear that I in no way represent the Muslim voice on this matter. This is merely my personal view as someone who has been a part of that community and seen how it’s been portrayed. If there are Muslims who have corrections to offer, or further insight, I very much welcome them.
The problem I have with the argument, which boils down to basically “#NotAllMuslims, right?” (don’t check that hashtag if you don’t want to see some gods awful hatred by the way), is that aside from it being a serious false equivalence, it also trivializes the experiences of Muslims in the world, and the deep roots of Islamophobic hatred that hasn’t let up since its spike post 9/11. It draws false parallels to the plight of Muslims with the perceived attacks on #GamerGate. At a shallow glance, it almost seems plausible. The narrative of a group of people whose image has been defined by the most extreme elements of it. A group that doesn’t hold the values of those extremists, but is nonetheless demonized as a result of them. A group whose values are said to contribute to an atmosphere that encourages violent crusades against those who oppose them. At this point you might say, “Well, that sounds *exactly* like what the media has been saying about #GamerGate!”. Except that it ignores the issues of scale, and the cultural context that this conversation is occurring in.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity (which is also split into many more denominations than Islam). Many also believe that there is evidence that it is also the fastest growing religion in the world. Additionally, Islam is generally split into two major denominations, but because it is practiced all around the world, the values and practices vary drastically from community to community. By comparison #GamerGate is estimated (by some very imperfect data) to have around or less than 4000 active members, a far cry from the billions that are part of Islam. I’m providing this data not because I believe it is somehow representative, but to give a general sense of scale for the comparison.
When members of #GamerGate make the comparison between the way the public treats #GamerGate and the way it treats Muslims it is setting up an analogy between how the public treats these groups. While members will acknowledge it is hyperbolic, they also believe that it is illustrative of the point as well. The problem is that this is beyond insensitive to the everyday struggles of Muslims, trivializes the systemic marginalization of a that group, and turns it into a bullet point to deflect critique.
The comparison relates strongly to the idea that the everyday “gamer” or “geek” is being bullied and slandered by the public. On some level, I get that. I was the geeky kid with the glasses that everybody assumed knew the answers (okay, so they weren’t exactly wrong about that one). I was a gangly, shy, socially awkward kid, the crybaby who’d get made fun of well into the late high school years. It would be years after that I’d develop any sense of social skills. In that time I connected to basically anyone who mattered to me through videogames, comics, and manga. I was bullied, I got my share of hate, got volleyballs thrown in my face etc. But the idea of the geek and gamer as a marginalized group is rapidly dying off. More people than ever are playing videogames, they’ve become a multi-billion dollar industry. Obscure geek artifacts like Guardians of the Galaxy have become some of the most anticipated movies of the summer, with big name actors attached to them (look, I’m the guy who read through several volumes of Marvel’s “Essential” comic compilations and encyclopedias, and I had no idea who the GotG were until recently).The top television shows involve zombies, dragons, and superheroes. Geek and game culture aren’t dying, it’s spreading into the pop conscious. It’s becoming everyday. The idea of the stereotypical “gamer” still survives, but it’s fading as the medium slowly becomes a cultural touchstone in the way that cinema and TV have.
To say the struggle of the “gamer” is comparable to the everyday struggles of Muslims is disingenuous. It’s at best ignorant, and at worst mean spirited and manipulative. While I don’t believe ignorance is some sort of sin (especially if you make efforts to correct it), it can be seriously harmful, even if not acted on with malicious intent. Nobody is going to throw you in front of a moving train for being a gamer. People don’t throw acid bombs or open fire on groups of geeks. While opportunistic politicians are happy to attack videogames, they don’t openly claim that “gamers” are infiltrating our communities and are to blame for all of our social ills, often to a roar of applause. People don’t spend millions of dollars advertising against nerds. All of this does hold true for Muslims. The FBI performs intrusive surveillance on Muslims, attempting to turn them against each other. There’s even suggestions that they’ve had to perform a clean up within their departments after finding that many documents promoted inaccurate, and “distasteful” ideas about Muslims.
It’s been 13 years since 9/11, and hate crimes against Muslims are still high. One GGer I spoke to pointed out that it was a tough situation, especially now since of all the conflict in the Middle East, and that it would calm down after that blew over. Except that we’re still fighting a war on terror, it’s been over a decade, and the hate campaign shows no signs of slowing down. How much longer do Muslims need to wait to be accepted? At this point there’s a generation just born into this hatred. Will it end by the time they have children?
Another point worth mentioning is that gamer is an identity that is more or less self identifying. It’s not something that’s obvious at first glance, and you can stop identifying with it at any point without otherwise changing your lifestyle. In fact, I did exactly that a few years ago when I felt that the label had largely become associated with the image of a Mountain Dew drinking, Doritos eating, anti-social, juvenile raging demographic that marketing and pop culture loved to proliferate. I didn’t want to associate with that, and I worried that “gamer culture” was in danger of becoming a vitriolic culture of exclusion. Well, I’m definitely not happy with the way that played out. Regardless, I continued to play and discuss games in the same way, and didn’t bother to say anything about it unless someone specifically brought the subject up. In some ways my love of games was “invisible” the same way my queerness is. See what I mean? You most likely assumed that I was heterosexual up until that sentence.
Here’s the thing about being a Muslim, you can’t make it invisible in that same way. Actually, you can’t even choose if someone applies the label to you. Simply being brown, a minority with a beard, or wearing a turban makes you a target, or has people assume the label for you. Just look at the way Sikhs, an entirely separate religion to Islam, were targeted post 9/11. I have the fortune (and I realize how fucked up it is to say this is fortunate) of having my race be ambiguous because of my mixed heritage. Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and even Hispanics see enough of themselves in me to believe I am one of them on sight. Everyone else generally just sees me as “brown” or some kind of Indian until I specify otherwise. Even so, there’s generally an assumption of Muslim faith, generally marked by a sudden increase of the “terrorist” jokes that I’ve been dealing with for the last ten years. You know the kind, the ones where people yell “Allahu Akbar!” before mock blowing themselves up. I’m still waiting for those to be funny, and not just lazy and insensitive.
For those who want to point out that you can “stop being a Muslim any time as well”, let me point out that 1) as I just said, it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim or not since you are assumed to be one, and 2) yes, you can, in the same way that you can reevaluate the lifestyle and values that often make up a significant part of your person. At this point there are probably a few people going “That’s exactly why I won’t give up ‘gamer’, don’t you see!” In one sense, yes, I get that. Videogames have made up so much of my life experiences that it’s safe to say that they’ve largely defined me. However, to say that it defines you to a point where your values and life revolve around it, to equate it with the culturally defining worldviews of religion, that is in many ways a bit terrifying. It’s an idea that creates a kind of perceived ethnicity or minority, an idea of a culture that is mistrusted and misunderstood by the majority of people and as such needs vehement defending from outsiders. It’s the kind of mentality that leads to comments like this:
The idea of videogames being a “culture” that can appropriated speaks to the mindset that claims that there is an “other” that can misuse and misrepresent it. By such logic, someone who isn’t truly part of the culture, doesn’t understand it, or really stand by it, who plays it or wears its icons is “appropriating it”. In that way, someone who doesn’t identify as a “core gamer” wearing, say, a videogame T-shirt would be like someone wearing a shirt with the Islamic crescent. (Side note: an early version of Ocarina of Time used both of these (http://zelda.wikia.com/wiki/Fire_Temple_%28Ocarina_of_Time%29)). It’s a faulty comparison that ignores the magnitude of the injustices experienced by the people of those cultures while attempting to raise up the medium to level of grand cultural importance. While I do believe that the medium is a rapidly growing, powerful, and important part of our modern culture, it would arrogant to say that it has the influence or importance that religions and cultures that have been around for thousands of years do society-wide. (I will, however, say that I do believe it is possible for videogames to bring about the same sort of personal epiphany as faith does).
I’ll say it again: Gamers are not an oppressed minority whose culture is under attack. Pop culture IS geek culture at this point. More people are playing videogames than ever, and it’s losing the stigma of being a plaything for children and anti-social losers. If there’s a culture war, gamers are winning. That’s why when people react to someone saying #GamerGate is full of hateful, destructive people with “you wouldn’t call all Muslims terrorists” it rings so false. The very comparison conflates multiple cultures and labels that are not remotely equivalent, trivializing the dehumanization, struggle, and consequences of a Islamophobic mindset to provide a loaded emotional gut punch in an attempt to paint the opposition as moral deviants. It’s cheap, it’s insensitive, and I guarantee there are many Muslims out there who don’t appreciate their struggles being used as shields to deflect critique. No, you wouldn’t call all Muslims terrorists, because we respect them enough to not even make the comparison.
(P.S. to anyone who uses the similar “well not all Muslims are part of ISIS”, especially in response to having methods of the group being called “terrorism”, that reveals a negative Western attitude of thinking of terrorism as a uniquely Middle Eastern brand of violence, when it in fact comes in many forms proliferated around the world).