I was watching the People’s Court the other day (yes, I love court shows!) and I saw something that was mildly disturbing. The plaintiff was a non-Muslim woman. The defendant was a Palestinian descent Muslim man. The defendant had a witness with him who was in hijab. (She was also Palestinian descent).
The case: The defendant was married to the plaintiff. While she was at work he was texting and calling his hijabi witness, sending little love messages in Arabic to her throughout the day. Basically, he was cheating on his wife with the hijabi witness. He was also ordering excessive amounts of pornography while his wife was at work. (He did not work, his wife was supporting both of them). So, the defendant was being sued for the porn he ordered and for the phone bill he racked up while texting his hijabi witness. Rightfully so, the non-Muslim wife was upset. She said it was against Islam for the defendant to watch pornography. She also talked about the behavior of the hijabi witness. She said it was inappropriate for the hijabi witness, as a Muslim women, to talk to men let alone a married man. (The judge asked the non-Muslim plaintiff, ‘They can’t talk to men?’ to which she replied ‘No, that’s how it is in their culture’). As the non-Muslim wife was telling her side of the story, she admonished the hijabi witness by saying to her “the religion is about more than just covering.”
When it was time for the defendant to speak, he was pretty nonchalant about the entire case. He even defended his watching of pornography by saying, “Everyone watches it.” (Which elicited laughs from the audience). Eventually the plaintiff won the case. As is common on The People’s court, the audience members standing outside on the show’s plaza were asked questions about the case. Instead of asking them the usual questions about who should win, Harvey Levin (the show’s host and legal reporter) chose to ask the audience (all non-Muslims) whether “Muslim people are allowed to cheat.” (Sigh). One man replied, “No, the Muslim people can’t do that.” (Who exactly are ‘the Muslim people?’)
After the case concluded, in-court reporter Curt Chaplin spoke to both parties in the hallway. The defendant’s hijabi witness said she was bothered by the fact that their religion was continually brought up during the course of the case and said that their actions were their actions- it had nothing to do with the religion. When it was time for the plaintiff to speak she said she had a message for Palestinian [read: Muslim] guys: Don’t come to this country and try to take advantage of women. This is America and we have laws here! The cameras cut to Harvey Levin outside. He briefly said something about a document presented during the case being like the Bible in this country. (WTH?)
Aside from the aforementioned, what I found disturbing was this: the plaintiff kept bringing up the religion and cultural background of the defendant and his witness. Unfortunately, instead of chastising the plaintiff for doing so, the judge followed the plaintiff’s lead, asking the plaintiff questions about the religion and cultural norms of the defendant and witness rather allowing both parties to speak for themselves. I’ve watched Judge Marilyn Milian off and on for several years now and she is usually pretty good at preventing a defendant or plaintiff from constantly referencing a person’s religious, cultural, racial, national or sexual background. It was sad that she failed to do so in this case. In fact, at times it seemed like Judge Milian even fed into the stereotypes. For example, at one point the defendant was trying to talk over her and she said something like, “I’m the one in charge here. In this courtroom you’re the one who has to listen to me.” (I hope you caught the subtext here).
Yes, in the larger scheme of things, this case and this particular representation of Muslims is nothing major. I just have problems when the same ole tired stereotypes are being perpetuated (especially on television.) More importantly, I’m bothered by the way in which American Muslims are exoticized and “othered” vis-a-vis “regular” or “normal” non-Muslim Americans. We can’t simply exist as people or individuals. We are always a group. Everything Muslims do is examined through the lens of our religion and we are inextricably bound to our identity as Muslims. Talk about unfair! (Yes, I am Muslim but am a lot other things too). Again, as evidenced by this case, there are Muslims who behave badly. Clearly, the defendant in this case and his witness were flawed individuals who made some poor choices. Did they make those choices because of their religion or because human beings can be selfish and inconsiderate? I long for the day when we can make some progress on this front. Just forgive me if I’m not very optimistic about it…
BTW: I tried to search for a youtube clip of this case on The People’s Court but was unable to find it.