On Oct. 16, 1989, the News finally published an article on Muslims rather than Islam. Here’s how it begins: “When Eman Qawiyy ’92 unfolded her prayer rug, students asked her if it flew.” This article has been rewritten many times since — in 1994, “Religious students face conflict in life at Yale,” in 2005, “For Allah, for Country, for Yale,” and in 2016, “The Divide,” by yours truly.  These latter renditions are more sophisticated in their analysis, but the underlying narrative structure is the same. It goes something like this: the few observant Muslims at Yale struggle to practice their faith in a stridently secular environment, but have thrived through grit and community. While the Yale administration has taken welcome steps to address their needs, much work remains undone. 

This narrative is not false, but it is flattening, always assuming a hegemonic “secular” pitted against an equally absolute “religion,” reduced here to individual belief a la Protestantism, fasting Ramadan and Arab-American discrimination. God is optional — his frequent absence from such articles likely stems in part from that peculiar secular fear of “dehumanizing” the religious by emphasizing their religion, abetted in turn by self-censoring Muslim students eager to efface even the suggestion of difference.

This impulse, while understandable, reifies a secular ontology wherein a pure, abstract “humanity” cleansed of religion is our collective “state of nature,” the universal core underlying an arbitrarily varied topography. It follows that religion is an accessory at best and a pollutant at worst. We can tolerate it as a fashion choice, but must always stand vigilant lest it metastasize and corrupt its host’s humanity.

 Simultaneously resolving and amplifying this secular anxiety is the journalistic norm of conceptualizing Islam as a marginalized “identity” coequal with “Black” or “Asian.” On the one hand, this empties Islam of its normativity and thus of its undomesticated moral charisma; on the other hand, it recapitulates the problem of religious pollution by essentializing action as being. How do we write an article where faith is an important part of a Muslim’s “identity” without “defining” it? Is it problematic to highlight a Muslim’s faith every time they appear, or is it best to do the opposite? How do we avoid only citing Muslims in stories about Islam? 

These concerns only obtain their coherence once Islam has been secularized — once it has been made both a race and a “religion” in the emaciated sense of being just one folder in any given person’s filing cabinet. For many if not most observant Muslims, however, Islam seamlessly encompasses a job as a neurosurgeon and a love for science fiction, even as the attendance of a Friday sermon remains qualitatively distinct from that of a basketball match. The journalistic quest to excavate a Muslim’s “non-religious” personality quirks only “humanizes” her insofar as the category of “humanity” itself demarcates the parameters of acceptable religious expression and calibrates the degree to which difference is too different. 

The question of Muslim representation is thus so valuable precisely because it lays bare the exclusivity inherent to our culturally dominant paradigms of inclusivity. We have not deleted the Other; we’ve simply updated the programming. Today’s “Muslim” is the photo negative of yesterday’s “Mohammedan,” racial and essential. To render Islam an identity is to render “Muslim” a state of being rather than becoming, to collapse the distance between “is” and “ought” — a distance whose traversal defines and gives meaning to many a practicing Muslim. To “identify” Islam, so to speak, is to strip it of identity. 

The News, to the extent that it retains the journalistic habit of conflating secularity and neutrality, will always report on Islam from behind a glass case. The campaign for “diversity and inclusion” has not shattered this glass — it’s largely reinforced it. It matters little if tomorrow the News recruits an ethnic rainbow of Muslims and presses them onto its pages in the same carbon-black ink for the same gray scripts, a facile diversity of facsimiles. We can prepare mirrors as wide or narrow as we like — if we can only force them into one frame, we will splinter our reflections.

 I do think Muslim voices make a difference in the newsrooms that hear them, whether by keeping oversights out of print or pitching overlooked stories. That said, the best article the News published on Muslims in recent years was not by a Muslim. “After life: Muslim deathcare in New Haven” has some of the usual blindspots — locating the central drama in a secular-religious conflict that assumes too much too simply about both categories, and featuring such empty formulations as “strict Islamic tradition,” which anyone familiar with the vagaries of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, will know is a phrase without content. Yet it still succeeds where so many have failed, because it tells an original story important to the local Muslim community on that community’s terms. It depicts, without fascination or trepidation, a circle of women deeply motivated by their eschatological convictions. It attempts, valiantly, to understand something of what it means to live with God closer than the jugular vein. 

 Not once in my four years at Yale did I, a practicing Muslim, think to write this article. We all have our blindspots, Muslim or not, so let’s abandon the comforting delusion that journalism’s structural problem is a mathematical one, resolved with the right number of recruits. To insist otherwise is to accept the epistemic pessimism that undergirds the seemingly sunny calls for diversity — the defeated acceptance that we can only speak of our own experiences, that we cannot be other than our context, that we must resign ourselves to subjectivities of metal and rubber, careful to stay in our lanes lest we drift and total one another with our touch. Perhaps I am naive, compromised by my love for the News and for journalism; but I believe us capable of a tenderer touch. 

I’m glad the News is no longer calling the Qur’an the Korean (Jan. 6, 1927), or running appreciative photographs of black-faced, turban-wearing students cosplaying as “the noble representatives of the hordes of Islam” crashing “the gates of Yale” to set up a tent for “faithful body-building” (Dec. 13, 1930), or running headlines like “Pakistan and the Islam Bomb” (Feb. 2, 1982). But, to borrow a cliche of Muslim coverage, much work remains undone. There’s something trivial about this exercise, this suspicious perusal of the pages of the past to adduce evidence for a forever trial forever exonerating the present. Let’s spare ourselves the hubris of prosecuting history, especially when we are complicit in its progress.