Gender, Religion, Ethnicity: Structural Assumptions and Political Projections in the Endless War on Terror

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Case study: myself.

I’ve never directly referenced the following research, but as I prep for my Critical Theory and the Endless War on Terror class, I realize that there’s no time quite like the present to display my findings.

For the past six (plus) years, I’ve used my Twitter account for a study on online communities and discourse surrounding political violence, partisan rhetoric, and Islamophobia – particularly through the lenses of projections related to gender, ethnicity, nationality, race, and religiosity.

My current Twitter avatar is a photograph of my face, half obscured by background lighting – but perhaps of greater interest, also “veiled” by… my hair. My ethnicity and racial background is not readily discernible (purposefully so); in face-to-face encounters, I routinely receive questions about my ethnic origins, and assumptions range: everything from a mixture of Southeast Asian to 100% Algerian Kabyle. Neither of those categories is correct. Take another look:

I joined Twitter in late 2010, and have not used many different avatar photos in that time period. Over the course of the past decade, I’ve largely switched between the two images on which this “study” is based: one photograph depicts a close-up of, simply, my face. I wear glasses, my hair is held back in a messy bun, and I have a tan. This photograph does elicit the face-to-face queries described above, to a certain extent. However, more often than not, the vast majority of white (European, Australian, Canadian, and American) Twitter users assume the woman depicted is a European or an American of European descent. As an aside: this assumption does not hold true with any consistency whatsoever for Indigenous American, North African or Middle Eastern Twitter users. The difference is striking.

Twitter avatar #1 – photograph of my face, with a tan.

The second photograph I’ve used in the past decade – barring the current avatar, which I updated last year – is not a photograph of my face, although it is a photograph, and I am the person depicted in the image. Rather, this avatar is a portrait painted of me by an artist named Seth Depiesse (actually, the piece is chalk on cardboard, rather than paint per se, but the point stands) back in 2001 – shortly after the September 11 attacks, and the rise in hate crimes targeting visibly Muslim women, as well as men assumed Muslim based on skin tone, or other markers associated with Islam in the domestic public (sub) conscious.

This avatar – a photograph of a painting – shows a man working on a piece of artwork leaning against the wall. The enormous canvas on which he works features a woman with light skin, pale blue eyes, and a face obscured by a niqab (face veil) constructed from an American flag. Cursory examination of the avatar makes clear that this image is a painting, as the artist is included within the photograph. But as will become quite clear, a glance – for many – constitutes sufficient basis on which to project a range of racial, ethnic, religious, and political assumptions.

Twitter avatar #2 – photograph of an artist in the process of painting my portrait

Before I go any further, examine these avatars side-by-side.

Twitter avatars used between late 2010 to 2019

On the left, we have an image of my face with a tan. On the right, a painting of my eyes – face hidden by an American flag niqab. What divergent responses to a variety of topics do you think each image provoked, and among which demographic(s) of Twitter users?

Many readers with acute awareness of, and sensitivity to, the coded projections that surround questions of race, ethnicity, and the politics of visibility will find the answers wholly unsurprising. Another group of readers will find this post shocking.

For those readers who do, however, find the results somewhat shocking, even unsettling, I invite you to read this post a few times, and to reflect on the reasons for which the study results surprise you. Pause, and ask yourself: “why?”

This reflection, and the possible answers provoked, will reveal a lot about not only the gendered, racial, religious, and political assumptions that structure the Endless War on Terror “over there,” but sustained reflection on the question “why” will – I hope – lay bare the logics of racial politics within the domestic American context (as well as Europe, Australia, and other regions conventionally subsumed under the incoherent umbrella label of the “West”).

Including your own unconscious assumptions, the blind-spots that enable your shock in the first place, and most importantly – the reasons why.

Each Twitter avatar – both representationally accurate and depicting the exact same woman – elicit wildly divergent responses, and have done so consistently for damn near a decade (regardless of particular geopolitical events or headlines of the moment). In fact, I have restricted myself to switching out only these two images for such a sustained period precisely to discern whether or not, and if so, how, political events might structure the assumptions and projections that underlie responses to my respective avatars. Little surprise – the reactions are quite consistent. So, let’s examine a very (very) limited set of examples.

Avatar #1

Twitter avatar #1 – photograph of my face, with a tan.

This Tweet merely recounts an event, and does not editorialize (beyond an implied meaning that – I admit – is pretty clear). However, the Twitter user responding does not aim any particular ad hominem attacks my way, nor does the person in question assume a relationship to Islam, any “foreign” citizenship, or ethnic and racial “other.”

Yet again…the Twitter user who responds here does react to the implied meaning of my Tweet, but nonetheless – engages directly with the perceive politics of the message’s implication, rather than any personal attacks expressed through the language of perceived “non-normative” ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin.

Here, a discussion about Bill Maher’s political inclinations and Islamophobic comments in a comparative framework alongside anti-Muslim sentiments’ implications for the American Jewish community amidst a rise of far-right, neo-Nazi violence elicited…no direct references to (again) “non-normative” religiosity, ethnic and racial background, national origin, or citizenship status. Instead, the Twitter user fixates on ad-hominem attacks concerning my physical attractiveness, with the exclusive political focus revealed by his point concerning support for Jews via the condemnation of anti-Semitism.

My inclusion in this list resulted from a Tweet that critiques Donald Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon, and the policy implications of that choice. Interestingly enough, I used Mike as a test case after he added me to the “Subversives, Social Justice Warriors, and Trump Derangement Syndrome” account list. Initially, he classified me as described above.

However, after I changed my avatar, Mike returned to add me to additional lists that focus not on perceived partisan differences, but rather – proclivities for violence, alleged support for ISIS, and citizenship status as well as perceived “foreign” ethnic origins.

Here, Pete responds to a Tweet that concerned a widely circulated study about violence, gun control, and comparative deaths from terrorism vs. accidental deaths from gun-owner irresponsibility. Now, of course Twitter does feature a range of … well, there’s really no other way to phrase this than “dicks,” but focus on the particular insults and framing of Pete’s remarks.

The usual insults about my lack of intellectual capacity and questionable mental health are not unexpected, given Twitter’s increasingly hostile political climate. What is interesting, however, is the user’s follow-up Tweet: “stop making excuses for radical Islamists.” Clearly, Pete categorizes Avatar #1 as someone sympathetic towards “radical Islamists,” rather than someone synonymous with a “radical Islamist.”

This response (besides, of course, the crystal clear threat of violence and hate speech) – strikes me as particularly noteworthy for a few reasons. First, the Twitter user’s name, “Abu Kafir Al-Esraili,” is an Arabic translation of “Son of the Israeli Unbeliever,” and indicates a particular modus operandi at play.

Doubtlessly, the person running the account created a profile with the deliberate intention to provoke Arabic speakers Abu Kafir Al-Esraili assumes to be anti-Zionist Muslims. Before we characterize this user as a mere “troll” not worth taking seriously, however, we need to ask: what purposes trolling serves, as well as the question of whether or not ideologically and politically motivated trolling can – indeed, or should – be dismissed and overlooked as “harmless.”

Additionally, Abu Kafir Al-Israili responded to my original Tweet about Ted Cruz’ refusal to meet with Muslim constituents; however, the initial reply did not threaten my life, nor did the user take colloquial speech from the woman in Avatar #1 as an indicator of violent intention.

Once my friend Asma – a visibly Muslim woman whose profile photograph depicts her in hijab – chimed in, however, Abu Kafir Al-Israili reacts quite differently. He (or she, given the intentional anonymity of the troll account) quickly and clearly jumps in to interpret and exaggerate Asma’s statements in a manner that reads her “put in his place” as an implied threat of violence – and then retaliates with an overt threat of violence addressed, explicitly, to her.

Now, why do I get the feeling that a different profile photograph might elicit a set of vastly different responses? Well, let’s continue. You’ll see soon enough – that is, if you haven’t already solved the ridiculously obvious not-at-all mysterious “riddle.”

So let’s move on to examine the second avatar image – a photograph of a painting that includes the artist himself.

Avatar #2

Twitter avatar #2 – photograph of an artist in the process of painting my portrait

Below are two categories of Twitter replies received when someone responds to a Tweet from an account with this avatar photo (of a painting, no less). First, let’s check out the responses to Tweets of mine that discuss political violence and terrorism, regardless of perpetrator identity. The second set of images consist of replies to Tweets with no connection whatsoever to terrorism and political violence. The difference – or should I say, the lack thereof – in response tone, assumptions, projections, and rhetorical attacks are quite revealing.

Tweet Topic: political violence and terrorism (regardless of perpetrator identity)

I don’t particularly feel like digging through the Tweets I’ve received concerning the execution of my friends at the hands of so-called “Islamic State,” but I will tell you that they’re especially abhorrent and – little shock – far worse when I discuss that topic under Avatar #2. I’ll just jump in with a random (and very select – I don’t have the time, energy, or website space to include the entirety of this study’s decade-long collection) assortment of responses to Tweets that address political violence, media framing of mass violence (without establishment of motive), and/or Non-State Armed Groups (regardless of perpetrator identity, alleged or confirmed).

I’m not commenting on these two sets, because they are…in a word…self-explanatory. However, I would just like to point this particular moment out – because it is unbelievably hilarious.

As an object lesson, I like to let these people make all kinds of unhinged, racist, Islamophobic, lunatic projections in public… And respond calmly, factually, and concisely. If they insist on looking ridiculous, well, okay.

Tweet Topic: no connection to political violence and terrorism

Neither photo is a “fake.” Both depict me. This years-long study is very revealing about the gendered, religious, and and ethnicity/nationality projections that structure political assumptions in the age of the Endless War on Terror.

I’ve collected responses to each Twitter profile photo for around 7-10 years now, alternating between the two to see how rabid responses are at particular political moments. Those files are so extensive that uploading them in a Twitter thread would take me all day and then some.

I trust that this extremely small sample is clear enough.

“something something iSlAmOpHoBiA iSnT rEaL”

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