A disturbing trend in fostering American-Muslim “otherness” can be seen in Simon & Schuster’s decision to create a new imprint called Salaam Reads. Targeted at age groups from early readers to young adults, it will present Muslim characters, stressing their own customs and ways, presumably to highlight their integration into our culture, not to stress Islamic theology or doctrine. If that last disclaimer is to be believed, we have to wonder why there is a necessity for a separate imprint with a guaranteed minimum of nine books a year - does Simon & Schuster have one for Catholic , Jewish or Buddhist Americans? What happened to the idea of America as the place that welcomed immigrants from all over the world so that they would have the freedom to believe and achieve what they wished, no longer bound by the strictures of birth or class structure. Are we now reverting to the notion that a Muslim child growing up in America must see her exact counterpart represented in story-books before she can feel comfortable in her own skin? According to Zareen Jaffery, the hyphenated Pakistani-American who heads the new imprint and remembers her own childhood: “I didn’t see myself reflected in books back then.” (NYT 2/25/16). Lest we forget, we are now living in the age of social media and selfies.
But beyond this rather innocuous explanation lies a more telling motive expressed by Ms. Jaffery in an online interview with storyandchai.com: “while I am answering these questions from a business perspective, it would be remiss and naïve of me not to state the obvious: racism is real. As is Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia - the list goes on.” So the emphasis for this imprint is on correcting the supposedly inaccurate image of Muslim Americans and showing them in a more positive light. This sounds very much like an agenda that might have financial backing from sources other than the publisher who isn’t generally interested in righting wrongs perceived by special interest groups.
There is a place for formulaic books that address the issues of social justice and growing up, but there used to be a wider place which was the world of imagination that encouraged a child of any religion to project himself into someone else’s world, one that was unfamiliar, distinctly unlike their home or neighborhood. It was the world of other centuries, other countries and other ways of thinking. So Catholic children could read Arabian Nights or Tales of Scheherazade without a separate imprint as its promoter and Muslim children could read about Nigger Jim or Don Quixote without Black or Hispanic imprints, and Jewish children could read The Good Earth without Chinese imprints and everyone could navigate the glorious leap across borders that literature provides.
Before there was such a thing as gender or identity politics, girls as well as boys empathized with Holden Caulfield and Tom Sawyer and if your school teacher was an Irish Catholic woman instead of a Jewish gay man, you were still able to learn American History or English Literature without wasting time looking for your duplicate image in role models. You understood the importance of stepping beyond the limitations you were born with. The concept of diversity is upended by rigid rules implying that every specific group must be literally represented in order to feel included in our society. Does a child with Down Syndrome need to see a teacher’s aide with the same condition? Must there be a picture of a boy with a yarmulke sitting in a wheelchair for a handicapped Jewish child to feel accepted? Which literary character could have inspired Helen Keller to her formidable achievements? The Amelia Bedelia world of literal comprehension is charming and instructive in books but when it takes over the mentality of educators and publishers, it becomes an inhibiting agent, robbing children of their ability to see much further than their own selves.
Simon & Schuster’s creation of a separate imprint dedicated to improving the Muslim image in America is questionable. Rather than getting involved in partisan politics, it should be publishing more books that encourage children to avoid group-think, to prize individuality and to appreciate the extraordinary diversity and freedom that come with living in this country. That is the essence of the American spirit and it applies to Muslims living here as well as everyone else.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here