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In the third episode of BR: A Political and Literary Podcast, Aziz Rana and John Bowen reflect on the prevailing climate of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe, anxieties about race and immigration, and the legal and political stakes of Trump’s election for Muslim citizens and non-citizens alike.
Avni Majithia-Sejpal: What are the central social, political, and legal practices of Islamophobia today?
Aziz Rana: With Islamophobia, a lot of the focus is on the idea that specific cultures have a particular predisposition towards violence and authoritarianism, that is towards cultural practices that are incompatible with what we think of as either liberal pluralism or Republican self-rule. These are arguments about immigrant inclusion that have longstanding purchase in the United States. The high tide of open borders for Europeans in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is also a period of really aggressive and harsh immigration policies for Asian Americans, who were viewed as culturally incapable of assimilation precisely because of various types of predispositions. At that time, Muslims were part of the same group because of the idea that either the Ottoman Empire or Islam produced specific cultures of political absolutism. There’s a kind of continuous thread that we can see between those judgments about who can be included and excluded and the kind of politics emerging in the present.
In legal and political practice, you can see how Islamophobia actually operates both at the international level of American foreign policy and at the domestic level. It is a joint project of the Democratic and Republican parties and long precedes the rise of white nationalism and Trump. So, for example, if you look at counterterrorism policy in the United States as prosecuted by both the FBI and the NYPD, a lot of the focus is on this idea of radicalization. The idea is that people from Muslim communities are inherently pre-radicalized. In other words, they are already on a path towards violence, and the way in which they get activated is through religious devotion or engaging in various forms of politicization and political dissent. And what that facilitated is an entire approach to counterterrorism that is based effectively on the mass surveillance of Muslim communities: the use of informants, the mapping of mosques, and so on. And the basic thought is essentially that when Muslims become religious or politicized, they necessarily are part of a conveyer belt toward dangerousness and threat. You see the same kind of general frame of a community as suspect and therefore legitimately subject to violence and surveillance in foreign policy.
Islamophobia is a joint project of the Democratic and Republican parties, and precedes the rise of white nationalism and Trump.
So take the example of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, etc. One thing that has been notable about the Obama administration is the fact that they have done a very poor job of keeping track of the number of civilians that have been killed. The reports about civilian causalities are incredibly small. And the argument for why these reports are so small is based on the thought that, essentially, all men that are able-bodied are potential militants. And so the premise is that the community, and particularly men in the community, are threats. You can see this even in the post-9/11 immigration sweeps that marked PENTTBOM, the investigation into 9/11 where upward of five thousand Muslim, South Asian, and Arab men were picked up and held preventively—not on terrorism charges, but essentially just because of their religion and national origin—on minor visa violations.
None of the counterterrorism policies or foreign policies that are predicated on the basic dangerousness of Muslim and Arab populations have actually been successful as a method of addressing terrorism. What they are really predicated on is a basic judgment that these communities are inherently dangerous because of their own culture and background.
AMS: You bring up two questions of assimilation and radicalization. Assimilation is perhaps a domestic question, whereas radicalization is both domestic and global. How does the War on Terror impact the legal, social, and political lives of Muslims in America?
The domestic and the foreign are deeply interconnected. For Muslims, assimilation at home is predicated on support for the national security state.
AR: I think it is really important not to separate the foreign and the domestic, or to think of radicalization as a matter of national security policy and assimilation as just a question of immigration. These two things are deeply interconnected. You can see this in Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. His effort to reach out to Muslim communities and be inclusive, as opposed to the Trump approach, was to say, “Muslims”—and here I am paraphrasing—“if you believe in freedom, if you are opposed to terrorism, come and fight with us.” And, effectively, the judgment was that assimilation is predicated on support for the national security state. And that is a really deep point. It speaks to something profound that Muslim communities are struggling with. It is not really clear that there is anything that Muslim populations can do to be fully assimilated as Americans. You can emphasize that the religion is a religion of peace, you can hold out your Constitution like Khizr Khan did at the Democratic convention. But the basic problem is really a problem about where American power operates. The relevant hot zones of American power today are in the Middle East. And as long as the United States is involved in continuous interventions that end up producing indigenous and local oppositions, creating the need for yet more efforts of pacification, you are going to inevitably have a domestic conversation along the lines of, “What is it about these communities that makes them dangerous? Why is it that they are not peaceable?” And it is really American foreign policy practices that are generating the tit-for-tat practices of violence and response.
You can tell the same story about Asians who were viewed as threats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What is it that transformed Chinese and Japanese immigrants from being seen as culturally inassimilable threats to national security to what we today describe as “model minorities”? It really had nothing to do with shifts in Chinese or Japanese culture, but instead with a shift in where American power operated. And it was the total defeat of Japan, and the shift of America’s focus from the Pacific to what ends up being the Middle East, that transformed the nature and the meaning of those communities. This really highlights that the question of assimilation is not about the intrinsic characteristics of any of these communities, but about how American global power operates to construct particular sites of instability and then justifies the exclusion of those communities based on the idea that they are responsible for that instability in the first place.
Assimilation is not about the intrinsic characteristics of any community, but about how American global power operates to construct particular sites of instability.
John Bowen: What is true for the United States is also very true for France, which is the foreign country that looks most like the United States in this respect. France had the colonial or protector status vis-à-vis much of today’s North Africa and Middle East. Decolonization did not really decolonize those relationships. It created what the French call Françafrique, French Africa, which is basically a secure zone for economic, political, and military meddling, usually involving an enormous amount of corruption. So at any given time, France has troops in Mali or fighters overhead in Libya or Syria, and this helps explain why France is a favorite target of Islamic Jihadist groups, ISIS in particular, and al Qaeda before that.
The implications or ramifications of foreign policy are going to be very different from one country to the next. In the United Kingdom the major far-right movements are not particularly against Muslims, they are against immigrants. I was startled to see that right after Brexit, the frequency of violent acts committed against foreign residents in Britain escalated enormously. But it included equal numbers of Poles and other people who are considered to be “white.” It was less about racism and more about anti-immigrant sentiment, because foreign policy and relations with the Middle East are not really as much a part of the mix in the case of Britain.
I want to talk about Islamophobia. I think there are a number of different components here, and you find them in different degrees in different countries. One is old-fashioned racism. Until 1989, people from Pakistan living in the UK were not “dirty Muslims,” they were “dirty Pakis.” They were “blacks,” and that is why they were attacked. It was pure racist sentiment and nobody really thought much about their religious preferences. After 1989, with the fatwa taken out against Salman Rushdie and other events in the Islamic world, this changed overnight. Muslims then became the subjects of attack both for racist reasons and for Islamic reasons. In the UK today, the far-right party is not really interested in Muslims or Islam per se. It is against Europe, it is against immigrants. So it is a particular constellation of things there. I would say there is Islamophobia in Britain, but with huge amounts of deep-seated racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This is also true elsewhere in Europe, but in France or the Netherlands there is also a much stronger element of anti-Islam. And so the sensitivities, the battles, the objects of the day are very specific from one country to the next.
The one element that you find all over Europe is a stand against immigrants. But I don’t think this is a current with long legs in the United States, because it is hard to argue against the basic immigrant nature of the United States.
AR: In the United States there is a clearly developed sense of national identity that is tied to this thought that nationalism and membership are not about your ethnic origins, but instead about a set of pluralistic values, beliefs, and cultural commitments. And that is bound up with what Gunner Myrdal called the “American Creed,” the notion that the country is basically open to all, and that ascriptive attributes, such as the color of your skin or your gender, should not be the basis by which you get rights. And even the kind of virulent return of xenophobia on the right pays lip service to this anti-racist language of the rejection of ascription. But what makes Islam so complicated, in the way that Catholicism was complicated in the nineteenth century, is that Islam can be read not just as a matter of ascription, but as a matter of ideology and choice.
Islam is constructed as a matter of ideology and choice.
I want to be clear, this is not the claim that Muslims are not racialized; they are deeply racialized, but the reason why the racialization can persist, despite a background of cultural judgment about the problems with racism, is because of the way in which Islam gets constructed as political ideology, like the Communists in the early Cold War period, rather than African Americans or women.
AMS: So is it at all possible for the figure of the Muslim to become assimilated into America?
AR: I think it is very hard. As part of counterterrorism policies, you have police departments that look into whether or not Muslim men change their names from Westernized names to Muslim names, and the thought is that the shift in name speaks to an engagement with the project of radicalization, to the move from that conveyer belt of being pre-radicalized to being activated as a terrorist.
But at the same time, police departments have also looked at whether or not individuals have changed their names from Muslim names to Westernized or “American” ones, based on the thought that any shift suggests an individual who is engaged in either a kind of political subterfuge or some kind of hidden practice of radicalization. What that speaks to is that Muslims are really damned if they do, damned if they don’t. So a vociferous claim to be truly American highlights the difference. Yet a willingness to participate in the politics of dissent, which is supposed to be one of the benefits that everyone gets as a citizen, also makes you suspect because, through the “material support” statute, there is effectively a First Amendment exception for Muslims who want to engage in political advocacy against American foreign policy.
For the community as a whole, removing the shadow of suspicion is just not going to happen unless there is a fundamental shift in American foreign policy and the way that American foreign policy constructs national security. Or, frankly, if the United States moves on from the Middle East to some other region as the site for its own projections of power.
AMS: Let’s talk about Khizr Khan and what he represented in this election.
AR: To me he was a very powerful figure because he highlighted the idea that what ultimately defines you as an American citizen is a commitment to a particular set of creedal values, and that those values are emblazoned in the Constitution, and that what the Constitution stands for is the fulfillment of the project expressed in the Declaration of Independence. And it was a politics that highlighted that Muslims, too, just like African Americans, like women, like members of the LGBT community, should today be included into this essentially just, liberal constitutional order.
In a way, I think it is a noble political effort, a longstanding way in which subordinated communities, most obviously members of the civil rights community, articulated their claims to equal citizenship. But I think it is basically butting up against a profound problem in the present, which is that you have an entire infrastructure that has been sustained by both political parties that is predicated on combating terrorism by presuming the inherent dangerousness of Muslims.
In a way it means that these two things are in constant tension. Even as the Obama administration, or Democrats, or more moderate Republicans, want to say that Khan’s invocation of the Constitution is worth defending, or that it is inappropriate to attack the parents of Gold Star families, it is a kind of classic distillation of Muslims becoming American by signing on to the national security state’s project, by pledging an oath of allegiance to the state and its presumptions, regardless of whether or not they are worth defending.
Khizr Khan illustrated that Muslims can become American only by signing on to the project of the national security state, by living and dying for it.
But then you still have this massive background and institutional infrastructure of the legal construction of the community, through the “material support” statute, the use of informants to essentially concoct terrorism cases and then try individuals who have been entrapped, the judgments about the appropriateness of mass violence in the Middle East through drone strikes, and the administration’s unwillingness to take seriously public efforts to investigate torture tactics of past administrations. This sustained infrastructure casts the entire community in suspicion. The very terms by which somebody like Khan is attempting to assert inclusion are terms that are grounded in pledging allegiance to the project of the security state, which is precisely the project that constructs the community as a threat.
So that is really the frame for both the Khan speech and, in my view, the Clinton speech. It says that the way that Muslims can show that they can be American is by fighting and dying on behalf of the security state. And that is the kind of claim that we don’t make of other citizens. It is an interesting thing that for large portions of the country—and I can’t say everybody—but part of the proof that you are a real American is the right to engage in dissent, to participate in antiwar protests, to challenge the legitimacy of the Vietnam War. Citizenship is bound up with political awareness and engagement. And that is precisely the opposite of the terms by which citizenship is understood for Muslim communities. For them, dissent is not a proof of good membership, dissent is a proof of threat.
Populations that are viewed as dangerous or unruly have been subject to management by similar massive coercive institutions: the prison system for African Americans and the surveillance system for Muslims.
AMS: What is the relationship of the Muslim minority to other minorities, such as African Americans? How do their respective relationships to the U.S. state differ?
AR: I think that as a matter of official ideology, the big difference is the tension between exclusion based on ascription and exclusion based on ideology or political choice, and the ways in which religion is deconstructed as a kind of choice. It creates the conditions for politics that, during the early days of the Obama administration, people were referring to as “post-racial.” In other words, you could imagine a story of African American inclusion based on the idea that nobody should be marked because of characteristics they cannot control.
But there are also these deep, underlying continuities. One is that the basic infrastructure of racism in the United States has long been bound to assertions about the cultural unfitness and cultural predispositions of a variety of different communities. So the racialization of Muslims obviously follows patterns that we have seen with communities such as African Americans.
In the present, even if there is this distinction between ascription and ideological choice, what are the institutions that are the primary structural forces of racial control that mark both of these communities? The central institution is the prison. You can tell a story about how populations that are viewed as dangerous or unruly have found themselves subject to management by massive coercive institutions: either the prison system for African Americans or the police surveillance system for Muslims. The reasons why these populations are constructed as unruly might be different, but there are clear continuities in the coercive apparatus that applies across these various types of dispossessed communities.
JB: In many ways one can look at Muslims in France, for very historical, economic, and sociological reasons, as occupying the same place as African Americans in the United States. Algeria is the largest source of Muslims in France; they were brought over in large numbers after World War II to work as unskilled laborers in factories. Algeria was not a colony in France. Algeria was technically a part of France, but was in some ways like the rural South in the United States. It was a large agricultural area that Europeans were encouraged to colonize. They expropriated the land of native Algerian people. And the Algerian War fought in the 1950s and early 1960s was experienced in France somewhat the same way as the Civil War in the United States, as a war of separation by part of the country. The Algerians who ended up in France after World War II and after the Algerian War were less educated and much less well off than are other Frenchmen. Those North African, and to some degree West African, immigrants make up large percentages of people in French prisons. We do not have very good statistics on this, but one person estimated that the overrepresentation of Muslims in French prisons is actually greater than the overrepresentation of African Americans in American prisons. It may be because only a few prisons are highlighted in these studies, but it is certainly the case that large percentages of prisoners in French prisons today are Muslim. There are people who are there for a number of reasons: some combination of police repression and racism. The unemployment rates in places where most people of North African backgrounds live are similar to those experienced by African Americans in American inner cities. So the reasons for this overpopulation are somewhat similar in the two cases. The more that Muslims get racialized in France, the more they risk becoming a sort of permanent subclass, where the ascription of inferior characteristics, of bodily characteristics—a tendency to have too many kids, a tendency to be lazy, and so on—start to resemble the kinds of characteristics ascribed to and on the bodies of African Americans, especially men. So it has become a problem of racial integration in France over time. So the analogy between French Muslims and African Americans, provocative though it is, can be useful for rethinking these things.
Studies suggest that the Muslim overrepresentation in French prisons is greater than the overrepresentation of Africans Americans in American prisons.
AMS: Aziz, I am interested in asking you about pluralism and the American tradition of secularism.
AR: I would say that the American approach to free exercise and religious pluralism is a tool that is part of the story about why Muslims have generally been better integrated in the United States than in places such as France. There is a problem in the United States with mass shootings and mass violence, but that is a general American problem. The specific problem of organized political opposition taking the form of violent attacks on civilians that are actually affiliated with groups internationally—that is essentially a non-problem in the United States despite the kind of hysteria and fabrication around lone shooters. And part of the reason why it is a non-problem is that the United States has its own particular tradition of secularism. The tradition of secularism is predicated on opposition to the idea that there should be any established religion, and so there should be space for different religions, and for people to exercise their own religious practices. What it means is that, for example, if there was something like a hijab ban, or a straightforward religious ban on Muslims coming into the United States, as a matter of constitutional law and practice this would be out of step with decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence. It would violate both the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment.
Now that is actually different from the story about secularism in places such as France, where secularism is a radical critique of allowing religion in any form in the public space, the version of Laïcité that is predicated on thinking of the church as connected to the crown.
The American tradition of secularism provides the legal infrastructure to contest some of the worst policies that could come to pass under Trump.
The American tradition creates openness and space for Muslim communities to worship, and it also provides legal infrastructure to contest some of the worst policies that we can imagine during a Trump administration. But there is a larger problem within which the American commitment to pluralism is embedded, and it is the fact that we now have two-plus decades of laws such as the “material support” statute and counterterrorism or foreign policy practice that are predicated not on an individualized assessment of threat—is “x” person actually involved in some plot—but on a general policy of surveillance. And again, this general policy of surveillance really has not worked, and part of why it has not worked is because there are not really threats to uncover domestically. But this also cuts against the tradition of pluralism and openness because it presumes that membership in the group makes you a threat, and moreover, that membership in the group is a kind of choice, so you can be targeted for being a member of the group in a way that perhaps you can’t be targeted based on traditional criteria of race or gender.
JB: There is a difficulty when you use the term secularism to talk about a whole range of societies, because each one has such a different conception of the proper relations between the state and public life and people’s religious practices. The differences are very consequential for religious minorities in particular.
In France there is a belief, as in the United States, in the separation of church and state. But there really is tight state control on religious behavior and even religious signs in the public sphere. I think everybody knows about the ban on headscarves in public schools legislated in 2004. This has been expanded to include other local policies or directives or practices; forbidding, for example, mothers wearing headscarves to accompany their children on school outings. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was just defeated in the primary elections on the right in France, has said that Muslims should not be offered a non-pork option in school cafeterias because it recognizes their religion. This is a sort of torturous logic, but it goes to show that the major concern in France is for the non-contamination of public life by religion, rather than the protection of the rights and freedoms of religious groups.
In France secularism is this desire to have a complete erasure of religion from public view, whereas in Britain secularism refers to a completely different set of affairs. There is the state church, although that means very little. But where it does have an impact in everyday life is that it is considered to be quite normal for religions to have a claim on public affairs and even public money. So in Britain the government can fully subsidize a public school that discriminates against people of other religions. There can be a public school that will not admit people whose religion is not Anglican, or who cannot demonstrate that they are regular attendees of the Church of England. That is the most tangled relationship of the state to religious education that I know of anywhere in Western Europe or North America. Of course, in the United States we have prohibitions against excessive entanglements that are very different from Britain. But on the other hand we have much more acceptance of religious signs in public life. There is a fair amount of sloppiness in terms of a boundary between the states or government or political life on the one hand and religion on the other. Secularism really has no meaning anymore. The way it works out, and actually affects people’s lives, is so different even just across these three countries.
In France, secularism is the desire for a complete erasure of religion from public life.
AMS: Let us conclude with the upcoming elections in France.
JB: Well, all over Europe actually. There is a worrying resemblance between what has happened in the United States, Brexit, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, the near-victory of a far-right candidate in Austria, threats to Angela Merkel’s coalition in Germany, and so on. None of these elections bode well for Muslims for various reasons, either because they tap into—and thereby legitimate—sheer racism, or because they tap into anti-immigrant fears, or because they tap into attacks on the European project. These are three areas in which minority groups, Muslims, and other vulnerable minorities have to fear the rise of the far-right in Europe.
John Bowen is an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis. He has traveled the world, from Indonesia to France, exploring Islamic practice and the reception of Muslim immigrants in a wide variety of social contexts. He is the author of the Boston Review Book Blaming Islam.
Aziz Rana is Professor of Law at Cornell University and author of The Two Faces of American Freedom.
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