What is the logic behind a nation that was supposedly built on religious freedom principles being so eager to endorse policies that infringe civil rights of Muslims, when it can do this? That’s one of the questions at the heart of a new book, The Racial Muslim: How Racism Can Take Religion Freedom Away Sahar Aziz, Rutgers Law Professor
Racial Muslim proposes an answer: that some American politicians and institutions have perpetuated a narrative that Islam is not a religion, and thus doesn’t deserve such protections. In this view, Islam is instead a political ideology, and Muslims—in reality worshippers from diverse racial backgrounds—are viewed as a racial group, subject to racist discrimination. This is very different to religious bigotry which tends focus on theological arguments for why certain beliefs are wrong. Aziz views a situation where Muslims are given a list of negative characteristics, including the notion that Muslims are inherently unstable, violent, and untrustworthy.
Continue reading: Black Muslims and Non-Black Muslims Face a Complex Relationship with Policing & Anti-Blackness
Aziz, the founding director of Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights, draws upon her knowledge in national security and civil right to analyze the U.S. history and present Islamophobia. These have increased since 9/11. They include surveillance, government watchlists and restrictions on immigration. The author also takes a step back and compares the situation of Muslims with other religions that have faced discrimination in America such as Catholics or Mormons. The lawyer, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt when she was a child, was inspired by her own experiences to pursue a career confronting civil rights issues in the U.S. “I was indoctrinated by American schools into believing that America was special and these kinds of extreme civil rights violations didn’t happen here,” she says. “But when 9/11 happened, my entire community faced an existential crisis. We had our own human rights and civil rights problems here where we lived.”
Aziz spoke with TIME about the historical roots of Islamophobia in the U.S., the effects of viewing Muslims as a “suspect race” and the significance of the hateful comments recently made by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota).
There’s an interesting dichotomy you repeatedly describe in the book—that the same people defending religious freedoms for Christians also support violating the civil rights of Muslims through policies that discriminate against them, like intrusive surveillance measures and the ‘Muslim ban.’ Your article also discusses how some elected officials claim that Muslims should not be treated as suspects. This is because Muslims follow a political ideology. It’s not their legitimate religion. Can you please explain this?
Each country has their nationalist myths. Our nationalistic myth is that we offer refuge to religious minorities fleeing persecution. It is this belief that underlies the stories of the Puritans, and Protestants. Many of our laws offer protection for religious persecution victims, but if you take a look back at American history, you will see that many religious discrimination cases have been filed against certain groups including Jews, Catholics, and Mormons.
This was necessary to appeal to primarily Republican or evangelical Christian voters. They feel their rights to religious freedom are being under assault by the “liberal elites” when it comes time to issue related to same-sex and abortion. By fueling IslamophobiaRepublicans have put their constituents in the same dilemma. It is difficult to feel both aggrieved at the loss of religious freedom in America and support the persecution of a religious minority by supporting government policies.Either you will have to accept that you are hypocritical and lose credibility fighting for religious freedom or you will have to find ways to frame Muslims as not just a religious minority but a national security risk and suspect race.
Continue reading: ‘Who Else Is Spying on Me?’ Muslim Americans Bring the Fight Against Surveillance to the Supreme Court
You could avoid being judged if you were white before 9/11. But afterwards, Muslim identity became the dominant means by which a Muslim was racialized, meaning that phenotype—what an individual looks like—became secondary. The idea is that no matter what you look like, you’re a Muslim and we can’t trust you… The exception being for Black Muslims, for whom phenotypical Blackness dominates their racialization.
Although your book focuses on the impact of 9/11, it also discusses the historical roots of Islamophobia. Can you talk about the roles of imperialism and orientalism in creating a narrative on Muslims and explain how it excluded them from a JudeoChristian national identity.
Orientalism, American imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East were both prevalent long before 9/11. Both of these phenomena are the main drivers behind any anti-Muslim attitudes that existed before 9/11. I identify several major international events—including the creation of Israel in 1948, the Arab Israeli war in 1967 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979—as contributing to the racialization of Muslims. Each one of these events created a huge uptick in media coverage that was primarily negative about Muslims and implied that Islam motivated them to behave in what Americans believe were “barbaric” ways.
You dedicated part of your book to covering Zionism—the belief that Jewish people deserve a state—and the dehumanization of Palestinians. What happens when Muslims support Palestinian rights in the U.S.
The primarily Protestant European political elites in the U.S. during the twentieth century perceived and portrayed Palestinians as barbarians who had no rights to the land they lived on, and portrayed the European Jews coming to Israel as comparable to the Puritans—people who were chosen by God to have this land and make it bloom. Many Muslims are now critical of the Israeli government for human rights violations, just as they criticize Syrian or Iraqi regimes. However, no one speaks of being anti-Arabic or Muslim in these cases. The exceptionalism that’s granted to Israel within American politics and societySilence of Muslim political activism is a major problem, particularly when it concerns Palestinian human rights. It is a part of the story about which no one likes to speak.
Your book also reveals the history of Islam as it was practiced by enslaved Africans, and how that legacy has influenced Black Muslim Americans. This history is connected to the Nation of Islam.
Many of the African enslaved Africans brought to America were originally from West Africa where Islam has been practised for many centuries. Although it’s not possible to determine exact figures, the majority of estimates suggest that around 30% of African enslaved Africans would be Muslim. All Africans were considered barbarians by white Protestant slave owners, regardless of their faith. They also did not recognize Islam as a legitimate religion. Because enslaved people would get punished severely for practicing any religion other than Christianity, they would have had to do it in secret, but even that wasn’t sustainable. The nature of the slave trade meant people’s children were often sold off, and wives and husbands would be separated in the middle of their lives. Except for those who were trained prior to being enslaved, there were not any trained religious leaders. There wasn’t a Muslim community. They couldn’t create a mosque or pray in congregation. There was also forced conversion to Protestantism. These factors made it almost impossible for West Africa’s Islam to survive.
The Nation of Islam, which was established in the early 1900s by African Americans, was the first to adopt a Muslim identity and community. This community was formed with one purpose: to fight white supremacy, and to embrace Black nationalism. There was a spiritual element to the community. It certainly identified as Muslim, but much of the practices and some of their beliefs—for example in Elijah Muhammad being a Prophet—were considered heretical to those following Sunni and Shia Islam.
In the 20th Century, African American Muslims were considered to be particularly dangerous. They were racialized in America as part of an even more severe and deeply rooted anti-Black racism. Black Muslims were first, if they were Black. Your intersection with your Muslim identity led to you being seen as militant and particularly violent.
Last month, Rep. Boebert referred to Rep. Omar as a member of the “jihad squad” and implied that Omar could have been a suicide bomber. Omar has since held a press conference, playing a death threat she received via voicemail after Boebert’s comments. These incidents are important and so is the response.
This latest instance of politicians expressing overt Islamophobia is the most important lesson. Islamophobia does sell. It is a popular way to sell books. It is attractive to right-wing voters, and it attracts publicity that’s desired by these politicians. My book discusses how Catholics dealt with similar prejudice in the 20th century. When Al Smith ran for President in 1928, the attacks against him by opposing candidates were that he was a Catholic who couldn’t be trusted and who would never be loyal because his first loyalty was to the Pope. Americans today need to think about whether this is the country they want.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity..