Seven years ago, Brian Klug wrote a telling review in the journal Ethnicities. His “Islamophobia: A Concept Comes of Age” introduced me – a PhD student at the time – to the growing and winding debate about Anti-Muslim racism and its resistance. I have since spent years navigating both the racism and the debate; witnessing tragedy and violence; tracing its pleasures and pains; exploring philosophical arguments, theological debates, and literary disputes.
Klug reviewed six books and declared that the term Islamophobia had “come of age”. He meant it functions as an organizing principle for further scholarship and research. Time has shown Klug to be right. Islamophobia as a concept brings together different trajectories and actors to converge upon a discussion about its meaning and its impact. I recall Klug because when reading two recent books – Nazia Kazi’s Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics and Erik Love’s Islamophobia and Racism in America – I asked myself what age comes after the coming of age? Where does the scholarly debate go next?
On this, Love’s Islamophobia and Racism in America calls for us to engage in a particular way of “calling out” Islamophobia, a way to interpellate us into an anti-racist collective. He advocates a race-conscious strategy, one that recognizes how collective racial identity opens opportunities “for coalition building and dynamic advocacy strategies”. He wants us to bring “additional support from a broader community of racially marginalized communities” (23). But this calling out depends on us recognizing the role of race, for only such recognition would allow us the use of “the powerful moral language of civil rights”. (26)
Love’s chapter “The Racial Paradox” is thus crucial. His use of racial formation theory strengthens the historical connection between racism, resisting the category of race, and civil rights advocacy. Racial formation theory holds that American economic and political forces constructed racial categories. Here, Love builds upon Omi and Winant to suggest that “discursive racial projects – the stories we tell one another, the things we say in casual conversation, and the rhetoric amplified in mass media – all contribute to racism” (67). That is to say, the stories we tell work to (re)produce the structures of oppression and domination.
The issues of storytelling and a raised racial consciousness bring us nicely to Nazia Kazi’s opening few pages, where she calls for the nation’s undoing of a “learned ignorance” about American racism, where she describes the purpose of her book, “No, I am not telling a story about what it is like to be Muslim in America, for there exists no such story.”
I will admit Kazi’s sentence gave me pause. I’m not exactly sure why. I can only jot down my thoughts in a haphazard way and hope my reader can derive from my notes more sense than I intended. I think it is because of the word “story”. Most of my academic work pursues storytelling as a creative non-fiction middle finger to established social science methodologies, and as a way to resist the dry aesthetic of analytics and the imperial academic gaze that anthropologies Muslims. To be sure, I do not believe in the Muslim’s story as an act of anti-racism; I believe the Muslim as a storyteller is anti-racism, ontologically at least.
Intuitively I knew Kazi’s meaning was not about this. It was about the ontic Muslim. I knew why she would resist the Orientalist idea that the Muslim can form a singular experience or a single story. But here lies an opportunity, for I believe if we place Kazi in conversation with Love then we can tell a story, we can tell one about the lack of one, about the subjectivities caught in the webs of racism; about surviving, negotiating, losing, gaining, repressing, sublimating, hoping and grieving; a story about resisting the racial formation while carrying them, stories about being Othered while refusing Otherness.
Indeed, Kazi’s book Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics is itself a wonderful and broad overview of the Muslim as a story of the Other. The book sheds light on the experiences of American Muslims who face Islamophobia in the U.S and the ways they must confront or rise above the “learned ignorance” of white America. We all do it differently, but we all have to do it.
As I write this last sentence, and mouth it out loud, I realise both authors perhaps have a main aim. They confront the historical persistence of an evolving racism that won’t leave people of colour alone. Both books do well to highlight how Islamophobia impacts Muslims and Others. Both tell us of the generational and present pain it inflicts. Both, reading beneath this pain, infer Islamophobia is also a form of enjoyment for many in the West. On this point, I have long since believed any definition of Islamophobia must refer to both an excessive pleasure and pain.
The pleasure comes from the exercise of nationalism that twists into an enjoyable articulation of “us”, not them. It turns into a war-like roar of what it means to be Western, Christian, American, whatever. For Islamophobia’s attraction is not a moral or rational one. The uneven and unbearable intensity of its persistence aims to privilege “learned ignorance” because it feels good. Note how many white nationalists speak about the presence of Muslims as their unique cultural agony, speak as if Muslims are a perverse extension of the newest white man’s burden. Yet it is this agony that makes white nationalists feel more American. It makes them feel more present, more in tune with what makes their way of life worth living and dying for. It is dealing with this nationalist fever, this excess beyond the given, which anti-racist activists will find difficult. In the same way we cannot resist addiction by weighing pros and cons, we must recognise America’s drug is its racism, manifest in the hubris of “make America great again”.
I must confess: for me, both books are a touch too American, not only in their context but also in the works they cite. If someone cites Khaled Beydoun and not Salman Sayyid then I feel they let their readers down, mostly because this is a tragedy born from the genius of American marketing. Beydoun says nothing new for scholars who have read. He does not stretch our imagination. On the other hand, Sayyid’s work is not only seminal, but always creative and ought to be essential. It leads, where Beydoun follows. Readers of Love’s book, for instance, would benefit greatly with Sayyid’s engagement some ten years ago with Barnor Hesse on the colonial histories interlinking racism with Islamophobia. Their discussion of Europeanness as a pillar of racial modernity, of Islamophobia’s place within the post-racial, and Hesse’s criticism of Omi and Winant’s adoption of Western subjectivities is essential reading to take our conversations beyond the West.
If Islamophobia is a global phenomenon, as both Love and Kazi will agree, then so too is its resistance. So, too, are its victims, and its scholars. I am not being parochial, I hope. But I am not really interested in making America great again or following Hamza Yusuf’s call to tell the Muslim as an American story (not that Kazi is either when she cites him on this). I wondered how that would help anyone. Indeed, Kazi’s book continually, refreshingly, highlights the traps of defensive Muslim responses such as Yusuf’s. Similarly, I whispered “who cares” that Jefferson owned a Quran and found myself asking a friend “how is telling an American Muslim story going to undo the material oppression that comes from the U.S.’s support of the Saudis? How will it liberate Yemeni lives?” This is where my own political commitments lie.
I believe there is a lot to hear from other Muslims that we, in the West, may Other when we centre the specifically American or Western story of Islamophobia; a lot to hear about us as Western subjects and our own implicit support for global structures of racism. Perhaps the decolonial age must come after the coming of age.
So much of the literature – including my own work – is about Muslims in the West. Why? I believe we must expand our stories, moving beyond the centre, telling them from below, broadening not only our discussion, but our methodologies, beyond the epistemic racism found in the US social sciences, beyond the West altogether, beyond disciplines, beyond the boundaries set by the doomed project of curing America from its addictions.
I am not saying that either Love or Kazi champions the West. I know they know, and their work highlights, that Islamophobia hits everywhere. Yes, it may typically strike at the centre of a Muslim’s being. It does so to further disrupt and violate our balance and narratives about who we are, but also about where we are and our proximity to the centre. I wish to say it this way, Islamophobia de-centers people of colour, and critics of Islamophobia must de-center whiteness in kind.
Both Love and Kazi are correct to highlight whiteness as a problem, correct to bring the issue of Islamophobia into a necessary conversation with a violent and wide-reaching history of racism and colonialism. Their books had me nod plenty of time, jot down examples, understand a little more about the American context and its resistances. But, at the same time, we scholars who are in the west, but not of the west, must all recognize that whiteness produces certain US and European centered views about human struggle, about the sites of racism. And, I believe for Islamophobia as a concept to further come of age our critiques must incorporate more de-centering, more dis-orientation of the west.