Islamophobia plays out today as a mainstream feature of American politics, a favorite song recited again and again by policymakers and pundits. Back in 2012, the comedian Stephen Colbert joked that anytime Fox News needed a scandal to help fill air time, they could just “smash the glass and pull out the emergency Muslims.” More recently, a 2018 study from investigative reporters Hannah Allam and Talal Ansari found “dozens” of examples of Republican politicians “publicly attacking Islam” at all levels of government across 49 states, often without any repercussions. That report, which considered statements made around the 2016 election, would have found similar results even if it had looked much farther back in time. As scholars like Nazia Kazi and Yassir Morsi clearly demonstrate, bigotry aimed at Muslims has been central in American politics and culture for decades. As Kazi pointedly explains in Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics, “The Trump victory was the culmination of America” (2018: 100, emphasis in original). It’s not like Islamophobia became a major issue all of a sudden with the 2016 election campaign.
One particularly disturbing bigoted statement from before the Trump Era, uttered by an elected official, came back in September 2014. John R. Bennett, a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, declared at a public forum that Islam is a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” Widely accused of spreading racist bigotry, Bennett defended himself by insisting that because Islam is not a racial category, his ideas could not be racist:
If I’m an Islamophobe for speaking the truth about Islam, then you’re absolutely right. But I find it hard to believe. How can I be racist against Muslim[s] or Islam when the ethnicity is actually Arab? This is kind of confusing.
The maneuver Bennett makes here is familiar—it is the “anything but race” excuse identified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, used to explain away even obvious racism. If there is any possible explanation for bigotry, even a ridiculous one, that gives people a chance to deny the existence of racism in the contemporary United States, then many Americans will readily accept it. To assert his genocidal ideology, Bennett can rely on a “confusing” mishmash of identity categories, insisting that it is not “racist” to discuss the religion of Islam or the Arab “ethnicity.” This Oklahoma lawmaker would go on to serve another four years after this controversy, successfully marshalling a “religious freedom” bill through the legislature. The irony of Bennett standing as a champion of “religious freedom” while also calling for Islam to be “cut out” of America did not seem to register to the voters in his district.
These hateful remarks serve as a perfect illustration of the “racial paradox.” The reason that Bennett and his ilk—including President Donald J. Trump—can pretend that their rhetoric and policy proposals are not racist is because of a collective failure in America to recognize that a longstanding racialization affects many Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, and other groups. The effects wrought by this failure can only be described as catastrophic. Morsi reveals how “post-racial” discourses of border control, immigration, and “moderate” Islam all weave together to support numerous colonial and racist projects. Wars and violent suppression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and so many other places; systems of torture and incarceration; surveillance and pre-emptive prosecutions; and, yes, the “Muslim Ban” and the sweeping, draconian enforcement of “immigration” policies through raids, deportation, and violence; all of these and more result from the failure to recognize what should be obvious: racism. These are the fruits of the deadly racial paradox, sustained as it is by the “post-racial,” facially color-blind rhetoric that emerged amid the retrograde reaction to mid-twentieth century civil rights reforms.
This racial paradox presents a clear and present racial dilemma for scholars, advocates, and policymakers. How can these racist projects be indicted and redressed? Can a softer post-racial approach—one that builds upon “American ideals”—bring about a new era that rejects the expansion of war, torture, and incarceration across the last several decades? This has been the approach for many civil rights advocates in the twenty-first century. These advocates have often presented their constituents as Americans first, with all the rights, privileges, liberties, and responsibilities appertaining thereunto. Rather than confront the existence of racism head-on, these advocates have played along with the “anything but race” mainstream, pointing to cherished (and popular) American ideals like religious freedom, honest work, and patriotism as the pathway to fuller citizenship.
Some advocates in the 2010s, however, have followed the scholarship of Kazi, Morsi, and others to the conclusion that only a direct confrontation with racism can turn us away from Orientalism, Islamophobia, and endless war. These racial progressives emphasize the connections between proposals to ban Muslims and efforts to suppress communities of color. This requires explaining that, yes, Islam is not a racial category, but Muslims are racialized and marginalized. The risk with this dilemma, however, can be seen by recalling a truism in politics: explaining is losing. Can racial progressives find victory if they have to “swim upstream” to reveal the racism that should be obvious? Because the conventional wisdom holds that Muslims do, in fact, possess some special characteristics that make them stand apart, making the simple claim that Muslims should not face discrimination is already a monumental challenge. The best strategy for achieving the goal of anti-racist advocacy has not yet been discovered, especially with respect to the communities most affected by Islamophobia.
It is, in large part, the failure of mainstream scholarship that allowed this racial dilemma to overwhelm civil rights advocates for so long. If there had been more acceptance, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, of the implications of Orientalism on racial politics, then perhaps civil rights advocates working on behalf of Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian American communities would have found more success as the Islamophobia crises continued to spiral out of control. Make no mistake: these crises began as early as the 1970s, as the federal government began constructing targeted surveillance programs, specifically discriminating against Arab Americans. Mainstream American scholarship failed to notice as more discriminatory policies and programs were rolled out, and as stereotypical portrayals in mainstream culture went largely unchallenged. Indeed, well before the “War on Terror” was formally inaugurated, Arab American scholars like Nadine Naber wrote about the “invisibility” of these racialized communities in the American racial imaginary and within scholarly analyses of racism and oppression. Despite the pioneering work of scholars like Naber and Edward Said, among many others, most academic disciplines and leading scholars steadfastly ignored the ongoing racialization and oppression of these communities.
Fortunately, the 2010s saw a breakthrough where the racism within Islamophobia has finally been recognized in the academic mainstream. The belated discussions about the nature of this racialization—rather than debating over its mere existence—have opened additional avenues that need to be urgently explored. For example, Hisham Aidi considers the role of international statecraft, race, and religion in the development of “rebel music,” especially hip-hop, amongst Muslim communities around the world. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer engages the connections between music, race, and religion while exploring the connections between Blackness, policing and Muslim American communities. Kazi and Morsi both conclude their recent books with a call to search even farther for new pedagogies and new narratives. Despite the recent breakthroughs, Morsi has no illusions of finding an easy path to hope and change:
[Frantz] Fanon insists in the need of losing himself in negritude. The purpose of this immersion is not to assert some lost stable racial cultural self-identity. Rather it empowers the first steps towards a radical political challenge against oppression. Colonized intellectuals must engage in the process of decolonization to paradoxically create some distance from the colonial system. (143)
Kazi agrees, adding that radical ideas are not “pie-in-the-sky delusions” if they can lead activists to disrupt vicious cycles of violence, the political seesaw between Democratic and Republican parties, and unreasonable demands for “practical” solutions to impractical problems.
Only by recognizing the dangers of racism can Islamophobia lose its destructive place of privilege as a popular (and successful) political tool in America. While scholarship has begun to illuminate the connections between racism and anti-Muslim discrimination, policymakers have not slowed down. After the egregiously racist “Muslim Ban” was imposed, a much-needed reform to the Census was abruptly cancelled by the Trump administration. This change to the 2020 Census would have added a “Middle Eastern/North African” ancestry category. Such a category would have enabled more scholarship and provided additional resources for communities deeply affected by Islamophobia. The years of work done by scholars and advocates to establish that category was wiped away, because, the chief of the Census’s population division said, “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”