Islamophobia and Political Theology

Body Politics, Traditions

This round robin symposium showcases the work of three emerging leaders in scholarly research on Islamophobia: a political theorist, an anthropologist, and a sociologist. They each share a commitment to challenge injustice through scholarship even as they differ in approach.

Islamophobia is a set of beliefs and practices that devalue all that is associated with Islam, from individual Muslims to Islamic beliefs to culture and history associated with “the Muslim world.” These beliefs and values circulate through affective pathways. Fear, anger, and desire attach to those objects associated with Islam. Affect is contagious, flowing through physical proximity but always, also, through media: from newspaper to television to Twitter.

Where do these affects come from? One story has it that they derive from other affects: existential anxiety made more acute by economic insecurity, cultural change, and the desiccation of genuine social networks is calmed by shared feelings toward a distant object, Islam. Simply put, you can stop worrying about how precarious your life is if you focus your affective energies on despising Islam. Instead of recognizing the roots of precarity, and the shared nature of that precarity, you come to participate in a shared set of feelings about Islam. Instead of naming and fighting the forces of capitalism that break down social relations and deny humanity, Islamophobia offers an opiate, a simulacrum of collectivity that blocks efforts to realize genuine, democratic, humane collectivity.

Islamophobia is racism: an assertion that should be read as what Hegel called a speculative identity, certainly true and also certainly false – and thus an invitation to further investigation animated by this paradox. Working the paradox cannot occur solely in the realm of the conceptual, even as it is announced in concepts. Rather, we must think concepts and the complications of the world together, attention to each allowing us to attend better to the other.

Islamophobia “others” and racism “others.” Each dehumanizes by means of devaluing all that is associated with the “other,” making it possible to treat those human beings associated with Islam or with a non-white race as less than human. But the concepts are murky, particularly when we think globally. As social movement leaders and scholars have argued in the US, the specificity of anti-Black racism, born of chattel slavery, and the specificity of anti-indigenous racism, born of the genocide of Native peoples, is lost when these topics are discussed under the umbrella of racism. So, too, is the specificity of nativism and anti-immigrant feeling that blends with racism in the US social imaginary with respect to Latinx and Asian American communities – and that once afflicted certain European American immigrants. Similarly, Islamophobia manifests quite different in South Asia, Europe, Israel, and North America, with each case conjugating differently issues of immigration, class, “terrorism,” and color.

Yet insisting on the identification of Islamophobia and racism is urgent, and not just for reasons of political expedience. Equating the two reminds us of how systems of domination interlock and transform. Those accustomed to one form of racism (anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, say) have their affective circuitry configured in such a way that Islam can quickly attract fear, hatred, and desire, even as deeper historical currents of anti-Islamic thought and practice also play a role in the constitution of contemporary Islamophobia. This explains how, as Nadia Marzouki has put it, Muslims in Europe could rapidly shift from “the figure of the citizen-in-training” to “a monstrous silhouette,” and in the US, with equal rapidity, there developed a “habit of questioning the behavior of all Muslims and deploring their lack of sensitivity and compassion.”

Even formulating these questions implicates us in the terms of domination, for we cannot now think “the Muslim” or “Islam” independent of Islamophobia.

What does Islamophobia, in its current configuration, mean for the Muslim herself, or for the religion of Islam? Even formulating these questions implicates us in the terms of domination, for we cannot now think “the Muslim” or “Islam” independent of Islamophobia (which itself is, of course, layered on top of other forms of domination, including colonialism as it founds the discourse on world religions). So we are asking about the impossible, which does not mean our question is illegitimate, nor does it mean that the question cannot be fruitfully pursued. Saba Mahmood evocatively pointed to the way US national interests attempt to mold Islamic hermeneutics, supporting some methods and sullying others with the hint of terrorist associations. Mahmood Mamdani probes the Western imperative to separate “good” from “bad” Muslims and the affects this has on those on whom this division is imposed. And Yassir Morsi draws on the resources of decolonial theory to reflect on his own experiences attempting to speak from the impossible position of the Muslim.

As a package of affects attached to objects associated with Islam, Islamophobia blurs identity, culture, and religion. Each counts as an object associated with Islam, and as they blur together they form the meaning of Islam. While naming these slippages is productive, the scholar ought not to set about disaggregating identity, culture, and religion, for these categories themselves are the products of the operations of power. Instead, critical scholarship ought to tell stories that expose structures of domination and habits of complacency – and attending to the theological, to political theology, is one tool for such storytelling.

Critical scholarship ought to tell stories that expose structures of domination and habits of complacency – and attending to the theological, to political theology, is one tool for such storytelling.

Consider this story: once upon a time, Christianity constituted itself in opposition to Judaism. Judaism was about law, about bodies, about worldly things; Christianity is about grace, about spirit, about the otherworldly. Supersessionism: Christianity can speak about law, bodies, and the world, but as part of a larger, more complete, more compelling narrative. While this is what supersessionism looks like in the realm of ideas, in the realm of practice it looks like anti-Semitic violence: the domination and death of Jews. Judaism, and Jews, can and should be discarded. In the New World, Christian supersessionism, as a logic of domination, was reconfigured, with Europe and whiteness in the privileged position, Native communities and Blackness in the denigrated position, those following old law in need of violent control or extermination. Today, this logic repeats, with a difference. The structure of supersessionism applied to Jews, then Native peoples, then Blacks, is now applied to Muslims, but with particular virulence because of its foundational instability. For the timeline does not hold: Christianity did not supersede Islam but the other way around, the calendar implies, and this puts white-European-Christianity in an awkward position, compounding the anxiety motivating Islamophobia and so the fear, hatred, and desire directly at objects associated with Islam.

Here is one approach to discussing Islamophobia: telling stories of domination. But where does this leave the storyteller? Is she forced into self-hatred, either as a self-hating white-European-Christian, inescapably implicated in domination that she can now name, or as a self-hating Muslim, now fully aware of the impossibility of that position, and the impossibility to speak that impossibility? Some scholars have approached from the other direction, not from concepts but from practices, turning to textured accounts of Islamic piety on the ground as a means of attacking (Western-secularist-liberal) domination, but this would seem to participate in precisely the same affective circuitry that gives rise to Islamophobia. After all, fear, hatred, and desire are closely connected affects, and the desire for redemption – for another sort of cultural and political supersession – in Islamic piety when held at an arm’s length, its normative force bracketed, looks suspiciously like the mirror image of the virulent Islamophobe’s hatred of Islamic piety. (Michel Houellebecq plays out the possible consequences of this antinomy in his novel Submission.)

One response to such worries would be to embrace the pragmatic. We face Islamophobia today, and we need tools to dismantle it now. We will always be implicated in systems of domination, our reasons and affects always hopelessly distorted. The most we can do is organize against an immediate, violent threat, leaving aside broader questions of self and world. Yet if it is injustice that motivates us, and justice that we demand, a justice that can only occur in a world radically different from ours, unthinkable from ours, we must find some way to stand in relation to justice. If we do not, we end up with (to paraphrase Marx’s reflections “On the Jewish Question”), political emancipation but not human emancipation – which, in this context, may look like Muslims free to be liberal, Western, capitalist, white subjects, in other words, not free at all.

Political theology names the aspiration for politics to be motivated by a commitment to justice irreducible to the world we inhabit, chock-full of interlocking systems of domination.

Political theology names the aspiration for politics to be motivated by a commitment to justice irreducible to the world we inhabit, chock-full of interlocking systems of domination. Political theology finds in religious traditions resources for this task of thinking the impossible, of being guided by the impossible. This task goes hand-in-hand with naming systems of domination, and with organizing against systems of domination. With respect to Islamophobia, the project of political theology may turn to vernacular experts, such as the many Black Muslims incarcerated in the US over the past half century organizing behind bars against racial, religious, colonial, and capitalist domination. It may turn to organic intellectuals such as Sadri Khiari and Houria Bouteldja who are examining the interconnection of secularism, colonialism, racism, and the indignities of daily life as minoritized subjects in France. Or it may turn to the moving reflections, in poetry and prose, emerging from those incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay.

This round robin symposium showcases the work of three emerging leaders in scholarly research on Islamophobia, each of whom has published a book on Islamophobia in the last couple years. One is a political theorist, another an anthropologist, and another a sociologist. They each share a commitment to challenge injustice through scholarship even as they differ in approach. Each was invited to use the books of the other two, as well as their own research, to discuss Islamophobia today, both as a phenomenon in the world and as a scholarly object of study. We invite readers to reflect on how conversations about political theology might be broadened if these voices and themes are considered part of the field, even central to the field.

Symposium Essays

Yassir Morsi

Decolonizing a Concept Come of Age

For Islamophobia as a concept to further come of age our critiques must incorporate more de-centering, more dis-orientation of the west.

Nazia Kazi

Troubling Islamophobia: Redefining the Conversation on Anti-Muslim Violence

Without a sustained focus on material inequalities and repressive state power, the conversation on Islamophobia too easily slips into a mealy-mouthed appeal to diversity and tolerance.

Erik Love

Islamophobia: The Racial Paradox

The racial paradox presents a clear and present racial dilemma for scholars, advocates, and policymakers. How can Islamophobia be indicted and redressed?