Orientalism, Empire and The Racial Muslim
Overcoming Orientalism (ed. Tamara Sonn, Oxford University Press 2021)
18 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2020 Last revised: 28 Jun 2021
Date Written: January 26, 2020
To protect the security of all, we must curtail the liberty of Muslims. That is the narrative the United States government has peddled to the American public since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As a result, national security has effectively served as the pretext for myriad forms of discrimination against Muslims by public and private actors. Government countering violent extremism programs and anti-terrorism prosecutions that make no secret their focus is Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities signal to Americans it is acceptable to suspect these communities in their workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods.
This overt targeting of a religious minority reveals a glaring contradiction: Muslims are being treated with open hostility by government and private actors alike despite America’s foundational embrace of religious freedom. The reason for this, I argue, lies in the social construction of Muslims as a racial minority, rather than or in addition to being a religious minority. I call this social construction The Racial Muslim. Four factors converge to produce The Racial Muslim: 1) White Protestant Supremacy, 2) xenophobia arising from coercive assimilationism, 3) Orientalism, and 4) American empire. Each of these factors discursively defines the characteristics attributed to Racial Muslims that in turn legitimize their systematic subordination. In this chapter, I will focus on the role of Orientalism (European and American) and American imperialism in the Middle East.
I use the term ‘race’ as a concept that is socially constructed, not a biological fact. Thus, political and social contexts determine how racial categories are infused with particular meanings; and as a result the notion of race is constantly changed and reformulated based on active human agency. Under phenotypically based racialization, an individual’s skin color, hair texture, facial features, and geographic origin affect whether they are in the privileged majority or the subordinated minority. Physical features that are not “White” presenting (read: typically European) impute inferior biological traits, thereby justifying inequality in law, politics, and economics against the minority groups.
While the racial hierarchy paradigm is salient, it fails to take into account the role religion has always played in racializing immigrants in the US When religion is combined with phenotype, the individual’s religious beliefs and practices become proxies for biological traits. The more similar a particular religion is to the majority religion, Protestantism in the case of the US, the more likely superior cultural traits are imputed to that religious group, and vice versa. Hence, I argue America’s racial system, at least when it comes to Muslims, is more accurately described as a racio-religious hierarchy. The result is a racialization of a religious identity.
Although White Supremacist ideology also racialized Jews, Catholics, and Mormons, there are distinct differences in the racialization of Islam. This chapter examines three components that I contend socially construct The Racial Muslim: European Orientalism, American Orientalism, and anti-Black racism. It then focuses on a specific historical phenomenon that demonstrates the relationship between racial and religious identities — the case of Christian Arabs who stressed their religious identity to persuade judges they were “White” and thereby eligible for the naturalization.
The chapter concludes by arguing the September 11th attacks simply accelerated and entrenched a century-long process culminating in The Racial Muslim social construct.
Keywords: Racial Muslim, Islamophobia, Racialization of Religion, Islam, Muslims, 9/11, Terrorism, Arab Americans, Orientalism
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation