Laurie Toby Edison

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Race Thinking: Muslims in America

Laurie and Debbie say:

Early this month, Fatemeh Fakhraie wrote an excellent post for Racialicious. Fakhraie was reviewing Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics by Sherene H. Razack, a book we both want to read.

[Razack] first argues that Muslims are racialized through “race thinking”, which “divides up the world between the deserving and the undeserving, according to descent.”

Islam is represented in mainstream media as South/West Asian brown-skinned people who are bearded and turbaned or veiled and hidden: this racializes Islam.

There are Muslims in every country in the world, and they are all colors and sizes. But Western media representation of Islam and Muslims simplifies this world-wide group of people into one picture: that of a brown guy with a beard and a keffiyeh. His female counterpart is a brown woman with a veil. Reducing an entire group of people to these static images that have to context or history creates flat attributes (such as the incorrect assertion that West Asia = Muslim) that can be applied to anyone deemed in the “Muslim” category.

The concept of “race thinking” is an extremely important one. Every time you hear someone counter the criticism that Obama is a Muslim with “no, he’s a decent Christian,” that’s race thinking. Let’s look at Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama.

I’m also troubled by…what members of the party say, and is permitted to be said, such things as, ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’

But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’

Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.

Here’s a quotation from Razack’s book, as reproduced by Fakhraie:

“The close connections between assertions of cultural difference and racism has meant that in white societies the smallest references to cultural differences between the European majority and the Third World peoples (Muslims in particular) triggers an instant chain of associations (the veil, female genital mutilation, arranged marriages) that ends with the declared superiority of European culture, imagined as a homogenous composite of values… Culture clash, where the West has values and modernity and the non-West has culture…”

The culture clash argument uses the flat, racialized images of Muslims and puts them in inherent opposition to the West, as if all Muslims everywhere are this one way and the only possible explanation for their being “this way” is because they are Muslims and that’s “their culture.” Razack sums this up nicely: “Cultural difference, understood as their cannibalism,their treatment of women, and their homophobia, justifies the savagery that the West metes out.”

We think this points neatly to one of the most important issues about race thinking: it permits “us” first to do what Razack is discussing–generalize about a group that isn’t “us,” based on the most extreme practices of members of that group–and second to decry the behavior of “not us” as if it was something “we” are immune from. In this context, one thing that happens is a confusion between racial/cultural behavior and religious/cultural behavior. Muslims are in no way, shape, or form a “race,” and yet the cultural default is to behave as if they are. Undeniably, a characteristic of contemporary extremist fundamentalist behavior is the inexcusable mistreatment of women: whether the extreme fundamentalists are Christian, Chasidic, or Islamic will affect the shape and details of that mistreatment, but not its existence.

More from Fakhraie:

[Razack] draws great historical parallels between camp mentality in other times and what’s going on now, giving excellent analysis on how Southern plantations, Japanese internment camps, the Spanish Inquisition, etc., were earlier forms of the “race thinking” that is being enacted now in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the suspension of civil liberties of Muslims and South/West Asians in Western countries. In her comparison between Guantanamo Bay and Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, refugee camps, etc., I learned the Guantanamo Bay had previously been used as a “holding center” for Haitians deemed an HIV threat under President Clinton.

Read the whole post. Both Razack (and Fakhraie) are talking in extremely useful ways about subjects not frequently raised.

Thanks to Stefanie M. for the pointer.

2 Responses to “Race Thinking: Muslims in America”

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    The racialization of Muslims is similar to the racialization of Jews at some times and places.

  2. Nishma says:

    It is refreshing to hear this kind of a discussion about Muslims and Islam. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world…and there’s no way a group even a fraction this size could be homogenous. Moderate and liberal Muslim voices are not heard in the media because they have no entertainment value–they say things that are sane. Just try googling something like “Muslim responses after 9/11″ to see what was missing from TV and newspaper stories. Or google “Aga Khan” or “Imam Feisal Rauf” or “Queen Rania” to see what kind of work these Muslims are engaged in. What we have is not a clash of cultures but a clash of ignorance.

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