Reviewed by Salman Adil Hussain
A few days after 9/11, Mark Stroman walked into a Dallas petrol pump and shot the attendant, Rais Bhuyian, in the face. Before pulling the trigger, he asked the Bangladeshi immigrant where he was from. His answer did not matter. Bhuyian survived, but not Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant whom Stroman had shot a few days earlier. A few days later, he would kill again. This time it was an Indian immigrant, Vasudev Patel. All three of his victims worked at convenience stores. All three were South Asian immigrants. After his arrest, Stroman boasted of being the “Arab Slayer” avenging 9/11.
“Islamophobia is a gloss for the anti-Muslim racism that collapses numerous groups in the single category ‘Muslim’” argues Junaid Rana in his book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora. ‘The Muslim’ in his analysis is not simply the followers of Islam, but “a category that encompasses many nationalities, social and cultural practices, religious affiliations (from Muslim Sunni and Shia to Christian, Sikh, and Hindu) and social realities, that, through the process of state and popular racialisation, is generalised.” Rana’s argument is not that Muslims are targeted as a religious group, but as a racialised social group. According to Rana, “the process of racialising Islam through social identities takes place through a kind of translation of the body and its comportment via a combination of identifiers, such as dress, behaviour, and phenotypic expression.” As the ‘Arab Slayer’ shootings highlight, the anti-Muslim violence does not target only Muslims or Arabs. “Race is tied to terror and migration precisely through the conjuring of an enemy,” writes Rana, such that “the terrorist militant and the labour migrant become the racialised ‘Muslim’ in contradistinction to the White European or American Christian.” This conjured figure of ‘the Muslim’ is central to the system of policing Arab, Muslim and South Asian migrants “crafted through a broad logic of anti-immigrant racism.”
While many social groups are racialised as “Muslim,” they are racialised through different processes and histories. In the case of the racialisation of Pakistani immigrants in the US for instance, notions about region and religion play an important role. South Asia is considered synonymous with India such that “India is Bollywood and technology; Pakistan is terror and trouble.” Because of notions about religion, Pakistan is as if surgically removed from the ambit of culture and politics of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan in this imagination, Rana writes, “seems to have shifted geographically to become part of the Middle East. In fact, in the global war on terror, the Muslim world is increasingly imagined as a single geopolitical mass.” This is so because the “conceptions of globalised racism are based in the circulation of specific racialised regionalisms that imagine the Muslim world as connected and interdependent.” This homogenised ‘Muslim world’ “in turn, is imagined as part of a geography that connects migratory networks of Muslim countries to the metropoles of Northern countries in the global economy,” and within it, Pakistan is defined as a “feeder state”: an exporter of terrorism. Pakistani immigrants in the US, while classified as South Asian, are understood as Middle Eastern (Arab, in racial terms) because of their religion. This conflation of histories and geographies produces a visible target: the terrorism-virus carrying Muslim migrant.
Rana explains anti-Muslim racism by examining the place the figure of the Muslim occupies in the Euro-American imagination. This figure, he contends, is constructed as a threat to white Christian supremacy and in relation to the anti-Jewish racism “by employing a racial logic that crosses the cultural categories of nation, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality.” Instead of discussing how the category of race is deployed in Islamophobic discourses, Rana explicates the “modern history of the race concept in relation to Islam” to shed light on how “‘Muslim’ in the US is simultaneously a religious category and a category that encompasses a broad concept of race that connects a history of Native America to black America and immigrant America in the consolidation of anti-Muslim racism.” Rana locates the starting point of the racialisation of Islam in the birth of what we now call racism, in the 14th and 15th century anti-Semitism of the Reconquista that targeted both Jews and Muslims. Religion, as conceived at that time, constituted much more than what in modern times is thought of as merely belief. It was considered something innate, on the basis of which people were mapped onto a socio-cultural hierarchy. The Moors and Spanish Jews were cleansed through conversion, and tests of purity of blood figured prominently in this process. Here we see the coming together of the cultural notions of religion and bounded kinship, which Rana contends “are important predecessors to the modern notion of race that solidified in the 18th century and 19th century.” This racialisation of religion was then “transposed on indigenous peoples of the New World” by Catholic Spain where it encountered other “heathens.” By that Rana means that “Native Americans were made sense of via stereotypes of Muslims … The ideological enemy created of the Moor in Christian Europe served the purpose of racialising Native Americans.”
Race-ing of Islam served the purpose of the enslavement of Africans as well, and “notions of the racialised Muslim were placed on African slaves as enslavement was justified through a process of benevolent domination.” In the 18th and 19th century, as the basis of the concept of race shifted from religion to biology through a process of secularisation, racism’s baton was picked up by enlightenment and science into the 20th century eugenics. Similarly, in the 19th and the 20th century, race-ing Islam has figured prominently in anti-immigrant racism. Rana recounts these complex genealogies of race and racisms to show how “[t]he contemporary racialisation of Muslims in the United States reconnects these histories.”