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.”
Understanding these histories is vital in locating Islamophobia in its proper genealogy of the history of race-making, and how it has informed racisms in other historic contexts. To do so is to unmoor the discourse of Islamophobia from its singular focus on particularisms of Islam and Muslims, who are too often blamed not only for the stigma attached to them but also the racism that other non-Muslim immigrant groups experience, and to turn it back on the Islamophobe through the analytical framework of racism. Racism, sociologists hold, is a scavenger ideology (George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History). It feeds on, absorbs, and utilises ideas from myriad contexts. It adapts, tacking on to notions of biological difference here, of sociocultural difference there, of citizenship elsewhere. It is about the accumulation of power and its extraction from a vulnerable social group that is deemed different. Essentialising and naturalising difference as eternal and unbridgeable, it dispossesses, excludes, exterminates or fixes its target social group in a relationship of subordination. It is a system of oppression underpinned by material interests and state power.
To understand anti-Muslim racism Rana uses the theory of the global racial system, which can be broadly described as structural racism operative on a global scale. This global system of race-making came into being through the workings of a capitalist system underpinned by empire, and the formation and control of colonial labour migrations. In the contemporary period, it weaves together terrorism and migration to “racialis[e] the Muslim as migrant, criminal, and terrorist.” At the centre of it all is the state. The state, Rana argues “remains pivotal to the global racial system” because it creates migration streams that draw labour from one place to another but simultaneously uses violence against migrants to establish its social control and hegemony, producing belonging for some and exclusion for others.
In the second section of the book, “Globalising Labour,” Rana focuses on the transformation of South Asian labour migrations into a large labour diaspora within the global racial system. Connecting post-Abolition indentured labour migration under the aegis of the British empire in the colonial era to the present-day labour migrations to the Gulf and the West in the American imperium, Rana shows that the racialisation of South Asian labour has been long in the making, and how, through an arrangement of the state, capital and race, a system of imperial labour extraction was put in place in South Asia during the British colonial era.
The British imperial system in the Indian Ocean developed between 1830-1930 created patterns, routes, and knowledge systems about South Asian labour that persist to this day, and “American imperial interests […] rely on those old patterns while creating new ones.” During and after World War I, South Asian labour was extensively employed to keep the British Empire’s hold over the Middle East and many other regions, establishing “South Asia as a source of military and manual labour.” This pattern of South Asian labour recruitment and immigration to serve imperial interest persists as is evident in the employment of South Asian labour in maintaining the American occupation of Iraq, or the Gulf monarchies’ recruitment of Pakistanis as riot police to crush their own popular revolts.
Another, much more thoroughly flushed-out example of the continuity of labour extraction from South Asia pertains to the Petrodollar economy centered on the Gulf. Since the early 1930s the Gulf region has been a hub of South Asian labour. This labour force was used to develop Saudi oil fields first under British supervision and then American whereby the imperial powers armed the Saudi state in exchange for oil. In the post-colonial period, the Pakistani labour (and Gulf migration) system was set up under American tutelage, and this model was later put in place across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Following the pretzel logic that income inequalities are necessary for economic growth, which in turn is good for the lower classes, Gustav Papanek of Harvard’s Development Advisory Services, the architect of Pakistan’s developmental strategy, described it as “squeezing the peasant”: downgrading the countryside and exacerbating rural poverty and thereby bloating the ranks of the urban industrial working-class (Tariq Ali, Can Pakistan Survive?: The Death of State). Pakistan’s state-led modernising projects created a surplus of labour in the countryside, setting off an exodus of the workforce to urban areas.
Rana concludes that “[t]he failure of organised labour to gain adequate protection from domestic trade-union laws played an important role in the flight of the labouring classes to transnational sites.” The postcolonial states of South Asia facilitate the movement of labour, especially to the Gulf, through union-busting and the implementation of neoliberal policies that force labourers to seek opportunities abroad. Heavily implicated in producing the outflow of South Asian labour, the American empire continues to arm the Gulf monarchies to date through an essentially arms for oil arrangement, and the South Asian labourers continue to build Gulf cities under violent, exploitative conditions.
Rana’s book seeks to understand “the post-9/11 world of racial terror and violence as seen in the US detention and deportation system and in the migration patterns that have resulted in massive returns to Pakistan and other parts of the diaspora from the United States.” Rana posits that the Muslim body constructed through racialised fear is imagined as a site of control and containment through detention and is literally disappeared through deportation. Migrant illegality as a technology of control is vital for this quarantine. Rana provides a fascinating ethnography of the migration industry to illustrate the formation of formal and illicit labour migration streams and the construction of the notion of illegality. Migrant illegality, a legal construct, has been constantly reconfigured to render migrants deportable and to enable the state to deploy legal and extralegal violence, which, in the ‘war on terror’, has been wielded to terrifying effect to target Muslim migrants.
“In a gesture towards the history in which the racialised figure of the Muslim was created, the global War on Terror constructs an enemy in vulnerable populations such as easily deportable and expendable transnational workers who can be isolated through everyday practices of terror prevention,” writes Rana. Class is an important element in rendering certain migrant populations vulnerable, and in this sense, there is a class-based racism at work here that “links those who overstay their visas or enter the US without proper documents to those informal, underground markets engaged in illegal transactions.” The relentless racist violence of the ‘war on terror’ has hit Pakistani migrants hard and working class migrants and neighbourhoods have borne the brunt of much of this violence. The 120,000-strong Brooklyn’s “Little Pakistan” has lost half its population.
Terrifying Muslims represents an ambitious effort to connect present day Islamophobia to the history of racism, capitalism and colonialism, but this same ambition sometimes leads to terminological slippage and muddled history. For instance, Rana writes that Muslims and Sikhs were deemed violent by nature and hence used in military and police forces. Other South Asian groups were ranked similarly, their supposed natures predisposing them to certain occupations, for example, Gujaratis were deemed traders. It is left unexplained how Gujarati Muslims were classified: violent traders? We read that it was in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising that the British organised the Indian military according to the canard of “martial races,” but now he only cites Punjabi Sikhs, and not Punjabi Muslims, as being defined as “bold warriors, in contrast to Tamils from South India defined as weak and untrustworthy.” So, were Tamil Muslims coded as weak or violent or both? What was the interplay between ethnicity and religion in British India at different periods of the colonial rule, and does that complicate the racialisation of Muslims set up in the first section of the book?
Despite these shortcomings, Terrifying Muslims offers an important corrective to those who consider Islamophobia merely a prejudice, an individual failing to be overcome by interfaith dialogue, or ignorance to be overcome by presenting Islam in a positive light. Rana places Islamophobia squarely in histories of racism, capitalist labour extraction, imperial conquests, and state practices — in short, it isn’t something that can be overcome by droning on about interfaith dialogue while drones continue to turn people into “bug splats” — in the US military parlance — and places into free-fire kill zones.
By Junaid Rana
Duke University Press, US