"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Tuesday, December 13, 2005,2:29 PM
production of muslim race
Nassim Mobasher

The Muslim identity has arguably come to be understood as a racial category in the post 9/11 context. The racialization of a religious identity is not a new occurrence in race productions, but historically exemplified in the case of Jewish identities in Europe in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Similar to the gradual identification of the Jews as a ‘race,’ the Muslim identification did not begin precisely after September 11th, 2001 but has been gradually in the making for decades. In this essay, I will provide a theoretical account of the constitution of the Muslim ‘race’ and illustrate some of the ways in which this racial category has materialized in the West at the state and non-state level.

While ‘race’ for Du Bois in the early 20th century may have been articulated as a division of colour lines, for a contemporary like Stuart Hall, ‘race’ is understood through an emphasis on culture. Race and racism, refashioned and recoded in a language that does not rely upon biological inferiority, “aims to circumvent accusations of racism” by using words such as ‘culture’ and ‘difference.’ This re-codification of racial discourse maintains the assumption of the racial narrative because “the central feature of these processes is that the qualities of social groups are fixed, made natural, confined within a pseudo-biologically defined secularism.” This ‘cultural racism’ as termed by David Goldberg, is a production of racialized knowledge that maintains the hierarchal racial divides. A conception of race that essentializes and naturalizes cultural groupings, and arranges them on the vertical ladder of ‘civilized’ to ‘barbaric’ is a process that has produced the Muslim ‘race.’

Islam, the religion of a vast population scattered across the world, has come to be understood as single ‘culture’ in the pervasive orientalist discourse. Edward Said examines the numerous texts written by Western scholars that convey a ‘Muslim civilization’ and an ‘Islamic culture’ that often presume “Islam is a unitary phenomenon, unlike any other religion or civilization” and further that it is “a culture incapable of innovation.” Islam as an orientalist production is reduced to a coherent, unified ‘culture’ that is unchanging and naturalized.
Notwithstanding the fact that a ‘Muslim civilization’ no longer exists and a unified singular Islam lacking in diversity across individuals and communities is grossly inaccurate, ‘Islam the culture’ is still used in most western scholarship as the basis for understanding the ‘Muslim world.’ Marnia Lazreg, a feminist theorist, points to the ‘religious paradigm’ in western scholarship that privileges religion over socio-economic factors when examining and explaining the Muslim world. Aziz Al-Azmeh, further explains, “In this construction, the religion of Islam becomes something that at once fully describes and adequately explains peoples, histories, and countries.” As a result, the Muslim is understood to be outside of history, fixed, voiceless and engulfed inside the closed confines of ‘Islam the culture.’ Social sciences committed to the religious paradigm contend that it is not possible for the Muslim to exist outside of the unified confines of the fixed culture that constitutes him/her. Nor does the Muslim have agency in shifting any boundaries of his/her own culture. The Muslim, therefore, cannot escape Islam, and Islam is of course incapable of allowing room for universal goods such as democracy and free-market capitalism.

Books such as The Arab Mind authored by anthropologist Raphael Patai, and used by the Pentagon as a comprehensive source of information about Arabs/Muslims, depict ‘Muslimness’ as an ontological and inescapable way of existing. In the logic of orientalists like Patai (and the neo-conservatives who read his book ‘like a bible’ ), ‘Islam the culture’ is passed on and inherited, from generation to generation, impervious to change and essentially inferior. This racial conception of culture, codified in pseudo-biological terms, produces the ‘Muslim’ as a racial category.

What has resulted in the racialization of the Muslim identity has had implication for state policy in Europe and North America. Several right-wing parties in a number of European states have run election campaigns with a primarily anti-Muslim platform, and (similar to historical anti-Semitism ) mobilized public fear to gain power. The American Patriot Act and the Canadian anti-terrorist legislation as well as immigration and border crossing policies assume a ‘Muslim Race’ and systematically utilise racial profiling to carry out greater ‘security’ measures. This profiling identifies the Muslim based on her name and her (or her ancestor’s) country of origin. No matter how disconnected the individual may be to her assumed Muslim origin, ‘Muslimness’ is hereditary and will not diminish through a change of location or a rejection of God.

Another result of the reduction of Islam to a culture and racialization of the Muslim identity is observable in the North American Muslim community’s reaction. While most Muslim organizations maintain that Islam is a religion, the newly formed Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) is the first to recognize ‘secular Muslims.’ Therefore, ‘Muslim’ for some is no longer understood solely as a religious identification but as an ethnicity. However, to presume a singular Muslim culture/heritage, lumps together the cultures and histories of countries such as Egypt, India, Indonesia and many more under a single category and reiterates the orientalist monolithic Other. Nevertheless, the shared experience of being Muslim in the current North American and European context is one of harassment at airports, as well as the inability to be recognized outside of Islam and ‘Muslimness’ once born into it.

With a comprehensive and expansive history of orientalist texts and discourses, the formation of the Muslim racial category has long been in the making. ‘Race’ in the contemporary context is understood as a more complex process of essentialization and naturalization of cultural groups rather than merely biological categorizations. Through such a framework, orientalist discourses produce racial subjects. The reduction of Islam to a backward and unchanging culture, which explains all of Muslimness, is what has resulted in the naturalization of the Muslim identity. The manifestation of the ‘Muslim’ race can be identified in state policy as well as Muslim self-identifications in the post 9/11 era. As critical race theorists busily deconstruct and debunk race concepts, racial categories continue to be formed.

posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤
Oriental Trading Company