Originally published in The Islamic Monthly
by Hasan Azad
It appears that my 6-year-old son, Zayn, doesn’t think Muslims are American. When my ex-wife recently talked to him about his being Muslim, he responded: “I’m not Muslim! I’m American!” Zayn, by the way, goes to a school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the vast majority of students are Muslim.
What does it mean for a precocious 6-year-old to say he isn’t Muslim, that he’s American? What does it mean for a Republican presidential candidate — for candidates — to say that Muslims are not or cannot (really) be American?
Of course people have been raising weary — and worried — eyebrows regarding Donald Trump’s comments about the need to create Muslim databases, and his suggestions along the lines of internment camps.
What has been less discussed is the manner in which Trump — a billionaire businessman who knows full well the importance of giving his customers what they want — is not inventing these anti-Muslim sentiments. He is, in a very real sense, reflecting the sentiments and aspirations of his droves of supporters. And these same sentiments are being catered to with varying degrees of emphases by other Republican hopefuls.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric — and bigotry — wins elections. This is being tried and increasingly successfully tested in Europe. The far right in Britain, France, Denmark, Belgium are winning significant electoral victories in local and national elections.
It’s not surprising — or coincidental — that anti-Muslim sentiments are being openly expressed by U.S. presidential hopefuls at the same time that we’re witnessing some of the worst acts of police brutality against Black people since the 1960s.
Police shoot and kill blacks almost twice as frequently as any other racial group. … “Black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.” …
The militarization of local police has been growing ever since the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Justice decided to give away surplus weaponry from Iraq and Afghanistan. The heaviest weaponry is often used by SWAT teams during drug raids, where … communities of color are targeted for nighttime raids. They face few consequences for making mistakes, such as maiming or killing people and pets and ransacking homes and personal property. These same teams were deployed in Ferguson to confront protesters after [Michael] Brown’s killing in August [of 2014], exacerbating violence instead of quelling it.
These are the days of Black Lives Matter. These are the days of Ferguson. These are the days of Trayvon Martin. These are the days of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. These are the days of countless Black men and Black boys, Black women and Black girls who are unnamed and unrecognized as they are dehumanized and brutalized.
It’s not a simple quirk of fate that massive structures of institutionalized racism — whether against Blacks or other minorities — are being exposed (it’s come to the fore, for example, that the NYPD sets arrest quotas for minority police officers against their own minority communities). It’s not a simple quirk of fate that all these facts form the backdrop against which anti-Muslim rhetoric is becoming manifest.
It’s not a simple quirk of fate because: Racism runs through the veins and arteries of the United States.
Racism runs through the veins and arteries of a United States that bears within its collective unconscious the blood of 10 million of Native Americans.
Racism runs through the veins and arteries of a United States that was built on the broken backs, in the ravaged wombs, through the blood, toil, sweat and tears of 250 years of slaves and slavery.
Racism runs through the veins and arteries of a United States that interred over 100,000 Japanese Americans during WWII, that discriminated against Italians, against the Irish, against the Jews.
At the same time, racism is part and parcel of the Western intellectual tradition. And this, I realize, is a somewhat radical statement on my part.
Racism — the idea that a certain group of people or peoples is or are inherently different from, and inferior to, the dominant group — was central to the colonizing missions of Europe, of which the United States is heir.
The Christian doctrine — let us recall — “Thou shalt not kill” was altered to “Thou shalt not kill a Christian” to justify the “civilizing” missions carried out around the world. Of course Christian missionaries were central to those colonizing missions: whether in Africa, the Middle East, or the so-called New World — as if to say that that part of the world didn’t have a prior existence until European settlers came to those shores.
The popular philosophical problem of whether a tree makes a sound when it falls if no one is there to hear it perhaps should be re-formulated to “Does a falling tree make a sound if a European is not there to hear it?”; since, of course, these lands were inhabited and lived in and named, and their trees — on occasion — felled, by “indigenous” people.
Which, incidentally, is another problematic term, just as “native,” given the colonial construction of “natives” and the “indigenous” as being different from those of us going over there from Europe.
You need only consider the fact that Europeans are not referred to as “indigenous” or “natives” to gain a better sense of the “Othering” that happens through the process of naming and referring to Brown and Black people as “indigenous” and “natives.”
Language is always embedded in and re-creates structures of power. Similarly, white Americans are — in everyday conception — constructed as “American,” and not as having immigrant roots — regardless of how many or how few generations may have been living here. Whereas the same is not true for non-white Americans. The idea of where one is really from always gets applied to people of color.
For example: I have a fairly recognizable British accent. And yet, the number of times I’m asked by well meaning white Americans where I’m from is telling. (Incidentally, I don’t usually face the same type of questioning from non-white Americans.)
Another illustration: When my former wife and I were in Morocco studying Arabic a few years ago, we were traveling with some people from our Arabic program — students who were mostly from the U.S. and a few from the U.K. One student, who was a Brit, and white, was talking to my wife rather excitedly because another male student from Scotland had just joined the program. My wife pointed out: “Hasan’s British.” To which the other student replied, quite innocently: “Not really,” and then immediately realized what she had said because she looked embarrassed.
Historic European colonizing missions and civilizing missions have simply been renamed as democratizing missions by the U.S., as it promotes — and has been doing so for many decades — its own brand of rule, which, in effect amounts to rule that meets the needs of U.S. imperialism. In fact, as Noam Chomsky argues in his book Deterring Democracy, the U.S. has very little interest in promoting “democracies” that do not serve its interests. This has been shown time and time again.
But all this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. And I claimed earlier that racism is part and parcel of the Western intellectual tradition. It could be contended that all I’ve been describing is part of politics and the logic of nations and, of course, capitalism.
It is my argument that the Western intellectual tradition is fundamentally rooted in the idea of “Othering,” of creating difference, of degrees and levels of preference and subjugation.
Let’s consider the history of this largely binarized approach to the world — the “Us” vs. “Them” worldview. It is rooted in the modern approach to knowledge and to the self. The modern self is derived in a significant way from the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and his notion of cogito ergo sum. When Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” which followed from his radical skepticism, he declared his own self as the source of all knowledge.
This was in complete contrast to a premodern understanding of the self as being rooted in God as “the ground of Being.” In premodern knowledge systems, there was a fundamental inseparability of that which is known, the knower and knowledge. Descartes marked the modern break of the object (that which is observed) from the subject (the person who observes), and the birth of the modern self. According to philosopher Martin Heidegger, “at the heart of [Western] modernity is the rise of an absolute subjectivity, such that the world appears to man as if it were ‘for’ him […] as picture.”
When I think about looking out the window of a moving train, for example, and look at the trees passing by, I see a two-dimensional image of a tree, followed by another, and then another. At no point do I experience the three-dimensional “reality” of the tree as such, whose three-dimensionality my mind fills in, as philosopher Matthew B. Crawford points out in his book The World Beyond Your Head.
But, we must remember that each age, and the styles of thinking of that age, are defined by certain parameters of thought. When we speak of the world as picture — even if we may not consciously do so — we are immersed in a particular worldview, simply by living. We’re drawing on a view of the world as a movie. How often have you had the experience — I know I certainly have, probably because I’m a bit of a film geek — where you look at a series of events and think “That would make a great scene in a movie”?
The premodern view of the world was one where the world existed objectively and separate from our perceiving it, as a thought in the mind of God, as a Theophany, as a reflection upon the veil of Maya.
It is a fundamental epistemological need of the West to have an “Other” that is radically different from and separate to it. It is in light of these things that it needs to be understood why Islam and Muslims are being seen as fundamentally “Other” in the West.
The “Othering” of Islam and Muslims has been a long process throughout Western history, about which Edward Said famously wrote in his epochal Orientalism. This is not to say that other people and ideologies have not been “Othered,” but it seems that Islam and Muslims constitute the most obstinate of “Others.”
Islam — within this particularly Western imaginaire — is emblematic of religion as such — a “religion” that the West is supposed to have overcome. Islam has come to signify all that the West has supposedly consigned to the trash heap of history.
At the same time, Islam has come to also serve as the catchall for the deep sense of dis-ease that we all feel with the world, from the far-reaching corruption of corporations and their long-time bedfellows, the politicians. And who is to blame for an environment that is on the verge of complete collapse? Who will be taken to task for the raping and pillaging of a Mother Nature that can no longer bear such burdens? Not us. Anyone but ourselves.
So, what does it mean for Republican candidates to say that Muslims are not and cannot (really) be American?
It means that Muslims constitute the currently most convenient scapegoat for so many ills of the world — when, if we are truly honest, everyone in the U.S., and in the West in general, has to at the very least accept a degree of responsibility.