Racialization in the War on Terror: Aziz Highlights America’s Racial-Religious Hierarchy

In a racialized society, the securitized gaze of the state extends even to religious minorities in gatekeeping whiteness.

By Aminah B. Al-Deen

The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, by Sahar Aziz. California, 2021. 337p bibl index, 9780520382282 $85.00, 9780520382299 $29.95, 9780520382305 $29.95

Book cover for The Racial Muslim

The Racial Muslim opens with the author recounting her experience of witnessing the planes crash into Word Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Aziz (Rutgers Law School) reflects on how that day changed many things in her life, including the way it shifted how she was perceived in the United States, “from racially ambiguous to racially threatening” (p. 1). For many readers, this may bring to mind Nella Larson’s novel Passing (1929). In that story, one of the central characters seizes the opportunity to become white because of her lighter skin. She thinks she has entered mainstream society until an encounter incites psychological turmoil. This story of passing highlights the fluidity of racial identity as it intersects with class, gender, and family as described by several reviewers. The goal is to become a functioning member of white society. In this pursuit of belonging to the dominant American race, however, actual racial identity, colorism, and concerns of gender and class are subsumed.

Like Larson’s protagonist, Aziz once considered herself racially ambiguous enough to be invisible until events fractured that identity in ways that confirmed the suspicions of those in the dominant racial group. In a race-based society where colorism is embedded as a foundational marker of control, tinges of color—e.g., the underlying olive hue of Arabs, the hint of brown/Blackness—are tolerated but viewed with unspoken suspicion. Aziz’s discovery of this reality on that fateful day reveals what those around her perhaps always unconsciously knew—that she was never ambiguous. The goal of belonging thus begins to slip away, leading to a wonderfully careful exploration of Arab racial identity in American society.

Aziz finds that a racialized society is one characterized by constant surveillance, in which the securitized gaze turns both arbitrarily and intentionally on its citizens and non-citizens on the lookout for those trying to pass for white. Yet, race is not the only marker of whiteness in the United States. Membership in the Christian religion is also an auxiliary stamp of whiteness, and Aziz sets out to interrogate this racial-religious hierarchy. Outwardly, in the realm of American law, religious freedom is paramount to the First Amendment, but the seeming inclusivity of this right hides its original intention as a protection exclusively for newly founded Protestant communities to escape the constraints of European Catholicism. It was not meant to include the settlement of other world faiths in any practical sense. However, the veracity of this claim of religious freedom was first tested with the immigration of Catholics, the very people those protected Protestants sought to flee. Eventually, subsequent members of other faith communities also migrated to the United States, believing the marketing of a diverse society where all are welcomed irrespective of race, color, or creed, which was bolstered by the fact that Irish and Jewish minorities were eventually considered white. Many ethnic minorities with proximity to whiteness seem to have understood that passing, though ambiguous, is possible. However, for those who are Muslim, the permanent entanglement with antipathies toward Islam held by European Christians and their American descendants persists, putting Muslims’ claim to religious freedom in jeopardy.

Muslims seek stability and fortune in the United States, where those goals may be complicated by the entanglements of American understandings of race and creed.

Seeking to investigate how Arabs are racialized, as well as their responses to that racialization, Aziz expertly describes American history on the subject. However, she remains hesitant to accept the reality of the United States. Ironically, in most Arab countries difference is also based on religion, color, and class. For Muslims in those countries, religious persecution is generally based on lack of adherence to a prescribed set of traditional rules, the centuries-old ideological fight between Sunni and Shia, or membership in a community deemed heretical. Meanwhile cultural and/or religious Muslims seek stability and fortune in the United States, where those goals may be complicated by the entanglements of American understandings of race and creed.

Arab immigrant responses to these entanglements are cleverly characterized by the perception of their closeness to the goal of “achieving the American dream of middle-class status and US citizenship” (p. 200). “Building on Mahmoud Mamdani’s ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ frame” (p. 6), Aziz presents “five typologies of the Racial Muslim: (1) Religious Dissident, (2) Religious, (3) Secular Dissident, (4) Secular, and (5) Former Muslim” (p. 7). “Religious Racial Muslims” exhibit all the outward manifestations of Muslimness in dress, demeanor, and so on (p. 8). They shun political talk and action generally or support mainstream thought in public spaces yet are considered vulnerable to radicalization. “Secular Dissident Racial Muslims” exhibit a secular lifestyle but often disagree with mainstream political views on issues of justice in causes that interest them, such as American foreign policy especially when it concerns their ancestral home (p. 8). “Secular Racial Muslims” and “Former Racial Muslims” (p. 9) would be considered “good Muslims,” according to Mamdani’s dichotomy. They do not practice Islam and change their names (at least their given names) to more acceptable, easily pronounceable English names that take away any hint of otherness. As readers can quickly discern, cultural Muslims who give up their religion or hide it are the most palatable to American society, even though surveillance of them does not cease. What about other American Muslims?

Aziz notes that aspirations to whiteness for those immigrants who are brown or Black is mostly a psychological endeavor. Notably, she cites the experiences of South Asian immigrants, many of whom are deluged with pressures to whiten their skin in their ancestral homes. Pharmaceutical aids, billboard advertisements, popular culture, and families exert an unremitting pressure to adopt whiteness. While this results from decades of mental colonization and debates over Aryan history, it remains a driving force for being able to live a successful life particularly in the United States. This mindset travels with immigrants to the United States and is passed on to later generations. Despite this, many Muslim immigrants across ethnic backgrounds have still worked hard to serve their families and support their communities with social and health services. That said, the first bombing in 1993 and certainly the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center changed the focus of their civic participation.

Islamophobia remains a challenge from both government officials and the Supreme Court, and as freedom of religion and its understandings are challenged in litigation, Muslims should remain wary as they fight Islamophobia in literature, in educational instruction, in discrimination, and in its conflation with racism.

Within the Arab community, the primary focus of civic participation has often been on the situations at play in members’ home countries, such as Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, an already difficult endeavor made even more difficult by ensuing campaigns of detention, deportation, and eventually the infamous Muslim ban. Civic participation for many is still limited to their ethnic concerns, though some have realized, and come to terms with the fact, that there are overriding American issues that drive these concerns. Aziz notes the rise of Muslim anti-racist organizations, one of which focuses on discrimination and racist legal claims and the increasing importance of voting, championing the election of the first two Muslim women to congress: Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Islamophobia remains a challenge from both government officials and the Supreme Court, and as freedom of religion and its understandings are challenged in litigation, Muslims should remain wary as they fight Islamophobia in literature, in educational instruction, in discrimination, and in its conflation with racism. This is the mix of racism and religious discrimination that Aziz aims to underscore.

Arab Muslim student groups and worship groups have faced government intrusion with secret audio recordings, paid informants, and other kinds of surveillance. This is in violation of First Amendment protections but justified by the Patriot Act. Responses to this situation vary. Some accept what Aziz calls the “racial bribe” and continue their pursuit of whiteness, or they engage in making alliances to fight systemic racism (p. 173). Others realize that their situation is built on centuries of the exertion and expansion of a basic racial and religious hierarchy that is mostly inviolate and that has made a steady march toward obliterating the notion of the separation of church and state over the last century. Aziz cannot, of course, resolve the psychological dilemma. Outside forces encourage hope in the American dream for some Arabs, and they will buy in without a thought to Islamic dictates of fighting for justice. Others will fight on, making alliances where they can without abandoning religious mandates.

Arab and other immigrant Muslims have glommed onto the notion of the common origin of Abrahamic faiths, which supposedly provides a platform for at least some conversation on social issues and problems of religion in American society. An evangelical, politically right-leaning, and earnest-in-influence movement is challenging even other kinds of Christianity that are more open to alliances with other Abrahamic faiths. The psychology of whiteness is pervasive, irrespective of actual color, and the depth of its invasion into a person’s consciousness and unconsciousness is not a matter that can be resolved through this research. Cultural preferences will always push forward in family relations and ways of life, despite efforts to hide or ignore them. Aziz has done an extraordinary amount of research, paying careful attention to historical context and current realities. She has given those within and outside of her community an honest portrait of who they are while facing daunting challenges. This is a must-read volume.

Summing Up: Essential. General readers through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: Islamic Studies, Law & Society, Middle Eastern Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences

Aminah B. Al-Deen is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at DePaul University. A prolific author and a nationally renowned scholar on Islam in the US, she founded the nation’s first Islamic studies program