When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom

[In her book “The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom,” Sahar Aziz applies critical race theory to ask how it is that a country that privileges religious freedom has an open rabid Islamophobia. This is my summary of her ideas presented at an online book forum organized by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on February 9, 2022.]

There is an interconnectedness of race and religion in American identity. Religious freedom has always been racially constrained. Rather than act independently, race and religion are elements in an interconnected hierarchy. What is often perceived as religious bigotry is actually racism. Whiteness, like blackness, is a social construction and is no longer understood as it was 250 years ago. It was Anglo-Saxon protestants who enjoyed normative presumptions (such as the presumption of innocence).  Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants, like Eastern European Jewish immigrants, were legally considered white, but were not perceived as socially equal. What we today would call their national origin impeded their status, but it was racial quality in that it was understood as an innate inferiority. There has been a shift in how their identity is seen. They are seen now as whites with a different ethnicity. Today, if they successfully assimilate, cease speaking their ancestral language, and move into prosperous neighborhoods, their national origin is seen as endearing rather than threatening. They have gained agency. The line of inclusion has been expanded, but it is still restricted to Europeans.

In the past it was argued that Catholics could never be loyal Americans because their primary loyalty must always be to the Pope, and the same held for Jews whose primary loyalty must always be to the Jewish people. The Cold War and the Holocaust forced much of the change in the perception of Catholics and Jews. Protestants realized that Catholics were a natural ally against the “Godless Communists.” The immigration quotas that were specifically intended to exclude southern and eastern Europeans and laws meant to exclude Asians and Africans were dropped in the 1965 immigration reform. Yet, a series of key events such as the creation of Israel, the oil embargo, the 9/11 attacks, etc., have racialized Muslim identity. Each event was accompanied by an influx of media images that erased the existence of Arab Christians and Jews, homogenizing Muslims as an undemocratic misogynistic racialized other.

Often scholars discussing racialization introduce a distinction between “Good Muslims” and “Bad Muslims.” Coercive assimilation is the tax Muslims must pay to avoid being classified as bad. The subgroup most harmed by racialization is the pious, practicing, politically dissident Muslim. For example a bearded man or hijabi woman who oppose the occupation of Iraq, or who think America is pro-Israeli to the point of ignoring the rights of Palestinians, or who are opposed to American alliances with Middle East dictators, are the first to be targets of surveillance, sting operations, screening at airports, etc. The public sees this and believes it is permissible to suspect and discriminate against such people on the grounds that they form the threat to our religious freedom. Polls show Americans have unfavorable views of Muslims ranging from 50 to 70%. These Americans do not want for Muslims what they want for themselves because they see them as an inferior race. For a long time Mormons were call “Muhammadan Turks” because of their practice of polygyny despite the fact that most of them were Anglo-Saxon.

This hostility starts with the religious dissident, but it comes to include all the pious and the secular dissidents as well. Only the apolitical, nonpracticing, assimilated Muslim is accepted, and the former Muslim becomes politically weaponized, paid (well) to go on book tours to validate the perception that any religious Muslim is not a good person.

Muslims in America are the most diverse group by almost any standard (ethnically, racially, immigration status, etc.). About one-third of American Muslims are African-American. Probably 40% of the slaves brought here were Muslims. If caught practicing their religion they would be beaten. Initially forbidden to practice any religion, they were eventual forced to become Protestants. With the closing down of the slave trade there were fewer slaves knowledgeable in the religion of Islam to teach new generations. In the twentieth century Drew Ali instituted the Moorish Science Church, and the Nation of Islam was established, both tying Black nationalism with some version of Islam. After the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son Warith Deen Mohamed brought the group into Sunni Islam, with Louis Farrakhan splitting off to try maintain the Nation of Islam as it had been.

The fear of the “Great Replacement” is not new. A hundred years ago, in the era of eugenics, it was expressed as the fear of the “Mongrelization” of the nation by the White Supremacists of that era in response to immigration at that time. (In the U.S. Immigration Commission’s 1911 “Dictionary of Races” there were 42 races of which 36 were from Europe.) To stem the increasing racial polarization, we must find a way to ameliorate the existing segregation.

The problem with the “color-blind narrative” perpetuated by some conservatives is that it is only superficially color-blind in a system in which various proxies for overt racism serve the same purpose of keeping some groups down. It allows racists to pretend that the system is a meritocracy in which the reason some groups are advantaged over others is because of an inferred inherent superiority.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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