Last Tuesday, I was looking forward to a lecture at Riverside Church featuring Sohail Daulatzai on black, Muslim, South Asian, Latino and Third World international movements. Daulatzai teaches at UC Irvine, and his new book, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, frames the black freedom movement in an international context, deeply linked with what he terms the Muslim Third World. The Boston bombing had happened the day previously, and by Tuesday, the media were spinning in high gear and demonizing Muslims—and I could think of no better time to hear Daulatzai respond to the moment with a historical analysis. But regrettably, the event was postponed to quell any potential backlash. Since I couldn’t hear Daulatzai speak, I decided to engage him in a conversation that might help us understand why it’s critical for people of color to remain vigilant of all that’s transpired the past week.
Aura Bogado: First of all, I wanted to talk to you about the postponement of Tuesday’s event. It’s not at all isolated; I suspect we’ll start to hear more about the ways in which Muslims have had to take cover, and even think twice about attending prayer service, for example. Can you talk about the climate that essentially demands that some of us modify our behavior—which is really another way of demanding we modify our politics?
Sohail Daulatzai: The postponement of Tuesday’s event here in New York was deeply unfortunate, but it reflects how for many of us, for Muslims, immigrants, black folk, communities of color doing grassroots work and trying to make global connections, the pressures that we’ve been feeling have been very real, and they serve to silence debate. Just at the moment when we need to be having these conversations, we’re silenced once again, whether it’s those doing work in the mainstream, or others doing more critical work. It’s deeply disturbing, but unfortunately it’s not new, because the root sources of violence endure.
How do think that this will play out for communities of color in the short run and in the long run?
For communities of color, in terms of how we imagine ourselves, I think some of us fail to see ourselves in relationship to racist state practices. For many communities of color in the mainstream, in the left-of-center and even also in the far-left, we can’t pretend to be immune to these racist state practices, and think that by buying into the logic of “antiterrorism” or “anticrime,” that we’re part of the solution. We can’t fool ourselves, because by doing that we become part of the problem, and ultimately mouthpieces and ventriloquists for white supremacy, imperial war and the crackdown on communities of color.
I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about race at this point—race as a social construct, and the way that Muslims have been assigned this new racial category. It’s certainly been easier to spot in the media this past week, but how has it existed in everyday life before the Boston bombings?
This anxiety over the presence of Islam or Muslims in the West goes back centuries; it’s nothing new. Just think about Edward Said’s book Orientalism. The modern concept of race emerges out of the expulsion of Moors from Spain in 1492, when whiteness and Christianity were defined in opposition to the Moor. So this anxiety here in the West around Islam and Muslims is not new—it’s been present, and it endures.
Specific to how the United States understands race, the Muslim has almost become a racial category unto itself, and you can see that with the Boston bombings. For these white immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, the narrative around them is that they didn’t assimilate, as they would expect all white immigrants to do, and the reason why is because they were Muslim. In other words, being Muslim excludes one from whiteness, trumps all other categories of difference and marks one as a fundamental threat to humanity. So it’s no surprise that he hasn’t been Mirandized and that many are pushing for him to be tried as an “enemy combatant” and subject to more draconian legal frameworks.
This is part and parcel of a whole way of thinking particularly after 9/11, when the fear of the Muslim was reinvigorated. Being Muslim became not only a way of defining those who are from the so-called Muslim world, or who practice, or who are believers, but also those who even look the part. So you have Sikhs who were attacked in their temple in Wisconsin. You have other non-Muslim South Asians and Arabs who have been attacked. You even have Latinos who potentially look the part and have come under further suspicion. You have Texas Representative Louie Gohmert arguing that “radical Islamists,” as he called them, are crossing through the US-Mexico border and “trained to act Hispanic.” So you can see how the figure of the Muslim and “terrorism” has been expanded to include any threat to the state, as the ruling paradigm of security now dominates US statecraft.
There’s a history here that your last book focuses on, in terms of solidarity politics, and the narrative of assimilation, right?
Absolutely. As I mentioned, this fear of Islam and Muslims goes back centuries. But more recently in the US, for me, it emerges out of the presence of a figure like Malcolm X. As I talk about in my book, a Pew poll conducted in August 2010, two years after he was first elected, found that 61 percent of Americans thought Obama was Muslim or that he might be. And for me, this was indicative of a national anxiety over the legacy of Malcolm, the relationship between blackness and Islam, and black internationalism. As my book illustrates, there is a deep influence of Islam and also the politics of the Muslim Third World in shaping black politics and culture. It helped black communities to define themselves not as national minorities, but as part of a global majority as they struggled against white supremacy, and US militarism. The relationship and solidarity between blackness and the Muslim Third World here is deep, and I reveal this prehistory to 9/11. Unlike how it’s presented today, Islam and the Muslim Third World have been a vital part of social justice movements in this country historically, and that’s what I try to recover in my book.
I think that a lot of us have largely been at a point of paralysis for a good part of the last week, of debilitated action against really clear Islamophobia in both mass media and social media. So what’s next? How do move forward, out of that fear and towards decisive solidarity?
For me, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on multiple fronts, and I think it starts with understanding the root of the problem, and not dealing with its symptoms. I’m really wary of normalizing this idea of terrorism, because I think that becomes a dangerous thing. But that’s been the typical response that many have had to what happened in Boston and other incidents, which is “don’t judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals.” What this really does is names something as terrorism, and when you can name something as terrorism, what it ultimately does is sanctions the state to crack down and to narrow the scope of dissent, to violate civil liberties, to torture, to detain, to deport, to invade, to bomb, to kill and to do a whole host of things because there’s a thing called terrorism that everyone accepts as threatening.
But also, by normalizing this thing as terrorism, it creates these divides between good Muslims and bad Muslims, citizens and terrorists. And because white supremacy doesn’t deal with communities of color as individuals, once we claim that not all Muslims are terrorists—only a few are—we’ve just opened the floodgates for the state to be suspicious of, and profile, an entire group of people. And so we ultimately reinvigorate the very forces that we think we’re challenging. We see the poverty in this thinking when the perpetrator is white, for example, like Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, or Adam Lanza in Connecticut, or Wade Michael Page, who attacked the Gurdwara in Wisconsin. The responses varied, but many Muslims and their allies came out and said, “See? They’re terrorists too!” But this not only misses the point, it creates a false equivalence, because when the attacker is white, white folks in general aren’t profiled, their countries of origin aren’t bombed or invaded, their suburbs or rural areas—as Tim Wise argued—aren’t bombed and overtaken. They’re dealt with as troubled individuals, exceptions to a white norm.
So we have to be aware of these forces, and recognize that in taking this limited approach we’re actually complicit in the very process that we think we’re challenging. And in creating that awareness, we need to understand the roots of violence. This is what many, including Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Dr. King late in his life have borne witness to, as they understood that the systemic sources of violence are white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and empire. If this recognition doesn’t happen, the country will continue to deal with the symptoms and not the problem, like a dog chasing its own tail.
The fight starts now to ensure next year’s Boston Marathon isn’t a nightmare for civil liberties. Read Dave Zirin’s take.