Terrifying Muslims – scraps

So, I reviewed Junaid Rana’s book Terrifying Muslims for Dawn Books and Authors. You can read the review here.

Following is the writing that happened before the writing, or what didn’t make the cut. 


In everyday conversations racism is taken to be a form of prejudice and xenophobia, something in the realm of ill-feeling (bigotry) and bad thinking (ignorance), but not anything structural. This conceptual muddle gets murkier when it comes to describing the hostility faced by Muslims. Is ‘Islamophobia’ a kind of racism? A common reply is that since Islam is a religion and not a race, no. This argument is premised upon a conception of race as fixed, and not as a concept the meaning of which has been made and remade continually through history in different contexts. It also takes for granted that race is rooted in biology, that it is not a social construct, and ignores the fact that whatever race may be, it is not necessarily read from skin-color and other biological markers in isolation from cultural markers such as dress, name, and comportment. And it blurs distinctions between Islam and Muslims: Islam is not a race, but Muslims do come in (many) “races” all of which are bludgeoned into one Islamophobic box with one fell racist swoop.

“Islamophobia is a gloss for the anti-Muslim racism that collapses numerous groups in the single category ‘Muslim,’” (p30) writes Junaid Rana in his Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in South Asian Diaspora. Though written in jargon-laden academic prose largely inaccessible to the general reader, Terrifying Muslims offers an important corrective to those who consider Islamophobia to be not a deep-seated structural issue. Such apolitical and ahistorical conceptions lend themselves to prescriptions of interfaith dialogue as a remedy, and worse be appropriated by the very generative forces of racism. And so we have the shady statist strategy of “cultural diplomacy” in the service of US empire, whereby Imam Abdul Rauf goes on international tours sponsored by the State department to “build bridges” between America and the Muslim world, whitewashing in the process the anti-Muslim violence in the US and abroad. Rana places Islamophobia squarely in histories of racism, capitalist labor extraction, imperial conquests, and state practices – in short, it isn’t something that can be overcome by droning on about interfaith dialogue while drones continue to turn people into “bug splats,” in the U.S. military parlance, and places into free-fire kill zones.

Rana’s argument is not about Islamic theology but rather, “about the formal and informal forms of discrimination committed against practitioners and those believed to be practitioners of Islam.” ‘The Muslim’ in his analysis is not simply the followers of Islam, but “a category that encompasses many nationalities, social and cultural practices, religious affiliations (from Muslim Sunni and Shia to Christian, Sikh, and Hindu) and social realities, that, through the process of state and popular racialization, is generalized.” In other words his argument is not that Muslims are targeted as a religious group, but “that it is as a social group that Muslims are racialized.”

So, what if you know all that already; why then should you read Rana’s book?Much of the literature on Islamophobia focuses on the hostility against Arabs. As important as it is in its own regard, this literature unwittingly contributes to the widespread conflation of Arabs with Muslims and vice versa. In contrast, Rana’s focus on South Asia and South Asians in the context of Islamophobia, in itself, is refreshing. Other than that, this is what Rana says:

My book is structured in terms of the double meaning of “terrifying Muslims.” The first meaning of “Muslims that are terrifying” is explained through the framing of racial representations, depictions, and rationales that depend on a system of social hierarchy. In the second meaning of “to terrify Muslims,” I describe the process of disciplining and policing this racial logic of the first meaning to the demands of globalization.

In terms of academic genealogy, this research follows the legacy of Edward Said and his critique of Orientalism as a form of knowledge and power as it is tethered to the practices of imperialism and the machines of war. In this context, I examine how racism and domination is a tool of twenty-first century imperialism in which an American empire has been created in terms of broad regional and global formations of what scholars call colonialism without colonies. Further, labor migration is a historical and contemporaneous aspect of what I describe, using the concept of the global racial system. In this approach, I argue that racism is not specific to the geographic boundaries of certain countries but is global in terms of territorial scope and its philosophical approach of expansion and malleability as a concept of oppression.

The book is also focused on developing an under-researched aspect of the scholarship on the South Asian diaspora, one that focuses on Pakistan and Muslim South Asia. Much of this literature has focused on the diaspora that is of Indian origin, largely because of demographic differences. Yet populations from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh have extremely important diasporic population across the world. There are some important class distinctions between these populations that place many of them in what would be described as the working class or working poor. Because of the roles of patriarchy and state-controlled migration, many of the initial migrants from these countries are men, which has led to particular gender formations that cast them under notions of racialized masculinity.

In the context of the United States, much of this book examines how Pakistani immigrants are located as people of color in relationship to their place of origin and religion. Thus, even as they are classified as South Asian American, because of their religion they are often understood as linked to or are mistakenly combined with Arab Americans. In this way, forms of racializing Muslims take Arab and South Asian Americans as a singular group, which confuses complex histories and geographies.

Finally, my book addresses the anthropology of the state and labor migration to examine how institutions are central to people’s everyday lives. This is one of the key theoretical interventions of the book, in terms of offering a view of how a number of state systems can be a part of the labor migrant experience and are linked in creating what I call labor diasporas in the global racial system. 


Rana’s book is about Muslims and migrants. Both have been demonized, and each as the other. Rana studies the racism that operates in the neoliberal imperial economic order structured through two malleable figures, the terrorist and the migrant, “woven together in the figure of ‘the Muslim’ as a racial type”  in “a global system of racializing the Muslim as migrant, criminal, and terrorist.” (p5) This conjured figure of ‘the Muslim’ is central to the system of policing Arab , Muslim, and South Asian immigrants “crafted through a broad logic of anti-immigrant racism.” (p9)

Rana’s multidisciplinary study is divided in two sections – state and migration, and race and migration— and “addresses the use of the categories of race and racism on Muslim bodies as they circulate in the global economy through concepts, media images, popular culture, narratives of migration and diaspora, and the production of illegality, criminality, and terror.” (p18) The crux of the first section, “Racializing Muslims,” is an exploration of the history of race and racism as it pertains to the processes of racialization of Muslims, and how these processes intertwine and are imbedded in the global economy and neoliberal capitalism. Rana delineates the concepts of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism, by examining the place the figure of the Muslim occupies in the Euro-American imagination, constructed as a threat to white Christian supremacy and in relation to the anti-Jewish racism “by employing a racial logic that crosses the cultural categories of nation, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality.” (p19). Rana explains Islamophobia, “through the workings of biopolitics of the racialized body that is essential to the rationale of the U.S. racial state,” and shows “how Muslim immigrant communities are placed in the U.S. racial formation and in the global racial system.” Rana also studies the racialization of Muslims in the visual and discursive realms, that is, through representations and conceptions of Muslims in contemporary discourses of terrorism, fundamentalism, sexism, and labor migration, and finds that “the process of racializing Islam through social identities takes place through a kind of translation of the body and its comportment via a combination of identifiers, such as dress, behavior, and phenotypic expression.” (p27)

This “conjuring of an enemy,” and specifically the Muslim enemy, has a long, sordid history. Instead of discussing how the category of race is deployed in Islamophobic discourses, Rana traces the “modern history of the race concept in relation to Islam” to shed light on how ‘Muslim’ became a racial category. Rana locates anti-Muslim racism in the “global racial system” that was “formed in relation to struggles for decolonization and the march of capitalism,” and contends that “the racialized figure of the Muslim is a contemporary example of this system.” (p26) Rana not only places Islamophobia – a fairly recent term—at the center of the formation of race but also argues that “anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia are central to the narrative of modern nations – and to modernity itself—because they emerged in the contact between the Old World and the New World.” (p28)

He lays out a history of racialization of Islam, the starting point of which he locates in the fourteenth and fifteenth century anti-Semitism of Reconquista, which targeted both Jews and Muslims much the way Islamophobic attacks have targeted Muslims and Sikhs in present day America. This, bear in mind, is not merely intolerance of certain religions, which we moderns like to relegate to a matter of beliefs. Religion, as conceived at that time, constituted much more than that. It was considered a state of being which mapped people onto a socio-cultural hierarchy, from civilized to barbarian. “These were clearly innate and naturalized categories in which religion was regarded … as a level of human evolution.” (p32)

While the expulsion of Moors is normally understood to have happened as a consequence of war and conquest, Jewish expulsions are thought to have occurred as a result of anti-Semitism, giving birth to modern racism. This is the conception that Rana deconstructs to locate anti-Muslim racism in this historic moment of formation of racism. To think of anti-Semitism in Catholic Spain “as an exclusive racial concept for Jews is a narrow interpretation” since “Catholic Spain constructed its enemy in Muslims and Jews as infidels, or heathens, and non-believers in relation to Christianity.” (p37) The Moors and Spanish Jews were cleansed through conversion and tests of purity of blood, hinting at the coming together of race and religion and the evolution of these concepts. Spanish Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were subjected to tests of religious purity that “conflated ideas of genetic descent and biology with those of religious faith and cultural notions of kinship.” (p35) The Catholic Church issued certificates of blood purity placing “those with ‘pure’ Hispanic and Catholic genealogies above those with mixed , or ‘tainted’ heritage.” These cultural notions of religion and bounded kinship, Rana contends “are important predecessors to the modern notion of race that solidified in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century.” Phenotypically similar, many in Catholic Spain could pass as one or the other religious group. This anxiety about religious passing meant that cultural markers of dress and comportment became all the more important in the Catholic Church’s central obsession at the time: identifying Crypto-Muslims and Crypto-Jews that have not been sufficiently cleansed of their “impurities.” It is in this context that “[r]eligious passing came to be identified racially through the logic of darkening in which Moors were associated with darker skin color despite their actual appearance, and by relying on other kinds of available evidence, such as occupation, location of residence, dress, class and rank, and for men during Inquisition examinations and ‘religious’ riots, the foreskin.” (p36)

This racialization of religion was then “transposed on indigenous peoples of the New World” by Catholic Spain where it encountered other “heathens,” and in Rana’s words, “Native Americans were made sense of via stereotypes of Muslims,” such as sexual deviancy. (p38) Moreover, “the British described American Indians as descended from North African Muslims and perceived them as having similar cultural practices and values… Through Christian eyes, both Muslims and American Indians were seen as sodomite who engaged in widespread homosexuality.” Notions about sexuality are part of the material used in racialization, and in this case, deeming Muslims and Native American sexual perverts and homosexuals rendered them immoral in the conquerors’ eyes legitimizing their domination, conversion, or destruction. “The ideological enemy created of the Moor in Christian Europe served the purpose of racializing Native Americans.” (p39)

Racialization of religion “subsequently took on significance in relation to black America and Muslim immigrants.” (p31) Muslims came to America with Columbus as Moorish sailors and explorers, but later on they were brought to America as African slaves who continued to practice their religion. Starting from the early twentieth century, Ahmadiyya movement “one of the first multiracial models of American Islam, provided an important link between immigrant Muslims and African Americans.” The Ahmadiyya movement forged vital links between African Muslim movements such as The Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, and South Asians “in forging pan-Islamic unity” and to “overcome racial and ethnic separation that existed not only within the Muslim community, but in the U.S. and around the world.” (p41) African converts to Islam thought that through their religious conversion to a religion that deems itself above race, they can become de-racialized and lay claim to citizenship rights as American. This, however, underestimated “Christian America’s longstanding antagonism towards Islam.” (p41)

This complex genealogy of entanglements of race and racism, construction of Others, and justifications of imperial conquests, shows that notions about Islam and Muslim were mobilized throughout American history in understanding those deemed threats to White Christian Supremacy —the Turk, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants. Indeed, as Rana writes, “Scholars of American Orientalism have argued that, throughout cultural, popular, and diplomatic history, Islam and Muslims have been part of the American imagination.” (p41)


Globalization is said to have, in that asshole‘s phrase, “flattened” the world, that is, by connecting its disparate parts and bringing it closer together, it is said to have leveled the field, flattened hierarchies, and provided for greater social and geographic mobility for people. However, beneath this gloss lie the realities of growing inequalities within and across societies, hardening of boundaries, and fattening of security states across the world. “In this process, the meaning of labor migration itself has changed, partly through the meaning of the dynamics of migration industry, but also through the meanings attached to migrant workers themselves across the globe,” (p3) writes Junaid Rana.

To understand the anti-immigrant racism manifest in anti-Muslim racism, in the second section of the book, “Globalizing Labor” Rana focusses on the transformation of South Asian labor migrations into a large South Asian labor diaspora within the global racial system, connecting post-Abolition indentured labor migration under the aegis of British empire in the colonial era during which a million and a half people were indentured from the Indian Subcontinent to work in plantations in Asia Pacific, the Caribbean, and East and South Africa between 1837 and 1917 (p100), to present day labor migrations to the Gulf and the Global North in the American imperium. Rana compares the contemporary labor migrations with those of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century indentured labor in order to shed light on the exploitation of these labor diasporas and on how South Asian migrations and labor diaspora has been historically part of the global racial system. Rana provides a fascinating ethnography of the migration industry to illustrate the formation of formal and illicit labor migrations and the construction of notions of illegality.

Where is Pakistan on the contemporary map of the global racial system? As if surgically removed from the ambit of the culture and politics of the Indian subcontinent, or South Asia, which it has been historically a part of, “it seems to have shifted geographically to become part of the Middle East. In fact, in the global War on Terror, the Muslim world is increasingly imagined as a single geopolitical mass.” (p5) In this imagination South Asia– a regional concept and a geographic term–  is considered synonymous with India such that “India is Bollywood and technology; Pakistan is terror and trouble.” Pakistani immigrants in the US however, contends Rana, are “simultaneously understood as South Asian and Middle Eastern, a classification that combines national origin, religion, ethnicity, and culture into a unitary conception of race and racial formation.” (p20)

The Pakistani state, as a client-state, is also an ally in the war on terror. This duality structures American counter-terrorism policy towards Pakistan, one which dispenses carrots in terms of military aid, and sticks through drone bombings, simultaneously. And it has dire consequences for Pakistani migrants. Similar dynamics are at play for migrants from the Middle East, who, along with Pakistani migrants have been increasingly targeted by the U.S government for detention and deportation. This is so, as Rana explains, because the “conceptions of globalized racism are based in the circulation of specific racialized regionalisms that imagine the Muslim world as connected and interdependent.” (p9) Such overstatement of the connections and similarities between Muslim majority societies homogenizes them as one essential demographic and geographic whole. This “Muslim World” has a singular culture— a single organism with terrorism encoded in its DNA. This racialized geographic imagination underpinned US government’s domestic counterterrorism initiatives such the Special Registration program that exclusively targeted male Muslim migrants from Muslim countries. This ‘Muslim world’ “in turn, is imagined as part of a geography that connects migratory networks of Muslim countries to the metropoles of Northern countries in the global economy.” (p9) Buttressed by a critical reading of the Hollywood film, Syriana, Rana contends that Pakistani immigrants in the US are “simultaneously understood as South Asian and Middle Eastern, a classification that combines national origin, religion, ethnicity, and culture into a unitary conception of race and racial formation.” (p20) Conflating diverse populations as Arabs and South Asians, Rana holds, is cardinal to producing a visible target. The terrorist virus carrying Muslim migrant is to be contained, removed. Racial panics and notions of migrant illegality are technologies of control vital for this quarantine.

Panics and perils are central to the anti-immigrant narratives through which migrants are identified as religious and racial subjects, and by invoking tropes of illegality, criminality, and terror, made into objects of fear to be policed and targeted with racial violence. “In its simplest sense, terror is about manufacturing fear,” writes Rana. “The War on Terror seeks to manage this fear by making the categories of friend and enemy coherent.” (p55) Immigrants have historically been pressed into serving as the scapegoat for whatever is perceived to be the current threat to, for instance, the US public and the nation. Through a crackdown on them, the security state allays the public’s desire of law and order and justifies its expansion. “Perils and menaces, such as the ’yellow peril’ that targeted Asian Americans and the ‘red menace’ of internal communism and socialism, have been constructed throughout U.S. history. The most recent articulation is the ‘Islamic peril.’” (p7) A parallel to construction of perils and foreign devils is what Rana calls the ‘migration fantasy.’ That is, constructing America as the land of opportunity, “no matter how tormented this dream has become.” This brings to fore the complicity of migrants and their home countries, and the role of desire, the fabled ‘American dream,’ in bolstering America as a place of perfection which then the state claims to guard against the contaminating brown or yellow foreigners.

Belonging for citizens is also produced through discourses of migrant illegality. In Rana’s words, “migrant illegality connotes not only the non-citizen, but also the foreigner, the outsider, and, most often, the immigrant.” (p139) Illegality is a legal construct of state that is reconfigured constantly to render migrants deportable. The selective policing and deportation of Pakistani and Muslim migrants under the pretext of criminality and terrorist threat is how the American War on Terror constructs a racialized migrant illegality to enable the state to deploy legal and extralegal violence. Beneath all the sophisticated legal stratagems, terminological gymnastics, and security jargon that the War on Terror is talked about, this war, as experienced by immigrants, is good old xenophobia and state-endorsed racism.

Racism is central to the deportations, detentions, torture, and a crackdown on Muslims through immigration policies and national security initiatives such as the Special Registration, profiling, and surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods on the one hand, and on the other, “vigilante attacks” on Muslims by concerned citizens inevitably taking their cue from the state that has mobilized and militarized them, not the least by asking to report activities they deem suspicious, an initiative that has resulted in reports generated on ordinary “Muslim-looking” people (read as “terrorist-looking”). This violence is constitutive of the US security and imperial state in the contemporary era. The site for the constitution of this sovereign power is the Muslim body –racialized and made visible through a set of profiles, a Muslim phenotype if you will, to be purged from the body politic through racial violence.

Rana “examines the post-9/11 world of racial terror and violence as seen in the U.S. detention and deportation system and in the migration patterns that have resulted in massive returns to Pakistan and other parts of the diaspora from the United States.” (p18) It is in this last line of investigation that Rana posits that the Muslim body constructed through racialized fear, is imagined as a site of control and containment through detention and is literally disappeared through deportation. And these processes of detention and deportation “reproduce sovereignty in spaces of self-governance and zones of autonomous state-sanctioned force such as detention.” This relentless violence has hit Pakistani immigrants hard, especially the working class migrants and neighborhoods. The estimated figure for returned Pakistanis since 9/11 is well over 100,000. The 120,000 strong Brooklyn’s “Little Pakistan” has lost half its population. If this had happened elsewhere, it would have been labeled, rightly, ethnic cleansing. But to label and to make those labels stick is a function of power.

I conclude with a quote from the author: “In a gesture towards the history in which the racialized figure of the Muslim was created, the global War on Terror constructs an enemy in vulnerable populations such as easily deportable and expendable transnational workers who can be isolated through everyday practices of terror prevention.” Working class Muslim migrants have borne the brunt of much of this violence, though surely violence and racism has not left Muslim American citizens and well off migrants unharmed. To write off this American nightmare as a hopeless case is to do disservice to the actual victims of this violence. Such cynicism would only strengthen the hand of the oppressor as it throws under the buss the continued struggle and mobilization of working class laborers and migrants worldwide, in the Gulf, in the West that Rana lays out in the conclusion of his book, or of the domestic servants in Pakistani homes.

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