by NOOREEN REZA | University of Cambridge, MPhil ’16, South Asian Studies
This is part of an ongoing series on Impressions of Post-Election America. This article, written by CAMMIGRES Forum’s co-founder Nooreen Reza, was originally published in Kajal Magazine on 29 January 2017. If you are interested in contributing to this series, contact us.
The day after Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States in 2008, my 10th grade homeroom teacher, a stout woman with a voice like an idling car engine, came to school wearing black. She was, as she winkingly explained, in mourning. And she wasn’t alone in her attitude; anti-Obama sentiment was rife in my hometown in rural Virginia those days, and almost grotesque in the ways it manifested.
I still remember, for instance, the time my classmates took down the Obama-Biden campaign sign posted on the geography classroom wall — our teacher had a habit of collecting campaign memorabilia — and stamped on it for fun while he was out. I peeled the sign from the floor, returned it to its rightful spot, and spent the rest of the afternoon shaking. Outside the school, several churches joined the smear campaign. Some preachers went so far as to suggest that Barack Hussein Obama was, in fact, the antichrist come to America. Of course any God-fearing woman, like my teacher, would mourn his victory.
“The known and unknown; the visible black man and the hidden brown enemy; the unfamiliar Barack and the all-too familiar Hussein.”
Racism was no stranger to me back then, but I was used to attitudes that were plainly ignorant and malicious rather than justifications of hatred that were so purely weird as the ones Obama coaxed out of people. To this day, I still can’t quite decide if these folks were so hysterically afraid of him (to the point that they considered him the harbinger of the apocalypse) because they thought he was maybe secretly Muslim, or because he was obviously and incontrovertibly black. Perhaps the clearest answer is that they were afraid of both: the known and unknown; the visible black man and the hidden brown enemy; the unfamiliar Barack and the all-too familiar Hussein.
All of it was a challenge to white political and cultural hegemony, all of it terrifying to these white people whose only exposure to black and brown minorities was, honestly, either inscrutable teenage dorks like me or the drug dealers and terrorists on TV. And I can see, looking back, that it was the first time I realized there was nothing singular or unprecedented about a fear of Muslims — that this particular fear didn’t, and couldn’t, exist in isolation from other kinds of American bigotry.
Even before my religion became a reason for me to feel out of place, my heritage made me obviously unusual in that small Virginia town, which as of the 2000 census was 95% white. One side of my family hails from India and Pakistan, the other from the Iranian borderlands. I have the kind of face that is unquestionably non-white, but just ambiguous enough that people I don’t know feel a compulsive desire to play “guess the ethnicity” with me. My sixth grade social studies teacher once pulled me out of math class next door precisely for that reason, placing me next to a globe without explanation and then directing her students to fire away.
Growing up like this, feeling completely different from everyone around me, it was easy to believe that the situation American Muslims faced post 9/11 was also singularly harrowing, to imagine that we were somehow distinctive in the way we were discriminated against. And, perhaps because most of the people of color I knew well in my little, rural Southern world also happened to be South Asian Muslims, my life experiences didn’t challenge that idea. It was always Islamophobia which felt like the most tangible prejudice and the most urgent problem to me then, one to be recognized above all else.
I don’t think quite the same way anymore, but it took Barack Hussein Obama bursting onto the scene to break my worldview wide open. It wasn’t until the first years of the Obama presidency that I started to see how Islamophobia fits like a cog in the machine of white supremacy in America.
Look at the birtherism conspiracy around him, for example: it’s difficult to parse whether that belief was more deeply rooted in anti-Muslim or anti-black hatred. I started to realize as a teenager that the 21st century edition of the struggle against xenophobia was about Muslims, yes, but it was about so much more than us. It was about a broader fabric of oppression into which so many of our non-white, non-conforming brothers and sisters, of all faiths or no faith, had been sewn so tightly. We Muslims were an addition to that fabric. Unfortunately, it took far too long for many of us to recognize the pattern in the quilt.
That failure of recognition perpetuates attitudes among middle-class, Asian-American Muslims, specifically, that I find deeply troubling, and which we have no time for in this political climate. The support shown by allies and activists in the face of the extremist insanity that is the executive action banning Muslims from 7 countries from entering the US has been heartening, to say the least. People put their bodies on the line to protest at heavily securitized airports; lawyers volunteered their expertise drafting habeas petitions from arrival lounges. The protesters persisted and the ACLU successfully pushed for an emergency stay on the the order in Brooklyn federal court tonight.
If we expect continued solidarity like this from folks when we are targeted yet again, then we have to reciprocate. That doesn’t just mean showing up on the streets and social media, although that’s essential. Crucially, it means substantively addressing and combating the many prejudicial attitudes and behaviors that exist among us. It means sacrificing some of the tenuous privileges we enjoy by virtue of our social and economic positions.
* * *
“The first Muslims to arrive in America were enslaved Africans, not visa-bearing Asian doctors.”
In the South Asian Muslim community I grew up in, people were and still are invested in fitting the image of the successful, unthreatening “model minority” in the eyes of America’s white majority — not least because it seems like our survival in this country depends on it. So it makes sense that most friendly mainstream narratives promoted about South Asian immigrants, Muslim and otherwise, exclude people who complicate the plot: the working class, the generations who arrived before the post-1965 wave of professionally trained immigrants, and our non-Asian Muslim predecessors whose histories and humanity we blithely obscure.
The first Muslims to arrive in America were enslaved Africans, not visa-bearing Asian doctors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslim Bengali indentured seamen jumped ship at American ports and began new lives that often led them to find economic possibility, social acceptance, and new families in black neighborhoods like Harlem, while white society excluded them. On the West Coast in the same eras, Muslim Punjabi immigrant farmers married Hispanic women laborers due to legal restrictions on racial intermarriage with white people. Granted, racial intermarriage between communities doesn’t automatically erase the prejudices their members may hold, but these instances show that Muslim life in this country has always encompassed a huge range of socioeconomic levels and, for centuries, has been inextricably connected to other marginalized communities. But I had to go searching far and wide for those histories on my own, since no one I grew up with was going to teach me about them.
Today, it’s astonishing to me to believe that Bengali Harlem ever existed, when I sit around listening to aunties at parties giving pointers to each other on the best times to go to yoga classes so as to avoid black people. (Honestly, it’s a charitable interpretation of their language to even say they refer to black folks as people; most of the time they casually use the term kala, which literally means just “black” in Hindi/Urdu.) It’s a struggle to remind myself of the economic diversity of American Muslims when every family I know adheres to the respectability politics of career choice, telling their children they will only be successful in the eyes of the world if they have some kind of advanced degree — preferably in the sciences.
I have been lectured that the best way to serve the American Muslim community, the best way to build a front against Islamophobia, is to become as rich as possible. Don’t ask me how that logic works, but my guess is that it has something to do with aspiring to a place in the ruling class, not with challenging it. I have been astonished by the hoops Muslim “leaders” will jump through to avoid acknowledging or endorsing anti-racist politics, while having no problem with calling out Islamophobia and re-centering the conversation to themselves.
I would be lying if I said I was always attuned to these complexities. Ironically, it took getting an advanced degree (in area studies) to reverse the effects of years of imbibing model-minority, “Good Muslim” rhetoric. But even when I was young, I suspected that I was not alone in being irrevocably othered by white America. I knew something was off when I went to high school football games and realized, gazing over at the opposing team’s bleachers, that the reason I had absolutely zero black classmates in my entire K-12 life was because anyone who would have been my classmate apparently went to school in the next town over, preserving de facto segregation.
I knew my marginalization wasn’t unique every time I heard my classmates cycle through a seemingly endless repertoire of racist jokes on the schoolbus, about everything from the emo-Muslim who lets out angst by crashing planes to the Mexicans coming out of holes in their backyards to the eternal crowd favorite, “What do you call 3 black men on the moon? Three black men on the moon. What do you call 3 million? Problem solved!”Just as horrifying as these jokes was the expectation that I would laugh at them too — since, hey, I’m not Mexican or black, so what business do I have being offended?
To take offense for the sake of people different from you is to begin to become invested in a politics deeper than your own individual hurt. But it is also opening yourself up to even more pain. For a lot of Asian-American Muslims after 9/11, the pain of Islamophobia was more than enough to suffer, and for some of us the idea of becoming “political” back then felt potentially dangerous, especially if it meant dissenting from the fear-induced policies of foreign intervention, domestic surveillance, and aggressive policing. (I single out Asian-American Muslims deliberately, not to exclude other Muslims in America, but to emphasize that other communities have their own independent history of thought and action that shouldn’t be lumped in to make some monolithic “Muslim” political stance.) Recognizing the diversity of Muslims’ lived experiences in the US, understanding that our many interlocking identities and our positions in society are more complicated than just being Muslim, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it compels us to action if we have an ethical compass — and that opens the most privileged among us to the full force of the surveillance, violence, and enforced social invisibility that our less fortunate brothers and sisters already face day in and day out.
Perhaps most terrifying of all, it puts us at risk of being models no more, of being stripped of even the illusory protections we hoped to preserve by staying amenably silent. That’s why the guiding motto delivered to me and so many of my friends as an adolescent was “keep a low profile”: Don’t engage with bigots. Don’t endanger your precarious social safety as a minority and a Muslim by speaking out against injustice. Just work on becoming the respectable, well-off professional that no one could possibly be afraid of.
My response to racist taunts as a kid was usually to throw the nearest small object, so I was pretty bad at adhering to this motto in even the most basic sense. But the fact that this was advice I could theoretically follow was an advantage I had compared to those Americans who couldn’t keep a low profile, whether due to class, race, immigration status, religion, sexuality, or a lethal combo of all the above. And it’s that advantage that allowed people like me the dubious privilege of being able to worry only about Islamophobia for so long.
* * *
If there ever was a time for blissful obliviousness, though, it is decisively over. While attacks and harassment against Muslims and many other kinds of people since Trump’s election in November are an escalation of a preexisting social condition, rather than a new development, that doesn’t make them any less alarming as a sign of things to come. Fascist policy has already been institutionalized with the Muslim ban, even though it is being fought against valiantly. I would be lying if I told you I am not extremely unsettled by the idea of a man like Michael Flynn, who likened Islam to a “vicious cancer,” being a top national security adviser, just like I cringe at the idea of a documented bigot like Jeff Sessions being attorney general. Before and since the election, countless calls for solidarity between the communities of people who have the most to lose in the face of developments like these have rung out and been answered, over a variety of issues. But my fear is that a common enemy is not enough to achieve substantive solidarity long-term. In the case of my own community, the precarious hope embedded in these calls can’t erase the fact that many Asian-American Muslims have studiously held others deemed ‘not quite like us’ at arm’s length in the past, or have been complicit in their oppression through our passive silence or active disavowal.
“Solidarity doesn’t just follow from crisis; it follows from a painful acknowledgement of the ways you are part of the problem, even if that’s simply through existing.”
If police officers shoot a black Muslim in 2017, and if calls for accountability get derailed by accusations that the victim had terrorist sympathies, will Asian-American Muslim leaders at large have the wherewithal to question the fear of “black criminality”? Or will they be too eager to claim the pain of one besieged identity, the demonized Muslim, at the expense of the other? Will we expect queer Muslims to march in the streets against Islamophobia, while simultaneously being derided as “native informants” for speaking publicly about being ostracized and hated in religious communities they want to belong to? Will undocumented Latinx immigrants be able to count on our solidarity after we’ve taken refuge in the imaginary moral high ground that our folks always “follow the rules” of immigration like a good, law-abiding minority, especially in the face of the heightened, aggressive scrutiny the Muslim ban will provoke? Will we support the struggle of Native Americans in places like Standing Rock when the upholding of indigenous rights and the defense of the environment don’t serve an explicitly “Muslim interest,” when our attentions will be reasonably dominated by the assault on our civil liberties?
Solidarity doesn’t just follow from crisis; it follows from a painful acknowledgement of the ways you are part of the problem, even if that’s simply through existing. A model minority narrative harms those within and beyond my Muslim community who can’t attain the model markers of achievement. I must fight that narrative for their sake, even at my own expense. And I have to show up for others, the way they, honestly to my great surprise, have shown up for me. My Muslimness is, for better or worse, a thread in a quilt that entangles many more beyond myself. And if we’re going to survive the so-called Trump regime, it will only be by having the patience to help disentangle our friends new and old — not just ourselves.
Cover image by Sebastian Meyer