“The book shows how deeply intertwined logics of anti-Muslim racism are with those of anti-Blackness.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Sylvia Chan-Malik. Chan-Malik is Associate Professor of American Studies and Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Her book is Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Sylvia Chan-Malik: In contemporary media and popular culture, Islam and Muslims are constantly portrayed as foreign entities that pose ideological, cultural, political, and physical threats to an “American way of life.” At the same time, Muslims in the U.S. are subjected to surveillance, detention, and profiling by the state, as well as harassment and daily threats of violence in civil society. The most visible—and fetishized— manifestation of Islam’s difference is the headscarf, and thus U.S. Muslim women are prime recipients of anti-Muslim racism and bigotry.
Yet very few Americans know anything about Islam’s history in the U.S. prior to 9/11. If they do, it’s generally only of singular male figures, such as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) or Muhammad Ali. My book, Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam, centers the lives, narratives, and representations of Muslim women in the United States, with a focus on the early 20th-century to the present. This history necessitates an unequivocal focus on Black American Muslim women, as prior to the 1960s, almost all Muslim women in the U.S., especially those publicly identified as Muslim, were African American. Black Muslim women, I argue, have forcefully shaped the meanings and presence of Islam in the United States. I further contend that they are paradigmatic experiences of U.S. Muslim life, insofar as they demonstrate how ways of being Muslim and practicing Islam in the U.S. have consistently been forged against commonsense notions of racial, gendered, and religious belonging and citizenship. Their stories reveal American Islam’s significance as a non-white, non-Christian religion practiced by people of color as a challenge to white supremacy, as well as a vehicle for women of color to pursue agency and liberation in the U.S. and beyond.
In regards to the current political and social climate, the book shows how deeply intertwined logics of anti-Muslim racism are with those of anti-Blackness. It also exposes how mainstream white American feminists were largely responsible for perpetrating notions of Muslim women’s subjugation, e.g. the trope of the Poor Muslim Women, which would become a primary rationale behind the War on Terror. Most importantly, Being Muslim conveys the depth, nuance, and complexity of U.S. Muslim women’s lives and the impact of their longstanding presence in this country. It presents the perspectives and histories of people and communities that are absolutely vital to understanding issues of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and U.S. American identity today.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
First and foremost, I want the book to expand people’s notions of who Muslim women are, what “Islamic” history is, and what being a Muslim woman actually means. I hope readers will see that in a U.S. context, when we talk about “Muslims,” we are not only discussing religion, but issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality, in both domestic and international spheres. So U.S. Muslim history is Black history, it is Asian American history, it is Arab American history, it is women’s history, it is U.S. American history, it is world history.It is also a history of whiteness, patriarchy, and Christianity supremacy in the U.S. a story of the ways white supremacy has continually produced “Islam” and “Muslims” as seemingly irreconcilable with the hegemonic norms of U.S identity and citizenship, as somehow beyond the pale of “American-ness.”
I also hope the book offers insight into the critical role of religion and spirituality in people’s personal and political lives. The Progressive Left is fairly bad with religion, and in particular regards to Muslims. What I mean by that is that activists and organizers are generally adept at identifying Muslims as victims of surveillance, or hate crimes, or drone strikes and then decrying these forms of violence. But they falter when it comes to actually working with those communities, because there is no understanding of Islam as a “lived religion.” This term—drawn from religious studies scholars—connotes the ways religion functions in people’s everyday lives, how religious practices and impulses are constituted in social environments, and how religious subjectivities are expressed through actual bodies that are race-d, gendered, classed, etc. It would go a long way, in my opinion, for activists and organizers to be mindful of how religion operates in people’s lives, both for those they are seeking organize, as well as those whose policies and practices they oppose.
Finally, very simply put, I hope activists and organizers seek out Black American Muslim voices and perspectives when they engage U.S. Muslim communities, and acknowledge the enormous influence of Islam in Black American politics, culture, and consciousness. Struggles for racial justice are central to combating anti-Muslim racism, while at the same time, understanding the contours of anti-Muslim racism/Islamophobia is critical to forming effective social justice coalitions.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
As I say above, I’d like to first do away with the notion that: 1) Islam is a foreign religion, and perhaps even more specifically, the conflation between “Muslim” and “Arab.” Only about one-third of the world’s 1.6 billions Muslims live in the Middle East and North Africa; 62 percent live in the Asia-Pacific region, and in the United States, Muslims comprise the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the nation. I want readers to disinvest themselves of the idea that Muslims and Islam are a “new” presence in the U.S., as they have been here for centuries, living and shaping the culture of the nation. And to move forward with the understanding that that Islam is vital to understanding histories of Black liberation and struggle in this country, and thus, is also crucial to shaping social justice movement of the future.
“Muslims comprise the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the nation.”
Secondly, I would very much like to dispel the notion that Islam, on the one hand, and women’s rights, feminism, and gendered agency, on the other, are somehow mutually opposed entities. In the book’s narratives, I show time and time again how women in the U.S. approached Islam as a means to reject racism, sexism, poverty, and to find safety and solace for themselves, their families, and their communities, albeit to varying levels of success. Through my stories of Black Muslim women in early 1920s Chicago, women in the Nation of Islam, Sister Betty Shabazz, jazz singer Dakota Staton, and U.S. Muslim women activists in the contemporary era, it is clear that each and every one of these women engaged/continues to engage being Muslim as a means to express their power and agency as women, and more specifically, as women of color.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Many scholars inspire me, but the intellectual heroes who inspire this book are the Black American Muslim women who crafted modes of being Muslim and practicing Islam in times and places when they had no precedents. Through Islam, they produced new modes of intellectual, spiritual, and cultural life that directly refuted the status quo and was meant to fundamentally intervene upon and alter the social, political, and cultural order. I see their lives and labors as radical theory and praxis in action, in which they put their bodies, minds, and souls on the line to imagine an alternative future, to forge new relationships with the Divine.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
What a perfect follow-up to the last question! There is this absolutely amazing Octavia Butler short story, “The Book of Martha,” in which the protagonist (Martha), who is an African American woman, encounters God. God tasks Martha with coming up with a plan to save humankind by lending her his powers. She can implement whatever she wants; however the only caveat is that whatever she decides, she will return to earth as part of the lowest rung of society. So Martha needs to make a world in which even those on the very bottom will be free.
I mention this story here in relation to my first chapter, in which I tell the story of a Black migrant woman to Chicago named Florence Watts, who converts to Islam in 1922 and becomes Sister Zeineb. I understand Sister Zeineb and her peers, who became Muslim women in the U.S. during a time when there was no such thing, as attempting to remake the world. As Black, working-class women, they understand their position in the existing social order as amongst the lowest in American society. Islam offers them full personhood, through an expansive identity that transcends the boundaries of U.S. racial and gender politics and initiates them into a global community of believers. To put it another way, it gives them a way to get free.
“Islam challenges the very nature of white supremacy in this country.”
Almost 50 years later, Malcolm X stated famously that he believed Islam was the solution to the nation’s race problem. While I find this statement incomplete, and believe Malcolm’s views, had he lived, may have changed over time, we should continually ask what is so compelling about this idea, about how “Islam”—as an idea, a religion, a culture, and ideology—in the U.S., is wholly intertwined with the fate of race and racism in this country. Islam challenges the very nature of white supremacy in this country through its presence as a non-white, non-Christian religion that carries legacies of Black and Third World liberation struggles in the U.S. and worldwide. Throughout its history in the U.S., as with worldwide, Muslim women have been at the heart of building the affective practices of Islam in America, e.g. how to dress, how to eat, to raise children, to build community, etc., which they constructed against the harsh and oftentimes violent realities of race, gender, sexuality, and class in their lives. In these practices, I think we may glean how women of color have tried to use Islam as a solution to the nation’s race problem, and in the process, have produced legacies of knowledge that may light a path forward.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of U.S. Empire.