Last Friday night, November 9, 2018, I attended an education circle, organized by Southwest Organizing Project, hosted by the Albuquerque Center for Peace & Justice, and led by activist Samia Assed. Assed, a Palestinian American woman who grew up in Dearborn, MI and has made home in New Mexico for many years wears a hijab. She convened the circle by generously sharing with us that she was unusually nervous. She shared feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the history she’d encountered in preparing for this session, and how very viscerally personal this subject is for her. I related, feeling much the same in my recent research regarding antisemitism and its place in American culture today.
Then she asked us each to introduce ourselves, and tell her how we feel, honestly, when we see a woman in a hijab. Many in the circle mentioned that a hijab inspired curiosity. There were feminists who worried it was a sign of subjugation and feminists who perceived it as an assertion of religious strength. There were naïve stories told about first encounters in insular communities and tender stories of deeply personal encounters. One man, an Afghani Muslim, shared that for him “hijab is mother.” All the while I listened and as it got closer and closer to my turn, my calm nerves became more and more thready. “I want to meet you where you started,” I said, heart pounding. “I’m nervous, too.” She smiled warmly at me. “I am going to respond with the honesty you requested, and from two parts of my identity.” “Only two?” someone wisecracked from the room. “Yes, only two” I replied. I went on to share that the radical queer feminist in me sees a woman in a hijab as a courageous, brave, attractive, powerful person who actively flags non-assimilation and rejects the safety of being stealth. And the Jew in me is fearful that this woman in a hijab won’t like me if she knows I’m a Jew, and that I become shaky and insecure, needy and unstable. And then, she smiled warmly at me, again.
After everyone had loaned their voice to the circle, she started: “Fear is a real part of everyday American Muslim life.”
She explained that in different ways, for the entire history of the United States, and before, Orientalism has animated Islamophobia since The Crusades, since the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, since the Spanish Inquisition. Orientalism is the historically inclusive body of media created largely by artists, writers, designers, and academicians that instills a set of values and attitudes in “Westerners” towards the cultures and peoples of the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and North Africa. The theories of culture and personhood depicted in Orientalism characterize the cultures and peoples of “The Orient” as eccentric, exotic, savage, silent, passive, sexual, despotic, other, unsophisticated, weak, inferior, dangerous and serves to justify and normalize colonial violence, theft, appropriation, slavery, and cultural hegemony on the part of the colonizers.
As she spoke, of Edward Said’s seminal work on Orientalism, and the modern history of Islamophobia, she explained that the depiction of Muslims since 1967 has shifted to be a portrayal of profoundly dangerous threat. Shaped by the ongoing war in Israel/Palestine, the oil embargo of the mid 1970s, the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, and finally 9/11 in the early 2000s, Muslims are rarely seen any longer as either passive or exotic because, as Assed stated “The military industrial complex needs a war every day.” I thought about the way in which Orientalism is deeply espoused by Neo Liberals and its impacts are not remanded to the cultural realm, but also powerfully informs American domestic and global policy as well. There is Orientalism of The Global East, but also, Orientalism of Africa. She even suggested Orientalism of Central America – in short, the tropes of dehumanization utilized globally by Neo Liberalism could all be understood as Orientalism and simultaneously used as a tool to enforce, expand, and justify Neo Liberalism.
Assed continued and told the story of the first man from an Arab nation who was proffered the right to full citizen rights in the United States, including the right to vote. The story conjured various theories of race, and racial precariousness, and touched on both a natural theory of race as well as a cultural one. She told of the petitioner, who had been denied citizenship because he did not meet the standard of Whiteness required at the time to become a voting citizen. He made a case in the court that he was from the same place as Jesus (Palestine) and that if Jesus was White, then he too, by that logic, must be White. He was a Christian Arab, and he was granted citizenship, and for that moment in American history, Arab was legally understood to be White.
Friday night, I learned that the history of Muslims in the United States began with somewhere between 25% and 33% of African slaves being Muslim. And Assed concluded with this horrifying statistic, that since 9/11 33 million Arabs have been killed in the name of fighting terrorism, and I realized for the first time that at 1.2% of current American population, the history of Muslims in the United States is yet another multi-generational history of genocide. And I wonder, too, what is the correlation between recent increase in antimuslim bias and hate crime and increase of antisemitism? Islamophobia, like antisemitism, seems to traverse the uncharted territory between religion and culture and race. And how can we have these conversations without talking about the hegemony of Christianity in this country?