Casting Out: Exploring the Racialization of Muslims

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

I just finished reading Sherene H. Razack’s Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics (2008). And I gotta say, it blew me onto my ass.

Razack is the author of several books, including Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, and her work in race theory definitely shows in Casting Out. She uses plenty of theory and excellent cross-racial examples to illustrate that what’s currently happening to Muslims in the West (racialization that results in “the expulsion of Muslims from the political community, a process that takes the form of stigmatization, surveillance, incarceration, torture, and bombing”) has happened to other groups before.

She first argues that Muslims are racialized through “race thinking”, which “divides up the world between the deserving and the undeserving, according to descent.” The racialization of Islam and Muslims is something the editors and I have been wanting to address on Racialicious for awhile, but I haven’t quite known how to begin; Razack’s book provides the perfect springboard.

Islam is represented in mainstream media as South/West Asian brown-skinned people who are bearded and turbaned or veiled and hidden: this racializes Islam.

Now, before you start typing a response that there are non-West Asian Muslims and that Muslim isn’t a race, re-read what I just wrote. There are Muslims in every country in the world, and they are all colors and sizes. But Western media representation of Islam and Muslims simplifies this world-wide group of people into one picture: that of a brown guy with a beard and a keffiyeh. His female counterpart is a brown woman with a veil. Reducing an entire group of people to these static images that have to context or history creates flat attributes (such as the incorrect assertion that West Asia = Muslim) that can be applied to anyone deemed in the “Muslim” category.

Razack argues “the eviction of Muslims from [the Western] political community is a racial process that begins with Muslims being marked as a different level of humanity and being assigned a separate and unequal place in the law.” (her emphasis) When Islam is racialized, the presentation of terrorism as Islamic thus racializes terrorism, especially when terrorism is illustrated by brown-skinned bearded South/West Asians. So, if terrorism is equated with Muslims, then we come to “widespread condemnation of bodies marked as ‘Muslim,’ and heightened support for punitive measures against them.”

Her book also examines three figures: the dangerous Muslim man, the imperiled Muslim woman, and the civilized European. She maps out the racialization and “race thinking” of and around these figures, and traces their roles in things such as the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, racial profiling, Western feminism’s call for improving the lives of Muslim women in North Africa and South/West Asia*, and fears of Sharia law taking over Western politics.

This is where Razack defragments the “culture clash” duality.

“The close connections between assertions of cultural difference and racism has meant that in white societies the smallest references to cultural differences between the European majority and the Third World peoples (Muslims in particular) triggers an instant chain of associations (the veil, female genital mutilation, arranged marriages) that ends with the declared superiority of European culture, imagined as a homogenous composite of values… Culture clash, where the West has values and modernity and the non-West has culture…”

The culture clash argument uses the flat, racialized images of Muslims and puts them in inherent opposition to the West, as if all Muslims everywhere are this one way and the only possible explanation for their being “this way” is because they are Muslims and that’s “their culture.” Razack sums this up nicely: “Cultural difference, understood as their cannibalism, their treatment of women, and their homophobia, justifies the savagery that the West metes out.”

(her emphases)

She then connects the culture clash to the expulsion of Muslims from Western law:

“The state’s central conceptual tool in suspending the rights of those suspected of involvement in terrorism or considered to have the potential to be terrorists has been the idea that Islam breeds a particular pre-modern subject, one who possesses a violent hatred of the West and who is not committed to the rule of law, respect for human rights and women’s rights, or democracy.”

And then she connects this expulsion to neo-colonialism and/or Western imperialism:

“The West is understood as culturally committed to the values of the Enlightenment, while the non-West remains incompletely modern at best, or hostile to modernity at worst. Within this conceptual framework, one often described as a clash of civilizations, it is the duty of modern peoples to bring pre-modern peoples in line.”

She draws great historical parallels between camp mentality in other times and what’s going on now, giving excellent analysis on how Southern plantations, Japanese internment camps, the Spanish Inquisition, etc., were earlier forms of the “race thinking” that is being enacted now in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the suspension of civil liberties of Muslims and South/West Asians in Western countries. Not only are her parallels apt, but they’re very educational: in her comparison between Guantanamo Bay and Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, refugee camps, etc., I learned the Guantanamo Bay had previously been used as a “holding center” for Haitians deemed an HIV threat under President Clinton. In her analysis of Abu Ghraib, she compared what happened there to Canadian peacekeeper violence against Somalians just a decade earlier—something I didn’t know about, either.

I had a difficulty with her focus on “Arabs and Muslims,” which I think is a bit reductive, given the heightened media attention on Iran and Pakistan, two non-Arab but predominately Muslim countries. Though I agree that Islam and Muslims have been racialized into being “brown” and perhaps even “Arab,” I still think it would be more beneficial to the argument if Razack had clarified that she was focusing on the treatment of North African and South/West Asian Muslims. Though she posits that all Muslims are racialized, I get caught up in her use of “Muslims” because most of her examples deal with North African and South/West Asian Muslims.

Also, the inclusion of John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla in her argument about the racialization of Islam and terrorism would be an interesting one; they have been convicted as terrorists, but neither are North African or South/West Asian. Both are American citizens. Lindh is white and Muslim; he was treated just as badly as North African and South/West Asian detainees because he is Muslim. Padilla is Latino and Muslim. He was detained and his habeaus corpus was suspended just like North African and South/West Asian Muslim detainees. They are presented has having their American citizenship and ethnicities taken over by “brown” Islam, which Razack notes is often compared to disease with panicked media allegations that Islam is “spreading.”

This book, though only 180 actual pages, is a wealth of colonial and race theory. It’s dense, and written a bit academically, but worth any struggle. This book taught me more about colonialism, race thinking, and Orientalism than three university courses on Muslims (specifically, Muslim women, but still), and it’s the first book that’s really galvanized my viewpoints in a long time.

*I am deliberately using the cumbersome but geographically accurate term North Africa and South/West Asia instead of “Middle East,” which is a colonial term because it locates this geographic terrain in respect to the West.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.