By Guest Contributor Mimi Thi Nguyen, cross-posted from Threadbared
Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”
On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, South/South (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”
Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. (Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) and South/South (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about putting on their “garb” that underlined so well the usage of the term as loaded with civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.
This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!
MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?
JUNAID: It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.
As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.
Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.
In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.
As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.
What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress. Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.
MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?
JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color. Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.
MIMI: What are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs?
JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.