Professor Adrian Pantoja: Good afternoon. Welcome to the fall 2021 Racial Justice Initiative speaker series. I am Professor Adrian Pantoja, I’m a professor of politics here at Pitzer College. I’m also one of the Associate Deans of Faculty and I’m currently chairing the Racial Justice Initiative. The Racial Justice Initiative was established by President Melvin Oliver in response to ongoing racialized violence that we were seeing in the United States, and also the rise in the Black Lives Matter movement. So, the RJI was established to transform Pitzer College by inviting experts, activists, to provide insights and a plan of action for the pursuit of racial justice.
Today, it is my pleasure to welcome our first speaker in the fall series, Professor Karam Dana. Professor Dana is the Allison McGregor distinguished professor and associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He’s written extensively on Palestinians and American Muslims. He is the founding director of the American Muslim Research Institute, he’s the co-principal investigator of the Muslim American public opinion survey, and he’s led many other surveys related to Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, including the 2013 Palestinian public opinion survey.
On a side note, every time one of my students plans to do a research project on Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Palestinians, and they asked me for advice, where do I find some research, I basically tell them start with Karam Dana, a good friend of mine, one of the top scholars in the country on this population, this is a good place to start. And so, it is a pleasure to have him here today to give us some insights into the many years of research he’s been doing on this population.
This is a webinar. He will be speaking for about 40-45 minutes, and then we’re going to open it up to Q&A. I will read the questions to Professor Dana. I’ll turn it over to you; take it away.
Professor Karam Dana: Wonderful, thank you very much Professor Pantoja. Hi, it’s great to be in Pitzer, but actually virtually with Pitzer because, as a matter of fact, it was one of the earliest presentations that I have done on American Muslims. If you remember, it was around 2005 and it was at Pitzer College. I’m very delighted to be back about 16 or so years later. And I’m very happy to share my general thoughts in relation to the racialization of Arab and Muslim Americans. And I’m very honored to be invited, and thank you for the opportunity.
I’m going to share my screen if I may. To present, most obviously, most academics tend to use PowerPoint presentations, which I also agree that with a lot of people that it may not be the best medium to share some of the insights, but it provides us with some kind of points that will hopefully be good takeaways from the presentation. And obviously as always, Adrian knows this, I’m happy to answer any question related to the topic or another topic. So, feel free to ask any questions. So I’m going to share my PowerPoint presentation; I’m assuming this will look a little different for you. (Give me a second, I’ll do this.)
The title of this talk today is called “Politics of Belonging and Exclusion, Orientalism and Racialization of Arabs and Muslim Americans in the United States.” It’s obvious to all of us that now, with as in a few days ago, to the 20th anniversary of 9-11, the fateful events of 9-11 have really reminded us with a number of things related to how the United States as a country, but also as a people, sees Muslims and Islam, not only as a people, but also as a religion, as a value system, etc., and then there’s obviously a level of racialization associated with this. I would like to take this a little bit further into history and centralize our conversation today around attempting, if I may, to share and situate the collective experience of Arabs and Muslim Americans in the American context of racial politics, etc., racial and ethnic politics, but also to address loosely, very large questions. These types of questions do not have a yes or no answer, obviously, they tend to kind of drag on, and there is not one easy way to answer these questions. But really, part of the reason why I do this is I happen to be Palestinian American; I happen to be Muslim American. I identify as Muslim American and I’m an immigrant as well, and a Palestinian refugee. I hold these types identities that, in some ways, are easily racialized in the complex of the United States today. So, it always comes up to my mind to think about how and why is it so acceptable to target Muslims and Arab Americans with really hate-filled speech, without really fear of reactions compared to other minority groups. But then in addition to this, I also start thinking of the larger question of racialization in the United States and talk about these experiences, and how do they actually help us, the experiences of other racial and minority groups in the United States? How can they actually help us understand the sources, but also understand the dynamics and the ways in which stereotypes, stereotypical statements, and stereotypes and tropes towards American Muslims are me? How can we learn from these experiences?
Before moving forward, I’d like to mention a few things. Because I’m an academic, I always have to refer back to theory. In some ways, it’s very important to do so, but at the same time, I understand that it might be a little bit quote, unquote, “boring,” so I’ll try to go through this very quickly. We all know that race isn’t necessarily about color, per se, or phenotype. This is very well established, that race is a socially constructed term to infer meaning that contributes to the racial hierarchy that exists within society. But ultimately, there’s that question of resource allocation associated with that. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily have to be money resource allocation, but also privilege and the ability to do certain things that other resource groups aren’t able to know. One thing in particular in relation to American society’s racial hierarchy is that it is, in fact, integral to its societal, socio-political and economic structures. So, whiteness is really, unfortunately, part of how American society is structured, it is central to the idea of privilege.
And then the idea of racialization enforces and strengthens this hierarchy, racial hierarchy. But then, as I mentioned earlier, like the idea of being white is not necessarily the absence of ethnic or religious, I’m sorry, ethnic or racial identity, per se. But in fact, whiteness itself is an ethnic identity that also gives a level of privilege compared to other racial and ethnic groups. So, I wanted to think about these terms. Most of the time, I notice that people think of whiteness as the absence of something else. The idea of, “Well, I’m not Latino, I’m basically white. I don’t have that ethnic component, for example, I’m not Arab. I am x, y, & z.” But really, to think about categorization and how that actually matters, in terms of how we think about race and race relations in the context of the United States. And the story that I’d like to mention here is that people think I’m white, I’m walking down the street, people think I’m white until they know I’m not. This is a term I would like… an anecdote I’d like to share about my own experiences. As someone who is a quote, unquote, “light skinned person,” then most people in the United States, and most people, I mean people who don’t know me personally and don’t know my background, they think I happen to be white. But once I speak, or I mention my name, Karam, it means, what kind of a name is that? Then all of a sudden, “Oh, you’re an Arab. I really thought you were white.”
If anything, this particular point shows that color has nothing to do, there’s this racial categorization in people’s minds, that doesn’t necessarily have to do with how color or how white-passing the person is. We all know, I’m sure all of you have heard of the idea of the one-drop rule that if you have one drop of Black, then all of a sudden, you’re Black. This is quite significant to understand that this is the context that we’re talking about. This is the context in which we find ourselves studying Latinx communities, Black African Americans, and also the question of Muslims and Arabs in the United States.
I also want to give a little bit more in terms of theory, if I may, very quickly, and then I move forward. Racialization; what is it? If it’s race, how does that work, especially when we’re talking about a religious identity. Muslims are identified with religious identity; how does that actually work? So, racialization, effectively, is a process of institutional powers like state institutions, defining a subordinate group in a generalized way, in a particular way, to define a group that is not really central to the power structure, yielding inaccurate meanings to these groups, preserving, effectively, status quo and racial hierarchy. So, it’s kind of a straightforward definition of racialization.
Now, to quote unquote, to “racialize” an identity, one must, privilege explains, to the supposedly innate qualities of the human body; race, and there’s certain physical appearance. In turn, essentialized attributes can be used to justify or counteract policies of discrimination. To think about what does it means to racialize a particular identity in that sense.
There’s also another concept that I’d like to mention, because I’m talking about the identity of being an Arab. What makes an Arab an Arab? It’s someone who speaks the language Arabic as their first language. But also, obviously, if someone considers themselves to be Arab, you don’t have to necessarily speak Arabic. But if you have a heritage that is connected to the Arabic speaking world, then you, by definition, are an Arab. However, when it gets to Islam, not everyone who is Muslim is Arab. In fact, most Muslims are non-Arab. I’m sure we all know this. And similarly, not all Arabs are Muslim; there’s a substantial Christian Arab community throughout the Arabic speaking world. But there are a number of ways that one can be seen in similar fashion as the other. So, if you hear something about Islam, then all of a sudden, your mind attributes it to Arabs and vice versa.
So, what I wanted to talk about here is the last one I mentioned, is that there’s a concept called racial lumping, to kind of bring a “bunch of people,” quote, unquote (excuse my terminology and explaining this because I realize how offensive it may be), in these terms. But the idea is that privileged and dominant groups treat diverse and heterogeneous peoples as groups, peoples in groups as homogenous, to actually think of them as all the same. This tends to be the case, for example, in relation to Asian Americans, that the experience of an Asian American who happens to be Chinese American, for example, is quite similar, or seen, in some ways, the experiences are ones that that Japanese Americans are experiencing. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Japanese American is similar to that who happens to be Chinese American, but it tends to be in the minds of the privileged group, aka, the privileged white community of the United States tends to see these experiences, to see these people as one, effectively. So anyway, let’s move on.
One thing I’d like to mention before I move forward, this is the sort of stuff that I’ve been toying with for the past 15-20 years, is when we study race, and religious and/or ethnic differences, it is becoming increasingly more important to take into account and consideration the larger context, especially when we’re addressing intersectional identities. And I’m going to get back to the idea of intersectionality, over and over and over again, throughout the talk, not only in the slides, but I think it will just come into conversation as well. So that’s the first thing that I wanted to emphasize, is that we really need to think about the larger context, not only the socio-economic and political structures of the United States, per se, but we also have to broaden that to understand the global structure of power. I think, increasingly, that is becoming more and more important. And then also American societies in particular, the racial hierarchy is really, as I mentioned earlier, is integral to socio-political economic structures, where whiteness and the specific version of Christianity are central to privilege and exclude other identities.
And the idea here that I’m mentioning, the idea of Christianity, specific versions that happen to be Western versions of Christianity, I don’t necessarily mean that a Christian Arab, say in Bethlehem Palestine, or a Christian Arab, in Beirut, Lebanon, or a Christian Arab in Damascus, Syria, or a Christian Arab in Amman, Jordan, or Cairo, etc., I’m not necessarily saying that they’re not Christian. But in the sense, these are indigenous Christian communities to the Arabic speaking world, they’re very important and significant to the culture of the region. However, when Arabs are seen in other contexts, they are seen through that racialized lens. I also must mention that Christian Arabs tend to have a slightly different type of experience whereby they’re a little bit more “accepted,” quote, unquote, there’s literature and evidence to suggest that Christians don’t have it as, quote unquote, “as bad,” but I don’t want to minimize the difficulties that Christian Arabs have experienced in the United States. But for the purposes of this talk, you will find me talking about Muslims and Arabs as if they are interchangeable. They are not obviously, however, when we are thinking about how they experience discrimination in the United States, it almost is identical. It is due to the fact that their experiences are all lumped together, whereby they all of a sudden become the other that is not us.
I wanted to also bring to the conversation the dynamics of the so-called us versus them. Who belongs and who doesn’t? In political psychology, it is a subfield in psychology. And also, I think, also social psychology kind of touches on that, in that area, the “in” group versus the so-called “out” group is central to the study of race already, we already know that. But I argue that it should also take a more central role in the study of religion and politics. As I mentioned earlier in relation to how Christianity is seen in the Arabic speaking world, or not necessarily Eastern Christianity, but other forms of Christianity that are not necessarily Western, are not coming out of the Catholic Church, they’re not coming out of Protestant tradition, but rather to think about how religion and politics make us understand the In group Out-group dynamic as well while we study race, so kind of bringing the two areas of study together, theoretically, but really to think about that in a new form of approach.
The case I would like to briefly discuss is the case of Muslim Americans as breeding grounds for terrorism. And this is the sort of stuff that you always find that Muslim Americans are seen with suspicion throughout, not only after 9-11, but obviously increasingly after 9-11. But it has happened for quite some time, and Muslim Americans have been racialized in the United States, and Arab Americans as well. And I will talk more about that. And also, while we’re talking about Muslims and/or Arabs, I also would like to mention the idea of Palestinian. The Palestinian in the American mind is also racialized because of the idea of violence against what is perceived to be an ally of the United States. So there are different components here as we think about this in terms of the racialization of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian. As I mentioned, that idea of racial lumping, we define that term, but Islam and Muslims and Arabs are seen through that lens; they’re all seen through that lens of they’re all the same.
Edward Said, (and I’ll talk more about Said in the preceding slides), Edward Said, in his book, Orientalism, he basically mentioned that these types of definitions are not really based on truth, basically. They are rather, as they’re referenced earlier, kind of imagined in the west, they’re imagined in the mind. Let me move forward.
One more thing I’d like to mention about the context of the United States is that anti-Latter Day Saints, anti-Mormon laws have, in fact been used against Muslims at some point in history. The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1920 had stories about what is believed to be the earliest missionary, Muslim missionary coming to the United States. And he was, in fact, an Ahmadi Muslim immigrant. The Ahmadi community is a minority within a minority within Islam. I just want to also mention that it’s not necessarily a “common” quote, unquote, or dominant form of Islam, which we all know is Sunni versus Shia, but Ahmadi communities have actually experienced quite a bit of discrimination within the Muslim community itself. But at any rate, he was immediately imprisoned upon arriving to the United States and was arrested for about seven to eight weeks and jailed for no crime. One thing in particular that was kind of the rationale as to why he was arrested, was that he was Muslim and Islam was seen as a religion that propagates polygamy, whereas earlier, legal codes have been passed to deliberately limit polygamy targeting the LDS and Mormon communities. These are the sorts of things that I would like to show that the anti-Muslim feelings or Islamophobia, if I may, are not necessarily only towards Muslims, per se, but they also overlap with other religious minorities. Now, not necessarily to be literal, that idea of Orientalism, which I’ll be mentioning later. I’m referencing here, Kathleen Moore’s very important work; I looked at both American laws and the transformation of Muslim life in the United States as one of the earliest legal studies that looks at US laws in relation to Muslims.
Although Muslims are seen as quote, unquote, “foreign,” Muslims are seen as foreign, even though the following (I’m going to go briefly through the slide). The first words to be uttered when Columbus and his colonizing companions landed on islands of the Eastern coasts of the Americas were in fact, Salaam Alaikum. Salaam Alaikum is an Arabic greeting, which means peace be upon you. It’s an Arabic that most Muslims use, but also non-Muslims use as well. Thinking that they had arrived to some of the islands off of India, they thought that some of the residents and inhabitants of those islands were in fact Muslim. So, there is something about Islam that had arrived, even during the colonization period of the Americans. Some have argued, in fact, that Columbus relied on the navigation techniques of Muslims. In his so-called “discovery,” and we all obviously understand the word “discovery” that if anything, reflects, brings us back to the question of hierarchy, that in terms of who is capable of claiming knowledge? To say, “I have discovered it, even if there were people there, I still discovered it.” So, if anything, this is a reflection of power. It emphasizes, if anything, creates an emphasis on racial and ethnic hierarchy here. So, I am not going to let this opportunity go for me to rehash the idea of racial hierarchy, even with the word discovery, the so-called Columbus discovering the Americas and of course, obviously claiming the superiority of one particular racial and ethnic group over another.
Another person that I’d like to mention, another fact, is Alexander Russell Webb, he’s actually known as the “Yankee Muhammedan.” Muhammedan was a term used in the early period, 17th, 16th -17th century, to refer to Muslims, because the prophet of Islam was Muhammed so they would refer to those who follow Islam to be Muhammedans. So he was the Yankee Muhammed. And he was, in fact, a convert to Islam and didn’t know any other Muslim for that matter. He ended up going to India and he travelled widely, but he became literally the first representative, like diplomatic representative, to the Philippines. And that’s quite significant if you think about diplomatic history of the United States. This is very central in terms of thinking about relationships between two countries. And also, it is worth mentioning that the first country to quote unquote, “accept the independence” of the United States was, in fact, Morocco. They felt that seeking self-determination was central to their belief. And the king of Morocco claimed that.
Now, let me move forward. So, there’s a person named Hajji, it is a title for those who go to and do the pilgrimage in Mecca, one of the pillars of Islam, for those who are able to do it. His name is Hajji Ali, but he was known as Hi Jolly. He came to the southwest of the United States based on the American military’s camel project, which never materialized as we all know. The interesting part is that Hi Jolly, aka Hajji Ali, ended up marrying a Latina and there was a great Latino community, Muslim community, that actually is connected to Hi Jolly or Hajji Ali.
So, I just wanted to present the significance of Muslim presence in the context of the United States, for better or for worse. Some have come as colonizers with Columbus as well, I just want to mention that as well. In addition to this, a third of all African slaves, Africans who were enslaved and brought to US colonies, were in fact Muslim. And I can go on; there’s quite a bit of literature that talks about that early period. And in fact, it’s very sad because of the next point, which is the Blues, the music genre matches the Quranic recitation. But when African slaves were picking cotton or doing some of those activities that were forced to carry out and do, they were whipped if they were reciting a language other than English, or other than the language that was supposed to be spoken. So they used to, in fact, recite the Quran as they were doing. Some have argued that the Blues, the music genre we all appreciate and love, matches, in some ways, the tunes match the Quranic recitation. And that’s big if you think about that influence in American culture.
Now, one more; Albuquerque. Everyone knows what Albuquerque is, right? Albuquerque, New Mexico, is actually an Arabic word, an Arabic word abu al-qurq. And it’s written here in Arabic for those who speak Arabic. I see you, I hear you, that’s how it’s written. It’s an adjective for plum. So it basically means the plum leaf. Someone’s last name was abu al-qurq, which means the plum leaf, and that’s how the city was named. In fact, the great state of California, the name of the state is from Arabic origin from “khalif” which is in English eyes a form of Khalifa which the Arabic word for that is there; which we all know what Khalif and Khalifa mean, it is the successor referring to the successors of Prophet Muhammad as leaders of the Muslim community. So, my point is, what I wanted to show in this is not necessarily to give you pieces of information, which might themselves be interesting and important, but to suggest to you that there is a Muslim presence and Arabic presence in the context of the United States, more than just algebra and Arabic numerals.
So now I’m slightly shifting the conversation to talking about how Islam and Muslims are talked about, American Muslims in the context of the United States. This is from an article that I’d written about a decade ago with my two co-authors, Matt Barreto and Kastros Kui, we wanted to look at basically how Islam and Muslims are talked about in relation to the idea of radical Islam, or jihadi Islam, or terror or terror threat or extremists. So, we search for group data from a 12-month period from April to April across various years. And as you can see (can you see my cursor by any chance?), so as you can see, right after 9-11, sure, there was idea of terrorism and Islam. And it kind of waned a little bit; it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not talked about, it is talked about. But then in 2008, 2009, it just started exploding, those numbers started going high. So, what I’m trying to say is that it takes a while for a variety of different ideas to emerge in relation to a particular event. So 9-11 happened, it wasn’t immediately right after that, that the talk about terrorism started. Let’s talk about terrorism, it has always existed, pretty much. But 9-11, you would suspect that will immediately increase. Yes, there’s a little increase here. But what I want to say is that the fact that it happened after eight years, it means that it’s not necessarily only connected to a particular event, but also to suggest that there is a problem in terms of how Islam is seen in the context of the US.
Now, we’re going to talk about Orientalism here if I may, for a little bit. What is Orientalism? Orientalism, I’m sure everyone at Pitzer knows what Orientalism is, but I’m going to do this again. It basically is a term coined by Palestinian American Professor Edward Said, the late Edward Said from Columbia University. And it really refers to the distorted lens, and it’s a very important emphasis on distorted lens, through which the West has traditionally looked at the Orient, or the so-called Middle East, or Islam, Muslims and Arabs. Now, these are all different categories and different names referring to different types of people. But, this is so interesting about Orientalism, it actually lumps everyone together. I also have the word “Middle East” in quotations, I do teach Middle East politics. [Sorry, my lights are on motion detection so it went off.] The term Middle East is not the term people of the region call themselves. In fact, it is the only region in the world that the inhabitants of the region had nothing to do with naming themselves the Middle East. The Middle East is a very Eurocentric definition, period. I teach Middle East politics and I’m trying to change it into the newer term, which is SWANA, Southwest Asia, North Africa, SWANA. Because if anything, thinking through this terminology, Middle East, it’s used even in the Middle East now as a shout to the outside. But to think about the colonial legacy of that term, and in terms of how it centers Europe, centers as important and significant. So, I just wanted to mention that. But the interesting thing about Orientalism is that it’s basically the lens that creates more or less a discourse. In primarily the West that dominates all facets of life, from education, to media, to politics, to the arts, and really pretty much every form of human interaction in Western societies. But the interesting thing about Orientalism is that it always highlights how amazing the West is in relation to the Orient, that tends to be backwards, that in terms within that discourse, backwards, etc., terrorist. I have some examples that were mentioned, but I’m not going to do much with it. The impact of the idea of Orientalism, as presented by Edward Said, is really felt in most disciplines in the United States and abroad and everywhere. When we study most of the humanities, we study the question of Orientalism, and when we study social sciences, minorities in the United States, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, etc. and history and English, and English literature is so riddled with orientalist tropes. At any rate, I just wanted to mention this term, because it is a very significant term when we are studying Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians for that matter, in terms of how representation takes place.
So why is Orientalism a problem? Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feelings are quite common that in the sense that there are fateful decisions that are being made because of those feelings, with very serious dire consequences made because these are deeply rooted beliefs in people’s minds. And I’m really talking across the board. I’ve seen people say the most racist and the most stereotypical orientalist tropes about Arabs and Muslims, thinking that they actually know. So it is, if anything, a colonial discourse since its inception. It engages in orientalist ideas; it facilitates the racialization of Muslims and Arabs in the United States. But also, those orientalist tendencies teach us something about the racialization, say, of American society when it gets to other minority groups and other racialized groups.
Examples of some of these generalized ideas are that Muslims are terrorists, Islam is a religion of violence, I’m sure we’ve all heard it, unfortunately. Women are oppressed in a lot of Muslim societies; there’s the desert, that imagery of desert, sand, that men are violent and taking advantage of the women. And the “dark man should never be trusted,” quote, unquote. And if anything, you’ll find that even in Disney movies, unfortunately, if you dig a little bit deeper, you will notice that Disney movies have a lot of those tropes all over the place. You know, it’s funny, I’m not sure if there are folks here who remember, there’s a very famous film in the 1970s called Broadcast. And it was basically about changing socio economic and political context of the United States, about this very angry white man who basically was very angry about everything that’s happening to him. And he had a show, and on the show on live, he started talking about, “You know what the problem is? The problem is the Arabs, the Arabs bought America, they have a lot of money.” So a lot of those things have made it into the American context and the American imaginary. These are stereotypes, a lot of people might think that they are also stereotypes, but they actually make it into how people think subjectively, and act towards people that fit this highly racialized perception. Even people who believe that it is stereotype tend to also themselves stereotype, and I don’t necessarily need to be difficult with most people, even though my kids would disagree. But I want to mention that even people who have the best of intentions, they tend to oftentimes fall for this. But obviously, education is significant and important in reversing this trend, or this phenomenon.
One thing that tends to be quite common is that Islam is basically the sum of any Muslim experience. And I’m quoting Orientalist Duncan Donald, which was actually quoted in Edward Said’s book, it is evident that anything is possible to the Orient, everything is so interesting, so supernatural. It’s so near, that it may touch him at any moment, and it may touch anyone, so it’s an imagination of some sort. So, Edward Said has always talked about how Orientalism creates a discourse that is rather consistent within itself, but not with reality. So it’s a historic, it exists, an image of the East that does not exist in reality, but it’s perceived and manufactured in the West, as he says. Muslims are racialized and viewed with suspicion, even if it makes little sense to see them all as a homogenous, unified group. There’s 1.8, if not more than that, 1.8 billion Muslims on Earth. They transcend every racial group, they transcend every linguistical group, they transcend every region in the world. But they are all seen through the same lens, which makes very little sense. They’re racialized, if everything, it’s preposterous to even think that they’re all the same. They are not seen as a complex religious identity with peoples whose histories and experiences vary greatly, which is something quite common with Christianity, for example.
So we, and also even, for example, a much smaller religious group, say, Jewish, Global Jewery, let’s call that, Jews living around the world. They have different experiences, they have different political opinions and different political beliefs, and they vary greatly. Now, of course, Jewish people have been subject to racialization and forms of discrimination. But I want to mention that, that this is not necessarily new. But it’s very interesting to see that with 1.8 billion. So, despite the fact that they themselves are diverse in terms of national origin, racial ethnicity, language, ideology, and we can go on and on, American society and its political establishment, view Muslims as a cohesive group, they’re all pretty much the same. And that one Muslim’s belief can be in the minds of all them. That’s very dangerous. That’s extremely dangerous, and we know why. Shahab Ahmed was a scholar, unfortunately, he passed away. And sadly, this book, his book, came out after he passed, he had finished it and he passed away. But his book is one of my favorite books because if anything, it really asked a very difficult question, what is Islam? And I would like to highlight this particular paragraph from the book.
And the fact that there’s the perceptions about Islam and Muslims, is that they’re all consistent; if you know one you will know everyone else. But this quote from Walt Whitman, it basically says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain knowledge.” So effectively that means is that contradiction, or people having different opinions in relation to one particular issue, yet holding the same identity, is quite normal. So as Shahab Ahmed mentioned in this, some years ago, “I attended…” (I’m sorry, I’m going to read this so it’s a little bit… I apologize), “I think at the dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who he was seated next to. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine.” Now remember, Muslims cannot drink alcohol supposedly; good Muslims, right? “Evidently troubled by this, distinguished Don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. ‘Do you consider yourself a Muslim?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply. ‘How come then you are drinking wine?’ The Muslim colleague smiled gently. ‘My family has been Muslim for 1000 years,’ he said, ‘during which time we have always been drinking wine’. An expression of distrust appeared on the learned logician’s pale continence prompting the further clarification. ‘You see, we are Muslim wine drinkers.’ The questioner looked bewildered. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘Yes, I know,’ replied the native informant, ‘but I do.’
If anything, this reflects the relationship between even the most educated philosopher, supposedly, right from Western civilization, right from Cambridge, and a Muslim. In a sense, it doesn’t compute that a Muslim drinks wine, whereas Muslim wine drinkers do exist. So, Muslims are seen as un-American despite theory and evidence suggesting the opposite. There’s, for example, mosques, just like churches and other religious institutions, have instilled and fostered American-defined civic and political participation, values amongst Muslims. I was one of the people who started this, and others as well. But yet, even with that, they continue to solicit suspicion; mosques, continue to solicit suspicion, and remain seen as spaces where radical anti-American terrorist activities take place. And, unfortunately, that is still the case. As someone who studies American Muslims and how people view American Muslims, it is so shocking that is still the case to me. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest otherwise. Now, similarly, Islam is framed in absolute contradiction to the beliefs of American society or Western society in general, that if you’re Muslim, you cannot believe in democracy. But that has been actually proven to be inaccurate and not true. I was one of the people who studied this, and so many others as well. But it was really interesting that this portrayal has existed, that Muslims and Islam stands against American cultural and religious tenets. And it’s popularized, unfortunately, by media, Hollywood films, as a lot of people have written about this. Soltani and Jack Shaheen, and Edward Said have written about that in his book covering Islam, how media covers Islam in the context of USA.
I also want to mention that there’s an inherent transnational nature to the racialization of Islam and Muslims, which affects how the US sees external, non-Americans. In other words, this has meaning towards how immigration is seen in the United States. So, we have to think about how that racialization of Islam and Muslims sees things that happen overseas and how they affect how Americans view immigration in general. I can keep going on and on, but I also wanted to mention that Muslims are seen as a fifth column and an eminent threat.
Richard Gid Powers, a historian of anti US, I’m sorry, US anti-communist movement, wrote in The New York Times, a column titled “Fifth Column, the Evil that Lurks in the Enemy Within,” and he’s basically talking about that American beast Islamic terrorist, and that has a lot of power for someone who studied anti-communist movement in the United States, for him to see something similar to that. So we also need to bring the idea of how cold war politics operated in the context of the US, thinking about this. Because then the idea of sleeper cells narrative is really very big in the context of the US; this isn’t necessarily new. Targeting Japanese Americans during World War Two, and instituting policies targeting them are fully sanctioned, unfortunately; were fully sanctioned by the US government. A slightly different alternative exists in relation to how Islam and Muslims are seen. There’s the good Muslim, there’s the bad Muslim. But it’s still, it’s very uniquely, I want to call it, obviously unidimensional and false dichotomy to just say, oh, there’s good Muslims, and they’re bad Muslims, just like they’re good people and bad people. There’s a lot more complexity to this. But it makes it easier for us to see who is friend and who is foe. For example, Saudi Arabia is seen as an ally to the United States. So in some ways that might in fact, play a role in terms of how we see a friend versus a foe, well, some are good, some are not so good. So the idea of good Muslim, bad Muslim, it really doesn’t solve much of this problem we’re talking about. There are a number of examples about racialization, and how Islam and Muslims are seen in the context of the United States. But more importantly, how the two terms, Muslim and Arab, are conflated as one. If you all remember a 2008 townhall with John McCain, when he was running for president, there was a woman who was inquiring about Obama’s Arabness, even though she was actually worried about him being Muslim, but she used the term Arab to refer to it. And then she said, “I can’t trust Obama, I have read about him. And he’s not he’s not… he’s an Arab!” His defense, McCain’s defense, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what the campaign is all about.” I mean, this is, if anything, it really completely allows racism to exist and to flourish in the context of the US. And one thing I want to mention is that the language usage matters.
How we use language, emphasize in signals was a friend kind of felt. But then just the fact that we use these terms in our daily life that might refer to Islam and Muslims as not, if you say, “All Muslims are not terrorists,” but it really brings people’s imagination to think about the idea of terrorism associated with Arabs and/or Muslim. So I want to kind of bring that to everyone’s attention. Now, one question that really is interesting to me is, is really providing evidence to the contrary of these beliefs, does that really come to a racialization? No, unfortunately, just that is not really enough, especially in our times that we’re living in. However, there is a possibility if we know what the sort of fictionalization. Is it simply not knowing, not having read or known or been exposed to some of that information? Potentially. But is it also intentional, does one holding that belief intentionally also matter? What are the motives of those who are engaging in various forms of racialization? But then, more importantly, I think there is an epistemological crisis with regards to information in the US. Facts are not facts anymore. There are alternative facts that have been to the public sphere, that if anything, affect how we view facts and how we think of facts, as we make arguments in our daily lives. Even if a genuine desire to transform realities and consequences of racialization, it does take a great deal to transform various conceptualizations of inaccurate perceptions about race, religion, and other forms and categories, these categories of perceived difference.
Now, I’m almost done. I need a couple of minutes if I may, the politics of the last 20 years. So in 2007 2008, I was a co-PI of Muslim American public opinion survey, and it showed that about 30%, just under 30%, of American Muslim did not identify with any political party. They actually said, No, it’s different than independent, but to actually say no. If anything, this shows that they were they were not seen as part of the, they did not see themselves any of the two parties, for example, but they also didn’t even believe in the American political system, because the Democrats didn’t do any better in terms of how they treated Muslims than the Republicans, for example. But I also want to emphasize American Islamophobia is a product of the ways in which the US government, whether Democrat or Republican, has handled dealing with Muslims for a long time, even long before 9-11. Now in recent years, the right wing political elite have used and harnessed this to win elections, unfortunately; the case in point is Trump. But in addition to this, I want to talk about the consequences of this whereby Muslim Americans see themselves very increasingly difficult to live in the United States after 9-11. That’s according to 55%, that’s according to a 2011 Pew Research survey.
Moving forward, we need to think about immigration, populations of immigrants origins, needs to take even more central role in studying of race, ethnic, politics, and religion, different religions, difference and identities. And I’m really, really centering the idea of immigration because of the intersectional and transnational nature of studying the various racial and ethnic groups in the United States. And I think we need to start thinking of immigration, religion, and ethnic and religious groups, I’m sorry, ethnic and racial groups, and also to think about them through that transnational lens as well. And as the largest minority group in the United States, I still believe that the Latino-Latinx community can help us think through in terms of how that transforming demography and potentially racial and ethnic hierarchy, hopefully, to change that sort of the racial and ethnic hierarchy in the long term, how can that, in fact, be used to understand the larger context? Now, final thoughts? Absolutely. Final thoughts? Thank you for bearing with me. Orientalism, like racialization, is a very real threat to peoples that live in the United States and abroad.
Racial hierarchy, and obviously the connected violence that comes with it is a characteristic, unfortunately, of American society. Racializing Muslims has fallen into partisan lines in the US, which unfortunately makes it makes it harder to change. And please remember that change takes time. And as long as you are able to recognize that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Thank you very much for listening to me. And I’m happy to take any last questions. Thank you.
Professor Adrian Pantoja: Thank you for that, Karam. That’s a wonderful presentation. At this point, we can open up the chat, and people can either submit a question through the chat or the Q&A. But as the host, I’m going to use my prerogative and ask the first question, maybe one of the privileges I have for chairing the initiative. The question I have, and this is something I’ve been struggling with as a Latino is that, with the election of Trump, and certainly it predates that, but certainly with the election of Trump, you have this high incidence of racialized violence directed at the other. You have incidents of large-scale hate crimes, shootings, targeting minority groups. And in response, you have this public outcry, you have the rise of a hashtag; #BlackLivesMatter, you have the rise of a hashtag #StopAsianHate. But there was no similar outcry for Latinos. I haven’t seen a similar outcry for Muslim Arab Americans. So, my question to you is, why isn’t there this outcry when violence is being directed at Muslims and Arab Americans?
Professor Karam Dana: Thank you for this question; it’s a really fantastic question. Because, by the way, fantastic questions are very difficult questions; that’s why people call them fantastic. So, one way I can I can answer this is it has to do effectively with the fact that race has been seen in terms of colors in the United States, even though it’s not, even though it’s actually socially constructed. I think effectively, that the idea of the economy; for the longest time you’ve studied race, you’re one of the leading scholars of race, we know that, race and ethnicity. I know this, and we know the fact that the dichotomy that black versus white, and when we talk about race, the very first thing that comes to mind, in the… over the years, is to think about black versus white. And then if anything, similarly, and it’s the racial variation, the “racial variation” is more quote, unquote, apparent to the American mind. And I don’t mean to generalize, so forgive me, I’m not generalizing here per se, but it’s much more obvious to people to identify someone as, as Black, and as Asian. Whereas it becomes harder when it gets on Arabs, because when I go to airports, I, for the longest time, I start enunciating my language like, “Hello,” I tried to kind of fit a mold that, in the sense because I’ve had a difficult time in the early years. I’m a 19-20-some-year-old guy traveling internationally, it became very difficult. My experience with TSA was not perfect, let’s just call it that. Whether or not you’re an American citizen, that’s irrelevant. However, what I want to say is that there is an opportunity for me effectively to appear white, whereas, similarly to the Latinx community, I think that potentially might be the role that as to why the outcry is not immediate. Now, I recognize that Muslim Americans, similarly, the Latinx community, has been subjugated to violence, but I think it’s a different nature of the reaction. And it will take time, but ultimately, I think people will recognize that and ultimately, that will be the centerpiece of the conversation.
Adrian Pantoja: That’s interesting. I love the idea that on the one hand, whiteness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it may provide some privileges; on the other hand, when you’re recognized, as you know, on the other hand, there’s some disadvantages, and that folks feel like, “Well, you’re doing all right, no one’s targeting you, or at least it seems that that you can pass and so what’s the problem?” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, go through the TSA screener and see their problem.”
Karam Dana: You will see the problem, but I think this is an article you and I need to write.
Adrian Pantoja: I think so; there’s a lot there. So we have a question that’s related to that. And it’s “How do you feel about the categorization of Arab/MENA students as a white?”
Karam Dana: Sahar’s question is two questions. Why do we use the term Arab when SWANA is consumed with so many more than just Arab; Afghani, Persian, North Africans, Kurds? What term for the people could be used that is more encompassing and inclusive? It’s so interesting. First of all, we got to answer the first question, Sahar, if I may. How do I feel about the categorization of Arabs and people from the region as white? I don’t like it; I don’t like it at all. And there have been, I’m sure you probably have heard, but there has been attempts over at least 25, 30 years, in relation to trying to change the classification in a number of ways, but mostly with census, and it was supposed to take place in 2020. But the census said, No, look, we’re not going to do it anymore. And they literally categorically after all that push, they just decided not to do it. So do I like it? Look, the idea that Arabs and Muslims or I’m sorry, Arabs from our MENA region, or SWANA region, if you want to call it that, folks from that region are not white, but they are considered to be white. I think that’s not a representation of reality. So they don’t qualify, for example, for certain minority privileges. But they are seen as white, but they’re not, so it’s, as also Adrian mentioned earlier, it’s a double-edged sword. But do I like the categorization? I don’t like it at all. I think people… every time I fill out a form, I say, Arab, or Arab American. But I do not do white, but then someone somewhere else will be like, “Oh, he’s Arab, so let’s just put it as white.” So someone else would take, if they want to impose that thing on me, that particular categorization, even though I reject it, there is a problem with the system. Now, why do we use the term Arab when SWANA is more inclusive? I think that’s a wonderful question. As far as I’m concerned, we need to start saying SWANA and I (don’t tell that to my administration), but I’m going to request that my class will be instead of Politics or the Middle East, but rather Politics of SWANA. So I agree with you and I think we need to address those types of questions because it is more encompassing and more inclusive. 100% I agree.
Professor Adrian Pantoja: Sadly, I’m looking at the time and we’re at the five o’clock mark when this fantastic presentation and lecture are coming to an end. We could go on, but I think this is just the beginning of a conversation. And so I’m sure if students or faculty or others who tuned in have any questions, any follow up questions, please email Karam, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to respond and I think this is a chance for us to have you back, hopefully when things are a little bit safer, or much safer, have you physically on our campus for another visit and another presentation; and so we have somebody, Jacob, thank you very much for all of this. I am excited to have these conversations continue. So, we have an active student group here on campus. Thank you, Karam, and it’s been a pleasure to have you at Pitzer College. And thank you all who tuned in to this presentation. It is recorded and so if you don’t have a chance to see it live, please watch it at another time. Goodbye.
Karam Dana: Thank you very much, and thanks for the invitation. Have a lovely weekend, everyone. Thank you.