Excerpted From: Cyra Akila Choudhury, Racecraft and Identity in the Emergence of Islam as a Race, 91 University of Cincinnati Law Review 1 (2022) (353 Footnotes) (Full Document)

cyraakilachoudhuryCan a religion, over time and through its social and legal resignification, come to be a race? This article answers in the affirmative; in the context of North America and Europe where racial hierarchies have been most pronounced, practitioners of the religion of Islam have come to be perceived as belonging to a race called “Muslim.” While there is a large literature on the racialization of Muslims and Islamophobia, scholars have nevertheless been reluctant to declare Islam or Muslims as a race. This article now makes that claim. In the last twenty years, Islam has come to function as a race socially and in the law. It began with the increasingly specific targeting of Muslims/Islamicized people, through which Islamophobia has developed as a distinct form of racism. Through reiterative subjection of the group whose shared characteristic is their connection to Islam, the “Muslim” coalesced into a racial identity. And finally, through the racecraft of Islamophobia and the dialectical resistance to it by Muslims/Islamicized people, Islam emerged as a race.

To justify this original claim, this article starts with the theoretical literature on race and racial identity in Part I: The Myth of Race and Reality of Fluid Racial Identities. Taking seriously critical race theorists' arguments that race is constructed, it follows that new races should emerge, while old races change or fade. For decades, Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) and Latina & Latino Critical Legal Theory (“LatCrit”) scholars have debated the construction of race and the operations of racism in the UnitedStates. This article uses this rich literature as well as the work of historians Cedric Robinson and Barbara J. Fields and sociologist Karen E. Fields to argue that race is a specter or a myth and that we should take its unreality much more seriously than we do. In other words, although racism exists, race itself is not real, it is not a fact, and it is not immutable. Furthermore, this article argues, along with Robinson, that racism produces not only the specter of race but fluid identities as it addresses itself to specific and identifiable groups of people. If we accept these theories regarding racism, race, and racial identities, then Muslim as a racial category and Islam-as-race become far more intelligible.

Having made the theoretical claim that new races and new fluid racial identities can and have emerged over time, these racial formations have a historical substratum of beliefs and racial rituals that give rise to race. In Part II: A Genealogy of Islam-as-Race, this article traces a genealogy of Islam-as-race consisting of three constituent strands: (1) the historical construction of Islam as a Black/brown religion, (2) an American Orientalism that alienates Islam from the West, and (3) the profiling of Muslims and Islamicized people after the Oklahoma City bombings and 9/11 and then the resignification of Islam into a terrorist ideology by its antagonists. These three strands weave together to help produce Islam-as-race; not just a religious identity but a non-white, racial one that renders anyone Islamicized into a racial Other.

Racism relies on racecraft, a set of tools that racism deploys to subordinate groups. In the UnitedStates, those tools have been developed and perfected against Black Americans and Native Americans to be later tailored for use against new groups like Muslims. Then, through an iterative process of increasingly particularized racism, the subject population's identity becomes more defined and ultimately may result in the emergence of a race. From the genealogy of Islam-as-race in Part I, this article turns to the practices and techniques of racism in Part III: The Racecraft of Anti-Blackness and Islamophobia in which it demonstrates racism's discursive techniques in producing whiteness's Other and the material effects of this production. In the first section of Part III, this article focuses on deconstructing racism's discursive strategies that it deploys against racial groups, tailoring them to suit its needs. Based on Critical Discourse Studies, it describes eight discursive strategies that are used to produce common racist tropes. It then uses Professor I. Bennett Capers' work Reading Back, Reading Black to “read” these distilled and abstracted tropes back into specific texts: the transcripts of a hearing for a motion to enjoin the opening of a mosque during the anti-sharia law panic and an anti-CRT opinion published by the panic's chief architect, Christopher Rufo. The point is to show that racecraft and the techniques of racism are the same when used against Muslims in the anti-sharia panic as they are when used against Blacks and in the anti-CRT panics. Racists learn how to retool their strategies from one group to the next. Islamicization or the racialization of Muslims (and those assumed to be Muslims or the Islamicized) overlaps with the subordination of other groups. In sum, they are part of the racial hierarchy: the Islamicized are subject to the same racist strategies as other groups.

Justificatory discourses and racist logics form the armature of the material practices of racism, among which social violence and spatial discrimination are examples of racecraft in reinscribing racial difference. In the second section of Part III, the article provides examples of the overlapping experiences of racial exclusion and violence against Blacks and Muslims in the context of property. The purpose of juxtaposing Muslims/Islamicized people and Black Americans is not to equate their experiences but to demonstrate how the maintenance of the racial hierarchy is effectuated using common, well-established methods. Islamophobia and its institutional havens, its modes of regulation, and its techniques of subordination do not operate in isolation from other racisms; therefore, they must be undone at the same time as other racisms, sharing the same goal: to dismantle the racial hierarchy entirely.

[. . .]

This article began with a question regarding whether a religion can become a race over time and through a process of resignification. In the specific context of Europe and the UnitedStates, it is not only possible, but Islam has, in fact, come to operate as a race. If we start with the assumption, as discussed in Part I, that race is not real, is not a fact, that there is no biological basis for it as most critical race scholars have come to understand, then race is a fiction and a specter that only appears to exist, but is a product of racism. The ideology of racism uses racecraft--a set of tools and practices--to justify the treatment of a group of people as different and subordinated based on some shared difference. The difference is given meaning by racism. It does not exist prior to racism. For Africans brought to the UnitedStates, their differences as Wolof, Fulani, Mandinka, Yoruba, Fon, as so on were erased in a process that dehumanized and homogenized them first into slaves and then “Black” so that their mistreatment based on shared African ancestry could be justified. For the Islamicized/Muslims, ethnic differences are similarly being erased in a process that renders the connection to Islam the most meaningful marker of difference, a difference from non-Muslims and a difference from whiteness. In other words, the connection to Islam is the means by which people come to be Islamicized into a race. While historically, racingMuslims depended on their already existing racial identity, as the War on Terror has progressed, Muslim-ness has become less tightly anchored to color or ethnicity and more entwined with markers of Islam which incorporate these but does not require them. As such, white or white-passing individuals who might evade racial regulation become subject to it as soon as they are Islamicized, regardless of whether they believe in Islam as a religion or not. The racism against Black Americans is anti-Blackness; the racism against Muslims is Islamophobia.

But just as the substratum of anti-Blackness requires some ground of difference, such as shared African ancestry in which Africa itself means something specific, Islamophobia depends on the shared connection to and its specific meanings. Part II of this article offered a genealogy consisting of three strands that weave together to produce Islam-as-race in the UnitedStates. This is the substratum of Islam-as-race. The first strand is the historical linkage in which Islam is understood as a non-white, non-European religion practiced by Black and brown people from slavery to the rise of Black radical Islam in the 1960s. The second strand is the operation of American Orientalism that alienates Islam as categorically antithetical to the West as a civilization. The third strand is the evolution from the racial profiling of Muslims in the post-Oklahoma City bombing and post-9/11 era to focus on Islam itself and the resignification of sharia as a terror ideology rather than a religion. Having constructed Islam-as-race as non-white, alien, and dangerous, Muslims can only become part of society by meeting impossible demands for assimilation.

To convince society that the double standards used to subordinate groups are based on race (something that seems to exist) and not racism (a very real ideology) requires racecraft (a set of tools that make the treatment appear logical). Part III of this article turned to two deconstructive methods to reveal the underlying racecraft of anti-Blackness and Islamophobia. First, using a method derived from critical discourse studies and Critical Race Theory, it excavated eight discursive strategies that undergird the legitimation of racism, before then reading these strategies back into the court transcripts from the Islamic Center of Murfreeboro case in the anti-sharia panic and the narratives produced by the proponents of the anti-CRT panic. The discursive racecraft used to legitimate both panics is very much the same. Reading these texts, one understands that the racecraft shifts the focus to make Islam and antiracism the “real problem” not the racism that Muslims and Blacks face.

In the last section of Part III, the article turned to the material racecraft in housing and property that keeps these groups in their proper place. Juxtaposing anti-Blackness and Islamophobia showed that both communities face significant housing disadvantages and remain ghettoized. Both groups face hurdles moving into predominantly white suburbs and often face social rejection and violence when they succeed. In addition, projects that are recognizable visual markers of the presence of subordinated groups in significant numbers, like public housing and mosques, face NIMBYism and the use of both property lawfare (such as rezoning and injunctions), and also social rejection and violence. The material racecraft reinforces the belief that these groups are racially different and deserve different treatment.

In summary, racism deployed against a discernible group based on some shared difference creates a racial identity. The reiterative process of racial differentiation into an identity through the rituals of racism eventually gives rise to a race. Even if that race is fictitious and spectral, it appears to exist. Racial identity is complex given the variations within racialized groups. Muslims do not look phenotypically any particular way. Neither do Latinx people and neither do Black Americans. It behooves us to remember that Homer Plessy was not visibly Black but chosen specifically because he could pass for white. In order to violate the Jim Crow laws segregating train cars, he had to reveal himself to the train conductor as a Black man, thereby triggering his arrest. White segregationists could not always tell a Black person by looking at them, and Plessy might have just passed into Whiteness sitting in the whites-only car but for the self-revelation of his Black racial identity. Similarly, Muslims cannot always be seen. Conversely, someone who is seen as Muslim may not be Muslim. A person can be ascribed as Muslim and Islamicized even while vociferously refusing that identification as did Barack Obama who considered being called a Muslim a slur. Others become Islamicized when they “come out.”

This article has argued that the racialization of Muslims has been well recognized by scholars but the racialization of Islam itself is at the root of this process. To try to accommodate the interplay of Muslims' racialization with religion, some have referred to Muslim as a “religio-racial” identity. Others have stopped short of calling Muslims and Islam a race, preferring the more conservative racialization idea. In spite of the hesitation to name it so, Islam is now race in every meaningful way within the racial hierarchy of UnitedStates and Europe. Race as a concept is capacious enough to contain the ethnic, religious, gender, and other identities of all those who have been Islamicized. It accommodates the Islamicization of Sikhs and those who are mistaken for Muslims without regard to religious belief, of people with Islamic names like Barack Hussein Obama who is not Muslim, and white men in kufis and white women wearing hijab who are, in fact, Muslims. As such, we should now recognize that Islamophobia is the racism, Muslims are a racial group, and Islam is their race.

Professor of Law, Florida International University (“FIU”) College of Law.