With the publication of Sahar Aziz’s newest book, The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, Boston College's Law School held an eponymous discussion and elaboration of the topics within Aziz’s book on Wednesday, November 17. A professor of Law at Rutgers and a Middle East legal scholar, Aziz’s background establishes her as a prominent voice in the history of Islam as a race.
While the talk began twenty minutes late, Aziz jocularly excused herself, saying “I’m not a Bostonian, so I had to figure out that six miles was far!” The room erupted into laughter, demonstrating that even earnest law students have a fun side.
Aziz then began with an anecdote from her second week in law school. She, like so many of her peers, sat and stared in awe of what was showing on the TV, as two planes flew into the World Trade Center. Her classmates glared at her, assuming some sort of association between herself and the terrorizing perpetrators. “That was the day I went from racially ambiguous to racially threatened,” Aziz said, “we were now racial Muslims.”
This tragic event changed the course of the United States’ mindset. Muslims were now portrayed as enemies of the state and threats to all.
“American media now associated all things related to Islam with terrorism and threats to national security,” she proclaimed.
No longer was the Muslim accepted into American society. Instead, they, as a race, became unnecessarily feared within the sectors of public space, congressional debates, judiciary proceedings, and even the Oval Office.
She then referenced a moment in 2011 in which it was discovered that the NYPD had deployed a surveillance program specifically targeted at Muslims. Hundreds of mosques, student groups, and homes had been examined under tight scrutiny, all done secretly by the city’s police.
After uncovering this extremely discriminatory practice, Aziz attempted to fight it with Title VI of 1964’s Civil Rights Act. The one issue, however, was that “religion was glaringly absent as a protected class under Title VI.” Despite the racialization of the Muslim religious minority, the law upheld their continued oppression.
This said oppression began at the very impetus of America’s own identity. There has always been some hierarchy within society determined not only by race but also by religion. Aziz discussed the Puritan colonization of America, based on the search for religious freedom, that resulted in the oppression of Native Americans because they viewed their religion as “evil or no religion at all, which is a similar characterization of Islam post-9/11.”
Even as society progressed throughout history, white Protestantism reigned supreme among the racial hierarchy. Slavery was justified using the Christian Bible, claiming that African people were cursed by God to be inferior. Additionally, as immigration surged in the late-19th and 20th centuries, Catholics and Jews were the prominent religions entering society. To combat this, white Protestants urged lawmakers to curtail immigration, and millions revitalized the infamous Ku Klux Klan.
Aziz emphasized the KKK’s ideology: one that pushed for white Protestant supremacy and the limitation of alternative religion. These ideals were so attractive that some 40,000 Protestant ministers joined the Klan. They worked to disseminate the group’s ideas within the church, as well as push for immigration restrictions.
Aziz compared this to the modern-day, saying it was “similar to President Trump’s and his white nativist supporters’ contemporary calls to stop so-called chain migration from non-European nations and most explicitly, Muslim majority countries.” While supporters of this believed that the traditional white race was “dying,” it is simply an ideal that attempts to rationalize a racial hierarchy.
Next, Aziz dug into the history of American Islamophobia. The establishment of Israel, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the first Gulf War, and the initial bombing of the World Trade Center all contributed greatly to the stereotypical image of what a Muslim was in the eyes of an American. Islam was portrayed as violent, never peaceful or civilized, and even “fake,” despite the fact that Muslims worship the same God as Christians.
She continued this conversation on the American portrayal of Muslims and Arabs. When the state of Israel was established, Americans claimed them to be “industrious and brave.” In turn, their Palestinian neighbors, the rightful owners of the land, were “irrational barbarians.” These viewpoints still prevail today, as the strife in the Middle East is supplemented by American support of the oppressive Israeli regime.
Concluding the talk, Aziz again emphasized what the racialization of Islam does to society. White conservatives use it as a means to aggrandize their concerns of Islam’s “violent political ideology,” which is as rational as FDR’s wartime executive order that placed thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans in internment camps. The presidencies of the 21st century have used these stereotypes to justify increased surveillance measures, drone strikes, and travel bans.
While Muslims are in fact the most diverse religion in the world, America has classified them as one race to be consistently oppressed. “Being Muslim currently circumscribes access to the privileges of first-class citizenship,” Aziz asserted.
Muslims, and other non-Christian religious groups, will always be viewed as going against the grain of Americanism. Whatever happened to embracing the “melting pot” that this nation so loves to call itself? Perhaps it’s best to call this country a selective melting pot that only acknowledges those who contribute to the centuries-old ideals of the American founding fathers. Truly, America has never been a place in which religious freedom was experienced equally among all citizens, and it has no sign of changing any time soon.
Sahar Aziz’s book, The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, is available on November 30, 2021.