After Orientalism: The Muslim Left Today

Thomas Greene reviews With Stones in Our Hands

With Stones in Our Hands
Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana, Editors. With Stones in our Hands: Writings on Muslims, Racism, and Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 396 pp. $25.95.

The photograph is iconic: a 14-year-old Palestinian boy stands on a dirt road facing an Israeli tank. He’s wearing sandals, denim jeans, and a multi-colored sweater with purple on the sleeves. He’s in the foreground of the photograph but the approaching tank still dominates the frame, swallowing the boy’s tiny body. The boy is slightly turned with his right hand raised behind his head; he is holding a rock which was surely released seconds after the photo was taken during the Second Intifada in 2000. Behind the tank is a stream of military figures – Humvees with massive weapons and soldiers rallying together. There is no end to the stone’s opposition.

Eighteen years after this photo, the military force that stands in opposition to stones has only grown: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture, black sites, indefinite imprisonment, mass incarceration, the cultural maligning of Muslims in the U.S. and Europe, bans on Muslim immigration, and legal barriers to the free practice of Islam – all state-sponsored acts of violence that harm and kill, yet portray themselves as acts of civic welfare. Beyond this, there has been a seemingly more benign movement which characterizes some Muslims as “good” because of their involvement and patriotic support of state empire building, thereby creating a dichotomy by which diversity among Muslims is robbed. One can either be a soldier for Western colonialism or a terrorist: there are no other options. This heavily militarized context, equipped with an equally dangerous “settler logic” that threatens the political and intellectual lives of Muslims, is the backdrop for Sohail Daulatzai’s and Junaid Rana’s volume, With Stones in our Hands.

Daulatzai and Rana have compiled a series of interdisciplinary and intersectional essays, which they label a part of the Muslim Left and Muslim International. For them, the book is an attempt to organize voices of opposition and dissent – “a radical history of critique and protest that imagines another world in line with struggles for social justice, decolonial liberation, and global solidarity.” This project is more than just an intellectual exercise, however. Their purpose is to invigorate solidarity politics, to throw stones at the logic that props up U.S. military expansion with its deeply connected roots in domestic racism and white supremacy. For the reader, this makes the book valuable both as a study of modern Muslim leftist politics as well as an invitation into the many modes of intellectual and political solidarity that can be formed through reading these accounts.

With Stones in our Hands is broken into four different units: “Imperial Racism,” “Decolonizing Geographies,” “Technologies of Surveillance and Control,” and “Possible Futures: Dissent and the Protest Tradition.” Each section contains essays written by experts and activists in varying fields including religion, history, literature, media, Islamic law, gender and women’s studies, and politics. The volume’s two major themes, distinct yet interconnected, illuminate a reality that characterizes modern Muslim experience but is often completely elided in conversation about this experience, especially in Western public discourse. First, the authors’ shared point of departure is the continued conversation about the perduring influence of Orientalism, as Muslim identity is portrayed as the wholly Other, deficient to the Western (white) norm. This is particularly evident in the ways Muslims are conceived of as “good.” Second, they aim to illuminate the racialization of “Muslim” as a category that now extends beyond religion.

Daulatzai and Rana acknowledge one of their major departure points as the influence of Edward Said. But they want to go beyond the history of colonialism and colonial projects towards a current critique of the “genocidal logic of U.S. nation building, with its slave-structuring foundation” that results in the domination of a racialized figure of the Muslim. This kind of Orientalizing the Muslim is seen in the structuring of a discourse around how the dominant, white American audience constructs the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” dichotomy.

Vivek Bald’s chapter, “The Only Good Muslim,” offers the history of this kind of formulation, going further back than 9/11 or Trump’s Muslim Ban. The “good Muslim” is one who can “unequivocally prove their loyalty to the nation,” creating a carrot and stick by which Muslims are simultaneously threatening and desirable. To Bald, the goal of white America has been to “define our acceptability, direct our actions, structure the way we present ourselves in society and interact with the state.” Muslim identity is flattened into two possibilities: terrorist or state servant. This is similar to the story issued as a warning by Abdullah Al-Arian and Hafsa Kanjwal in their chapter, “The Perils of American Muslim Politics.” They see a similar trend of this Orientalist logic that often shifts American Muslims towards appropriation and accommodationism of a “highly contested set of foreign policy positions.” They observe that Muslims must be “moderate” to be good, meaning they cannot be “simply one who rejects violence and fundamentalism … but one who is also uncritical of empire, liberalism, and neoliberal economic policies.”

Beyond historical and ethical arguments, various authors provide popular culture and political representations of this double-bind at work. Several chapters – namely those by Steven Salaita, Sherene H. Razack, Arshad Imtiaz Ali, and Hatem Bazian – focus on the prominent political and legal cases against Muslims deemed “terrorists” by the state. As the authors outline various cases, we see that the evidence of “terrorist” activities often takes the practice of Islam as a precursor that is then paired with political protest against U.S. or Western military expansion. Other chapters – those by Evelyn Alsultany and Su‘ad Abdul Khabeer – highlight how the media represents “good” Muslims as those who “prove their loyalty and patriotism to the United States to gain access to belonging,” furthering the assumption that Islam is naturally averse to liberal societies.

The key chapter that speaks to the magnitude of the continued Orientalism project is Nadine Naber and Atef Said’s, “The Cry for Human Rights.” Here the authors interrogate the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the U.S.-led imperial practices before and since. Their main goal is to take account of the “complex historical and political contexts in which violence and transition take place” – notably countering the “liberal-Orientalist cry for human rights” that sees torture and misogyny as results of patriarchal culture and violent religion. Instead, the authors connect violence both before and after the revolution to neoliberal economic practices that created a political context in which a repressive state was necessary to keep political power and public order. As they point out, this kind of Western analytical myopia reifies colonial savior discourse as torture and violence are defined as Egyptian and Muslim problems—all while ignoring the ways in which the U.S. collaborated to create these conditions, or even enacted the torture itself.

The next major theme, the racialization of Muslims, is not removed from the previous conversation about the Orientalism project, yet it is distinct. As Daultazai and Rana describe it: “terror is the new race talk – the ‘terrorist’ (or the ‘militant’ or the ‘radical’) is the twenty-first century way of saying ‘savage.’” Muslims and Islam are essentialized as inherently violent, irrational, and inferior – therefore worthy of suspicion and legitimately discriminated against. On the other side, this means that there is a privileging of the racial forms that are seen as the norms from which Muslims are supposed to have deviated – white, Christian, and Western.

The chapter “Duplicity and Fear” by Stephen Sheehi begins this conversation by connecting the racialization of Muslims to Islamophobia, which has grown from a curious fear of the unknown into a powerful discourse that elects leaders and fuels national security spending. The key, Sheehi describes, is to identify the ways in which Islamophobia protects white domination and power through powerful political systems. As Sheehi indicates, and other authors throughout the book continue to remind the reader, this racialization “facilitates a ‘security discourse,’ in local, state, and federal policies, predicated on Muslims as a potential and imminent threat to civic order and national security.”

The racialization of Muslims and Islam is not simply a feeling of animus but a systemic orientation of the state that is discriminatory, and in many cases, lethal. Chapters by Selim Nadi and Arshad Imtiaz Ali speak to the systematic nature of anti-Muslim racism. For Nadi, this racism is a political and social system that is a result of colonialism, which explains the protection liberal states often offer anti-Muslim discrimination using coded liberal values, such as free speech. Ali’s chapter, “Learning in the Shadow of the War on Terror,” offers insight into the many ways in which American Muslims, especially youth on college campuses, are targeted by the state for increased surveillance and scrutiny concerning their speech and behavior. The result of this is a regime of fear that “steals the ability of young people to build active, politically engaged, and radical communities.”

Later chapters by Fatima El-Tayeb and Sylvia Chan-Malik move in a slightly different direction. Instead of the fuel for securitization, the authors look towards the more overt discussions of “non-integration.” Both authors comment on how this is evident in the way Muslim women are often defined as oppressed – “the antithesis of the ‘free’ white woman” – and the hijab has become “the symbol of Muslim inability to adapt to modernity.” As a prop, Muslim women come to symbolize the perceived threat Islam bears to Western core values.

In a powerful chapter, “Death by Double-Tap,” Ronak K. Kapadia speaks to the gravity of systematic racism against Muslims through the use of drone warfare. Double-tapping is the practice of repeatedly striking a targeted area in succession, “leading to a variety of dis-ordering and dehumanizing effects on the ground.” As Kapadia rightfully suggests, this creates a difficult ethical problem for survivors who must decide between saving their own lives or helping the wounded and honoring the dead. The dehumanization and injustice of innocent victims dying should be obvious, but in the chapter, Kapadia describes how, at its heart, double-tapping also works to destroy communal bonds and cultural norms among the Afghan and Pakistani Muslims that have had to endure it for years. Racial dehumanization is based on a logic that the targets of drone strikes are not worthy of mourning the dead, helping the injured, or participating in the communal practices which are targets of the strikes: the jirga, communal prayers, funerals, weddings, and other communal rituals and ceremonies. This practice not only transforms the maimed and murdered targets into subhumans, but also transforms the entire community and its culture into the subhuman as well – all to secure the power and purpose of the state.

Overall, Daulatzai and Rana have put together a very strong collection of essays that accomplishes their purpose of giving voice to the Muslim Left and Muslim International while also providing interesting and insightful diversity. As both an intellectual and political project, the book offers substantial material for readers of many different backgrounds and training. In this political moment, however, the volume is especially welcome as a witness to robust and thoughtful discourse – the stone throwing – that is critical of the systemic racism and colonial devastation wrought in the name of liberal citizenries.

Thomas Greene is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. He is writing his dissertation on comparative discourses of liberation in Christian and Muslim communities.

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