Faculty Spotlight

The Global Racialization of Muslims: An Interview with Associate Professor Saher Selod

The following is a conversation between Saher Selod, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program.

Professor Selod discusses the latest chapter of her forthcoming book 21st Century Racism: The Racialization of Muslims Globally, written with co-authors Dr. Steve Garner and Inaash Islam. The book uncovers the processes of the global racialization of Muslims and shows how the United States' Global War on Terror has influenced policies toward Muslims in the United States, England, China and India.

What is the project you’re currently working on?

Saher Selod: My project is interested in looking at the global racialization of Muslims. My book (Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillance of Muslim Americans in the War on Terror – Rutgers University Press 2018) looked at the racialization of Muslims in the United States and I’m now interested in examining how we see the Global War on Terror producing a global racialized Muslim. How are laws and policies enacted in different spaces, and how are Muslims racialized both in varying and similar ways within different countries.

What exactly is “global Muslim racialization”?

Saher Selod: This is something I’m working out in my current research. I’m examining how the racialization of Muslims is used to justify the surveillance and policing of Muslims, which is steeped in this notion that Muslims are a threat to national security because they are prone to acts of terror.

I, and others, have shown that in places like China, India, England and the United States the ways in which Muslims are discriminated against are ongoing and have a long history. But when the United States started the Global War on Terror that began to justify oppressions against Muslims in places like China in the name of protecting China from terrorist attacks.

I’m interested in looking at how this stereotypical Muslim has been created, who is a violent threat and used to justify putting into place policies and practices that further oppress Muslims in different countries.

Do you think the stereotypical “Muslim terrorist” emerged because of 9/11 and the United States’ Global War on Terror, or did it already exist, and the United States offered other governments an excuse to enact these policies?

Saher Selod: I need to do more work to answer that concretely. For example, in India, there is a long-standing history of violence that predates the war on terror, and in China as well. So, I don’t think I can say that the Global War on Terror created something new, but it did provide language, justification, and even perhaps examples of how surveillance and security can be used to “protect from terrorism.” The Global War on Terror really gives a different language and a way to frame certain conflicts, and even discriminatory practices.

In one chapter you talk about the homogenization of Muslims. How does this relate to your discussion on the invisibility of Muslim racialization?

Saher Selod: That’s a good question. My argument is that Muslims are far from homogenous. They are very diverse racially, ethnically, by class, sexual orientation, nation of origin. Even the way Islam is practiced is vastly different – religious practices, philosophical practices, secularism versus non-secular – with a range of very diverse populations.

What I’m arguing through Muslim racialization is that the state coupled terror with “Islam” and “Muslim” in such a way that it furthers the racialization process. Meaning that when Muslims are stopped and searched or the FBI comes to their house simply because they are Muslim, and regardless of their other actions, behaviors, or attitudes, it is because of their religious identity. And this can be instigated by another citizen calling the FBI or a terrorist hotline. It has nothing to do with their actual status as a threat – their religious identity in and of itself marks them as potential suspects.

Through Muslim racialization…the state coupled terror with ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ in such a way that it furthers the racialization process.

In my previous work, I showed that Muslims experience racialization or forms of racism, and I did that by looking at how [racialization and racism] is institutionalized. But it still seems like there is a real invisibility in both the scholarship and in policy and in recognizing the ways in which the state is allowed to surveil a population, and the negative impact this has on Muslim populations.

The best example I can give is the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Even though Trump had said all of these offensive things about Muslims, [Chief Justice] Roberts noted in his brief that even though Trump made anti-Muslim comments, he had the authority, as the President and the executive branch, to determine who is a threat to national security. Trump was saying all of these overtly anti-Muslim statements and this did not impact the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling.

Would Trump’s Muslim travel ban been perceived differently without all of the racist rhetoric?

Saher Selod: Well Trump isn’t the only one to ban Muslims from coming into the United States for periods of time. Obama did it. Bush did it – particularly after 9/11 but no one was protesting it then. In fact, a lot of that stuff happens under the radar – saying Muslims from X country can come in for a period of 90 days or what have you. Trump was overt about his anti-Muslim rhetoric, like when he campaigned on registering Muslims. But we already had a system of registry for Muslims, from Bush and Obama, that registered non-citizen Muslim men over the age of sixteen from 25 countries, 24 of which were Muslim majority. That already existed in the United States.

So, yes, I think you’re right to point out that if Trump hadn’t been so overt, the thousands of people who went to airports the day he signed his first executive order – we wouldn’t have seen that response. I had hope that the way Trump racialized Muslims would perhaps allow the Supreme Court to vote differently, although that was naïve. Typically, these things just happen unchecked and nobody’s protesting them.

Trump was almost, in some ways, more honest in the way that he was talking about the policies that have been put into place. He actually made visible the racism against Muslims, although I still think the majority of the American public would feel like Trump was racist against Muslims, not the policies already in place. With this “Trump effect” of making anti-Muslim racism more visible now, will we see this visibility sustaining itself under Biden? For example, I think people realize Muslims have been oppressed under Trump, but I'm not sure it’s still widely recognized as a form of racism.

In your research, you discuss how Edward Said’s Orientalism is both effective and ineffective as a framework. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Saher Selod: Said makes the argument about the construction of the West in relation to the Other, and it's a great framework to understand this Muslim racialization when you're looking at the United States and the Global War on Terror in terms of the United States invading Afghanistan and Iraq. But it's not useful for me when I’m asking, “what if it’s not the West and the rest?” I need to untangle this challenging, complicated argument I’m trying to make.
Does it serve the West? Does the racialized Uyghur Muslims in China serve the United States or Europe in any kind of way? I’m not sure. I can't answer that question yet, but what I do know is that the Global War on Terror is used to racialize Uyghur Muslims in China, it's used to justify camps and forced sterilization even though that may have occurred before the Global War on Terror began. Because once everybody accepts the notion of Muslims as a threat, as a terrorist, we see the justification of certain policies and laws. I want to expand Said’s concept of Orientalism and its scope.

So, is it fair to say that that's part of what your project is trying to unravel?

Saher Selod: I don’t know because I’m still grappling with that right now. I think that Said will be part of building the framework for the global racialization of Muslims, but I will note that there's limitations in his argument. And I think if Said was still alive today that he would have great contributions to thinking about China and India, and even Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – places other than European Western countries that are engaging in this racialization of Muslims vis-à-vis the War on Terror. I think Said will definitely be in the book but I’m trying to complicate it a little.

Why is it important to examine global Muslim racialization?

Saher Selod: I think that these are systems of oppression that need to be dismantled in the United States and they need to be dismantled globally. As I'm sitting here and reading about the [Citizenship Amendment Bill] in India and the [Uyghur internment] camps in China, I don't want to make this claim that if you dismantle the Global War on Terror that the things the state will do to Muslims within those places will go away – I don't think that's true. The Global War on Terror has produced systems of oppression that the state engages with, and has enacted, and I think we need to start thinking about what this means.

The goal is to say, ‘look at what is being done – look at these racist laws and policies and see the impact it’s having on people’s lives.’ Because the impact is really important.

I know we need to dismantle the systems and policies in place in terms of mass incarceration in the United States, our horrific immigration practices, laws and policies and policing because it all has an impact on people in their lives. The hope is that once you uncover it and you show not just that it's ineffective, but it also leads to discrimination and racism, and the unequal treatment of human beings – it's a real human rights issue.

It's important to start looking at things as if they're not isolated incidents within nation states. There are connections we need to start paying attention to – both the particularities of surveillance, but also the connections on a global scale. In my first book I didn't look at global connections and so now I’m thinking about that. It is important to highlight the state laws and policies that are put into place in the name of this Global War on Terror and bring attention to how these laws and policies are deeply racializing. The goal is to say, “look at what is being done – look at these laws and policies and see the impact it’s having on people’s lives.” Because the impact is really important.

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