This is the class blog of Islam and Modernity. The course has now been offered thrice, so here you’ll find posts from REL195A in Fall 2015, REL196A in Spring 2018 and, most recently, under its permanent course number REL133 posts from Fall 2019. The posts represent the semester-long research projects of two excellent classes with reasonably similar syllabi. Though, full disclosure, this course has never repeated the same syllabus.
Differing readings aside, in each iteration, our course took as its premise that both “Islam” and “modernity” are not fixed categories with fixed definitions, but rather, terms in flux, defined operationally by a myriad actors (scholars, activists, imperial and colonial agents, journalists, practitioners, clergy, & etc.). Our goals included examining how “Islam” and “modernity” were defined in opposition to, alongside, and co-constitutively of each other in historically and geographically rooted cases.
As part of a scaffolded research project, students were asked to develop a question and topic, bibliography, and final project in the context of one of these historical and geographic locations, using sources we’d read in class as well as those they’d found through individual research. Additionally, each student was to find an image that either drove their blog post or complimented it. We were all served by the amazing Patricia Mardeusz (UVM Librarian/one of the best people on campus) who met with students and crafted a research guide for us in Spring 2018 and another one in Fall 2019.
I hope you’ll read through! Posts address theoretical concepts like power, privilege, race, secularism, and identity as well as studies of literature, veiling, post-colonial nation-state boundaries, law, and fashion, among other topics. I’m pleased with our conversations, the research results students achieved, and their willingness to distill that research into blog-sized morsels.
It is important to note (as I did here) that this blog is maintained by me; posts have been edited in conjunction with student peer revisions and professor revisions. Views are those of their authors, and not my own, the Department of Religion’s, or the University’s.
In the West, Muslim women in modest clothing are often perceived as static figures who lack freedom of expression and exist under the thumb of an oppressive patriarchy. This assumption is generally inaccurate, troublesome, and outdated. In this post, I explore pious athleticwear, which describes the ways Muslim women use clothes when engaging in physical activity. While there are numerous ways Muslim women dress for sports, I focus on the much-discussed burkini as a piece of pious athleticwear. I use Hamila Aden’s spread in Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue” to analyze how burkinis empower Muslim women and are used to create new norms about Islam and Muslim women.
Pious athleticwear, a term adapted from Liz Bucar’s Pious Fashion, describes the sartorial pieces and practices that enable Muslim women to partake in athletic activity without compromising their religion or covering preferences. Pious athleticwear is part of an outward-facing, visual communication system that conveys the compatibility between Islam and modernity in everyday sports and practices, from ballet to boxing. The appearance of pious athletic wear varies depending on physical activity. For example, an athlete may wear a polar fleece Capster (a brand of form-fitting head coverings) to cycle outside during the winter but don the Nike Pro Hijab for a fencing match. While pious athleticwear manifests in different styles, overarching sartorial themes exist. A critical component of pious athleticwear is the use of a hijab to cover one’s head. Pious athleticwear is characterized by high necklines and fabric that covers to the wrists and ankles. Showing a minimal amount of skin implies modesty. As a modest garment, the burkini exemplifies modernity by combining function, fashion, and faith.
This year, Halima Aden made history as the first woman who wore a burkini and hijab in Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue.” Various styles of pious athleticwear splash across the pages and feature bright colors, eye-catching patterns, and designer accessories that reflect current trends. In one image, Aden wears a two-piece set from designer Cynthia Rowley. The top piece is composed of a head covering, long sleeves, with a thigh-length hem that flares out from the body. The bottoms are loose-fitting leggings that reach the ankle. Rowley’s signature color-block design and vibrant colors distinguish the outfit. When worn together, these two garments create a pious, sporty look and counter the idea that for Muslim women, covering is confined to drab, dark pieces. A different photo displays Aden in a red bodysuit with a Gucci hat covering her hair. A Gucci scarf with red detailing is re-fashioned as a sarong and layered over the bodysuit. In another shot, pious athleticwear is created by mixing high and low pieces that are modest. A pink one-piece from Amazon that stretches from under Aden’s chin down to her wrists and ankles is worn with a floral patterned, fuchsia nylon hood from Gucci. The incorporation of Gucci pieces exemplifies pious athleticwear’s receptiveness to current trends; at present, Gucci is the fastest-growing luxury brand and is ranked the fourth most valuable brand in the world (Handley, 2018). Moreover, luxury apparel that is modestly styled highlights the compatibility between Western fashion houses (which are usually regarded as secular) and religious norms of covering. The plethora of burkinis and head coverings display a variety of interpretations and illustrate the innovative and flexible nature of pious athleticwear.
By featuring Aden in pious athleticwear, Sports Illustrated highlights modestly covered Muslim women and promotes inclusion. Muslim women who wear pious athleticwear, especially burkinis, are a hypervisible group that lacks positive representation. Particularly in the West, Muslim women who choose to wear burkinis stand out among the majority of uncovered swimmers. In 2016, France banned the burkini. France’s criminalization of the burkini, and therefore criminalization of Muslim women who cover, is a manifestation of deep-set Western racism, sexism, and intolerance of Islam. Most notably, armed French police forced a woman wearing pious athleticwear to remove her long-sleeved tunic. The police issued her a ticket, stating she failed to wear an outfit “respecting good morals and secularism” (Quinn, 2016). Muslim women in burkinis are a distinct group vulnerable to attacks based on racism, sexism, and intolerance of Islam. Muslim women who wear burkinis are often either excluded from Western media or portrayed in a negative light. Thus, Aden’s inclusion in the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” can be understood as much-needed and long-overdue positive representation.
One case of a Muslim woman in pious athleticwear in Sports Illustrated does not resolve issues of representation, sexism, racism, and anti-Islam rhetorics, beliefs, and views. When recognizing the positive impact of Aden’s feature, one must be aware of the greater systemic issues of how, when, where, and for what purpose Muslim women in pious athleticwear are portrayed. As a woman in a burkini in Sports Illustrated’s“Swimsuit Issue,” Aden certainly serves as a role model to other Muslim women who cover. However, by featuring Aden as the only woman in pious athleticwear, she is invented into a “neat cultural icon” representing progress, diversity, and modernity (Abu-Lughod, 2002). As the audience, it’s our duty to recognize that Aden does not represent all Muslim women. Aden’s presence in the “Swimsuit Issue,” while noteworthy, is simply one instance of a long-overdue positive portrayal of Muslim women in pious athleticwear in Western media. Sports Illustrated featuring a Muslim woman in a burkini cannot be a one-and-done occurrence. We need to build upon Aden’s Sports Illustrated spread and further the progress of positive representation by recognizing and including more Muslim women in pious athleticwear, which will involve rethinking our perception of and approach to piety, Muslim women, and the burkini.
The burkini is often viewed as a tool to liberate Muslim women. This perspective is grounded in the antiquated assumption that Muslim women are hopelessly oppressed. Thus, Muslim women are constructed as one-dimensional icons that must be rescued from their culture and saved to the liberal, “secular” West (Abu-Lughod, 2002). On the other hand, the burkini is seen as an oppressive tool enforced by Islamic values and used by the patriarchy to control and force the values of modesty and piety on women and their bodies. These two stances – viewing pious athleticwear as a tool for either saving or oppressing Muslim women – ignore Muslim women’s autonomy. The real power of the burkini lies somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum. The burkini gives women freedom not from oppression but increased freedom to participate in athletics while remaining covered and upholding personal values. The onus lies on us, the audience, to decide how we choose to view not only Aden in this specific instance of the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue,” but also Muslim women wearing pious athleticwear in general: as objects, oppressed subjects, exoticized fetishes, neat cultural icons, role models, modern and empowered women, individuals with autonomy, or some combination of the above.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.783.
Barlas, Asma. Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān. University of Texas Press, 2019.
Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Harvard University Press, 2017.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, 2010.
Handley, Lucy. “The Luxury Sector Is Growing Faster than Many Others and Gucci Is in the Lead.” CNBC. CNBC, October 4, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/04/the-luxury-sector-is-growing-faster-than-many-others-and-gucci-leads.html.
In 2012 and 2013, deadly violence erupted in northern Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims. Within Rakhine state, the site of the 2012 riots, the two most prominent ethnic groups are Arakanese Buddhists, who are officially recognized by the state, and Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognized and in official Burmese media are called “Bengali.” Time Magazine covered one of the more prominent instigators of the riots, a monk named Wirathu, on July 1st of 2013, as well as describing the rise of radical Buddhism in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Although it identified prominent Buddhists as leaders of the movement, the article used a prescriptive and dismissing tone, ranging from its naming of Wirathu as “Buddhist Bin Laden,” to its final admonition of the movements, saying “it’s hard to imagine that the Buddha would have approved.” (Beech 2013) By 2017, tens of thousands of Rohingya had been killed.
Dangerously, the way in which the Time article constructed its conception of Buddhist identity implied that violence is alien to Buddhism, and while it alluded to “religion under siege”, which is called dharmic decline and is the doctrinal basis for Wirathu’s movement, it failed to identify all the political, racial and religious factors at play. Because of the totality of Burmese ethnonationalism (the unification of Burmese religious, racial and national identity into a singular comprehensive ideology), the Rohingya found themselves alienated from Burmese society on all three fronts, and it is impossible to understand the ethnic cleansing that took place without examining each component of Burmese ethnonationalism and the ways in which they intertwine.
Rakhine State, where much of the violence in the last seven years has taken place, is primarily home to two ethnic groups, the Rohingya and the Arakanese. The Arakanese are majority Buddhist, and are one of the 135 taingyintha, or national races. (Cheesman 2017, 462) This term and the races it refers to date back to the colonial period, with non-taingyintha referring in the 1920s to the British, Chinese, and Indian people within Myanar who formed the colonial ruling class. The contemporary racial landscape of Myanmar, however, relies far more heavily on the Arabization of the Rohingya as a racial group. Exact history on the Rohingya is debated, but the date used by the Junta to establish the 135 races list in 1990 was based on whether or not the group was present before 1824, the date of British colonial landfall. (Gravers 2015, 3) The Junta argued in the 1982 citizenship law that the Rohingya were brought by the British from Bangladesh during the colonial period and are consequently excluded. Choosing to see Rohingya as foreign invaders and former colonizers, even if they are a persecuted minority, strengthens the narrative of nation and race being inextricably tied. The Arabization piece of Rohingya racialization reflects a more conspiratorial side of Wirathu’s rhetoric: conspiracies that racially Burmese people are being outbred and replaced by Muslims, that Rohingya violence is being funded by Arab billionaires hoping to establish a new Caliphate, and that Arabs control the UN. (Beech 2013) A common theme in Wirathu’s speeches is the threat of Muslim replacement through interfaith marriage, forced conversion, and extrapolation of birth rate data into a trend where Buddhists will be outnumbered by Muslims in the near future. Although it is framed as “defending Buddhism,” the racist overtones are obvious.
Within this schema of identity, Buddhism plays a key role both in Burmese history as an anti-colonial force and in its present. Buddhism and politics in Myanmar are close, as is demonstrated by the involvement of monks in the 2007 saffron revolution and the end of the Junta in 2010. Wirathu and other monks also enjoy a form of diplomatic immunity which insulates them against legal repercussions for their speech. Central to Wirathu’s speeches is the idea of dharmic decline. (Foxeus 2019, 677) The dharma is the word of the Buddha, as written 2500 years ago. As time passes, language changes, and the documents are lost, destroyed or reinterpreted, pieces of the dharma are lost, making it harder to reach enlightenment. Thus, argues Wirathu, protection of the dharma from non-Buddhists must be done at any cost, for without the dharma Buddhists are lost. This same argument was used by anti-colonial monks in 1947, as a justification for protests against British rule, however there is a distinctly nationalist quality to Wirathu’s arguments today. This is accomplished in two ways, by emphasizing the Buddha’s role and teachings of self sacrifice in defence of the home, (Foxeus 2019, 671) and by emphasizing the role of the dharma as creating order while highlighting the government’s role as the enforcer of the law and the defender of that order. Preserving order and preserving the dharma become goals that are unified in their cosmological significance, and are opposed by a unified threat, the ‘criminal, illegal immigrant’ Rohingya. (Gravers 2015, 3) The same way that the government legislates race as a part of national identity, Wirathu and other religious leaders prescribe nationalism as a part of religious identity, and by conflating the two Wirathu does not need to make excuses for violating Buddhist traditions of non-violence. A threat to Myanmar is a threat to Buddhism, and if Buddhism is to be preserved at all costs, then violence is acceptable as long as it is defending the nation.
Nationally, the Rohingya are stateless. Because of their classification as Bengali by the Burmese they were designated as not eligible for full citizenship through the 1982 citizenship law, and due to violence in Rakhine state many Rohingya are internationally displaced and considered illegal everywhere. The nationalist position espoused by the current ruling Union Solidarity Development Party is one of unified Burmese national, ethnic and religious identity. (Gravers 2015, 3) To be Burmese is a national identity as a citizen of Myanmar, an ethnic identity as a member of the 135 officially recognized taingyintha, and a religious identity as a Buddhist. Under this schema of tripartite identity, the Rohingya are not Buddhist, not among the 135 races, and not legally Burmese citizens, and through the lens of Dharmic decline and racial anxiety, must represent a threat to Myanmar. What the Time article identifies perfectly, however, is the public perception of Buddhism. By seeing it as “synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha,” rather than as a living ideology, it sees only one chauvinist monk rather than a pattern of alienation approaching a genocide reliant on the devotion of its Buddhist actors.
Beech, Hannah. “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” TIME, July 1, 2013.
Cheesman, Nick. 2017. “How in Myanmar ‘National Races’ Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47 (3): 461–83. doi:10.1080/00472336.2017.1297476.
Niklas. “The Buddha was a devoted
nationalist: Buddhist nationalism, ressentiment, and defending
Buddhism in Myanmar,”Religion 49, no. 4,
Gravers, Mikael. “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities,” Contemporary Buddhism 16, no. 1, (2015): 1-27
Parashar, Archana, and Jobair Alam. “The National Laws of Myanmar: Making of Statelessness for the Rohingya.” International Migration 57, no. 1 (February 2019): 94–108. doi:10.1111/imig.12532.
“The Battle Over the Word ‘Rohingya’ The Washington Post, April 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/29/the-battle-over-the-word-rohingya/
Hello Readers! When given the opportunity to research any topic for #IslamModUVM, I wanted to pick a current topic centered around living, breathing, everyday Muslim folks. I wanted to get a better understanding of what it may be like to embody an identity that suffers from negative stereotypes and external forces and how humans are navigating throughout them. So, I posed the question: How do young Muslim’s navigate throughout their journey of self-discovery living in a world with anti-Muslim sentiments and how does this affect their ever-changing identities?
First, Muslimsmake up about a fifth of the world population (~1.5 billion people) spreading across various continents, cultures, ages, and languages. Despite being a truly diverse population, there are existing stereotypes that do real work in the world and portray Muslims as a unified and homogenous group, or what Cemil Aydin calls ‘The Muslim World’. In Aydin’s book The Idea of the Muslim World, he argues that the emergence of this unified identity “.. lies in the accumulated impact of contingent policies, conflicts, and ideologies of empires from the 1820’s to the 1870’s” (Aydin 2017, 40). ‘The Muslim World’ emerged as a way to contest inferiority as diversity was seen as a source of weakness when up against the unified British. And thus, emerged the idea of a unified Muslim population where the actions of one Muslim may represent all Muslims. This idea became especially prevalent after the attacks on 9/11, performed by a group of twenty or so individuals claiming to be of the Muslim faith.
In an interview with various college students in NYC after the attacks, there was a range of feelings and reactions but mostly, fear. A student at Hunter College said “We were victims of what happened. We had loved ones stuck in the World Trade Center. We couldn’t get in contact with our loved ones. And on top of that, we were accused. So we were double traumatized. When they say, ‘America Unites’, they did not mean us. They did not mean Muslims.” (Peek 2003, 282). In fact, there was a 1600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001, (Mir 2014, 7) as well as the omnipresence of surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods and college students. Some students did not go to school for many weeks or even open the blinds to their homes for fear of being targeted. The event of 9/11 set the stage for continuous racialization and violence towards Muslim individuals.
So how are these folks dealing with their identities? Well, Generation M and the Mipsterz are examples of folks who loudly present their identities. Whereas some of the women interviewed in the book Muslim American Women on Campus by Shabana Mir, are more quiet with their identities, let’s begin there.
Some of the women Mir interviewed for her novel expressed that the stereotype’s attached with being a Muslim felt unavoidable and because of this it was hard to “blend in”. They felt the American pluralism was not flexible, and that the only way to be “normal” was to conceal their religiosity, as a way to avoid discrimination. Being an outsider in the periphery of their universities was a common feeling among the women. Yasmin for example, does not include Muslim referees on her internship applications as a way to soften her religious affiliation as a Muslim. She said “Can you really change things from outside the system? So I think it’s much more likely you can change the system from the inside.” (Mir 2014, 174). Presenting the idea of a ‘system’ where one may either be inside or outside of, based on who you are.
The women that Mir worked with felt as though their identities were multiple and flexible, and were experiencing finding a comfortable balance between being a college student, an American, and Muslim, among other identities. An example of the navigation process can be seen through the social party scene and drinking. Some women choose not to engage in it, while others may go and drink, while some go to the party, but do not drink. This example presents the ways in which the different women engaged with their values. Amina, one of the interviewee’s expressed that she feels that there needs to be some level of assimilation or else there is the potential to become “cushioned” to being around people who are just like you, something she believes is bad (Mir 2014, 176). It can be observed that there are decisions Muslim folks make based on social pressures and their values, which are ways they may be forming their identities.
Additionally, we can see another way that youth are interacting with their identities by looking at the Mipsterz. The Mipsterz began when Layla Shaikley, a young woman living in London decided she was sufficiently exhausted with meeting the reactions of Islamaphobes and people who she described as terrorists who “had equally hijacked the popular narrative about Muslims” (Janmohamed 2016, 28). Her and her friends decided to make a video of themselves hanging out, riding motorcycles, and skateboarding. The video and the Mipsterz movement is a way for Layla, her friends, and other Muslims alike to take control of their identities themselves and mix both their personal values and passions with their faith. Layla got all types of reactions to the video of people saying they related so much, and others who criticized her saying that they didn’t relate at all. To this, Layla responded saying, “Tell your own story and don’t rely on others to do it for you.” (Janmohamed 2016, 29). A message that is presented in Shelina Janmohamed’s work Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, the movement where Muslim youth are deciding to combat the negative stereotypes through education to teach people about who they are and what they believe. Thus, these Muslim youth are loudly projecting how they want to be understood, as a way to combat the negative stereotypes and define their identities themselves.
All in all, the answer to my question is not one that has a definitive answer, rather, an open ended one offering endless examples of the different ways in which Muslims are understanding their identities–as most people are (I know I sure am). Perhaps a good message to us all is what my Mormon friend once told me, “Don’t judge me because of my religion, just see me, for me”.
Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.
“Cartoons about City Life, Country Life and Society, from Punch | PUNCH Magazine Cartoon Archive.” Accessed October 18, 2019. https://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000s7fYdJJhUUs
Janmohamed, Shelina. Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World. London. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co.Ltd, 2016.
Mir, Shabana. Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2014.
Peek, Lori A. “Reactions and Response: Muslim Students’ Experiences on New York City Campuses Post 9/11”. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol 23, No. 2 (October, 2003). Accessed October 6th, 2019.
Wilson, Jason F. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
At various points between 1925 and 1941, Iran’s authoritarian leader Reza Shah Pahlavi utilized state force in an attempt to transform Iran into a nation that was palatable to the West(Eastwood, 308-312). To achieve this he enacted a series of reforms, including gendered social initiatives aimed towards ‘liberating’ Iranians, namely women. In reality, these reforms, which affected individuals in deeply personal and sometimes violent ways, were a reflection of Reza Shah’s vulnerability to orientalist stereotypes regarding Iran as well as his authoritarianism.
The Shah’s hearty embrace of western modernity was a direct reaction to the damaged state he had received from his Qajar predecessors who had transformed Iran into a “semi-colonial” state through a series of mortifying military excursions (Seghi, 40). As a result, Persian elites absorbed ideologies dictating that a healthy and therefore ‘modern’ Iran could be achieved only through emphasising Western political ideals. Iran’s socio-economic fragility combined with modernist values popular among societal elites like the Pahlavis provided the root of the Shah’s insecurities regarding Iran’s status in relation to the Western world. Because of his insecurity, he pursued a nationalist, authoritarian political policy rooted in mimicking “the material advances of the West [through] a breakdown of the traditional power of religion and a growing tendency towards secularism” (Seghi, 61).With westernized social and economic policies, he built a state whose power rested on “a strong army and repression” ,but not democratic political values (ibid).
Reza Shah’s state feminism project, which Camron Michel Amin referred to as the “Women’s Awakening” relied on westernized notions that a ‘modern’ woman was “educated, unveiled and secured in monogamous matrimony” (Amin, 351). As part of these reforms, the Shah criminalized wearing chador in 1936. In addition, women were coerced into wearing European style clothing to aid their ‘emancipation’ (Eastwood, 308-312).The chador prohibition, evolving as a slow process, was a poignant aspect of the Pahlavi regime’s authoritarian legislation which sanctioned citizen’s personal practices for the sake of progress and weaponized euro-centric notions of modernity for political gain. According to the Shah’s Minister of Education, by abandoning Persian clothing, which was “a refuge for traditionalism” and conforming to European sartorial norms, Iranians “would definitely capitulate to the advance of Western civilization” and better participate in “[their] march towards modern progress” (Chehabi, 225). Additionally, these reforms served to weaken the nation’s powerful ulama, who aligned itself with “radical” anti-monarchical elements and encouraged women to wear the chador (Seghi, 41-3). As a result, women “became the battlefield and booty of the harsh and sometimes bloody struggle between the secularists…and the religious authorities”(Hoodfar, 8). “The Women’s Awakening” offered some overture towards equality but it’s patriarchal authoritarian roots were obvious. Tellingly, the Shah prohibited independent feminist organization forcing all advocacy for women’s rights to take place within the government controlled Women’s center, supporting the idea that Reza Shah’s state ‘feminism’ was merely a male head of state’s attempt to force Western understandings of gender on Persian women (Seghi, 57) (Amin, 354). Mirroring European ideals of femininity, the Pahlavi regime attempted to create a perfect Iranian woman who could “enter society alongside men through “teaching, nursing and office work”,labor deemed appropropriate by Western gender norms (Amin, 359-60). The Shah’s belief that veiling was oppressive demonstrated his embrace of “the static colonial image of the oppressed veiled Muslim woman” based in his notion that Iranian culture was inferior to European culture (Hoodfar, 3). According to Reza Shah’s Minister of Education, by abandoning Persian clothing, which “seemed to serve as a refuge for traditionalism” and conforming to the state’s ideals by donning European styles, Iranians would better participate in “[their] march towards modern progress” (Chehabi, 225).
The sartorial aspect of Reza Shah’s reforms meant modernization efforts centered on women’s bodies. The government provided it’s male employees with loans to purchase new clothing for their wives. Men who declined to bring their unveiled wives to official events were placed on unpaid leaves of absence (Chehabi, 219). Sometimes, wives who refused were often replaced by “temporary wives” who accompanied officials to public functions in ‘proper’ attire, literally serving as political props for the state (Eastwood, 308-312).
While the Shah portrayed his veiling prohibition as a way to liberate women, many were horrified by the legislation, with one primary account noting: “When my mother learned that she was to lose the modesty of her veil, she was beside herself. She and all traditional people regarded Reza’s order as the worst thing he had yet done” (Chehabi, 220).The state’s chador ban affected individuals in intimate ways, acutely disrupting the lives of lower class, pious women as opposed to more elite women for whom “the veil became a marker of backwardness” (Chehabi,211). Oftentimes, elite women gained more societal privilege for their loyalty to the regime(Amin, 351-2). “Women of the lower classes [raised] with the notion that to lift a woman’s veil is a woman’s worst sin and disgrace” who did not conform to the regime’s demands were punished (Chehabi, 220). Police forces charged with enforcing the Shah’s rules “frequently assaulted women physically and tore off their scarves or chadors” (Chehabi,220). Men who advocated against the regime’s anti-veiling directives became the object of the state’s crackdown on dissent. On Friday, July 13th 1935 military forces stormed a meeting of Gowharshard mosque to disrupt a meeting of pro-veiling activists, shooting some demonstrators (Chehabi,217). When people from the surrounding town came to protest the next day, government troops attacked the mosque “end[ing] the whole affair amidst much bloodshed” (ibid).
Despite the professed feminist ideals of the “Women’s Awakening”, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernizing reforms consisted of placing Euro-centric values regarding gender upon Iranians through a distinctly dictatorial framework. Instead of ‘liberating’ Iranian women, the state destroyed fledgling feminist groups while forcing them to comply with a male head of states’s ideals surrounding surrounding womanhood at the threat of violence, waging a war of ideology against those who refused to comply with the regime’s imported, self hating notions of modernity.
Amin, Camron Michael. “Propaganda and Remembrance: Gender, Education, and “The Women’s Awakening” of 1936.” In Iranian Studies 32, no. 3 (1999): 351-86.
Chehabi, Houchang E. “Staging the Emperor’s New Clothes: Dress Codes and Nation-Building under Reza Shah.” Iranian Studies 26, no. 3/4 (1993): 209-29. www.jstor.org/stable/4310854.
Hoodfar, Homa. “The veil in their minds and on their heads: the persistance of colonial images of Muslim women”. In Resources for Feminist Research;Toronto 22 (1992): 5-18
Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007
Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Reza Shah’s Dress Reforms in Iran.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Central and Southwest Asia, edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 308–312. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010. Accessed October 03, 2019.
Over the past few years, the Fashion industry, specifically in Jakarta, has become a hot spot for the latest trends in Islamic fashion. Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the World. I will be looking into how Islam, women, clothing, and modernity all play off one another. More specifically, how the ever-growing fashion industry in Indonesia affects Muslim women’s identities and modernity. There has been a rise in both consumerism and religion in Indonesia, two seemingly opposite occurrences. However, the rise of these devices can shed some light on the experiences, and the self-expression of young Muslim women in the current fashion climate.
For a little bit of context, I will share some of the history of Indonesia and the countries’ relationship with Islam1. Indonesia currently has the largest population of Muslims in the world (Around 250 million). Due to Islam being “new” Indonesia is very much trying to find it’s identity within the global Muslim community. Indonesian women didn’t traditionally wear head coverings, the increase in veiling can not be related to a “return to tradition (Bucar p. 6)” and so, what does that mean for modernity?
Modernity concerning the style in Indonesia has to do with the chose to cover and their growing Muslim identity. This symbolizes a stand against the collusion of religion and politics and serves as an expression of cultural Islam independent of state apparatus or policy (Bucar p. 104). Pious Muslim fashion is considered a modern and trendy style. Popular trends include pastel colors, florals patterns, paired with a dewy natural makeup look. The silhouettes are dynamic and range from beautiful flowing dresses to a shirt and cigarette-pants combo that emphasizes one’s figure. Similar to many places, it seems that there is a fair amount of pressure to dress a certain way. There’s a popular genre of helpful tips for Hijabi women that explain the dos and don’ts of fashion. For example, wearing jilbab that is flattering for your face shape, not correctly wrapping your headscarf, and using too many or too few pins/accessories are all common mistakes. Another prevalent topic is bad jilbab. There’s a large market for teaching women how to dress in a proper Pious way. This could be due to the newness of pious clothing. Many women didn’t have a mother who wore jilbab that could teach them. And a large number of women don’t choose to cover until their college age. This means there’s a lot of women who require helpful resources to learn to dress appropriately. Furthermore, modest clothing has also had a major boom in the past few years which makes it more accessible than ever before. With a constantly growing market, This idea of bad jilbab is used almost as a grading system for how well you present your piety in public. If someone’s jilbab is unfashionable it can be seen as ingenuine.
This ingeniousness can also be connected to the hot button issue of the balance of consumerism and piety. Devoutness and consumerism seem like two opposite phenomenon but, there a significant relationship between the two. In Indonesia, it’s the case of vanity vs virtue, where women don’t want to become ‘corrupt’ by focusing too much on consuming rather than being virtuous. On the other hand, there’s a certain level that women have to meet to have good jilbab. This is a very gendered issue, but it also shows us that class can play a role in looking acceptable. In terms of modernity, the use of consumerism to showcase piety or status isn’t necessarily a new practice, but it’s more accessible than ever before and shows how the significance of fashion has evolved.
However, the core of this research is how women express themselves of Islam though their clothing, what that has to do with modernity, and why that’s important. It’s no question that fashion is often a big part of most women’s lives. Like anywhere, Indonesia has social ‘rules’ and guidelines when it comes to dressing appropriately. As touched on before, Pious Fashion is a new emergence that is being led by young women who want to show their piety fashionably. Specifically in Indonesia, the choice to cover is empowering to these young people because it allows them to showcase an important part of their identity. Modest apparel in Indonesia is extremely diverse. One of the biggest trends is all the hundreds of ways to pin your headscarf. While it can seem overwhelming to women new to covering, it’s enjoyable to pick and choose different styles of jilbab that are the most flattering for your face shape, or to experiment with new trends. In some ways, current Indonesian fashion is meant to show the difference between young women and their parents who dressed in what are now considered bad jilbab, almost as a small act of rebellion. These young women want to look good while still showcasing their piety. Many feel that wearing jilbab helps them be a better person, many decided to start veiling to become more pious and connected to their Muslim identity. While I was researching this topic, the evolution of pious fashion in Indonesia reminded me of the recent re-emergence of 90s fashion, where young people took the old and made it new again. Ultimately, Indonesian Muslim Women’s relationship with fashion and modernity is an interesting look a taking something like pious fashion, that is believed to be old or ancient, and showing us that it’s a modern form of expression and devotion.
Visit the University of Vermont’s Wellness Environment, and you’re sure to see students being guided through a group yoga flow on the green and practicing mindfulness through meditating in their “Healthy Brains: Healthy Bodies” class. Step inside any mental or physical health center in this country, and you’re likely to find pamphlets and posters promoting or advertising Buddhism-inspired mindfulness meditation practices for improved wellbeing. Upon taking a step back to look at the western fascination with these models of wellness, we can see the ubiquitous influence of Buddhist practice on our efforts to focus on bettering our mental health. But can anyone imagine what it would be like if Islamic practice was being endorsed in an even slightly comparable way? Islam is not present in this growing American prevalence of “eastern” practice, despite similarities in philosophy and certainly in mental health benefits. A closer look at Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, and the way that mindfulness-based therapy is an integral piece —like muraqaba (literally “mindfulness”: Sufi meditation)—can help us question our understanding of Buddhism as a universally applicable practice, but not Islam.
To start my thinking about this, I wondered where this discrepancy of notions of applicability even came from. We (“the west”) have to look at these origins within the framework of our own interpretations of eastern religions. Tomoko Masuzawa, in her The Invention of World Religions, explains how Buddhism has been historically recognized by us as an Aryan tradition, and therefore more compatible with western ideology than Islam, which we’ve seen as a “prototypically Arab—hence Semitic—religion.” (179) So Buddhism “naturally” seems more easily welcomed and adaptable into our own practices. Islam, however, has always been seen as its own other world, separate and often in supposed direct conflict with our beliefs and values.
Instead of Buddhism’s prevalence in our mental health culture turning out to be a result of actual greater applicability, it turns out that the lack of Islamic practice overlapping with ours is just due to racism. Looking at Sufism as a more in-depth study, I want to investigate the real world of Islamic spirituality and health, and hopefully uncover the falsity of our assumptions that Muslim practice is so at odds with universal values and needs.
Sufism, or tasawaf, is rooted in a deeper understanding of the self and achieving a connection with a love greater than oneself. For Sufi Muslims, this idea is centered around the concepts of the nafs. Training the nafs works for Sufis as a method of alleviating emotional distress. These nafs are false pride, greed, envy, lust, back biting, stinginess, and malice. One of the major meditative goals is to overcome these nafs to achieve a state of awakening and forgiveness for the sins we all commit. Ultimately, this achievement leads to “The Contented Self”, which is a state of accepting all that happens and living in the moment, rather than the past or future. At this state of a peaceful spirit, a person is relieved of concern for material values and everyday problems. This state is ultimately achieved by controlled breathing, muraqba, and can incorporate healing music and dancing or art. (Irfan 2017).
For example, Mohammad Din, a Malay artist and mystic spiritual healer, incorporates art, calligraphy, martial arts, medicine, and nature (to him “all part of the One”) as a holistic approach to healing problems of the soul. He makes deeply moving art that people may use as a symbol of protection when they are sick. The usage of his art in such a way, combined with his intense devotion to staying by his patients’ sides through his healing of their ailments, underlines the importance of real human connection and focusing on a patient’s whole self and spirit—not just the matters of parts of the physical body—in healing (Farrer 2008).
Take Sufi meditations on death as a broader example. To make sense of death, one meditates by looking at the bigger picture, so to speak, of the temporary nature of life itself. This practice, while it may seem dismal, is actually quite uplifting for those who engage in it. By focusing on this larger view, the frivolities of one’s life are put into perspective, and everyday anxieties can be alleviated. Al-Ghazālī, a Muslim theologian and mystic, once suffered from a debilitating panic attack when he was giving a lecture that left him robbed of his ability to speak. Meditating on death in this way allowed him to ease his anxieties, and recover from his malady. (Perriera 2010). Death is an inevitable, deeply universal and human phenomenon that people of all cultures will ultimately experience. Using this concept as a form of meditation can not only makes us more comfortable with its reality, but could also be helpful for anyone who suffers from anxiety.
In perhaps the clearest illustrations of all, it was Muslim psychologist Abu Zayd Ahmed Ibn Sahl al-Balkhi who founded Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the tenth century. Today, CBT is increasingly being used around the world to treat individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression, among other mental health disorders. Another influential Sufi figure was Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, whom the world knows as Rumi. A Sufi mystic and poet, his teachings are widespread in their influence of Sufis today. He emphasizes awareness of the breath on calming the spirit. One key concept from his teachings is the idea of walking meditation, during which one may center attention on the feet, and breathing into them as one walks. This practice’s wisdom is grounded in the universal relevance of breath and walking in the human experience (Mirdal 2012).
In working through my research for this post on mindfulness and Muslim spirituality, I encountered more of a struggle than I’d anticipated. You can see in the above Google search results of my attempt to research mindfulness. Buddhism is mentioned plenty, but Islam is left out of the picture. So why is this significant? The lack of information on Islamic spirituality and its connection to mindfulness—apparent in a simple Google search—reveals how western scholarship and understanding neglects to accept Islam as compatible with our notions of mental health.
Our understandings of religion and mindfulness, and what we do or don’t see as applicable to western practice, are rooted in our prejudices against Islam and Muslims. Acknowledging which non-western spiritual teachings we do and don’t accept into and preach throughout our own health culture reveals plenty about our ignorance, and our failure to embrace cultures that seem too different from ours, when they have such related values at the root. When we put our western biasses towards Islam aside and focus our attention towards understanding actual Muslim practice, we can see that Buddhism isn’t the only ideology with universally applicable elements. Taking time to look beyond our assumptions about which traditions “work with” us and exploring those more ostracized by our society can be incredibly insightful. That’s why sufism is a great example of a way to discover the connections we really have in how we as humans want to care for ourselves and our minds. Mental health is at the base of human experience; it connects us all. I believe that by starting like this with what connects us across cultures, we can begin to shorten the perceived ocean of distance between our understandings and Muslim understandings of the world we all live in.
Farrer, D. S. “The Healing Arts of the Malay Mystic.” Visual Anthropology Review 24, no. 1 (2008): 29-46.
Mirdal, Gretty. “Mevlana Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rumi and Mindfulness.” Journal of Religion and Health 51, no. 4 (2012): 1202-215.
Isgandarova, Nazila. “Muraqaba as a Mindfulness-Based Therapy in Islamic Psychotherapy.” Journal of Religion and Health 58, no. 4 (2019): 1146-160.
Perreira, Todd. “”Die before You Die”: Death Meditation as Spiritual Technology of the Self in Islam and Buddhism.” The Muslim World 100, no. 2/3 (2010): 247.
Irfan, Muhammad, Sofiya Saeed, Naila Awan, Riaz Gul, Mirrat Aslam, and Farooq Naeem. “Psychological Healing in Pakistan: From Sufism to Culturally Adapted Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 47, no. 2 (2017): 119-24.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, n.d.
Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2008.
Gender expression is inherently political, whether taboo or upholding a norm. How that expression fits into frameworks of modernity is generally a rather uncomfortable topic; it assumes a liberal and “extreme” perspective. Therefore, it gets a certain reputation in terms of the people who tend to be involved within those parameters of discussion. It’s important to keep in mind that “modernity can… be looked at as an experience… which is full of contradictions” (Kumar, 242). In other words, how any single person encounters their existence within any framework of modernity is very individualized and reflects their authority in choosing to disregard standard social values. Modernity is a means of socialization that generates the traditional standards by which we live. In our current political climate, this especially affects those within communities having to do with sexuality and religion. As a result, young people today are taking a stand for their personal expression as individuals in order to push back against the normativity of gender and sexual norms. However, that doesn’t mean it has to result as the be-all, end-all. My research focuses on memoirs written by queer Muslims in order to explore real-life examples of the effects that modernity has on contemporary youth.
How people maneuver through an ever-growing framework of modernity is influenced by the availability of past experience. Existing as someone who identifies within two of the more objectionable qualifiers among our society is not a simple task. Judith Butler suggests that gender is a performative act, a phenomenon that is being produced over and over again throughout time. Whether or not we realize it, it’s clearly portrayed through things as simple as individual fashion choices. First-hand experience is the best way to truly understand what that feels like for any one person. Therefore, we are obligated to give these individuals and their peers the audience that they deserve in order to cultivate a better environment for future generations.
Humans use fashion as a means of transmission; being able to “construct identities, communicate status, and challenge aesthetic preferences” is incredibly powerful, however, can also be rather excluding (Bucar, 2). Why, then, is it worthwhile to focus on fashion of all things? It is so inherently gendered; anyone is susceptible to being identified through the clothing that they choose to wear- queer folk included. Thus, fashion plays a large role in how certain individuals exist in this modernity. In a community that cultivates a general sense of piety both through external expression and internal devotion, there is a fine line between fashion statements that are either seen as acceptable and honorable or completely irrational and offensive among Muslims. There are expectations and standards that they are held to in terms of their clothing and, as queer-identifying Muslims, these individuals face a much more difficult strain of criticism within their religious community. In his memoir, Tan France, a now-out gay man who is well known for his career made in the fashion industry, discusses how he chose to navigate the world via expression through his fashion choices. He describes it as the only way he really knew how to express himself (France, 21). In his experience, as well as many others’, France suppressed his sexuality because a majority of his energy already went towards deterring any attention from his ethnicity. Two of the most important identities that he possessed were in need of being hushed because, as he claimed, “[he] didn’t need a fucking double whammy in [his] life” (France, 9). Quite frankly, who can blame him?
In accordance with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, “multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and… create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking” (Crenshaw, 2018). This theory very closely parallels with what France seems to be describing here, in that his integrity was dependent upon the levels of discrimination that he faced due to the multiplicity of his existence.
Oftentimes, themes of modernity inherently assume definite gender and normality among straight-identifying sexuality. This applies to means of dress, speech, bodily gestures, etc. So, naturally, if you participate in things that are outside of those parameters, you’re opting outside of the norm. Current global turmoil only adds to the challenge queer Muslims face in their daily lives. For queer artist and activist Samra Habib, it took years of experience for her to accept that being queer is more than just a sexual preference. It is rather who you choose to be, even if that means existing beyond traditional standards of gender and heteronormative ways of life (Habib, 155). While bodies that conform to modern expectations may feel comfortable in doing so, Habib alludes to the idea that acting as if you feel like you belong is a powerful performance act (Habib, 115). Many don’t necessarily understand this phenomenon due to the basic fact that they don’t exist within communities that are oftentimes shunned or invalidated like LGBTQ+ and Muslim groups are. Habib expresses the difficulties she faced while navigating her sexual identity and how that translated into her relationships with both friends and, more notably, family. It’s bittersweet to follow her character develop so much so that she eventually found power in showing off her curved feminine body through her clothing choices, while still abiding by the pious parameters she made for herself (Habib, 146). That is to say that, after having been claimed by a variety of standards of beauty and identity as a Muslim woman, she reached a point of individuality that allowed her the ability to reclaim her outward performance and overall identity.
While it is hard for an entire population to sympathize with a collective that has a drastically different experience than another group, it’s hard to discredit the fact that gender dysphoria is both immensely complex and terrifying. As Amrou al-Kahdi, a queer Muslim drag queen, explains in their memoir, it’s often described as feeling like “your own body is at odds with how you perceive your own gender,” something that is very hard to imagine unless you’ve experienced it yourself (al-Kahdi, 102). Not to mention, al-Kahdi experienced this while balancing the weight of their religiosity and finding where they belonged among that crowd. al-Kahdi mentions being aware of how different they were compared to the people around them, even from a very young age. As they grew and came to understand the world a bit better, they recognized “the importance of sartorial signifiers of success,” meaning that they could identify people who were successful and accepted in society based on what one did and did not wear (al-Kahdi, 136). They found comfort particularly in more feminine fashions which thus introduced them into the world of drag, where they eventually found a home in their identity as Glamrou. Considering Butler’s theory, Glamrou’s experience aligns quite nicely in that their most comfortable identity exists in the gender that they perform. It shouldn’t be assumed that navigating the nuances of their identity became necessarily easier, but instead presented itself as a means of hope.
So what does this imply for queer Muslims in this understanding of modernity? The power and consequence of contemporaneity varies greatly between gender and sexuality norms and Islamic tradition. This divergence can lead to a great number of outliers, leaving these people who have found their niche within these two very separate communities struggling to blend them into one cohesive identity. All in all, the struggle within these practitioners lies in the fact that these communities are rarely seamlessly synonymous. Instead, their sharply contrasting traditions, as well as inevitably varied contemporary practices, pose many issues for those who try to perform both of these dual identities at once. This much is reflected in modern media, with Muslim authors penning memoirs about their inner strife, giving perspective and voice to a group of people whose identities falter and often fall silent under stringent standards. It is work like this, though, that helps lessen the strength of such silence. Thanks to creators like Amrou al-Kahdi, Samra Habib, and Tan France, ground is being laid for a new territory wherein queer Muslims feel empowered to speak and to be heard. If this pattern continues, we can hope that we will no longer see such a divide in selfhood. What is a dichotomy now could be a single, unified identity in the future.
Al-Kadhi, Amrou. Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen. S.l.: FOURTH ESTATE, 2020.
Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
France, Tan. Naturally Tan: A Memoir. S.l.: Virgin Books, 2020.
Habib, Samra. We Have Always Been Here: a Queer Muslim Memoir. Toronto: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada, 2019.
In January of 2017 President Trump issued Executive Order 13769 titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” popularly referred to as the “Muslim Ban.” This executive order banned nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for ninety days and banned Syrian nationals indefinitely. All seven of these countries have majority Muslim populations. One need not look farther than the title, which labels these countries’ citizens as terrorists, to understand the anti-Muslim nature of this executive order. Global non-Muslim discourses on Islam have long described the faith monolithically, grouping people who exist across thousands of miles as one, favoring their religious identity, and assigning them the label of “terrorist.” These discourses are prevalent today all over the globe but are rooted in centuries of academic scholarship and imperial relations. By interrogating the roots of today’s xenophobia, we can better understand the breadth of its effect, work to dismantle its foundation in the world and in our own minds, and come to understand people and things for what they are rather than what we’ve come to believe them to be.
The roots of our contemporary anti-Muslim attitudes can be traced to a variety of locations, but are most visible during the Age of Discovery with the conflation of the unnatural categories of race or ethnicity with religion. As white Christian European colonizers raced to India, they deployed new language of civilizational and religious hierarchy to classify the religious actors they would come to rule. Buddhism was considered, like Christianity, “universal,” while Judaism and Islam were “national,” “ethnic,” or “Semitic” religions.
The scholarship of Abraham Kuenen and Ernest Renan understood Islam, due to its supposedly non-universal nature, as inherently lesser than Christianity, as “virulent,” and as “a sham” (Masuzawa, 196). Kuenen believed Islam to be “made by an Arab and for Arabs,” and attributed its trans-continental popularity to its shared Abrahamic roots with Christianity. Unlike Christianity, however, Kuenen claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had failed at “sifting of the national from the universal,” a process that had allowed Christianity the top spot on the civilizational hierarchy. Kuenen’s labeling of Islam as a “national” religion “adopted for Arabs” is crucial in understanding how the Muslim monolith was formed.
Like Kuenen, Ernest Renan fused Islam into Semitic category. He understood “Arabs, and other Semites as a race” and “thus introduced ‘racial categories into theological discussion” (Anidjar, 30). These assertions were made, much like Kuenen’s, in relation to the superior universal Christianity, and created a “peculiarly religious race” that Renan believed to be “an inferior configuration of human nature” (Anidjar, 31). This amalgamation of the categories of race and religion, although conducted by academic “experts,” was in no means scientific or accurate. The theories of Kuenen and Renan are rife with bigoted language and only serve to subjugate non-white non-Christian others. These theories might appear as merely theories, but the imagined religious hierarchy that they established provided “an important religious legitimation for the rise of racial anti-Semitism in the 1880s,” and laid the foundation for the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes that exist today.
By establishing all Muslims as racially distinct, religiously inferior, and at a lower civilizational level in contrast to white Europeans, scholars like Kuenen and Renan created the bigoted cosmology that allows for an executive order that bans all Muslim refugees. We must remember that both these scholars exist within the context of imperialism. Imperial relations and governance were as influential, if not more, in fusing conceptions of Islam with conceptions of race, and creating the Muslim monolith that exists today.
In The Idea of the Muslim World Cemil Aydin describes how to the idea of a cohesive Muslim global community was born. The racialization of Muslims was an essential component to this process and occurred “between the 1820s and 1880s” (Aydin, 38). This period was one of empire. The British, French, and Russians ruled over millions of Muslims across their territories while The Ottoman Empire, the leading Muslim world power at the time, controlled Christian citizens in modern day Eastern Europe. Before race and religion dominated cosmological understandings of identity and difference, these trans-religious imperial identities reigned supreme. As the theories of race and religion of Renan, Kuenen, and others were emerging, Christian imperial subjects under Ottoman rule were pushing for independence while “more Muslim societies fell under Christian rule” (Aydin, 40). These imperial shifts coupled with Ottoman reform efforts that aimed at fostering Muslim unity advanced a distinct and marginalized status for Muslims across the world.
In British-ruled India, Muslims (who made up 40% of the world Muslim population) were governed by sharia rather than civil law with regards to “personal and family law,” and in the Russian, French, and Dutch empires Muslims were legally defined as distinct from other citizens. Muslims under British imperial rule elsewhere had their loyalty questioned, and across the world “full equality was almost impossible for Muslims to achieve (Aydin, 63). Our modern stereotypical conceptions of Muslims were emerging under these circumstances. British-ruled India contained the world’s largest Muslim population at the time, yet despite this Islam was considered “inherently foreign” to the subcontinent (Morgenstein Fuerst, 2017). Even slightly before the period that Aydin describes, the question of Muslim loyalty was beginning to surface. Muslims were considered “easily agitated, aggressive, and inherently disloyal” to British imperial rule by political actors (Morgenstein Fuerst, 2017). Just as western empire stretched across the globe, so did these new conceptual frameworks that were built off of race and religion.
Tisa Wenger outlines the selective application of religious freedom in American empire in her book Religious Freedom the Contested History of an American Ideal. In the second chapter Wenger discusses the American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war at the turn on the nineteenth century. Catholic imperial subjects faced “very different” treatment and policy than the Muslim Moros who occupied the Southern Portion of the archipelago. The Moros were considered “fanatical” and at an inferior civilizational level than their fellow Filipinos and Mormon Americans whose polygamous customs were similar. These civilizational standards were “simultaneously racial and religious,” exhibiting the global reach of the aforementioned racial categorization of Muslims (Wenger, 89).
Black Muslims within the United States faced similar circumstances. For black Americans religion served as an important tool “to define and redefine themselves” within “the work of racial construction in early twentieth century America” (Weisenfeld, 281). Appeals to religious freedom were often seen as an avenue for greater recognition and rights from the American government, yet with the categories of religion and race fused, these attempts were often unsuccessful. For the emerging religious movements, appeals to religious freedom provided an “avenue for self-defense” albeit “a limited” one (Wenger, 223). Black American Muslims faced similar stereotypes as Indians and Filipinos despite existing in vastly different times and spaces. Non-Muslim African Americans “emphasized the familiar trope of the ‘fanatical Muslim’” while police response to protests by the Nation of Islam were violent and fueled by racial-religious hatred.
The racialization of Muslims and the creation of a monolithic understanding of Islam, like many violent ideologies, is rooted in the hundred-year-old discursive framework of white male scholars. The process also exists, however, within a broader cosmological shift from an imperially guided sense of identity to a racial and religious one. These categories emerged and fused most prominently during the age of empire, yet they exist prominently today as is clear with President Trump’s executive order that began this discussion. By understanding the roots of our conceptual frameworks, we can better interrogate the unfounded bigotry that has affected so many in the past and many more today.
Palestinian Muslims’ perception of Zionism is often conflated with their perception of Judaism. Zionism, the support of a Jewish state usually in Israel, is disconnected from the religion of Judaism; though some individuals believe the Land of Israel was promised to the ancient Israelites by God. Confusion between the two can be seen as understandable considering that ninety-five percent of American-Jews support Israel and assumingly so do most Israelis (America and Israel hold over eighty percent of the worlds Jewish population).1 With that in mind, it seems complex to separate Zionism and Judaism but it can be observed through analyzing how these ideas are used in politics.
It should first be noted that not all Palestinians are necessarily Muslim; ninety-eight percent of the West Bank is Muslim, not including settlers. However, their large makeup of the Palestinians population in the West Bank should allow opinions Palestinians to be extrapolated to some regard to the Muslim population in showing the disconnect between Judaism and Zionism in their views. The Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO] is the main united front of all Palestinians (not just the West Bank) in fighting against Zionism and standing up for Palestinian rights. In its founding charter, there is a distinction made that “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality” such defining a separation between the two. Additionally, it shows its acknowledgement of separation in stating that Jews that resided in the land before the “Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians”.2 This is an attempt to prove that their intentions are not religiously motivated. having religion untied to their motivations makes them appear more secular. Western countries are mostly also secular and would likely have more sympathy to individuals who are not religiously motivated since it would be opposing their views to have a religiously motivated conflict.3
While Palestinian Muslims in general hold no aggression towards Jews specifically, there is rampant Antisemitism that can be found by Palestinian Muslims that causes greater confusion. Antisemitism can be seen in the PLO across its top leadership. Muhammad Abbas, the current leader of the PLO, wrote a dissertation during his time in university called “The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”. This book is in many ways a denial of the Holocaust. It claims that the amount of deaths in the Holocaust were fabricated with the object of using these claims to create a Jewish state. While he regrets those remarks today, the damage is done in showing that there is specific anger against the entire Jewish people.5 The anger is found because of the use of the Holocaust in justification for the Zionist actions but in attacking the Holocaust he is not discriminate towards Zionists alone but all Jews effected. The anger that Abbas holds is specific towards Zionists as evident in his talk of the Holocaust denial being directed towards its use as justification for a Jewish state alone. Intention, especially when combined with anger, is hard to perceive and is no excuse for the effect Antisemitism has on all Jews. However, intention does show how individuals actually perceive something and the intention of attacking the notion of Zionism shows the perception is against Zionism not Judaism. Elites play a large role in influencing populations and the effects rhetoric from individuals such as Abbas can be seen throughout the populace. While polls on individuals in the West Bank are rare, a poll on Israeli Arabs found that over forty percent denied that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. Due to the Holocaust not even being taught in schools in the West Bank compared to Israeli schools, it is likely that the percentage there is even higher.6
that Jews and Muslims hold a mutual history. Despite small examples of
hostilities, Muslims and Jews lived in the land west of the Jordan river from
the time of the Umayyad Empire to the Ottomans. They have struggled together in
events such as the Inquisition and Crusades.7 I say this to conclude
on the fact that there is no religious reason for Jews and Muslims to be at
odds. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not part of an ongoing struggle between
religions; just religion is falsely weaponized into a conflict. Narratives are built
by Israel in an attempt to garner support. Talking about Israel as a homeland
for all Jews, the promotion of religious Zionism, makes this is a conflict that
effect all members of the religion instead of only the citizens of the Israel. Palestinians create their own narratives such
as Muhammad Abbas did with the Holocaust. These narratives are bought by the general
populace since it provides a simple explanation to the conflict, what could be simpler
than a battle between two religions, instead of the truth that it is a complex political
fight. The truth that the PLO has always said they accept Jews and has only
been angered by Zionism. Ignoring this reality only prolongs the conflict. It
is impossible to make peace if you believe that your opponent is against your own
identity with your religion instead of for political reasons. This being the
case, it is no wonder that this conflict sees no end in sight.