Racializing Queer Religiosity: LGBTQ Muslims in the Western Imagination

A group of queer Muslims and allies march together at the Ottawa Pride Parade in 2018.

There is a certain conceptualization of the place of queer bodies in religious spaces in the Western imagination. Religion and queerness are often posited as existing in opposite realms, as if there are endless, inherent contradictions between individuals holding both identities in tandem. In the last several decades, queer religious actors have gained more visibility through news outlets and social media platforms, but this visibility is often limited to white middle-class Christians and Jews. There is still very little wiggle room in the Western imagination for Muslims to claim identities that are both religious and queer. This is due in part to the ways that Islam and Muslims are racialized.

Islam is often portrayed as inherently fanatical, homophobic, and patriarchal and that racialization is painted onto the bodies of queer Muslims. Queer Jews and Christians who have gained public acceptance have been able to do so because they fit into the Western national imagination of belonging. Even if they are not hetero-normative, they are imagined as white and not overly religious or practicing the “wrong” kind of religiosity. In contrast, queer Muslims are not given this kind of visibility or legitimacy because they are always imagined as people of color and practicing an irrational form of religion.

In addition to this racialization, the experiences of queer Muslims are erased in the West because Islam and queerness are considered to be mutually exclusive. The assumption of mutual exclusivity highlights how queerness is associated with the West and how Islam is associated with homophobia and the inability to accept queer public equality. This categorization further feeds the assumptions about Muslims as “other” in Western culture and their assumed inability to fit into the West’s values of democracy, secularism, and tolerance. (Rahman, 948).

While the predominant narrative in the West has been the message that Islam is homophobic, if we define Islam as what Muslims do and say that Islam is, this message is both upheld and demolished. Some Muslims argue that the Qur’an and hadiths condemn homosexuality while other Muslims argue that their faith is queer-affirming. Imam Daayie Abdullah, an openly gay black Imam in DC, believes that the prevalent view in mainstream Islamic discourse of homosexuality as a sin is rooted in particular interpretations and traditions, rather than scripture. “Many traditions are locked into a particular time, place, and culture, they’re not necessarily appropriate for us today or for people who will be worshipping in 50 years from now,” Abdullah said in an NBC news interview conducted in April 2019 on how queer Muslims reconcile their faith with their sexuality. Religion is not an unchanging, untouchable tangible “thing”. Islam is not inherently anything. Instead, it is the conglomeration of the different ways that Muslims have expressed themselves and practiced their religiosity throughout time. 

Queer Muslims have always been a part of Islam because queer Muslims have always existed. This acknowledgement of existence does not erase all of the ways that queer Muslims have been marginalized in the West, both as racialized religious bodies and as individuals engaged in expressions of gender and sexuality that are deemed as non-normative. Because queer Muslims have always existed and because Islam is not a monolith, there have always been different ways that queer Muslims engage with their tradition, especially the elements of their tradition that are seen as inherently homophobic and transphobic.

Many non-Muslim Westerners make the mistake of assuming that queer Muslims must leave Islam if they want to embrace their queer identity. While some queer Muslims might choose to leave their tradition all together, many remain engaged in their faith practice, pursue deeper knowledge about its practices and histories, reinterpret texts, and reframe rituals to comfortably accommodate their intersecting identities (Kugle, 53). One way that queer Muslim activists engage their faith practice in reclaiming their religious tradition is through turning to the Qur’an or hadiths for symbolic affirmation of their inherent worth and dignity (Kugle, 22).

Imam El-Farouk Khaki, founder of Toronto’s first LGBTQ+ friendly mosque, quoted chapter 39, verse 13 of the Quran when asked why he created the mosque. This verse “tells us that diversity and difference are part of God’s plan and should be celebrated. We are trying to live it,” he said (25). Many queer Muslims report feeling excluded, uncomfortable, and often unsafe in “traditional” Muslim spaces. In response to this feeling of a lack of belonging, queer Muslims have created LGBTQ+ friendly Muslim spaces such as mosques, queer Qur’an study groups, and community circles. Muhsin Hendricks, a queer South African Imam, started an organization in 1996 called Inner Circle that seeks to bring gay Muslim men into dialogue, provides spiritual and emotional guidance, and offers support for reconciling faith with sexual orientation and gender identities (Hendricks, 496). Reinterpreting and reframing scripture and creating new inclusive religious spaces are both ways that Islam can be “queered”. Queering Islam often looks like centering LGBTQ+ Muslim voices and perspectives and challenging heteronormative and authoritative discourses on Islam.

Even within LGBTQ+ spaces, queer Muslims are often still marginalized and rendered invisible. The LGBTQ+ community is often portrayed as a secular space. In media accounts, “religion often appears only as something that a person needs to leave behind in order to become liberated. There seems to be little or no space for faith as a positive force in a person’s life” (Khan, 21). Within these spaces, other religious identities, such as Christians and Jews, are often categorized as secular or at least as being the “right” kind of religious and are thus accepted.

Since Islam and Muslims are racialized, they are not awarded the same legitimacy and are often seen as being overly religious. As subjects who are marked as non-homonormative (as brown and religious bodies), queer Muslims are expected to engage in homonormative practices within these spaces to achieve this kind of legitimacy. In the words of Nayyeema, who identities as a Pakistani genderqueer feminist, to be accepted into LGBTQ+ American homonormative spaces, queer Muslims have to “do gay and be gay like you. I have to love (white) and be loved (white) like you.” (Khan, 22) In order for queer Muslims to fit into these predominantly white spaces, they are often encouraged to renounce certain parts of their identities.

Works Cited

Khan, Sasha. “Constructing the Queer Muslim: The Necropolitics of Racialization and Western Exceptionalism in the Lives of LGBTQ Muslims. Simmons College, 2017.

Kugle, Scott. Living Out Islam: Voices of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Muslims. New York University Press, 2014.

Hendricks, Muhsin and Krondorfer, Bjorn. “Diversity of Sexuality in Islam: Interview with Imam Muhsin Hendricks”. Cross Currents, vol 61, no. 4, 2001, pp. 496-501.

Rahman, Momim. “Queer as Intersectionality: Theorizing Gay Muslim Identities.”Sage Sociology, v 44, pp. 944–961, 2010.

Salter, Shala Khan. The Ottawa Capital Pride Parade’s LGBTQ Muslim Contingent and Allies. Ottawa, 2018.

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Muslim Women & Education

What is an untapped natural resource? The definition being (of a supply of something valuable) not yet used or taken advantage of. One may think of forests or geothermal hot springs. But instead, it is not what we are talking about here, it’s who. Muslim women and girls for years have been seen as ideal subjects of reform and modernity. A common thought has risen that for a country to be modern, girls need to be educated and in turn will uplift their country from its wide range of social problems. Specifically, girls’ education campaigns often posit girls in the global South as either heroines with extraordinary potential or as victims of poverty and patriarchal cultures to be freed by their counterparts in the global North. These binary subject positions reduce the complexities of the lives of girls and have often been used to legitimize western interventions.1 This desire to intervene exists in a realm where Muslim women are seen as a homogenous group in need of saving, where for reform to take place an “ideal girl” is created who has the ability to transcend her class boundary, and where liberal ideas are viewed as the only correct ideas. 

Muslim modernism and pan Islamism were aimed at a western audience in an attempt to counter the racism that justified their mistreatment. Muslims themselves strategically essentialized a notion of the Muslim world that contradicted the lived and local experiences of Muslim societies and was a strategic tool of foreign policy. Countering essentialism demands looking at history and political contexts which are typically ignored.It is this viewpoint that gave way to the image of the oppressed Muslim woman in need of saving and of Islam holding her back. Instead of asking questions that explore the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the United States’ role in that history, people want to know about the culture and religious beliefs of the region. These types of questions artificially divide the world into separate spheres—re-creating an imaginative geography of West versus East.

Through the project of nation building, modernization, and development the “ideal girl” subject is defined. The educated girl becomes the empowered girl and development campaigns solidify the idea that Muslim girls and empowered girls are not one in the same. With the supply of education to girls comes the hope that it will prevent early marriage and pregnancy, and will create girls who will be able to enter the labor force, pull themselves out of poverty and contribute to the national GDP. This is an incredible belief that one individual can wield this much power, it is also an incredible burden. Even when a girl demonstrates the capability and potential of a girl who stays in school, given the low quality of education in public schools, any family that seeks to reap the promise of upward mobility via education must partake in expensive private schooling. This is particularly challenging in countries with large populations of lower-middle class families. It is not Islam that creates these barriers to a solid future but economics. Education is viewed and consumed differently by low-income girls who viewed it as a commodity that they consumed today in order to reap its rewards in the future and for girls from upper-class backgrounds education conferred a form of respectability that opened doors to better marriage prospects.4

This “turn to the girl” in development can be situated within the context of neoliberalism, which prioritizes individual autonomy, choice, and agency, and places the burden of improving one’s life on individuals themselves. But this ability is often available only to white, middle-class girls.In Susan Moller Okin’s essay, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” her argument rests on the assumption that liberal culture is the acultural norm and should be the universal standard by which to measure societies. Those who fall short are the barbarians outside the gates.Why do we invalidate and ignore the ways women are already navigating their spaces and impose this universal standard? Why do we impose a singular notion of what is right when in different countries what constitutes “right” can be any variation of things? In, I Am Malala, we find evidence of women’s tenacity within socioeconomic and political constraints where empowerment and agency may or may not look the same as that proposed by western liberal feminists. Here, women seem to be working to establish their rights within local frameworks, and against domestic and global patriarchies.7 What fits one does not fit all, whether that is how to navigate education within different class structures or what an empowered Muslim woman looks like. What is known is that in order for these ideas to be contested we must question general beliefs and explore the history of the issues at hand and cannot place all reasoning for things at the feet of religion alone. 


1           Shenlia Khoja-Moolji. Forging the Ideal Educated Girl. University of California Press, 2018, page 99 

2        Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. Harvard University Press, 2017.

3        Lila Abu-Lughod. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard University Press, 2013,  page 31

       Shenlia Khoja-Moolji, 2018, page 4,110,122 

5            Shenlia Khoja-Moolji, page 99

6            Lila Abu-Lughod, 2013, page 84

       Shenlia Khoja-Moolji, page 122

Ayesha Khurshid. Islamic Traditions of Modernity: Gender, Class, and Islam as a Transnational Women’s Education Project. Gender & Society, 2014. 

Hackett, Conrad, and Dalia Fahmy. “Economics May Limit Muslim Women’s Education More than Religion.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 June 2018, 

Image: Ton Koene, 2010, Photograph, 2728 x 1832 4.48 MB, VWPics via AP Images, http://www.apimages.com/metadata/Index/TKO10495/e445cd30814644d0b477ff4cc6792445/52/0

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Islam and Nationalism

History and culture have always contributed to our understanding of the ever-changing roles religion has had over time. The distance between religion and our daily actions has been shrinking over time with its increased involvement in our daily political and social affairs. The survival of a religion is pegged on it been able to shape itself according to the current power and social dynamics in play. This has seen Islam historically finding its way right in the middle of the modern world problems. (Chidester, 2005)

Islam’s modernity has seen the religion have its voice heard beyond the confines of the minaret calls to prayer. The identity of Islam has been shaped by the significant geopolitical dynamics in the turn of the twentieth century such as the wars and political alliances. Islam and its leadership were caught up in the middle. This article will show how religious leadership played politically influential wars to shape the identity of the Muslims during the war and post-war periods. The Islamic political voice expectedly faced a myriad of challenges because it threatened to tip the scales of power and this kept very powerful forces sleepless nights. (Wilson, 2005)

Discussion of religion in colonial contexts shows a pattern of blatant disregard of the importance of its functions and how it identified with the people by colonial masters. The British colonial masters were especially the culprits when it came to denying Islam the voice to express itself, from North Africa to the Middle East.  As it will be shown with Islam in the former Ottoman Empire, this inevitably forces the religion to participate in this modernity by appealing to its followers to take a certain political or military path. Islamic leadership was at the forefront of the geopolitical events that shaped the world during the pre-war, world wars, and cold war periods.

The power wielded by Ottoman Sheikhs was more than religious, as seen by the global call for Muslims around the world to join in the Holy Jihad against the Allied forces as seen in   here  The 1914 declaration by the Ottoman chief cleric gave Islam the nationalism call that it did not have in periods preceding the war. The political power wielded by sheikhs, under the influence of German Nazis coalition, was further boosted by the ouster of the previous temperate regime and the incoming of more radical Young Turks who were more than willing to identify Islam with the War. (Aydin, 2016)

Figure 1 The Sheikh Ul-Islam proclaiming the Holy War in Istanbul, after the Turkish government formally entered the war.  Alamy Stock Photo. (2014)

The quest for pan-Islamism was however not really achieved, because Muslims all over the world did not directly identify with the Ottoman jihad. To the disappointment of the ottoman cleric, many Muslims such as the ones in India took up arms and fought alongside the Allied British forces that they had been called upon to fight. In the long run, the Ottomans were defeated alongside their German counterparts by the British team.  The Islamic caliphate and its proponents were done away with. The defeated Muslims either had to remain loyal to their British masters or continue with underground mobilizations of a nationalist agenda inspired by Islam. During the inter-war period, the pan-Islamic movement persisted. (Reogan, 2016)

Religious modernity also saw calls for the replacement of sharia law with another constitution for the caliphate. Secularist factions of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire saw Islam as a hindrance to overall social modernity. Failing to acknowledge the great role Islam played in politically identifying the people in the War, the secularist authorities ended up shutting down sharia schools and abolishing Quran studies. The final blow came when Turkey was officially secularized in 1928. The country was no longer the symbol of Islamic panache, but a symbol of the religion’s failure to defend its people.  (Reza, 2011) 

Figure 2 Muslim Turkish Soldiers in Ukraine dressed and equipped in German  Military Style  (1915-1916) History.Com Stock Photo (2018)

The Cold-War Turkey environment brought different dynamics for the role of Islamic leadership in an era of increased secularization and modernization. A national divide between two factions was evident, with one calling for secularization and the other for returning Turkey to an Islamic republic just like in the Ottoman era. This brought to light the role of education as a threat to Islamic identity. This is because the faction calling for full secularization of Turkey was mainly comprised of young university students. On the other hand, the rural uneducated majority in Turkey wanted the traditional sharia laws of Islam to rule Turkey. However, these two factions had a common enemy that they united to face against.

Figure 3Kemal Ataturk: First Turkish President who Introduced secularist reforms in the formerly Islamic Ottoman State. History.Com Stock Photo

 They were both against the kemalist approach to nationalism. Kemalism was coined at the then modernist Turkish President Kemal Ataturk. This official state ideology was anchored on the six points in the Republican Peoples Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP). The rational theology in the secularization of Turkey made Islam a by-standing religion in his rule. More reading on Kemalism can be done by following this link   Therefore, they united under the banner of Islam. The Islamization movements gained wide popularity in Turkey in the 1950s. The spread of political Islam was not a Turkish affair only. Arab and Middle Eastern nations also joined the bandwagon and rose against their secular regimes in the 1960s. (Ayturk, 2014)

       Political Islam and Islamization shaped the identity of the religion as a motivational and calls to arm call for Muslims during and after the war period. Islam can be termed to have being a political religion in the Ottoman Empire because it was used as a rallying tool for nationalism during and after the war. It has been established how Islamic leadership gave a religion a role to play in the period of modernity. During the war period, Islamic teachings were applied as tools of propaganda in a bid to unite all the Muslims in the world into a single fighting force.

However, Islam’s role in achieving unity of all Muslims in the era of modernism was not played in a very welcoming field. Islamic religious and political leadership faced immense opposition. First, the slow uptake to the call of jihad by Muslims all over the world was demoralizing to the visionaries of the caliphate. Moreover, divide and rule tactics were used as to create different jihad factions that consistently opposed each other ideologically.    


Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, 2016), Ch. 4, “The Battle of Geopolitical Illusions (1908–1924)” and Ch. 5 “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924–1945)”

David Chidester, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1853-1860. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Ilker Ayturk “Nationalism and Islam in Cold War Turkey, 1944-69” Middle Eastern Studies. 2014. Vol. 4 No. 5. 693-719. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00263206.2014.911177

John F Wilson, “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Kemalism – Oxford Islamic Studies Online. (2019). Retrieved December 3, 2019, from Oxfordislamicstudies.com website: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/print/opr/t236/e0440

The Sheikh Ul-Islam proclaiming the Holy War in Istanbul, after the Turkish government formally entered the war.  Alamy Stock Photo. (2014) https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-world-war-1-the-sheikh-ul-islam-proclaiming-the-holy-war-in-istanbul-59777852.html

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“Islamic Feminism”: How and Why the Rebranding of Feminism Has Come About

2018 Disobedience Awards at the MIT Media Lab

In February of 2018, #MosqueMeToo began trending on twitter. Feminist, scholar and Muslim woman Mona Ethalway encouraged Muslim women across the globe to participate in sharing stories of being sexually harassed while on hajj. Much like all women participating in the mainstream Me Too movement, these women had stories of trauma that were brought to light. However, the fact that this discussion was separate from the established movement brings about questions of inclusivity and validation of Muslim women. In fact, there is a common misconception that Islam cannot coexist with feminism and that Muslim women are “oppressed”. This argument only serves to undermine Islam and elevate the west. 

However, contemporary Muslim women have agency over their bodies, dress, and decisions. The notion that Muslim women are being tyrannized by their own religion is a form of neocolonialism in and of itself by denoting Islam as a premodern society. The ways Muslim women in society are seen, portrayed and heard are narrated by western ideologies and oftentimes paint an image of weakness and acquiescence. However, these women such as Mona Ethalway are prominent figures within the movement and serve an important role in creating intersectional change within the framework of modernity. There is irony in the fact that this “mainstream” feminism is not transnational and in turn, many Muslim women have turned to different discourses of feminism. For many, this includes a version of their own “Islamic feminism”, rebranding the term to fit and conform to their ways of life. However, the current debates in the Muslim community over whether a rebranding is necessary or whether to take on baseline secular feminism still persist. 

This argument exists within the convoluted configuration of what can and cannot be classified as contemporary. These definitions of modernity are not stagnant. In many cases, modernity is defined in relation to western values of what is considered “modern”. Most of the time modernity is defined through sanctions of different power relations between cultures, “As a result, contemporary ways of being are only considered modern when they align themselves with European intellectual tradition”[1]. In this sense, holding values of western feminism as a marker of what is “modern” assumes that the Islam community is superannuated. However, many values of western feminism do not assist or succor Muslim women. “Today’s ahistorical narratives of the Muslim world and the West ignore the political contexts in which these categories were born”[2]

These narratives of Western feminism are inherently exclusive. They make assumptions about Muslim women- that they are oppressed and subjugated to a religion that does not represent them and thus this version of feminism must be rescued. As argued by author and scholar Fatima Seedat, these norms ostracize Muslim women from the conversation, “Paradoxically, in this equation, Western women and liberal feminism remain the normative standard while other women and different feminisms remain othered”[3] There are common discussions and arguments to be made against Islam and its’ “mistreatment” of  Muslim women, “What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged”[4]. The response to these categories is the construction and branding of Islamic feminism.

In acknowledgment of such exclusion, many scholars theorize that Islamic feminism fills in the gaps in which Western feminism cannot. Ideals of this version of feminism are contextual, “The significant element in the term is in the qualifier ‘Islamic’. The adjective ‘Islamic’ refers to the key framework under which this knowledge is to be situated”. Patriarchal analysis of the Qur’an is used to suggest that Islam is against its women. However, by using analytical frameworks within the religion of Islam, these scholars state that feminism exists and functions differently in different spaces. Discourses of Islamic feminism are more radical in the sense that they sprawl across the typical boundaries of “secular” Western feminism, Others turn to specific examples within the Qur’an.

On the contrary, many scholars feel as though the term Islamic feminism is too confined. When defined under very specific terms, many argue that by creating a separate category for Muslim women, they are being further deviated and ostracized. Some argue that Islamic feminism is confined to religious scholars with specific religious literacy and interpretive skills. Al-Sharmani makes the argument that this idea excludes Muslim women from the general conversation, “Islamic feminism, whether in the form of a knowledge project or a political movement, has been either too quickly celebrated or dismissed. Too wide a range of different and divergent knowledge projects and activist efforts have been lumped together under this term”[6] In this sense, the work being done under the term does not get the recognition that it would if it had no label.  

In the end, it boils down to whichever discourses help Muslim women navigate their space in the world. In certain cases, both versions of feminism can be used cohesively, “Secular feminism and Islamic feminism [are] two named phenomena. While they are mainly seen as different and often in tension with each other, they are seldom seen as flowing in and out of each other”[7] However, this discussion also entails a conversation about overarching colonialism. The true goal of feminism is the advocacy of equal rights for all women. To achieve this the west must reexamine the virtues of “white-feminism” and deconstruct the idea that Muslim women lack their own sovereignty and jurisdiction, “The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves”[8]. In order to support and uphold the intersectional values of feminism, the change must be sparked internally by the systems that created this same division.

[1] Seedat, Fatima. “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, no. 2 (2013): 25-45. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/530623.

[2] Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. USA, HARVARD UNIV Press, 2017.

[3] Seedat, Fatima. “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, no. 2 (2013): 25-45. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/530623.

[4] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[6] Al-Sharmani, Mulki. 2014. “Islamic Feminism: Transnational and National Reflections”. Approaching Religion 4 (2), 83-94. https://doi.org/10.30664/ar.67552.

[7] Badran, Margot. “Between Secular and Islamic Feminism/s: Reflections on the Middle East and Beyond.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1, no. 1 (2005): 6-28.

[8] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Works Cited:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Al-Sharmani, Mulki. 2014. “Islamic Feminism: Transnational and National Reflections”. Approaching Religion 4 (2), 83-94. https://doi.org/10.30664/ar.67552

Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. USA, HARVARD UNIV Press, 2017

Badran, Margot. “Between Secular and Islamic Feminism/s: Reflections on the Middle East and Beyond.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1, no. 1 (2005): 6-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40326847.

MIT Media Lab. 2018 Disobedience Awards at the MIT Media Lab . Photograph. Creative Commons . Cambridge, MA : Creative Commons , n.d.

Omari, Dina, Juliane Hammer, and Khorchide Mouhanad. “Islam and Feminism: Global and European Variations on a Common Theme .” In Muslim Women and Gender Justice: Concepts, Sources, and Histories. Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge, 2019.

Seedat, Fatima. “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, no. 2 (2013): 25-45. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/530623.

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Muslim Bodies as Postcolonial Migrants: Integration, Racialization, and the Failure to Face Colonial Legacies

Patterns of migration continually evolve and transform as global events take place. Colonialism is responsible for many of these contemporary patterns and established attitudes and power dynamics central to migration. This is crucial to understanding today’s trends and also directs us towards another form of colonial legacy–the postcolonial migrant. Muslim migrants emigrating to former colonial powers make up part of this group, whose experience stems from their “‘pre-migration histories’ in colonial states” We can see how this history is convoluted between the colonized and the colonizer, but these relationships are also quite fluid, as in the case of France and Algeria and in looking at the EU’s response to the migrant crisis more generally. Because colonization established many contemporary patterns of migration, we see how Muslim postcolonial migrants are racialized and troubled with processes of integration as former colonial powers fail to face their legacies.

“Processes of racialization begin by attributing racial meaning to people’s identity and, in particular, as they relate to social structures and institutional systems, such as housing, employment, and education.” As we will see, these processes play out in France’s colonization of Algeria and the ways in which Algerians in France continue to be racialized. It is important to emphasize this in looking at Muslim Algerian migrants today, as France continues to regulate their rights based on racialized notions. “Islam… came to acquire a new alienness” beginning in the nineteenth century and France aggressively latched onto this idea. France colonized Algeria in 1830 and remained in power until 1962, when Algeria gained independence. During this period, there was a great deal of connectivity between France and Algeria, and after a set of reforms introduced in 1947, Algerian men were “granted full citizenship in mainland France and instituted unregulated passage between Algeria and France.” This accounts for much of the migration between the two states today. Yet, other regulations undermined the relationship as under these reforms, “Arab-Berber Algerians were officially called French-Algerian Muslims (Français-musulmans d’Algérie), which introduced an ethnically-inspired sub-category of citizens that Algerians resented.” This was an initial step in creating a racialized group of Muslim Algerians, some of which later represented postcolonial migrants in contemporary France. 

France’s process of racialization did not end there. Although France had “always looked to encourage European migration”, it increasingly identified Algerians to be “ethnically distinct and undesirable” and therefore “harder to integrate.” Moreover, as if these claims did not sufficiently echo colonial legacies, many racialized discourses of Algerian Muslim migrants attack the younger population, wherein “post-colonial stereotyping of young Algerian males centred on criminalization, and alleged their refusal to ‘integrate’, whereas young women of Algerian descent were represented as ‘passive’ and ‘submissive’, and, in theory, more predisposed to ‘integrate’.” These racialized ideas have tangible effects on Muslim migrants. As the definition of racialization suggests, it is important to understand how racialized groups navigate social structures and institutional systems. These discourses in France highlight the “ways in which migrant bodies have become nexus points for spatial practices across many scales,” such as exclusion from accessible and fair housing, evident in the populous “shanty-towns” where many Algerians are forced to reside. 

Postcolonial Muslim migrants serve as a point for these spatial practices also in the ways states regulate their bodies. France defines all citizens as French first, with other aspects, such as religion, following. We can see how these practices are closely tied to colonial history. In their “civilizing missions”, France’s goal was “fundamentally unattainable because the colonized peoples were perceived as un-civilizable.” Sticking with their tendency to ascribe “otherness” to these racialized groups, France then implemented segregation policies, specifically in northern Africa, to further separate themselves from those they colonized. In the process, the French often used dress as an outlet to discern themselves from Muslims. The headscarf then served “antithetical” to French interests and values. Evidently, we see how this manifests in contemporary French politics. In 2004, France passed a bill that banned religious symbols in schools. Although it is in the name of secularism, the bill aims to regulate Muslim women who choose to cover. Even today, France continues to justify that the headscarf is at odds with their values. As Joan Walloch Scott argues,  “France, dealing with an influx of mostly poor North African immigrants – who are officially citizens – from the former colonies fares little better, as the ban on headscarves, rather than ‘liberating’ young women, perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes of the Muslims within its midst.” In this way, we see that colonial history produced not only contemporary migration patterns, but also political and civil rights issues that affect Muslim postcolonial migrants today. 

As a result of colonialism, there is a great deal of migration between France and Algeria. This network, though, also carries with it racialized discourses of Muslim Algerians that have tangible effects on their ability to access fair and equitable services. Moreover, the politics in contemporary France reflect colonial legacies of regulating Muslim bodies. 

On a larger scale, the migrant crisis in Europe further exemplifies to us how colonial powers are struggling to confront their colonial legacies. It is crucial to consider European ideas of superiority and racialized discourses of “others” when we look at this crisis. A Muslim migrant emigrating from a former colony “as a postcolonial subject who ‘radically contests the place assigned to them by political and legal boudaries’ disrupts the European order” and highlights the effects that “colonialism still has in shaping political and social structures, in a way that Europeans can no longer ignore.” According to these ideas of superiority, largely established in the colonial era, Muslim postcolonial migrants challenge an inherant European identity and cannot take part. As we can see, colonial legacies of racial superiority create superficial issues of “assimilation” in the migrant crisis. 

Moreover, “in order to consign this problem to its poorer neighbours, Europe has essentially turned the crisis into a test of ‘postcolonial responsibility’ whereby non-European nation states such as Turkey and Libya are confronted with a dutiful obligation to serve Europe and help it to ‘re-fortify’ its borders, for quite modest returns.”  This tendency to default responsibility and place it on poorer states reflects lingering colonial legacies in power and privilege. As we can see, in upholding ideas of Muslim postcolonial migrants as the “other” and holding influence over poorer nations, Europe is “maintaining empire and global class differentiation in the wake of decolonization.”  

It is imperative to understand these colonial histories in our modern context as we face such issues as immigration and migrant rights. Muslim postcolonial migrants, a 21st century colonial legacy, face continued racialization and difficulties as they migrate and settle in former colonial states. As we can see, looking at migrant issues without considering their roots in colonial era dynamics undermines their complexity and disables any hope for working to improve them.  

Works Cited

“History in Focus.” The colonial and post-colonial dimensions of Algerian migration to France, an article from History in Focus. Accessed October 10, 2019. https://archives.history.ac.uk/history-in-focus/Migration/articles/house.html

Nietfeld, Kay. Future Germany . Photograph. Berlin , n.d. AP Photo. 

Madokoro, Laura. Postcolonial Migrants and Identity Politics: Europe, Russia, Japan and the United States in Comparison. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.

Nair, Parvati. “Postcolonial Theories of Migration.” The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, April 2013. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm423

Odwyer, Caoimhe. “A Postcolonial Analysis of the European ‘Migrant Crisis’.” E-International Relations. Accessed October 1, 2019. https://www.e-ir.info/2018/08/29/a-postcolonial-analysis-of-the-european-migrant-crisis/

“Research Guides: Race, Racialization and Racism: Key Concepts.” Key Concepts – Race, Racialization and Racism – Research Guides at University of Winnipeg. Accessed October abcdef28, 2019. https://libguides.uwinnipeg.ca/c.php?g=370387&p=2502732.  

Scott, Joan W. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Susan P. Mains, Mary Gilmartin, Declan Cullen, Robina Mohammad, Divya P. Tolia-Kelly, Parvati Raghuram, Jamie Winders. (2013) Postcolonial migrations. Social & Cultural abcdefGeography 14:2, pages 131-144. 

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The Abstract Caliphate: Modernism, Secularism and the Abolition of the Caliphate in Turkey

Published on March 3rd of 1924, this article in the Times of London begins by stating, “The motion for the abolition of the Caliphate was passed in the Grand National Assembly today after a stormy debate.” This momentous decision marked the end of the Muslim imperial era. In the postwar era, Turkish elites believed that imperial structures were obsolete, and hoped to embrace Western culture and civilization through the process of secularism. 

Abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 as reported in the Times of London, 3 March 1924. Wikimedia Commons.

Later on in the article the Times writes,

“The proposal for the deposition of the Caliph Abdul Mejid and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate was only adopted after a long and abstruse discussion which occupied several hours. Accounts of the speeches are very vague and complicated, but the obscure abstract formula adopted seems to be intended to reconcile the old theocratic conception with the modern Republican conception.”

This paragraph expresses a common sentiment shared by Western countries regarding the nature of the imagined Muslim world: that there is an inherent incompatibility between Islam and modernity. Repeatedly using words like “vague,” “complicated,” “abstract,” and “obscure” in reference to the Turkish political process is proof of Turkey’s tangible “foreign-ness” in the eyes of the West. 

Assimilating to Westernized ideas of democracy, law, and political organization turned out to be difficult for Turkey, due to historic processes of racialization and homogenization of the imagined Muslim world. This racialization and homogenization of Muslims finds its roots in a centuries-long process of imperialism and colonialism. This process creates a global paradigm in which Muslims are seen as a race, rather than a religion, and in which diverse Muslim practices are homogenized into a single stereotyped idea of what a Muslim looks like, acts like, and believes. The results of these processes are often manifested in popular images of Muslims as backwards, despotic, or ill-equipped for modern processes and structures. Writes Morgenstein Fuerst, 

“Religions are not races—Islam is not a race—but Islam and its practitioners are racialized. …  Depictions of Muslims show them possessing inherent, unchanging, and transmittable characteristics. These are decidedly racialized classifications: Muslims cannot escape these traits; they are imagined to be part of the fundamental composition of what and who is Muslim. To be otherwise, in effect, would indicate that one is not Muslim.”

In the context of Turkey’s nationalist movement, despite beginning a European process of secularization, modernity, and nationalization, the historic racialization of Muslims would continue to mark Turks as incapable or unfit for Western models of reason, law, and organization. 

Many Muslims trace the caliphate to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Although the responsibilities and powers of this position were not initially clear, for the early Muslim community, the caliphate acted as a temporary successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The position was passed from Abū Bakr to the Abbasids in Mesopotamia, and eventually to the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. Throughout these centuries, the caliphate represented different things and manifested itself in different ways. For some Muslims, it was a religious figure, for others it was a political position, and others didn’t worship the caliphate at all. In 1924, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey voted to strike down this religious institution, along with all other interactions between Islam and the Turkish state. In this act, the newly-secular Turkish Republic was formed.

The global Muslim response to the abolition of the caliphate was varied. Some Muslims felt that the fall of the Ottoman Empire was the last great Muslim empire falling victim to an ever-encroaching colonialism. Others felt a sense of betrayal by Turkey. As a symbolic figure of Muslims across the world and an Islamic institution, with the abolition arose questions like: to whom does the caliphate belong? And why does Turkey have the power to abolish it? The function of the caliphate as a symbolic figurehead for a persecuted religion in the age of imperialism and colonialism is worth recognizing.

In The Idea of the Muslim World, Cemil Aydin introduces a socially-imaginated separation between a civilized West and an uncivilized, racialized, and second-class East. The racialization of Muslims as people unfit for Western models of progress, in which these models are socially-determined as superior, is crucial for analyzing the abolition of the caliphate. In a tumultuous post-war period, attitudes towards the East and West, religion and secularism, and progress and traditionalism were all up in the air. In this moment, Turkey chose secularism, sovereignty, and European models of progress. This decision confirms a global dichotomy in which modernity can no longer equate to Eastern models of thought, but rather becomes tied to the West. 

Turks recognized that the abolition of Islam’s figurehead was a chance to conform to dominant ideas of progress and modernity, in which secularism was a key requirement. In this sense, Turkey employs what Faisal Devji coins as “apologetic modernity,” a process through which Muslim claims to modernity are defined solely as a response to their lacktherof. The formation of the Turkish Republic acts as a response to the processes of homogenization and racialization which depict Muslims as inferior and incapable of modernity, and can be read as a defensive move to prove their capabilities. 

As Elizabeth Hurd points out in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, Turkey’s step towards secularism was not straightforward. Turkey employs laicism, a type of secularism through which religion is sequestered to the private domain and excluded from spaces of modern power and authority. However, as religion, secularism, and politics are not unchanging and unmoving objects, any attempt to grasp and control their interconnections is difficult. Historic imaginations of Islam have also conflicted with this process. Hurd points out “contemporary references to …  ‘natural’ links between Islam and theocracy, suggestions that democratic secular order is a unique Western achievement, and the sense that Islam poses a special kind of threat to the cultural, moral, and religious foundations of Western ways of life.” Laicism functions as a result of comparisons between what Hurd calls “the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane.” It exists through a historic exclusion that marks Islam as anti-modern, uncivilized and irrational, in which the “secular” is the opposite of Islam and the traditionality that it represents. 

Making our way back to this same article from March 3, 1924, the Times writes,

“The abstract notion of Caliphate is said to be contained in the abstract notion of government. In other words, the Caliphate is now somewhat in the position of a crystal which has been dissolved in a glass of water.”

The Times doesn’t really define what this metaphor means. In analyzing it, I think of how everything that the caliphate once represented in a single figure now finds itself dispersed throughout Muslim communities, institutions, and believers across the world. In many ways, and for many people, this change was negative. It removed a figurehead, symbolized a loss to colonialism, and signaled weakness and lack of centralized faith leadership. It could also be considered an illustration of the superiority of Western cultural, political, and social structures. 

This article shows how the future of what the Muslim world would look like and act like was uncertain. Uncertainty existed not only in terms of Muslim identification with a central figurehead, but also in how the Muslim world was viewed by outsiders. Islam is a religion that spreads across multiple continents, manifests itself in varying forms, and is expressed differently in different individuals, but when the caliphate was abolished, the ability for outsiders to place Islam as a concrete thing into a neat box became much more difficult. In this sense, this crystal metaphor makes me wonder if the dissolution of the caliphate can be analyzed as a recognition of diversity within the Muslim world. Can the existence of multiple diverse Muslim existences be read as a defiance to the historic homogenization of Muslims? If the abolition of the caliphate permits Muslims to exist outside of these created, racialized, homogenized boxes, does this diversity represent and create a more true modernity? 


Abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 as reported in the Times of London, 3 March 1924. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abolition_of_the_Caliphate_in_1924_as_reported_in_the_Times_of_London,_3_March_1924_01.jpg [accessed October 2019]. 

Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Davison, Andrew. “Laiklik and Turkey’s ‘Cultural’ Modernity: Releasing Turkey into Conceptual Space Occupied by ‘Europe.'” in Remaking Turkey. Ed. E. Fuat Keyman. Lexington Books, 2007.  

Devji, Faisal. “Apologetic Modernity,” Modern Intellectual History, 4, 1 (2007), pp. 61–76.

Hassan, Mona. “Manifold Meanings of Loss: Ottoman Defeat, Early 1920s” in Longing for the Lost Caliphate: a transregional history. Princeton University Press, 2016. 

Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. “Secularism and Islam” in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton University Press, 2008. 

Majeed, Javed. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 456-458. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. “After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia.” Humanities Futures, Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke University, September 7, 2018. https://humanitiesfutures.org/papers/after-the-rebellion-religion-rebels-and-jihad-in-south-asia/

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NOI: Nonviolent or Insurgent?

Black Islam in the United States is not singular or static. While there are many varieties of Black Islam—some of which look like “orthodox” Sunni Islam, meanwhile others are more unconventional—this blog focuses on the Nation of Islam (NOI), with an emphasis on its group dynamics and politicization by both internal and external sources of authority. For many, Black Islam represents an active form of liberation in confronting America’s racial history and reclamation of black identity. Many African Americans were drawn to Black Islam as a movement and a community as it recovered the religion of African people prior to the forced conversion practices of colonization and slavery (Curtis 2005, 19). For black women, in particular, these organizations were “determined to undo the physical and psychological brutality of slavery, [attracting] women whose lives were still haunted by its violence on their bodies, their families, and their institutions” (Gibson and Karim 2014, 27).

In 1930, Wallace Fard Muhammad founded the NOI, eventually passing it on to Elijah Muhammad in 1934. Deeply influenced by black nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements, the NOI combines elements of Islamic schools of thought with Black nationalism. Through social justice and religious devotion, the NOI works to resist systems of oppression rooted in white supremacy and colonialism to achieve self-preservation and self-determination. The movement promoted controversial platforms, one of which was seen as starkly anti-white based on claims that the original people of the world were black, seeing the white man as the “devil.” Naturally, many white Americans—who, at the time, controlled society even more than today—saw the Nation as a threat to their hegemony and sought to suppress its influence by any means necessary.

This is a depiction of a typical Nation of Islam gathering in 1961 where members, including prominent figure Malcolm X, are shown representing their community through their demeanor and devotion.

In the mid-1940s, the NOI began to experience a decrease in membership, seeing intimidation and harassment of NOI members by the police as a driving force. Likewise, “Police records contained in [Fard and Muhammad’s] FBI files reveal that dozens of NOI members were routinely harassed and intimidated by local police departments solely because of their association with the NOI” (Gibson and Karim 2014, 9-10). Although the NOI did not engage in violent acts, its black nationalist rhetoric was thought to incite violence based on the externally imposed racialization of both blackness and Islam as violent.

Beyond the intimidation and harassment of the organization, individual actors were more highly politicized and stigmatized based on their intersectional identities, specifically Black Muslim women. Black Muslim women are politicized trilaterally for their racial, gendered, and religious minority status. In American society, the voices and experiences of these women do not exist without imposed politicization and marginalization as a product of the intersections of systems of oppression that perpetually commit violence against their bodies. For many, “being a Muslim woman in the United States is always a political and politicized process, in which women must continually create themselves as Muslims against the fraught intersections of race, gender, Islam, and the nation that circumscribe their lives” (Chan-Malik 2018,14). Systemic sources of authority politicize Black Muslim women’s bodies through the silencing of their voices from discourses on Black Islam and feminism and, more broadly, their erasure from the collective consciousness.

The racialization and politicization of Islam have a long history that traces back to imperial tensions, which “unfolded between the 1820s and 1880s alongside racialization of blackness” (Aydin 2017, 38). The forces of imperialism and white supremacy were influential in the simultaneous racialization processes of Muslim-ness and Blackness, yet other, ‘legitimate’ Muslims also informed this process of politicization. Aydin writes, “The Muslim modernist critique of decline was harsh and directed blame inward. It argued that Sufism and contemporary vernacular Muslim practices were the cause of the decline” (Aydin 2017, 72). The racialization and consequential politicization of Black Islam is nuanced and systemic, seeing that it was informed by both internal and external forces that labeled it as divergent from “real” Islam and the “mainstream” more broadly.

Today, in the wake of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, the suspicion towards Black Muslims is located within the notion of ‘Prislam.’ In the past several decades, the rates of conversion to Islam in prisons has increased dramatically, with an estimated 1.8 million conversions by incarcerated black men in the last 60 years (Kusha in Ammar 2015, 24). While the motivations behind prison conversion to Islam are contested, many see ties between “the powerful social justice message of Islam as well the need to cope with a prison life that is oppressive, violent, and dehumanizing” (Kusha in Ammar 2015, 23). From the perspective of the federal government, however, these statistics aroused suspicion. Tied to Islam’s assumed synonymity with violence, terrorism, and radical fanaticism, the government saw prisons as ‘radicalization breeding grounds.’ The popularity of Islam within a prison setting–alongside fears of a black revolution and the destabilization of white hegemony–resulted in an urgency to control and suppress the NOI through stigmatization and antagonization. 

The aim of white supremacy and the systems of oppression it authorizes is to collapse the diversity that exists within a group, in this case, Black Islam, to an essentialized, singular image. In politicizing and essentializing this complex and fluid ideology and identity, Black Islam became categorized as a militant, extremist threat to the status quo. As a result, Black Muslims in America are immensely misunderstood, which ultimately manifests in the policing and violence committed against their bodies and religious expression. Black Muslims as a whole experience double racialization as a result of representing two strongly politicized identities. While the political salience of particularly controversial identities or beliefs has changed over time, blackness and Muslim-ness have remained near the top of that list. The systemic politicization of Black Islam over the last several generations has culminated today in their violent subjugation, stripping them of sociopolitical agency and legibility, which does immense harm to the community.

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Islamic Environmentalism in Indonesia: Inherently Ecological or Reactionary Apologism?

How does the Muslim-majority Asian State of Indonesia combat the effects of anthropogenic climate change through people’s mobilization efforts and policy, and what is the role of Islam in influencing environmental preservation efforts? This blog explores the radicalization of both Muslim and Asian identity in Indonesia, their relationships with Islamic ecological ideology, and whether the interaction with environmentalism is a product of this radicalized identity and manifestation of modern Muslim apologism, to ultimately find how the interplay of these factors have created contemporary environmental preservation efforts in Indonesia.

From a functionalist perspective, religion is often seen as a being influential, or even determining factor, in facilitating the acceptance and adaptation of certain norms and morals needed to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. Islamic scholars and activists responded to critiques that religion was the cause of humanity’s ecological crisis, by asserting Islam was not only inherently compatible with environmental preservation but was unique in its environmentally conscience traditions and encouraged sustainable behavior (Nasr 1968 and 1976; Khalid 1992; Foltz 2003; Davary 2012). It is integral to understand that “religious behavior may have larger ecological impact[s] than political, social and economic factors” which have large implications for environmental conservation policy, constructing social norms, and public perception of the importance of environmental sustainability (Sachdeva 2016, 10). Cultural factors are interrelated and considered inherently tied to religious beliefs, exemplifying how constructed identities are influential in people’s everyday lives and behavior since it is “clear that local and regional environmental concerns and conflicts are influenced by history, religion, and ethnicity” (Peace 2012, 217). Since it can be inferred that religion is a determining factor for action, Islamic environmental principles are expected to have substantial influence in Muslim majority countries.

While there are a plethora of Qur’anic verses, hadiths, and principles that have been cited to be environmentally conscious, six principles will be explained to illustrate Islam’s proclivity to environmental sustainability that stress ethical behavior regarding environmental preservation. Concepts such as harim and hema, legal concept that refer to protected zones, tawhid, understanding the unity of God and his creation; ayat, seeing signs of God in nature; khalifa, being a steward and protector of the Earth; amana, honoring the trust we have with God to be protectors of the planet; adl, an ethical and legal concept which the focus is to move toward justice; and mizan, to live in balance with nature, illustrate the interplay between Islamic belief and environmental principles of preservation (Abdul-Matin 2010; Foltz 1992; Gade 2019). However, these theological, philosophical, and legal concepts have been reinterpreted recently as the foundation for conservation policies.

The attempts by scholars to showcase how Islam is inherently aligned with environmentalism, and therefore modern science, works as an effort to reassert the legitimacy of Islamic principles and actions surrounding the environment, allowing Muslims to claim science and environmental policies as being aligned with their beliefs, and even symbiotic to each other. However, even if Islamic principles and traditions are intrinsically environmentalist in nature, environmental acts in countries such as Indonesia, could be seen as a form of apologism, since they are unable to act without participating in a globalized, Eurocentric, framework that systemically radicalizes Muslims and Asians (Devji 2007; Aydin 2017). This relationship is further compounded as “Islam and science became charged polemically in colonial contexts…as reflected within both sides of the orientalist and occidentalist imaginary, “Islam” and “West” (Gade 2019, 187). Within this context, Muslim majority countries and their scientific environmental findings and policies are racialized by their inherent inferior standing in the global order.

While Muslims throughout history and in contemporary society, have never seen the concepts of Islam and science as mutually exclusive, this development between Islam and environmentalism is a direct product of Eurocentric conceptualizations of the environment and science. It would be difficult to assert that this racialization has not been internalized by state such as Indonesia that view “contemporary Islamic writings of environmentalism directed at Muslims tend to treat science as outreach” (Gade 2019, 188). This interplay is augmented in Indonesia, as it is both a majority Muslim, and Asian, state. Empirical examples from Indonesian environmental efforts are characteristic of this paradigm.

Indonesia holds the largest Muslim population and is a country that faces some of the worst effects of anthropogenic climate change. Indonesia has responded to these events by attempting to implement more sustainable policies, which are greatly influenced by the countries religious values. While there is a plethora of examples, the primary empirical case that will be used to illustrate these policies is regarding waste management. The Hayu Prabwo agency within the body MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia) issued a modern fatwa citing Qur’anic verses and hadiths regarding preservation of the environment in response to a landslide at a trash dump that killed 100 people in Cimahi near Bandung, West Java in 2005 (Gade 2019, 151-154). This fatwa concluded with “an emphasis on the Muslim community’s legal obligation to attend to waste management at large, through organizing community recycling efforts, clean their personal environments, throw away garbage in a sustainable manner, and encouraged government entities to manage waste through coordinating local cooperation (Gade 2019, 151). The fatwa directly inspired water resource management infrastructure to develop around Bandung to prevent future disasters.

Fundamentally, Indonesian environmental policy is inspired by Islamic ecological principles and serves as a mobilizing force for personal mobilization and policy implementation.  Since actions done by people who are systemically radicalized for both their constructed religious Muslim identity and ethnicity as Southeast Asian cannot be removed from the framework of oppression, every act can be interpreted as a form of apologism – but this does not negate the inherent principles in their belief systems of environmental benefits of their mobilization. This paradigm presents a more nuanced understanding of how “modern” environmentalism in Indonesia is both a product of the interrelation of Muslim, Asian, radicalization and politicization. Regardless, and most importantly, Indonesians assert their autonomy and legitimacy in religious beliefs and identities, through acts of environmental preservation that are culturally important, socially poignant, religiously motivated, and indigenously crafted.


Abdul-Matin, Ibrahim and Ketih Ellison. Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010.

Aydin, Cemil. “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924-1945)” In The Idea of the Muslim World : A Global Intellectual History / Cemil Aydin. 2017.

Davary, Bahar. “Islam and Ecology: Southeast Asia, Adat, and the Essence of Keramat.” The ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts 20, no. 1 (2012):12-22.

Devji, Faisal. “Apologetic Modernity,” Modern Intellectual History, 4, 1 (2007), pp. 61–76.

Foltz, Richard C. Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment : A Global Anthology / Edited by Richard C. Foltz. Australia ; Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Gade, Anna M. Muslim Environmentalisms: Religious and Social Foundations / Anna M. Gade. 2019.

Brown, Patrick. 2005. A view from the doorway of the mosque, the only surviving building in the town of Lho-Nga, following the tsunami which struck South Asia on 26/12/2004. An earthquake of magnitude 9 triggered a series of tidal waves which caused devastation when they struck dry land. In total 12 countries were affected by the tsunami, with a combined death toll of over 280,000..

Peace, Adrian, Linda H. Connor, and David Trigger. “Environmentalism, Culture, Ethnography.” Oceania 82, no. 3 (2012): 217-27.

Khalid, Fazlun M., and O’Brien, Joanne. Islam and Ecology / Edited by Fazlun M. Khalid with Joanne O’Brien. World Religions and Ecology. London, UK: Cassell, 1992.

Sachdeva, Sonya. 2016. “Religious identity, beliefs, and views about climate change.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science.

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The Palestinian Struggle for Independence and the So-Called “Muslim World”

*Submitted anonymously with permission of instructor.

From the early days of political Zionist intentions to establish a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Palestine, there was widespread support from Muslim majority nation-states in regards to Palestinian independence and retention of their land. Nevertheless, as over 100 years has passed since the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, Muslim majority nation-states’ support of the Palestinians has largely waned due to a change in the balance of power and territory. This post will analyze this transition in terms of the initial framing of the Palestinian struggle for independence as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world, towards the current world order in which most of the Muslim-majority nation-states which previously backed the Palestinian cause (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), have moved away from active support of the Palestinians—and in contrast, have actually signed peace agreements with Israel. In understanding the discussion that follows, it is important to recognize the distinction between references to a so-called “Muslim world” which is intended to represent the interests of Muslims worldwide, and the decisions of specific Muslim-majority nation state’s governments.

To understand the current world order, one must first look back at the early days of the Palestinian struggle and where the major Muslim majority nation-states stood on the issue at the time. Following the Ottoman defeat in World War 1, and the subsequent allocation of Muslim-majority lands to Western allied nations under the mandate system, there was a significant rise in pan-Islamic mobilization (Aydin, 101). This reaction generated a widespread unity among Muslims of a variety of geopolitical regions as they could mobilize, “in the name of saving and empowering the Muslim world” (Aydin, 101). This perceived unity was crucial to fomenting the Palestinian struggle as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world because it not only contained the third holiest site for Muslims (Haram al-Sharif), but it also served as a global symbol of resistance to the imperialism and colonialism which Muslim communities worldwide were facing. With the release of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, there was an affirmation of Western imperialism directed towards Palestine, and a feeling among Muslim-majority communities that the Palestinian struggle was symbolic of the greater struggle of Muslim and non-aligned communities against colonialism and imperialism (Aydin, 137).

Following World War 1, the advancement of the Palestinian cause as a centerpiece of the imagined Muslim world was propelled by the actions of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Husseini saw the threat of Western imperialism and Zionism to the future of an Arab state in Palestine, and thus, he worked to make Jerusalem a pan-Islamic hub in order to highlight the importance of the Palestinian struggle for the imagined Muslim world (Aydin, 156-157). Al-Husseini worked to unite broad Muslim public opinion behind the plight of the Palestinians, which proved quite successful during the interwar period; however, the events of World War 2 and the following Arab-Israeli Wars dramatically shifted the focus and importance of the Palestinian cause to the imagined Muslim world.

The so-called Muslim world made significant efforts to defend the Palestinian people and the future of a Palestinian state in terms of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948 and 1967. However, following the immense humiliation for the Arab nation-states due to the significant loss of territory, including Jerusalem in the 1967 War, there was a significant transition in Muslim-majority nation-state political support for the Palestinians (Aydin, 173). Prior to 1967, Arab nation-state support for the Palestinians was not centered so much around the idea of a Palestinian state, but instead, was focused on Palestine as “the heart of a bigger Arab nation” (Telhami).

Following the 1967 War there were some attempts by Muslim majority nation-states to “take-back” the Palestinian cause, such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia positioning himself as the spokesperson of the imagined Muslim world, and in doing so placing a particular emphasis on the Palestinian struggle (Aydin, 177). Nevertheless, he was assassinated in 1975 and the reclamation of the Palestinian cause by Muslim majority nation-states seemed lost (Aydin, 177). Compounding this loss of Saudi support for the Palestinians, three years after King Faisal’s assassination, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel largely due to a perceived need to retrieve the Sinai Peninsula which had been lost during the 1967 war (Telhami). Thus, following the 1967 War the Palestinian cause had lost two of its significant allies in terms of Muslim-majority nation states—Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, several other Muslim-majority nation states, notably Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, were pursuing modernizing and westernizing reforms and were subsequently sympathetic to the US cause—which was closely tied to the Israeli cause (Aydin, 187).

Another significant factor which played into the isolation of the Palestinian cause from the framing of the Muslim world’s cause following the War of 1967, were the events of the Khartoum conference. At this conference, the “hardline” factions including several Palestinian groups, the Syrians, and the Algerians, were largely excluded from the discussion (Tessler, 409). Instead, the “mainstream” representatives, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan lead the events. In turn, the conference produced what appeared to many outsiders as a radical stance (I.e. the famous “three no’s”), but in reality, the “mainstream” leaders pushed for political rather than military action due to their difficult losses in the ‘67 War (Tessler 410-411).

Furthermore, a reflection of the geopolitical motivations which caused Egypt and Jordan to sign their peace agreements with Israel in 1978 and 1984 respectively, can be seen in the contemporary relationship and negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel (Wehrey, 85). Due to the perceived danger of Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a shared concern which has found them on a path toward rapprochement—particularly in regards to the Saudi Arabian 2002 peace initiative (Wehrey, 86-88). The role of Hamas in uniting Israeli and Saudi Arabian foreign policy is largely centered around a shared fear that Hamas will demonstrate support for, and be supported by countries such as Iran, and groups such as Hezbollah—which both remain enemies of the Saudi and Israeli governments. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been influenced in its increasingly open policies towards Israel due to the Saudi government’s strong ties to the United States and its need to come out strongly against any “terrorist” organizations targeted by the United States following the 9/11 attacks—demonstrated most prominently by their policies towards Hamas in recent years.

While much of the discourse surrounding Palestinian independence has centered around international influence and actions, this discourse misses the Palestinian mentality surrounding their struggle. As evidenced by the image above and based on my personal experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is a recurring theme of isolation felt by many Palestinians not only in the sense that their freedom of movement and freedom of information is intensely restricted by the Israeli government, but also in that they feel little international support for their liberation from Occupation. This feeling of isolation and singularity which is depicted in the image of a single Palestinian reaching to mount the Palestinian flag, is a shared experience among Palestinians, particularly in reference to the support of Muslim majority nation-states. While Palestinians initially received widespread economic and military support from Muslim majority nation-states beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, this support has largely waned in subsequent decades. This isolation, and to a certain extent betrayal, runs deep in the Palestinian psyche as nowadays there is widespread acceptance of international support when and if it comes; but, there are no misguided beliefs that the Palestinians will be led to liberation. Now, there is an established rhetoric that the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, will be the ones to achieve liberation and recognition for their people. Thus, despite 70 years of political uncertainty for the Palestinian people, today, this statue stands as a symbol of the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people in achieving their liberation.


Aydin, Cemil. “The Battle of Geopolitical Illusions (1814-1878).” Chap. 4 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924-1945).” Chap. 5 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Resurrecting Muslim Internationalism (1945-1988).” Chap. 6 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Image: Photo by author. “Someday.” 7/20/17. Yasser Arafat Square, Ramallah, Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Telhami, Shibley. Brookings Institute. “The dual effects of the 1967 War on Palestinians reverberate 50 years later.” May 31, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/05/31/the-dual-effects-of-the-1967-war-on-palestinians-reverberate-50-years-later/. 

Tessler, Mark. “Postwar Diplomacy and the Palestine Resistance Movement.” Chap. 7 in A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Wehrey, Frederic et al. “Contention on the Periphery: Saudi-Iranian Relations and the Conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine.” In Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy, 77-92. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg840srf.10.


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Meaning-Making in the Mosh Pit: Claiming Muslim and Punk Identities in an Alt-Right Era

When the far right is trying to criminalize your very being,
it’s nice to 
have a scene that’s all about being yourself.
—Basim Usmani qtd. in Abber 2015

Taqwacore band The Kominas burst onto the American punk scene in 2004, their apparently novel mash-up of Islam and punk attracting mainstream attention as journalists balked at the supposedly irreconcilable identities they represented. Inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s fictionalized invention of “taqwacore”—a portmanteau of “taqwa” meaning “God-consciousness” and “hardcore”—the genre combined two seemingly oppositional forces: punk and Islam (Fiscella 2012). As one reviewer noted, “it’s never pretty when a major world religion tries to get into bed with a rebel culture, and even more so when they’re as polarized as Islam and punk” (Bhattacharya 2016). But, to imagine the Kominas as the origin point of Muslim punk is to erase the historic evolution of the genre. Further, it’s to imagine a Muslim World in which Islam is a cohesive, singular whole, or a world in which “punk” stands alone, shorn of its many-splendored prefixes, eliding the fantastic sonic and social dissonance contained therein.

While mainstream news outlets remark that for the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk bands, the amalgamation of these identities sure is a neat way “to push buttons,” the oppositional identity represented here is neither singular nor spiteful—the stakes are too high, the caricatures too grotesque. What is it about this punk—not crust-punk or Spanish Raw punk or timepunk or gypsy punk or death punk or anarcho-punk or even cowpunk in all its psychobilly, honkytonk glory—that attracts the attention of journalists, coyly alliterative headline at the ready (see above)? Further, what does this punk, beyond taqwacore and the novelty of life imitating art, offer? How can what it produces, both musically and beyond, problematize the ways in which Muslims are othered by a society that flouts nuance, opting instead to characterize Muslims as simply “good” or “bad” while conveniently allowing itself the authority to make that distinction?

At a time when the phrase “Muslim ban” holds actual political weight and, as a 2016 Pew Research poll shows, “almost half of the U.S. population believes that ‘some’ Muslims are actually ‘anti-American,’” the stakes for being (or being perceived as) Muslim in the U.S. are high (McDowell 2017, 63). Further, the “racialized lens” through which “Muslims and those… perceive[d] to be Muslim” are viewed has not just ideological, but violent consequences (2017, 63). This “collapsing of diverse populations into one recognizable whole,” combined with “empowered white supremacy,” in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election has enabled elevated levels of hate crimes against Muslims, including an instance in which a five-year-old child was allegedly physically assaulted by his teacher and taunted by his classmates as a “bad Muslim boy” (Morgenstein Fuerst 2016). The roots of the constructed “nature” of Muslims are evident in W.W. Hunter’s nineteenth-century racializing narrative which collapsed Indian Muslim identities into a singular, essentialist entity ([1871] 1876). The apparent persistence of Muslim essentialization today echoing Hunter’s question of whether Indian Muslim colonial subjects were inherently “anti-British.”

It’s important to recognize this racialization for what it is: an invention of history, empire, and white supremacy. Like the cartographic god trick of seeing everywhere from nowhere, British imperialism afforded itself the opportunity of evaluating every culture from an apparent non-culture. As Cemil Aydin’s (2017) examination of the Idea of the Muslim World shows, the conception of the thing itself is a historic, strategic, political invention—not a “natural” entity whose supremacy somehow unites all Muslims. Aydin lays bare the histories of racialization from which contemporary conceptions of Muslim homogeneity emerge as “colonial rulers’ views of Muslims subjects of a single civilization and race solidified,” an identity strategically “embraced” by “Muslim subjects… for political purposes of their own” (2017, 65).

While colonial racist projects seem outmoded, more contemporary rationalizations of Muslim unity play out like nightmarish pastiches of their nineteenth century predecessors. Political scientist Samuel Huntington’s (in)famous argument—from 1996—that Turkey, as a “Muslim” country, was fundamentally “incompatible with Westernization and modernization” demonstrates this presumed “unitary civilizational identity” (qtd. in Göl 2009, 798). However, such a portrayal is “historically and geopolitically misleading,” there is no “natural” tension or “clash” inherent in what is “Muslim” or what is “modern,” in the multiplicity of ways those constructions may be understood (Göl 2009, 798). This illusion of incompatibility requires a narrow lens—a presumed tension at the nexus of “Islamic and “secular”—or “Muslim” and “punk”—identities. What’s missing here is context. Its omission enables the “naturalness” of these sentiments, which—fomented by overtly anti-Muslim political rhetoric—have resulted in a “soaring” of “anti-Muslim assaults” and “bias incidents” (McDowell 2017, 63).

While the emergence of taqwacore and the Kominas drew attention to the apparent novelty of this unification of Muslim and punk, the combination isn’t new. As Texan punk outfit Fearless Iranians From Hell exclaim on their 1986 track “Blow Up the Embassy,” Muslim punk doesn’t owe an explanation or apology to befuddled outsiders, plainly exclaiming that “it’s none of your fucking business/what I live and die for!” Further, any meaningful examination of the genre must ask: which Islam; which punk? As Hisham D. Aidi recounts in his book, Rebel Music: Race Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (2014), Islamic attitudes toward music differ contextually depending on the “Islam” at hand—deployed alternatively as conservative political tool or brash, anti-establishment protest. Similarly, though “punk is… regarded primarily as a music-based culture… its spectrum is broader and includes style, printed word, cinema, and events” encompassing “significant variations between different regions and time periods” (Fiscella 2012, 569). The sheer breadth of available identities manifested in each respective construction of “Islam” and “punk” result in a bricolage of ideologies and behaviors whose “boundaries are continually contested” (Fiscella 2012, 569).

Photograph: Badawi 2007

Embodying this bricolage is the Kominas’ bass player, Basim Usmani, pictured above playing a show at a Chicago venue in 2007 during the filming of the documentary, Taqwacore. Though not fully visible in this image, Usmani’s t-shirt reads “Frisk Me, I’m Muslim”—a confrontational play on the tired “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” slogan. The juxtaposition of identities here is no accident. While the whitening of the Irish in America has resulted in their ethnic roots being deemed innocuous to the point of commercialization, American Muslims like Usmani are subject to the homogenizing narratives of racialization and profiling to which his t-shirt alludes. In a context where “terrorism” indexes a racialized religious identity, Usmani’s shirt, emblazoned with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag (formerly a symbol of the Ottoman Empire) is a self-aware statement about that problematic narrative. Usmani wants the viewer to know he’s Muslim before he can be profiled. Usmani is also punk. Seen here mid-lyric, bass in hand, hair spiked, shorn, and dyed, Usmani is leveraging the oppositional identity punk can offer via his own image. Both these identities bear their own historical weights—neither narrative is neat, and both have been subjected to the warp and wear of
becoming transnational.

Discussing sartorial politics, Aydin writes about the twin symbolic meanings of the fez in the nineteenth century—as a symbol of “enemy Islam” for Europeans and as marker of “cosmopolitan modernity” for Muslim reformers (2017, 39). Similarly, the tools Usmani and other Muslims involved in punk subcultures use to express oppositional identity read differently depending on their audience. This disunity is part of the point—there is no cohesive message in the scrappy riffs of every Muslim-identified punk band and there is no one reaction to Usmani’s presentation of self. What does a Muslim punk look like? Maybe like Usmani, but also, importantly, maybe not. While this image directly indexes characteristic elements of punk, it also subverts them and reimagines what a punk can look like or what a Muslim can look like. While both of these identities have been conditioned to manifest in certain ways and in certain kinds of people, this image challenges those notions about what “Muslims” are; what punk is; what resistance can look like.

By refusing easy categorization through defying and problematizing identities rendered simplistic in “secular” media, the Kominas and other self-identified Muslim punk projects challenge the supposedly “natural” opposition of their chosen identities. If it’s not “pretty” it’s because it’s not supposed to be. As the Kominas wryly assert on their 2017 single, it’s “no fun” being persecuted—“being hunted for sport.” As Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in America are targeted, Muslim punk responses to the physical and psychological violence of profiling “confront head-on the White (and Christian) gaze that criminalizes and dehumanizes Brown bodies through” various forms of media including, but not limited to, music which celebrates and mocks their enforced alterity (2017, 63). Far from a unified “resistance,” this disunity and its scope of representation is a poignant expression of the capacity to undermine, subvert, and appropriate oppressive forces in dynamic, nuanced, and inclusive ways which offer constructive, hopeful modes of undermining persistent homogenizing narratives and the racially-motivated violence
they enable.

If a child can be demonized as a “bad Muslim,” the perverse logic that “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about” is truly nullified—the game is rigged. In this context, where mass judgement is undergirded by powerful political rhetoric and historic racialization, Muslim punk bands like The Kominas offer—or demand—a problematizing of that singular narrative, interweaving complex, presumptively contradictory identities into a cohesive, flawed, human whole.


Abber, Caitlin. 2015. “This Band Explains Why Identifying Muslim Punks is a Reminder of Where They Stand in America.” MTV News, January 29, 2015. http://www.mtv.com/news/2051062/kominas-interview/

Aidi, Hisham D. 2014. “9,000 Miles… of Sufi Rock.” In Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, 70-85. New York: Pantheon Books.

Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Badawi, Kim. 2007. “The Taqwa Tour 2007 in Chicago.” Eye Steel Film. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Taqwa_Tour_2007_in_Chicago_-_Flickr_-_Eye_Steel_Film.jpg

Bhattacharya, Sanjiv. 2011. “How Islamic punk went from fiction to reality.” The Guardian, August 4, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/aug/04/islamic-punk-muslim-taqwacores

Fiscella, Anthony T. 2012. “From Muslim Punks to Taqwacore: An Incomplete History of Punk Islam.” Contemporary Islam 6 (3): 255-81.

Göl, Ayla. 2009. “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly 30 (4): 795-810.

Hunter, W.W. 1876. Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? 3rd ed. London: Trübner and Company. First published 1871.

McDowell, Amy. 2017. “Muslim Punk in an Alt-Right Era.” Contexts 16 (3): 63-5.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. 2016. “Tracking Hate: Islam and Race After the Presidential Election.” Religion and Politics, December 6, 2016. http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/12/06/tracking-hate-islam-and-race-after-the-presidential-election/

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