by Sofia Ali-Khan
In her important 2019 book, When Islam is Not a Religion, Asma T. Uddin argues that American Muslims need to be aware of and engaged in legal battles for the protection of religious liberties. Uddin, a religious liberties lawyer and scholar, says this must take place even if those battles are often driven by the interests of Christian conservatives.
Religious liberties are constitutionally protected rights to the free exercise of religion and to freedom from government establishment of a state or preferred religion. These rights are sometimes asserted on behalf of religious minorities and are often a matter of hot dispute.
Uddin acknowledges that a majority of Muslims in the United States now count themselves as Democrats. We generally tend toward the Left of the political spectrum both because a majority of us support the political interests of other marginalized groups and also because we feel it represents our own political interests.
Nonetheless, she argues that American Muslims ought to support the religious liberty claims of conservative Christian communities even when they conflict with important liberal political interests and alliances. The crux of her argument is that religious liberties (whether those of the Christian majority or of religious minorities) are equally as important as other civil rights and liberties, demanding careful and thoughtful compromise grounded in the facts of each case.
Her assessment, however, leaves out an essential truth about the position of Muslims in America today. I believe that Muslims ought to approach alliances with conservative Christians, even those asserting religious liberty arguments, with skepticism, not only to maintain the integrity of our alliances on the Left and moral commitments to the most vulnerable people in our society, but in recognition of our existence as a racialized minority in the context of rising white supremacy. My argument here focuses on the latter.
Muslims are very clearly not a race of people in any traditional sense, even as arbitrary as traditional racial categories have been. We share no ancestry or ethnicity the way that other racialized groups do. But Muslims are at the center of a shift in public ideas of race in the United States. Despite our lack of common ancestry, Muslims are increasingly treated like a racial, not a religious category, so that our place in a pluralistic society is jeopardized by assertions that our Muslimness makes us unassimilable into a white majority.
Muslims and conservative Christians as allies?
Two-thirds of Uddin’s book catalogues contemporary challenges to and attacks on Muslim Americans, mainly from political conservatives, and including several prominent Christian conservative public figures. The remaining third looks at ways in which the American Left sometimes chafes at or co-opts elements of Muslim religious practice, such as references to “shariah law” that pejoratively imply Muslim authoritarianism or the exoticization of hijab.
In the end, Uddin suggests that Muslims cannot be fully at home on either side of the political spectrum. She challenges us to acknowledge conservative Christian concerns about the “extinction” of Christianity without cynicism and suggests that liberal society does indeed pose specific challenges to Christian religious liberty. She asks us to consider that increasing Muslim affiliation with the Left after 9/11 is what draws conservative Christian anger towards us.
Uddin’s arguments are persuasive in that Muslims do indeed need to carefully watch the development of religious liberty law. I agree that each legal claim for religious liberty should be considered on its own merits, regardless of the faith of the claimant. But the racialization of Muslims, often most vocally expressed by groups that overlap with or are themselves conservative Christian communities, presents an existential threat to Muslims. This threat should make us wary of alliances with conservative Christian communities that do not unequivocally denounce Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
When a religious community is racialized
Since 9/11, there has been a concerted effort to racialize Muslims, as a category, within the United States. Racialization is the act of designating a racial meaning or classification to a group or social practice that was not previously united in a single classification. That is, racialization is the process of taking specific characteristics to signal a racial body, ascribing a racial category to those bodies, and prescribing subordination to that category.
Muslim Americans are a tremendously diverse population, with every imaginable skin tone, as well as several ethnicities, cultures, and languages among us. We are not bound by common ancestry or national origin; we are not distinguishable by dress or demeanor. Membership among us requires only a declaration of faith.
And yet, Muslims have been broadly racialized after 9/11. After that political moment, no matter our other descriptors of color, culture, or language, Muslims no longer have a claim to whiteness or even the option of a racial ambiguity that allows mobility in a highly stratified, highly segregated society. These are, of course, privileges that many among us never had, as we had already been racialized through colorism, xenophobia, or anti-Blackness. But the racialization of Muslims as Muslims nonetheless reflects a significant development in our overall vulnerability. We now collectively occupy our own non-white, racialized category, associated pejoratively with specialized epithets and stereotypes that essentialize our otherness.
The strategies employed against Muslims are not new. Instead, they are echoes and permutations of classic American white supremacist strategies. Our hijabs today are derided and caricatured in many of the same ways Native peoples’ braids have been targeted; our mosques are burned just as Black churches have been destroyed; zoning laws are used to prevent our mosque expansions in the same ways that redlining prevented the growth of residential communities of color in every American city and suburb. We are denied permits to build cemeteries just as Black and Native cemeteries and burial grounds have been destroyed or relocated; we are profiled as security threats like other Brown and Black communities; old anti-Asian and anti-Semitic tropes about untrustworthiness and lying are given Arabic names and applied to Muslims.
Taken together, racialized people in the United States do not fare well over time, and that has been the case since America’s inception. We earn less, accrue less wealth, are less healthy, have less access to health care and education, and have shorter lives. The battle against white supremacy is crucial.
The racialization of Muslims is now a norm of U.S. culture, grounded in wartime and election rhetoric from the White House and Congressional leaders, and echoing loudly from private, conservative institutions and platforms. The casual construction of Muslims as a racialized out-group within the United States has been so effective that anti-Muslim rhetoric, bias, and policy is now a strategic training ground for white supremacist strategy.
For example, anti-Muslim rhetoric employs the names of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda as slurs against ordinary Muslims. Because these terms are not only slurs, but also names of real organizations and increasingly shorthand for “terrorist,” they are more durable.
While the slurs achieve everything that any other racial slur would, they also tend to erase historical and pervasive examples of terrorism by non-Muslim groups. These terms slip into a myriad of uses, becoming normalized, and in turn normalizing the conflation of terrorism and Islam in the American consciousness. This makes it more difficult to call out and eliminate their use. For example, critics who rightly condemned the use of the term “Vanilla ISIS” to describe the white nationalists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th were accused of defending perpetrators of violence, or confusing the discourse.
Uddin tells us that in the case of the Muslim Ban, the Trump administration was given judicial deference by the Supreme Court to bar the entry of people from five Muslim majority states (as well as North Korea and political officials from Venezuela) where it found both national security and immigration issues were implicated. This fits into a broader pattern of deference to racist excess in American national security and immigration law.
For 80 years of American history, citizenship and naturalization was permitted only to white men, and then expanded during Reconstruction to include people of African origin, formerly enslaved men and women who had been born in the United States. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted the entry of Chinese people and the Immigration Act of 1924 barred the entry of most other Asian immigrants. In 1942, SCOTUS approved the dislocation of over 110,000 Japanese people, mostly U.S. citizens, into concentration camps away from the West Coast, forcing the loss of billions of dollars in real estate and other property.
The deference the court has long provided to the executive branch in restricting the mobility and naturalization of racialized people was the foundation upon which the Trump administration built not only the Muslim Ban, but the internment of thousands of non-Muslim asylum seekers, separating their minor children in facilities rife with abuse and neglect. Central American refugees are largely Catholic, these days broadly acceptable as part of a Christian majority. Yet, while Christianity is often used to shore up claims to whiteness and has often been demanded of communities of color, it cannot, alone, confer whiteness.
The several common interests of religious groups, whether they are Christian or Muslim, do not overcome the conservative white supremacist project for America. That project targets Central American asylum seekers and Muslim immigrants as equally threatening to the preservation of a white United States.
Taken together with the conservative effort to define Islam as “not a religion,” our casual racialization is particularly alarming. We may be racialized, but our protection under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and other civil rights statutes as a racial category is not yet established in American law. Without legal protection as a racial or a religious group, Muslims would be left without critical protections under American law when attacked as Muslims. Our precarity makes us low-hanging fruit for white supremacists.
Muslims, Christians, and white supremacy
To fully understand the stakes of our relationship to Christian conservatives, we need to examine their historical and modern associations with white supremacy. We need to decline association with Christian conservative movements that do not completely repudiate and separate themselves from white supremacist political movements and institutions.
Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: the History of White Supremacy in American Christianity and head of the Public Religion Research Institute argues, “white Christians . . . have constructed and sustained a project of . . . white supremacy that has framed the entire American story.” This legacy, he says, is not just carried by Southern evangelicals, but mainline Protestants and Catholics, who tend to deny and therefore perpetuate systemic racism. The “more racist attitudes a person holds,” he found, “the more likely they are to identify as a white Christian.”
The Trump era, characterized by open hostility towards every racialized minority in the country and tacit support for white supremacist organizations has nonetheless garnered broad support among Christian conservatives. Exit polls suggest that 76-81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2020 election. Among other white protestant denominations, Trump polled with a ten-point lead, and among white Catholics, a six-point lead.
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, attended by conservative elected officials and activists, made headlines for its inclusion of three things: a golden statue of Donald Trump, a center stage conspicuously shaped like a white supremacist symbol, and Trump’s keynote speech, during which he proclaimed, “We are committed to defending innocent life and to upholding the Judeo-Christian values of our founders and our founding.”
The latter commitment is as cynical as it is alarming. It is cynical because Trump’s right-wing base have frequently espoused anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitic attacks rose alongside anti-Muslim attacks over the five years of Trump’s campaign and term in office. It is alarming because it is contrary in spirit to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which forbids Congress from establishing a state religion. The three elements, taken together, would seem to cast Trump as national symbol of a unified white supremacist and Christian nationalist movement.
The venom with which Muslims have been treated by both public and private conservative actors, especially during the Trump administration, is far more understandable when viewed as part of a white supremacist response to the browning of America. Religious minorities may only account for 6% of the nation’s population, but Brown and Black people collectively account for 27%, a figure that is growing so quickly that by 2044, the Census Bureau predicts that there will no longer be a racial majority in America.
Moral commitments, liberal alliances and the fight for American pluralism
Muslims have a self-interest in pluralism and alliance with the Left, as Uddin acknowledges. But we have more than that. Our solidarity is rooted in the same existential crisis that every racialized group in America faces. Our racialization as Muslims should drive a deep suspicion of religious conservatives whose politics disproportionately impoverish and imperil Black and Brown communities across faith, color and culture divides.
We also have a moral obligation as Muslims to vet and reject any movement that may support the marginalization of vulnerable populations. Conservative Christian assertions of religious liberty are often implicated in conflicts known as the “culture wars.”
“Culture wars” refer to battles between largely white, predominantly Christian conservatives and those who champion liberal pluralism. The term has been used to describe the heated debates around LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and reproductive rights. In the law, the culture wars have focused attention on litigation like Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the Supreme Court found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had failed to employ religious neutrality in their decision against a baker who declined to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
We should reject a concept of religious rights that compromises support for liberal pluralism. Communities of color, women and LGBTQ communities of color are not just our allies, they are us. We often inhabit intersectional identities so that we are Muslim and women, or Muslim and Brown or Black, or Muslim and LGBTQ. Even when we cannot be described in these ways, our mutual survival depends on ensuring a United States with space for us all. Together, we must reckon with the reality that America is home to a growing, modern white supremacist movement with which Christian conservatives are fundamentally associated.
As an American Muslim and a progressive, I respect Uddin’s work to defend religious liberties, even in circumstances that she may not find morally or spiritually compelling. But in an era where many Christian conservatives openly embrace the symbols and rhetoric of white supremacy and violent persecution, Muslims must remain firmly committed to the liberal ideals that allow all of us to participate fully in our society despite being a racialized, religious minority, and firmly committed to solidarity with other marginalized social groups. We must insist on clear repudiations of white supremacy and Christian nationalism before engaging in any alliance.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Sofia Ali-Khan is an author, mom, and public interest lawyer. Her forthcoming book, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Ongoing Battle for a White America (Random House), is due out in early 2022. Asma Uddin’s new book. The Politics of Vulnerability (Simon and Schuster, 2021) is now available.