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Racial Categories and Racialized Bodies

Session VIII-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • In July 1965, the editorial of BaMa’arakha, a Hebrew-language journal published by the Sephardi Council in Jerusalem, reported that Golda Meir, then Foreign Minister, decried the council’s English-language publication. The problem with Israel’s Oriental Problem, the ‘offensive’ bulletin, was that it offered scathing criticism of the racism of Israel’s Ashkenazi elites and the state agencies under their control. Specifically, the bulletin focused on the systemic racism against Mizrahi Jews that was deliberate and designed to shut them out of the centers of political and economic power. The bulletin offers incisive analysis that preceded critical Mizrahi scholars by at least two decades, and moreover, made explicit comparisons between the embedded racism of the Zionist state and other forms of racial discrimination and violence: colonial (referencing the British Empire) and anti-blackness in the US. The council’s intention was to mobilize “opinion leaders” in the English-speaking world in the fight against Zionism’s racism and enlist Jews already active in the civil rights movement. While earlier issues focused on intra-Jewish racism, those published after the June 1967 war pivoted to discuss the Palestinian plight within the same analytical framework that highlighted race. This is surprising, considering that the public critique of Zionism as a form of racism became much more common a few years later, culminating in the UNGA resolution 3379 of November 10, 1975. Furthermore, the analyses offered over the duration of the publication belies stereotype of Mizrahi Jews as “Arab haters” and ardent supporters of Zionism and Ashkenazim as liberal advocates of universal rights. Interestingly, the council’s most prominent luminary, Elie Eliachar, advocated on the pages of the English-language bulletin that the solution to the Palestine problem must be in the hands of Palestinians themselves. Even more importantly, he insisted that Palestinian identity – and therefore the right to determine the future of Palestine – encompasses those living under all territories occupied by Israel, including those the state insisted on calling “Israeli-Arabs” and were its citizens. My paper will therefore contextualize the publication of this bulletin within the politics of decolonization, the American civil rights movement and the conundrum of American Jewishness between identification with Zionism, civil rights activism and the changing understanding of race.
  • In the current debate on Islam and its place in the American society, the Naturalization cases of the early 20th century gain new importance in studying how Islam and Muslims were perceived. According to the Naturalization Act of 1870, citizenship was limited to free white persons of good character, aliens of African nativity, and persons of African descent. Accordingly, Arab migrants seeking citizenship in the early 20th century had to prove their ‘Whiteness’ which was a fluid term based on racial, religious and/or civilizational criteria. It is well established that Christian Arab immigrants utilized their religious background to appeal to the court and assert their whiteness, and therefore, eligibility for U.S. citizenship. The question of how Muslims dealt with their faith in cases of naturalization in the courts is still not clear, due to the subject being understudied. In his research on the structural roots of Islamophobia, Khaled Baydoun compares judges’ differential treatment of Arab Muslims and Arab Christians and argues that, in a period where US citizenship was dependent on the applicant’s proximity to whiteness, such legal decisions built upon Orientalist claims and rendered Muslim immigrants the racialized "other.” Such conclusion is based on eight court cases all involving Arab immigrants, two Muslims and six Christians. This research paper re-examines the role Islam played in the naturalization cases during the early twentieth century by widening the court cases studied to include cases centering on immigrants originating from Muslim countries, including Ottoman lands, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan/India. It examines the courts’ attitudes toward Muslim immigrants seeking citizenship to unveil the extent to which a petitioner’s religious identity impacted his/her eligibility to US citizenship. This paper argues, based on initial findings, that race assumed a more critical role than religion in the court decisions of Muslims. Although Arab immigrants’ Christian faith served as a tool that enhanced their eligibility for citizenship, that does not automatically translate that Muslims were barred from attaining citizenship. At the same time, it does not dismiss the Islamophobia that defined official discourse on foreign and domestic relations. Indeed, the use of antiquated words like “Mohammedan” and “Moslem” demonstrate a distaste for the religious faith and its followers. However, initial analysis of the cases shows that the courts did not weaponize the petitioner’s religious faith during these infamous naturalization cases.
  • How were racialized characteristics inscribed upon diverse bodies in the late Ottoman Empire? De-colonizing studies by Makdisi (2000) and Deringil (2003) explore the late Ottoman process of colonizing border areas via political implementation of racial hierarchies. Ergin (2008) inquiries into the Ottoman legacies of Turkish racial categorizations, noting the tenacious links from past administrative practices into the modern mono-ethnonational Turkish state. This paper expands on these insights by enquiring into the cultural forms and representations that supported bureaucratic policies. I claim that the durability of racial categories is due to cultural practices that replicated past ideologies. This presentation explores cultural representation of Roman (“Gypsy”) communities in literature, poetry, plays and musical forms in order to dig into the practices of exclusion by interrogating the workings of imperial and ethno-national internal colonialism. The segregationist model of the Ottoman Empire hyper-marked difference for biopolitical control via bureaucratic specialization. The subsequent Turkish Republic utilized Western European forms of internal colonialism through cultural production. Indications of Western European imported racializations appear in 19th century literature and popular forms alongside Ottoman-styled caricatures, such as the Romani “dark girl” and “dark-eye”. The subsequent Turkish Republic secured biopolitical control by attempting to erase ethnic, linguistic and religious difference to claim a “singular” Turkish identity. Such techniques are evident in state curation practices of national “folk songs” in which the ethnic, linguistic and religious identities of “source people” are erased while their products are celebrated as regional musical representations of a purported unified state. In the state-defined forms of classical music, musicologists, musicians and state agents promoted the Turkish-ness of Ottoman music in the 1940s-1950s while hyper-marking Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Romani compositions and performing style as heretical, thus re-making Ottoman court and urban traditions into a purported singular Turkish ethnic classical tradition. The legacy of these musical practices along with continued exclusionary policies in contemporary Turkey signify the existence of taken-for-granted practices of racial marking, pointing to new pathways to engage a critical post-colonial theory that does not conflate Western European forms of racial colonization with other long-standing colonial practices, such as that of the Ottoman Empire.
  • For over two decades, national security law and policy has served as pretext for myriad forms of discrimination against Muslims by government and private actors. The reason for this, I argue, lies in the social construction of Muslims as a racial minority, rather than or in addition to being a religious minority. I call this social construction The Racial Muslim. Four factors converge to produce The Racial Muslim: 1) White Protestant Supremacy, 2) xenophobia arising from coercive assimilationism, 3) Orientalism, and 4) American empire. In this paper, I focus on how Orientalism the Palestinian terrorist trope (which preceded the Muslim terrorist trope) converged with American imperialism in the Middle East to legitimize infringements on the civil and human rights of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. European Orientalism historically situated Islam as the antithesis of modernity and enlightenment such that a clash with Western Christendom is perpetual and inevitable. Dating as far back as the Crusades, many European Christians viewed Islam’s alleged propagation of ignorance, violence, and sensuality as a threat to Christianity’s perceived light, knowledge, and reason. Starting in the 1960s, the quintessential terrorist trope in American culture was an Arab Palestinian. Palestinian savagery, according to this racist narrative, was understood initially to reflect opposing values between Arabs and the civilized West, and later—when Arab resistance movements developed using Islamic terms of reference in the 1980s—as reflecting opposing religious values. By the 1990s, that opposition would be imagined as a clash of civilization between the predominantly Muslim Orient and the Judeo-Christian Western. The pre-9/11 social construction of The Racial Muslim construct was grounded in Christian Zionism. A number of high profile evangelical Christian leaders throughout the twentieth century believed American imperialism in the Middle East was divinely ordained. Politically influential American Zionist organizations, established decades prior, leveraged Christian Zionism to perpetuate portrayals of Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, as bloodthirsty terrorists and anti-Semites whose violence was driven by an irrational hatred of Jews—rather than a desire for self-determination. The U.S. government and media’s depiction of Arab Americans’ dissent as anti-democratic and anti-Semitic built on European Orientalism’s racing of Muslims as illiberal, violent and uncivilized. Consequently, Arabs and Muslims were surveilled, deported, and targeted for political suppression. Accordingly, this paper shows how the September 11th attacks buttressed American Orientalism and anti-Palestinian racism into a permanent racialization of all Muslims as presumptively terrorist, anti-Semitic, and illiberal.
  • The present research explores the aftermath of emancipation in Qatar by analyzing the Bin Jelmood House (BJH), the first museum on slavery in the Middle East, located in Doha. This research underlines the BJH’s claims about slavery and nests them in academic debates. The BJH condemns slavery outright, a position that presupposes a conceptual and terminological understanding of slavery. It approaches slavery in the Gulf through the lens of the Indian Ocean, a conglomerate often contrasted with the transatlantic, the latter comprising of a more benign form of slavery than its racial and plantation-based counterpart. Though the BJH adopts this narrative, it also demonstrates the spike in slave labor due to the global demand for pearls and dates. Islam also appears as an emancipatory force that encouraged manumission, something contested in academic literature. A large segment of the museum discusses the aftermath of slavery in the Gulf, highlighting the process by which formerly enslaved people integrated into society. However, it is virtually silent on the discrimination people of slave ancestry face in the Gulf. The BJH also acknowledges Qatar’s abuse of labor migrants, qualifying Qatar’s kafala system (contractual labor arrangement) as modern-day slavery. This admission is interesting as it concedes to the contested view that labor arrangements in the Gulf are comparable to slavery. The questions that guide my analysis are: what normative claims about slavery does the museum offer? In what context does the museum discuss slavery and how does it draw comparisons to other contexts? How does the BJH depict the role of Islam in slavery? How does it deal with the aftermath of slavery in the Gulf? And, what are the continuities and discontinuities of slavery in the Gulf? The museum has stirred up debate on the framing of slavery and racism. Whereas some view it as a topic that should be kept out of the public, others want the museum to do more. Slavery and racism are becoming more present in the Gulf through literature and media. Although Gulf academics now critically engage the subject from various interdisciplinary approaches, scholarly literature remains scant. My contribution is anthropology. By incorporating interviews, novels, and online debates in my analysis of the BJH, I develop a comprehensive understanding of how Qatar relates to slavery and racism and situate it within broader academic and political debates beyond the Gulf.