Muslim Americans

Debating the notions of American and un-American

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Nahid Afrose Kabir
Routledge Advances in Sociology
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , August
     2016.
     230 pages.
     $160.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138699250.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Muslim Americans: Debating the Notions of American and un-American contributes to the rich body of research on Islamophobia and its impact on Muslim Americans. This sociological study examines how Muslim Americans are responding to a political and media environment that presumes the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 379 participants in six states, of varying ethnic backgrounds and mainly between the ages of eighteen and forty, Kabir seeks to excavate Muslim Americans’ perspectives in the wake of growing Islamophobic sentiment and public opinion in the United States. To do so, she focuses on two terms that loom large in American discourses regarding Islam and Muslims—“American” and “un-American”—documenting what these terms mean to Muslim Americans, and how these terms have at the same time been marshaled by the media and politicians to render them a religious minority subject to discrimination, surveillance, and violence.

Tracking a variety of themes, chapters 2 and 3 survey the responses that Kabir gathered from her participants as they pondered the terms “American” and “un-American.” When asked what “American” meant, Kabir’s participants overwhelmingly responded in terms that carry positive valences (democracy, civil liberties, individualism, sports, ecumenism, American dream). Kabir organizes these responses into the categories “freedom,” “culture,” and “diversity” (17). A few participants aligned the term “American” with negative terms, such as racism. When asked about the term “un-American,” participants either named the opposite of their response for “American” (such as “no freedom,” “undemocratic,” and “racist”) or identified “foreign cultures” (18). Kabir takes up this latter meaning in chapter 3, exploring how these young Muslim Americans situate their understandings of “American” and “un-American” in the context of their efforts to negotiate diasporic norms and practices. Over the course of these two chapters, Kabir provides a wealth of interview data, adding to academic works that have challenged monolithic representations of Islam by highlighting the internal diversity of Muslim Americans. This book includes reflections from a wide variety of participants, such that the interviews are presented with very brief introductions of the interviewee’s age, ethnic identity, and self-chosen markers of affiliation (American, Muslim, Pakistani, and so on).

Employing discursive analysis, chapters 4 and 5 turn the reader’s attention to representations of Islam in American media and in the rhetoric of politicians. Chapter 4 considers whether the media is itself “un-American.” After comparing the coverage of events such as Faisal Shahzad’s foiled attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square in 2010 and Jared Loughner’s 2011 shooting spree in Arizona that killed six people and injured thirteen, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Kabir concludes that the media undermines those ideals that her participants identified as “American.” That is, by presenting Muslims as existential threats and minimizing violence committed by non-Muslim Americans, the US media has generated anti-Muslim sentiment among the general public. Thus the media has undermined the American ideal of tolerance and abused their freedom of speech in the service of making Muslim Americans a suspect and excluded population. Chapter 5 shows how American politicians engage in various practices of exclusion and surveillance, from Peter King’s 2011 Congressional hearings on “radicalization” to the 2016 presidential campaign in which Islamophobic rhetoric became a mainstay of Donald Trump’s messaging. Kabir analyzes these efforts as “modern-day McCarthyism,” which she argues are both the direct legacy of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign and a more structured and systematic attempt to cast Muslims and Islam as “un-American” (195).

At its heart, this is a book about discourse and its effects. By putting Muslim American perspectives on Americanness into direct conversation with Islamophobic discourses on Muslims, Kabir successfully demonstrates points of convergence between them, even as Muslim Americans work to challenge their marginalization. Too often, however, she attempts to have the interview data speak for itself, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions and connections. Moreover, the lack of Shi’a (only eighteen participants) and black Muslim interviewees (only “a few”) from a study of this size constitutes a major limitation and is an exclusion that ought to have been explained (10). As the now-robust literature on the racialization of Islam has shown us, the historical and contemporary experiences of black Muslims should be at the center of any analysis of Islamophobia, not peripheral to it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justine Howe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nahid Afrose Kabir is Adjunct Professor at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, USA. She is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, University of South Australia, Australia. Nahid A. Kabir was a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, USA in 2009–2011. She is the author of Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations and Cultural History; Young British Muslims: Identity, Culture, Politics, and the Media; and Young American Muslims: Dynamics of Identity.

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