As the 20th anniversary of September 11 reminds us of personal tragedy as well as structural violence of the state, The Maydan Podcast editor-in-chief Ahmet Tekelioglu hosts Sahar Aziz, a legal scholar, an expert on critical race theory, and the founding director of the Center for Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers University Law School. She is the author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom forthcoming from University of California Press in November 2021.
Tekelioglu and Aziz also speak about the impact of 9/11 on legal studies in the United States and its broader implications for the study of religion and civil rights.
Sahar Aziz is Professor of Law, Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar, and Middle East and Legal Studies Scholar at Rutgers University Law School. Professor Aziz’s scholarship adopts an interdisciplinary approach to examine intersections of national security, race, and civil rights with a focus on the adverse impact of national security laws and policies on racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the U.S. Her research also investigates the relationship between authoritarianism, terrorism, and rule of law in Egypt. She is the founding director of the interdisciplinary Rutgers Center for Security, Race, and Rights (csrr.rutgers.edu ). She is also a faculty affiliate of the African American Studies Department at Rutgers University-Newark and a member of the Rutgers-Newark Chancellor’s Commission on Diversity and Transformation. Professor Aziz is an editor for the Arab Law Quarterly and the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Professor Aziz teaches courses on national security, critical race theory, Islamophobia, evidence, torts, and Middle East law.
[Below we present a slightly edited transcript of our conversation with Dr. Aziz.]
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Today, we are hosting Professor Sahar Aziz. My name is Ahmet Tekelioglu. I am the editor-in-chief of Maydan and the Maydan Podcast at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and this is the first episode that I am recording for the Maydan Podcast. As you know, Maydan Podcast is composed of several channels and what we are doing today is an episode that is going to be plugged into our twentieth anniversary of 9/11 series on the Maydan and it’s my great pleasure to welcome Professor Sahar Aziz, from Rutgers University Law School and the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University.
Sahar Aziz: Thank you so much, Ahmet, for inviting me. It’s truly an honor. I’m a big fan of your podcast.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Thank you so much. We’re really grateful to you for making time. Our audience will know Professor Aziz from her scholarship, from her on-the-field presence, and we’ll talk about some of her background, but a quick bio is as follows: Professor Sahar Aziz is a Professor of Law, Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar, and Middle East and Legal Studies Scholar at Rutgers University Law School. She is the founding director of the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights, you can visit the Center’s website at csrr.rutgers.edu and I highly encourage our audience to check it out, which is full of wonderful resources. Her scholarship is interdisciplinary and examines intersections of national security, race, and civil rights with a focus on the adverse impact of national security laws and policies on racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the US and she has other interests as well on Egypt, for example, the intersections of terrorism, authoritarianism, and rule of law in Egypt. She is the author of multiple articles and a recent book that’s coming up and we will talk about the book as well later in this episode, called the Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, coming out from the University of California Press very soon.
Sahar Aziz: Yes, it will be coming out in November 2021, inshallah, so I encourage everyone to pre-order it now. It’s available on the UC Press website, on amazon.com, and other booksellers. But yes, I’m very much looking forward to its birth.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Wonderful.OK, let’s jump into our conversation. Our audience is familiar with our free flowing conversation style, but I wanted to, even though I read your bio, start off with a brief introduction in terms of how you would like to tell us about your scholarship. What has shaped your scholarship in the last fifteen to twenty years and, perhaps, we can also talk next about your work at the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers as well.
Sahar Aziz: Well, I am an untraditional scholar, proudly so, in many ways. The first is that I am what I call a first-and-a-half generation American or I’m technically legally an immigrant. I was born in Cairo, but I was raised in America, so socially and culturally I’m a product of American society and the education system, but I was raised by Egyptian Muslim parents, who were born and raised in Egypt. So, my positioning, socially, is unique for the academy because you will not find many people who are what we call this one-and-a-half generation, not first-generation American and not second-generation American, but in the middle and that brings a perspective that is rarely brought to the academy. So, that’s one way that I’m untraditional. The other is that I practiced law for almost a decade before I entered the academy and, before then, I was a racial justice activist in my local community as a high school student and as a college student in the Dallas, Texas area in the 1990s, when being racially conscious was not popular, when everyone had drank the Kool-Aid that we were colorblind, and even among minority communities, if you were race conscious, it was considered that you were a troublemaker. This was the post-civil rights era. This was when African-American communities were being vilified in the war on crime and the war on drugs, the media was full of negative images and criminalization of black men, in particular, but black identity in general on television, and the way that many minority communities were responding in the nineties was to try to integrate, assimilate, and work within the system. If you were one of those people or groups who adopted more of the Malcolm X theory or approach, or the black nationalist approach, or the anti-colonial approach, you were considered a radical in a very negative sense and so what we’re seeing today is very intriguing to someone like me, who came of age politically and intellectually in the 1990s, because this so-called woke generation in this racially conscious world that we just suddenly discovered is not the way it’s been for the past, at least, 30 years in my lifetime of being an adult. So, I’ve learned to appreciate that there is a pendulum and the pendulum swings, and there is always a reaction to every progress. If we do one step forward, there’s a risk of two steps back as we’re seeing now with attacks on critical race theory and that’s something else that I think brings a unique perspective to my scholarship. Then, finally, I am a critical race theorist and I didn’t become one two years ago when I became popular or when people actually knew what it was, I became a critical race theorist, unofficially, in the nineties just by default, but really understood what it meant and adopted it as a scholarly identity and academic identity when I started teaching and becoming a professor in 2011.
The reason I adopted critical race theory as my scholarly agenda and my scholarly identity was because it made sense to me based on what I’d seen as an immigrant who was raised in the United States, was a religious minority, was also an ethnic minority, but who had also been raised in a largely African-American community where I witnessed firsthand anti-black racism against many of my friends and was quite disgusted by it, where I heard a family members of my white friends use the N-word as if it was not a bad word, which was quite a shock for me. I had witnessed things as a teenager and as a college student that made it clear as day that America had a serious racism problem, but these weren’t things that people were willing to talk about in “polite company.” I thought critical race theory was that stream of theory or that academic path that was much more honest and much more realistic about just how entrenched racism is in the United States, both explicitly and structurally, or both intentionally and through, what we call, disparate impact, and that was not popular. I had many advisers tell me, “do not identify yourself as a critical race theorist. When you go on the academic market, do not write as a critical race theorist, you’ll be marginalized and you’ll be stigmatized and people won’t take you seriously.” But my perspective, which again is unique, was that if I wasn’t going to be a critical race theorist academic, then I didn’t want to be an academic. It really wasn’t worth it. What’s the point? If you’re not going into the academy to make interventions that are based on your analysis and your research in a way that may challenge the status quo, again it depends on what you find in your research, but that isn’t automatically accepting all the assumptions, premises, and facts that others put forth because oftentimes what is so-called mainstream is not necessarily accurate and it is always, and that includes myself and anyone else, but all knowledge production is affected by power or lack thereof and we can’t disconnect. So, whatever one reads, say about national security or whatever one reads about civil rights or Muslims, you have to understand the position of the author, the limited limitations of the author in their analysis, even if it’s not intentional or in bad faith, and that’s why it’s so important in the academy for us to have peer review, to have diversity of viewpoints, to have contrarian views and critical perspectives because I think our ultimate job as academics is truth seekers and we have such a privileged position. I think the Trump era was a stark reminder for all of us who are tenured. You had someone like Donald Trump using the most powerful pulpit, right? The most powerful bully pulpit, which is the presidency of the United States, to engage in such stark and explicit racism against so many communities, Muslim communities, black communities, Latin X communities, immigrant communities, and women. It is when you realize how important it is to be an independent thinker and to be a free thinker and to be able to speak truth to power and not have to worry, at least in theory, about being fired whereas that’s not the case in our capitalist society, where we work at the will of the supervisor and the employer. That is one way to quash any type of independent thought or creative thinking, to make employees always afraid that if they say something that they think is truthful or they think is actually going to help an institution, but it isn’t what the powerful want to hear or may threaten the interests of the powerful, then they won’t do it and then you start getting decadence. So, I think that in a nutshell, this long-winded introduction is to say that I feel very responsible and I feel a burden of responsibility as an academic and as someone who has these multiple experiences that are not commonly found in the academy. I’m probably one of only a handful of Muslim women and a handful of Muslim Arab women in the academy, especially in legal teaching, and with that comes a great burden and responsibility to make sure that at least my voice is heard and that we bring more of those identities into legal academia because, of course, not every Arab woman, not every Muslim woman, not every Arab Muslim woman has the same perspectives and the same experiences and that’s the whole point of diversity, to understand the diversity both within identity groups and between different identity groups.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. This is very helpful and I just wanted to ask about the lecture I was listening to by you and you’re talking about your second year in law school and 9/11 happening and that being a turning point in, in some ways, in your personal and academic life. How was, looking back almost 20 years now, how does it look? How does it feel to look back at that experience as a law school student experiencing that?
Sahar Aziz: I was a first-year law student September 11th, 2001, which matters insofar as I wasn’t even settled into law school yet. We’d only been in law school for two weeks. It’s always a very overwhelming experience, that first semester of law school, and I write about this in my book, in the Racial Muslim, about how that completely changed my career trajectory and it brought social justice and racial justice issues to a very personal level. Before then, I was more of an ally to African-American communities. The racial justice work I was working on was twofold: one was with my African-American friends on racial justice issues that were very directly impacting black communities and I had the privilege of not having to deal with as much of that type of discrimination, and then I also worked a lot with refugees from Muslim countries, like the Kurdish refugees in particular, who had come to Dallas in larger numbers in the nineties. But again, that wasn’t personal, I was not a refugee. So, 9/11 brought all of that racism and bigotry to our home in a very personal level, to our communities, where me and my parents and my family and my friends and my mosque community felt under siege. We felt that everyone in the country was looking at us as if we had committed some horrendous treasonous act. We were guilty by association. We heard all sorts of extremely offensive comments made in the media, by politicians, by law professors in my own university, and it was shocking because, again, especially when you know there’s racism, it’s just different when it doesn’t come home to you, it has more of an abstract academic or advocacy perspective rather than a very personal one, where you literally are worried, “could I get arrested? Will I ever find a job? Will my mother, who wears a hijab, get beaten in the streets or my parents get fired because they’re Muslim? And if they do well, would the legal system actually be able to protect them because now we would have to test it?” There’s all kinds of laws in writing, but as someone who also studies the developing world and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, I’m fully aware that you could have all sorts of laws on the books that officially protect civil rights and human rights, but enforcement is where you find out if it’s merely a piece of paper or actually a robust legal system that supports such rights. We had never had to test that being in the United States on a personal level. So, it completely changed my career trajectory, where I had gone to law school originally to work on rule of law issues and democracy and human rights in the Middle East because I had a deep interest in my own heritage and was very connected to the Middle East through my own immigration experience, to changing it to working on civil rights in the US, especially on behalf of Muslim communities and national security was the legal and political context in which their civil rights were often violated. That’s ultimately what led me down the path of being an expert on the intersection of national security and civil rights, both in terms of what I did as a lawyer, especially on pro bono matters, but also as an academic in my scholarship.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: That definitely makes sense and thank you for giving us that background. I want to talk, maybe later on, a little bit about your school board member role, that’s not all that common, but maybe we can do that after talking a little bit more about the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University. What’s the journey of the Center? How did you establish the Center? What have been its most noteworthy accomplishments in your perspective? Can you tell us maybe a little bit about the plan for the year ahead for the Center, the threefold issue focus at the center is really creative and interesting, and I’m sure our audience would love to hear more about that as well.
Sahar Aziz: The Center for Security, Race and Rights is a culmination of my 20 years, at that point, we started in 2017 at Rutgers Law School, so, at that point, it was 17 years of work on post-9/11 discrimination issues. I learned many lessons on my path because, as I mentioned, I was a first-year law student, so it was a trial by fire, right? It was learning by being thrown in the middle of the ocean and trying to learn how to protect a very tiny minority. We’re talking about no more than 1% of the population against systematic discrimination, immigration, and antiterrorism prosecutions and surveillance and investigations in schools and workplaces. It was, unfortunately, all encompassing and that doesn’t mean that every single Muslim experienced it directly, but we were all in. Anyone whose Muslim identity was known or who was presumed to be Muslim, even mistakenly like Sikh Americans, was at least indirectly impacted by those stereotypes and one of the stereotypes, specifically, is that you are either an outright terrorist or that you are a potential terrorist or that you sympathize with terrorism either explicitly or implicitly or that you are associated with terrorism, and then, from there, there are suspicions that you’re not loyal to America, that you’re anti-American, that your religion cannot be reconcilable with democracy, that your religion is against human rights, that your religion oppresses women. So, all sorts of multiple, multiple stereotypes that all intertwine together and that you would see them come out in the way that people interacted with you, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. One of the lessons I learned when I was in the 17 year path was that you’ve got to build institutions because, for the first four or five years, we were reacting. It was one thing after the other, one crisis after the other, from when America bombed the Taliban in Afghanistan, ultimately de facto occupied Afghanistan, and now we’re seeing in 2021 that that was an utter failure. I won’t go into the details of that, that would be a separate discussion, but every time that the US goes to war with a Muslim majority country, there are all sorts of negative media depictions and the only prism through which American audiences see Muslims, the vast majority of them don’t know a Muslim personally, have never traveled to a Muslim majority country, know absolutely nothing about Islam. So, if their introduction to it is through terrorism, that’s their first impression. Not only is it an introduction, but it’s repeated over and over and over again through the media because all of the focus is on the war, the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, and the only Muslims they’ve seen now are the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. That is the equivalent of introducing the world to America by only showing them the Klu Klux Klan.Yes, the Klan exists. Yes, white supremacists exist, but anyone who’s lived in America knows that they do not represent the entire country. Yes, there may be Klu Klux Klan members in our government, but they’re probably a minority, I’m pretty confident they’re a minority. That wouldn’t be a fair depiction of the country. Although of course, we have to take into account that that is a reality in American society, that there is anti-black racism, but it doesn’t all come through the form of the Klu Klux Klan. I’m just giving that as an example. So, when all you see is the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Of course they exist, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have followers, but there’s no perspective, no context given that, in fact, we’re talking about 1%, maybe less than 1% even, and you were talking about 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and there’s a war and there was a conflict and we used to arm Osama Bin Laden, who was actually an ally. You know, we could go on and on about how complicated the war in Afghanistan was and then we go into Iraq, where we discovered very recently that Bush lied to the American people and in fact there was no lawful basis for invading Iraq. It was an unlawful war by international law standards, by the law of war standards. And yet, how could he justify it to his people in terms of the trillions of dollars that would be spent in terms of American soldiers being killed and dying in battle, he and his administration had to make your Iraqis and Muslims writ large into demons, right? He had to make them into monsters and he had to scare his population into accepting what was otherwise a completely illegitimate war, especially from a legal basis and also, I think, from a political basis. We’ve seen the outcome of that failed attempt of, at least, apparently whatever it is he declared that he was trying to do, that’s for a different conversation, but all of that connects to how Muslims were treated in the US because the American public that wasn’t Muslim didn’t have any other source of information, but that. Very few people actually went and studied Arabic or actually traveled or did a degree in Middle East studies or even took a class in high school about the Middle East. That’s another big gap we have in our education system in America, it’s very isolationist and we don’t learn about other cultures, we don’t learn other languages beyond the minimum. So, what we were doing the first five years was just playing defensive and we had to respond to all sorts of crises, and then it started to shift into litigation. There was a lot of grassroots advocacy and trying to just protect people from being deported, from being investigated or charged or bullied, to more active litigation, but still, there were not very many institutions that would be able to sustain that kind of work and what we realized around, and I say we meaning there was a large growing number every year of Muslim Americans who were, either by choice or by necessity, becoming civil rights advocates in one way or the other, because we were just also deeply impacted. I was one of the first in the group, only because I was a law student, and there was a derth of lawyers in Muslim American communities in America for cultural reasons, because oftentimes, at least those who were immigrating from South Asia and from the Middle East and North Africa, it’s considered more prestigious, culturally, to be a doctor or an engineer or to be a business owner and law just was not a degree or a career path from their countries of origin that was considered high status. So, they were not encouraging their children to become lawyers. That’s one reason there are other reasons such as language and lack of networks, but the point being is that there were very few Muslims, much less Muslim students in 2001, and so just by necessity, you end up becoming one of those few numbers. I’m very happy now and very proud to see larger numbers of Muslims from various races and ethnicities who are American lawyers, but what we discovered was that if we didn’t have institutions, then it would always be reactionary and it would not be strategic, it would not be forward-thinking and the non-Muslim institutions that were assisting Muslims in defending their civil rights, which was quite courageous because it was not popular at the time, organizations like the ACLU, like the Center for Constitutional Rights, like the Arab-American anti-discrimination committee, which was an institution at least for Arab Americans, but there really weren’t that many. Then there were some local organizations, the immigrant rights organizations were certainly very helpful, but none of them focused exclusively on our communities and so if a particular crisis ended or subsided from the national agenda, then we didn’t really have anyone that would look out for our rights. So, one of the positive developments was that new organizations were created and Muslim advocates was one of them. There was other organizations like SALDEF and the South Asian Legal Defense and Education Fund, there was SAALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together. There were multiple organizations that were created, these were new organizations created by very young people in their twenties and thirties. So, the Center for Security, Race, and Rights is just one within this larger — and there’s also the Muslim Anti-Racism Coalition, Muslim ARC, which focuses on a very important issue of anti-black racism within Muslim communities, right, in the intersectional identities. So, the Center for Security, Race, and Rights is really just in this larger ecosystem of institutions that is, I think, a positive byproduct of post-9/11 discrimination, and that is the institutionalization of civil rights groups that focus only on, well, not only, but primarily on Muslim civil and human rights in the US and then connecting that with international developments, because, for better or worse, who we as Muslims, even African-American Muslims, not just those who are immigrants or direct recent children of immigrants, are affected by these negative stereotypes.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: And is the Center receiving support from Rutgers alone, or as well as from the community and those outside? I don’t know if you need to navigate the grants landscape but I wanted to ask what is the institutional plan for the years ahead and especially this year in regards to 9/11 and marking its anniversary? I think you were part of, as you mentioned in the beginning, a conversation on critical race theory recently, which was very interesting. I unfortunately couldn’t attend, but what is the Center’s focus this year and how can folks support the center?
Sahar Aziz: Well, first I will tell you that we are primarily donor supported. We are fortunate to have some support from Rutgers university in Newark. We’re very fortunate to have a very progressive Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who I am a big fan of hers. She definitely deserves credit because not all chancellors and high level administrators would allow such a center to exist because we’ve certainly had our share of hate mail, but that comes with the territory. I call it an occupational hazard and you can’t do civil rights and you can’t do critical race theory if you don’t have a thick skin and if you’re not a fighter and if you’re not ready to upset people. That is just something you have to accept and as long as you do it in good faith and you do it in attempting to make the world a better place, but powerful people do not like to be told that they are wrong and they certainly don’t want changes in the system that will decrease their power or wealth in any way and that’s a universal phenomenon, not just in the United States. So, I just say that to also say that we use this time to make a pitch. If you want to support the center, please go to our website, csrr.rutgers.edu. We have a donate page and we prefer and want to be funded by private donors, so that is always an option from now and in the future. With regard to our plans, we have three different themes, which one can find on the website, which is the color of religion, criminalizing Muslim identity, and transnational rights and security. Those are our three major themes. The color of religion is effectively the intersection of race and religion. It tends to happen more in what we call the civil sphere in law, there’s the civil and then there’s the criminal sphere, and the civil sphere tends to be in schools, in workplaces, in public squares, just hate crimes and anytime you have religious freedom being threatened by private actors and sometimes state actors as well. We had a lecture series on the color of religion last year and all of our lecture series are available on our YouTube channel. So, if anybody wants to search the Center’s name on YouTube, you’ll find it, or you go to our website and there’s a YouTube button. Last year, we did a lecture series on transnational rights and security, where we intentionally wanted to highlight events and history and politics that were happening in Muslim majority countries, especially as they connect to see US foreign policy or US engagement or intervention, whether it was military and diplomatic, to show how those events abroad affect the civil and human rights of Muslims in the United States. That’s all we had, authors such as Professor Khalid Beydoun, Professor Aslı Ü. Bâli, Professor Sherene Razack, we were very fortunate to have had kind of an all-star lineup in all of our lecture series. We also intentionally invite experts who bring the perspectives, whether based on their research of Muslim Arabs, South Asians, African-American Muslim perspectives because oftentimes those are the perspectives that are not included in the mainstream media and those are the perspectives that are ignored in the US State Department and in the Department of Homeland Security and they lead to bad policy and they lead to loss of life, loss of American life, loss of life of people abroad and loss of trillions of dollars, right? Lots of treasure. This is a point that people in the US still can’t seem to understand. They see diversity only in terms of the equitable justification, which is certainly an important one, but there’s also a practical justification, especially when you’re dealing with foreign policy. So, I think the US government has excluded the perspectives and expertise of those who bring this analysis of those who are not simply in a bubble of Ivy league, primarily white, upper middle class America. When you only have this group think, you’re going to have bad foreign policy. You need people who actually understand the cultures, have lived there, understand the languages, and can ensure that foreign policy doesn’t wreak havoc as it has in Afghanistan and also in Iraq, although not as bad as Afghanistan. So, this year, our theme is desecuritizing Muslim identity and that’s where we’re going to be focusing more on that second prong, criminalizing Muslim identity, because that is effectively, in a nutshell, what has happened in the last 20 years. There has been a criminalization of Muslim identity. Now, with African-American Muslims, they have been criminalized at least since the early 20th century, to the nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was targeting the Muslim and the Nation of Islam very explicitly. They were part of the COINTELPRO Dragnet, which was intended to quash any kind of political dissent, especially during the cold war era. So, it’s important to note that African-American Muslims have always faced the criminalization, both from anti-black racism, but also from anti-black Muslim racism, right? African-American Muslims were especially dangerous and it was not a coincidence, in my opinion and based on my research, that the government was never going to integrate or incorporate a Malcolm X into the civil rights agenda, whereas Martin Luther king, because he was a Christian and because he was able to appeal to many white Americans through their own religion, they’re own indigenous religion of Protestantism.
That was something that is relevant and noteworthy and I think under under-resourced in the literature, so this year we’re doing the desecuritizing Muslim identity series to try to break down those stereotypes, to try to disconnect Muslims from only the security paradigm. We have three speakers this fall, we have more lined up for the spring, which have not yet been revealed, but we have Dr. Abdullahi An-Naim, who will be talking about post-colonial, the galleon human rights. We’re talking with Professor Juliane Hammer, who will be talking about her book about domestic violence in American Muslim communities, and then we have Professor Shirin Sinnar, who will be speaking about her latest article academic article on white supremacist terrorism or political violence by wise supremacists, and the double standards between how the government treats these far right-wing extremists and how it treats so-called Muslim extremists because racialized criminal justice system is as American as apple pie. The only difference is how particular communities are racialized, but unfortunately, the American legal system is not colorblind because it’s a product of the culture and the society, and the society is not colorblind. So, those who enforce the law, those who write the law, those who interpret the law are simply not colorblind, whether it’s intentional or implicit, and as a result, we have to be critical and we have to really look underneath what seems to be facially neutral laws, to see how in practice they’re far from facially neutral and the January 6th insurgency and the siege on the US Capitol was exhibit A of how you can have thousands, tens of thousands, of right wing, white extremist organizing in plain sight on social media and via telephone and via other forms of communication and they were not stopped. Yet, if a Muslim just posts a video about ISIS or supporting ISIS, they’re immediately targeted for sting operation and, ultimately, usually entrapped in some fake terrorist plot and imprisoned. It doesn’t matter if there were free speech rights implicated, it doesn’t matter if this person may have been mentally ill or maybe the Muslim, usually a young man, was completely inept and was just an armchair extremist who was offensive, but harmless in terms of his ability to do anything other than post offensive speech that, then,could be, usually was, taken down anyway and have their accounts closed by Facebook. Any of these right-wing extremists could plan in plain sight an insurgency on the US Capital, which I can’t think of anything more treasonous than that and more threat to national security than that. That’s evidence right there of racialized criminal justice. Then the next question is, are they facing the same criminal charges as the Muslims are? Are they facing the same sentencing? Is their crime taken as seriously? And you can take that even farther and compare it with how African-Americans have been treated by the criminal justice system and their communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs, for example. Just now we are decriminalizing marijuana, which was the pretext through which police officers and police departments were jailing hundreds of thousands of black men and destroying their families, destroying their lives. So, these are very real social, systemic racial problems that have been going on for decades and yet, you have Americans primarily far right, white Americans who are completely appalled by the fact that now this has become part of the mainstream conversation that we’re having. We’re talking about facts now about systemic racism and they see that in the most perverse way as anti-white racist, which I find to be a laughable proposition because for anti-black racism to be anti-white, you would then have to show that those who have power, those who exercise power, are in fact doing it in a way to harm whites and you would see that by not seeing white people as CEOs, you see that as not seeing white people among the wealthiest in the country, if not the world, you would see that by not seeing white people in other positions of power, as professors, as deans, as presidents of universities, you would see that as whites being disproportionately represented among the poor and among those in jail and all of the other harms that come from discrimination, and that is not what we see in American society. So, this whole claim that critical race theory or racial justice is anti-white is a red herring, and it’s made in bad faith and it’s not based on the facts. It’s based on people who are afraid to not have dominance and privilege that isn’t necessarily earned and in a society that has made blacks and browns and immigrants and Muslims pay the price for those privileges.
I think that if we’re serious about equality, and if we’re serious about democracy, we need to fix these structures so that it really is about individual effort and individual responsibility, and it’s not about your immutable characteristic or your identity that you, your religious identity, which you should absolutely never have to change, and you should not be punished for. So, there’s a lot of work to be done in American society, but the start is you have to first understand the problem, acknowledge the problem, question it, argue, debate, and have these open forums, which hopefully is what we’re trying to do with the Center for Security, Race and Rights.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Yeah, absolutely, and, once again, I highly encourage everyone listening to us to check out the resources section of the webpage as well, which is full of multimedia and other resources, which has been a really great teaching tool and, also, full of references and others resources for all of us who are working on different aspects of this. So, this has been a wonderful conversation. We also want to ask you, Professor Aziz, some of the questions that we are addressing in our round table on 9/11, and so I’ll move to some of those and I think you you’ve addressed some of these, so, if you need to skip some, feel free to do so, but one question quickly, what has been the most consequential impact of 9/11 for your field of study?
Sahar Aziz: The most consequential impact for legal studies has been that Muslims are now a permanent part of the civil rights agenda, for all of the wrong reasons, but I think that’s a positive silver lining because before 9/11, Muslims and Arabs and South Asians and African American Muslims were invisible in the civil rights conversation, it would be a rarity that you would find people connecting the dots between what’s happening to African-American communities with what’s happening to South Asian Muslim communities, and even connecting the dots between African-American Christian and African-American Muslim communities. Now, because of all of these harmful government policies and practices and entrenchment of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim stereotypes, and the Muslim ban, I think was a major turning point in a major wake-up call for the US, and I want to take a moment just to emphasize one of the impacts of the Muslim ban, that people who weren’t in the trenches like me and many others, who have been working on post-9/11 discrimination may not have realized is that from 2001 until January of 2017, the common response to our advocacy was “that’s too bad, it’s an anomaly,” or “that’s too bad, but it’s not as serious as you’re claiming it is,” or “that’s too bad, but it’s not as bad as what’s happening to African-American and non-Muslim communities, or what’s happening to Latin-X communities,” and that was the general, either explicitly articulated response or just kind of the general tone, and they would help when there was a particular crisis, but in general, it wasn’t seen as part of America’s racial problem. When Trump issued that Muslim ban and explicitly said, I don’t want any Muslims here. We don’t want them. They are bad people. They are anti-American, they are disloyal, and he had ran on that platform in 2015 and 2016. Not surprisingly then, we saw a huge uptick in hate crimes and violence and discrimination against Muslims in 2015, 2016, and I would recommend your audience to the Bridge Initiative, hosted by Georgetown university and also by, Dr. John Esposito, who I’m a big fan of and I have much respect for his work. If anyone hasn’t read his work, I would highly recommend it and I was very honored to have Dr. Esposito write the forward to the Racial Muslim book. So, the Bridge Initiative sets a precedent, I think even for my center and other centers But, that being said, what the Muslim ban did was it announced to the entire country that anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia is entrenched. It is official US policy. Now, those of us working on these issues already knew that because we’ve seen it with NCSEERS, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which was a special registration system for Muslims and, for those who want to know more, I wrote a law review article, called A Muslim Registry: The Precursor to Internment?, which you can find on my ssrn.com page, which is the Social Science Research Network. I wrote that article because special registration programs are actually legal in immigration law, and they can be based on ethnicity or national origin, which has been used as a proxy for religion against Muslims, and a lot of Americans don’t know that, and there had actually been many people if you go back and look at the media in 2001, 2002, there had been elected officials who were calling for the internment of Muslims.
I distinctly remember that because that frightened me and it prompted me to learn and study about Japanese internment, because I didn’t learn about Japanese internment in American schools. I didn’t learn about it in college. So, then I went and started learning about it and started to see these very frightening parallels. So, now we’re in 2021 and four years after Trump and, 20 years right after 9/11, is, I think, that’s the biggest change, that if you’re going to hold a conference or a panel, or if you’re going to write a book, or if you’re going to address civil rights issues in the US, you would be incomplete and you would be missing a major civil rights issue if you didn’t at least bring that perspective in the analysis of anti-Muslim racism. I very much wish that was not the case, but it is. I expect that my children and my children’s children will continue to have to face this entrenched form of racism and it will be a real challenge to try to end it, but I don’t think it’s going to end without cross racial coalitions because the root causes of islamophobia are very similar to the root causes of anti-Latin X racism and anti-black racism and antisemitism. They come from a deep level of ignorance and a lack of education in our public school system. They come from a provincial isolationist mentality that we have, in this American exceptionalism, that we think we’re better than everyone else, we think that we make no mistakes and we think that everyone is inferior to us across the world, especially in non-Europe, in the global south and global east. That has been devastating for our foreign policy and also has made us imperialistic, but it’s also really been devastating for our own society, which cannot afford to have that level of ignorance that produces bias and prejudice because we’re so diverse, like of all countries in the world, the United States should mandate that children are learning a second language from kindergarten. They should have a third language by high school, that they should study abroad, that everyone should have a passport. We are a highly diverse society. We should embrace that. We should own it. We should be proud of it, but instead, what we do is we forcibly, coercively, pressure immigrants to assimilate into a white Protestant normativity that is based on an era in America from the 1700s, when the country was racist in even worse ways than it is now, where African-Americans were enslaved, where enslaved Africans were not even treated as humans by law, and most certainly not by society, and when all landowning people were white and male and wealthy. So, those are not the norms that should be dictating the 21st century United States that in 20, 30 years from now, 2050, will not have a majority race. We will have no race, no ethnicity, no national origin will dominate in terms of majority. So, if we don’t learn to become more tolerant and more accepting of different cultures and embrace different languages and cultures and become more worldly as a people, I worry about how that’s going to affect our society.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s definitely in the minds of many who are in both academia and other places navigating this year. The next question that I wanted to ask is, what are some field shaping works? You know, this can be a book, article, reports, film, or documentary that you think influenced your fields in the post 9/11 era.
Sahar Aziz: Well, because I’m a critical race theorist, I tend to be focusing more on that particular area, but I think Derrick Bell, I did not have the privilege of meeting him. He was an African-American law professor at Harvard who resigned and essentially walked away from his tenure position because they refused to hire an African-American woman on the tenure track at Harvard Law School and, ultimately, he ended up teaching at NYU Law School, not in a tenured position. So, his work on critical race theory, he’s essentially one of the major founders, influenced me quite a bit. I would highly recommend that people, it’s not even a one particular book, it’s just all of his work and he was not popular and he said things that people thought were outrageous. Now, after his death, he is now seen as a brilliant man who I know saw what others didn’t see during his time.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: And I think you referenced him quite often in like the racial hierarchy concept and all of that, right?
Sahar Aziz: Yes. So, he and I talk about that in the Racial Muslim and I adopt that as one of my kind of underlying theoretical theme structures is that the black-white paradigm is the curse of American society, right? That you have blacks permanently at the bottom and whites permanently at the top and then you have different other groups who are put into the system into this hierarchy, where oftentimes they’re competing to try to get as close to whiteness as possible and as far away from blackness as possible. That then creates all sorts of inter-minority conflict. It, also, creates different forms of identity performance, where people within a particular group want to be as white looking as possible, where white looking people are more beautiful and dark people, darker skinned or dark looking, black looking people or African looking, people are considered unattractive or are inferior and this is actually a global phenomenon. I think we all, those of us who are familiar with the colonial era is, this isn’t just in the US, this is part of that broader white supremacy system and people think, when you say white supremacy, that you’re only talking about the Ku Klux Klan, but that’s one extreme branch of white supremacy. White supremacy is what it says it is. It is the presumption that white people are superior, in beauty and intellectual ability and physical ability and whatever skill, and even if that’s not stated, it’s presumed, and then the farther away you are from that, the more inferior you are presumed. I also, as a critical race theorist, have to put out the most important theoretical point, which is that race is socially constructed. So, we decide what white is as a society. We socially construct it. We decide what black is, our society decided that if you had one drop of black blood, you were black, regardless of what you looked like and that was for many reasons, one of which was economic, because if you had one drop of black blood, you were then enslaved during slavery and at a time when white men were actively raping their black female slaves in order to produce more slaves, because each slave was worth a lot of money, especially after the slave trade was banned in the US, where there were no more slaves that could be imported. There was even more pressure on slave owners to force their female slaves to reproduce and rape was one means that they did it. There were other reasons why they raped them, obviously, but this is a socially constructed concept. One drop of black blood makes you black. Same thing with whiteness.
I talk a lot about this in the Racial Muslim, where racism questions religious freedom. I dedicate three chapters to how Jews, Catholics, and Mormons were discriminated against at the turn of the 20th century up, at least looking at the late 1800s all the way up until 1924, when our immigration laws effectively stopped immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, because white Protestant Americans didn’t want any more Jews and they didn’t want any more Catholics, most of whom were Eastern European or Italian. The reason was because they didn’t consider them white. They were white by law because, as compared to Asians, they were still white, but socially they were not treated white, or they weren’t given the full privileges of whiteness, in large part, on account of their religion, not being Protestant, and then to some extent, also, because they were immigrants and had different languages that had different cultures, which were not English, right? So again, whiteness is socially constructed. Blackness is socially constructed. I would recommend all that is to say, I would recommend Derek Bell’s work. There are other authors rather than recommended books. I think I’d rather recommend authors because oftentimes they produce multiple great works. I would recommend Cheryl Harris, her very famous article, Whiteness as Property, is certainly worth the read. She has also written other great pieces, but that affected my scholarship. I would recommend Devon Carbado, he’s written a lot on identity performance, and in fact, his book, Acting White, inspired me to write my article, called Coercive Assimilationism: The Perils of Muslim Women’s Identity Performance in the Workplace, and that really talks about how all of these stereotypes affect how you perform your identity in ways to try to offset those stereotypes. So, for example, Muslim women are often stereotyped as meek and weak and oppressed, not as highly educated as their male partners or their male brothers or family members, and so oftentimes it puts pressure on you to try to prove that you are smart, that you are competent and that you’re not oppressed, and that you are a leader, but then when you do that, you run up against stereotypes of women who are strong and assertive and confident as being bitches, excuse my language, but that is the stereotype. So, what do you do in the workplace when you want to believe that you are not oppressed and they are not meek and you don’t need to be saved, but at the same time, you’re dealing with the stereotype that women who are strong and smart and assertive are not desirable in the workplace. They tend to be punished instead of promoted and that’s the complete opposite of men, and particularly white men, but even non white men. So, Devon Carbado is someone that I would recommend. Khaled Beydoun and I were in the same cohort, we started the academy together, we’re both critical race theorists who look at Muslim Arabs and South Asians, but I would recommend his work as well. He’s done some great stuff on African-American Muslims, Antebellum Islam is a great article that I’ve enjoyed or I’ve benefited greatly from. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who is now the Dean at Boston University Law School. She’s written some very good work, especially on employment discrimination and race. She wrote with Mario Barnes an article on how Muslim names or how names on resumes produced caused people not to get interviewed and there had been a lot of work on African-American sounding names, whatever was stereotypically African-American, like the name Takeesha or Jamal, was presumed by people that that was a black applicant. So, there’ve been studies showing that those people weren’t even getting interviews and so she did a piece about Muslim names and Arab names, which was really beneficial. So I could go on and on, but I would recommend the critical race theorists that published work. Lastly is our social media. Our RUCSRR, we often tweet the work of critical race theorists. So if you follow us, you’ll see many recommendations of critical race theorist work and that’s a great resource.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: No Wonderful. For our audience, we are in the process of getting transcriptions of these podcasts put down and prepared, so we will be sure to link to some of these scholars that you have noted. We are coming to the end of our time, but I wanted to also ask you what have been some gaps in scholarship and what may be some works that have not received the attention that they deserve?
Sahar Aziz: So, one major gap in scholarship has been looking at the intersection of race and religion. Oftentimes, race studies, whether they’re in law or whether they’re in social science or American studies or political science, tend to be in their own silo and their own morals and then religious studies tend to be in their own world. While there is discussion among race studies of those who focus on different racial groups and same with religious studies, those who are focused on different religious groups, you don’t see those two groups coming together frequently enough. When you’re researching Muslims in America, you’re dealing directly with both types of bigotry and you can’t talk about civil rights and Muslims without talking about religious freedom, but you also can’t talk about them or research them without looking at anti-racial racism, right? So, in fact, that’s why I wrote my book. The Racial Muslim is because I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read, so I followed Toni Morrison’s famous advice, which is write the book that you that you want to read when that isn’t there. So, that’s something that I hope there will be more scholarship on. I certainly hope that my book will also help trigger some of those conversations. I think the other gap, which is starting to be filled is the work on African-American Muslims. We have Edward Curtis IV, who has written on it. We have <incomprehensible> who’s an advocate, who’s been doing more advocacy on it. We have scholars like Sherman Jackson and Sylvia Chan-Malik who’s written about African-American Muslims. There’s a growing number of experts, scholars. It’s still not enough, but there is starting to become more scholarship on African-American Muslims and then how that connects, how it’s the same, how it’s different from those who arrived in the US as immigrants or who their parents or grandparents, or great-grandparents arrived as immigrants. The final gap, I think, which has been written about, but I think warrants more attention and maybe revisiting is how Arabs are raised as white. There’s been some great work. So, I wrote on it in my book. Khaled Beydoun has written on in. Ian Haney López wrote a great book, called White by Law, which includes the history of why the Middle Easterners and North Africans are white on the US census, which means we do not get counted in any kind of diversity initiatives or diversity programs. We are on paper treated as if we are from England, or we are from Germany originally, when that is not our experience in the United States.
There needs to be more research on that because there was a effort to change that in the US Census, to make Middle East and North African an ethnic groups, similar to Hispanic, at least for purposes of identifying those people and recognizing that they don’t have the same experiences and that it’s they’re completely then denied any kind of funding or any kind of programmatic work by the US government or universities or any groups that want to look at diversity. So, the more research that can be done about why that’s inaccurate, because, again, race is a social construct. So, we have to ask ourselves, well, what’s the point of having race. At least in my perspective, as long as people are treated differently on account of their race, which they are, then we have to be accurate in identifying those relatively common or different experiences within groups and Middle East and North Africans simply are not treated the same way in society as someone whose origins are German or Swedish or English. That would be kind of the last area. Then finally, which again, which is what the Center works on, the Center for Security, Race, and Rights, is more research on Muslims that’s not through the security lens. Research that humanizes Muslims. There are Muslims are a diverse community, racially, ethnically, socially, from class, from age, and there needs to be more research on the communities through just mundane mental health, marriage, schooling, poverty, things that are not related to– or success, forms of industrial success, science, technology, but things that are not related to security. I will put a plug in for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which I’m a proud fellow of. They’ve been slowly working on that, but again, there needs to be more work and it would be ideal that it’s also from academics, not just from independent institutions or think tanks, but I think we’re headed in the right direction in terms of having more conversations, like what we’re having today, having more books written, having centers like mine being created, and hopefully there’ll be more and there’ll be an expansion of those already existing. Finally, I just hope that those in the audience who are not Muslim or not Arab or not South Asian, that you will take it on yourself to learn, to educate yourself. I think the worst thing you can do is rely on the media, or rely on hearsay or rumors or stereotypes. It is a lot of work, and I say that to myself and to my children about cultures and parts of the world that I am very unfamiliar with. I have to take it on myself to learn. I cannot depend on the US government. I cannot depend on the public education system or the media. That I think is time well spent.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that. I think that perspective was really helpful. Professor Aziz, we are at the end of our time and I want to finish with this question. What are themes that you think will be perhaps more prominent than others in the coming say two decades in the next 10, 20 years? How do you see your field evolving?
Sahar Aziz: I think two main changes I predict. So the first one is that America has made a pivot east and China is going to be the big boogeyman and the US government is going to, just as it did during the cold war vis-a-vis the Soviet union, and just as it did in the 1990s until about now, it made the Middle East and Muslims the boogeyman, now it will be China and people of Chinese origin and people of East Asian origin, because oftentimes Americans do not know or care to know the difference between people whose origins are from Japan or China or Indonesia or the Philippines or the Vietnam or any other of the many Far East countries. That is going to be something that we should get ahead of as critical race theorists, as civil rights scholars, and as social justice scholars, because we already saw, just a little bit of a sneak peek of it, during the COVID virus pandemic and when Donald Trump intentionally called it the Wuhan virus and the Chinese virus, and he was doing that on purpose. As a result, we saw anti-Asian hate crimes rise. So, unfortunately, I think that is on the horizon for the next decade or two and it will be, again, a product of international geopolitics. The second issue that is going to be a real challenge and I don’t think enough people are paying attention to is the competition between minorities for power. Right now, the way in which advocacy and cross racial advocacy has occurred is between various minority communities vis-a-vis a white establishment. That makes sense because factually white communities, writ large, control many aspects of American society, and they are overrepresented in many positions of power and wealth, but as America diversifies, as we have no majority race, and as these efforts to have more racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power, which I support because that’s more representative of society, we will then start having interminority competition in ways that may be quite racist against various groups. We need to be cognizant of that. We need to understand that racism and prejudice is in the air we breathe. We can be prejudiced against people of our own group. We can be self-loathing in ways we don’t even realize we can. I wrote an article called the Alpha Female and the Sinister Seven, excuse me, it’s a book chapter and Presumed Incompetent II, which I highly recommend for female academics because it’s about the challenges that women academics in all fields, not just law, face in the academy, but in that chapter of the Alpha Female and the Sinister Seven, I talk about the typology of the patriarchal female. There are many women who are quite patriarchal and they don’t even realize it, or maybe they do, but as long as they benefit from it, then they will continue to treat other women in ways that perpetuate patriarchy. So, minorities can do that too when the system itself is racist or the system itself is Islamophobic. Just as the government will look for those native informants or will look for those tokens to be the legitimising phase of an otherwise discriminatory system against any group of the token, that phenomenon continues, but I worry it may get worse as we diversify. So, I think that’s another area that warrants more research because we just don’t want to research it as a reaction to a problem. We want to research it in anticipation of that.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Indeed. Indeed. Thank you so, so much for all of this. There were a few additional things that I wanted to talk about, but I think it’s better to leave those for perhaps a future conversation and, also, hopefully a contribution to Maydan from you when the book comes out in November. Professor Aziz, thank you so, so much for this wonderful conversation on law, on security, on 9/11, on Muslim identity. I think we covered such important themes and you’ve been so generous with your time. I really appreciate you joining the Maydan Podcast. Our URL is themaydan.com/podcast, and we hope to talk to you soon again, and we’re really grateful for your scholarship and for all your work and your time for us today.
Sahar Aziz: Thank you so much and I look forward to continuing to support the Mayden Podcast, and I thank your listeners and encourage everyone to pre-order the Racial Muslim today, and please join our newsletter for the Center for Security, Race and Rights. I hope that this is not the last time that you and I engage, inshallah we will continue to enlighten people with knowledge and be truth seekers.
Ahmet Tekelioglu: Inshallah, thank you so much once again, for all of this.