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Performativity and the Construction of the Muslim Terrorist

Valerie Hey speaks about Judith Butler’s “ideoscape of perfomativity” as “the paradox of identity as apparently fixed but inherently unstable, revealing (gender) norms requiring continual maintenance. Performativity is her [Butler’s] way of thinking about the complex contradiction of an apparent fixed identity. She argues that this fiction is produced by compulsive repetition. This is central to Butler’s idea of how power works gender” (440, Hey).

Jackson and Mazzei’s “Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research” states “Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is central to all of her work that seeks to undo normative categories that place rigid structures on how people live out their lives” (p.72). In plugging in #2, I will apply Butler’s theory of performativity to the creation and repetition of the islamophobic notion of “Muslim as terrorist,” a fiction that appearing to be a fixed identity, renders Muslims powerless, the scapegoat of a paranoid, post 9-11 (North) America.

The Webster Dictionary (1913) defines terrorist as:

  1. One who governs by terrorism or intimidation; specifically, an agent or partisan of the revolutionary tribunal during the Reign of Terror in France.

  2. One who commits terrorism

The modern Wordnet dictionary, found online, defines terrorists as:

  1. A radical who employs terror as a political weapon, usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorists activities.

  2. Characteristic of someone who employs terrorism (especially as a political weapon); terrorist activity, terrorist state

The Webster Dictionary’s definition of terrorist alludes to the Reign of Terror in France. The concept of someone who is radicalized, using religion as a cover for terrorist activity, is not even mentioned in the Webster Dictionary simply because this concept did not exist. Neither definition equates being Muslim to being a terrorist.

However, when asked “why did your group choose islamophobia?” my student, Rwaha, said “we chose islamophobia to show how islamophobic people are in general.”

Butler describes doing gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (p.572, M&M). Likewise, islamophobic discourses that deem Muslims as terrorists rely on repeated oriental stylization of the terrorist body, which leads to mistaken identities and racial profiling. These concepts will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

In response to the question “what do people think when they hear the word terrorist?” Rwaha answered “maybe people think he is Muslim, Indian- because some people attacked Gurudwaras thinking Sihks are Muslims after 9-11- Asian, yeah, South Asian.”

Rwaha’s answer represents a definition of terrorist that, much like a speech act, is spoken into reality. By force of repetition, the idea of Muslim as terrorist works on the imagination becoming a genuine fear, a reality for paranoid, post 9-11 minds.

Rwaha uses the subject pronoun “he” when referring to terrorists which prompted the next question: “What do people think when they hear the words Muslim woman?”

“Abused women, raped and covered in burka…. but Malala Yousafzai, well she almost got killed so she was kind of abused, but she’s Muslim and female and, you know, strong,” he replied.

In Jasbir Puar’s text, Terrorist Assemblages, these notions of Muslims/ South Asians as terrorists and Muslim women as weak/helpless surface: “the Muslim terrorist, the turbaned Sikh man so often mistaken for him, and the woman in hijab who must be rescued from them” (p.173). This mistaken identity of Sikh man as Muslim has serious consequences for Sikhs who are perceived as Muslim terrorists which is already a misconception. Puar points out that the, “assaults of turbaned men continue to escalate… involv[ing] not only verbal commands to de- turban—‘‘Hey you fucking terrorist, take that turban off!’’—but also the grabbing, unraveling, or knocking” (p.179) off of the turban which Sikhs wear as a part of their religion, a religion that forbids them to expose their hair in public. This attack on Sikh men leaves them shamed and insulted.

When asked “what do people think terrorists look like?” Rwaha quickly responds “loose pants, a scarf covering the head and face, except for the eyes, holding a gun, an AK 47, dark skinned…”

Puar discusses the racist practice of the racial profiling of people who “look like” terrorists: “despite reports that terrorist circles are recruiting non-Arabs and non–South Asians who can pass and thus carry out attacks, racial profiling continues to be an important security measure” (p.156).

She interrupts the repetition of Muslim as terrorist with the following example of terrorism in North America:

“…as a gay man, I’m growing accustomed to living in a terrorist state right here at home. Our community has had its meeting places stoned, bombed, and burned; our gay brothers and lesbian sisters have been targeted for brutal beatings; verbal harassment in the form of anti-gay slurs and slogans is on the rise in America once again. Terrorism Nothing New to Us’’ (p. 244).

While many may not view homophobic actions as acts of terrorism, these acts do terrorize members of the LGBTQI community.

When asked why the policeman in the video automatically searches for bombs when he spots a Muslim man that he perceives as a terrorist, Rwaha says “the news talks about ‘bomb this, bomb that,’ one of the biggest concerns post 9-11. Before it was guns and bullets, now it’s bombing places.”

Puar speaks of how we “approach suicide bombing with such trepidation, in contrast to how we approach the violence of colonial domination (p. 216),” the effects of which are still strongly felt and which present themselves in the portrayal of terrorist as dark-skinned. During the 2009 American Presidential Elections, a woman called Obama an Arab at a McCain rally. McCain’s response was “no, he is a decent, family man.” While many people commended McCain’s efforts to defend his opponent, I notice that his comment defined Arabs as indecent men who are not family men, akin to the concept of “Muslim as terrorist.”

This calls to mind Puar’s statement:

‘‘The terrorist imagination (without our knowing it) dwells within us all. In ‘The Mind of Terrorism,’ Jean Baudrillard writes: In the end, it was they who did it but we who wished it. If we do not take this fact into account, the event loses all symbolic dimension; it becomes a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics we need only repress. But we know well that such is not the case (p.61).”

Our complicity with the notion on Muslim as terrorist constitutes it. Although “there only appears to be the subject who is ‘doing,’” something Butler calls “the ‘subject effect’ of discourse” she maintains that “subjects are not simply ‘there’ (e.g., from birth) but ‘effected’ in various ways as they are instituted into specific contexts at specific times. Subjects are the effects rather than the causes of discourses. Hence gender is not fashioned by the subject, but rather shapes the subject” (p.568, M&M). The radicalized North American is a classic example of the subject effect; his notion of terrorist is not self-fashioned yet it strongly shapes him as he converts to Islam and carries out a “terrorist-like” attack, both effects of the illusion of Muslim as terrorist.

Jasbir Puar aptly states that while “the ‘terrorist mindset’ is thus qualified by two standard theories: the terrorist as mentally ill, or the terrorist as fanatic...Terrorist psychologists have developed certain models… Eric Shaw’s personal pathway model declares, ‘The underlying need to belong to a terrorist group is symptomatic of an in- complete or fragmented psychosocial identity” (p.54). This perfectly sums up the psychosocial fragility of the radicalized North Americans who are responsible for the recent tragedies in Quebec and Ottawa.

Chinn speaks of the humiliating effects of misperforming gender saying that “being on the receiving end of that judgment of travesty whether on purpose in a conscious mockery or by mistake can be humiliating” (p.21, Chinn). However, when Malala Yousafzai and my student Rwaha resignify “Muslim as terrorist,” they create a gap in the discourse of islamophobia enabling alternate perceptions of Muslims.

Malala Yousafzai’s resignification of the stereotypical helpless Muslim woman disrupts and questions the validity of this concept, creating a gap that suggests an alternate perception of Muslim women and children.

When asked about his role in the video Rwaha explained the concept of a Tabligh: “I am a Tabligh, a preacher, someone who educates others about Islam. For example, my community, Ahmadi, has sessions to educate people, like we had one at Roy Thompson Hall the other day about Terrorism. A tabligh would lead these discussions.” By taking on the role of the Tabligh, Rwaha resignifies “Muslim as terrorist.” As a Muslim educator, he creates a gap in islamophobic discourse questioning the islamophobic notion of “Muslim as terrorist.”

Works Cited

Chinn, S. (2010). Performative identities: From identity politics to queer theory. In M. Wetherell, & C. Mohanty (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of identities. (pp. 104-125). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi:

Hey, Valerie. (2006). The politics of performative resignification: Translating Judith Butler’s theoretical discourse and its potential for a sociology of education. British Journal of Sociology of Eduction, 27(4), 439-457.

Morison & Macleod. (2013). A performative-performance analytical approach: Infusing Butlerian theory into the narrative-discursive method. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(8), 566-577.

Puar, J. K. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Youngblood Jackson & Mazzei (2012). Ch 5 Butler: Thinking with performativity

Obama Arab (McCain Rally)

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