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The Embodiment of Muslim as Terrorist; A Tool of Colonialism

Particularly post 9-11, the Muslim body has been used to represent terrorism and terrorist activity. In Plugging In #3, I will discuss the embodiment of Muslim as Terrorist as a tool of colonialism. I will utilize the concept of defamiliarization via four of Mignolo’s nodes to render the concept of “Muslim body as terrorist body” unfamiliar:

“The concept of defamiliarization (or in Russian, ostraneniye, literally “making strange”) was introduced to literary theory by Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky. According to Shklovsky (1917/1965), over time our perceptions of familiar, everyday situations become stale, blunted, and “automatized.” Shklovsky explains, “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it” (Kaomea, 15).

In my students’ video, two civilians and a policeman automatically see a terrorist when they encounter a Muslim man (played by Rwaha). Their reaction to him is based on his physical appearance, that is, he looks Muslim so he must be a terrorist. This automatized response demonstrates an inability to see a Muslim without forming an association with terrorism. It is essential to interrupt normalized islamophobic discourses in order to begin the process of decolonial thinking.

Mignolo’s work deconstructs the hierarchy of colonialism, exposing how it has been translated into the modernity and rationalism that governs the world today. In his book, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, he states that “decolonial thinking and options (i.e., thinking decolonially) are nothing more than a relentless analytic effort to understand, in order to overcome, the logic of coloniality underneath the rhetoric of modernity, the structure of management and control” (Mignolo, 10).

Mignolo enumerates twelve historico-structural nodes, reminding us that “each node is not a universal instance but that each of them are constantly being articulated through the colonial and imperial difference.” Four of these nodes will be used in this paper to defamiliarize normalized islamophobic ways of thinking and to propose that there are alternate options: “The goal of decolonial options is not to take over, but to make clear, by thinking and doing, that global futures can no longer be thought of as one global future in which only one option is available; after all, when only one option is available, ‘option’ entirely loses its meaning” (Mignolo, 24).

Nodes five and eight outline “a global racial/ ethnic hierarchy that privileged European people over non-European people” and “a spiritual/religious hierarchy that privileged Christian over non-Christian/ non-Western spiritualities… institutionalized in the globalization of the Christian (Catholic and later Protestant) Church” (Mignolo, 18).

This discourse that privileges European Christians is apparent in Rwaha’s answers to the following questions: Why do you say you are German and Muslim instead of saying you are Pakistani-Muslim when you are asked about your cultural identity?

“I want to show people an alternative that they would not consider- there are many Muslim-Germans but no one seems to know this. It’s not that I am not proud of being Pakistani.”

You said the word alternative; why don't people expect German Muslims?

“The Media only shows Arabs as being Muslims. Being European is not associated with being Muslim.”

Rwaha also said that being German is an “outstanding feature that sets him apart” and gives other people a “positive impression.” This portrays that he is aware of colonial thinking that constitutes being German (European) as positive and being Pakistani- Muslim (non-European and non-Christian) as negative.

When asked why his parents left Germany, Rwaha says they were the “targets of racism and wanted a better future for their kids.” He also mentioned that his dad does not talk about or remember Germany (as a result of the discrimination he faced). By saying that he is German Muslim, Rwaha attempts to challenge the assertion that Muslims cannot be from Europe and only come from Asia.

In his article Whiteness: Naivety, Void & Control, Anderson states that “Darwin and other evolutionary theorists played an indirect but nonetheless highly significant role in the tainting of European accounts of Máori… as members of an unenlightened culture” as “logically, inherently more “physical,” ruled by their passions, and less intelligent than their civilised brethren.” This “Máori savagery was transcribed into physical terms and, thus, Máori physical expressions were, at times, attributed to the ignoble and abhorrent savage within” (Anderson, 46).

Islamophobic discourses that deem Muslims as terrorists also equate Muslims to savages. When asked “what do people think terrorists look like?” Rwaha quickly responded “loose pants, a scarf covering the head and face, except for the eyes, holding a gun, an AK 47, dark skinned…” Jasbir Puar, in her text Terrorist Assemblages, 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).

Mignolo’s eleventh node discusses “a linguistic hierarchy between European languages and non-European languages” that “privileged communication and knowledge/theoretical production in the former and subalternalized the latter as sole producers of folklore or culture but not of knowledge/theory” (Mignolo, 19).

He claims that “Eurocentrism is a question not of geography but of epistemology,” pointing out the following:

“Western knowledge is founded in two classic languages (Greek and Latin) and unfolded in the six modern/colonial and imperial European languages; Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese (the vernacular languages of the Renaissace and early foundation of modernity/ coloniality) and French, German, and English (the three vernacular languages that have dominated fro the enlightenment to this day). Eurocentrism (as imperial knowledge whose point of origin was Europe) could be found and reproduced in the colonies and ex-colonies, as well as in locals that have not been directly colonized (routes of dispersion)” (Mignolo, 19).

“The linguistic hierarchy in which Eurocentrism has been founded – which leaves out of the game Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Urdu… and so on – controls knowledge not only through the domination of languages themselves, but through the categories on which thought is based” (Mignolo, 20). The modern and rationalized thought that resulted from the enlightenment relates (being) black or dark to bad luck (black cat), sickness (black plague), ignorance (darkness to light), depression (shadow), evil (black magic), and illegality (black market) while (being) white or light is related to cleanliness (sparkling white), enlightenment (darkness to light), purity/ chastity (Dian the pale moon as representative of chastity) and goodness (snow white). In these terms, it is easy to equate dark skin to evil and light skin to being good. This thinking is perpetrated through the use of colonizer languages “maintaining the logic of coloniality.” Though “the context and the content changes...the logic remains” (Mignolo, 19).

Colonial logic is responsible for “bodies [being] squeezed between imperial languages …and categories of thought, negated by and expelled from the house of imperial knowledge” (Mignolo, 20). This is reflected in Rwaha’s 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.” When asked “what do people think of when they think of Muslim women?,” he replied “abused women, raped and covered in burka” before questioning this notion by mentioning Malala Yousafzai.

Jasbir Puar’s text, Terrorist Assemblages, reinforces 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 based on colonial thought that groups all non-European, non-Christians together, associating, interchanging, mistaking and attacking one as the other.

I asked Rwaha if the concept of Muslim as terrorist could be compared to the process of colonialism. He alluded to the use of language as a tool of colonialism by saying “first nations children were punished if they spoke their mother tongues at residential schools.” Language is a window to culture and colonizers’ banning of mother tongue is a strategy to disconnect the colonized from their culture. In his article… Anderson states “the first principle of colonising the indigenous mind, was to bring the philosophical underpinnings of the savage under the logic of the coloniser.” (Anderson, 45). Arabic has become the sound of the savage/ terrorist. Today, Muslim names are enough to make border patrollers target their owners.

Mignolo’s final node speaks of “a particular conception of the ‘modern subject,’ an idea of man, introduced in the European Renaissance, [that] became the model for the human and for humanity and the point of reference for racial classification and global racism” (Mignolo, 19).

In her article Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities, Kaomea shows how the Hawaian kupuna is reduced to a hired hand instead of being seen as bearer of cultural knowledge and Hawaian language: “kupuna is reduced (in both real life occupational circumstances and in the children’s drawings) to little more than a hired hand; one who is valued not for one’s na‘auao and ‘ike (ancestral wisdom and experience), but for a willingness to serve and assist in the implementation of a pre-scripted and restrictive curriculum that emphasizes benign lessons in Hawaiian arts, crafts, and music” (Kaomea, 22).

The notion of (dis)embodiment is also applied here: “As this study of absences and erasures suggests, we have before us a program in which many respected Hawaiian ku ̄puna are treated as hired hands, alienated from their work, and virtually disembodied. Within Hawai‘i’s elementary schools these ku ̄ puna are of abject status as they are simultaneously there and not there; subject, yet not subject; respected in title, but not treated with respect (Kaomea, 23).

Likewise, Gayatri Spivak (1988) points out that, “when marginalized individuals do speak, members of the dominant society are not always adept at hearing them” (Kaomea 15). In the video, Rwaha plays the role of a tabligh, a Muslim educator who is revered as someone who possesses knowledge in his community. However, the policeman does not really hear him when he explains that he is not a terrorist and still insists on finding out where the bombs are.

“Demystifying the objective world was a basic tenet of enlightenment rationalism that had to be upheld. Thus, the enlightenment project, as a universalising grand narrative, could not afford not to comprehend the incomprehensible. Enlightenment colonisers had to translate indigenous epistemologies (that is to say, the incomprehensible) into western ways of understanding the world (that is to say, the comprehensible), or the project would be incomplete. Crucially, this translation involved a process of authentication. Quite simply, what was easily translatable (and thus “authentic”) had some form of comparability in the western world, and/or aligned with enlightenment notions ... [while] other epistemological constructions (the totally incomprehensible) were obscured and/or discarded” (Anderson, 45). Because the concept of Muslim as terrorist aligns with Western notions of what a terrorist should be and enables (North) Americans to have a scapegoat as revenge for 9-11, Muslim as terrorist appears to be an authentic representation of Muslims and has become familiar, eliciting automatized and violent responses from those who buy in to islamophobic discourses while the concept of Muslim as just another human being is obscured and discarded.

Works Consulted/ Cited

Chris Anderson & Brenda Hokowhitu (2007). Whiteness: Naivety, Void & Control. Junctures, 8, 39-49.

Decolonial Voice Lending. Interview with Dr. Walter Mignolo by Rod Sachs.

Kaomea, Julie. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher, 32(2), 14-25.

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

Walter Mignolo. (2011). The darker side of Western modernity. Ch 2 Introduction. Duke University Press.

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