Several months ago, I was approached by a group of Muslim undergraduates from Stanford University’s Markaz Center, a secular student resource center devoted to supporting Muslim students and their social and intellectual needs. These students were responsible for coordinating what they call Chai Chats, a series of discussions intended to engage “with the big questions that matter in conversations beyond the classroom.” Previous topics included homosexuality in Muslim American communities, climate change, and the refugee crisis; but, these students were most excited for me to facilitate a conversation about racism and colorism in Muslim American communities.
In a diverse space where Muslims of all backgrounds—from African-American to East Asian—interacted with each other, these students were interested in breaking down the supremacy of Arab and Middle Eastern narratives and allowing their own voices to resonate. I began the conversation with the stories of two Muslim immigrants, Mohamed Mohriez and Ahmed Hassan. Comparative literature scholar Moustafa Bayoumi recently illuminated these stories in his theorization of the methods by which Islam has become a racial category. I used the methods that Bayoumi theorizes during that discussion, and continue to use them here, as evidence of a long history of intra-religious color discrimination and racial hierarchy within the Muslim American community.
In late 1942, Ahmed Hassan appeared in front of a U.S. District Court judge in Michigan with one goal: to convince the court to allow him to naturalize as a United States citizen. The district court, and the lower courts before it, had noted that Hassan was Yemeni, Muslim, and “undisputedly dark brown in color.” But despite the phenotypic suggestion that Hassan was in fact, Black, he had come to the court that day to prove the contrary—that he was white—and therefore, should be granted the rights and privileges of a white person in the United States of America. That included the right to become a United States citizen. However, the presiding judge disagreed. He pointed to Hassan’s dark skin and Muslim religion as a bar to citizenship, arguing that a “wide gulf separates [Muslim] culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe.” Ultimately, the judge decided that Hassan wasn’t eligible for citizenship because as a dark-skinned Muslim, he was not and could not become white.
Hassan’s failure at the district court level, however, did not discourage other Muslims from attempting to claim whiteness. Two years later, a Muslim from “Arabia” named Mohamed Mohriez petitioned for naturalization. The judge in this case, citing the necessity of “friendly foreign relations” and fulfilling the optic that the United States treated all men equally, decided that Mohriez was white. Citing the historical cultural achievements of Arabs and Muslims to math, science and medicine, the judge granted Mohriez’s petition.
In these World War II era naturalization cases, we notice two things about the intersection between race, color, ethnicity, and religion. First, the petitioners take advantage of geography, history, and cultural analogies to argue that they belong to a specific racial category–that of whiteness, irrespective of skin tone or color. At first glance this could sound more inclusive and egalitarian—Muslims of all hues from dark to light should qualify for American citizenship. But if we examine these claims, the refusal of these petitioners to associate with Black Americans and Africans is insidious. What this ignores is the existence of a longstanding discussion of color and hue and a hierarchy attached to color throughout the Arab and Muslim world including, and perhaps especially, in the United States.
There has been a long-standing investment among both practitioners and scholars to ignore discrimination when it is perpetuated on Muslims by Muslims. In his Study of History, originally published in 1939, historian Arnold Toynbee writes: “White Muslims, whether brunette or blondes, have always been free from colour prejudice vis-à-vis the non-White races; and, at the present day, Muslims still make that dichotomy of the human. They divide Mankind into Believers and Unbelievers . . . and this division cuts across every difference in Physical Race.”
Thirty years later in the recollections that would become his Autobiography (1965), Malcolm X spoke of his experience as a practitioner of Islam in Mecca after his excommunication from the Nation of Islam. In direct response to the constant subjugation of Black people in America, the Nation of Islam taught that Islam was not only the original religion of the Black man, but also that the white man was the devil—an unnatural, and ungodly man-made abomination. In his autobiography, Malcolm reflects on a belief system he inculcated from the Nation and his experience on hajj when he reports:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.
Malcolm thus suggests a lack of color-hierarchy and the existence of color blindness among Muslims. As a strict theological statement, both Toynbee and Malcolm’s assertions of a lack of color prejudice bear some truth. The Qur’an only addresses the issue of color and righteousness in two places, but definitively states that the most critical factor is religious piety.
In an ideal world ruled purely by doctrine rather than influenced by human behavior, Toynbee and Malcolm’s observations would be true. In reality, however, the way that Muslims act and react to their historical realities and to the presence of diversity in their communities is different. From the presence of Ethiopian slaves during the Golden Age of Islam to current reactions to West African refugees flooding Libya en route to what they perceive to be better lives in Europe, Muslim societies are far from insulated from global relations and racial hierarchies. Some Muslims both passively and actively participate in molding these hierarchies.
But what cannot be discounted is that in becoming American, immigrants like Hassan and Mohriez disassociated themselves from both Africans and African-Americans and by extension from the category of Blackness. Take the case of Hassan, who the courts had established was phenotypically Black. Hassan did not need to make the logical leap that he was white. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had been amended in 1870 to allow citizenship to immigrants of African descent, and so both white and Black applicants were technically eligible for citizenship. Immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, however, fell into an ambiguous legal category belonging to the “Orient.” Thus these immigrants needed to argue that they were either white or Black to gain permission to naturalize.
Yet we do not see any cases in which there is an immigrant who spends his time, money, and resources to argue that he is Black even, as in the case of Hassan, when it would have been an easier burden. These petitioners would rather make complex and sometimes contradictory legal arguments to argue for whiteness. As a matter of practicality, however, who could blame these petitioners for attempting to position themselves with every advantage possible? If immigrants did not know about the position of African-Americans before immigrating to the United States, they certainly made these observations once they were in the country. As historian Kambiz GhaneaBassiri observes, ethnographic surveys of Arab and South Asian Muslim immigrants and their descendants demonstrate that Muslim immigrants have had an investment in keeping a healthy distance from African-American communities. These immigrants were, and are, in one sense reacting to their new society and the position occupied by native-born people of African descent at the bottom. In doing so, they express social and emotional baggage handed to them as subjects of European imperialism that had instilled particular standards of culture, beauty, virtue, and conduct.
Scholars of Islam and race in America have noted and problematized the existence of these historical color and racial hierarchies and divisions between practitioners within Islam. But this has done little to change the way that young Muslim Americans experience race and religious belonging in the United States. It is my profound hope that we will have frank conversations about race and religious belonging–especially in the communities where they will make the biggest impact.