Orientalism, the ancient brand of hate behind today’s anti-Muslim attitudes, explained.
by Jenée Desmond-Harris
“When you’re Arab and Muslim, the categories can get conflated,” said Maytha Alhassen, a doctoral candidate in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California who has family roots in Syria and Lebanon. “When I’ve spoken to media, there’s been a distinct interest in looking at Islam as ‘those brown people from over there.’”
She said the many stories of Sikhs — who practice a religion totally separate from Islam — targeted in anti-Muslim attacks seem to provide an additional indication that this brand of hate is not as focused on an understanding of Islam as a religion. Instead, these actions are carried out against those who are perceived as culturally and ethnically “other.”
Alhassen said she’s not even a fan of the term “Islamophobia,” in part because the “neurolinguistic programming” that comes from putting together “Islam” and “phobia,” is part of how people try to defend their sentiments about people who practice Islamic traditions. “Anti-Muslim hate,” and “anti-Muslim rhetoric” are better. But, she said, “I like to be specific ... if we’re talking about that ‘brown other’ that also could be Muslim, I use ‘Orientalist.’”
She said she’d use that term in particular to describe the sentiments in Trump’s executive order, including references to keeping out people who commit “honor killings” or persecute individuals based on sexual orientation and gender. These stereotypes are what she calls “classic Orientalist tropes.”
Alhassen has researched how people from the Middle East and North Africa ended up under the “white” category in the first place. Long story short: The 1790 Naturalization Act gave naturalization to free whites. So the way people argued for citizenship or eligibility for citizenship was to prove their whiteness. Some cases went all the way up to the Supreme Court and set the standard. One argument — known as the “cradle of civilization” argument — was that people who came from the region where Christianity and Western civilization originated should be deemed white. It worked.
But Alhassen has also been involved with a movement to change this categorization. As a result of this movement, the Census Bureau is currently taking into consideration the views of people of Middle Eastern and North African descent who have told the Census Bureau they don't want to be categorized as "white" any longer.
Why don’t they? Because it doesn’t describe their experience. “Federally, we are white, but when you’re from the Middle East and North Africa, one of the few times you realize that is when you’re filling out these fed forms applying for schools. I don’t have the social protection of being white,” Alhassen explained.
It's unclear whether the Census Bureau will get behind these changes and, if so, whether the Office of Management and Budget will approve them in time for the 2020 Census. But if the change takes effect, plenty of people who are considered white right now won't be in three years.
That, according to Alhassen, would make sense because “these communities do not feel like they’re white.” And the perception of experiencing racism — both in individual anti-Muslim attacks and now, in the policies of an administration with close ties to white nationalism — is a big part of that.