Authority, Community & Identity article

Two American Fears: Islamophobia and Homophobia


We live under the haunting shadows of the twin towers. The tragedy of 9/11 thrust American Muslims into precarious corners. We have become homeland pariahs, bodies suspended between national belonging and national alienation. The regime of race has expanded—racialization now admits religion, and Islam is first in line. Traps for self-inflicting cultural containment are set throughout the murky terrain of terror.

In this historical moment, Muslims can easily feel that they are in but not of this country, and that they must forfeit their agency for participating in the elaboration of national culture and politics. Yet, countless Muslims do not give in to the temptation of self-victimization and self-ghettoization.

Many American Muslims imagine and aspire to inhabit a democratic America-in-the-making. For America is not some static automaton uttering inhospitable remarks or some solitary castle with jingoistic graffiti on its walls. America is a dream, a reality-to-come, a standing reserve of cultural difference. America is not a finished product to be consumed, but a land to be cultivated with care and caution.

To state these idealist hopes does not imply that the rampant Islamophobia in many echelons of our country does not trouble me. Neither does it imply that the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and practices of some of my coreligionists leave me uninjured. This historical moment presents both difficulties and opportunities for analyzing the intersections of Islamophobia and homophobia. By historicizing the emergence of each distinct dynamic, we gain analytical clarity about the complex negotiations of identity, which is never static but always becoming.

At the outset, some insiders might insist that conversations about some Muslims’ homophobia need to take place within the Muslim community, and that we not air our dirty laundry in public. I am troubled by such demands, for they assume some sort of concealed communal space available and accessible to American Muslims writ large. The people who make these demands probably have in mind certain mosques or certain Islamic organizations. For better or worse, no mosque and no organization represent all Muslims.

It is important to acknowledge that with Islamophobia and homophobia we are dealing with two different but related historical beasts. While religious and sexual identities take root in institutional settings quite different from each other, the hatred directed at these identities stems from contrasting yet connected pathologies. This is the case because both Islamophobia and homophobia are forms of discrimination against a person’s interiority, or, as Foucault would have it, “the truth of the subject.” Let me explain this point by recourse to critical race theory and queer theory.

In a compelling account of the modern regime of race, critical race theorist Leerom Medovoi historicizes the link between two types of racisms: color-line (racism based on the color of one’s fleshed body) and dogma-line (racism based on the dogma in one’s soul). He connects these two sides of racism, which target black and Jewish and Muslim bodies, to one of the defining marks of modernity itself, namely, the Cartesian body-mind split. He notes how “these two axes of race have not operated separately upon mutually exclusive populations but rather propped one another up and comingled in complex ways” (“Dogma-Line Racism: Islamophobia and the Second Axis of Race”). Jews and Muslims have been subjected to racist discrimination based on the perception of falsehood in their inner selves. Now let us briefly turn to the exclusionary and discriminatory logic that structures homophobia. In a brilliant reading of Freud, Judith Butler argues that modern heterosexuality emerges only in and through a system of prohibitions and renunciations, including the renunciation of one’s homosexual attachments. When expressed as a form of renouncing one’s same-sex attraction, homophobia becomes a “vehicle of satisfaction” (The Psychic Life of Power). In this account, homophobia results out of the internal suppression of a subjective truth prohibited by heteronormative social norms.

These two theories identify interiority as the theater on which Islamophobia and homophobia play their parts. Medovoi and Butler illustrate how Islamophobia and homophobia, respectively, have been constructed as “maladies of the soul.” Because these twin arguments are based on productive speculation, they might not persuade everyone. Yet, seen from the angle of the reigning politics of exclusion and discrimination in this country, the solidarity between persons targeted by Islamophobia and homophobia appears as a highly desired political strategy, if not a necessity, for those who believe in and struggle for social justice.

It is worth pursuing if Islamophobia and homophobia stem from some sort of basic negative evaluation or myopic attitude toward difference, be it religious or affective, doctrinal or sexual. If so, then what social arrangements sustain this attitude? In other words, what is the relationship between these two fears and certain social arrangements, such as religious exceptionalism, gender segregation, homosociality, and heteronormativity? When I hear homophobic comments from my coreligionists, I think of the aforementioned modes of socialization as enabling their homophobia. I also think that some Muslims have fallen prey to the dominant narratives of heteronormativity in this country. By excluding sexual minorities, some of my coreligionists aim to shore up their own position within the realm of heteronormative American citizenship. This context probably serves as the immediate domain of intelligibility in which some American Muslims invoke and extend condemnations of same-sex acts mentioned in certain classical Muslim texts.

Now let me address the politics of critique with reference to Islamophobia and homophobia. It is problematic to assume that every critical posture toward Islam and Muslims is Islamophobic. Likewise, it is equally troubling to assume that every critical analysis of same-sex identity amounts to homophobia. But who gets to judge between sincere critical inquiry and bigoted criticism? How is it that the mainstreaming of heterosexuality falls outside our critical purview? How is it that our country’s complicity in creating the terror we are fighting escapes our critical gaze? Moreover, is hateful speech about Islam or Muslims only Islamophobic when uttered by non-Muslims? Likewise, is injurious language about same-sex identity only homophobic when uttered by heterosexuals? How might we go about cultivating compassionate-yet-critical engagements with Islam and queerness? In sum, we would do a disservice to our analysis of these complex social forces if we were to act as the phobia police whenever “Islam” and “same-sex intimacy” were critically and historically examined. At the same time, we would also do a disservice to social justice if we were to tolerate or ignore injurious words and actions dressed in the garb of criticality.

In conclusion, I’d like to argue for the political purchase of a historicist understanding of religious identity and sexual orientation, both of which name complex zones of human experience and interaction. Historicist accounts of religion and sexuality are enabling and productive, for they posit religious traditions and sexual lives as changing, and changeable, constructs. If humans made these things, then humans can also un-make or re-make them. Let me explain these points in brief detail. First, religious identity is not reducible to things such as profession of faith or experience of the transcendent. To reduce it to any such variable enacts epistemic and representational violence on those “religious” phenomena that a particular supposed essence of religious identity excludes from admission into the category. Thus there is no generic “religious identity,” as religious self-identification is not only subjective but also takes place in highly variegated communal contexts. Second, and likewise, giving any essential content to “sexuality” severely limits its endless possibilities. The terms, “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity,” are undoubtedly recent inventions, even though the idea they refer to seems to be timeless. Its seeming timelessness, however, does not imply that it exists outside of history. It only means that despite its historicity, many people experience it as inner, timeless truth. To historicize this concentration of truth in sexuality is not to negate its worthiness to structure a form of life, but only to provincialize it as one among many forms of expressing the libidinal. Thus, seeing religion and sexuality as mobile and organic processes renders them hospitable and welcoming. Can we not inhabit religious and sexual orientations as open forms of identification, at once game for being and becoming?


Ali Altaf Mian
Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University. His fields of research include South Asian Islam, the history of Muslim legal thought and practice, gender and sexuality in contemporary Islam, Sufism and comparative mysticism, continental philosophy, comparative religion, and theory and method in the study of religion.

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