Just before 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 5, 2017, around the time of dawn prayer, an explosive device blew a hole through a wall of the Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. Thankfully, the bomb caused only material damage to the building. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton declared the incident a “criminal act of terrorism.”
Four days later, Sebastian Gorka, then deputy assistant to President Trump, was asked in an MSNBC interview why the White House had not yet issued a statement regarding the attack. Gorka replied, “We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months that turned out to actually have been propagated by the Left.” He went on to claim that a number of similarly “fake hate crimes” had been perpetuated in recent months. The interview proved only a prelude to the president’s defense of hundreds of armed white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans.
This emboldened white nationalist movement and its concomitant marginalization of religious and racial minorities now dominates both my scholarly and private life. “This is a moment for action and activism,” I tell myself. Some days, I concur with voices proclaiming that empirical research itself is an act of political resistance. Mostly I fear that today’s xenophobia reflects a much harder truth. When I hear, “Is this all there is?” I think not of society’s failings but of my profession’s inability to substantively intervene in this moment of crisis. The academy’s attempts to improve public discourse are flailing. I tell my students, “Words have meaning. Language is power.” But is scholarly language really powerful?
As Kelly J. Baker, Nicole Hemmer, and others have recently reminded us, white nationalism is actually a hallmark of American history. The racialization of religion, so eloquently described in the ethnography of Junaid Rana and elaborated upon by Sylvester Johnson, refers to the ways in which Muslims are assigned inherent characteristics on account of their religious identity and thereby excluded from citizenship. Racialization, as Johnson shows, is not a new practice, but rather a colonial project intrinsic to American democracy, with the result that American Muslims (along with other religious and racial minorities, namely African Americans) are “incapable of truly belonging to the state.”
Whether we are still tacitly complicit in the colonial enterprise or our narrative categories have bound us within our own discursive cage, it feels like the evidence is in: scholarly discourse does little to shift the ideologies we write about. Beyond calls for more of us to become public intellectuals, what can we do to shift public opinion on issues like nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia?
I come to this question by way of my research on contemporary Islam in the United States. In her recent book, Islam: An American Religion, the subject of a recent Immanent Frame book forum, Nadia Marzouki argues that the intensification of anti-Muslim sentiment in the mid-aughts is linked to the liberal-secular pedagogical focus on “explaining a community—reduced to an ensemble of codes.” The problem, Marzouki persuasively explains, is that efforts to educate Americans about Islam are based on a misplaced expectation that public debate ought to yield consensus and conformity. In her reading, liberal secularists are just as culpable of reifying Islam as their anti-Muslim adversaries. Put another way, the presumption of moral superiority upon which the pedagogical project proceeds has actually helped to bring about its demise.
Of course, the demand for education about Islam most often comes from audiences who are receptive to the liberal-secular project. Indeed, I suspect that the very invitation for pedagogy concerning Muslims ultimately derives from our nation’s white liberal Protestant desire for comfort. It is this nation’s elite that most yearns for reassuring evidence of the compatibility of Islam with late democratic capitalism. What’s more, expectations of consensus and conformity produce additional pressures for American Muslims, as Wajahat Ali pondered in his New York Times op-ed “Do Muslims Have to Be Democrats Now?”
For scholars of Islam, the years immediately following 9/11 brought about an exponential increase in public interest, funding, and jobs. Like many scholars, I jumped at opportunities to educate the American public about Islam. By the eve of Barack Obama’s election, it felt like academic work was becoming part of a movement. And yet, over the past ten years, public perceptions of Islam actually declined. A 2017 Pew study reports that Muslims have now fallen behind atheists as the least-favored religious group in the United States. The era of Obama proved to be a very painful time for many American Muslims. Was that a paradox? Perhaps it was not.
Until quite recently, I thought that the real challenge for scholars was to research in ways more attuned to the everyday realities of Muslim communities, past and present. I felt strongly that improving public discourse required anthropology rather than apologetics, scholarship that was empathetic but critical, historically and ethnographically situated rather than summative. I focused most of my fieldwork in Chicago on the materiality of family life, the lived experiences of marginalization, and the dualities of embracing consumer culture. Many other scholars of Islam are conducting even more compelling research projects, many of us unified not by methodology but by the shared goal of engaging in critical and unapologetic public pedagogy. Until now, I never questioned the underlying presumption that our research, collectively, could yield positive social and political reforms, even if those might take decades to unfold.
My methodological approach mirrors broader shifts in the study of religion and secularism, particularly the turn toward “immanence.” Contrary to the popular fallacy that Muslims are bound to the dictates of their faith in a way that, say, Christians and Jews are not, many, though certainly not all, Muslims I work with often speak about doubting the existence of God. They robustly critique traditionalism and conformity. They are enthusiastic participants in American capitalism. A reassuring banality lies behind my finding that American Muslims make meaning from even the rawest materials of consumer culture.
Immanence, in other words, profoundly shapes my research paradigm, and it reappears in mirrored but nonreflective ways in the resultant data and conclusions from my research. That is, as a way of describing the modern condition, it has helped to open up the very conceptual and methodological terrain upon which ethnographers such as myself proceed, seeking access to potentialities and contradictions of social reality. It turns out that religion is everywhere, even as faith is being constantly challenged. Religion permeates and persists, even as some of my ethnographic conversation partners cordon off religion, protecting it as distinct from other spheres such as “culture” or “politics.” I say this with gratitude and admiration, and most of all with wonder. Immanence has deepened my commitment to the principles of lived religion. Theories of immanence have helped me illuminate what Muslims consume and how they consume it; the nature of the power of Islamic authority in the United States; the relationships within Muslim families and between their social and religious communities; and the innumerable mundane interactions through which American Muslims construct meaningful, often politically relevant theologies as they go about their everyday lives.
At the same time, immanence occasionally gives me pause, even more so in our current climate of nativism, anti-intellectualism, and the seemingly arbitrary exercise of state power. What is the relationship between the turn toward immanence and my incapacity to nudge the normative terms of collective discourse? I want to suggest there is a gap between the stories that scholars have told about contemporary lives and the stories that seem to be unfolding now.
To bridge this gap, we need more than just explanations that satisfy the terms of academic conversations. For all my attention to fluid subjectivities, I simply cannot ignore that religious designations matter all the more today—specifically religious identities within human bodies. Within human flesh. These everyday practices are still embodied, still emanate from and through bodies, and “religion”—a sometimes fixed and involuntary demarcation—is increasingly the basis for physical exclusion and violence. Prayer groups executed at point blank. Car hoods smeared with human flesh. Streets lined with broken bodies. Bombs detonated just minutes before dawn prayer. It is relatively easy for me to understand such violence within the frameworks of critical theory that line the bookshelves of my office. Can I also accept my role in enabling, if not producing, these traumas by obviating the practices of excess in favor of nuance?
I can say decisively that many American Muslims inhabit the conditions of the secular as Charles Taylor described it. But does knowing that do anything to counter a white nationalist’s unfounded belief that Muslims are a threat to their so-called American way of life? How do we make a space for the openness and capaciousness, the creativity of everyday life while also attending to the constraints of a political order that seems to only want to contain, exclude, and discard? The narrowing of public conversations around Islam, the compression of the categories through which we represent Muslim lives, centered as they are around those familiar colonial terms of compatibility and comfort, should prompt us to ask whether the methodological and theoretical tools of scholarship are up to the task of accounting for, and articulating an alternative to, the brutality of our present moment.