In these times of crisis, American Muslims have not been singled out for scrutiny by the media or the state. On the contrary, media coverage of their lives during the current Covid-19 pandemic has showcased their varied and pragmatic responses to lockdown measures and has highlighted how their responses are not much different from other Americans. This is remarkable given America’s recent history.
As Dave Eggers documented in his national bestseller, Zeitoun, state anxieties about “terrorists” taking advantage of America’s vulnerabilities during a national crisis led to the targeting of American Muslims and the construction of GITMO-style detention centers as part of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Such securitized responses to a natural disaster were portended by the ominous placement of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. They exemplify how Islam and Muslims have historically been imagined in the American public square as a threat for the purpose of governing the nation and defining its national identity.
I use the notion of American political imaginary to refer to the way American politics and society are imagined in the political, social, and cultural processes through which consensus on matters of governance and sociality are constructed from the vastly diverse desires and backgrounds of the US population. From the mid-twentieth century, when a popular association between black nationalism and Islam was used to vilify black Muslim activists such as Malcom X, to the 1980s, when the Islamic revolution in Iran was used to posit Islam as a “threat,” to the recent “War on Terror” that justified the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, political and cultural imaginings of Islam and Muslims have played a significant role in building public support for American foreign policy and national security measures. The fact that American Muslims have not been singled out during the current pandemic—particularly when viewed in light of the popular uprising in support of the Black Lives Matter movement—suggests that a shift in governance and modes of consensus-building may be afoot in contemporary America. Examining this shift enables us to gauge whether it might effect meaningful change.
Before turning my attention to this question, however, let me say something about what I understand about American Muslims’ responses to this global pandemic and their public representation. Given physical distancing measures that prohibit field research, my understanding is provisional. It is based on anecdotes, media reports, and scans of the internet. Nonetheless, this research reveals clear examples of Islamic pragmatism and varied American Muslim responses to the pandemic that fly in the face of decades-old popular impressions of Islam as a doctrinaire and monolithic religion. In general, it appears that American Muslims throughout the nation have abided and even supported governmental orders regarding shutdowns and social distancing. As a result of these measures, many have found a renewed appreciation for their faith communities. Other American Muslims, while missing communal acts of worship, seem to have welcomed the time for reflection and family bonding that stay-at-home orders have provided. Websites have been created to help American Muslims make their self-isolation spiritually meaningful. Like other religious communities, Muslims are using technology and social media to mitigate not being able to convene at their places of worship.
Longing for the mosque and access to technology has also drawn attention to existing social inequalities within the American Muslim population. The North American Fiqh Council and some mosques have suggested women limit their already limited attendance at mosques in order to reduce numbers and allow for physical distancing. Online lectures and sermons are more readily found on the websites or Facebook pages of mosques with more affluent congregations. Mosques in poorer communities generally lack access to such resources and often do not even have the funds to host websites.
For some American Muslim organizations, the pandemic is a reminder of our shared humanity. A joint statement by the National Muslim Task Force on Covid-19, for example, encouraged American Muslims to “implement the Prophetic directive to ‘heal/treat your ill folk by means of charitable giving’” by giving not only to Muslims but also non-Muslim organizations “supporting efforts to combat the disease and caring for the ill.” Some other local mosques have had a more particularistic approach, stressing that God “perfected religion (din)” through Prophet Muhammad and urging Muslims to cling to it in order to weather this storm.
Of course, Islam has always been subject to interpretation and Muslims have always had varied responses to changing historical circumstances. What seems noteworthy is that this more realistic impression of Islam in the public sphere marks a shift in public imaginings of Islam and Muslims in the United States during times of crisis. Due in part to their large presence in the healthcare industry and increased participation in the media and politics after 9/11, this shift is accompanied by positive, popular representations of Muslims in sources as diverse as Huffington Post, USA Today, the Washington Post, CBS News, the New York Times, Vox, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and ABC News.
Recall that it wasn’t too long ago that President Donald Trump sought support for his administration’s draconian treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by peddling the baseless suggestion that border ranchers had found prayer rugs in a migrant caravan traveling from Central America. Trump and other anti-immigration activists presumed that the mere mention of Muslims at prayer would invoke the image of a deadly contagion whose infiltration the American public would want to dam by sidestepping regular asylum and immigration proceedings and militarizing the border with Mexico.
It was also not too long ago when we learned that the New York Police Department was conducting secretive, suspicionless surveillance of mosques because it suspected “terrorist enterprises” among them. And just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously voted to revive much of a proposed class-action lawsuit in which the FBI was accused of employing a confidential informant to spy on mosques in Southern California and beyond.
Today, however, as most mosques are shuttered because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the same president whose earliest executive orders included the so-called “Muslim ban,” has designated mosques, alongside churches and synagogues, as “essential.” In a May 22, 2020 press briefing, President Trump declared, “Today, I’m identifying houses of worship—churches, synagogue (sic), and mosques—as essential places that provide essential services. . . . These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque. . . . The ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray.”
Trump’s designation of mosques as “essential” reveals the extent to which mosques have become a part of the political imaginary through which a governing consensus has been established in the United States in the twenty-first century. Just as the lived experiences of American Muslims are not monolithic, neither are the national narratives through which American Muslim lives have been imagined for the purpose of governance and sociality. The fact that even a president who campaigned on barring all Muslims from the United States is willing to now—during a pandemic—call mosques essential,demonstrates, not so much his sudden change of heart toward Islam and Muslims, but the utility of mosques and Muslims as imagined constructs in American politics and culture.
Trump speaks primarily to his conservative Christian base by declaring places of worship essential. “Some governors,” he says, “have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other places of worship.” It remains to be seen how Trump’s designation of mosques as essential will exactly serve his political and religious base. What is apparent from his rhetoric, however, is that he is impressed by the unifying effect of the inclusion of mosques in the American political imaginary during this pandemic. And he has strategically employed it in an effort to maintain the hegemony of his conservative Christian base and to assert his own power over his opponents. One of his retweets, for example, read: “Let’s see if authorities enforce the social-distancing orders for mosques during Ramadan . . . like they did churches during Easter.” When he was asked to explain the purpose of his retweet, he responded that he spoke with “leaders and people that love mosques” and lamented that there is disparity in public attitudes toward mosques and churches. He went on to associate this seeming disparity with “a very strong anti-Israel bent in Congress with Democrats,” suggesting that Americans who are not his supporters favor mosques over churches. In another instance, on the very day before he designated places of worship—including mosques—as essential, he remarked, “The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors. I want to get our churches open.” Following this statement, a reporter immediately questioned him about mosques: “What about mosques, Mr. President? What about mosques? The Muslims are going to be celebrating the end of Ramadan soon. What about mosques?” He retorted: “Mosques too, yeah. Including mosques.”
To understand this rhetoric of “including mosques” during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is useful to look at it in conjunction with the casting of the coronavirus as “an invisible enemy.” While Trump has most prominently employed this rhetoric by declaring himself “a wartime President,” who is “marshaling the full power of the American nation—economic, scientific, medical, and military—to vanquish the virus,” he is by no means alone. Democratic politicians have similarly anthropomorphized the pathogen into “an invisible enemy” to effect a sense of unity among Americans. In a May 17, 2020 interview on Face the Nation, for example, Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, “We, whatever our differences, have to join together to fight this enemy to the lives and the livelihood of the American people.” In an April 6, 2020 press conference, Bill de Blasio, the Democratic mayor of New York City, said, “New York City is fighting back. We have an invisible enemy. We have a ferocious enemy, but this city is fighting back with everything we’ve got.” Other Democratic politicians, such as Colorado Governor Jared Polis and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper have also referred to the virus as “an invisible enemy.”
This bellicose language parallels George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” and its targeting of “Islamic extremism” as “our enemy.” As Mahmood Mamdani pointed out at the time, the “War on Terror” discourse was intended to quell criticism of the state’s subsequent military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its restrictions of Muslim civil rights at home in the name of national security. The making of invisible enemies in American politics and culture rarely serves the American people. It does not accomplish the hard work needed to assess a crisis and its causes. It does not assure that the necessary political and economic measures are taken to effectively redress the problem. Rather, this discourse enables the US state to project power and establish dominance.
Whether media and political representations of American Muslims during the Covid-19 pandemic better reflect American Muslims’ varying experiences of Islam and America will require more research. What is clear now—and uncharacteristic, at least since 9/11—is that American Muslims have not become a target in the political mainstream. This incidentally has not been the case in India, another country that has similarly adopted anti-Muslim policies in recent years under an ethnoreligious-nationalist president. There, the Muslim minority is being blamed for the spread of the coronavirus. Governing party officials speak of “human bombs” and “corona jihad” and a national newspaper published a cartoon that anthropomorphizes the coronavirus in Muslim garb holding the globe hostage.1After The Hindu newspaper was criticized for its Islamophobic cartoon, it revised the cartoon and issued an apology. Nonetheless, the image of the viruses holding the globe hostage with machine guns is latently Islamophobic.
Trump’s classification of mosques alongside churches and synagogues as essential institutions for the functioning of American society may signal a new place for American Muslims for the first time in twenty years, even as the US response to the virus has exposed and deepened inequities in the American Muslim community. Muslims’ increased political, social, and cultural activism during this time has undoubtedly been a significant factor in the changing conceptualizations of Islam and America. However, this inclusion of mosques in the ways social and political consensus are constructed in America for the purpose of governance and sociality is fragile because it, ironically, functions in the same way that mosques’ ostracization as sites of “extremism” and “radicalization” did not too long ago. In both cases, Muslims’ self-understandings and lived experiences appear beside the point. In both cases, too, the mosque strategically fulfills the state’s desires by providing a means to demonstrate its power and its reach into citizens’ lives.
Thanks to Sam Kigar, Kristin Scheible, Darius Rejali, Mona Oraby, Delainey Myers, and Alma Flores for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.