Against a Muslim Misleadership Class

Islamophobia will not be defeated through a depoliticized inclusion that simply elevates a new class of state-friendly elites.

Thomas Hawk / Flickr

Islamophobia’s tentacles are spreading.

Under the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which was launched during the Obama administration, the apparatus of Islamophobia has expanded well beyond its previous state-based mechanisms.

Rooted in flawed theories of “radicalization,” CVE casts itself as a tool for preempting extremist violence. (Needless to say, the program focuses disproportionately on “homegrown terrorists” in Muslim settings, neatly excluding from scrutiny white Americans inclined toward domestic terrorism.) Through CVE-funded grants, teachers, social workers, imams, and others are transformed into de facto agents of the state, assisting in the expansive project of surveilling US Muslims.

CVE, in other words, invites civil society (including Muslims) to join in the longstanding invasion of US Muslims’ religious, political, and social lives. It serves — as Sahar Aziz has put it — as a “guise for deputizing well-intentioned Muslim leaders to gather intelligence on their constituents that places their civil liberties at risk.”

Muslim elites are recruited and rewarded for engaging their “own communities” in anti-terrorism efforts, proving that all Muslims are not the enemy because some Muslims participate in a witch-hunt against other Muslims. In Hillary Clinton’s words, “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.”

CVE has rightfully sparked an outcry among Muslims who recognize the program for what it is: a means to further racialize and police their lives. Many Muslim elites, meanwhile, have gone along with CVE, eager to prove their terror-fighting bona fides.

This rift reveals that the hypervisibility and Islamophobia that Muslims face isn’t uniformly demonizing. Rather, the years since 9/11 have witnessed both an intensification of anti-Muslim violence and a peculiar space of inclusion and belonging — for certain Muslims. Any understanding of Islamophobia must therefore take into account not only Muslims who are murdered, assaulted, or incarcerated, but also those who are given government grants, op-eds in the Times, or fictional protagonist roles in witty television series.

As judges across the country weigh in on the so-called Muslim ban, as mosques increasingly experience acts of vandalism, as the Islamophobia industry revs its engines ever louder, we must resist a hollow identity politics that rests upon a static assertion of “Muslimness” and the promotion of a new class of Muslim elites.

A “Misleadership Class”

A number of scholars and writers have furnished conceptual tools for making sense of the racist present.

In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shows how the rise of a black political elite in the decades after the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for the continuation, perhaps even the intensification, of white supremacist neoliberalism. For Taylor, something nefarious happened between the 1960s, when black liberation movements were making radical demands, and today. We have “black faces in high places” — black mayors, black district attorneys, even a black former president — but still see racist police violence, mass incarceration, gentrification, poverty, and educational inequality.

Similarly, Glen Ford and Danny Haiphong have described the emergence of a post–Civil Rights “black misleadership class,” thoroughly committed to the Democratic Party and lacking any hint of radicalism.

This Black Misleadership Class is bereft of any vision for national social transformation, or genuine Black self-determination, or a just world order. Most damning, these Black politicians have used their local, state and national offices to facilitate the workings of the mass Black incarceration regime at every stage of its deployment. They are, in sum, the Black representatives of the white ruling class — the internal enemies of Black liberation and self-determination.

Derrick Bell’s theory of “interest convergence,” is a final template for understanding the status quo: the only gestures toward racial equality that emanate from elites are those that leave the material structures of white supremacy intact. The state may put Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks on the $20 bill, but it sure as hell won’t consider what economic justice for black communities would look like.

A Muslim Misleadership Class?

While anti-black racism manifests in unique ways, the “misleadership class” and similar frameworks can help us think about the potential rise of a Muslim political elite. Indeed, Islamophobia cannot flourish on a bipartisan basis without the recruitment of a subset of Muslims, a process that already looks to be underway. It will take considerable vigilance to prevent the emergence of a full-blown Muslim misleadership class.

A Muslim misleadership class would, by definition, comply with the very structures of law enforcement that demonize and devastate their constituencies. It would accept CVE grant funding, effectively introducing mechanisms of surveillance and policing into Muslim spaces. It would comply with border patrol or local law enforcement, perhaps arguing that each of these institutions ought to be made more “culturally competent” and “inclusive.”

A Muslim misleadership class would profess an allegiance to the US state and its project of hegemony. Think of Khizr Khan — proudly brandishing the US Constitution at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, invoking his son’s death in Iraq — and his co-optation by the Clinton campaign. (Tellingly, Khan’s condemnation of US wars of aggression received far less coverage in the mainstream media.) When it denounced acts of police brutality, racist violence, or xenophobia, it would label them “un-American” — reinforcing a jingoistic exceptionalism that hides the enduring Americanness of white supremacy.

A Muslim misleadership class would recite platitudes about the inherent compatibility of Islamic values with “the West” (a claim echoed by none other than Obama in his 2009 speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo). It would act according to the archetype of the palatable Muslim American, practicing its faith within the contours of US respectability.

A Muslim misleadership class would argue for Muslims’ inclusion in the US: their rights to build mosques where they choose and to wear hijabs and to worship as they wish. This, however, would come at the expense of speaking vocally and unapologetically about the capitalist project of incarceration and the racism of empire-building.

A Muslim misleadership class would embrace a language of “acceptable’” political engagement and “reasonable” political demands, reminding politicized Muslim activists that the time was “not right” to make demands that challenged systemic racism.

Its rise would obscure the work of grassroots activists, who labor to defend undocumented Muslims facing an ever-growing apparatus of deportation and detentions. It would push to the margins those who organize restaurant workers facing abhorrent and illegal employment conditions. It would elbow out of the public discourse the Muslim Americans who have made critical connections between the extrajudicial practices at Guantanamo Bay and the ever-expanding US carceral state.

It would prove, yet again, that radical racial justice movements and neoliberal multiculturalism are always in conflict.

An Anti-Islamophobic Future

In January, countless news outlets covered the controversy around the travel ban, often without bothering to feature Muslims. A number of commentators pointed out the glaring omission: the mainstream media was discussing the Muslim ban without actual Muslims. And indeed it was a notable elision. Yet the easy fix — the “checked box” approach, in which the mere presence of a Muslim voice, any Muslim voice, is taken as a blow against Islamophobia — is wanting.

In fact, this is precisely how a Muslim political elite would come into being. It would be abetted by liberal hand wringing about Muslims’ exclusion at the expense of a critical anti-racism that recognizes Islamophobia as a pillar of US empire.

In the present political environment in particular — when right-wing ethnonationalism is facing off against neoliberal multiculturalism — we run the risk of settling for a depoliticized “tolerance.” What we need instead is stubborn, principled resistance, animated by an awareness of how liberal identity politics can defang and co-opt transformative movements.

An anti-Islamophobic future is not one in which Old Navy ads feature models in hijabs or a Comedy Central show depicts the everyday lives of Muslims. An anti-Islamophobic future is not one in which American flag hijabs are hallmarks of a diverse or inclusive United States. And a truly anti-Islamophobic future will not draft a Muslim political elite to mimic the very structures of Islamophobic racism.