Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
Su'ad Abdul Khabeer is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Purdue University. She holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Princeton University; she also graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and the Islamic Studies Institute at Abu Nour University in Damascus. In addition, she directs the digital humanities project sapelosquare.com
We discussed her new book Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (New York University Press, 2016).
You're not just a scholar, you're a scholar-artist-activist; why was it so important to write and publish Muslim Cool?
I came to study the relationship between Islam and hip hop, which later became the study of Muslim Cool, after 9/11. What struck me after 9/11 were the ways in which Muslims were being depicted in the media or, rather, the ways in which certain Muslims were absent from the broader conversation on Muslims in the US. Specifically, I found that the Muslim communities that are Black and Latinx converts, and their children, were always missing. The absence of these communities reproduces an incomplete story of Islam in America -- one that relies on a narrative in which Muslims emigrate from an "Islamic homeland" to the "West" and subsequently face a bicultural clash between "American" and "Muslim" identities. Muslims, in this depiction, are analogous to other "ethnic" immigrants who face the challenges of integration and assimilation into the (White) American mainstream. This challenge of assimilation easily feeds into the narrative of Muslims as a foreign threat and fuels efforts to exclude Muslims, which makes this not only an incomplete story but a dangerous one as well.
Muslim Cool tells a more complete story of Islam in America. My teachers (interlocutors) reflect the story of Muslim immigrants from Muslim-majority nations but also the story of those who have not immigrated from an "Islamic homeland" and whose impact on US culture and society spans multiple generations. This is the story of notables like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Likewise, this is the story of hip hop. From its inception over forty years ago, hip hop music has drawn from the social justice teachings of Black American Muslim communities in crafting its own principles of justice and equality. The result of which, as I argue in the book, is that Islam and Muslim practice made a fundamental imprint on hip hop music and culture -- from fashion and style to epistemology and ethics. And since hip hop's Americaness is unquestioned, this relationship between Muslims and hip hop, as documented in Muslim Cool, critically challenges the notion of Muslims as a foreign threat and the dangers such an idea poses.
What is the most important lesson you hope readers take from your book?
Oftentimes, people write about Muslims in order to impress Muslims' humanity upon the readers, i.e. Muslims are people, too. I actually hope my readers walk away with more than that. My real aim with this book is not just to tell a story of Muslims but to use the complex narratives of US Muslims to demonstrate how the dynamics of race and Blackness continue to shape what America is and who Americans are. And so my aspiration is that readers walk away form the book more equipped to identify the workings of race in the US broadly and in their own lives as well.
You write, "Muslim Cool is neither the story of a complete break with the past nor an easy tale of resistance but rather a charting of the powerful and dynamic ways in which Blackness and Muslimness merge to challenge and reconstitute U.S. racial hierarchies." Tell us more about that.
Readings of the contemporary moment, particularly after the election of Barack Obama, and even now under the new administration, push the fallacy of postracialism, which is the claim that racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is over and that any talk of race is actually counterproductive to the work of antiracism. Contrary to this implied break from a racial past, Muslim Cool charts the continuing significance of race and identifies the ways in which race, and specifically Blackness, is marshaled in the work of antiracism. For Muslim Cool, Blackness is a point of opposition to white supremacy that creates solidarities among differently racialized and marginalized groups in order to dismantle overarching racial hierarchies. Yet these solidarities and the kinds of resistance they engender are necessarily entangled in the contradictions inherent in Blackness as something that is both desired and devalued. I discuss this point, for example, when describing the ways non-Black Muslim communities engage Black music. On the one hand, some disavow Black music as necessarily un-Islamic, and on the other, some instrumentalize it. They appropriate Black music's cool factor to, for example, keep youth at the mosque but not to challenge deep-seated anti-Black attitudes within the mosque community.
Faith and activism figure prominently in this book. Some readers will come to your research viewing hip-hop negatively. Talk about these positive forces in the music.
Perceptions of hip hop music and culture range wildly: hip hop is seen variously as deeply mass mediated and commodified as well as a quintessential example of an expressive culture of resistance. However, I think it’s important to recognize that hip hop is a traded commodity and an oppositional culture at the same time. That being said, the "positive forces" in hip hop music are tied to the ways it challenges the status quo and offers alternative ways of reckoning history, interpreting, and ethical ways of acting upon the world. I argue that this alterity in hip hop is grounded in its relationship with Black Islam, which is a term I use to describe the range of ways Black Americans have engaged Muslim beliefs and practices to respond to the realities of Black communities living in conditions of systemic inequality. They respond to conditions of injustice by articulating alternative cosmologies, politics, and social norms geared toward individual and community empowerment.
This concern and commitment of Black Islam was picked up by the hip hop generation and continues to express itself in hip hop music and culture. It is expressed musically in lyrics that warn against social ills and mobilize against systemic inequality. This ideology then extends beyond the music to the ways in which members of the hip hop community live in the world – an ethical positioning that informs everything from dress to eating habits to politics. The intentional ethical positioning, what the hip hop community drawing from Black Islam calls knowledge of self, is replete in hip hop music and culture – although not always front and center in the hip hop music that gets the most commercial airplay. For example, we see this in the work of earlier artists from Public Enemy, Rakim, and Lauryn Hill to more contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody, and J Cole.
Discuss Muslim Cool and the "battle against narrowly racialized notions of what is and is not Islamic."
In the book, one of the examples Muslim Cool’s relationship to definitions of "Islamic" that I give is related to debates on music. In American Muslim communities, music is debated with regard to its permissibility – the fundamental question being – is it permissible for a Muslim to play and enjoy music? This debate leads to the policing of music in Muslim communities in a manner that is typically regarded as theological and thus "unraced." However, in my work on Muslim Cool, I found that when determining what is and is not "Islamic," not all music is treated equally. In examining specific examples of public and private music performances, I found that when music is accepted as religiously licit, it is regulated such that if the music in question has roots in the "Islamic East" – i.e., the Middle East or South Asia – it is "Islamic" whereas if it identified as "Black," its religious bona fides are questionable.
This differential treatment of music is grounded in an ethnoreligious hegemony within US Muslim communities that makes the Muslim immigrant, like an Arab American who can claim proximity to the Islamic East, a religious and cultural normative ideal in the U.S. Muslim Cool challenges this hegemony and its norms by asserting the centrality of Blackness to the construction of Muslim identity and making claims to Muslim tradition through Black music. For example, my teachers argue that hip hop music, rather than un-Islamic is an extension of Muslim tradition that uses poetry and music in the cultivation of Muslim piety.
Tell us about the importance of the "'hoodjab" in relation to "race, gender, and religious subjectivity in the United States."
The "'hoodjab" refers to a style of headscarf – a scarf tied in a bun at the back of a woman's head – that is taken from Afrodiasporic women's dress and imbued with complex meanings of race and class. I came upon this term through a discussion with one of my teachers. She narrated a story to me in which her white internship supervisor considered her "so 'hood" she started calling her a "'hoodjabi." The supervisor saw my teacher, who was an upper middle class South Asian American, as ‘hood because of her embrace of hip hop music and culture and located my teacher's 'hood identity in her headscarf. Thus while the style is old, I use this new term to describe not the style itself but the relationships between race, gender, class, and religion it reflects.
Accordingly, when examining the ‘hoodjab I do so through a genealogy of a Muslim woman's headscarf style in the United States that goes back to hip hop, Black slavery in the Americas, the Black female experience, and Black Islam. Through this genealogy, I make a distinct departure from the broader academic discussion of Muslim women's dress. In this literature, scholars tend either to debate the status of "hijab" as a religious requirement or argue for a western liberal narrative in which the hijab is an oppressive practice. Further, social scientific academic treatments of the topic in the United States generally frame the practice as a negotiation between "Islamic" values and "American" values, without giving adequate attention to style.
In contrast, I offer a nuanced analysis of the stylistic particularities of the American Muslim female headdress that locates this practice squarely within the performance of race. For the non-Black young Muslim women I worked with, the 'hoodjab was a conduit for a form of self-fashioning as Muslim women that both represented their commitments to social justice and their desires to be cool. For my Black Muslim women teachers, the style became a way to shore up their Black identity as Muslims in a context, as I mentioned earlier, in which Blackness is religiously suspect. The 'hoodjab marked my teachers' identities as Muslim women in the United States, underscoring the ways in which expressions of Muslim womanhood are implicated by ideas about Blackness. Blackness is central to the racial-religious performativity of the 'hoodjab and consequently to the process of self-making – the development of a sense of self and of belonging as a raced, gendered, and religious subject in the United States.
You discussed it earlier and also you write in your book, "The Muslim man is an essential terrorist subject: violent, patriarchal, dogmatic, illiberal – a depiction that has been reinforced since the events of 9/11." What do you say to those who hold that view? How might that view be changed?
Changing views like that is going to be long and difficult work because these views are informed by a false racial narrative of Muslim threat that circulates nearly everywhere, from government officials to TV serials. In this context, change will come through the work of anti-racism. Importantly, the work of anti-racism is not about educating non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims, but rather by educating them about how race and racism reproduce themselves and about the roles different institutions play in that reproduction. This practice would include pushing people to examine their definitions of terrorism, religion, masculinity, the US, etc. I think it is only by getting folks to reexamine their own positionality that we will get closer to shifting problematic points of view.
What are the limits of Muslim Cool?
In many ways, Muslim Cool is built upon claims to alterity – Muslim Cool is a way of being and thinking about what it means to be a US Muslim that counters anti-Blackness and systemic inequality within Muslim communities as well as the broader society. I argue that this alterity hits a stumbling block, a wall, or a tension in its encounters with the state. The tension is the product of the shifts in the political landscape in a contemporary moment that is both post-civil rights and post-9/11. This periodization is critical because it is a marker of how regimes of surveillance and multiculturalism coexist and complement claims of US exceptionalism. For example, in this period, the state "administers dissent." Institutions of civil society and their forms of dissent are incorporated within state governance and, likewise, the symbols and signs of marginalized groups such as Black Americans are coopted to authenticate US democracy at home and imperial aims abroad. Muslims enter this historically specific moment as both symbols of the success of US multicultural inclusion and the threat to democracy that requires US dominance as a global power.
This context places very real constraints on Muslim Cool. My teachers who engage arts-based activism through non-profit institutions, for example, can find themselves, as I describe in the book, in US government paraphernalia that extols their social justice work as representative of US virtue. And while they do not necessarily seek this acknowledgment, they do seek the rights of citizenship and belonging and in that context this kind of recognition benefits a community that is embattled at home. In other instances, some Muslim hip hop artists participate in US cultural diplomacy through tours sponsored by the US State Department abroad. These trips are opportunities, for income and to reach broader audiences, for talented but struggling artists. I followed one such trip and the messages of alterity in their music remained, which demonstrated that these artists are not motivated by any kind of blind patriotism. Nevertheless, their participation is necessarily still nagged by questions of complicity with state power because alignments with the state, willing or otherwise, are what define the post-civil rights and post-9/11 era, in which claims to rights and belonging are embedded in the state's governing power and place limits on Muslim Cool.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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