Lines of Exclusion: What Muslim Europeans and African Americans have in common

During an interview barely sustained on the weak wifi network of my family’s rural American farm, a European-Muslim slam poet talked to me about prejudice. “Muslims,” she said, “our blood has become too cheap.” In a 2015 op-ed published in the New York Times, French Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar revealed shocking statistics pertaining to  French Muslims—7-10% of the national population, yet nearly half of the prison population. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, African Americans— 13% of the current national populace—make up nearly half of the prison population, according to NAACP, with African American men the primary recipients of police brutality and misguided deaths.

The parallels don’t stop there.

Social science research has exclusively compared the experiences of Muslims in Europe and the United States; or African-origin groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet this other comparison proves fruitful for understanding patterns of exclusion. In the United States, we remain fixated on the color line—both explicitly, in institutionalized racism, and implicitly, in our everyday lives. New migrants are cast as “white” or “non-white” to fit with this paradigm. Race simply matters more than ethnicity or religion in how we other entire minority groups. This is not to deny the deep stigma faced by Muslims vis a vis religious identity today. Yet even this politically-fraught religious group faces racialization, as Sociologist Saher Selod shows in her in-depth study of South Asian and Arab Muslim Americans, upon whom the American racial hierarchy has become imposed. The trauma, or what author Toni Morrison terms “rememory” of slave history cuts deeply into the souls of the African American community. We also see it reflected in today’s burgeoning political reality; in the racialized violence of Chicago’s city streets; in the continuous police killings of unarmed African American. In America, African Americans remain associated with fear, threat, violence and volatility.

In Europe, religious identity itself is the means of exclusion. This has developed over time. In the mid-20th century, guestworkers and post-colonials (many Muslims) migrated en masse to Europe. Over time, they became perceived not as migrants, but ethnically—and today religiously—other. The dividing line is not “white”/“non-white”, but rather “secularism rooted in Judeo-Christian culture”/“Islam.” Fear that a Re-Re-Conquista will occur remains eerily present in the once-Islamic geography of Spain, where praying Muslims have been arrested in the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. The rise—and success, as we have seen in the case of Brexit—of the far-right wing on “Anti-Islam” platforms points to the pointedness of this boundary to belonging. The Pew Research center has found that concerns related to major refugee migrations relate directly to views of Muslims across Europe. In Europe, Muslims are feared in the form of a terror specter, a worst case scenario of unpredictability, irrationality, willingness to risk life and limb.

Those we fear, we demonize and criminalize. I am certainly not the only one who has recognized this parallel, born in a country of prisons overflowing with African American men, and—in my adulthood—a scholar of Muslim life in Germany, Great Britain and Spain. In fact, Muslim youth in Europe, such as the banlieue of France, have begun to reach out to African American activists.

Former president FDR was right to say that we should fear fear. There is more to fear, however, than fear itself. We must fear divisions. And we must fear, perhaps most of all the myths made to foster divisions that move from clay—soft, malleable—to cemented, man-made walls. These myths displace the hard realities of racial disparity here in America; or across the ocean with our allies, who use the same strategies albeit along another line—of religious identity—to divide. The far-right has driven these divisions home, by leaving us in darkness with the supposed threat of the “Muslim” or “black”, rather than reflecting upon the changing, economically-disparate reality that we must navigate. It is easier to hate than to change, easier to divide than to unite, easier to place the blame outside of ourselves rather than relinquish. Yet these stories that ignore histories come at a dangerously high price. They undermine not just America or Europe as a strived-for idea(l), but the most skeletal form of ethics that humanity ought to hold above enduring entitlement.