A conversation with Sylvia Chan-Malik

Thursday, Nov 19, 2020
by Sarah Malone

Sylvia Chan-Malik

Sylvia Chan-Malik. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Chan-Malik

Next semester, the Program in American Studies welcomes Sylvia Chan-Malik as the Spring 2021 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow.

The Anschutz fellowship program — endowed in 1997 by Philip and Nancy Anschutz and their daughters Sarah Anschutz Hunt, a 1993 Princeton alumna, and Elizabeth Anschutz, a 1996 Princeton alumna — brings to Princeton for one semester a leading scholar or practitioner in American arts, letters, politics, or commerce.

Chan-Malik, an associate professor in the departments of American and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, talks, teaches, and writes about the intersections of race, gender, and religion, with a focus on the history and cultures of Islam and Muslims in the United States. Her book Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam (New York University Press, 2018) argues that being Muslim in the United States is marked by a state of “affective insurgency,” through which U.S. Muslim women have negotiated their day-to-day lives against shifting terrains of racial, gendered, and religious meaning throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

At Princeton, Chan-Malik is teaching “Islam in/and America: Race, Religion, and Gender in the United States.”

Below are reflections drawn from a Nov. 17 interview.

Two pivotal moments in history I find to be largely underexamined in scholarly and public conversations around Islam and Muslims in the United States are the period after World War I and the Iranian women’s movement (not the hostage crisis) that took place in March 1979. In the first, the second Great Migration north of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the north definitively altered the trajectory of Islam in the United States, as the religion emerged as a critique of and alternative to Christianity in the context of the rise of pan-Africanist movements in the wake of Reconstruction that appealed to many new Black migrants from the South. While anywhere between one-fifth to one-third of enslaved Africans in the Americas were Muslim, it was really in this period that “Islam” became part and parcel of the language of Black liberation and struggle in this country, and this continues to shape the religion’s presence and culture in America.

The Iranian women’s movement, which I write about in my book Being Muslim, was pivotal because it basically revitalized and updated the discourse of Islam’s supposed oppression of women in the terms of U.S. racial, gender, and cultural politics. For a week in March 1979, nine months before the Iranian hostage crisis, women marching in the streets of Tehran dominated the U.S. media cycle, and Iranian Muslim women’s “freedom” was recast in terms of the U.S. second wave feminist movement, at the expense of the voices of Black women and other women of color. It was then that many white feminists took up the cause of the “Poor Muslim Woman” by setting up a false opposition between “Islam” and “feminism” that persists to this day.

One of the most dangerous misconceptions about Islam is that Muslims somehow operate in lockstep, that Muslims worldwide believe exactly the same things and practice their religion in the same way. This is why, on the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump could say something like “Islam hates us” — as if “Islam” is some sort of living, breathing, monolithic entity, as opposed to the world’s second largest religion with 1.8 billion followers. A big part of this can be traced to how we in the academy have generally studied religion, through an emphasis on holy texts and tradition, as opposed to how religion actually operates in people’s daily lives. In the United States, race, gender, class, regional, sectarian, and generational differences all impact how individuals and communities practice Islam, as well as a host of other factors. For example, while the terms “Muslim and Arab” are often conflated in contemporary public discourse, two of the largest [Muslim] racial/ethnic groups are African American and South Asian. The histories and trajectories of how those in these groups come to see themselves as U.S. Muslims are different and extremely varied, and we as scholars must be attentive to these differences. By paying attention to the ways that religion is lived — e.g. “lived religion” — we can illuminate not only the enormous diversity of Muslim practice and expression, but also the ways Islam is deeply woven into U.S. life in ways that have impact far beyond Muslim communities.

One of the central bridges I aim to create through my research and teaching is between race and ethnic studies and religious studies. As someone whose approach to studying religion has been shaped by the interdisciplinary study of race in the United States, I am regularly concerned with how little religion and spirituality are discussed in ethnic studies, as if the study of race, as well as practices of anti-racist activism and advocacy, can be done through the consideration of individuals as somehow wholly “secular” beings. There’s also this tendency amongst those in the academy, in particular the academic Left, to have a disdain for religious subjectivities — they are seen as signs of Marxist false consciousness or a lack of intellectual rigor. What I have found is that “religion” is very frequently conflated with white Anglo-Protestant Christianity, insofar as when we as scholars dismiss “religion,” it is actually a desire to critique the complex and oftentimes violent legacies of white Christian Protestantism in the United States, and its role in histories of settler colonialism, slavery, segregation, and nationalism.

Part of the “lived religion” aspect of studying Islam in the United States is food. A central aspect of U.S. Muslim life is navigating the permissibility/impermissibility of certain food, what is “halal” or “haram.” “Halal” meat is supposed to be livestock which has been slaughtered Islamically and in an ethical fashion. However, in recent years, there have been more and more discussions amongst U.S. Muslim communities about what it means to eat ethically, in the face of catastrophic climate change, corporate supply chains, genetically modified food, etc. Islam places a premium emphasis on issues of justice, the ethics of justice, and I would say movements for food justice are approaching the issue of food by imagining/re-imagining what it means to grow, produce and consume food justly and ethically. Issues around food were also critical to Black Muslim organizations such as the Nation of Islam, as they saw “eating clean” as a way to reverse the harmful effects of racism on the body and soul. There is so much to learn in exploring the intersections between Islam and food justice, in terms of what Islamic teachings say about food and the environment, as well as considerations of how Islam’s historical legacy in the United States illuminates how food justice and issues of food sovereignty have always been critical to practices of U.S. American Islam.

As a central New Jersey resident, I have already had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful Princeton students who consistently impress me with their curiosity and drive. I’ve also been honored to get to know the amazing Muslim chaplain at Princeton’s Muslim Life Program (MLP), Imam Sohaib Sultan, and I’m so inspired by all the wonderful work MLP does; I can’t wait to collaborate with them. Finally, I am floored by the faculty members I will be able to call my colleagues in the American studies program for the upcoming semester, in particular professors Judith Weisenfeld [the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion, and Department of Religion chair], Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, [professor of American studies and director of the programs in American studies, Asian American studies and Latino studies] and [Professor of English and American Studies] Anne Cheng — all of whose work I admire deeply and engage frequently in my own.