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A Virtual Muslim Is Something to Be

From: American Quarterly
Volume 62, Number 2, June 2010
pp. 221-231 | 10.1353/aq.0.0129

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Kevin Gaines's presidential address offers us a rich genealogy of race and power in the last thirty years. It is both a tour de force survey of politically committed historical writing and a sober assessment of the ongoing power of a deeply conservative racial politics in the United States. Gaines's analysis begins from a strange twenty-first-century conjuncture. On the one hand, President Barack Obama's election stands as an auspicious moment of possibility for racial liberalism. Yet, on the other, it comes at a time when incarceration rather than education has become the signal apparatus of U.S. politics. As Gaines points out, for three decades our political system has massively funded prisons, warehousing African American and Latino men at astounding rates, even as it has defunded schools at every level, all but abandoning, for example, the college loan system that made higher education accessible to many middle- and lower middle-class students.

Gaines highlights the vicious continuities belying talk of a "postracial" America: not only the history of slavery and the ongoing realities of segregation, but also the "racial wealth gap," which continues to structure the lives of people of color in the United States. He also highlights the links between racial realities and recent anti-immigrant activism, and between both of these and the post-9/11 "supercarceral" state, in which Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are part of a much longer U.S. story of war and torture enacted on racialized bodies, often in the name of empire. Tracing those histories, and the more recent right-wing obsessions over immigration, race, and crime, Gaines shows us the ways in which, whatever one feels about Obama, his election was not only a triumph of civil rights, but also an unprecedented opportunity for the right wing to promote a deeply conservative racial retrenchment.

If, however, we read the election of 2008 through the lens of 9/11, we can arrive at another genealogy of the Obama moment. What I offer here is not a counterhistory, but rather an expanded set of questions about the politics and the stakes of the 2008 election. With these questions, I posit three things. First, looking carefully at the various rumors during the campaign that Obama was a Muslim, I argue that religion, as well as race, was central to the right-wing reaction against Obama. Granted, ideas about Islam have been a significant part of post-9/11 practices of political exclusion within the United States, and a kind of populist anti-Islamic sentiment has also cut a broad swath across Europe and Africa and parts of Asia. Going beyond the observation that such fear and hatred are "like" racism, I suggest that, if we are to understand their impact on the U.S. elections globally, we must unpack how anti-Muslim sentiment acts both within and across vectors of race. Second, I propose that, if we are to understand the complex intersection of race, religion, and U.S. global power that structure our current moment, we must put the media—traditional or new, Hollywood, international, or parochial—at the center of the story. And, finally, I posit that Obama's global popularity may be counterposed by the changing status of African Americans in the international figurations of U.S. empire. This set of questions about the contemporary operations of race, religion, and power opens up other questions, as now—more than a year into the Obama presidency—we ponder what futures may still be possible.

In February of 2008, the Republican Party of Tennessee put out a press release with the provocative headline "Anti-Semites for Obama." Supposedly an analysis of the candidate's Middle East policy views, the release argued that Israel's security would be endangered if "Barack Hussein Obama" were elected president. The none-too-subtle use of the candidate's middle name, along with a photo of Obama on a visit to Somalia, wearing what the release described as "Muslim garb" (it was in fact traditional Somali clothing), clearly insinuated that Obama had dangerous ties to Islam and was therefore opposed to Israel. But insinuation was not enough. The article also insisted that, if elected...