Dr. Chan-Malik Delivers Reckoning on Race and Islam in America

Joseph Abrams ’23

Co-editor in Chief

As future professionals and decision-makers, Holy Cross students, and young academics at large, have a remarkable opportunity to fix many of the problems left behind by generations of intolerance and ignorance. Our best chance at doing this, however, is to arm ourselves with thorough and pointed understandings of the intersectionalities of the world. Thankfully, those like Professor Sylvia Chan-Malik, an associate professor of American Studies and Women and Gender Studies at the Rutgers University- New Brunswick, are trained and motivated to do just that. Chan-Malik’s academic focus is on the intersectionality of race and religion as it pertains to Muslim women and African-American Muslims in 21st century America. She authored Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam, an exploration of the ways in which Islam has been a liberating force for Muslim women in America, and is currently working on two more book projects. With a number of scholarly essays under her belt as well, Dr. Chan Malik has been featured in The New York Times, the Daily Beast, Slate, The Huffington Post, and other publications.

Chan-Malik began the presentation with a moment of gratitude– for the professor and author, the visit to Rehm library was her first in-person presentation since the COVID-19 pandemic and a long awaited return to form. It wasn’t long, though, until Chan-Malik dove into her work. She first expressed the importance of teaching race and religion together, especially since the national moment we are in is characterized by bans and censorship. She herself finds that her classes are under more scrutiny than ever, despite the fact that she spends most of her time in the classroom teaching writing mechanics that are standard for most university-level literature courses. 

Chan-Malik set the stage with the argument that the paranoid style of American politics has reconfigured the study of Islam in recent years. Yet, she explained that this paranoia, much of which has exploded in the post 9/11 years, has created both a threat to Muslim communities and a boom in interest in the religion. The way in which Islam and Muslims have come to be reconfigured and studied in recent years, then, is informed by a paranoia of them, and Dr. Chan-Malik herself noted that some student perceptions of Islam are at least partially founded on paranoid beliefs. She highlighted the work of Edward Syed, a scholar at Columbia and Palestinian-American, who argues that the Arab world has been constructed through the lens of European colonialism. According to Chan-Malik, the colonial legacy of Orientalism has merged with this paranoid style to create a misled and misrepresentative academic approach, or a “way of studying Muslims as objects,” the professor described.

Despite a newfound interest post-9/11, orientalist legacies have situated Muslim Studies in Area Studies, Dr. Chan-Malik explained, or been relegated to Religious Studies departments. The professor noted that the post-9/11 lens specifically seeks to position Muslims as perpetual victims of oppression, described by her as a “progressive orientalist approach”, which postures Muslims as sympathetic, but not complex: “it is more about the acts of the oppressor than the lives of the oppressed.” Even this scholarship, which largely represents the field as a whole, is scant in America. To combat this, the professor believes that “scholars of Islam should more robustly engage with the theories, histories, and approaches to studies of race” to better understand the sociological reasons behind their subject matter. Scholars of race/ethnicity, then, should consider religion as an aspect of race and how it operates as a force and structure of American life. For paranoia itself, Dr. Chan-Malik stated, presence of mind (thinking about and being in time) and taking a deep breath are the best weapons of defense. 

The professor went on to discuss the evolution of Religious Studies in America and Islamic Studies in particular. Religious Studies has gone through three stages, according to the professor: the Protestant period (1636-1900), the privatized phase (turn of the century), and the present, a time characterized by religious pluralism. Islamic Studies in America began in centers that popped up across the nation as the 1900s rolled in. These centers also served as hubs where Arabic lessons were held and religious texts were studied in their historical contexts. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that a few programs and departments centered around Islam Studies emerged in higher education. Since 2001, there has been a significant increase in the number of programs available and endowed chairs have been created in the field. 

Ethnic Studies, on the other hand, emerged out of Third World Liberation Struggles in the late ‘60s. The 1960s brought a number of global anti-colonialist movements, and American students saw their opportunity to change things at school. Strikes broke out at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State College in request for a department that focused solely on the accomplishments of oppressed minorities. These strikes proved effective, and the schools promptly created the desired departments (though not fit with all of the students’ demands). By 1993, there were hundreds of Ethnic Studies programs across higher education facilities in America. In fact, in 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom of California made it compulsory for California students to take Ethnic Studies courses. 

Until about 20 years ago, however, race was often omitted from religious or Islam Studies, Dr. Chan-Malik stated. Yet, prior to the 1960s, Islam was predominantly practiced in America by African-Americans. The Nation of Islam, founded in the 1960s, is a great example of this racialized American Islam, and Malcolm X is one of the most famous Muslims in the world. Yet, these stories often go unnoticed. Ultimately, Chan-Malik argues that Islam scholars and race scholars must work together to move beyond preconceived notions of Islam and Muslim, and instead take more time to deduce their political, social, and cultural context.

Photo by College of the Holy Cross

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