AMEWS Association for Middle East Women's Studies

We are pleased to make available a preview of JMEWS special forum on Donald Trump’s presidency and its implications for Middle East Women’s Studies. These eight essays will be published in Volume 13:3 of JMEWS, a themed issue on the gender and sexuality of borders and margins. It has not yet undergone copy editing by Duke University Press.


The Body Politics of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”

Banu Gökarıksel

Scholars of Middle East Women’s Studies have much cause for alarm today. The increasing prevalence of anti-Muslim rhetoric and action, the unabashed reassertion of white male power, and recent attempts to erode the rights of women, queers, immigrants, and people of color have serious consequences for our research, teaching, and engagement with public debates and communities. In the U.S., the two Executive Orders (EO) Donald Trump signed soon after his inauguration in 2017 are officially sanctioned and legitimized discourse and policy against Muslims. Thinly disguised as actions that would give the government time to review and strengthen already very stringent policies regarding visas of tourists, immigrants, and refugees, the EOs clearly target Muslims, cast them as security threats, and attempt to implement Trump’s campaign promise for a complete “Muslim ban.”

The anti-Muslim discourse and actions rely on and reproduce deeply gendered stereotypes about Muslims and Islam by depicting all Muslim men as potential terrorists, Muslim women as helpless victims of oppression, and Islam as inherently tyrannical, violent, and patriarchal. The reference to honor killings in the first EO is a prime example of how anti-Muslim thinking manipulates gendered (mis)conceptions. The EO appropriates violence against Muslim women by Muslim men to justify the targeting of all Muslims (men, women, children, elderly, young) as security threats and condones their collective punishment, echoing the historical enlisting of women’s suffering in the service of western imperial projects and military invasions time and time again. This brand of imperial feminism is all too familiar and needs to be as persistently criticized as it is revived and recirculated. Yet it is also crucial to analyze the body politics of Trumpism more generally and link the attacks on Muslims to those on women’s, queer, Native, Black, Brown, and immigrant bodies (Gökarıksel and Smith 2016).

Even as the US courts have challenged and issued stays on the EOs, their effects continue to reverberate across public debates, in the streets, and at border check points. They negatively affect all Muslims and those who look like Muslims, as well as the relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. While Muslims have been subjected to surveillance, discriminatory practices, and hate crimes in the U.S. for decades, violence targeting Muslims and those who look Muslim has increased since the presidential campaign.[1] Muslim women who wear the headscarf have become easy targets for attacks because of their publicly visible religious alignment.

The racialization of Muslims and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiments have profound ethical and political implications for those of us who work on/with Muslims and Muslim-majority societies. That is why the Middle East Studies Association joined a law suit against the EO. As Beth Baron, President of this association, put it:

The Middle East Studies Association joined this case because the new executive order cuts at the very core of our mission as a scholarly association — to facilitate the free exchange of ideas. The order directly harms our student and faculty members by preventing travel, disrupting research, and impeding careers. The order hurts us as an association intellectually and financially. It is incumbent upon us to support the interests of our members and stand up for the peoples of the region we study and our colleagues.[2]

Resistance movements against the kind of white male dominance that Trump’s presidency represents and has been trying to restore have embraced Muslims alongside other maligned groups (immigrants, Brown, Black, Native, Latinx, queer, women). For example, the Women’s March on Washington organizing committee included Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian American activist. The US flag hijab from Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” series has become the symbol of resistance against an exclusionary, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and patriarchal nationalism. Yet the actions and symbols that suggest the inclusion of Muslim women are not without problems and reify difference at the same time as they affirm it. The current political moment of a global political turn to the right calls for going beyond easy tokenisms and for questioning the simple folding in of Muslims into existing nationalist narratives about the U.S. (Gökarıksel and Smith, forthcoming). Instead, more radical intersectional feminisms that grapple with inequalities across multiple axes of difference are needed.

The implications of the EOs and the deteriorating political climate in which Muslims and Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East are labeled as the United States’ threatening other are deeply troubling for feminist and women’s studies scholars of the Middle East. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and action depend on and perpetuate assumptions about gender roles and relations, and gendered embodiments of Muslims. At the same time, images of Muslim women are sometimes too easily appropriated in the name of resistance. As the spaces for criticism narrow here and abroad, it is more important than ever to voice dissent and to carve out a position from which it is possible to criticize the US administration as well as the governments and political regimes in the Middle East and their appropriation of Islam and women’s rights for their own political purposes. The way forward must begin from this position of double critique.


[1] According to an FBI Report, hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 reached the September 11, 2001–era levels (Kishi 2016). Think Progress has documented a rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims and other minority groups during the election year. See



Gökarıksel, Banu and Sara Smith. 2016. “‘Making American Great Again?’: The Fascist Body Politics of Donald Trump,” Political Geography 54, 79-81.

Gökarıksel, Banu and Sara Smith. Forthcoming. “Beyond Pussy Hats, US Flag Hijab, and Pantsuits: Intersectional Feminism and its Challenges in the Era of Trumpism,” Gender, Place, & Culture.

Kishi, Katayoun. 2016 (November 21), “Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11-era levels, FBI data show,”


Trump(ing) on Muslim Women: The Gendered Side of Islamophobia

Amaney A. Jamal

The President of the US has issued an Executive Order that targets Muslims once again on March 6, 2017. This Muslim ban already has a variety of negative outcomes, including limiting basic refugee protections mandated by international law, student access to their sites of study, and Muslim entrance to the US more generally. The Executive Order also has a much more far-reaching consequence. It feeds the Islamophobia machine in this country, and further reinforces the idea that there is much to fear of Islam and Muslims. By consistently linking the discourse on Muslims and Islam to hystericalized security debates, this Administration is irresponsibly promoting hate and antagonism against Islam and Muslims, not only in the US but the world over. Chief among the targets of this Islamophobic tide are Muslim women who are identifiable to the public as Muslims because they wear hijabs. Muslim women have seen hate crimes against them escalate since the electoral campaign and election of Donald Trump. [1] It is also important to note, these hate crimes against Muslims have not been condemned by this Administration.

Alongside this rising hostility towards Muslims has been an equally assertive, compassionate and reassuring show of support for Muslims in the US. The first executive order (Muslim Ban) of January 2017, was met with protests by dismayed Americans across the US. Many flocked to airports across the nation to welcome Muslims and denounce hate.[2] In this outpouring of support, images of Muslim women with hijab were raised as a signs of inclusion and acceptance. For many in the community, these heartfelt statements of support were reassuring. In many ways, insensible and unjustified discrimination emanating from our country’s highest authority pushed average Americans into action. Since 9-11, Muslim Americans have been trying to gain a more sympathetic ear among America’s mainstream. It seems that the Trump administration’s excessive rhetoric has helped Muslim Americans accomplish just that. Still, by and large the American Mainstream sees Muslims through the prism of terror and security, which Trump has exacerbated. Trump’s excessive rhetoric though, and perhaps this is a bit too hopeful, might push some to reconsider this paradigm.

Thus, in this moment of despair, there’s a potential silver lining. For many Muslims, being embraced by some segments of the mainstream society is uplifting. Images welcoming Muslim women in hijab and showcasing Muslim patriotism (See Figure 1) are heartening.

Figure 1: Acceptance of the Hijab in “We the People” series created by artist Shepard Fairey for the Amplifier Foundation.

That Muslims are now part of a discourse that does not pit them against mainstream American society, and indeed, now even includes them, is groundbreaking.

Yet, in these moments of optimistic pessimism, one must be mindful of the ways in which Muslim women, especially those with hijab, are being portrayed and micro-managed in this struggle for acceptance and inclusion. Both within the Muslim community and among the mainstream, the Muslim woman with hijab has emerged as the most vulnerable of subjects. And this “true” vulnerability only reinforces the image of her “subject” standing in society. The Muslim Woman, as depicted and imagined is a defenseless, singular, archetype with hijab. She now requires more protection, more support, and more help. She is cloaked in the US flag, signaling mandatory conformity to an “American ideal” which is unarticulated, and simultaneously casting a myth of “American” benevolence and protections for her rights, even as hate crimes against Muslims, in the name of America, continue to grow. She remains a victim of “Americanness gone Wrong” and is dependent on an “American ideal” for her survival. Hence, reminiscent of other structurally hierarchical models that have disadvantaged Muslim women, like those of colonial histories, state authoritarianism, and Islamic conservative projects, Muslim women find themselves once again at the forefronts of conflict and understanding, and tolerance and hate, while baring their vulnerabilities to the world and relying on the goodwill of others to support them. That this in itself is a recurring century-old problem for Muslim women in both the “Muslim” and “Western” world, is somber confirmation that Muslim women are still spoken for, even while their own voices are louder than ever. Let’s switch off the mute button.


[1] “Donald Trump’s Victory Followed by Wave of Hate Crime Attacks against Minorities across US –led by his supporters. Independent. November 10, 2016

[2]Protesters Crowd US Airports to Greet Travelers, Refugees. Huffington Post. January 29, 2017.;


Hypervisibility and Middle Eastern Women’s Studies

Mohja Kahf and Banah Ghadbian

With hypervisibility comes responsibility. Scholarship, creativity, and activism about Middle Eastern women have had hypervisibility since 9/11. Or since the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Whichever it is, this hypervisibility is not new under the latest U.S. administration, but it is intensifying. This may mean increased opportunities for scholars, artists, and activists working on Middle Eastern gender issues. It also means that scholars, artists, and activists need to navigate these landscapes with as much attention to our purposes as ever, alert about being co-opted for one ideological agenda or another.

As scholars, we are equipped with critical tools to enable multiple critiques of structural oppression. We are equipped a) to historicize our analyses and b) to conduct dual critique, of external and internal structural injustice regarding gender including all its entanglements with ethnicity, class, and power. It may seem futile to point out that there is no need for the term “Islamophobia” when this phenomenon is a form of Orientalism, but to point it out is to historicize. Even while Orientalism takes more combative shapes in Islamophobia, internal gendered critique of Islamic discourses and Middle Eastern practices is as necessary as ever. As misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia increase their structural and discursive nakedness in the U.S. under the current administration and worldwide in extremist ideologies, it should become easier to point out their parallels in Muslim-majority societies, both historical and present-day.

The February 2017 Executive Order bans travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. with language drawing upon Orientalism, noting that “the U.S. should not admit those who engage in ’honor” killings.’” Meanwhile the U.S. normalizes rape culture in the executive office and at the 2017 Oscar awards. Honor killing is part of a different society’s manifestation of rape culture. This is an example of how dual critique can make connections between different but parallel and connected processes of gender struggle. Another example is recent conversations that confront Southwest Asian anti-Blackness. Lacking a dual critique means excusing people of color from perpetuating abusive notions of power, coming from a need to defend racialized Southwest Asian categories from being understood as inherently sexist, barbaric, and homophobic. Attentiveness to how these power dynamics intersect and affect people who live daily in their crosshairs needs to take the forefront of our analytic schema.

Often, liberal feminist responses to the February 2017 U.S. executive order recirculate Orientalist constructs of the Muslim woman as an object to be saved. The Shepard Fairey rendition of Muslim woman in an American flag headscarf projects anxieties about U.S. colonial-settler national identity onto Muslim women’s bodies. Liberal gazes desire an image of Muslim women as settler-citizen. The related, increased visibility of headscarf-wearing Muslim women in Nike and H&M ads reveals a desire to represent the active “Muslim woman” in the West, in contrast to the backdrop of the suffering “Muslim woman” she is rescued from becoming “over there.” Subconscious hatred/desire for “Muslim women” in the colonial imaginary is key to understanding the contradictory dynamic of hypervisibility. Along this logic, the nation-state constructs “Muslim women” as threatening to its borders and national identity, while justifying imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by constructing itself as a savior of Muslim women.

“Muslim woman” is proliferating as a category term; it is a remarkably uninformative, abstract term that floats in ether. “Muslim women” tend to be from specific ethnicities, cultures, and geographic locations with vastly different histories. Scholars, artists, and activists understand that we cannot separate the flattening of women into this homogenized category from the colonial policies, in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, that conflate liberation with rape, resulting in sexual terrorism.

The epistemic violence behind the drive to “know” and “unveil” “the Muslim woman” structures the dominant frameworks in which “Muslim women” are expected to tell their stories. It claims to shape how we understand the contours of our bodies and how we navigate the world. Women’s bodies become an object of the need to conquer the racialized, feared geographic spaces in which “Muslim women” are imagined to live. This is how the abstract space between hyper- and in- visibility collapses onto real women’s bodies, with real and violent consequences.

Instead of participating in these narratives, let us name the process by which south Asian and north African women are made un-human in the global colonial order. Let us create scholarly or creative projects that speak to the queer, complicated stories of real-life women of Asia and Africa. Is there a way of constructing new worlds with our words that will help us to create paths out of the violence that entangles us? Can we, as artists or activists, repurpose the colonizer’s words to express old stories about how we have found ways to survive? Such projects would recognize that there are many third-space moments in which “Muslim women” and “Middle Eastern” women find themselves daily that are not easily understood within existing narratives.

No doubt, we risk being misinterpreted in turn by each side we critique. We risk being used and consumed by each side that misses the complexity of such multi-axis projects, and again seeks to reify “the Muslim woman” or “Middle Eastern women.” That is a risk we must take and continually counter with new moves. Yalla bina.


On Not Saving the Muslim Women (and Men)

Arzoo Osanloo

Tehran’s vibrant theater culture does not shy away from exposing pressing global issues of our time. One particularly compelling production running through 20 March 2017 in the Iranian capital’s formidable City Theater is Manus, a play about refugees awaiting processing to Australia. Manus is the eponymous name for the island province in Papua New Guinea where the Australian government leased land in 2001 to build a detention center, as part of its “Pacific Solution,” to contain asylum-seekers off its shore.[1] Written and directed by Nazanin Sahamizadeh, Manus is “documentary theater” that presents the verbatim words of Iranian refugees, based on research and interviews the playwright, herself, conducted over a two year period (Esmaeli 2017). Manus highlights the difficult experiences of refugees caged inside the island’s detention center, while telling of their dreams and desires, even as they encounter an ever-diminishing welcome.[2]

Embarking on a similar trajectory of closure and inhospitableness, on January 25, 2017, the U.S. President signed an Executive Order (EO) that, among other things, sought to limit immigration from seven countries with Muslim-majority populations and drastically reduce resettlement for all refugees, while halting it permanently for Syrians.[3] Referring to the EO as a “Muslim ban,” as the President and his supporters, the media, and the lawyers who fought it have, one envisions the dehumanization of women and men in Muslim societies through the juridical act of placing a prohibition on a person’s body, reducing a human being to the status of bare life, Agamben’s (2000) term for describing someone who lacks any legal status and thus recourse to the protections of a state. This act of banishment exposes the failure of human rights protections in a world organized by nation-states, in which said protections can be enlisted only through the nation-state’s acknowledgement of a human as worthy of relief – an act that can only be made through a state’s juridical recognition.

In the past, some feminist scholars critiqued the politicized rhetoric of Western governments and institutions in offering recognition to ‘the Muslim woman’ because saving her from her ‘culture’ or the men in her society was a cynical ruse to instrumentalize women in Muslim-majority societies for the broader project of intervention, whether ideological or military. Now, however, we look askance at the Muslim ban for its lack of compassion and cruel disregard for the plight of both women and men fleeing tragic circumstances, which, if not made by the U.S., are situations to which the U.S. contributed, sometimes significantly – Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. In either case, the Western gaze reflects a privileged standpoint from which some lives could be brought into the scope of activism and support, and made to matter – to donors, funders, relief workers, scholars, activists, and ultimately, perhaps, the state.

The hostility with which the current U.S. administration views Muslims, particularly those who hail from the countries subject to the ban, creates the need for a new politics of understanding the shifting worth of subaltern others – not just those who need support where they are, nor those who have made it to our shores, but now those whom we have banned and who, as a result, in their state of indeterminate expulsion, make up the constitutive others of ourselves, forming a human border of otherness to our ‘usness’. Our recognition of our government’s complicity in making the war or contributing to the instability that led to the outpouring of migrants is inadequate to capture the contemporary moment. Now that the measure of making “America Great Again” is made by placing a ban on Muslims, it refracts the worth of our own lives through the very suffering of others: the willful misrecognition of the lesser worth of another human being produces that constitutive other.

For this reason, one of the most compelling components of Sahamizadeh’s play is the audience to which it was directed. While popular on social media, especially in Australia, the audience is primarily Iranians living in Iran. Through the different stories told in the play, most days performed before a full house, the actors speak to the audience from a context in which Iran is the sending country, albeit one which also hosts a million refugees, the fourth highest in the world.[4] The stories of rape and death, due to untreated infection, murder, and suicide, in Australia’s offshore detention centers highlight the failures of the international refugee system to recognize the humanity of the people fleeing persecution.

In Manus, the play, the audience hears the actual words of their compatriots who fled Iran, but were unable to gain access to the freedoms they had envisaged. By portraying the Iranians as the ones in need of compassion, the production of the play inside Iran inverts the hierarchies of power and whose lives matter. The play offers a perspective by Iranians, in this case a female playwright, on the lives of Iranian refugees abroad, while also holding a mirror to the Iranians’ treatment of their own refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. The play as social commentary speaks, moreover, to the broader, more epic failure of a global system that continues to exploit lives for labor, but fails to protect the suffering of distant others because all protections still derive from the willingness of self-interested nation-states to be charitable and humane.

For decades now, feminist scholars writing about women in Muslim societies have been debating how to write about their interlocutors. By adding nuance and specificity as well as historical, political, and economic context to narrate the lives of women in Muslim-majority societies, feminist scholars have laid bare and largely offset the politicized discourses of saving Muslim women. The Muslim ban shows, however, that the state’s discourse about women in Muslim-majority societies can and does shift. Inasmuch as the Muslim ban is offered up as a sweeping security measure, it is also a masculinist prohibition that targets men-as-terrorists, while erasing the women who make up the vast majority of refugees. And thus, as Manus depicts, it is no longer sufficient to ask, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Now we must ask, “Can the Subaltern Live?”


[1] Manus is also the site where Margaret Mead lived and conducted fieldwork for many years.

[2] On April 26, 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found the detention center on Manus to violate that country’s constitutional right to personal liberty and issued a ruling to close the center. Although the center has been closed, the asylum-seekers remain, while the Australian government, unwilling to host the refugees itself, attempts to find host countries for them.

[3] Federal courts blocked the January EO and the President issued a revised version on March 6, 2017. The later EO, which was supposed to go into effect on March 16th, sought to address the portions of the original order that the courts found unlawful. The revised EO exempted some visa-holders and Iraqis from the list of people prohibited entry to the U.S. and removed the permanent ban on Syrian refugees, folding them into a 120-day suspension of the U.S. resettlement program. On March 15th, federal courts blocked this order as well. As of this writing, both EOs remain blocked as the executive branch prepares to appeal.

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance,”, accessed February 28, 2017.


Agamben, Giorgio. 2000. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Esmaeli, Ahmad Mohammad. February 23, 2017. “Interview with Nazanin Sahamizadeh,” Iran Theater., accessed February 28, 2017.


Invading Muslim Bodies in the Era of Trump

Hanadi Al-Samman

On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) banning citizens of seven Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States. In addition, the EO suspended the already anemic refugee program for 90 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. Chaos ensued as 200 inbound travelers, with valid visas, green card holders, and dual citizens were detained in US ports of entry. Some unfortunate few were deported, others remained in limbo as the ACLU and other organizations argued against the constitutionality of the ban in front of Judge Ann M. Donnelly of Federal District Court in Brooklyn. She subsequently ordered that the detained travelers not be deported. Another US District Court judge, James Robart of Washington State, halted the ban all together on February 3, 2017.

At the heart of what later came be known as the “Muslim Ban” is an attempt to vilify Muslim bodies, ban their mobility, and invade their privacy by activating the invading, terrorist other narrative. Trump’s ascendency to the presidency was the culmination of a fearmongering rhetoric that pitted disenfranchised Americans against minorities and immigrants of all ethnicities (Mexicans, Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims). It portrayed a dismal picture of a vulnerable America in crises–one whose borders are constantly penetrated by immigrant invaders looking to steal American jobs, and inflict harm on unsuspecting civilians. The old Cold War rhetoric is reactivated, only this time the Soviet/Russian enemy is supplanted by the Muslim enemy. The “invading” Muslim bodies has to be invaded in return, disrobed, prodded, questioned and forced to leak information pertaining to matters of faith and its practice. Some travelers report being asked if they pray regularly and to what extent they subscribe to shari῾a law. Others were ordered to surrender their smart phones’ passwords, subsequently being detained further if any Qur’anic verses showed in their chats or Facebook posts. To be admitted into any US port of entry, Muslim bodies have to submit to various forms of physical and digital inspection, x-rays, and questions violating their privacy to the point of eliminating their dignity and essence. They have to be transparent, self-erasing to the point of non-existence. Only then their perceived threat can be curtailed and neutralized.

This Muslim hunt did not just stop at citizens of the seven countries referenced in the Executive Order, but exceeded it to American citizens of all ethnicities. There are reports of 25 American citizens who were stopped at the border, asked about the relevance of their names to the Muslim faith, and ordered to surrender their smart phones and passwords. On February 7, 2017, Mohammed Ali Jr. the son of the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali and his mother Khalilah Ali were detained at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport.[1] The mother was released upon showing her picture with her late husband. However, Mohammed Ali Jr. continued to be detained for two hours and was asked, “Are you Muslim?” and “What is the reasoning behind your name, Mohammed, despite your African American ethnicity?” On March 9, 2017, he was prevented, yet again, from boarding a JetBlue flight in Washington DC also because of his Muslim name.

The most pernicious aspect of profiling and targeting the Muslim citizens of the seven nations in the Executive Order travel ban is the way it normalized prejudice and gave license to hateful rhetoric and violent extremists. On February 22, 2017, two Indian engineers were shot at a bar in Olathe, Kansas by Adam Purinton who hurled racial slurs and shouted, “Get out of my country.”[2] The subsequent death of 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla and the deafening silence of the Trump administration in condemning this hate crime speak volumes to the challenges minorities and immigrants face in the era of Trump. The unseen benefit of this unprecedented attack on our constitutional and civil liberties is the mobilization of US citizens from various backgrounds against prejudice and tyranny. Uniting in collaborative resistance, residents of New York organized an “I am a Muslim Too” rally on February 19, 2007, when thousands of people filled Times Square in protest of the Muslim ban, declaring that an attack on one Muslim-American is an attack on all Americans. Non-Muslim women donned the hijab as they listened to Linda Sarsour, the former Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and co-founder of MPOWER Change. Invoking their shared humanity, she stated, “Brothers and sisters, you are a Muslim today, but my hijab marks me as a Muslim every day.”[3] The focus on resisting through intersectional coalition that brings men, women, and members of various ethnic and religious communities together is the key towards defying the encroachment on American civil liberties. Indivisible movements that are sprouting all over the country are the best forms of civil and feminist advocacy in defiance of Trump’s Muslim ban. Akin to the millions of Arabs who protested tyrannical autocrats by occupying public squares during the Arab Spring, American citizens invading city squares and congressional offices of their representatives represent the antidote to Trump’s poisonous, divisive rhetoric, and the triumph of American democracy.


[1] Vales, Leinz 2017 (February 28). “Muhammad Ali’s son says he was detained at airport because he’s Muslim,” CNN,

[2] Eligon, John, Nida Najar, and Alan Blinder. 2017. “Hate Crime Is Feared as Two Indian Engineers Are Shot in Kansas.” The New York Times, February 24.

[3] Chow, Kat, 2017 (February 19). “In Times Square, Protesters Take To The Streets To Say ‘I Am Muslim Too’” NPR,


Chaos as a Political Strategy of Governance

Suad Joseph

The Trump administration is governing through the use of a tactic often used by authoritarian regimes, but now used in new and extreme forms with the help of social media – the tactic of chaos. The ban on travelers from seven (later six) Muslim majority countries; the accusation that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the election campaign; reports and denials of Russian contacts; building a wall; rounding up “illegal” immigrants; rounding up names of environment-friendly staff and gender-friendly staff in the Department of Energy and the Department of State – these and many other stories, statements, and tweets are frequently reported in the media as examples of the “ineptness” of the Trump administration. There is another way to think about what we are witnessing – chaos as a mechanism of governance.

Chaos is not always accidental but can be a means of rule and control that presents one of the gravest dangers to democracy. It is not a new tactic. It has been used by fascist, authoritarian regimes, military and nonmilitary dictators, union-busting employers and reality-TV show hosts. It is not alien to American politics. What is new perhaps is the bold and unabashed promotion of these tactics as a daily form of governance by elected government leaders. It is so brazen, as to defy belief. Yet, it is a form of governance – a form of governance that conceals or makes acceptable arbitrary, exploitative, and repressive measures that install new forms of “order.” Such order allows new forms of surveillance while pointing the fake finger of surveillance at others; intensified tax inequality while bathing in inflated market euphoria; derailing voter rights, while claiming voter fraud; undoing environmental protections while boasting “new jobs;” firing up Islamophobia (with such tactics as the Muslim ban), while cutting business deals with selected Muslim majority countries – and the like.

Chaos, as a tactic of rule, works by assertions/actions, denials, re-statements, re-assertions/actions, clarifications, third generation assertions/actions…. and the cycle continues until there is almost an out-of-body experience of dis-reality. What is real and what is trumped-up? Daily accosted by confusion, the tendency is to distance, disavow, disbelieve – even diminish. The dangerous by-product of a political culture organized by chaos is dis-connection. There is only so much chaos one can take before retreat to some place where there is a semblance of order. What would the nature of that order be? That is the deep danger. The danger includes the repression for those who would be “saved” from chaos and the targeting of those who come to be defined as the evil enemies causing the “chaos.”

For those of us who work with Middle Eastern and Muslim populations, the explicit targeting of peoples of those regions and religions adds isolation to the danger they experience. The demonization of Muslim peoples and Islam as the evil enemy producers of terror goes hand in hand with tactics of chaos leading to authoritarian governance. “Islam hates us,” President Trump declared on the campaign circuit – as if Islam were a person, one person, and could act in a uniform manner. It is not an accident that hate crimes against Muslims and Arab Americans and hate crimes against those who look like Muslims (Sikhs, for example) have increased in the USA since 2015. The hate crimes add to the sense of urgency which chaos stimulates and increases the sense of chaos/disorder. The victims (Muslims, Arabs, and those who resemble them) then become both victim and villain – they are blamed for the chaos, and are attacked for it. Hate crimes against Jews have also increased, though political leaders, especially the White House, have made concerted statements condemning anti-Semitism. They gloss over the responsibility that inciting hate affects all of us. Attacks on Mexicans, immigrants, African-American youth – these pilloried targets of white nationalism come all be glossed as a danger to US (white) national culture. The increased numbers of “enemies” – a term now in currency – furthers the sense of chaos and danger. Chaos, underwritten by emergency, historically has supported calls for “order,” stability, and the rise of the right.

The ban on travel to the United States covers only Muslim majority countries. And the most reviled Muslims are Muslim males, young males. Yet, it is the representation of Muslim women that often justifies the representation of what is “evil,” anti-modern, and even anti-civilizational in Islam.

The (mis)representation of Muslim women as rationale for intervention in the Middle East and Muslim majority countries is historic in the US and Europe. Muslim women are overwhelmingly represented as oppressed, voiceless, non-agential, and subject to the whims of fathers/brothers/husbands who see them as objects of labor and sexual service. That Muslim men would treat their own mothers, sisters, daughter, wives so badly supports the notion that Muslim men are by nature violent and therefore dangerous. My own research on major American print news media (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others) reveals a constant pattern of representing Muslim women as “needing saving” (Joseph et al 2008; Joseph and D’Harlingue 2013). Lila Abu-Lughod’s (2013) critique, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, brilliantly puts a lie to that representation.

Yet, as Jon Finer and Robert Malley (2017) observed, since 9/11, less than 9 Americans per year have been victims of terror attacks in the US, as compared with an annual death rate of 12,000 from gunshot. They note that in the US we are 1,333 times more likely to be killed by criminals than by terrorists. They blame Democrats and Republicans for the hyper-focus on global terrorism and particularly Islamic terror which became an efficient, sufficient, and successful campaign platform for the Trump organization.

What are counter-tactics? Recognizing chaos as a tactic of repressive rule that uses targeting and isolation presents a beginning point. Fear and retreat are the successful outcomes of rule by chaos. Connection, engagement, coalitions, calling out lies and fake news for what they are, speaking truth, and standing for the rule of law, equality, and social justice are steps in defense of democracy. And democracy needs defenders at this dizzying moment of rule by chaos.


Abu-Lughod, Lila, 2013. Do Muslim Really Women Need Saving? Boston: Harvard University Press.

Finer, Jon and Robert Malley. 2017, Mar. 5. “How Our Strategy Against Terrorism Gave us Trump.” The New York Times Op Ed (Section IV p3).

Joseph, Suad, Benjamin D’Harlingue, and Ka Hin Wong. 2008. “Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in the New York Times, Before and After 9/11. From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects: Arab American Identities Before and After 9/11. Eds. Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 229-275.

Joseph, Suad and Benjamin D’Harlingue. 2012. “The Wall Street Journal’s Muslims: Representing Islam in American Print News Media.” Islamphobia Studies Journal. Volume 1. No. 1 (Spring). 132-164.


Reflections from the other side of the pond

Nadje Al-Ali

Trump’s election was a shock. But it was not the first of its kind. Being based in London, the city I call home after 22 years, BREXIT had already shaken me profoundly: “How could this happen? Why didn’t we see it coming?”. Post-Brexit, many of us without British passports have felt less welcome, while we noticed a rise in racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, particularly in relation to migrants and refugees. Increasingly apparent in the UK context, which I assume is similar in the U.S., has been a sense of increased polarization of society, and a strong sense right there in front of our eyes the world as we knew it seems to be crumbling away.

Given my family name and mixed background, Trump’s executive order put me on the spot on a personal level: do I have to make a case that I am a secular feminist in order to be let into the U.S.? It occurred to me that identifying as a feminist was probably not a good idea. What kind of credential would be needed to show that one is a “good Muslim”, or none at all, despite the family name? Should I refer to alcohol consumption, my views on homosexuality or my book on secularism in the Middle East? I dismissed the various options after a short while. Maybe I should put on the hijab on my next trip to the States as an act of solidarity? But that seemed ludicrous as well as it would just confirm the stereotype of what a Muslim should look like. Either way, the executive order made me feel more so than at any other historical moment and context that I had become Muslim and Middle Eastern.

Of course there is always the option to boycott the U.S. and avoid any conferences or events taking place within its borders. Although several colleagues have argued in favour of that option, I personally do not think that we should boycott U.S. academia and other relevant events and organizations. The fact is that our academic colleagues in the U.S are under attack as well. According to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, all university faculty, “from adjunct professors to deans,” are guilty of brainwashing college students. In a speech given at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), DeVos accused academics for tainting students with “liberal ideology”.[1] Rather than boycotting, I think we should provide solidarity and support to our colleagues by attending events and speaking out against Trump’s policies and attitude.

Having grown up as child and young adult in post WWII anti-nationalist self-critical and reflexive Germany, I was educated and socialised to fear fascism and populism. My teachers in high school stressed that silence and standing by meant complicity and guilt during Nazi Germany. We learnt that fascism and populism thrived on fabricated lies, conspiracies, fear and paranoia. What makes the current situation particularly painful and difficult is that evidence, rational arguments, and logic do not seem to be sufficient anymore in this post-truth clash of civilisations. Clearly, we are at a historical juncture where individually and collectively we need to speak out, we need to mobilise, resist, pursue truth while recognizing our different positionalities.

As feminist scholars of the Middle East, we are challenged to look out for each other in support and solidarity. In practise this might mean taking the time to listen to our colleagues’ worries, anxieties and fears, and reassuring them. It might mean providing information and legal advise, creating networks of people who have experienced similar situations. Now so more than ever, we are challenged to pursue our teaching with passion and insight and to educate our students not only in terms of confronting misconceptions about the Middle East, but also sensitize them to the intersectionalities of power and the importance of informed analytical thinking and questioning. As feminist scholars and activists we are challenged to make the links between unequal power relations in relation to gender and sexuality and authoritarian politics, militarism and neo-liberal economics. As scholars of the Middle East, we must dispel the exceptionalism linked to the region we study, particularly when it comes to the breach of democratic values, and point to the parallels between the increase of populist governance in places like Turkey and the U.S. And we need to find creative and innovative ways to communicate beyond our comfort zones.


[1] Scott Jaschick “DeVos vs. the Faculty”; Inside Higher Education, 24 February 2017.


President Trump’s Moving Targets: Walls, Expulsions, and the Prisoners of State

Camila Pastor de María Campos

I was at the US Embassy in Mexico City getting my student visa when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York. The procedure was a half-day affair. Hundreds of applicants had a mass appointment at 6 am and spent the next six or seven hours inside a warehouse attached to the embassy, standing in lines, being photographed, interviewed and processed. I only found out about the towers around 3 pm, when I got home and found my mother in tears and a family recommending that I did not travel. Eager for the independence that graduate school promised, I arrived in Los Angeles on September 18th 2001 to start a PhD program in Anthropology. I flew with three other passengers on an otherwise empty aircraft. We all sat silently in the first row, eyeing one another occasionally. Two weeks into the quarter, all international students were requested to attend a meeting, with the warning that whoever did not show up would find their affiliation with UCLA terminated. We were told to bring our visas and passports, which were confiscated at the door. We were told that we were presumed terrorists, that visas would be re-processed under the new Homeland Security Act, our telephones and email accounts placed under surveillance, and passports returned when it was deemed appropriate. I walked out of the hall a prisoner of state, puzzling over the horizon of possibility that pushed a well institutionalized state to madness. With the equation of Islam and terrorism that has ensued full blast in American media and official discourse since, and through the political choice of a particular administration, I had been Arabized. Recognizing that my intended doctoral project was irrelevant to the moment, I sought research questions that would allow me to document other imaginaries, other possible pasts and futures of relation to the Arab and Muslim world, which in my Mexican-Honduran childhood and Quaker American adolescence had not been a radical, threatening Other, but a cousin, a relative of sorts. I was fortunate to be at UCLA, where academic advisers supported my choice and university resources allowed me to train in the field that I had been re-born into. As I learned Arabic and grasped the historiography of the region, fellow Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian grad students and I adopted each other enthusiastically. I was told that I laughed like a Turk, that I danced like one too, and that I would become the new Iraq’s means of recovering Andalusia. I had three Palestinian Arab men for roommates who I jokingly called my four husbands, but who were more like brothers. Meanwhile, less fortunate Latinos also taken for “Arabs” or “Muslims” were being killed on the streets of LA.

How can this brief sketch of my induction into Middle East Studies during the Bush administration help us think about the current moment and its attempts to restrict human mobility into the United States? Why are all citizens of six Muslim majority countries- prevented from entering the US or from leaving it if they are already there, prisoners of state? How does this affect the field of Middle East Women’s Studies? The present moment feeds on the construction of the Muslim as the post-Soviet “enemy” of American Empire and Fortress Europe since at least 9/11. The recent American presidential campaign and elections shifted the parameters of the conceivable, as a candidate inclined to grab women “by the pussy” was voted into office. The ban is a breach of international relations as we know them. It is a delirious extension of a logic that merges the populist political need to create a scapegoat with the will to exert economic and political power against internal and external others. What is particularly dangerous is that though the ban currently affects citizens of identifiable states that are accused of “not collaborating” with the United States, visa procedures for all non-nationals have already been tightened and restructured. Like definition of kulaks in Stalin’s Russia or of “undesirables” in Eugenics-inspired early twentieth century legislations curtailing migration, there is no stable content to the President’s targets. Such a ban can be extended to fix and exclude, incarcerate or eliminate all newfound enemies of the state. I read it as continuous with the order to build a wall on the Mexico-US border, mandating an independent country to assume the costs of projected US infrastructure, and the criminalization of Mexican labor migrants in the United States as murderous rapists and Mexicans in Mexico as “bad hombres”. In a world deeply structured by transnational flows of people, commodities and information, all of these gestures are bound to fail in the control of mobility, but are already exceptionally successful in fanning violence and creating confrontation. Though the ban prevents us undesirables from accessing American riches, the misogyny and xenophobia of the current administration also inaugurate opportunities for new solidarities and can help open the center of gravity of our field, helping us provincialize the US, just as postcolonial scholarship taught us to provincialize Europe.