Fordham Law Holds Discussion on Intersection between Race and Religion Featuring Professor Sahar Aziz of Rutgers Law


On Nov. 30, Rutgers University Law School Professor Sahar Aziz gave a virtual talk on her recently published book, The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, which demonstrates how race and religion intersect to create what she calls the “Racial Muslim.” The program was moderated by Tanya Katerí Hernández, Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham and presented by Fordham Law’s Center on Race, Law and Justice.

In conversation with Aziz at the event was John Tehranian, Paul W. Wildman Chair and Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School and author of the 2008 book titled Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority. Similar to The Racial Muslim, Whitewashed also explores race and religion in America. 

Tehranian described Aziz’s book as “a vital and important contribution to the literature on race, discrimination, and religion,” adding that it presented an “exhaustively researched overview of the legal history on this particular issue, drawing a powerful analogy with the historical  persecution of other ethnic and religious  minorities.”

The Inspiration Behind The Racial Muslim 

To set the stage for the conversation, Aziz provided an introduction to what inspired her to write the book, which took approximately five years to complete. “It’s the book that I couldn’t find—and so I wrote it,” said Aziz.

During her time as a litigator, policy maker in Washington, D.C., and as a student working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) post-9/11, Aziz saw firsthand the discrimination and stigmatization that Muslim Americans faced. “As I was dealing with all of these different material and dignitary harms arising from anti-Muslim racism or Islamophobia, I kept asking, ‘Why is this happening in the United States?’” Aziz said. 

“This is a country that prides itself on protecting religious freedom,” she added, pointing to the country’s founding as a place where Puritans were able to escape religious persecution, “yet we’re so openly anti-Muslim.“

The reason behind this, Aziz realized, was that people who supported discriminatory policies did not view those policies within the framework of religious freedom. “They were treating Muslims the way that they treated African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. This was really more about racism than it was about religious bigotry,” she said. “By taking Muslims out of the category of religion and religious minorities, and putting them into something else, you could then engage in discrimination that has been part of the American story since its founding.”

Race and Muslim Identity in America 

In her book, Aziz also explores how America’s demographics rapidly changed from a majority white Protestant nation to a multiracial, multi-religious society.

The diversity of the Muslim population in America, as Aziz explained, currently includes people who identify as African, South Asian, and Latinx. In fact, though many people might conflate Arab identity and Islam, most Arab-Americans are actually Christian, she said. “Of course Islam is not a race,” Aziz said, “and race is a social construction.” 

However, Muslim identity has been “racialized” according to Aziz, using “quasi biological traits” that associate Muslim identity with negative and damaging stereotypes and tropes. “It’s similar to [the idea that]  simply by having a certain skin color, you are then presumed to have all of these inferior traits, when in fact, that’s a fallacy,” she said. “But that’s what racism is.”  

Racism and Islamophobia are unfortunately still very much a problem, but scholars at The Center for Race, Law and Justice continue to do work that unpacks some of those questions, including work by Professor Hernández, who is the associate director of the center, and whose work Aziz cites as an influence (“I’m a fan girl, to be completely honest,” she says.)

Education is a Part of the Solution 

Tehranian praised Aziz’s book for being accessible even to non-legal scholars, which he believes is important so that a wider audience can better understand and learn about the scourge of Islamophobia and how it relates to the history of discrimination against Catholic, Mormon and Jewish Americans. 

“Part of the remedy for the intolerance and the hate is education,” he said. “There is an active political and legal dialogue advancing religious rights and condemning limitations on the activities of people of faith, but all too often, that discourse seems to ignore anti-Islamic activity and the targeting of Muslim Americans.”

“I think calling out that hypocrisy is something that is very important for all of us to do,” Tehranian added. 

Tehranian also noted the timeliness of Aziz’s book, especially after videos recently emerged capturing Republican Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado making Islamophobic remarks against Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “This is repugnant rhetoric,” he said. “It is hateful, it is demonizing and—in the year 2021—it should be absolutely unacceptable.” 


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