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Author Topic: Marriage in Color: Race, Religious Authority and Spouse Selection  (Read 2908 times)


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Very, very, very interesting study. Take the time to read it if you can.


“Marriage in Color: Race, Religious Authority and Spouse Selection in Four Muslim Communities in Michigan”

By: Zareena A Grewal

University of Michigan

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ruth Behar and Erik Mueggler, who served as advisors for the original research project this article is based on, for their time, guidance and thoughtful comments.  Daniel Moerman and Hamada Hamid generously read earlier versions and offered helpful suggestions.  The Honors Program at the University of Michigan generously provided funding to cover the costs of my research.


Abstract: In this study, marriage serves as the point of entry into discussions about race, religion and identity in Muslim American communities.   For immigrant Muslims the experience of minority status in the U.S. and the corresponding politics of citizenship and identity fundamentally transform their constructions of difference outside of and within their communities. As Muslim American youth challenge their parents’ ideologies of color and racial prejudices, they develop a new language of religious authority that undermines their parents’ cultures.  Muslim American youth turn to Islam as a discursive resource to challenge the racial discourses that permeate their communities and American society.  [Muslim Americans, Arab, South Asian, diaspora, Islam, race, marriage]



In some ways, Rashid’s[1] relationship with his parents is not all that different from many twenty-two year old Americans.  His parents worry that he doesn’t spend enough time on his schoolwork.  They don’t like the way he dresses.  They don’t like his friends.  And they don’t approve of the woman he is in love with.

            Rashid is the son of Pakistani immigrants who came to Ann Arbor, Michigan almost thirty years ago.  However, he rejects the word Pakistani wedged between hyphens in his identity.  He identifies only as a Muslim.  He would much rather pour over his books on Islam than those for his classes.  He has grown a beard and wears a kufi, a Muslim skullcap.  He carries a Quran with him at all times.  Most of his friends are African American Muslims, as is the woman he wants to marry.

Rashid:  The reason I use the term “so-called Pakistani” is because . . . I don’t like to identify myself on a basic race or nationality. . .  As long as we carry the cultural baggage that comes with us, ‘We’re Pakistani, we’re Iraqi, Arab, or Arab-American,’ this and that-- those are all the terms that the British gave us--we’re identifying ourselves with the artificial names of geography.  Once we get over that, we’re Muslim first.  Then we can relieve all the problems we have in our community.  Not the “so-called problems” of who my kids can and cannot marry.  These are things our parents distract themselves with.  I mean real problems, like carrying this din [religion, Islam] here in this country.”

The spirit of religious reform that underscores Rashid’s critique is echoed by Muslim American youth throughout the mosque-based communities in the U.S., communities established by their immigrant parents.  Most of these immigrants, typically Arabs from the Middle East and Desi immigrants from South Asia,[2] arrived during the sixties and seventies included large numbers of educated professionals who, largely, realized their dreams of financial success and quiet family life in American suburbs.[3]  (Sowell 1996)  Many of the American-born children, like Rashid, are of marriageable age and often have different ideas than their parents about the measure of a good spouse.  This generational conflict plays out in the context of contending cultures and multiple, competing claims to religious authority.  The second-generation, since they were raised in the U.S., often find certain eastern values, practices and traditions contradictory to their understanding of Islam.  The first generation, on the other hand, grew up in Muslim societies where these cultural elements are naturalized and taken for granted.  As Muslim American youth challenge their parents on issues of identity and race, they develop a new language of religious authority that undermines their parents’ cultures.  For the immigrants the experience of minority status in the U.S. and the corresponding politics of citizenship and identity fundamentally transform their constructions of difference outside of and within their communities.  Muslim American youth in these communities turn to Islam as a discursive resource to challenge their parents’ ideologies of color and racial prejudices as well as the racism that envelops the contemporary U.S.

Many Muslim American mosque-based communities are undergoing a religious re-awakening.  The rediscovery of Islam in diaspora[4] takes a range of interesting forms, including the privileging of religious identity.[5]  Multiple religious discourses exist in mosque communities, some harmoniously interpenetrating one another, and others competing as different ways of understanding Islam and being Muslim. (Horvatich 1994)  Religion and tradition are not static, frozen imports, but serve as dynamic resources of beliefs, values and ways of understanding the world. (Nanji 1988: 229)  Religious references emerge again and again, penetrating a whole range of problems and debates.  The four Sunni mosque-based communities in Michigan examined here are scattered throughout the greater Detroit area and overlap in terms of membership.  The mosques in Ann Arbor, Canton, Troy and Franklin, Michigan serve as social and religious centers for middle class immigrant communities from the Middle East and South Asia.[6]  All four communities also include black and white Muslim Americans and smaller numbers of immigrants from other parts of the world.[7]  Mosque-based communities like the ones examined here represent only a small segment of Muslim Americans; however, examining their perspectives on interracial marriage and intra-racial color preferences sheds light not only on the nature of the generational tug-of-war between “cultural” parents and “religious” children, but also on the complex ways that constructions of identity are transformed in culturally fragmentary contexts like the U.S.

Transformations in Diaspora

In this study, marriage serves as a window into the ways the experience of diaspora transforms constructions of race, religious authority and identity in American mosque communities.  For many Muslim immigrants their religious identity takes on a prominence it did not have when they lived in Muslim societies.  The “Muslim first” identification is often even stronger in the second generation. (Schmidt 2002)  This privileging of religious identity is related to transformations of religious authority.  By setting their parents’ cultures in opposition to Islam, Muslim American youth assume a moral higher ground.  Interestingly, the term “culture” takes on a negative connotation in reference to immigrant Muslims.[8]  The constructions of difference within and outside of these communities are also transformed as Muslim Americans negotiate their status as minorities in the racially stratified U.S.

Muslim Americans often construct racial differences that other Americans might dismiss as merely ethnic.  However, making ethnicity the master concept over race often glosses over exclusions and hostilities with racial undercurrents.(Sanjek 1994: 109)   Forcing the category of ethnicity on a subjected group can distort their social position in relation to other groups, and obscures their history of exclusion.  Sanjek argues that placing “ethnicity at the center of analysis . . . regularly leads to treating [these people] as merely an exception to general processes that” have affected other waves of immigrants and to underplaying the history of inequality. (109)   First and second generation Muslim Americans in the communities examined here feel that they are racially marked in contrast to white Americans, however, their constructions of race are far from fixed.  Muslim immigrants’ anxiety about their position in the racial hierarchy of the U.S. creates racial identifications that are constantly in flux.

The notion of the inherent instability of race is valuable in understanding this phenomenon.  Jacobsen argues that “certain groups undergo a process of racial redefinition as shifting social and political circumstances require, but varying systems of ‘difference’ can coexist and compete with one another at a given moment” (Jacobsen 1998: 140).   Although most Arabs and some Desis regularly check the “white” box on official forms, they reject that identification in other situations.

Nayef:  I think the way being Arab manifests itself racially is [that] we see ourselves as different [from whites] . . . as Arab Muslims, different culture, different everything.  And we want to stay the way we are and that manifests itself in the youth, too.  To be labeled a white boy, it’s the worst.  You’re like, “I ain’t white. . . I’m Arab!” And everyone that’s teasing you is pretty much light skinned or blond or whatever but it’s irrelevant.  It’s white, meaning American [whites].

Even those Arabs who have physical characteristics typically considered definitive attributes of whiteness (blond or red hair, light skin, etc.) often reject whiteness as their racial identity.  One reason Arab Americans sometimes reject whiteness may be because of particular political circumstances and social tensions felt in contemporary U.S. society.   Throughout the twentieth century, Arab Americans experienced racially motivated hatred, although it intensified in the last half of the century due to the tenor of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.[9] (Morsy 1994: 190)  Contemporary anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices have their roots in this political racism.  Recent political and historical events, most notably the aftermath of September 11th, have increased racial hostility towards Muslims and Arabs demonstrated by the dramatic rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes.(CAIR 2003)  Muslims with physical markers of their faith (i.e. men with beards, women who wear hijab, the Muslim veil) are particularly vulnerable.  Muslim Americans who are discriminated against often naturalize the difference and exclusion they feel by drawing on the language of race.

Constructions of difference are never static.  Jacobsen defines race as a “tablet whose most recent inscriptions only imperfectly cover those that had come before, and whose inscriptions can never be regarded as final” (Jacobsen 1998:  142). The analogy of a tablet seems especially fitting for Muslim Americans whose racial constructions seem to be shaped by particular political and social conditions.  Many Muslim immigrants covet whiteness and want to follow the paths of earlier waves of European immigrants who achieved ethnic whiteness over generations.

Rashid:  I have an aunt that’s darker than, you know, dark (loudly) and she [wants to] be white.  I said, “Sarah Auntie, you must be out your mind.” But that’s [her] mentality. . .  It’s [a kind of] racism but I can deal with it.  It’s not Islam.

Rashid disapproves of his aunt’s desire for the security and privilege associated with whiteness but frames his unsympathetic critique in religious terms.  Throughout the twentieth century, European immigrants suffered discrimination in the U.S. and as an act of self-preservation “became white-‘by deciding they were white’ [which] powerfully directs our attention to the fact that white ethnics . . . chose whiteness, and even struggled to be recognized as white” (Roediger 1994: 185).  However, many Muslim immigrants believe that strategy is not an option for them due to the current racial climate in the U.S. and the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiments.  Therefore, they often identify themselves in other ways.

Even some community members who trace their lineage to Europe reject whiteness in certain circumstances.  One young woman in Franklin, who wears the Muslim veil or hijab, explains that although she is very light-skinned, any ethnic identity would not accurately express her experience.

Ahoo:  We have Turkish, Bosnian, Russian and Arab influences in our family. . . Its much more European than Middle Eastern, so, yes, I’m Turkish but I don’t identify as Turkish.  I don’t feel Turkish.  I feel Muslim; maybe because I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere, I just classify myself as Muslim, not Turkish or Arab. . . . And, of course, I’m not . . . like these [American] white women.

Although religion is never constructed as biological, some Muslim Americans talk about religious identity in vaguely racial terms.[10]  Jacobsen argues that conflations like these do not “denote a mere sloppiness or imprecision in the language of race; such contradictions” often reveal the significant consciousness of constructions of difference.  (Jacobsen 1998: 170)  Similarly, Janet, a white American convert who wears the hijab, constructs her racial identity differently after becoming (visibly) Muslim.

Janet:  Of course, I know I’m still white and [Muslims] in the community think of me as white but in my head I really identify myself as a minority now.  I mean, I feel like my hijab has turned me into a minority in the sense that other white Americans don’t see me as white.  They are always trying to figure out this imaginary accent and before this [indicating her veil] nobody used to ask me where I was born, or what kind of accent I have.  When I tell them I was born in Detroit, they act all confused.  A lot of white people see me as a traitor, even in my family, so that makes me identify much more as a Muslim than as white.  I have to worry about discrimination just like any other minority; I stick out in crowds and stuff.  So, how am I any whiter than some Syrian girl with blue eyes?

For Janet her “cultural apostasy”[11] and the ensuing sense of alienation from other whites has led her to construct her racial identity differently after converting and becoming visibly Muslim by wearing hijab.  Although religious symbols are not racial markers, they may take on a racial cast.  This construction of racial difference as a sociopolitical response is uncommon among white converts; most continue to identify as white.  However, they note that when confronting anti-Arab or anti-Muslim prejudice their religious identity becomes more salient than their racial one.

                Although constructions of difference are transformed as Muslim immigrant communities assimilate the racial discourse in the U.S., race is hardly new to them.  As formerly colonized peoples, they have an intimate history with regimes of white supremacy, which is reflected not only in the ways they construct racial difference in relation to others, but also the ways they link privilege and color amongst themselves.  These intra-racist constructions of difference are also transformed in diaspora.  Intra-racism is a term describing the phenomenon of a racialized group that internalizes white supremacy and redirects it at its own members.  Since each racial group contains a wide spectrum of individual skin colors, people are stratified along this color line.  Those individuals at the lighter end of the spectrum are considered more attractive, and are therefore privileged. This privilege is much less marked and systematic than the privilege of whiteness in the U.S.  However, the two are comparable in that both are embedded in ways that are not readily apparent, and the benefits, elisions, and racial myths that accompany that privilege are reinscribed in everyday social interactions.(Harris 1995: 277)  Individuals at the other end of the spectrum are considered unattractive.  Dark skin is thus stigmatized in parallel, often imperceptible, ways.

            Post-colonial people continue to acquiesce to the rhetoric of white supremacy in their countries as well as in diaspora.  The very system of colonial rule was dependent on subjected peoples’ internalization of European racial rhetoric.  The colonial subject becomes “overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to be white, . . . because he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race” (Fanon 1967: 100).  Not all colonial subjects absorbed European notions of racial hierarchy or suffered from self-hate; however, this discourse left its mark and continues to be reflected in the ways some formerly colonized people talk about color.  The imperial legacy of attitudes concerning race and beauty is made painfully obvious in even a superficial analysis of the media in the former colonies.  White models are omnipresent in advertising, selling imported goods as well as indigenous products.  Morsy describes the electronic media in the Middle East.

The mass information media . . . promote . . . a standard of physical attributes that defines fair skin, light eyes, and blond hair as admirable.  [Western] TV commercials . . . feature blond women.  When local actresses are involved, many of them either have their hair dyed or wear blond wigs.  Indeed, in urban areas, a noticeable correlate . . . is the increased number of women with dyed light hair . . . [and] colored contact lenses. (Morsy 1994: 186)

The globalization of Western media transforms beauty standards in the post-colonial world.  Although literary references to the preference for fair skin are ubiquitous in pre-modern literature from the Middle East and South Asia, these constructions of beauty took on new significance once they encountered regimes of white supremacy.

I would argue that the ideologies of color in the post-colonial Muslim world are racial, although they are categorically different from Western racism.  The preference for light skin is not random.  Intra-racism is the reflection of self-hatred, the internalization of notions of inferiority and defect, perhaps the most tragic scar left by a system of racism.  Some scholars read pre-modern preferences for fair skin as evidence of a historical continuum of race, although this poses a number of methodological problems.  Physical anthropologists, for example, have tried to determine whether race was a determinant factor in the Indian caste system.

In India, for example, anthropometric records have shown that on the whole high-caste individuals had lighter skins and narrower noses than others; but there is nothing infallible about this test, even in restricted areas.  There is no inconsistency between high cast and a dark skin or a flat nose.  If race ever was the original basis of caste in India, it did not remain so. (Gossett 1997:  7)

The problems with reading race into history make it impossible to know whether the social hierarchies of the Indian caste system and skin coloring were related.  Reading skin color and nose width into Indian history risks simply projecting contemporary, Western signs of race backwards onto another time and place.   However, treating modern preferences for fair skin as echoes of pre-modern constructions of beauty is equally reductionist.  Trautmann, a historical anthropologist of India, demonstrates that Indians of all historical periods have preferred fair complexions. (Trautmann 1997: 214)  A problem arises when scholars like Trautmann, in their zeal to prevent their modern racialized sensibilities from shaping their historical inquiry, fail to read the very real phenomenon of intra-racism in modern post-colonial India as connected to race.  He notes that “Indians have a lively interest in complexion . . . [and] prize a fair complexion over a dark one.  Complexion is not race in and of itself, but it may be construed as a sign of race” (214).  The argument that modern Indian complexion preferences are unconnected to race has dangerous implications.  While race should not be reduced to color, treating the fetishization of fair skin among formerly colonized peoples as coincidental neglects the power and continuing vitality of the rhetoric of white supremacy in the post-colonial world. Although every culture prizes certain elements of physical appearance over others, their fetishization of fair color cannot be compared to the random, benign feature preferences among whites.   The concept of race is certainly not static or unchanging in India, just as it is not in the U.S.; however, intra-racism corresponds to the rhetoric of white supremacy in suggestive ways.  By trivializing complexion, the impact and power of the colonial project is further entrenched, hidden and legitimized alongside the privilege of fair skin among post-colonial peoples.

As many Arabs and Desis leave their home countries for the US, their intra-racist ideologies emigrate with them and are reinforced and transformed by the racial climate in the U.S.   Sultana, an immigrant from India, explains how ideologies of color are reformulated in a society with a white majority.

Sultana:  Most [Desis] are samla, neither dark nor fair.  So what is fair over there might be samla over here.  Like, in India, you would be very fair, but here you won’t because of the white Americans.  So it depends on the comparison.

Sultana explicitly refers to white Americans as the standard to be measured against.  Interestingly, although most Muslim immigrants in these communities construct whites as racially different from them, for some, like Sultana, whites remain the point of reference.  For others, like twenty-year-old Abdullah, the ability to “pass” as white informs their color preferences.

Abdullah:  I think [whiteness] is the ultimate beauty standard.  “She’s so pretty, she’s white skinned.”  That’s always the line [in Franklin] and I think it’s in Syria, too. I mean, my mother is very white and people are always surprised she’s Arab.  And she wants me to marry someone who looks like us.  I think that’s fine.

The stigma of dark skin and the preference for light coloring are coded racially as immigrants assess their status as minorities in the U.S. and the benefits of “passing” as whites.  The fetishizing of light skin is not unrelated to the broader racial climate of the U.S., where Muslim minorities from the Middle East and South Asia regularly experience discrimination.  In other words, intra-racism is simultaneously a self-destructive internalization of white supremacy and a strategy for surviving it.

Intra-racism and Spouse Selection

“Sunni Parents of Indian origin seeking suitable match for their two daughters:

(1)   Pharmacist, 24 years old, prefer someone in medical field. (2) Degree holder,

31 years old, employed in computer field.  Both are U.S. citizens, slim and fair color.” (emphasis mine) (ISNA Horizons 2003)

Matrimonials advertising “fair” skin like the one above are ubiquitous in the “lonely hearts” sections of Muslim American publications and web sites. Although some studies have examined the role matrimonial ads play in facilitating the matchmaking process for Muslim Americans, (Hermansen 1991, Haddad and Smith 1996) my interest is on the significance placed on skin color.  Any superficial analysis of Muslim American personal ads demonstrates the extent to which intra-racist ideologies of skin color persist in these communities.

Preference for lighter skin among people of color in the U.S. simply cannot be compared to the random personal preferences of those with a history of racial privilege.  Russell et al note in their important work on African Americans that the politics of skin color still govern the most intimate of relationships.  Every culture prizes certain physical features over others; however, it is a mistake to assume that skin preferences in the U.S. also work this way; that black preferences for light skin are comparable to white preferences for random features like freckles or blond hair.  Rather, skin color and feature preferences in the African American community are not just personal; they are political and coincide with the ways race is coded in the U.S.  The skin color of a spouse therefore becomes a statement about social mobility and prestige among African Americans. (Russell et al. 1992: 107-108)  More so than in the African-American case, intra-racism among Arabs and Desis in the U.S. has been overlooked by academics.[12]  Although the ideologies of intra-racism in African American, Arab and Desi communities all have markedly different histories and manifestations, there are a number of important parallels.

             Gender determines the degree to which color is a sign of social prestige.  In interviews subjects explain how they evaluate potential mates, as well as what criteria they feel their communities hold them to.  Men generally tend to be evaluated on their success more than their looks compared to women.  Therefore, a woman’s skin color is often the focal point of scrutiny more than a man’s is.[13]  Both men and women note that youth and physical attractiveness carry more weight for determining the eligibility of women compared to men in these communities.  However, if women are evaluated on looks more than men are, then they suffer intra-racism more as well.  Several subjects suggest that darker skin makes it harder for a woman to get married than for a man.

Not surprisingly, female subjects express much more anxiety about skin color and beauty standards.  Khadija, an eighteen-year-old Arab from Ann Arbor, describes an on-going conflict with her mother.

Khadija:  My mother is always after me to stay out of the sun [because] she thinks I get too dark.  She’s got green eyes and everything and she gets really mad when people think I’m black.  She thinks it’s cause I get so samra (dark) and cause I have what I guess you would call curly or kinky hair like suwd (blacks).  She always says (in accent) “You’re hair used to be so nice when you were a baby. I don’t know what happened.” Especially when the marriage topic comes up.

Khadija refers not only to the stigma of being darker-skinned but also to other features that are racialized in the U.S., like kinky hair.  As they become familiar with the ways race is coded in the U.S., immigrants assimilate these signs of race into their own ideologies of color and race.

Although many Arabs complain about the intra-racism among their own group, they also note that intra-racism is considerably more intense among Desis.[14]

Ahoo:  Indo-Paks . . . are just infatuated with the idea: Who is white, whiter, whitest?  And now I realize why.  It’s a big part of how they were raised.  It has a lot to do with who you marry, the way the community perceives you and it’s sad because that is just cultural garbage.

Interestingly, Ahoo refers to intra-racism as “cultural garbage,” distinguishing it from religion.  The culture/religion opposition emerges in a number of critical reflections.  Although many second generation youth are vocal critics of intra-racism, it is certainly not restricted to the first generation.  Nasir, a twenty-two year old from Troy, naturalizes his preference for fair skin.

Nasir:  Would I personally be attracted to lighter-skinned Desi girls?  Of course.  I mean, it’s natural to find those girls more beautiful, to tell you the truth.

Sahar, a nineteen-year-old Desi from Canton, bemoans the plight of the single girl deemed unattractive.

Sahar:  If a girl has a major flaw, she’s just stuck.  It’s sad but . . . in society, if a girl is extremely overweight or extremely underweight, if she’s very, very dark complected.  These are all physical things, just physical abnormalities.

Particular physical qualities are always fetishized in constructions of beauty.  However, in these communities, the stigma attached to dark color intersects with broader racial discourses in the U.S.  Like Sahar, Sultana, a Desi mother of three daughters in their twenties, explicitly refers to dark coloring as a physical abnormality and deficiency.[15]  

Sultana:  Well, in [South] Asian communities, because there are so many shades, most everyone prefers light skin.  And if they are dark, they have to at least be charming and pleasant looking.  If they are not, then they are in big trouble.  And it is much, much worse here than in India and Pakistan because over there if you are ugly . . . if you have any kind of deficiency than at least you can make it up with money.  “O.K. my daughter’s not beautiful, but I can give you a house.”  But here no one needs money.  They all have money and so they can’t compensate deficiency with money.  See, we parents are afraid [of our children marrying dark skinned mates] because, if not for this generation, then the next generation, our grandchildren.  Because dark color is dominant over light color . . . and the children will carry the dark color [because it] is a dominating feature . . . and it stays over the generations.

It is clear in her explanation that being dark is perceived as a defect, a genetic deviation that should be feared.  Sultana invokes a racist logic that includes biological dimensions of race, racial degeneracy and fears of miscegenation.  Intra-racist notions in Muslim diaspora communities are transformed as they are exposed to the language of American racism.[16]  Many immigrants argue that things that are perceived as defects (like unattractiveness) can be compensated for relatively easily in their home countries.  For example, Sultana refers to the practice in the subcontinent of marrying a daughter off with a larger dowry to attract more potential mates.  Interestingly, she notes that this practice does not work in their U.S. communities.  Since suburban communities like Canton are generally homogenous in terms of wealth, a larger dowry is not as attractive as it might have been overseas.  This suggests that, like gender, class also intersects with intra-racism.  As intra-racist ideologies are reformed in the U.S., they may gain a potency that they may not have overseas because they are conflated with socio-economic endogamy.

Gender and class often work together in systems of intra-racism.  Russell’s study documents that color is related to upward mobility for African Americans; that light-skinned women “have the best chance of trading in on their color to flee the ‘hood,’ leaving the predominantly darker-skinned women behind.” (Russell et al. 1992:  116)  Similarly, Herskovits’ pioneering study of the marriage patterns of successful black men from Harlem demonstrated that they tend to marry lighter-skinned women.[17]  The ability of lighter-skinned women to attract financially successful men may also be present in these communities.  Asma, a twenty-three year old Desi woman from Troy, expresses her frustration.

Asma:  I know people see me as dark, and I know people don’t ask me [for marriage] because of that. And I want to marry a professional person, so it’s hard.

Sometimes, local theories of coloring are inscribed on nationalist discourses.  Twenty- one year old Zainab feels discriminated against because she is Indian American.

Zainab:  Everyone in Troy thinks Pakistanis are light and Indians are dark.  For instance, I had a [doctor-suitor] once and he actually said to me, “Pakistani women are more beautiful than Indian women.”  I was like, “You jack-a**, I’m Indian.”. . .  Some people only propose to me because I’m light.  Once someone asked me if I bleached [my skin] because how could I be so light naturally, being Indian.

Like in the African American case, financially successful men are perceived as being more eligible and, therefore, able to get the preferred lighter-skinned wives.  In these communities, fair skin is often seen as a vehicle of upward mobility since it would presumably attract the most eligible men.

Increasingly, Muslim American youth in these communities draw on Islamic rhetoric to contest intra-racism.  The second generation often cast the fetishization of fair color as a kind of racism, which they see as a symptom of colonialism and an eastern, cultural corruption of “pure” or “true” Islam. Twenty-three year old Murtaza explains how a history from an ocean away haunts his community in Ann Arbor.

Murtaza:  I don’t think being lighter makes you better looking.  I mean, well, I understand where it comes from.  Through colonialism, the British are right there in your face everyday and so it gets in your head, that you are dark, bad, bad- looking.  So people might think that way but . . . it has nothing to do with Islam.

Like Murtaza, Omar dismisses the beauty ideal that permeates but hardly represents his community in Franklin as baseless on religious grounds.

Omar:  My grandmother would make jokes about me getting a blond blue-eyed [Arab] wife and I’m like, “We’re Arabs.  What are you talking about?  We hardly even know any Arabs like that!”  It’s a kind of jahilliya (pre-Islamic ignorance).

Many of the youth dismiss the intra-racism as a form of ignorance that predates Islam or as “culture” infecting people’s views.  These critiques of intra-racism often invoke a new understanding of Islam, contrasted with culture, which is human, constructed, and polluted by impure values.   Rabia finds the intra-racism in Franklin disturbing.

Rabiah:  I hate to admit it, but it’s true. . .  One lady . . . was talking about her son.  So I said, “There’s a girl who’s my age, Syrian girl, our neighbor and she’s really cute.” And then she goes . . . “Does she have green eyes?” I was like, “Does it matter? She’s a wonderful [Muslim]” . . .  She was pretty, but she didn’t, she wasn’t, [pause] she didn’t have the American look that maybe I did.  I mean the white sort of look. She was more Arab looking . . .  This girl . . . could have the best, most pure heart, and she would be ruled out just [because] she didn’t have light skin and green eyes.  And that’s really offensive to me and really wrong.

However, many Muslim American youth challenge and re-inscribe the intra-racism in their communities, sometimes in the same breath.

Rashid:  You see Muslim women bleaching their skin, all this.  It’s mental sickness.  Personally, me, I don’t find that attractive.  To me, be yourself . . . On weddings Indians, Pakistanis put [on] that white [make-up]. . . One sister even told me, “Rashid, you’re too dark for me.”  And, I was like, “What?  Well, O.K., sister, but I’m still lighter than you, sister.” . . .  It’s not Islam.

Rashid challenges intra-racism on religious grounds but re-inscribes it when confronted on his own complexion.  Like Rashid, Sahar is conflicted about color.  She admits being tempted to alter her appearance but her religious convictions prevented her.

Sahar:  Aunties, in general, make you feel less pretty if you’re too dark.  I mean, I guess I’m medium-dark.  And, I know people bleach and get colored contacts and stuff and it looks good and you think about it.  But it’s fake and I hate that fake stuff.  This is what God gave you.  Astugferallah.  [God forgive me.]

Nineteen-year-old Yasmeen’s critical reflection invokes the culture/religion opposition.

Yasmeen:  Every culture is into . . . white skin . . .  I don’t care what they think.  Why should I change what Allah gave me? Just because of what some stupid society thinks?  So, no, I’m not going to dye my hair or get contacts or any of that stupid stuff.  That’s wrong.  You should do what’s Islamic, not what’s cultural and its sad that people feel pressured into that.  They should get stronger [faith].

Yasmeen criticizes the faith and strength of character of both those who propagate this intra-racism, as well as those who attempt to accommodate it by altering their physical appearance.  These young Muslims use Islam as a defense against the intra-racism that permeates their communities.  They point out that intra-racism cannot be reconciled with Islam.  They criticize those who conform to this intra-racist beauty ideal because it is based on characteristics that are prized by the culture, a human construction, and not Islam, which they hold as the divine standard.  In Islam, they argue, individuals ought to be judged by their piety and faith and skin color should be irrelevant.  Although other differentiations made in these communities (i.e. class, fetishizing of prestige etc.) are just as artificial as race, subjects rarely challenge those differentiations and, largely, accept them at face value.  However, when it comes to cultural preferences and prejudices related to race and color many subjects feel it is necessary to set a historical and political context in order to distinguish them from their religion.  Although race is still perceived as natural and fixed in nature, many Muslims in these communities point out that an individual’s worth is determined by faith and righteousness in Islam.  This argument could easily be applied to class or gender discrimination in these communities as well but is notably absent.  Interestingly, the intersections of the discourses of race and religion are more compelling and obvious to many of these Muslims and so the critique of racism as a cultural pollutant is much more pronounced than other cultural forms.[18]

Discussing marriage allows interviewees to map out their standards of attractiveness.  However, what people say or think about marriage does not always directly correspond with whom they marry.  Leila, a twenty five year old Arab woman from Ann Arbor, points this out.

Leila:  One of the interesting things about Arab culture, and it’s in Indian culture too; marriage is a very practical sort of phenomenon.  People go around with checklists. . .  I have respect for it because I see that it works a lot of the time and I find that people aren’t as obsessive about looks as they say they are.  Yeah, I’ve seen a lot [of this].  If you’re just talking about beauty people will tell you that they consider [light coloring] to be beautiful and [dark coloring] not to be beautiful.  But when it comes to marriage, I think people marry because it’s someone they feel good about or it’s a beneficial kind of relationship [for the whole] family . . .  I don’t think that looks are way up there.

This is an important insight.  Perhaps beauty and coloring are perceived as being much more important and influential factors in spouse selection than they are.  One of the risks of doing a focused analysis on a cultural phenomenon like intra-racism is reification.  My aim here is not to suggest that color preferences or intra-racist beauty standards are more overtly prominent factors in spouse selection than other qualities.  Rather I isolate this phenomenon in order to examine the transformations of ideologies of color in diaspora and the ways they intersect with religious discourses.  Regardless of whether color does or does not partly determine an individual’s ability to be considered for marriage, the anxiety about complexion expressed by some of the young women I interviewed certainly is real.  Furthermore, the challenges of the second generation are an important dissension in the racial discourses in these communities and index the ways religious reform-oriented critiques sometimes trump the authority of the first generation.  Islam becomes a tool for undermining the system of intra-racism that privileges and affirms light skin in numerous, imperceptible ways in mosque-based communities.  Religious references lace the discourse on interracial marriage in a parallel ways.


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Interracial Marriage

Rashid:  If a Muslim has any questions about our marriage, he’s already gonna be blasted because that’s not Islam.  You cannot be a Muslim and be racist because the [Prophet] said that a white does not have any superiority over a black, a black does not have any superiority over a white . . . The only thing that divides Africa and Asia is the Suez Canal that was built in 1947.(sic)   The Prophet encourages us to marry out. . .  That’s how [civilizations and] communities are built.

Most of the Muslim Americans I spoke with believe that Islam, in its creed, is racially egalitarian and penalizes feelings of racial superiority.[19]  In principle, one’s worth is determined by the degree to which one submits to God and is righteous.  However, many subjects criticize their communities’ failure to implement the core value of Islamic egalitarianism.

Abdullah:  There’s no discrimination at all.  During Eid, everyone sits together.  Actually, last Friday I took a Jewish [friend] to juma’ [services] . . . and he said that the one thing that is most impressive about Muslims is the multi-culturalism.  You got Malaysians, blacks, Arabs everyone all next to each other [in prayer at the mosque].  No cliques, so he was very impressed.  But in marriage who knows.

Abdullah acknowledges and echoes the racially egalitarian rhetoric that characterizes the religious discourse in these communities.  However, he concedes that these Islamic principles of tolerance may not be implemented when it comes to marriage.  Although many of the Muslims in the communities examined here believe Islam penalizes racism, they still accept “race” as a real and fixed category and they often construct racial differences that others might read as merely ethnic.  For example, Muslims in these communities absorb the language of race to distinguish Arab, Desi, white and black Muslims from one another.  Marriage, then, becomes the ultimate litmus test of an individual’s views on race.

            For a small number of Muslim youth in these communities, race plays no role in their choice of spouse.  For example, race is not a factor for twenty-two year old Rafia.

Rafia:  Only God knows [who I will marry].  I don’t mind if they’re not Desi at all as long as they’re Muslim and they have a sincere heart and a good sense of humor and they can be honest with themselves, with me, with God . . . I don’t think I would have a preference any way.

Subjects who express no racial preference seem primarily concerned with the religiosity of their spouse.  When religiosity is the primary criterion all potential Muslim mates are on equal footing.

Ibrahim:  Even my parents are cool with [me] marrying a girl that’s not necessarily Arab.  They’ve even [suggested] girls to me that aren’t.  I always joke with my friends that, you know, with me, it’s affirmative action.  I’m an equal opportunity employer, accepting applications. [chuckles]

Immigrants are often confronted by children whose much broader vision of acceptable potential mates is shaped by the diversity of Muslims in the U.S.  Interracial marriage is offered as a solution to the perceived problem of a limited pool of eligibles.  Although Ibrahim’s parents are open to interracial marriage, for many immigrants it is a startling trend and sometimes a point of generational conflict. (Haddad and Smith 1996: 25)

            Overwhelmingly, the most common pattern among subjects is one where they prefer their own racial group among Muslims, but are open-minded about interracial marriage and would consider it.[20] One reason for the preference for endogamy is that many in the second generation want to preserve their culture in future generations.

Eighteen-year-old Iman is open-minded about interracial marriage in general but feels it would be difficult for her extended family to accept.

Iman:  We would consider everyone who’s not Desi equally but see the thing is my parents would be worried about what the community here would think and also our families back home in Pakistan, our relatives.   We don’t want them to judge us.  They might think that we’re too American; we don’t even consider marrying Pakistani boys.  We’ve lost our culture.  They wouldn’t think of it from an Islamic point of view.

Interestingly, although Iman fears ostracism from her extended family in Pakistan, she implies that they are inadequate in their understanding of Islam.  She suggests that her Pakistani relatives’ perspectives are less Islamic than those of Muslim American family.  My findings suggest that the general sentiment in these communities reflects relative openness to the idea of interracial marriage.  Although I expected to find many subjects open to interracial marriage, I also expected larger numbers to be categorically against it.

            For a number of the subjects marrying outside of their race is not an option.  Sahar is not opposed to it in principle but would not consider it herself.

Sahar:  I mean, I think marrying out of [your] race is fine when other people do it. I thought about it, but I never could because I’m way too cultural.  Like, language is a big part of me and just the general cultural, just the adab, the mannerisms, of our culture.  And I don’t think my Dad would even let me, ever.  It’s a given and I, myself, I want my culture to be carried on to the future generations and I think that both parents have to have the same culture for . . . [your] kids to be pure Desi.

For some in the second generation preserving their culture is just as important as preserving Islam, although most emphasize that religion is much more important to them than their cultural heritage.  “Marrying out” is seen as compromising their culture and making it more susceptible to disappearing over generations.  A few subjects feel not only that interracial marriage is out of the question, but that they cannot consider marrying outside of their nationality.

Nayef:  I wasn’t raised with [interracial marriage] as an option and even though it may be for some, for me I don’t think so.  I don’t really understand how an Arab could marry an Indo-Pak or a black and I never could.  To tell you the truth, we would only consider Syrian girls.  That’s how I was raised.

Although the majority of the Muslims interviewed in these communities are willing to consider other Muslims outside of their race, for some the common faith does not make an individual outside of their race any more eligible.  For these individuals, even if they are not against interracial marriage in theory, only those within their racial or national group are potential mates.

My research suggests that many first and second generation Muslim Americans consider African-Americans the least desirable mates.  Some might consider other Muslim immigrants, even though they see them as racially different, but will not consider black Muslims as potential mates.  Of course, this is connected to their tenuous position in the racially stratified U.S. as well as to the internalization of the rhetoric of white supremacy.

Murtaza:  I think I can marry an Arab woman and I think my parents would be pretty happy about it as well.  But to be brutally honest, with a black Muslim, I could see my parents having a fit.  That’s wrong but that’s how they are.

The first generation is perceived as being more intolerant than the second is.  Hajra, a seventeen-year-old black woman, also feels that the immigrants in her Ann Arbor mosque are more blatantly prejudiced than their children.

Hajra: You don’t see prejudice much from people my age. But you do with [their] parents…  It’s a colonialism thing… Their image of black people overseas is really low because they think . . . we’re the last rung on the totem pole.

Hajra alludes to the immigrants’ insecurities about the racial hierarchy in the U.S. and their histories of colonial subjugation.  Black women like Hajra not only suffer the racism of the white majority but also the racism internalized and refracted back at them by other people of color.  As immigrant communities assimilate American racial sensibilities, the black Muslim woman becomes the least acceptable daughter-in-law. (Swanson 1996: 149)  Farida, a twenty seven year old from Ann Arbor, explains how black women are disadvantaged relative to black men in mosque communities.

Farida:  There’s no prestige or status in marrying a black woman. . .  For a black man all his options are open because, generally, the white converts to Islam are going to be open-minded to begin with and so those white women would consider him.  For the black woman, she’s not desirable to other races.

With globalization and the massive exportation of American media (and with it American values, including racial stereotypes), some of the racial constructions in the post-colonial world coincide with the pervasive racism in the U.S.  It is unclear the extent to which these constructions of difference are rooted in processes overseas or absorbed by integration of Muslim immigrants in American culture.  However, even overseas, racial discrimination in spouse selection sometimes is not tolerated for religious reasons.

Abdullah:  In our family in Syria we had a black man from Kuwait ask for one of my aunts. . .  Islamically, you can’t say no or discriminate on race and so her father said O.K. but the wedding was very private . . . because religiously Muslims are obligated not to be racist.  Culturally, you can’t help it.

Abdullah distinguishes between the religious prohibition on racial discrimination and the cultural predilection that stigmatizes blacks.  Although this prejudice persists, Islam continues to be used as a barrier to race discrimination.  In the context of contact with Muslims of other races in religious settings, Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are often confronted on their racial prejudice. (Hermansen 1991:  198) The American mosque is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world, second only to the hajj, the annual gathering of Muslim pilgrims in Mecca.  The intimate contact between different racial groups in the mosque often brings issues of prejudice and discrimination within a community to the fore.

Immigrants in these communities are much more strongly opposed to interracial marriage.  A few first generation subjects attempt to grant their opinions religious authority.

Sultana:  I tell my daughters that I think it’s easier to marry within similar backgrounds.  And I can’t quote you a hadith[21] (Prophetic tradition) but I know there is one that says try to marry within similar backgrounds, just to avoid conflict because, as [it] is, there are too many differences in the marriage.  This is why we parents say stay in your own race background.

Despite the fact that I did not ask for a justification for her views, Sultana assumes that she must make her case in religious terms.  Although the vast majority of Muslims accept the orthodox view that interracial marriages are acceptable in Islam, some feel that Islam discourages interracial marriage, although they did not produce scriptural evidence in the interviews.  Another Desi mother concedes that interracial marriage is sanctioned by Islamic law but insists it should be a last resort.

Amina:  The young people today, here [in the U.S.], they think that well it’s not haram (forbidden, sinful) to marry out, so what’s the big deal?  But the Prophet didn’t say that.  I mean, you have to start in and then go out.  Nowadays, girls just say no [to suitors] without a good reason and that’s haram.  First you have to consider your cousins.  If they are not good, then you look at other Indian boys.  If you still can’t, then Pakistanis.  Arabs and other Muslims should be last.  But the first thing some of these girls do is look outside even though they have very good cousins.  They say nobody marries cousins in America but that’s our tradition.

Like Sultana, Amina passionately defends her position on endogamy in vague religious terms.  This demonstrates the extent to which new constructions of religious authority in these communities undermine eastern traditions and parental authority.  Clearly, Amina’s vision of appropriate potential mates is much more limited (cousin marriages being optimal) than the second generations’.  The young women Amina engages defend interracial marriage on religious grounds and dismiss familial endogamy by invoking Islamic law as well as cultural norms in the U.S., therefore, expanding their possibilities.

           Muslim youth develop a new language of religious authority in order to critique their parents’ cultural practices, prejudices and attitudes that they feel cannot be justified or reconciled with Islam.  As Muslim youth find the process of looking for spouses in these small communities growing more difficult due to small pools of eligible mates, interracial marriages in these communities become plausible and logically defensible on religious grounds.  Often, even if parents are opposed to interracial marriage in principle, they may find they are unable to protest because their children are able to defend interracial marriage in Islamic terms.

Iman:  I would consider black or Arab guys but . . . my parents would, of course, ask, “Why not a good Desi boy?”  But if we were happy together, then they would have to say yes because it’s Islamic.

As communities rediscover Islam in the U.S., old patterns of behavior and reasoning need to be reconciled with new understandings of religion and culture.  Increasingly, the first generation concedes this religious authority to their American children.  Momin, a sixty five year old Arab man from Ann Arbor, acknowledges that his twenty four year old American son teaches him about Islam.

Momin:  We were not [as] religious back in [the Middle East] as he is here in America.  In some things he knows religion more than me.  And he fights with me and then I have to go back and read the religion.  He tells me things I never thought of about Islam.  . . I read the whole Quran because of him.  To fight with him. (laughs)

As the generational conflict plays out in Muslim American families, Islam serves as a common discursive resource in constructing arguments both for and against interracial marriage.  However, the tug-of-war between “cultural” Muslim parents and their “religious” children seems to favor the younger generation, armed with a new language of religious authority.

Not surprisingly, interracial marriages among second generation Muslims are becoming increasingly common in Muslim American communities. (Hermansen 1991: 198)  Yusuf and Nora are one of the first Desi-Arab couples in these communities.   Nora recounts that she never accepted the idea that she had to marry within her race.

 Nora:  I just think that it’s so hard to marry [someone] of your same race. We’re in America, we go to school with . . . different people our entire lives. And then parents want to say, “OK, now that you’re twenty-something, listen, I don’t care if you’ve been friends with white, black, red, whatever, brown people.  Those are not people that you can fall in love with.”

Nora’s father was adamantly opposed to her marrying Yusuf because he was Desi.  She explains how she spent years begging him to reconsider while rejecting other suitors.  Finally, her father relented and they were married.  Yusuf’s reputation as a religious person ultimately made him acceptable to Nora’s father.  Nora and Yusuf’s marriage caused quite a stir and inspired shock, fear and heated debate among community members.  Some claim interracial marriages are justified only if the person in question is exceptional compared to the potential mates within the group.  However, the fact Nora had opportunities to marry eligible bachelors within the Arab community and yet chose to marry outside of her race continues to puzzle many.

Abdullah:  It was racist.  Most of my community didn’t think Yusuf was . . . enough of a catch for you to cross the [racial] barrier and marry him, anyway.  I don’t think they found him to be attractive enough.  Well, astugferallah, (God forgive me) . . . he’s dark-skinned.  [If he] . . . was at least a doctor. [To] break that taboo you have to be extraordinary.

Omar:  It was shocking to all of Franklin, even the liberal people. . .  And so people were like, “Oh, the marriage will just fail,” just very off handedly, not with maliciousness. . .  It’s just so naturally obvious to them. . . “They can’t get together.  He’s Indo-Pak, she’s Arab.”

Intra-racist and racial references permeate the opposition to Nora and Yusuf’s marriage.

However, other young people admire interracial couples because they defy what is seen as the restrictive expectations of “cultural” parents and they embody what is perceived as the more expansive possibilities of life in America offered by living according to “pure” Islam.  Some young women in Nora’s community consider her a role model and ask her for practical and spiritual advice as they confront their own parents.

Nora:  Personally, I don’t care what people say [about my marriage].  I just care about me and my family and my happiness.  Some people were happy that I sort of broke the barrier. . .  So, if you have a crush and you’re secretly talking to this Pakistani guy and then you see someone marry one, you feel like . . . maybe there’s a chance because she did it, I can too.  If you have iman [faith], that’s all.

Like Nora, Rashid’s account of how his fiancée Shirin came into his life has a strong spiritual dimension.

Rashid:  I just did hajj and no one made that call.  It’s the real million man-woman march.   It brings tears to your eyes.  And when I was in Mecca all the brothers were talking about their wives . . . and I was just like, dang, I need to get married.  I need to get married!  So, you know, I prayed at hajj.  Allah will raise somebody for you and . . . in December, boom!  It happened.  So patience is the key.  I’ve never felt this way about a sister.  My heart tells me. . .  I love her.  I told my parents that I’m going to marry her and they always wanted me to marry a Pakistani and Shirin is a black woman.

Rashid’s impassioned account is laced with spiritual and political references.  Rashid invokes Islam in ways that undermine cultural endogamy, parental authority and even secular politics.  Not only does he describe Shirin as the answer to a fervent prayer, but he also locates that prayer at the hajj in Mecca, perhaps the most symbolically charged ritual embodiment of Muslim unity, tolerance and diversity.

Increasingly, voices like Rashid’s command the attention of the first generation.  Still, many community members continue to watch interracial couples like Rashid and Shirin and Nora and Yusuf with fear and wonder.  They are curious to see how they will make their marriage work, and how (or whether) they will be able to preserve their respective cultures.  Second generation youth, armed with a new language of religious authority, are increasingly defiant of their parents and their critics.

Rashid:  I’ve been dealing with the race issue all my life. . .  I told my mom [that] my only criteria is righteousness.   They’ve always stressed the Pakistani thing but I’m like, ‘See mom, righteousness, and Shirin wants to practice [Islam].  Shirin said, ‘Rashid, it don’t bother me that you’re so-called Pakistani.’ She uses that word just like I do.  ‘You’re Muslim and I love you for your Islam and your righteousness.  You’re a hell of a good person.’  So I was like, ‘Ditto.  Same to me about you, because of your righteousness.”

In response to the scrutiny and criticism, interracial couples often stress that Islam is the only thing that must be preserved in future generations and the most important criteria in choosing a spouse.  Presumably, those in the second generation who identify more strongly as Muslims than with a “race” or cultural heritage will be more willing to marry Muslims outside of their group.  Their actions may be defended in religious terms.  As these communities continue to grow, becoming more and more racially diverse, interracial marriage will continue to become increasingly commonplace.  However, for many second generation youth parental consent is still essential, and sometimes a point of conflict.  In these cases, young Muslims often invoke Islam as they struggle with the pressures imposed by the first generation.


In this study, marriage serves as a point of entry into broader issues of identity and religion in immigrant mosque-based communities.  As the first and second generations negotiate the boundaries of what constitutes an eligible spouse in their communities, a clearer picture emerges of the ways constructions of difference and religious authority are constructed and transformed in diaspora.  Many Muslim American youth in these communities identify themselves as “Muslim first.”  They employ Islam to subvert certain racial values and what they perceive as the often restrictive “cultural” expectations of their parents.  By adopting a pose where culture is suspect (since what is right or wrong, good or bad in cultural terms may or may not have basis in divine revelation), these young Muslims empower themselves with religious authority as they engage their parents.  Islam becomes a discursive resource that young Muslim Americans may draw on as they make a multi-directed critique.  They are able to criticize the internalization of white supremacy in their mosque communities, the racism in the U.S., and the entire history of racial subjugation and stratification on a color line.  By rejecting the regimes of racism and intra-racism that permeate their mosques on Islamic grounds, Muslim youth in these communities assert their religious authority and often morally trump the older generation.  Examining constructions of religious authority in discussions about interracial marriage and intra-racial color preferences demonstrates how culture and religion can come to operate in a discursive opposition in culturally fragmentary contexts like the U.S.  The complex intersections of religion and “race” in Muslim American communities shown here deepen our understanding of the transformative processes at work in diaspora communities.


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[1] Pseudonyms are used throughout the article.

[2] I prefer the local term Desi to South Asian, as the latter is a bit awkward and is not used by the subjects.  Even non-Desi subjects frequently use the term Desi (meaning local in Hindi-Urdu).  Terms referencing nationality, like “Indo-Pak,” are also frequently used.

[3] This “second wave” of immigrants began in 1965 when the administration of Lyndon Johnson repealed the national origins act that restricted immigration almost entirely to Northern and Western Europeans.

[4] Although it would be a misnomer to talk about a Muslim diaspora since Islam, like Christianity, is a universal tradition and is not restricted to a place, the immigrants in these communities are part of ethnic diasporas.  The social challenges they face in the U.S. as diasporic peoples inform their understanding of themselves and shape the way they construct and mediate their relationships in their mosque communities.
[5] Garbi Schmidt’s article “Dialectics of Authenticity: Examples of Ethnification of Islam among Young Muslims in Sweden and the United States” also explores the primacy of religious identity in Muslim diaspora communities.

[6] The Ann Arbor community is the most diverse of the four, although, most of its community members are Arab and Desi, respectively.  The Canton and Troy communities are predominantly Desi, with small numbers of Arabs, whites, and blacks.  Franklin is the most homogenous community, consisting almost exclusively of Syrian Arabs and smaller numbers of immigrants from other Arab countries, the Balkans, and white American converts.

[7] The research presented here is based on ninety interviews with second generation Arab and Desi Muslims between the ages of sixteen and thirty, and is supplemented with interviews with black and white Muslim youth, as well as first generation immigrants from these communities.

[8] Interestingly, the second generation often does not recognize their own American sensibilities as cultural and constructed in the same way as their parents’.

[9] Joan M. Jensen in her book Passage from India gives an account of the history of naturalization laws in the U.S. that excluded non-European immigrants.  She details the legal cases of Indians and Arabs who were considered Caucasian but not white.

[10] See Schmidt 2002 for similar cases of second generation Muslim youth in the West whose religious identity undergoes what she calls “ethnification”.

[11] I borrow this term for white American Muslim converts from Sherman Jackson.  For an elaboration on the ways that white American conversions are constructed as a rejection of their cultural identity by other whites in contrast to the cultural authenticity Islam is imbued with in the black American community see Jackson’s forthcoming article “Black Orientalism.”

[12] Research on African Americans applies to Muslim African-Americans as well.

[13] Career prestige, family reputation and religiosity are the most frequently named criteria for evaluating men in these mosque-based communities.  In addition to beauty, religiosity, reputation and prestigious careers are also named as desirable characteristics for women.

[14] The Desis and Arabs largely have similar responses.  However, there are a few differences.  More Desi youth claim they find lighter skin more attractive and more Desi women express frustration over intra-racism than the Arab women interviewed.  Since Desis, in general, understand themselves to be darker-skinned than Arabs they note that their definitions of what constitutes “light” or “fair” are different.  For example, I am generally considered light-skinned by Desis but the Arab subjects generally considered me samra, or darker.

[15] Muslim Americans often talk about issues of race in surprisingly explicit ways.  I would argue that this reflects their naïveté about the taboos of the racial discourse in the U.S.  In other words, Muslim Americans, and in particular immigrants, are often unfamiliar with the ways Americans talk around race.  Therefore, the explicit and unself-conscious ways that they talk about race are not reflective of more virulent racist streaks but rather should be read as a lack of mastery of the linguistic taboos associated with race in the U.S.

[16] This study primarily seeks to offer directions for further analysis. The process by which these transformations of constructions of difference are rooted in processes overseas or absorbed by integration of Muslim immigrants in American culture remains unclear and warrants further study.

[17] Herskovits statistical analysis of marriage patterns indicated that of the upwardly mobile couples studied, 56.6 percent of the wives were lighter than their spouses, 14.5 were about the same color and only 29 percent of the wives were darker than their husbands. (Herskovits 1964:  108)

[18] Issues of race are arguably under overt religious scrutiny in ways other anti-egalitarian cultural forms are not.  For example, class discrimination is certainly equally “cultural” by the standards of these Muslim youth but receives much less attention.  This may be connected to the history of Islam in the U.S. and its relationship to the civil rights movement.  See Aminah Beverly McCloud’s African American Islam for a discussion of the universalist and cultural nationalist undercurrents in African American Muslim communities throughout the twentieth century.

[19] A number of subjects invoked the following verse in the Quran as evidence of the egalitarian spirit of Islam.  “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).  Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you.  And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.” (49: 13)  Interestingly, this is the only Quranic verse that subjects referenced in interviews which suggests, again, that issues of race are more overtly linked to Islam than other social problems in Muslim American communities.

[20] In other studies on the marriage patterns of the second generation among Desis (some who were Muslim), Stopes-Roe and Cochrane 1988 and Siddiqui 1977 found similar patterns.  Most young Desis personally prefer endogamy.  Although they are open-minded about interracial marriage in general, most “prefer not to be involved themselves in a mixed marriage [for] fear of ostracism” (Stopes-Roe and Cochrane 1988: 167).

[21] Hadith are collections of sayings and traditions of the Prophet and are considered revelation.
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