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New Texts Out Now: Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora

[Cover of Junaid Rana, [Cover of Junaid Rana, "Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora."]

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Junaid Rana (JR): My book was borne out of ethnographic research I completed on the role of labor migration in the global economy. I started with some basic questions: why do people become labor migrants, how does labor migration become transnational and global, what are the conditions that lead to labor migration, and how are labor migrants treated abroad? Each of these questions led to complex answers driven by fieldwork I conducted with Pakistanis before and after 11 September 2001, in Lahore, Dubai, and New York. The research, although initially about the confluence of race and labor as categories of social hierarchy, took an urgent turn because of the timing and the locations I was studying. And even though I was already working on the dynamics of labor exploitation under globalization, of which racism is a part, the role of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism became especially relevant. My focus on racialization made it important to traverse some tricky ground that scholars are just beginning to cover concerning the relationship of race to Muslims and Islam. Much of this argument is still unfolding as academics are now embracing the reality of the pressing need to study racism against Muslims.

After completing my fieldwork, which mainly consisted of an ethnography of labor migration and the role of the state in this process, I continued to think about the social and cultural processes that I was examining in other spheres, from media reportage to films and television shows. One of the reasons I took on this critical approach was to combine ethnographic data with the interdisciplinary methods and analysis developed in the field of cultural studies. This meant showing how the things I was examining in terms of labor and race formation were present in a broad spectrum of mediated information.

Although my book is a response to the events of 9/11, it does not argue that everything began there. In fact, much of my argument builds on the historical research of other scholars to provide the range of how something like the concept of race became associated with Muslims and Islam. More specific to my study, I argue that there are certain groups that face far greater vulnerability to exploitation and oppression because of how social hierarchies shift in the global economy. This means that those who we might see in the lower tiers of the service sector of the global economy, those who we might call a globalized working class, are usually targeted as a problem that must be fixed rather than as a necessary component of globalization under neoliberal capitalism. So in the US War on Terror, when it was mainly immigrants and the working poor that were removed from their homes and communities and put into deportation proceedings, the logic of this new racial order was exacerbated by the vulnerability of these populations.

Such practices persist in even greater ways in popular forms of racism that consistently target Muslims based on their religious comportment, including dress and physical appearance. The recent murder of Shaima Alawadi in her home in San Diego, California, and the accompanying note that expressed xenophobic hatred, is an example of this. For Alawadi, a thirty-two-year-old Iraqi immigrant woman who wore the hijab or headscarf, such religious dress is interpreted in a racialized way that marks religious difference as naturalized. I explain this process of racial boundary-making and the connection to everyday forms of violence in greater detail in the last chapter (entitled “The Muslim Body”) of my book.  

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

JR: My book is structured in terms of the double meaning of “terrifying Muslims.” The first meaning of “Muslims that are terrifying” is explained through the framing of racial representations, depictions, and rationales that depend on a system of social hierarchy. In the second meaning of “to terrify Muslims,” I describe the process of disciplining and policing this racial logic of the first meaning to the demands of globalization.

In terms of academic genealogy, this research follows the legacy of Edward Said and his critique of Orientalism as a form of knowledge and power as it is tethered to the practices of imperialism and the machines of war. In this context, I examine how racism and domination is a tool of twenty-first century imperialism in which an American empire has been created in terms of broad regional and global formations of what scholars call colonialism without colonies. Further, labor migration is a historical and contemporaneous aspect of what I describe, using the concept of the global racial system. In this approach, I argue that racism is not specific to the geographic boundaries of certain countries but is global in terms of territorial scope and its philosophical approach of expansion and malleability as a concept of oppression.

The book is also focused on developing an under-researched aspect of the scholarship on the South Asian diaspora, one that focuses on Pakistan and Muslim South Asia. Much of this literature has focused on the diaspora that is of Indian origin, largely because of demographic differences. Yet populations from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh have extremely important diasporic population across the world. There are some important class distinctions between these populations that place many of them in what would be described as the working class or working poor. Because of the roles of patriarchy and state-controlled migration, many of the initial migrants from these countries are men, which has led to particular gender formations that cast them under notions of racialized masculinity.

In the context of the United States, much of this book examines how Pakistani immigrants are located as people of color in relationship to their place of origin and religion. Thus, even as they are classified as South Asian American, because of their religion they are often understood as linked to or are mistakenly combined with Arab Americans. In this way, forms of racializing Muslims take Arab and South Asian Americans as a singular group, which confuses complex histories and geographies.

Finally, my book addresses the anthropology of the state and labor migration to examine how institutions are central to people’s everyday lives. This is one of the key theoretical interventions of the book, in terms of offering a view of how a number of state systems can be a part of the labor migrant experience and are linked in creating what I call labor diasporas in the global racial system.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

JR: Terrifying Muslims is the product of research and writing that I have been developing for the last ten years or so. In many ways, the research aims of this book were broad and a bit far reaching in that I was seeking to understand a fundamental experience of globalization through the terms of transnationalism and labor migration. By pushing the boundaries of traditional ethnographic frames of fieldwork and research, this research is a cross between thinking through broad theoretical questions and ethnographies of the global.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JR: I’d be happy for anyone to pick up my book. Admittedly there are harder parts than others in the book, because I wanted to take on theoretical ideas and issues while also providing ethnographic vignettes and evidence in the style of narrative descriptions and fieldwork encounters. So the end result is some complex ideas and language mixed with straightforward prose that is meant to cover a lot of ground. The book is demanding, but I hope that it will help people think through some of the dilemmas of our present and future world.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JR: I’m working on a number of book projects, some that have been in the works longer than others. Right now I’m doing an ethnography of the Little Pakistan neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. This book tells an alternative version of the decade since 9/11, a story that has now gained even more importance given the revelations of crass and simplistic information gathered through NYPD surveillance in many of these neighborhoods.

I’ve also been thinking and writing about aesthetics and music that conceptually deals with theorizations of war, empire, racism, and violence. I’m really interested in the work of Huma Bhabha and a number of artists who are pushing the boundaries of politics and art in interesting ways.

There is an edited anthology in the works on the subject of Muslims and race that I’m working on with my colleague Sohail Daulatzai at the University of California-Irvine. We’re hoping to bring a bunch of people together to counter the lethargy and lazy thinking concerning racism and Muslims.

I’ve also got a long-term book project that examines the role of Muslims in social justice initiatives across the US. This last one will take a while, and in many ways will be a departure from my other writing in that it will be more of a movement book, as I’m thinking about it.

Excerpt from Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora

Imagining South Asian America

Although Pakistan’s cultural, linguistic, and historical affinity is to the South Asian subcontinent, in the post-9/11 Age of Terror, it seems to have shifted geographically to become part of the Middle East. In fact, in the global War on Terror, the Muslim world is increasingly imagined as a single geopolitical mass. Without doubt, the complex overlap of regions including South Asia, Central Asia, the Arab Gulf, and the broader Middle East, have intensified through the connections created by mass migration, satellite technology, and complex financial, social, and cultural flows. As Thomas Blom Hansen notes in the context of Muslims in India, labor migration provides global horizons to workers who imagine alternative possibilities and social landscapes through travel to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Although this form of globalization may be laudable, a refiguring of structures of social hierarchy and control is also emerging that distinguishes groups of people through categories of identity.

Accompanying the homogenization of such cultural geographies as the “Muslim world” is the impact of an American nationalism defined in relation to a transnational and global world. The tensions of the category “South Asian American” become apparent when it is used to describe immigrants from Pakistan. “South Asia” as a regional concept has long been dominated by a hegemonic India; in many ways, the terms “South Asia” and “India” are synonymous. In this geography, India is celebrated as a vital democracy and growth economy that is a global competitor, while Pakistan is thought of as a failed state with nuclear capabilities constantly on the brink of running amok. In short, India is Bollywood and technology; Pakistan is terror and trouble.

Pakistan is thus formulated as a feeder state that produces terrorism to be exported abroad and that stands at the front lines of the War on Terror. The idea of migrating terror is encapsulated in the set of rationales that underlie the policing of labor migration and of immigrant communities. The problem in defining communities in the US in terms of their home countries, however, lies not only in the continuity of homogenized and disarticulated geographies that separate Pakistan from South Asia that place it into a larger group of Muslim countries and regions but also in complex migrations, foreign policies, and geopolitical strategies of empire building.

Added to these broad configurations of regional geography and political strategy is the influence of the US in South Asia and the Middle East. Pakistan is particularly important to the US as a partner in the global War on Terror through the two countries’ longstanding patron-client relationship. The role of the US in Pakistan is deeply attached to geostrategic security concerns, anti-terrorism and anti-drug campaigns, militarism, and sociocultural development in areas that range from education and infrastructure to the control of international travel and migration. What happens to migrant workers has an impact that reaches far and wide, not only to locations within the US, but to other places within the diaspora. The US economy has a vast reach in determining trends within the global economy; thus, migrant workers’ fate is affected by fiscal demands, economic restructuring, and military adventurism. At a global level, labor migrations are put into place as a result of collusion in neoliberal economic policies and the interests of American imperialism. At the contemporary juncture, this is manifest in America’s global War on Terror, which is important not only to the role of Pakistanis in international migration, but the representation of Muslims across the planet.

Defeating terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan and controlling migration to US soil have taken on the highest importance for the American security establishment. Indeed, US aid has contributed to the centralization of the domestic military industry in Pakistan. During the War on Terror, the US government is increasingly targeting Pakistani migrants, alongside Arabs and other Muslims and immigrants, for deportation and detention as potential threats to the security of the American people. As an apparatus of the US security state that caters to the public’s desire for an appearance of law and order through the purging of manufactured perils, immigrants become a disciplined workforce that embodies these fears. Perils and menaces, such as the “yellow peril” that targeted Asian Americans and the “red menace” of internal communism and socialism, have been constructed throughout US history. The most recent articulation is the “Islamic peril.”

Following Inderpal Grewal’s theorization of a transnational America, which argues for a conceptualization that supersedes the territorial boundaries of the US nation-state, I draw on a complex mapping of sovereign nation-states not only at the geopolitical level but also in terms of crafting imaginaries of migration that facilitate increasingly transnational and global theorizations. In such imaginaries, the possibilities and boundaries of everyday migration and the impact of macro-level foreign policies become apparent. Through the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, for example, America was represented as a haven for information-technology workers seeking H-1B visas (non-immigrant visas that allow American employers to employ foreign workers temporarily in specialized occupations), and the consequent ability to move up the global economic ladder. This generated a great deal of interest in temporary migration and guest work among educated and professional people. However, the same narratives of possibility circulated widely among less advantaged and less affluent migrants. Simultaneously, patterns of chain and step migration and shifts in US immigration laws allowed families to reunify, creating new and complex class and social formations in increasingly heterogeneous immigrant communities. Such patterns and structures of migration play an important role in creating the migration fantasy. While television talk shows in the US highlight anti-Americanism in Pakistan and across the Muslim world, America continues to be seen as a land of endless possibility, no matter how tormented this dream has become. The work of imagination is vast when it comes to geography and migration, as I learned in my fieldwork. Take, for example, one migrant’s statement: “When you ask [many Pakistanis] what they think of America, they will criticize everything, but if you gave free visas, all of them would line up to get one.”

In this book, I look at transnational workers within the global economy to highlight the relationship between neoliberalism and empire and the formation of worldviews, subjectivities, and life chances. In Weberian terms, these are largely worlds of enchantment and disenchantment in which migrants’ lives are crafted through possibility and regulation. Rhetorically, this project asks how Pakistani labor migrants are made sense of and how they make sense of their world in the global economy. But I launch this argument not only from within the confines of the economic sphere, I also engage with the anthropology of globalization to investigate issues of social and cultural formation that drive diasporas into particular relationships—specifically, those that structure and control the possibilities of migrants’ lives. To explore the themes of globalization and migration, I also look to scholarship on the South Asian diaspora to guide many of my arguments about Pakistani transnational workers. In addition, this work is indebted to the insight and theoretical approaches forged in the field of transnational cultural studies in the examination of feminism, racism, transnationalism, gender, sexuality, and other relations of power.

Following recent critiques of South Asian migration, I expand the notions of one-way and bidirectional migration in favor of models of diaspora that emphasize the multiplicity of movement. In particular, I look at how social formations are constructed in diaspora through chain, step, and seasonal migration based on economic, cultural, social, and political factors. Tracing migration to a source country allows the role of internal migration and the placement of migration hubs in the process of sending and receiving migrant workers to be magnified. The politics of regional migration also plays an important role in crafting migrants’ pathways to labor acquisition. In mapping such a labor diaspora, I argue that the social formations produced in home countries and through regional migration are an important aspect of how Pakistani workers are understood through the terms of criminality and deviance that are then racialized in the global War on Terror.

Indeed, for ethnic and racial studies in the US, the study of Muslim populations spans broad racial and ethnic categorizations. Muslims are found in African American, Asian American, Arab American, Latina/o, white, and multiracial communities. Despite this ambiguity, the racialized Muslim is mobilized as a unitary figure. To frame my analysis, I evoke “the Muslim” as a category that encompasses many nationalities, social and cultural practices, religious affiliations (from Muslim Sunni and Shia to Christian, Sikh, and Hindu), and social realities that, through the process of state and popular racialization, is generalized. The system of policing that targets Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants for detention and deportation, as exemplified by the placement of “the Muslim” in the US racial formation under the Bush administration’s War on Terror, is crafted through a broad logic of anti-immigrant racism. What is particularly telling is the disproportionately high number of Pakistanis deported either through forced or voluntary means in the sweeps that followed 9/11. Not only does Pakistan as a country represent terror, danger, and Islamic militancy, but Pakistanis in the US are cast as perilous racial figures of indeterminate standing.

Although I focus on Pakistani migrants in the global economy and on the racialized Muslim under American empire, this work maintains a comparative and interdisciplinary approach. When possible, I have attempted to construct and analyze the issues of my research in relation to other relevant populations and subject matter. Although the ethnographic method is at the core of much of the cultural and material analysis in this book, it is not a conventional ethnography. Instead, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork to weave approaches to political economy, visual and cultural analysis, history, and critical race studies into an interdisciplinary study of the complex issues I elaborate. Specifically, I argue that conceptions of globalized racism are based in the circulation of specific racialized regionalisms that imagine the Muslim world as connected and interdependent. This, in turn, is imagined as part of a geography that connects migratory networks of Muslim countries to the metropoles of Northern countries in the global economy. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork conducted both before and after 9/11, this approach expands the framework of studies of race and migration by placing Muslim migrants into racial formations in the US and as a central part of the global racial system. Within the South Asian diaspora, migrants from Pakistan historically have had a different relationship to the US that is shaped by their identification and racialization as Muslims. Based on ethnographic research with Pakistani migrants, I argue that the economic, cultural, and social effects of neoliberalism have produced the figure of “the Muslim” in the current global economy as racialized.

[Excerpted from Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, by permission of the author. © 2011 by Duke University Press. For more information on the book, click here; to order the book, click here.]

1 comment for "New Texts Out Now: Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora"


"The tensions of the category 'South Asian American' become apparent when it is used to describe immigrants from Pakistan. 'South Asia' as a regional concept has long been dominated by a hegemonic India; in many ways, the terms 'South Asia' and 'India' are synonymous." I disagree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. As a South Asian American, I use the term South Asian to associate myself with the broader context of South Asia before partition. Yes, I do think that Pakistan is misrepresented by the media, but I do not think that you can reduce this term to Indian hegemony, when it also can be striving for inclusiveness. Your evaluation of the term only makes you sound resentful. My question for you is what made you isolate Muslims, when Pakistan is religiously, linguistically, and culturally plural. Sure, Pakistanis may have a different relationship to their diaspora, and that is interesting because it shows how the West sees them, but why have you chosen to reduce their racial formations to strictly Muslim.

Vivek Gupta wrote on April 11, 2012 at 10:12 AM

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