Beyond Resistance and Complicity

It is important to call out anti-Muslim racism while also seeking to normalize Muslim cultural life in the United States.

Illustration by Saffa Khan

By Mariam Durrani

For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.
—Audre Lorde1

To begin, I want to address the dilemma that arises when we construct two separate categories: one, resistance; and two, complicity. If we see them as mutually exclusive, we can get into the problem of having to identify our decisions and actions either as a form of resistance to or as a form of complicity with the structures of power that hinge on hierarchies that perpetuate or exacerbate ongoing systems of inequality.

Let me give an example that implicates many of us affiliated with Harvard (whether in the past or present). Harvard University has a $37.6 billion endowment, the largest of any academic institution in the world. This figure is, literally, greater than the gross domestic product figures for many formerly colonized and occupied nations. Are we all complicit in or are we condoning this accumulation of capital? Or, are we resisting the historical legacies of native genocide, slavery, and American imperialism by calling attention to how we can use this space to talk explicitly and to deliberately critique Empire? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

To give another example: Last week I facilitated a workshop for a group of parents and teachers at my daughter’s elementary school here in Cambridge about race and equity in the school. The school has primarily white teachers and predominantly African American students. In this environment, it is perhaps inevitable that teachers and staff—white, black, or otherwise—will inadvertently perpetuate a racist educational system, even if they aspire not to be racist in their daily practice. Again, it’s not a matter of being resistant or complicit but being cognizant of how we are doing both, reflecting on this simultaneity and actively moving toward liberation for everyone, especially for the most marginalized among us.

For myself, I try to think about how I can cultivate a method of praxis, which I define as an iterative method of action and reflection about systems of power and inequality. How have I, as a South Asian immigrant, benefited from the struggles of the civil rights movement or the legacies of the ongoing feminist movement? And what am I doing to contribute, or not, to the legacy of systemic inequality in my classroom, in my institution, in my publications, in my family, in my everyday communication? What do I call attention to, and why? How do I amplify the voices of people who have been historically marginalized or oppressed?

Even as I reflect on these issues, I understand that I am always complicit in a great many evils, even if it’s simply by paying taxes and contributing to the military industrial complex, or by living in a corporate apartment building, or by using Apple products for which the raw materials are acquired through unethical business practices. I think about the Chinese factory workers who manufactured my iPhone and Macbook.2 I’ve heard people say things like “too much education is dangerous,” especially when I, as a woman, have the “audacity” to be critical. But what is most dangerous is a sense of complacency. Submission to a structure of power and hierarchy, without critical reflection and action, however minor in the grand scheme of things, is problematic. And so I try to enact a method of praxis in my daily life and remember that I am complicit, but I am also resisting, simultaneously, whenever I change my practices through reflection.

I enact praxis in my academic work by questioning and dismantling certain categories of normative discourse. My doctoral research project consisted of an ethnography with Muslim students in Lahore, Pakistan, and in New York City. At the center of my work was hearing the stories of these students and trying to understand the reasons behind their academic and professional decisions. As an anthropologist, you spend time with people day in and day out for months, and then you come up with your research questions. The main question I was led to ask was: How do young people experience this process of change, whether we’re talking about physical migration or different kinds of cultural or social mobility, or trying to access financial or class mobility?

Oftentimes, within the scholarly literature or in public conversations about migration, migrants are pathologized, as if they are somehow atypical or outside the norm. In this construct, the norm is people who “never move” and who stay in the same place their entire life. So, when I approached my interpretive work, I acknowledged that there is this sedentarist bias within migration scholarship and public discourse. I also realized that by constantly seeing international migration as the only way we orient around this topic, we are not seeing many important things—for example, we are missing the fact that internal migration can be just as significant, and even traumatic, if not more, in terms of the change you encounter. Think of moving within the United States from the Midwest to New York City, which can be a huge culture shock, even when one is not crossing a national boundary.

Another aspect of my research was to question the normative discourse around migrant youth, and specifically Muslim youth. When we talk about youth, there are two conflicting narratives. One is that our youth are the future, so we should invest in them, and therefore the future will be brighter. But the other involves the possibility of deviance—that youth could go in a dangerous direction and that we need somehow to curtail or control them. With Muslim youth, it’s become more and more the case that, for example in schools, they are seen as guilty of something before they’ve even had the opportunity to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

This is not exclusive to Muslim youth in the United States, of course. Obviously, anti-Black, anti-Native, and anti-Latinx racism pervades our educational systems, with security officers routinely caught using brute force against our children. Now Muslim youth have been subsumed within this problematic practice. This has become another category I want to dismantle: How are Muslim youth seen by the broader public, by the state, by the education system? And then I try to understand: How are young people responding to these perceptions? How are they trying to resist, or how are they finding other ways of owning their narratives?

Speaking to this issue, we must reflect on how the term Islamophobia is problematic. When we call something a “phobia,” we create a medicalized, individualized way of understanding some kind of socialized fear. Some people might be afraid of spiders, while others are not. But fearing Muslims is not the same thing. When anti-Muslim racism is not fully understood or is seen as a medicalized phobia, it’s partially because we’re not calling it what it is—a kind of racism that builds on other forms of racism that have been around for a long time. By calling it Islamophobia, we put it into a different kind of category, like if a person is afraid of spiders! That is doing a disservice to the substance and severity of this problem.

What are some of the rhetorical strategies we can use to call out what the issue actually is and to seek to normalize Muslim cultural life in relation to all the other ways that people are existing and living in the United States? When I speak specifically to teachers, I suggest that part of the issue in educational settings is that teachers tend to do their one lesson or one day on Islam. If there is only one day or one lesson to discuss Islam, it is as if it is unique or set apart in some way. Instead, teachers could incorporate teaching about Islam and Muslims in many different ways and adapt it for different age levels.

For example, if you’re going to talk about nutrition with second- or third-graders, you can talk about halal in relation to talking about kosher food in Jewish communities, or about how some people have to be gluten-free or have decided to be vegan. The lesson doesn’t have to be taught as if halal is this Muslim thing, and everyone else eats everything. I’ve found that kids and young people are able to understand this; they have an easier time with this way of thinking than adults. Moving forward, I sincerely believe that educating our young people not to be complicit in inequality is essential. If young people are taught in a way that normalizes being Muslim, or any other minority identity in the spectrum of being American, they won’t perpetuate the antiquated ideas of seeing difference as scary. Rather, we can help them see how difference is the norm and that it is one of our most important resources.

Watch Mariam Durrani’s presentation:


Listen to the full panel:

This is an edited version of Durrani’s presentation in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.


  1. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 2007), 111.
  2. After fourteen workers killed themselves at Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn, in 2010, many news outlets covered the inhumane treatment of Apple’s Chinese workers. See Gethin Chamberlain, “Apple’s Chinese Workers Treated ‘Inhumanely, like Machines,’ ” The Guardian, April 30, 2011; and Richard Bilton, “Apple ‘Failing to Protect Chinese Factory Workers,’ ” BBC One Panorama, December 18, 2014.

Mariam Durrani is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College. Previously, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be reached at mdurrani@gmail.com.

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