19 years since 9/11, examining historical linkages between national crises and pathologising of sexuality
The queer-immigrant-terrorist type is here to stay. It gives the US a ready justification to invest in surveillance technologies targeting Muslims and people of colour, to detain and deport, to live out its unruly visions anchored in homonationalism.
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On 11 September, the 19th anniversary of a day when close to three thousand people in the United States were killed by al-Qaeda militants in four coordinated attacks, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tweeted a horrible hot-take. “Overall, Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn't a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which could all too easily have happened,” wrote the New York Times columnist. Was it ignorance, entitlement, racism or plain lack of empathy that led him to make this comment? Your guess is as good as mine.
To make matters worse, Krugman added, “Daily behaviour wasn't drastically affected. True, for a while people were afraid to fly: my wife and I took a lovely trip to the US Virgin Islands a couple of months later, because airfares and hotel rooms were so cheap. But life returned to normal fairly fast.” These are clearly the words of someone who lives in a cocoon. Krugman got a lot of flak for whitewashing the fear, pain and violence that Muslims in the US — with no connection to al-Qaeda — have had to live through in the aftermath of those terror attacks.
I decided to shift my focus away from Krugman, and read what American Muslims were writing. The one comment that was piercingly honest and thought-provoking came from Musaub Khan, a queer Muslim Marxist physician in New York whose work I follow. He tweeted, “How are some people going to mourn 3k deaths from 19 years ago but not mourn the nearly 190k that died in the US from the pandemic? Several Brown people take down two towers and the world is ablaze, but a white oligarchy decides the pandemic isn’t real and people are content.”
His words seemed harsh but they rang true. They made me wonder: Why are pandemic deaths not taken as seriously as deaths during terror attacks? Is it because the worst hit are people of colour, immigrants, gender and sexual minorities without adequate health care? What makes the nation rally around people who have died but not care for the living? I did not receive any answers but got some perspective from re-reading Khan’s essay 'The Problem With Heroizing Health Care Workers Like Me', published by The New Republic in April 2020.
Why do I mention Khan’s queerness? In her iconic book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press, 2007), Jasbir K Puar invites us to think about “historical linkages between various periods of national crisis and the pathologising of sexuality, the inflation of sexual perversions.” She asks us to examine the heteronormative assumptions central to “security and surveillance analyses, peace and conflict studies, terrorism research, public policy, transnational finance networks, human rights and human security blueprints, and international peacekeeping organisations such as the United Nations.”
In addition, she says, “How do we conceptualise queer sexualities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the ‘Middle East’ — a term I hesitate to use given its area studies origins — without reproducing neocolonialist assumptions that collude with US missionary and saviour discourses?” This text deserves a semester of close engagement but not everyone has the time or resources to pursue that. What comes through, most significantly, is the idea that queer citizens and Muslim citizens are perceived as threats, and therefore deemed potential terrorists.
Puar’s book is based on over five years of research conducted in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut through formal interviews, analysis of mainstream and alternative media, involvement in protests and teach-ins, work with community-based organisations and activist networks, close readings of legal decisions and pamphlets as well as educational material.
She poses three main questions: “What is terrorist about the queer? What is queer about the terrorist? What is queer about terrorist corporealities?”
Think about the racial profiling and additional screening that Muslim men often have to go through at American airports, especially when they are people of colour who sport long beards. Their physical appearance is marked as suspicious because of cultural assumptions and media stereotypes about what terrorists look like. People who have no criminal records are assumed to be involved in activities that will harm Americans. Many of these people are American citizens; however, their loyalty is questioned at the drop of a hat.
Puar writes, “The depictions of masculinity most rapidly disseminated and globalized at this historical juncture are terrorist masculinities: failed and perverse, these emasculated bodies always have femininity as their reference point of malfunction, and are metonymically tied to all sorts of pathologies of the mind and body — homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, madness, and disease.” Imagine how deeply distressing these depictions are! Femininity is equated with failure, and homosexuality is spoken of in the same breath as pedophilia.
“South Asian queer diasporic subjects” are under tremendous pressure; they are conditioned to seeing and presenting themselves as “exceptional American subjects.” They are supposed to be successful engineers, doctors, scientists and professors who have realised the American dream, the capitalist version of self-actualisation. Even if they identify as queer, they gravitate towards being ‘homonormative’. They want to mould themselves in the image of the ideal queer; when we speak of the US, the ideal is always White or White-passing or White-adjacent.
The anti-Blackness of South Asian communities in the US is no secret, and the same can be said of Islamophobia. Puar writes about Sikh American advocacy groups that dedicate themselves to “redressing the phenomenon of mistaken identity”, which involves advocating for “male turbaned Sikh bodies, often mistaken for Muslim terrorist bodies.” The Hindu desi enthusiasm for gay marriage with parental blessings is rarely tied to a broader commitment to queer liberation. It is more about upholding caste-based endogamy and ownership of property.
It is helpful to read Puar alongside author-academic Gayatri Gopinath’s book Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Zubaan, 2018). Gopinath draws attention to how “the concept of ‘the family’ is fetishized within both mainstream liberal gay and immigrant rights contexts in the US, in the service of a politics of incorporation and respectability.” Where does this leave queer people who smash the gender binary, or detach themselves completely from abusive parents and siblings, or do not have health insurance, or create families that are not based on marital ties?
Gopinath writes, “The assertion, performance, and enactment of heteronormative familial relations have been the primary means by which racialized immigrant subjects gain access to the material privileges of citizenship.” Who is denied this access? What must a queer Muslim man arriving in the US do to convince an immigration officer that he is indeed fleeing persecution from his home country on account of his sexual orientation? Is a queer person’s ‘coming out’ believed only when a partner is produced as evidence?
Her book offers a beautiful discussion of Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s work. She says, “A few critics have commented in passing on its homoerotic undertones, as well as on his close, decades-long friendship with his mentor, the gay poet James Merrill. But for the most part, Ali’s homosexuality is seen as tangential or irrelevant to the themes of exile, loss, nostalgia, and trauma that echo so powerfully throughout his work.” It is vital to remember that Ali did not identify himself as an Indian poet or a Pakistani poet but a Kashmiri poet.
Gopinath points out the futility in classifying Ali, or for that matter anyone else, as ‘closeted’ or ‘out and proud’. When queerness is defined as resisting the normative, it would be ironic to determine a singular way of being queer, embodying queerness, and queering art. She remarks, “He was not a closeted homosexual or an explicitly out gay poet... the queerness of Ali’s poetry lies in the modes of relationality it evinces and occasions: those forms of intimacy between friends, lovers, fellow artists, mentors, and students.”
Puar talks about how ‘closeting’ and ‘coming out’ narratives “inscribe and validate the privileged White gay, lesbian and queer liberal subjects.” White gay spaces themselves have contributed to troubling narratives “about the greater homophobia of immigrant communities and communities of colour, about the stricter family values and mores in these communities.” She attributes this phenomenon to “the racism of the global gay left and the wholesale acceptance of the Islamophobic rhetoric that fuels the war on terror.”
Puar’s exemplary scholarship on ‘homonationalism’ analyses how queer people align themselves with US imperial interests in the world, and White supremacy at home. Through the clever use of human rights language, they position certain nations as gay-friendly and others as not-gay-friendly. In the meanwhile, the US itself is positioned as a global counter-terrorism expert and the champion of human rights, specifically queer rights around the world, despite the fact that violent attacks on trans people — especially trans women of colour — are a common occurrence in the US.
This theorisation around ‘homonationalism’ is an excellent guide to understanding how queer bodies get deployed and also become casualties. Karma R Chávez builds on Puar’s work in an article titled 'The Precariousness of Homonationalism: The Queer Agency of Terrorism in Post-9/11 Rhetoric' (2015) published by Michigan University Press in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. She probes into the idea of “the queer-immigrant-terrorist’ by looking closely at the story of Mohamed Atta, widely believed to be the mastermind behind 9/11.
Chávez lays out a bunch of biographical details. We are told that Atta was raised in Egypt. He entered the US on a tourist visa in June 2000. “Accounts vary about Atta’s adoption of fundamentalist Islam and his connection to al-Qaeda. What is not questioned is that Atta studied for an advanced degree in architecture and urban planning at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in Germany during the1990s, leaving Egypt in 1993,” she adds. Apparently, Atta was described by former instructors as “polite, quiet, and unobtrusive.”
It is reported that Atta became more religious in 1999, when he asked the university for “a prayer room that he and other Muslims could use” and also began to grow his beard. His research was around “the problematic influence of Western architecture in the Middle East, which he felt impressed capitalist and colonialist visions of modernity upon historic Islamic cityscapes.” Further, we are told that he took flight classes at schools in the US, applied for a student visa and also coordinated the arrival of accomplices who helped in orchestrating 9/11.
These details explain his trajectory as an immigrant and a terrorist. How was his queer identity established in public discourse? Chávez points to a New York Times interview with Atta’s father. There is no direct reference to Atta’s sexuality but the father calls him “so decent, so shy and tender... so gentle” and “a little singing bird.” Apparently, Atta was reprimanded so that he would toughen up. Adjectives such as “meticulous,” “sensitive” and “emotional” are used to set him up as a counter to images of toxic masculinity.
We learn from Chávez about a story in Time magazine, which mentions that “Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi moved in together in a pink house and gave their rental agent ‘sweets’ to express their gratitude.” These men are described as “inseparable,” and Atta’s father claims that he used to always remind his son to get married “because he did not have a girlfriend like his colleagues.” Later, The National Enquirer carried a piece on Atta’s “gay identity and his alleged relationship with another hijacker.”
Chávez writes, “The descriptions of his lifestyle converge with discussions of his neat appearance and quiet demeanour to play into a host of gay tropes prevalent in US society.” The media’s obsession with Atta’s sexuality became more pronounced when it was discovered that Atta’s writing mentioned his last wishes about how his body should be handled after his death. He is said to have mentioned that “no women should be present at his funeral, and that whoever washes his body should wear gloves so as not to touch his genitals.”
It did not take too long for commentators to pathologise Atta, and circulate a narrative making connections between sexual repression, religious fundamentalism and internalised homophobia. The White American public lapped it up because it confirmed their existing perceptions about Islam. The narrative got strengthened in 2016 when Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida to avenge US air strikes in Iraq that killed ISIL commander Abu Wahib.
The queer-immigrant-terrorist type is here to stay. It gives the US a ready justification to invest in surveillance technologies targeting Muslims and people of colour, to detain and deport, to live out its unruly visions anchored in homonationalism. Why are then queer people in South Asia and the Middle East dying to move to the US for education and employment? What is so alluring about sitting in an American classroom, and learning about decolonial theory when we could decolonise our minds right here and right now? This question is as much for me as it is for you.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
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