Thunder Bay is not the most diverse place, demographically, in Canada, but that has been changing. For various reasons, more immigrants have been arriving here in recent years from a wider array of countries. This includes many Muslim immigrants, as well as people from MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) countries. Not only do these newcomers often face challenges with language, but my city can be a racist place. So I was intrigued by Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion because I hoped that I could learn more about the systemic anti-Muslim racism in our society. As is often the case, this book primarily talks about the United States yet the lessons are applicable to Canada as well. Evelyn Alsultany speaks from a potent combination of lived experience and scholarly knowledge.
I received this book for free in exchange for a review.
This is an exquisitely organized book. The introduction and epilogue are excellent end caps, wherein Alsultany lays out her thesis about how Muslim inclusion primarily works through a kind of neoliberal crisis diversity. Each of the five main chapters explores how this crisis diversity (dys)functions. Chapter 1 discusses stereotypes in entertainment; Chapter 2 is about the limits of increasing representation in industries like Hollywood or even politics. Chapter 3 introduces the idea of racial gaslighting, i.e., that how authorities and media downplay crimes against Muslim people (and other marginalized people) when classifying them as hate crimes is, Alsultany argues, important. Chapter 4 looks at examples of what we often call cancel culture: the purging of prominent individuals after they do or say something so racist that their sponsoring organizations have no choice but to distance themselves. Finally, Chapter 5 looks at the issues with diversity and inclusion on college campuses and similar places.
Throughout, Alsultany establishes a firm line when it comes to not letting institutions off the hook. At the same time, I really appreciated her ability to empathize with people’s ignorance and prejudice. I am definitely biased, but I think she portrays other perspectives fairly and with nuance. This is particularly true whenever she discusses anti-Palestinian discrimination: she is unapologetic in her analysis of Israel as an apartheid state and condemnation of how Zionist groups weaponize and distort the definition of antisemitism; however, she also recognizes that Muslims and Jews both face a lot of discrimination. Indeed, a great deal of her discussion in Chapter 5 relates to how systems try to divide and conquer, pitting different minority groups against one another.
I really appreciated the wealth of examples and analysis that Alsultany brings to each chapter. She looks at specific TV shows, such as All-American Muslim and Shahs of Sunset. She engages with specific scholarship, citing her own contributions to research (like the Obeidi-Alsultany Test) as well as those of scholars whose names I recognized and many I did not. This book is a great entry point into the wider literature around anti-Muslim racism (Alsultany explains in her introduction why she prefers this term to the more common Islamophobia, a distinction I found very interesting!).
The nuance I mentioned earlier is also present in how Alsultany discusses improvements we have seen so far. Notably, her analysis of Shahs of Sunset points out that while the show is far from perfect, there are aspects of it that improve the portrayal of Muslims on screen. But she is adamant that there is no “quick fix” for diversity on or off the screen. I think this is an important takeaway—so often people are looking for the easiest, fastest solutions, but the problem here is neoliberalism and a deeply baked-in white supremacy that will take more than bandaid solutions to fix.
Broken is a very considered and detailed exploration of an important topic of our day. If we are going to make our society a better place for everyone, we need to make it a better place for Muslims. I appreciated the solidarity Alsultany shows to trans people here, and I hope other non-Muslim trans people will return that solidarity—we are all in this together. Allow this book to arm you with the knowledge you need, regardless of your background or privilege, to change the systems that have failed for so long to include Muslim people in authentic and compassionate ways.