How the State Interacts with Muslims – A Book Review

“Good” and “Bad” Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U.S. Orientalisms,’ Book by Sunaina Maira

Review By Javaria Abbasi, AIA 2020 Intern

In her essay in Feminist Studies, Sunaina Maira, Professor of Asian American Studies at University of California Davis, argues the United States’ “national security” rhetoric hides an imperialist agenda that is manifest most blatantly in the way American Muslims are treated by the state. Through case study of Muslims in the media over the years, Maira exposes the dichotomy between “good Muslims” who are public figures that act as “trusty” informants for the state by attesting to Islam’s theoretical cruelty towards women, and “bad Muslims” who are viewed as threats to national security because of their “traditional image.”

Since the start of the War on Terror, state-supported media has juxtaposed images of the gratuitous violence of Al-Qaeda, and the more recent self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), with images of ordinary American Muslims. Maira concludes the state’s plan is in fact a Right-wing campaign to distract the populace from its own failures in preventing 9/11.

With the highly unpopular war in Iraq demolishing popular support for Bush era policies, the state had to shift gears. Saddam’s fall accelerated the haste in which the terror cells he had suppressed filed the vacuum.  The State could no longer claim to be “rescuing an oppressed population from the clutches of a savage dictator” when the Iraqi people began to revolt against the perceived U.S. liberator – and Occupation.

So began the crusade against “bad Muslims.” To garner public support, Maira suggests the state needed its own champions and consequently created a category of “good Muslims” to be prime subjects for interviews.  She is as mistrustful of the state as she is critical of Right-wing politics.

While Maira paints a vivid picture of the history of U.S. Foreign Policy to the Middle East and South Asia and treatment of American Muslims since 9/11, her 2009 article could not foresee the positive strides in foreign and domestic relations with Muslims by the Obama Administration.

Moreover, while Maira highlights the problems in the way the state handles Muslims, she does not offer a tangible solution.  She does not address how to “defend the right to express radical dissent against imperial terror” (pg 653) by “bad Muslims” in the Middle East when they resist foreign imperialism. While any publication in an academic journal is constrained by word limits, Maira’s depiction of an America for American Muslims is therefore too bleak and unforgiving.

As an American Muslim student at the University of Virginia, I believe Maira underestimates the potential for improvement without radically overhauling the entire system. What is needed more than rebellion or radicalism is education reform, to guarantee that certain media outlets and officials cannot smear upstanding American citizens like myself.  If Muslim children can learn the true tenets of democracy, they can and will participate more actively in their own defense.

Her bleak future analysis notwithstanding, Sunaina Maira’s essay is a must-read for all combatants of Islamophobia, to better understand the nature of the problem we all face.


Maira, Sunaina. “”Good” and “Bad” Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U.S. Orientalisms.” Feminist Studies 35.3 (2009): 631-53. Print.

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