Adi Saleem Bharat is an assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and a 2020 Collegiate Fellow in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. His work examines race, identity, religion, and the colonial and postcolonial histories they are bound up in. “My own family and personal trajectory,” Bharat says, “is a constant reminder that race and coloniality are transnational and relational.” Among other topics, he explores the relationship between antisemitism and Islamophobia. In the classroom, Bharat is focused on mentorship, and empowers his students with analytical tools for challenging inequity and recovering empathy. 

LSA: Your work is interdisciplinary, intersecting with cultural studies, media studies, literary studies, and critical discourse analysis. In ordinary language, how would you describe your field of study?

Adi Saleem Bharat: Cultural studies draws on a variety of disciplinary approaches in order to grapple with the intersections of power, ideology, nation, class, race, gender, and sexuality. Rather than interdisciplinary, perhaps the word I’m looking for might be “interference,” in the specific meaning that the late literary critic Edward Said accords to it. In a widely read essay from 1982, titled “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community,” Said proposes that interference involves “a crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seem impossible to make.” Cultural studies and the concept of interference may be described as “resistant knowledge projects,” to quote Patricia Hill Collins. Those of us who engage in resistant knowledge projects are often compelled to do so because we want to gain a better understanding of the intersecting systemic forces that affect us negatively in order to challenge and change them. 

LSA: You are currently working on a book called Beyond Jews and Muslims, which examines genealogies of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. You are also the editor of Queer Jews, Queer Muslims: Race, Religion, and Representation, a collection of essays forthcoming from Wayne State University Press. Can you share with readers a little more about these books?

ASB: Beyond Jews and Muslims is about how race and religion come together to shape ideas about European national identity and belonging as part of the ideology of modern-colonial capitalism. My book examines the similar ways in which antisemitism and Islamophobia have and continue to function in modern and contemporary France amidst a range of social, political, and economic crises.

Part of this also involves asking why, for example, Jews and Muslims seem to be omnipresent in the discourse of contemporary white nationalists in various countries. Consider Renaud Camus’s influential “theory” of Great Replacement, which draws on a classic antisemitic theme to argue that “elites” are conspiring to replace white populations with non-white immigrants, in many cases Muslims; or, when effigies of Orthodox Jews were burnt at a 2015 anti-Muslim rally in Wrocław/Breslau (a city that used to have the third-largest Jewish community in Germany before the Holocaust). Or, even more recently and closer to home, when white supremacists in Charlottesville alternated between chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” (just who are “you” replacing “us” with?).  

Queer Jews, Queer Muslims responds to similar questions, but this book places gender and sexuality at the heart of identity and spiritualities, while also queering understandings of Jewishness/Judaism and Muslimness/Islam in order to broaden the horizon of Jewish and Muslim coexistence. The book is also about Jewish and Muslim co-resistance to the colonialism, racism, sexism, queerphobia, and transphobia that are part and parcel of the power structures of our contemporary world, and harm all of us, Jewish and Muslim alike.

LSA: What inspired you to devote your research and scholarship to exploring the intersection of race and religion (or religion as race), particularly in relation to Jews and Muslims?

ASB: Race and religion have been fundamental aspects of my life. My ancestors lived, worked, and died in various colonial and neo-colonial settings, from South India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka to Singapore and Malaysia, some as laborers, others as soldiers and police officers of the British Empire. I left Singapore, the place of my birth, as an adult and lived and worked in France, the United Kingdom, and now the United States, embedding myself in the process in a different set of colonial histories and realities.  

My own family and personal trajectory is a constant reminder that race and coloniality are transnational and relational. My relationship with Singapore has always been rather complicated, but not uniquely so. My family is Indian Muslim, from South India. In other words, we are a minority (Muslims) within a minority (Indians) in Chinese-dominated Singapore. There is a long history of cross-cultural contact between various ancient Indian empires and Southeast Asia, but most Indians in Singapore trace their history to the British colonial period. To quote Black Studies professor Kehinde Andrews, Singapore forms part of the non-white West that has mastered the “codes of colonial logic” and whose wealth “is also based on the brutal exploitation of their own poor, whose bodies are sacrificed on the altar of progress.” With this background, in college, I was particularly struck by the history of Jews and the antisemitic violence they faced in Europe, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the way this history seemed to intersect with a broader modern-colonial history. As the years went by, I grew increasingly interested in placing race and religion, antisemitism and Islamophobia, Jewish studies and postcolonial studies, in relation to each other.

LSA: What are you currently teaching? And what do you hope students gain or learn in your classroom? 

ASB: In the fall, I'll be teaching two undergraduate courses: the first is titled “Antisemitism and Islamophobia,” which, like my book project, examines the shared history between these two forms of racial-religious hatreds; and the second is on the life and work of the revolutionary and intellectual Frantz Fanon.

In general, most of my courses explore a similar set of questions: What is the relationship between capital(ism), race, racism, gender, and sexuality, and colonialism? What is coloniality? How and why does coloniality continue to structure our societies and international system even after the supposed end of the colonial era? How is coloniality experienced in the so-called global north and south? What would decolonization look like?

If there is one thing I hope my students take from my classes, it is the tools to analyze and challenge the power structures that seek to naturalize global and local forms of inequality along global and local color lines. Part of this also involves recovering our empathy, a human trait that the alienation under capitalism seeks to suppress within us.  


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adi Saleem Bharat is an assistant professor and 2020 LSA Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement. In addition to his work in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Bharat holds roles in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Global Islamic Studies Center, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, and the Jewish-Muslim Research Network.