Katrina Daly Thompson on their book, Muslims on the Margins ⎻ Interview with CaMP Anthropology

The following interview was conducted by Ben Ale-Ebrahim and was originally published on CaMP Anthropology’s website.


Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Muslims on the Margins is an ethnography of “nonconformist” Muslims living primarily in the United States and Canada, drawing on years of interviews and participant observation within these communities. Could you describe the origins of this project and the collaborations that made it possible?

Katrina Daly Thompson: I’ve been a member of various nonconformist Muslim groups since I converted to Islam in 2009, beginning with the Los Angeles chapter of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), then various online groups, and most recently, a Madison-based chapter of El Tawhid Juma Circle (ETCJ) that I co-founded with a friend. Through my participation in these groups, I became interested in how they (we) were using language to create inclusive community, which differed from what I had encountered in more traditional Muslim spaces. Initially, I was interested in language choice (when we used Arabic vs. English). However, through my ethnographic research in several other groups in the US, Canada, and on Facebook, my interests expanded to include how we tell stories, collaborate to translate texts, correct one another when we screw up, and project Muslim nonconformity into the future through what I call discursive futurism. I collaborated with friends and acquaintances who led nonconformist Muslim groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Columbus, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Toronto to get permission to visit their groups and do audio recordings of their meetings. Through them, I got to know Muslims in each city, some of whom also took part in interviews.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In your analysis, you use a linguistic anthropological approach to discuss how nonconformist Muslims, including many queer and trans Muslims, rework Islamic discursive traditions to be more inclusive of historically marginalized people (9). Could you describe your methodology and what this approach allows us to see about how activists and changemakers engage with tradition in religious communities, particularly Muslim communities in North America?

Katrina Daly Thompson: My methods included participant observation in prayer spaces, discussion groups, Zoom meetings, and online groups. I also conducted individual interviews with Muslims and others participating in those spaces. During in-person and Zoom meetings, I audio-recorded conversations and prayers. Later I transcribed them and analyzed moments where participants were engaged in self-definition or self-reflection about what it meant to them to be part of these groups. In interviews, I asked folks to talk with me about their identities and any qualifiers they might use to describe their or others’ Muslimness. This led to fascinating conversations about identity labels such as progressive, traditional, conservative, mainstreaminclusive, universalist, and others.

Despite their significant contributions to their communities, most folks I spoke with would not consider themselves activists. My focus on their discourse allows us to see how ordinary religious people—not just scholars and activists—are engaged with tradition in worship spaces and religion-focused conversations and how they imagine and create new traditions through interaction.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 3, you discuss gender inclusive prayer spaces, where people of all genders come together to pray salah (ritual prayers) in one space, side by side. I was struck by the way your interlocutors described the experience of praying in these spaces as a two-part process of unlearning old ways of practicing Islam and learning new ones, similar to the process of unlearning a trans friend’s dead name and learning to use their new pronouns (72). What do you hope other ethnographers can learn about performance and performativity from this chapter?

Katrina Daly Thompson: In that chapter, I was influenced by Saba Mahmood’s work on performativity. But her focus was on individual women, whereas many of my participants talked about how the experience of performing prayer in community led them to develop nonconformist understandings about gender expansive prayer, women’s prayer leadership, the need for hijab, and other related topics. In other words, through practicing Islam in nonconformist ways, Muslims do not merely perform nonconformity and inclusion; they cultivate it. Through my research, I discovered that there is an intercorporeal element to performance and performativity that ethnographers must consider to understand how individuals engage with those who embody differences and how they learn to enact inclusivity. I hope that my approach inspires other ethnographers to adopt a similar perspective and recognize the importance of attending to intercorporeal elements when studying performance and performativity.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 4, analyzing queer Muslim talk, you describe how coming out as Muslim in queer spaces functions to disrupt secular homonormativity, making other queers uncomfortable through overt expressions of a religious identity (105). What are your thoughts on how queer discomfort with expressions of Muslimness within queer spaces relates to histories of racialized Islamophobia in the US and Canada?

Katrina Daly Thompson: Islamophobia was not a significant topic of discussion in most of my research, with the exception of one example I discussed in that chapter. However, I view queer Islamophobia as a continuation of the racialized Islamophobia that is unfortunately prevalent in many parts of the world where Muslims are in the minority, including the US and Canada. In queer spaces, the issue becomes even more complex due to the oppression that many queer and trans individuals have faced within various religious traditions. This has led some to assume that religion and queerness are incompatible, and some queer Muslims have even internalized this Islamophobic belief.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: When other anthropologists have written about LGBTQ+ Muslim experiences, they have often drawn on an analytical paradigm of “incommensurability” (Boellstorff 2007) or “contradictory identities” (Peumans 2017) — the common perception that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to be both Muslim and LGBTQ+ at the same time. What are your thoughts on how this project expands the conversation about the relationship between LGBTQ+ and Muslim identities?

Katrina Daly Thompson: Undoubtedly, being both Muslim and queer or trans can be a challenging experience, not only due to Muslim homophobia and queer Islamophobia but also because of the perception that these identities cannot coexist. However, the nonconformist Muslim groups I studied provide participants with an opportunity to realize that these identities are not contradictory, but rather—in inclusive spaces—celebrated and embraced. Muslims on the Margins draws upon the concept of “indexical disjuncture” proposed by queer linguist Rusty Barrett to demonstrate how queer Muslims and those in solidarity with them intentionally bring together, discursively or visually, aspects of their Muslimness and their queerness to disrupt others’ understandings of both.