Is Islamophobia simply a new permutation of racism? A closer examination at what racism is, and the many forms it has taken in the past, could clarify.
In the often tense and highly fraught debates on Islam that take place in societies of the West, a typical response from some people–mainly right wingers, but some liberals too–on the connection of what we call ‘Islamophobia’ to racism is: “Islam is a religion, not a race. Muslims are not a race either. Therefore, one cannot be racist against Muslims.” They sometimes will echo the view of Melanie Phillips: “Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate”. Then, everything degenerates into a semantic wormhole, where people apply literalist interrogations to ‘Islamophobia’ in a way they don’t to homophobia, transphobia or anti-semitism, alongside choruses from both sides about who is the ‘real’ racist.
Let me be clear before the usual turgid cliches and catchphrases are hurled at me: Yes, one can’t be racist against Islam as a set of ideas and beliefs; yes, one can obviously criticise, mock and ridicule Islam, the Qu’ran and the Hadiths without being racist; and no, criticism should not be off limits. If the Satanic Verses controversy taught us anything, it is that we must defend the right of those, especially dissidents within Muslim communities, sometimes referred to as ‘minorities within minorities’, to challenge reactionary ideas and oppressive religious practices within Islam. We should not fall into the trap of viewing Muslims as the ‘noble victim’, who need the blanket of a religion that can’t be criticised or questioned, whether internally or externally, to protect them.
Moreover, to attempt to legislate against opinions (bigoted or not) is a fool’s errand. The European Court of Human Rights was completely wrong in their recent ruling that upheld the conviction of an Austrian woman who held ‘seminars’ that ‘defamed’ the Prophet Muhammad by likening him to a paedophile. A very clear distinction must be made between ‘defending Islam’ as a set of beliefs and ideas, and defending the human rights and liberties of Muslims as human beings. The former deserves scrutiny, the latter deserve dignity.
“A very clear distinction must be made between ‘defending Islam’ as a set of beliefs and ideas, and defending the human rights and liberties of Muslims as human beings. The former deserves scrutiny, the latter deserve dignity.”
With the throat clearing out of the way, this is very different from saying there can’t be racism against Muslims. If you are going to say that ‘Islam is not a race’, well guess what? Black people aren’t a race either. Neither are Jews. And as Theodore Allen has documented, ‘the white race’ is a total invention. The way some people talk about racism implies there is a clear scientific definition of “race”, against which we can measure ‘real’ racism. There isn’t.
‘Race’, while a social reality we all have to confront in our lives, is based on a biological fiction. Racism has always been based on subjective notions of “difference” (or perceived difference), not on any objective idea of “race”. For example, as I mentioned before, Jews aren’t a “race” — in fact Jews come in a variety of skin colours — yet no serious person would say anti-semitism wasn’t a form of racism. Slavs or the Irish are not ‘races’ either. Does that mean there can’t be racism against Irish people? Or Slavic peoples? How would you describe the Nazi view of Jews and Slavs if it wasn’t racist then? During the Bosnian genocide, Serbian fascists racialised the Bosnian Muslim population they were “cleansing” even though both are “white” and European, share the same language root and even a common culture. This demonstrates how the distinctions between race & religion were collapsed into one, and how racism is also based on what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”
“Jews aren’t a ‘race’ — in fact Jews come in a variety of skin colours — yet no serious person would say anti-semitism wasn’t a form of racism.”
I do think that anti-Muslim racism (or Islamophobia if you prefer) does differ from what we would traditionally think of as racism, such as scientific racism, the 19th and 20th century pseudo-scientific discourses that created degrading racial hierarchies by categorising humans according to phenotype into ‘races’, which was used as an ideological justification for imperialism, white supremacy and the subjugation of so called ‘inferior’ races. But this is hardly the only form racism can take. In fact, earlier forms of proto-racism were very much based on culture and religion, as evidenced by the expulsions of the Jews from Spain following the Reconquisita. So anti-Muslim racism now is in some ways a reworking of older forms of cultural racisms, and as Edward Said pointed out in Orientalism, has shared origins with anti-semitism in the European cultural imagination. He writes, “They share the same source and have been nourished by the same stream.” So while of course ‘Homo Islamicus’ is a fiction and Muslims aren’t in any objective sense a ‘race’, they certainly are racialised.
“Earlier forms of proto-racism were very much based on culture and religion, as evidenced by the expulsions of the Jews from Spain following the Reconquisita.”
The point is that “race” is a social construct, therefore it is fluid and capable of morphing, with its boundaries changing as social conditions change. As Stuart Hall once put it, it is a “floating signifier”. Racism isn’t simply about skin colour prejudices. It is a way of dividing and sub dividing the human species and creating degrading hierarchies of which skin colour is one method of achieving this. It is also about power, oppression, marginalisation, and more importantly, the essentialisation of group differences.
“Racism isn’t simply about skin colour prejudices. It is a way of dividing and sub dividing the human species and creating degrading hierarchies of which skin colour is one method of achieving this.”
This is the framework to understand and analyse anti-Muslim racism, mainly because in many ways ‘culture’ has come to appropriate race as the way of interpreting social antagonisms. Anti-Muslim racism is undergirded by the “clash of civilisations” worldview first coined by Bernard Lewis and popularised by Samuel Huntington, and an Orientalism promulgated by the partisans of a ‘white’ and Christian Europe that posits Muslims as “other” and their presence as an existential threat to “Western civilisation”. As we have seen since the war on terror, this racist ideology can operate as an engine of popular prejudice against Muslim citizens of various Western nations, and has been used to justify continued support for various despotisms in Muslim majority countries out of a belief that democracy is not ‘compatible’ with Muslims and it can only lead to bad results.
Contrary to what some may think, we have not seen the end of racism, despite the gains and progress that have been made from past struggles. Instead, we have seen the mutation of racism, which can proliferate in many forms. What this means for anti-racists is that the task we face is a considerable one, one that will ultimately mean not just an intellectual, social and cultural revolution, but the abolition of race too. But this journey can only begin by recognising the precious humanity of our brothers and sisters of a Muslim background and standing in solidarity with them against those seeking to deny them their civil rights and dignity as citizens.