Let’s stop playing semantic games: Islamophobia is a form of racism

October 31, 2018
Photo Alex Bainbridge

We have all heard or seen the claim, especially when wading through the cesspit of the internet, “Islam is not a race, so how can I be racist?”. This meme is usually deployed by those trying to answer, and deflect, accusations of racism.

It is worth examining this claim in further detail, because it provides us with a window into the state of cultural and political debate in our own society.

First, let us be clear: Islam is a religion, not a race. But Islamophobia is a form of racism mixed with cultural intolerance. Demonising an entire religious community on the basis of a stereotypical and allegedly shared racial identity is racism.

The title of this article comes from an article by Miqdaad Versi, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Versi correctly observes that claiming “Islam is not a race” is a semantic game, to provide an escape clause for a person espousing racist viewpoints.

We all recognise the terms “Semite” and “Semitism” as referring to certain linguistic and cultural groups, including Arabs and Jews. We also have a clear definition of the term “anti-Semitism” as meaning bigotry and hatred of Jews. The anti-Semite does not need semantic definitions — we can recognise the anti-Jewish racism is directed against an ethno-religious group.

Sociologist Craig Considine calls Islamophobia a form of racism based on cultural intolerance. His work, examining the racialisation of the Islamic identity, provides a necessary antidote to the purely dictionary distinction between race and religion. Religion has been used and abused as a basis to construct a fictional racialised identity, as has happened with the Jewish community in the past.

Orientalism rejuvenated

Islam is not a race, but Muslim people have been racialised. Orientalism is the historical source of the modern-day incarnation of Islamophobic prejudice. Islamophobia is the updated version of the old Orientalist bigotry; we are the “civilised” West, our mission is to control and uplift the Muslim outsider.

Khaled Beydoun, law professor and author of the book American Islamophobia, has noted how the US has defined Islam, along with being Black, as the perpetual outsider, incapable of assimilating and inherently opposed to “Americaness”.

While Muslims have been present in US society since the earliest days of European settlement — there were West African Muslim slaves in the south of the US — Muslims have been excluded from the political and cultural life of the US since the 16th century.

Long before September 11 and the so-called War on Terror, the US ruling establishment adopted a racialised exclusion of Muslims from the life of the emerging nation.

Beydoun states that today’s Islamophobia has its roots in the perspective of Orientalism. The latter, discussed at length by the late Palestinian professor Edward Said, is the cultural and historical lens through which the imperialist powers defined and perceived the Muslim Middle East.

Islam, according to the Orientalist view, is inherently violent, regressive, incapable of change and fixated on sabotaging the West. African Blackness became the racial antithesis of US whiteness; the Islamic world was transformed from a religion into a racialised enemy — the eternal Arab/Muslim outsider. In this regard, we should note that from the late 1700s until 1952, the Naturalisation Act stipulated whiteness as an essential criterion of US citizenship.

Using the pathetic excuse of “Islam is not a race” is the standard preface to a racially-charged tirade demonising the Islamic community. It is perfectly true that Islam is not a race, but a faith-based religious group, whose followers share a set of beliefs and philosophy. But the Muslim identity has been racialised and the ubiquitous “Middle Eastern appearance” is a loose, flexible descriptor that stigmatises a wide cross-section of Muslim and non-Muslim, non-Anglo communities.

While the adherents of Islam come from a diverse range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, it is the conflation of Arab-Muslim and the narrow racial framework of “brown” persons that has dominated definitions of Islam. The multiracial and ethnically diverse reality of the US — and Australian — Muslim community is lost amid this racially-exclusive categorisation of the Muslim as the perpetual outsider and potentially treasonous element in Western society.

Religious discrimination occurs when a particular group is targeted because of their religious beliefs. Racialisation occurs when that group is identified and stigmatised, based on what the racist wants to see. Cultural intolerance evolves into a form of racist practice.

The Islamophobic brand of hate is unconcerned with dictionary distinctions between religion and race. In the US, hate crimes against Muslim persons has increased, especially since the initiation of the War on Terror. The saddest part of this increase is that non-Muslims have also been victimised. Sikhs, a group that practices a religion entirely different from Islam, have been the targets of Islamophobic hate crimes.

Bigoted rhetoric from political candidates have real and dramatic consequences for ethnic and religious minorities. Racist attacks are motivated, not by opposition to a religion, but by what the racist views as the racialised “other”.

Travelling while of Middle Eastern appearance

At this point, I have a confession to make. I am guilty of a crime. I have been committing this crime for decades and will continue to do so into the future.

What is my crime? Travelling while being of Middle Eastern appearance. It does not matter that I am not Muslim, or that Christianity can be a portal into whiteness. Travelling while possessing a Middle Eastern appearance is a serious offence in Australia.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, a writer, lawyer and academic at Macquarie University, wrote about this precise subject. Being Australian and Muslim (or just perceived as a brown person) are often viewed as mutually exclusive. This dichotomy is not confined to Australia: in the US, being a “patriotic” American and being Muslim are viewed as diametric opposites.

Muslims — and by racialised extension, people from the Middle East — are the new enemy on the streets. Never mind that, for instance, Muslim Americans have served in the US military for decades. They have fought in all the US’ wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not so much a clash of civilisations, but a clash of racialisations. Islamophobia is not a distaste for particular Muslim beliefs, rituals or cultural practices. It is a pervasive, mainstream racism that targets the Muslim community, and reduces them to racially distinctive, Orientalist stereotypes.

Yes, we are all aware of the human rights abuses and repression in Saudi Arabia. Yes, we know about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Yes, we know about the repressive regimes in the Middle East, the harsh punishments carried out in the name of Sharia, the problems of patriarchy. If you want to help Muslim women, just listen to them here.

It must be made clear that Islamophobia does not include criticism of religion, disagreements or arguments about the role of religion in public life.

It is equally important to note that the term “secularism” does not provide an escape valve for the regurgitation of racially-charged tirades against Muslim communities.

It is dishonest to pretend that anti-Muslim racism does not exist because “we focus on cultural or religious practices”. While the Islamic faith consists of many colours, Islamophobia has one unmistakable racial colouration.

There is a well-known quote, which originated from the early days of the socialist movement in Germany: “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. This was a response to anti-Semitic smears doing the rounds among the workers' movement. Using this quote as a template, we can update it to “Islamophobia is the secularism of fools”.

Do I regard Muslim people as worthy of special privileges in society? No, I do not. Am I unaware of the atrocities committed by fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State? I am very aware of these groups and condemn them in the strongest possible terms.

Do I intend to write screeching denunciations of the burqa or the hijab? No, I do not because that is none of my business. Muslim women are standing up for themselves and do not need idiot men like me to speak on their behalf.

I strongly agree with Australian human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique when she writes that we must stop the normalisation of relentless Islamophobia in Australia. The first step on the way to confronting Islamophobia is to stop playing semantic games to fool ourselves into thinking that the problem of racism does not exist.

[This article first appeared on Rupen Savoulian's blog Antipodean Atheist: Writing at the intersection of politics, culture and life.]

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