When & How Criticizing Islam Takes a Turn for the Racist

In response to my posting of Debunking the “Islam is Not a Race!” Argument on Facebook, I received the following question.

Since “race” is an imaginary thing anyway, the use of racism seems at the same time apt and inappropriate. Is the author’s message that because we tend to stereotype Muslims the same way we do “races” that this is racism or equal to racism?

I can’t speak for the author of the original piece, but I can speak for myself when I say that the premises behind this question render me unable to choose either answer posited by the asker.

It’s because race is a real thing that criticism of Islam has the potential to become racialized. In other words, it’s not that simple.

Those who claim that race isn’t “real” are speaking strictly biologically. While racial categories aren’t terribly meaningful in a strictly biological manner of speaking, race is important, socially and sociologically speaking. White Americans may not see race as a problem because they are least affected by race, but, in reality, it exists for people. At the very least, those of us who aren’t read as visually “white” are pestered and Othered to no end about our origins.

To deny that racism exists because race is not a biological category is like saying that religion isn’t a real phenomenon because there is no empirical data in favor of the existence of a deity: it’s absurd. Though there may be no scientific data in favor of the existence of any god(s), religion is real and affects people’s lives every day. The same goes for racism. In order to speak intelligently and in a nuanced fashion about racism, we must speak of race as it exists sociologically rather than engage in denialism based on biology.

Similarly, though Islam might not be a race, people do treat Muslims as if they are part of a single racial category. It is widely assumed that all Muslims are Arabs and that all Arabs are Muslims. It’s so pernicious that well-meaning people who know me and follow my writings have repeatedly made statements that rested on the assumption that I am an Arab. I’ve had friends who knew me well use Arabic phrases they picked up or say things about my family that implicitly assume that I am an Arab. They generally apologize in shame about it when I remind them that I am not an Arab, but it happens anyway.

The stereotyping of Muslims, then, comes from racism and is a part of racism against Middle-Easterners (and, more broadly, the Other) rather than is equivalent to or is racism. Because Muslims are widely perceived and stereotyped to be a certain race, i.e. not white, criticism that is purported to be of Islam can end up being dressed-up racist statements against Arabs.

What makes a criticism of Islam racialized? Some examples:

The “durka durka Muhammad jihad“-style gibberish favored by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and other comedians who fancy themselves clever for basically saying “this language sounds weird to me because I don’t understand it” is racialized. It’s the adult version of the “haha, you sound / smell / look funny!” taunt familiar to many non-white people. It’s Othering in its most basic form.

a picture of an ancient condom. caption reads "In 1872 the Arabs invented the condom, using a goat's lower intestine. In 1873 the British refined the idea by taking the intestine out of the goat first."

This meme, posted by someone I know, who claimed it was lighthearted criticism of Islamic terrorism, is racialized. It stereotypes Arabs as backwoods livestock rapists and goes after perceptions of a certain racial group rather than any issues with theology.

poster for season 4 of the TV show Homeland that depicts covered Muslim women as wolves surrounding the blond lead character in a Red Riding Hood cloak

To give a recent, widely-beheld example: this poster depicts a white blond woman in red surrounded by people who are covered up in gray, an obvious allusion to Red Riding Hood. This implies that they are wolves (i.e. subhuman) while she is the superhuman: the hero of the story. It’s racism beyond stereotyping and ventures into pure dehumanization of the Other.

{advertisement}
When & How Criticizing Islam Takes a Turn for the Racist

54 thoughts on “When & How Criticizing Islam Takes a Turn for the Racist

  1. 1

    This meme, posted by someone I know, who claimed it was lighthearted criticism of Islamic terrorism, is racialized. It stereotypes Arabs as backwoods livestock rapists and goes after perceptions of a certain racial group rather than any issues with theology.

    Ironically, I once saw the inverse of that meme: (“In 1873, the British ask the arabic inventors why they bothered removing the intestine from the goat“): unsurprisingly, people who laugh at one version of the “joke” seldom laugh at the other one.

      1. Pen

        It’s been standard trope of British humour for a long time, used to make fun of people in the more rural sheep-farming parts of the country. Needless to say, it’s not PC.

        1. Actually, the version I heard came from France: my (french) father read it in an email one of his former colleague sent to him.
          Then again, British bashing is nearly as popular in France than french bashing is in Britain, but no matter the origin, the motivation behind it was certainly not very high-minded

  2. 2

    Thanks for this. The “not a race!” response from the likes of Maher and Harris is true and yet so facile as to be unhelpful and borderline deceitful. ‘Othering’ is indeed a useful term for the phenomenon. Islamophobic racist panic/bile would seem to be the main impetus behind the Sikh temple shooting, along with other hate crimes against non-Muslim Middle Eastern and South Asian minorities. Racism is a particularly blinkered form of hate, and we need not pretend it is either systematic or logical.

    1. 2.1

      I agree with all of Heina’s article, but there’s another, subtler aspect to Islamaphobia. Whatever else they may be Maher and Harris aren’t racist. However, they still engage in othering. Their thinking is basically a form of civic nationalism, the idea that a nation (or in their case a group of nations, known collectively as ‘the west’) can define itself on the basis of a set of values, and membership of the national community is a granted once one adheres to these values. The simple formula of ‘ethnic nationalism=bad, civic nationalism=good’ is bogus. Ethnic nationalism is indeed a force for evil, but civic nationalism is not a morally uncomplicated position. Whilst civic nationalism does mean an immigrant can gain acceptance in their adopted country (Harris’ lionization of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an example of this ‘acceptance’) it also narrows political discourse, since deviant ideas can be labeled treasonous.

      Witness the United States in the 1950’s, Communism was considered antithetical to ‘the American way’ and thus the ‘house un-American activities committee’ was established to interrogate and blacklist potential communists, a category quickly expanded to include anyone who advocated genuinely left-wing ideas. Even today, social democratic views are taboo in America, and neoliberalism is considered synonymous with American citizenship. Similarly, George Bush senior was able to say, ‘I don’t think atheists should be considered as citizens, nor as patriots, this is one nation under God’. Modern advocates of Burqa bans, and other restrictions on Muslim culture likewise invoke civic nationalism, claiming such deviance is ‘un-British’ or ‘un-French’

      Civic nationalism is not even immune to mass murder of outsiders. The Roman empire defined its identity in civic terms, subjects of the empire could become full citizens, provided the subscribed to the Roman way of life. In the Punic wars, Rome’s hatred for the Carthaginians was due to their culture and values, not their race, had the Carthaginians suddenly adopted Roman values, they would have been accepted. As they did not, Rome felt justified in slaughtering over a million of them. This may be an extreme example, but how many western war crimes against the middle east are similarly justified on the grounds that ‘they hate our way of life’?

      1. Whatever else they may be Maher and Harris aren’t racist. However, they still engage in othering.

        So considering people to be less than people and Other is … not racism? I think you might be doing that thing where we define racism so far outside the pale of what most people do to the point where it gets into denialism territory.

        Othering is racist. Period.

        1. I think its not racism in Harris’ case because he at least believes that the ‘other’ can change and become part of the in-group if they come round to his way of thinking. Racists believe that the ‘other’ is immutably bad or inferior and cannot change. Of course this little nicety will be ignored by racist readers of Harris’ work, and as I said, civic conceptions of nationalism can still be used to justify murder, as indeed Harris shows. There are plenty of racists out there, and we do need to take the problem of racism seriously, but a set of ideas can be bigoted and dangerous without being racist

          1. It is just as racist to say that the Other is only okay if they become exactly like the non-Other. I’d like to think that I don’t have to become exactly like a white American in order to be acceptable. Your premise assumes that everything that makes the Other, well, other, is a bad thing. I disagree.

          2. newenlightenment is making what lawyers call a distinction without a difference. The othering that the term Islamophobia describes is structurally isomorphic with the racism whites use against People of Color. It is also similar to how the English treated the Irish during the Protestant Ascendency—when, in theory, conversion to Protestantism would gain full rights for an Irish person but, in fact, in the rare cases of conversion, the goal posts got moved. The bottom line is that the de jur favoritism towards Protestants over Catholics was merely a convenient cover for de facto racism. Same with Islamophobia.

        2. So considering people to be less than people and Other is … not racism?

          If they’re not discriminating on the basis of “race”, then no, it’s not racism.

          Just as Othering women is not racism.

          The point being made, I think, is that Maher and Harris aren’t being racist because the disctinction they’re drawing isn’t along racial lines. They’re distinguishing on *religious* lines.

          You are quite right that there are many people who *do* lump “Muslim” and “Arab” together. And those people are racist for lumping a religious identity together with an ethnic group.

          For all their faults, Maher and Harris are pretty clear that they’re criticising Islam *as distinct from* race. Unlike racists, they go out of their way to be clear that their criticisms of Islam are specifically about the content of the religious beliefs, not the ethnic background of the believers.

          So yes, I think there’s a strong case to be made they are Othering people on the basis of religious belief. But not on the basis of ethnic descent, and therefore the criticisms they make of Islam are not racist.

          1. Othering women is sexism. Othering people of color is racism. Othering is not some magical phenomenon that exists outside of all other forms of oppression. It is part of other forms of oppression.

      2. Whilst civic nationalism does mean an immigrant can gain acceptance in their adopted country (Harris’ lionization of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an example of this ‘acceptance’) it also narrows political discourse, since deviant ideas can be labeled treasonous.

        I’d say that it’s linked to Bourdieu’s notion of cultural reproduction: that is, the dominant classes want their successors to resemble them as much as possible (because if the heirs diverge too much from their elders, they may very well decide to oust them), and may be willing to disown and ostracize the dissenters within their own kith and kin to replace them with adopted newcomers who swore loyalty to the existing social structure.

        1. I think its a tactical mistake to describe all othering as racist, it leaves too many counterarguments open to your opponent. Harris can and does point out that he is just as hostile if not more hostile to white converts to Islam, and can draw an analogy between anti-communism and his attacks on Islam, as he did in his recent response to the Ben Affleck debate: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/can-liberalism-be-saved-from-itself He might be making a ‘distinction without a difference’ as Peter said, but its one that has a superficial appeal to lots of people. Rather than calling people like Harris racists, and then defending a very broad definition of racism, it would be better to say ‘yep, we know your not racist, but your still bigoted and wrong and here’s why’, that way you get to keep them on the defensive.

          In one respect at least I am not making a distinction without a difference, the civic nationalist definition of the in group in terms of ideas means dissenting points of view can be excluded from public discourse, hence my reference to McCarthyism in my original post. Harris’ own reference to communism and the cold war was revealing in this respect.

          1. I certainly agree that Harris’ attitude can feed racism. My point was, A. there are attitudes towards Islam that are dangerously prejudiced without being racist. and B. Supposedly inclusive notions of nationhood and identity can in fact be almost as problematic as exclusive and racial ones.

            I can think of three different attitudes to out-groups that are problematic:

            1.Condescension: Members of the out-group are valued, but only in a subordinate role. Most sexism would fall into this category, as would the colonial racism of Victorian England.

            2.Removal: The most obviously nasty attitude, the out-group is seen as inherently contaminated and evil, and members of the in-group wish to physically separate themselves from them, or even annihilate them altogether. The holocaust and Serb ethnic cleansing are obvious examples of this

            3.Forced transformation: Members of the out-group are seen as contaminated, but not irredeemable. They are presented with the opportunity to adopt the values or traits of the in-group, and threatened with sanctions if they fail to comply. Harris’ approach to Islam and, ironically, the attitude of most religious fanatics falls into this camp.

            Of course the boundaries between these attitudes are not fixed, and one can feed into another. Members of the in group might suspect that assimilation to their values is insincere,and view former out-group members with continued suspicion. The Spanish inquisition is an example of this. Similarly, Marxist conceptions of class war adopted a ‘forced transformation’ approach to different socioeconomic classes, but in North Korea at least class status was racialized by the Songbun system, effectively turning the out-group into something irredeemable. Harris’ worldview is highly problematic and can easily be the start of a slippery slope towards racism, but he at least has not reached that point yet. No doubt many of his readers have however.

  3. ROY
    3

    what would have been the odds of u bein muslim and self discribe urself as “feminist secular humanist” in an majority muslim country? just intersted as we have a conversation on a forum, and i believe that, because half of the muslim population is crippeld by law(sharia) and tradition, the islam isnt as developed as it could/should be.

    1. 3.1

      The odds are low, as I am well aware. If you peek around, I write about Islam all the time. I am painfully aware of the things you’re pointing out as if they ought to be revelatory for me.

  4. 4

    I have read South -Asian Muslims that contend they have encountered far worse racism from Saudi and Gulf Arabs than they have from white westerners.
    Do you think racism and bigotry is more of a white thing?
    Also, have you ever observed religious bigotry between Shia and Sunni Muslims?

    1. 4.1

      X form of bigotry being worse elsewhere does not excuse “lesser” forms of X bigotry here. As for the question “Do you think racism and bigotry is more of a white thing?”, why the hell would you even think that was a reasonable question to ask?

      1. I’m not trying to excuse bigotry from anyone in the west. Bigotry is wrong.
        As for my “unreasonable” question, I am not terribly familiar with Heina’s body of writing. She mentions here about racism from white people and I’m curious as to whether her life experiences have led her to believe racism is more common in white people than others.

    2. 4.2

      I am aware that racism against Desis is rampant in the Gulf and was raised to think that Shia were not “true Muslims”. That said, I openly state that I am a born-and-raised Californian, so I am not qualified to speak on the matters you’re asking about.

  5. 5

    Heina – I’ve been suckered into abear’s trollings more than once, including an occasion when he posted a youtube video of tired antifeminist talking points. The MRA lean should tell you how seriously to take him. Do with that what you will.

    1. 5.2

      GAS: I am a lifelong male feminist ally in a more than 30 year relationship with a feminist woman.
      Was I trolling you when I pointed out that your use of RT (Russia Today, Putin’s* propaganda mouthpiece) as a source of reliable information about global current affairs? I thought I was doing a favor to you to warn you about the toxic source of misinformation you stated you thought was reliable.
      You made a sweeping statement about what men that are people of color believe about feminism and I posted a video that contradicted your assertion. I suppose I could have carefully explained to you that I didn’t necessarily agree with what was said there, but I assumed you were intelligent enough to understand that.
      Kindly refrain from misrepresenting my opinions.
      *Putin is a tyrant that has hijacked the Russian government, vows to create an imperialist empire, hates gays, kills Muslims in his own country, stole part of Ukraine and foments civil war in the rest of it, and has financially, militarily supported and armed the war criminal Assad in killing his own citizens by the tens of thousands and displaced millions more from their homes. Yet you were endorsing his main international propaganda arm.
      I can only hope you have seen the error of your ways.

      1. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I recall linking to a music video by an artist who is an African American, mostly progressive, and an avowed commie. I know Putin is a PoS and if some shit he was associated with happened to be hosting that video, I wouldn’t know and took no notice of it at the time. As someone who has lived with American-style poverty all my life, class rage is legit as fuck to me and I will rep lower class commies if I like.

        Moreover, I didn’t make “a sweeping statement about what men that are people of color believe about feminism.” I just demonstrated that at least one man who is a person of color has lefty views. I often see people presuming African Americans are socially conservative, as an extension of the way they are presumed religious.

        That you thought I claimed all men of color believe a given thing about a given issue shows that your reading comprehension is even less in evidence than my “video response” comprehension. Besides, I’ve seen you take the skeevy side in another thread before. It isn’t a one-off misunderstanding. For anyone curious, see his short duration here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2014/09/22/mencallmethings-no-chance-of-being-raped/

          1. Meanwhile you can see GAS whitemansplaining how Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a horrible person because she doesn’t agree with his politics and how he can hate conservatives* because of his moral superiority.
            *btw I am a liberal from a liberal part of a liberal country but it is obvious to me that some people on the left are just as bad hateful bigots as the right wingers they criticize. Hating on people that aren’t in your in group is the same thing as the racists do.

  6. 6

    Also, those of us old enough to have been involved in anti racism activism prior to 9-11 remember how the far right in Europe changed their “stance” from being simply and openly racist against immigrants to “opposing Islamism” where “Islamism” is defined as “visibly muslim” and “visibly muslim” means “part of those immigrant groups we always hated”.
    This(donotlink) is an example from the German neo fascists. Somebody please tell me with a straight face that this isn’t racialised.

  7. Pen
    7

    It’s interesting to me that my husband is often mis-identified as a Muslim, usually by people who actually are Muslim. It’s led to quite a number of funny/embarassing incidents and a few heart-warming ones. So yes, race…

      1. Pen

        Wait, are you in Germany? Isn’t Turkish one of their largest ethnic minorities? Are you saying some ethnic Germans go to the Turkish supermarkets just so they can hang around delivering ethnic slurs?

        1. Are you saying some ethnic Germans go to the Turkish supermarkets just so they can hang around delivering ethnic slurs?

          From my own experience living in Berlin, there’s a sufficiently large number of middle-class people of Turkish descent to make Turkish shops a profitable business outside of lower-class minorities’ ghettos. Therefore, you can find a few racist ethnic Germans forced to coexist with Turkish neighbors who “hang around” their shops mostly because the supermarket is right next to their homes and it pisses them off.

  8. 10

    Thanks for the clear explanation, interpreting race as a sociological rather than biological category makes perfect sense.

    I wouldn’t say othering is always necessarily or primarily racist, it can be sexist, ableist etc, or a mix of several of these, depending on who is being othered.

    @Giliell
    I’d call the NPD out-and-out racist. That poster is just *yuck*.

  9. 11

    think its not racism in Harris’ case because he at least believes that the ‘other’ can change and become part of the in-group if they come round to his way of thinking.

    holyshit, no, that’s still racist. it’s the “kill the indian, save the man” type of racism.

  10. 12

    The point being made, I think, is that Maher and Harris aren’t being racist because the disctinction they’re drawing isn’t along racial lines. They’re distinguishing on *religious* lines. – newenlightenment – Ben Finney

    Ah. So that’s why Harris recommends subjecting anyone who “looks as though they might be Muslim” to additional security checks at airports.

  11. 13

    abear @5.whatever – Progressive values are founded on compassion and a sense of justice. Regressive values like to use buzzwords of righteousness, but are all founded on greed, cowardice, or prejudice. Every plank in (particularly USian) conservative platforms is based on one of those character flaws – those primal animalistic failings. I do hate them, and a lying conservative trollshite is incapable of making me feel sorry about that.

    Conversely, Heina on a post like this – https://the-orbit.net/heinous/2014/10/14/reza-aslan/ – can help me recover a dollop of sympathy for someone like A H-A and people in her situation. But comparing someone like you to someone like her is an insult to the concept of comparison. You’re a microorganism and I’m done with you. By all means, tho, keep flapping your fingers. The sooner you get yourself banned the better.

  12. 15

    Hi,
    I would just like say that I think you have misunderstood Team America and its intention. Parker and Stone took the Bush era America’s perception of people in the Middle East and parodied it. Its parodying a racist attitude, making fun out of people who actually believe that it is a true portrayal of a ‘type’. As Americans, Parker and Stone were responding to the force feeding of the right wing media’s portrayal of ‘the new enemy’ … “the axis of evil’ …

    I don’t think Team America is racist. I actually think it is a wonderful film working against racism.

    Salām

    M

  13. 18

    […] The murder of these three students and the suspected motive of their religion or their race (or a combination of both) being what led to their murders reflects a problem that much of American society has: a xenophobic intolerance of Muslims, be they American or non-American. If you haven’t ever heard or read of this happening, it’s not hard to find reliable accounts of this phenomenon. As a good starting point, I’d advise you check out Heina Dadhaboy’s blog for a couple of accounts. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *