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.
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.
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.