Is criticism of Islam racist?


No.

Now let me explain why it’s not that simple.

In any dispute among atheists (or non-atheists) about Islam, the chances are pretty good that someone will make some kind of off-side claim about what “Muslims” do or do not believe, or that we need to curb the civil liberties and human rights of Muslims to protect “Western society” from “Muslims”. In many of these cases, the rejoinder will come back that such policies or beliefs are racist.

In these moments, the accused will oftentimes develop (almost supernaturally) an encyclopaedic knowledge of what racism is and how it works, or at least ze will behave as though ze has that knowledge. “Muslims come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds,” they say “so they’re not all the same race. Therefore it can’t be racist!” That brand of dismissal has become so commonplace that it is, more often than not, run through with a vein of long-suffering annoyance, not entirely dissimilar from the one heard immediately before the words “race card” or “political correctness police” are uttered. It is the reflexive, elusive, near-thoughtless evasion of the issue, so that one can stand behind the original criticism, regardless of its quality or accuracy.

There are two principal issues I have with this evasive response:

1. Race and ethnicity are not synonyms

While it is true that Muslims come from all ethnic backgrounds, it does not follow that one therefore cannot be “racist” toward “Muslims”. Indeed, much of the anti-“Muslim” animus has been borne by Hindus, Sikhs, and other people who don’t have anything to do with Islam (and indeed, in many cases, have grudges with Islam that go a lot further back than yours).

There is an image of what “Muslims” look like, and that image doesn’t have white skin.

Race is, and always has been, a sociological construct. It is no less true to point out that “Muslims” come from a wide variety of backgrounds with distinct histories and cultures than it is to point out that “black people” have a comparable amount of diversity. We use race as a lazy shorthand marker during discussions. Sometimes it can be useful and constructive, but as we well know it has a great deal of destructive power.

To fail to recognize that broadside criticisms of what “Muslims” say/do/think (aside from, obviously, beliefs that are specifically grounded in the tenets of Islam) are inextricably and frustratingly intertwined with racist ideas about brown-skinned people is to fail to make criticisms that are grounded in social reality.

2. You don’t actually care about the semantic issue

Speaking as a person who participates in conversations about race on a regular basis, I’m pretty punchy about the way the words “race” and “racism” are used. There are a lot of misconceptions about what race is/isn’t, and how it works. I spend quite a bit of time and energy advocating for a better and more thoughtful understanding of racism, and it irks me whenever I hear the word “racist” misapplied.

You, on the other hand, probably don’t care.

Unless you are someone who regularly discusses racism, the “Muslims aren’t one race” line is a sudden discovery of the need for semantic accuracy whose timing is too convenient by half. It is an attempt to kick up enough dust around your statement that your original argument is obscured. And while there might be a convenient back door through that dictionary cum high school social studies textbook, you can’t squeeze the flaws in your argument through it. By instead attempting to derail the conversation onto the semantic issue, you’re failing to come to grips with the source of the criticism – that your argument is based on stereotypes and innuendo.

We know that racism is bad not just because we say so, but because we have seen the damage caused by those who allow stereotypical thinking overpower the parts of their brains that care about facts. Racism is the product of a number of psychological processes that we, as freethinkers, should be trying to get beyond. Whether the problem is racism qua racism or that you are applying racist-like thinking to a group that technically does not share a ‘race’, the argument is still problematic and should be addressed critically.

Indeed, when we look to our previous examples of arguments that cross the line from ‘mere criticism’ to irrational hatred, several elements are common. As a person who has faced racial stereotyping at various points throughout my life, I recognize the shadows of those three Islamophobic canards when they are applied to black people:

  • Misattributing to race problems with their roots in things like poverty or poor access to education or systemic racism or… the list goes on.
  • Failure to make accurate comparisons by finding coded ways of demonizing the ‘black’ manifestation of problems that exist in other communities(e.g., the disproportionate attention paid to blacks on welfare, when the majority of welfare recipients are white – ditto for Stop & Frisk and marijuana-related incarcerations). Failure to find similar pathology or systemic blight in identical behaviours among white people.
  • Using individual examples of behaviour in black people to typecast an entire group, usually in ways that suggest criminality.

These are all commonplace enough occurrences that occur in the process of making racist appellations about people that it is not surprising that people see the spectre of racism in Islamophobia.

There is, of course, a caveat large enough to drive a freighter through here – race is non-voluntary, whereas belief is (at some level) a matter of choice. You are not born into your beliefs, and even if you are born a Muslim into a Muslim community you can choose a spectrum of beliefs, some of which are largely humanistic. If you choose a more violent form of religious belief, and allow your actions to be swayed by it, your behaviour should be condemned. This is complicated by the fact that those who are born into strict theocratic communities have less choice, and it is my personal belief that we tend to overestimate individual agency while downplaying environmental influences. Regardless, the relationship between racism and Islamophobia is not a perfect one, and that cannot be dismissed.

Another particularly tricky issue to parse happens when we try to recognize the tricky relationship between Muslims and “Muslims” – the former being the real people and the latter being the ‘scary brown foreigner’ stereotype. If our ideas about Islam are run through with racism, is all criticism of Islam racist as an unavoidable consequence? There are many who believe this to be so, but I am not among them. Insofar as our ideas of, say, black criminality are inextricably tied into racist ideas, we can still make evidence-based and thoughtful critiques of what it is that causes disproportionate incarceration rates among black men without completely exonerating every criminal with black skin. It is difficult, and it requires effort and sensitivity, but it is certainly possible.

We can criticize Islam, and we should criticize Islam, but we should be aware of the constellation of stereotypes that inform our prior beliefs. We should investigate those beliefs using the same tools we use to investigate our beliefs about differences between racial groups. While criticism of Islam is not, to the letter of the law, ‘racist’, it is worth considering that it can be flawed and dangerous in the same ways that racist beliefs are, and we should act accordingly.

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Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The errors of generalization here match the patterns of racism, even though the phenomenon in question is not “race”.

    Thus, the diagnosis of racism is generally correct, even though the label doesn’t quite fit.

    There oughta be a name for this besides the too-broad “category error”, but I sure can’t think of one…

  2. Dunc says

    When your complaint basically boils down to “you aren’t using precisely the correct term for my specific form of bigotry”, you’ve probably lost the argument…

  3. says

    The article confuses “critisism of islam” with “stereotyping of muslims”. Both are completely different issues. One is absolutely essential, the other is bigotry.

  4. left0ver1under says

    Like any ideology, islam is a human construct. Any ideology (communism, fascism, disaster capitalism, christianity, etc.) that demands obedience from those who are not part of it is fair game for examination.

    The attempt to link criticism of islam to racism is done to silence valid criticism, not to stop bigotry. The same happens when valid criticism of Israel is falsely linked to anti-semitism. I’m all for silencing hate, but adamantly against silencing fact-based discussion.

  5. says

    The attempt to link criticism of islam to racism is done to silence valid criticism, not to stop bigotry

    That which is asserted without evidence…

  6. Xaivius (Formerly Robpowell, Acolyte of His Majesty Lord Niel DeGrasse Tyson I) says

    Crommunist@6

    Indeed. While my understanding is limited, the fact that some proponents might create a link between criticism of islam and Racism to deflect valid criticism, it does not discount that in other cases criticism of islam becomes dog-whistle racism. Cromm’s point, to my understanding, was that “muslim” becomes a blanket term for “brown people that are not like me”. A key point I’ve seen is ensuring that one is arguing not against a people or person, but the specific ideas. Stating “Muslims are misogynist” is different from “Some proponents of islam, such as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, use specific teachings to disenfranchise and marginalize women under the guise of ‘protecting them from men'”. One is a blanket statement targeting people, and the other levies a specific criticism.

  7. katiemarshall says

    A little off-topic, but one of my favourite questions for people who go off on why black people are disproportionately incarcerated is to ask why it is that men are also disproportionately incarcerated (relative to humans as a whole). The answer is often illuminating about the person.

    Another question I like to ask, this time from people who complain about terrorism committed in the name of Islam, is whether they blame all Catholics for child abuse committed by priests. If no, why not? How is it different than blaming all Muslims for the acts of a few?

  8. Brandon says

    one of my favourite questions for people who go off on why black people are disproportionately incarcerated is to ask why it is that men are also disproportionately incarcerated

    I’m curious about the punchline here. I don’t personally have a stock answer to this question (and I wouldn’t be likely to engage in the conversation that results in you asking it), but what do people typically say and what do you find that it says about them?

  9. katiemarshall says

    @Brandon

    Just that an awful lot of the really generalized, overly racialized explanations (e.g. “culture”) about disproportion incarceration can be also applied to men in general…suggesting that they’re not particularly useful, and may be rooted in prejudice. That kind of question can also help open up some discussion about intersectionality–how do things like racism, poverty, and cultural expectations of men interact to influence individuals’ range of opportunities?

    Sorry, those kinds of questions have been on my mind lately since friends of mine and I are watching “Oz”. Altho we keep wondering how some of those issues apply in the Canadian context–how do they influence First Nations experiences here?

  10. Dee Emarr says

    Okay, so for some reason this sentence is making my head hurt:

    Misattributing to race problems with their roots in things like poverty or poor access to education or systemic racism or… the list goes on.

    This is strictly a grammatical clarification question, but that statement is expressing:

    People say that the cause of a group’s problem is attributable to their race, when really it’s caused by things like poverty or poor access to education or systemic racism or… the list goes on.

    This is what you meant, right? I am having a hard time deciphering that sentence for some reason.

  11. atheist says

    “Muslims come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds,” they say “so they’re not all the same race. Therefore it can’t be racist!”

    Thanks for pointing out in detail why this is unsatisfactory. Additionally, Jews aren’t really a race either, but this never stopped racists from hating them.

  12. Dunc says

    Another question I like to ask, this time from people who complain about terrorism committed in the name of Islam, is whether they blame all Catholics for child abuse committed by priests. If no, why not? How is it different than blaming all Muslims for the acts of a few?

    As I’ve pointed out before, “Islam” and “Catholicism” are not equivalent, because Islam is not a single, unified institution with a strict hierarchy of authority which claims to define both doctrine and practice. A more appropriate question would be to ask whether they blame all Christians for child abuse committed by Catholic priests.

  13. katiemarshall says

    @Dunc

    Point taken! I was raised in a very strict Protestantism that vilified Catholics–and I think I forget sometimes that Islam has similar schisms.

  14. Aasiyah says

    @ Dunc , I’m not sure what you mean when u say not unified and strict ? Islam is not just ª religion but ª way of life. We are unified by believing in one god, we are strict to our five pillars in Islam which is the oneness of our god and the last prophet, fasting in the month of ramadaan, giving charity , performing our 5 times prayer ª day, performing pilgrimige at once in our life if we by the means to. This our law amongest others .I’m surprised to see there’s ª word as islamphobia , what does that even mean ? That people fear muslims ? I’d really like to know y..and no dunc its against our religion to judge the next person ℓ☺ℓ as our states that god is the only judgeas every is responsible for their actions..So we can’t hate all catholics because one catholic did wrong its the same concept for muslims. Suicide bombers killings does not fall under jihaad and those people however much wants to believe died in the name of Islam does not go to heaven. Taking ur life including the life of innocent people can never be justified and this is y people dislike muslims, which makes all muslims seem bad. The only time Islam allows us to fight is if war is upon us, and we fear for our life..There’s so many contradictions to my beautiful religion its hard to make people understand or even give them ª chance to know about it.

  15. Russell Glasser says

    If one were to say, “Christians believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old,” that would be technically correct, but full of semantic problems. Technically correct because SOME Christians believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, and a literal reading of Christian scripture tends to lend more support to that notion than not.

    But there are all different kinds of Christians. So you can’t just go up to Ken Miller and say “You’re a Christian, therefore you believe the Earth is 6,000 years old.” It’s not a true statement. Miller identifies with Christianity, but Miller is also an individual human being who has his own particular philosophy, which is GENERALLY pro-science and not at all sympatico with young earthers. The mistake in this case is making overly broad assumptions based on self-applied labels. In a racial context, damn near everybody recognizes this as bigotry. In a religious context, the concepts seem to get muddied a lot more easily.

    That’s why I’m very careful about statements like “Muslims believe X.” The Islamic faith absolutely has a bunch of bullshit as part of its core beliefs. So does Christianity. So does Mormonism. We should fight specifically against the bullshit, no question. But the mistake comes in selectively singling out one set of bullshit as worthy of overgeneralizing one group of people, while giving another group an implied pass. To say “Reza Aslan is evil because he’s a Muslim, and Muslims are evil” is every bit as stupid as equating Ken Miller with Pat Robertson.

  16. Aasiyah says

    @ Russel , u say the core beliefs of Islam is bullshit ? What are the core beliefs ? Fight against the bullshit and what does your party stand for ? Anti-bullshit party ℓ☺ℓ ? ? It seems like one shitty situation

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