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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