Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Islamophobia IS Racism

I keep running up against people whose vitriol against Muslims transcends the normal rage in our very angry modern society. Every headlined outrage perpetrated by some fringe Al-Qaeda lunatic is cited as evidence that all Muslims harbor in their black hearts the urge to behead us infidels, to leech off "our" societies, to change "our" way of life. I have accused these people of racism. Oh no, they say, Islam is a religion, a choice, not a race! (Ironic how many of the people saying this to me are gay, as in whom the right-wing Christians always say "Being gay is a choice not the same as a race!") Oh no, they assure me, it's the religion of Muslims they are criticizing. It's backward! It's inhumane! Besides, they're entitled! Not to do so is to surrender! To give up! Completely unselfconsciously these Islamophobes then start muttering about how "these people" are sweeping over Europe, ruining it for the rest of us. How "we" are next. It would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. That it is textbook racism is plain to see.

Still, it's easy to get bogged down in a response. That most Muslims are of darker hue than the average white American doesn't entirely explain what's going on. And Edward Said's theory of Orientalism, the complex psychic bleeding wound of European/American colonialist consciousness, is more than a mouthful in simple conversation.

So I was excited to find an example of some extraordinarily clear thinking on the subject of the changing forms of racism. Here's an excerpt of a really insightful and useful talk by British revolutionary socialist Richard Seymour from the Marxism 2010 Conference in the UK this year. It's focused on the situation in Europe and some of the examples are outside of our experience, but it's very apropos of the situation in the U.S. Read the complete text at Lenin's Tomb.


I don’t know how many of you use social media service, ‘Twitter’, but those who do may be aware that some months back there was a trending topic called #thingsracistssay. Among these were: “I’m not a racist, but...”; “You can’t say anything these days...”; and, a growing favourite, “Islam ain’t a race, duh!” This talk is about the things that racists say and do, the alibis they use to cover their racism, and the reasons why racism has had to shift in the course of a generation or so, from focusing on biology and colour, to creed and culture....

But in all this, there are some novelties. Racism is changing. It no longer focuses so explicitly on biology and skin colour. The major focus is on culture, and religion. The specific targets are not necessarily black. In fact, many Islamophobes would try to persuade you that they aren’t racist by insisting that they aren’t hostile to black people as such. Now, some people say that Islamophobia is just a cover for ‘Paki’ bashing; that the hostility is not toward Islam itself, which is just a convenient excuse, but toward Asians in general. There are certainly many for whom this is true, but that’s not the end of the story. There is a specificity about Islamophobia, a particular emphasis on Muslims, their purported culture, what is supposedly said and implied by the Quran and hadiths - and the fact that this is so, and that the target appears to be a religious group, doesn’t make it any less racist. Or so I will argue....

...When Martin Amis complained about ‘honour killing’, saying that multiculturalism had meant allowing outrageous forms of behaviour purely on the grounds that it could be traced to someone’s tradition, a form of religious piety or ethnic ritual. He assumed, incorrectly, that honour killing is a particularly Islamic form of behaviour. It is not. It is a form of patriarchal violence that is practised in numerous countries, from Latin America to Europe to south Asia. It is sometimes called dowry killing; sometimes called a ‘crime of passion’; and sometimes it’s just known as murdering your spouse, two cases of which take place every week in the UK. But, again, he repeated this nonsensical claim that multiculturalism means tolerating murder – repeat and underline, it’s not tolerated, it’s against the law.

The confusion which enables people like ...Amis to spout this kind of hysterical racist nonsense, while professing to be anti-racist, partly results from the exaggeration of the role of biology in racist ideology. Historically, cultural tropes have always been built in to racist ideology. Many variants of Enlightenment racism were explicitly culturalist rather than biological, but even those forms of racism that have historically privileged some idea of the biological race have always supplemented it with cultural stereotyping and essentialism – from wily Orientals, to avaricious Jews, to violent African Americans. More to the point, the way in which ‘race’ was constructed as a political category had surprisingly little to do with biological notions of race....

And once this process begins, it doesn’t simply stop and ossify. It transforms in response to new political developments. So, new immigrant groups to America such as European Jews, Italians, the Irish, Poles, Hungarians, etc., would always be initially racialised. But as they consolidated their position in civil society, improved their bargaining power as labourers, and achieved political representation, they became ‘white’. It’s important, when assessing whether a particular speech-act is racist, to consider race as a process rather than a static entity. Racism, like fascism, is a ‘scavenger ideology’ which draws on national, regional, gender, class and cultural stereotypes. As such, it won’t do to say “Islam isn’t a race”, and consider that the end of any discussion about Islamophobia. The question is whether processes are at work separating Muslims out for particular oppression and surveillance, and whether the discursive practises of people like ... Amis, among others, are part of a race-making process....

If I was right in arguing that race is a social construct, a process of political oppression, then it also follows that racism can always adapt, and doesn’t have to respect previously existing boundaries of racial discourse. That means that for as long as there are systems of domination and exploitation, for as long as societies are run on the basis of producing surplus value, profit, for the few, there will always be new ways of dividing people....If we want to put an end to racism in the long-term, we have to challenge the system itself.

I've edited this clumsily with a butcher knife. Go read all of Seymour's talk.


Exhibit A: Here's a disgustingly vile Islamophobic video just put out by right-wingers to protest the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan:


  1. If it's racist to critise Islam, then I guess Richard Dawkins must be racist against Christians when he criticises Christianiy.

    See how stupid your logic is? Secondly, racism is about race not culture or religion as you put it.

  2. Sorry, Neptune reading comprehension fail.

    It's not racist to criticize Islam, it's racist to make generalizations about all Muslims based on the actions of some....or more importantly, the fantasies of people making the criticism. You wanna have a theological discussion of Islam? Or Christianity? That's a different issue.

    "Race" is an artificial construct. Surely noone disputes that Hitler's view of Jews was racist, despite the fact that these were all white people. Surely you can't have watched or read all the coverage of the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik without noticing that his Islamophobic reaction against Muslim immigrants is not described as racist over and over again.