by Afroze Fatima Zaidi

Real Time With Bill Maher“How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.” Ben Affleck on Real Time With Bill Maher

I never thought I would live to write the words that will follow, but here goes. I am grateful to Ben Affleck. Not particularly for his outrage or his words on Bill Maher’s show, which, albeit entertaining, were not exactly all that insightful, but more so for bringing a particular brand of Islamophobia to the attention of the world – the kind peddled by we-love-liberalism-ers like Bill Maher and Sam Harris.

Millions of Muslims around the world, both in Western nations as well as others, experience Islamophobia every day as a lived reality. A genuine discussion of what really IS Islamophobia is beyond the scope of a standard, blog-length article. Suffice to say that Islamophobia, if understood as structural oppression of Muslims, is a form of racism. WHOAH – comes the response – Muslims are not a race, so how can Islamophobia be racism? This binary, and/or question appears to have left Muslims in a kind of limbo, where they end up excluded by their oppressor (generally the White Western hegemon) whilst simultaneously being separated from their co-oppressed (e.g. Jews or Black people) in their struggle for equality and justice.

To address this question – how can Islamophobia be racism? – I keep going back to an article I read a while ago by Julia Suarez-Krabbe on the political power asserted by questions. The masters tools, Suarez-Krabbe argues, i.e. questions framed and put forth by the hegemonic order, will never dismantle the master’s house. Whether consciously or otherwise, questions to the subaltern are carefully framed to illicit a certain response, and embedded in them are all kinds of presumptions about the subaltern that the hegemon believes to be true. “How can Islamophobia be racism?” is one such question. It assumes, for instance, that racism only applies to “race” as a phenotypical grouping, when in fact for years sociologists have established and re-established that race is nothing but a social construct. More specifically, as argued by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, race is a construct of empire; it is a mechanism of control conveniently imagined by Western scholars to justify the inferiorisation and subjugation of natives in the ‘new’ lands that were encountered by European explorers. Had not the White European race been constructed as superior over all others, racism as we know it would not exist. Today, in the bizarre, paradoxical way that history tends to function, races are imagined and yet racism is very real. That is to say that while racism has become embedded in our societies as a means of oppression and exclusion, it is not restricted to physiologically distinct races.

But even if we concede that Muslims are a race, what about Islam? Sam Harris emphatically defends his right to call Islam “the mother lode of bad ideas”, almost showing a sense of indignation at the suggestion that such a statement might be construed as bigotry. In response to this statement, Affleck’s exasperation is appreciated but inadequate. If we are to understand Islamophobia as a form of racism, we must understand it as a phenomenon that manifests in both the shockingly obvious (violent attacks on Muslims, vandalism of mosques, negative media coverage) as well as the subtle and sophisticated. Today, in the UK at least, a general taboo has evolved around the subject of racism, which manifests in people not wanting to ‘see race’ while at the same time being unprepared to openly admit to being racist, hence the widely used opener, “I’m not racist, but…” Having reviewed hundreds of racist statements as part of my research, what has become clear to me is that people are more willing to express racist sentiments after they have legitimated them in some way, convincing themselves that their sentiments are not racist at all but are merely opinions which they are free to express. When it comes to Muslims, this takes the form of e.g. standing up for the rights of Muslim women, defending secular liberal values such as free speech, or, as Sam Harris loves to do, ‘criticising’ Islam.

sam_harris2In case you were wondering, I do believe that Harris’s description of Islam is Islamophobic. Not because I am a practising Muslim and therefore object to any criticism of Islam coming from a non-Muslim, but rather because in conducting my research I have come to realise that distinguishing criticism of Islam from bigoted views of it (yes, there is such a thing) is a fairly straightforward exercise. Islam, albeit one word, encompasses a diverse faith and a magnitude of beliefs. Any objective criticism of Islam will give due consideration to this diversity. Harris’s criticism does not. He is under the impression that his model of Muslims as “concentric circles”, with “jihadists”, in the smallest number, forming the core, followed by Islamists, then conservative Muslims, and then the majority of modern, non-practising Muslims, sufficiently acknowledges the diversity of the Muslim world. He seems to be too absorbed in his own rhetoric to realise that this model depicts Muslims in some kind of vacuum, devoid of any external contexts and influences. Harris will never admit, for instance, that the jihadists of IS are not just violent because they follow a certain interpretation of Islam, but because they have an arsenal that allows them to be violent in practice. The “jihadists” of IS possess military resources that were supplied by the US and its allies in the fight against Assad in Syria. These jihadists are opportunists who are furthering their own political agenda. How is Islam to blame for that, I wonder?

The simple litmus test to prove if statements made by Harris and Maher are Islamophobic is to ask whether they would or would not be considered antisemitic if they were said about Judaism. If Harris declared Judaism “the mother lode of bad ideas”, or Maher said that Judaism “will f*ing kill you!!”, they would be accused of antisemitism in a heartbeat, and rightly so. The fact is that Harris, Maher, Dawkins et al represent a different, more subtle, altogether more sinister kind of Islamophobia, one that continues the historic Orientalist obsession of painting Islam as the Other, the sworn enemy of the West and the root of all evil. Moreover, these proponents of liberalism tout secular liberal principles of gender equality, gay rights, freedom of expression etc. to legitimate their Islamophobic sentiments, thus rationalising to themselves and others their bigoted views of Muslims.

When we recognise such negative views of Islam as Islamophobic, we can move beyond simplistic notions that these views can be remedied by a more thorough, nuanced or ‘correct’ understanding of Islam (which seems to be the approach Nicholas Kristof chose to take). Instead, there is a need to acknowledge that religion, which can include beliefs, practices or symbols, is much more deeply intertwined with the self-identity of adherentsthan a simple delineation of ‘ideology’ and ‘people’ might suggest. To call Islam “the mafia” is to vilify all Muslims. That a White non-Muslim man might disagree with this does not make it any less so.


Afroze Zaidi Jivraj recently completed her MPhil at the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, she did her research around Islamophobia in the media, requiring the analysis of comment sections on the Guardian and Telegraph websites.
For her academic research, Afroze has sought a more holistic understanding of Islamophobia which goes beyond the popular scholarly and policy focus and looks critically at Islamophobia as a form of racism in the truest sociological sense. She blogs for the Huffington Post on media representations of Islam and Muslims. Find her on twitter @AfrozeZJ

4 thoughts on “Affleck v. Harris and the Different Shades of Islamophobia

  1. I am genuinely curious as to what the author would consider a ‘legitimate’ criticism of Islam, it seems that any and all criticisms of the religion are painted as ‘bigoted’ or ‘islamophobic’ by those who want to shield the belief system of Islam from criticism. Islam is the only religion that demands exemption from criticism and people are getting sick of it.


  2. So, it seems like you are implying that if other Muslims had the arsenal of weapons resources of ISIS, they would be just as violent. How is Islam not to blame if that is the case?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The key issue here is. Islam is able to attract converts of different races into its fold. It actively encourages this through “Dawah”. Supposedly on another article one female convert to Islam calls “White Blond Women the holy grail as converts”. For Islam to claim they are a Race is as ludicrous as Christianity claiming they are race. The Sociological construct that this author is trying to construe is nothing short of “over stretching” one self. Religion is a not a race.

    Judaism recognises those that were born Jews & those that converted into Judaism. Jews have been a minority ever since inception. Sikhism has been a minority ever since inception. One is born Sikh or converts to Sikhism. They can be distinctly characterized through their places of origin & migration but the essence of those “Religions” can be legitimately construed as “A Race”. They are thus correctly afforded “Race Status”. The author fails to understand that if Islam is going to be construed as a Race then that status should also be afforded for Hindus & Christians. Unless the Author believes that “One rule for Muslims…”

    Another point that this Author is trying to pull is “Blasphemy Laws via countering Bigotry”. Nice & quaint but nobody is fooled in this approach in criticising Islam. Islam is an ideology which is being used Sociologically & Politically. Nobody is criticising anyone for their own private or personal faith. Nobody really gives a damn. However should you decide to impose it upon anyone Sociologically & Politically then we have the right to respond unless your saying “One rule for Muslims…”

    I don’t think Maher or Harris is Islamophobic unless you’re saying that anyone who voices legitimate concerns that the Jihadists backed up the Islamists backed up by Muslim Orthodox Expansionists etc are wrong to do so. Everyone knows that there are Progressive, Liberal, Reformist, Secularist Muslims however they’re being drowned out by the Islamists backed up by the Western Leftists.

    A very brief response & quite disjointed to say the least but I do hope you understand. Your article is devoid of any new material except regurgitating the same old material in the vain attempt that it will sink in. It won’t ever.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.