“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.
In 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