Prejudice Paints in broad strokes, but its defense is typically written in fine print. So very often the same person who begins with broad generalizations will find all manner of fine-tuned distinctions to make in support of them. Hatred of Muslims gives us not just one but two of these games. In the first, people worry over whether or not Islamophobia is a word. In the second they reassure us that Islam is not a race.
By people, I suppose I mean Richard Dawkins.
I also mean a lot of other people too, but we’ll start with Dawkins. He just happens to have given us a couple of good examples of the sort of games people play on this subject. The first occurred in a discussion of Ahmed Mohamed (the Muslim boy who’s clock earned him national attention awhile back. Accused of Islamophobia in his comments on the subject, Dawkins dismissed this as a non-word. The second appears on his Twitter stream on December 8th:
What both of these examples have in common is a flippant response to concerns about hatred and fear of Islam and/or Muslims. The issue is far from limited to Dawkins or his critics. Trump and his fans have provided countless examples of these games over the last few months. Let’s take each of these issues in turn.
Is Islamophobia a word? Yes, it is. Whether or not that word can be used to communicate something useful is a more serious question. We’ll pursue that one here.
I’ve spoken with some folks who oppose the use of the word to describe attacks on Muslims.They interpret the word as applying only to attacks on Islam itself which ought in their view to be fair game for reasonable criticism (as opposed to attacks on actual Muslims). It’s an interesting distinction to make, but there are at least 2 problems with it, no 3.
1) While it may be true (and I certainly think it is) that there are perfectly reasonable criticisms of Islam itself, it is also true that there are unreasonable and highly biased criticisms of Islam. So, restricting our concerns about unfair criticism to actual people doesn’t do much to ensure responsible dialogue.
2) Actual prejudice simply isn’t limited to such neat distinctions. Unreasonable and biased criticism of Islam itself is indeed one of the many ways that someone seeking to spread hatred of Muslims may communicate his or her prejudice.
3) There are serious questions about the social footing in which even a sound rational criticism of Islam will take place today. Sure, we can put a reasonable Muslim in a room with a reasonable critic and ask them to hold a reasonable debate, but in the present political climate, the comments flying back and forth across various media bleed far too much into other topics such as terrorism, war, and national policy. Whn issues such as misogyny and homophobia are used, as they often are to explain what is wrong with Islam, it becomes that much easier to justify military action against Islamic countries. But bombs fall on women and those of homosexual orientation, just as they do straight men. And the poetic injustice reaches its final flourish when women and children in flight from ISIS are denied refuge because so many in the west can imagine Islam only in context of its horrors. In this context, it’s at least a little difficult to take the notion of reasonable criticism at face value.
As another way of putting this last point, I would say that a reasonable criticism is not simply one rooted in sound reasoning; it is one made in a context wherein constructive dialogue may actually take place. When that context is not present, many arguments that mihght at face value seem quite reasonable can often do more to spread hatred than to address real problems in a rational way.
This doesn’t resolve every question about Islamophobia, to be sure. The term may be directed at those with legitimate concerns about Islam or its adherents. Then again, words don’t come with guarantees about their own usage. Excessive and irresponsible criticisms of Islam and its adherents do happen, and concerns about such issues ought not to be dismissed with a quip about voicabulary.
For my own part, I shall continue to use the word, Islamophobia. I shall use it to describe what I take to be irrational prejudice against Islam, Muslims, or Muslim entities (Mosques, charitable organizations, states, etc.). I will distinguish it from criticisms that I do regard to be rational. I’m open to debate as to which is which, but I shall regard preemptive dismissal (such as that of Dawkins) as a sign of bad faith.
The notion that Islamophobia is a form of racism is itself interesting on a number of levels. To be sure, there are times when I am tempted to say that some other term might be more appropriate than ‘racism’, but when someone points out a prejudice, a discussion of whether or not that prejudice is about race, religion, nationality, or some other category can be pretty damned underwhelming. It’s well enough to dot your Is and cross your Ts, but that sort of quest shouldn’t be used to obscure the larger point that some form of prejudice is at stake in the issue.
As to the specific notion that critics of Islamophobia think Islam is a race, well it’s tough to decide whether or not that ‘s a straw man or a red herring. Perhaps it’s a straw herring.
I imagine someone out there may well think that Islam is a race, though I have yet to encounter the fellow. The vast majority of those asserting that Islamophobia is a form of racism are not, however, asserting any such thing. The notion that Islamophobia is a form of racism can be argued in a variety of ways:
1) In some cases the argument is essentially analogical reasoning. Islamophobia shares enough of the traits of racism that some feel justified in using the term on that basis alone. Some may not find this particularly convincing, but even so the denial just leaves us in search of a different word for the prejudice, and in no case does it involve mythical ideas of a Muslim race.
2) Others emphasize the role of racial motivation in support for attacks against Islam. White Supremacists can and do criticize Islam as a way of attacking other ethnic groups. Because Islam is associated with specific demographic populations, criticism of Islam is an effective way of criticizing those groups. You can see this for example in the white racist memes often posted as replies in support of Trump these days. You can also see this in the number of crimes and attacks on others such as Sikhs commonly mistaken for Muslim, or in criticisms that oddly take practices from one Islamic region as arguments against people from another one (see my last post). When folks describe Syrian refugees in mass as terrorists, then no, this is not a criticism of any religion, and no, specific security concerns about the possibility that terrorists COULD come into the country as refugees do nothing to justify the sweeping generalizations often made against these refugees. In these and countless other ways, the religious nature of Islam is confounded with issues of ethnic identity and nationality.
…which is incidentally just what one would normally expect from racists.
Simply put, the question here is not whether those serving as the object of purportedly racist attacks really constitute a race (as if ‘race’ were real to begin with); it’s whether or not racism plays a role in the motivations of those launching the attacks.
3) Perhaps the most substantial argument in favor of the notion that Islamophobia is a form of aracism lies in the notion that attacks on Islam actually serve to re-enforce some of the same institutional inequalities once promoted through racism. Where previous generations may have justified colonialism and discrimination in the name of the ‘white man’s burden’, we now bomb Islamic nations with disturbing regularity and debate whether or not to take in their refugees through reference to Islam and Islamism. In effect, one might suggest that Islam is just the latest label used to perpetuate regional aggression as well as individual acts of discrimination. The vocabulary of racism may have changed, but it’s not terribly precise to begin with, and its effects remain largely the same.
Whatever the basis for describing Islamophobia as a form of racism, the notion that Islam is literally a race simply isn’t among them. That is little more than a flippant excuse for dismissing serious concerns. That’s definitely not helpful.