What’s Racist About Islamophobia? Not What You Think

The charge of “Islamophobia” is an attempt to delegitimize the critic by suggesting that his criticism is an act of race hatred – as an attack upon a nonwhite people who cannot choose their identity.  Of course, criticism of Islam cannot be racist because Islam is not a race. Islam is an ideology, like fascism; just as it would be absurd to suggest the term “fascophobia” as a species of racism, so it is absurd to offer the term Islamophobia as such. “Christophobia” does appear as a term from time to time, yet the public neither recognizes nor accepts it as a form of racism, if not because they don’t confuse ideology (a chosen or abandonable set of ideas) with race (an imposed and rarely escapable designation), but for the obvious fact that Christianity enjoys adherents spanning the racial spectrum. Indeed, most Muslims in the United States and Great Britain, and in North America and Europe generally, are racially white albeit ethnically Western or Central Asian.

However, there is a form of racism associated with the construct Islamophobia, namely the suppression of the human right of individuals to be free from oppressive culture and ideology that manifests as the illiberal practice of shutting down criticism of Islam with accusations of racism. The racist impulse that underpins this practice is the assumption that individuals in Muslim-majority countries and communities, because they are perceived to be members of racialized minority groups, are on-board with the homophobic, patriarchal, and repressive character of fundamentalist Islam and, furthermore, that it is morally acceptable and even culturally appropriate for them to adhere to such an ideology on account of their racial identity. To put this another way: while it is no good for Europeans to be saddled with Christian fundamentalism or to be told that is it bigotry to criticize the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is not only okay for black and brown peoples to be so saddled, but that it is racist to speak out against their suffering and in favor of their liberation!

Maajid Nawaz, of the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam, a Muslim who supports gay, women’s and free speech rights, has pointed out that those on the left who fetishize Islamic attitudes, dress, and practices – non-Muslims who participate in World Hijab Day or protest against any restriction on extreme Islamic practices or call for incorporation of elements of sharia in western jurisprudence (my examples) – reduce individuals to a stereotype of what it means to be a Muslim, while at the same time fail to recognize or acknowledge the coercive and cultural forces that compel individuals to appear certain ways, and, in so doing, fail the reformers across the Muslim world. By privileging group rights over individual rights (the latter being the proper subject of rights), and identifying as the “authentic Muslim” the religious conservative in the Muslim community, the “regressive left,” as Nawaz calls it, lends tacit support to the Islamic fundamentalist movement, the force of Islamization, what many refer to as “Islamism” – that is, Muslims who resist assimilation with western values and seek instead the imposition of sharia and Muslim culture on the West. (Christopher Hitchens made a similar observation years earlier). Fundamentalist Islam is an oppressive force, and if being a liberal or a leftist means anything it means opposition to oppressive ideology and practice. This is what distinguishes us from those on the right.

Imagine struggling under the yoke of fundamentalist Christianity and those outside that community accepting as representative of the individuals in that culture the claims made for them by the likes of Pat Robertson and other fundamentalist Christian leaders. Imagine hearing that one who criticizes the homophobic, patriarchal, and anti-science values advanced by such fundamentalist leaders as Mike Pence is guilty of anti-Christian bigotry. It’s not hard to imagine the sinking feeling one would have as an atheist or a free thinker living in the Bible Belt to hear such arguments against his liberty. And while it can often be insulting to hear Northeastern liberals in the US mock Southerners as a bunch of backwards religious fundamentalists, it is far better for the Christian fundamentalists among them to be so ridiculed than it is for the South to be excused from aspiring to rise to the humanistic and secular standards of the Enlightenment and the open society. As a atheist growing up on the South, indeed in a very Christian community, I was always appreciative of those voices who pointed out the absurd and criticized the oppressive elements of Southern culture. When the Supreme Court liberated gays and lesbians from the discriminatory laws that were characteristic of the Southern state, and thus softened up Southern culture for the greater acceptance of homosexuality, they did not exempt the South from having to accept the right of marriage equality. Every individual enjoyed the rights to which they are entitled regardless of culture or ideology.

The reality and truth of oppressive structures do not depend on whether those who are oppressed see or struggle against their oppressors. Oppression is an objective matter. It exists when individuals do not enjoy equal rights, when they are not treated as persons or equally before the law, when their bodies and labors are exploited by others. When we hear that we cannot speak for oppressed people, and on this account fall into silence, we betray the oppressed. To do this on the basis of racial designation is to act in a racist fashion, using the perceived race of individuals against them. In this way, identity politics is a thought-stopping practice, designed (or at least functioning) to deny the individual her human rights and selectively muzzle criticism of oppressive culture and ideology.

There are two principles central to liberalism that we would all do well to follow. First, all beliefs are subject to criticism. It follows that a free society permits the criticism, and even ridicule, of religion. Second, a free society cannot practice or allow discrimination of individuals based on their beliefs. Governments are only allowed to control behavior. So, a man who merely believes in gods should not be subjected to discrimination based on this belief. However, his belief is subject to criticism and ridicule. This is why the term “Islamophobia” to describe prejudice and discrimination against Muslims is so troubling. Islamophobia is a species of ideophobia, i.e. distrust, fear, or loathing of ideas. Obviously confusing criticism, distrust, fear, and loathing of Islam (permitted in a free society) with discrimination against Muslims (illegal in a free society) is an error in free thinking. But this conflation is not solely the product of error. It is also the product of a desire to stifle criticism of Islam by equating it with racism, which implies both prejudice (permitted) and discrimination (illegal).

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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