Muslims are Not a Race. So why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They Were?

In their 2009 article, “Refutations of racism in the ‘Muslim question’,” published in Patterns of Prejudice (43 [3-4]: 335–54), Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood “identify a variety of reasons why the notion that Muslim minorities could be subject to racism by virtue of their real or perceived ‘Muslimness’ is met with much less sympathy than the widely accepted notion that other religious minorities in Europe, particularly Jewish groups.” However, Jews are not merely a religious group, but are an ethnicity in the way Arabs are, whereas the Muslim identity spans many ethnicities (and races). Nobody would suggest that anti-Arab sentiment, to the extent that phenotypic features associated with that ancestry are racialized, is not analogous to racism (albeit the term of “ethnicism,” that is prejudice based on ethnic origin, would be more usefully applied). At the same time, criticisms of Judaism, if by this we mean Jewish religious thought and practice, is not anti-Semitic; it is a critique of ideology, not of race or ethnicity.

Muslims in modesty dress

A year earlier, Nasar Meer, this time with Tehseen Noorani, published a sociological comparison of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain in The Sociological Review (56 [2]: 195–219). They write, “Across Europe activists and certain academics are struggling to get across an understanding in their governments and their countries at large that anti-Muslim racism/Islamophobia is now one of the most pernicious forms of contemporary racism and that steps should be taken to combat it.” This assumes as proven a claim for which Meer and Noorani could provide no evidence. It is simply a conflation of opposition to an ideology and those who advocate that ideology – in the same way one might oppose Fascism and Fascists – with the practice of racism. Similarly, R.D. Johnson, Haluk Soydan, and Charlotte Williams, writing in Social Work and Minorities: European Perspectives (1998), describe Islamophobia as the new form of racism in Europe, asserting that “Islamophobia is as much a form of racism as anti-Semitism, a term more commonly encountered in Europe as a sibling of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.” But anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice against Jews on the basis of their ethnicity. Muslim is not an ethnicity.

In a 2007 article in Journal of Sociology (43 [1]: 61–86), “The resistible rise of Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim racism in the UK and Australia before 11 September 2001,” Scott Poynting and Victoria Mason define “Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism and a continuation of anti-Asian and anti-Arab racism.” By assertion a propaganda term that attempts to pathologize opposition to Islam is also said to indicate racism, this despite the obvious fact that Islam is not a race but a religious faith. It moreover conflates a religious faith with a particular racial group that includes many religious faiths (Asian) and with an ethnic category that presents with many religious faiths (Arab). There are in fact millions of Asians and Arabs who are Christian. Imagine an article arguing the following definition of a concept published in the Journal of Sociology: “Christophobia is anti-Christian racism and a continuation of anti-Europe and anti-North American racism.” It sounds no less ludicrous in its original formulation. Presumably, this article enjoyed peer-review.

In 2011, Sabine Schiffer and Constantin Wagner, in “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – New Enemies, Old Patterns,” published in Race and Class (52 [3]: 77-84), disclaim “that to compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism is not to equate them. But finding some parallels might help German society to combat a growing and dangerous anti-Muslim racism.” Here’s that construction again: “anti-Muslim racism.” In what way is a religious faith analogous to race? Every time you hear this construction substitute for it in your mind this construction: “anti-Christian racism.” Does it still make sense? If it doesn’t, then it “anti-Muslim racism” doesn’t make sense because they are not merely analogous but are species of the same genre. Yet Schiffer and Wagner continue as if they have something profound to say. They do this by leaning on the Jewish experience: “The achievement in the study of anti-Semitism of examining Jewry and anti-Semitism separately must also be transferred to other racisms, such as Islamophobia. We do not need more information about Islam, but more information about the making of racist stereotypes in general.” In other words, you don’t need to know that Islam is a patriarchal heterosexist ideology that seeks to put all human thought and endeavor under divine command interpreted by male clerics. You only need to focus on the fact that some persons don’t like Islam and thus must be because of racist stereotyping. What they actually mean, then, is that we need to make up shit about racist stereotyping by expanding the concept of racism to cover things that are not only not the stuff of racism but aren’t even analogous to the stuff of racism.

That same year, in “The Idea of ‘Islamophobia’,” published in World Affairs, Alan Johnson argues that “Islamophobia” can sometimes be nothing more than xenophobia or racism “wrapped in religious terms.” Note how this flips things. It would be accurate to say that the charge of Islamophobia is a way of reacting to criticisms and concerns about a political and religious ideology that wraps them in the language of racism in order to delegitimize them. Of course, before one could wrap her racism in religious terms, there would actually have to be racism, and since a Islam is not a race, there is nothing there to wrap. Thus, despite his hedging, his claim means to confuse the reader about concepts derived uncontroversially from observations of the real world. Johnson’s argument is ideological.

It is curious to scholars and politicians pretend as if Muslims have no ideology, no belief system, but rather should be treated the same as a black person or a homosexual, especially when this collapsing of concepts would be obviously unwarranted for such ideological groups as Fascists and Christians. How is criticism of Muslims for their beliefs concerning homosexuals any different than criticism of Christians for their homophobic beliefs? Why should criticisms of the treatment of women under Islam be any different than criticisms of Christians for their patriarchal and misogynistic beliefs? Why is it bigotry for homosexuals and women – and free thinkers such as myself – to worry about the influence of Islamic doctrine on law, government, and social relations generally in spaces which decades, indeed centuries of struggle have marginalized the oppressive characteristics of religion? Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown in 2003 write that “Islamophobia is usually based upon negative stereotypes about Islam which are then translated into attacks on Muslims.” But the same can be said for negative stereotypes of Fascism which are then translated into attacks on Fascists, attacked that are cheered by the same persons who condemn such attacks on Muslims. 

Kevin Dunn, Natascha Klocker, and Tanya Salably, in a 2007 article “Contemporary racism and Islamophobia in Australia – Racializing Religion,” published in Ethnicities (7 [4]: 564–589), contend that contemporary anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia is reproduced through racialization. “These are not old or color-based racisms,” they write, “but they do manifest certain characteristics that allow us to conceive a racialization process in relation to Muslims.” They ask us to consider “the racialized pathologies of Muslims and their spaces.” But what we are actually talking about is criticism of an ideology and concern about those who practice this ideology. Again, substitute some words and see if it still makes sense. What would it mean to talk about “the racialized pathologies of Christians and their spaces”?

According to Gabrielle Morainic, the increasing “Islamophobia” in the West is related to a rising repudiation of multiculturalism. She concludes that “Islamophobia is a ‘phobia’ of multiculturalism and the transruptive effect that Islam can have in Europe and the West through transcultural processes.” See her 2004 “Multiculturalism, Islam and the clash of civilizations theory: rethinking Islamophobia,” in Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal (5 [1]: 105–17), for more. This term “transruptive” is obviously an Orwellian linguistic maneuver to avoid the actual word “disruptive” because the latter might indicate an empirical truth about multiculturalism, namely its culturally disorganizing impact on communities that depend on shared value systems upon which to build political and social solidarity.

Consider Erik Love’s 2013 review of Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire and Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora in Contexts (12 [1]: 70–72): “Taking these two works together, Kumar and Rana put forth a strong argument that while Islam is certainly a religion, and not a race, and Muslims (like all religious communities) are a highly diverse group in terms of ethnicity, nationality, and even racial backgrounds, Islamophobia is in fact a form of racism.” We are asked to accept as true that which is admitted to be false. It’s as if O’Brien’s demand of Winton in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to see something plainly false before him as true has become an academic standard. “Both books,” Love writes, “effectively provide historical accounts showing the parallel development of Islamophobic discourses alongside other forms of racial bigotry and discrimination.” This is a typical argument running through the literature and journalism on this subject, that while Islam is “certainly” a religion and not a race, Islamophobia is “in fact” a form of racism. It asks us to jettison concerns for validity in concepts and precision in language for a propaganda campaign.

Journalists are eager to get in on obscuring the character of anti-Islamic sentiment. Writing in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik has a “Message to Richard Dawkins: ‘Islam is not a race’ is a cop out.” Malik admits that “technically” “Islam is not a race,” but then states that there is a “strong racial dimension to Islamophobia” noting that Muslims in the UK are mostly African, Asian or Arab. (That Arabs are considered white in the UK seems to have completely escaped Malik.) Disentangling the intersection of race and religion is, of course, an analytical exercise, which would depend on uncovering the motive for the action. Malik does none of this yet concludes that saying that Islam is not a race is a “cop out,” because although “Islam might not be a race…using that as a fig leaf for your unthinking prejudice is almost certainly racist.” This is a fallacious argument, since criticism of Islam and its devotees is no more a form of prejudice than are criticisms of Fascism and its devotees. Criticizing somebody for being black, on the other hand, is racist. Malik continues, “A focus on the academic distinction between religion and race is often used as a fig leaf for prejudice and outright bigotry.” Again, rational norms are problematic. In point of fact, the distinction between religion and race is rapidly disappearing in the academy – but only with respect to Islam. For Christianity, the distinction is maintained and no academic discourse on the problems of Christianity is smeared by accusations of bigotry. 

Tom Chivers, who blogs for The Telegraph, also goes after Richard Dawkins for his criticisms of Islam because he doesn’t distinguish between ideology and adherents to ideology. Even notable critics of Islam, such as Ayaan Hirshi Ali make this distinction. But criticizing people for holding an ideology is a distinction without a real difference. If there were no Fascists, discussions of Fascism would be about history. Ideologies affect other people when they are realized through human actors and their actions. Chivers also takes Dawkins to task for pointing out that the Muslim world has not produced very many Nobel laureates, an argument that Dawkins borrows from Neil DeGrasse Tyson (a man who nobody to my knowledge accuses of Islamophobia or racism). Chivers claims that Dawkins implies that this is “because [Muslims are] stupid, or brainwashed…by their religion.” (Chivers puts it in a self-sealing manner. It is accurate to say that Muslims are persons brainwashed by religion. This is true of all believers.) Chivers expects a scientist should also examine “other institutional or non-institutional dimensions on the lack of progress in Muslim societies, such as poverty and the scarcity of other resources” (as if that work is never done). “In other words,” he writes, “claiming that Muslims are exceptionally backward and attributing this to Islam is tantamount to racism and Islamophobia.” Why is it racist to attribute poverty to a backwards ideology that puts faith and superstitution ahead of scientific reason and fact?  It’s not. Indeed, it seems Chivers is quite interested in seeing those whose brains are chained to irrational ideology remain that way by branding criticisms of their backwards beliefs “racist.”

Malik, who adores the word “technically,” has a go at Dawkins on this score, as well (see her “Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric”): “After I wrote about Richard Dawkins’s snide attack on the supposed dearth of Muslim scientific and cultural achievement, some critics hit back along these lines. It is acceptable to criticize and belittle Islam because it is a religion, not an ethnic grouping – and therefore fair game.” Note what she says here. She is not complaining about the denial of educational or occupational opportunities on the grounds of religious opinions or identity, but the idea that it is acceptable to criticize and belittle religious opinions or identity. Yet the latter is completely acceptable in Western society, as is evidenced by the Monty Python comedy, The Life of Brian. The idea that one should be accused of bigotry for religious mockery is an extremist position. Religion is fair game. It has to be. Our freedom and future depends on it being fair game.

Islam in practice affects human beings in a manner analogous to Fascism in action: violent jihad, patriarchy and misogyny, persecution of homosexuals, intolerance of blasphemy and apostasy, loss of bodily autonomy, and so on. Islam is an oppressive totalitarian ideology that seeks to put everything under the command of sharia (Islamic law) and clerical rule. To be sure, not all Muslims actively pursue this goal, but it follows from the ideology they embrace. The grim truth is that the terrorist organization ISIS is not a deviation from or a perversion of Islam but a valid interpretation of it. In form and content, a clean separation between Islam and Muslims is no more valid a distinction to make as that separating Fascists from Fascism. The ideological work of making criticisms of Islam and Muslims appear to be a form of racism is a program to obscure this truth of Islam in order to mainstream its doctrine and practices in world. The left could hardly be expected to do the same for Christianity and Christians. So a deeper question is the genesis of the leftwing Islamophile. Why are the mainstream Islam by smearing its critics as “racist”? This is an urgent question.

Those who argue for the restricting the speech of Fascists, for preventing them from publicly expressing their opinion, including those who advocate the use of violence against Fascists on the grounds that Fascism represents a threat to freedom and democracy, but who at the same time accuse those who criticize Islam and Muslims as “bigots” and “Islamophobes,” who protest anti-Islamic sentiment, contradict themselves in a fundamental way: condemning one form of oppressive totalitarian ideology and practice while, not only defending, but embracing another form of oppressive totalitarian ideology and practice that more closely parallels fascism than any other currently being articulated. There is nothing special about religion that makes criticism of it and its adherents any different than criticism of any ideology and its devotees. The claim that religion is analogous to race and sex – and not analogous to racism and sexism – is perpetuated by a need (conscious or not) to keep the masses in thrall of myth and ritual.

For the record, as a civil libertarian, I defend the right of people to believe and express crazy ideas. My arguments about this problem do not suggest an official antitheism or the persecution of individuals based on their beliefs. I am committed to a free society in which ideas are freely held and shared and it is by virtue of this commitment that I am compelled to criticize those beliefs and expressions that prefer a different world, a world in which I am censored or punished for antitheist blog entries. Where I draw the line is at action. If it is not enough for a Muslim to hold a personal belief in Islam and that Muslim seeks to compel others to participate in the practices that belief demand, that’s when we have a problem. And that is just as true for Christians, as well.

As Christopher Hitchens put it May 7, 2007, “I’m perfectly happy for people to have these toys, and to play with them at home, and hug them to themselves and so on, and to share them with other people who come around and play with the toys.  So that’s absolutely fine.  They are not to make me play with these toys.  I will not play with the toys.  Don’t bring the toys to my house, don’t say my children must play with these toys, don’t say my toys might be a condom – here we go again – are not allowed by their toys.  I’m not going to have any of that. Enough with clerical and religious bullying and intimidation.  Is that finally clear?  Have I got that across?”

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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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