Islam and racism

This is another post written for the book, written to be an immediate follow-up to this post. Feedback on these posts is always appreciated, but this one especially show.

I’m tempted to agree with Sam Harris that responding to criticism of religious ideas with accusations of racism is “ almost too silly to merit a response.” Religions are systems of beliefs and practices, not races. “Muslim,” for example, does not mean “Arab;” there are Muslims of all races and ethnic groups. Even with Judaism, which is an ethnic religion, there is still a distinction: there are people who identify as ethnically and culturally Jewish but not religiously Jewish.

Granted, it is possible to be bigoted against Muslims (say, if you think someone must support terrorism simply because they identify as Muslim). But saying that certain beliefs widely held among Muslims are false and extremely harmful isn’t even bigotry, any more than it’s bigoted to say the same about, say, communism.

That’s all I’d have to say about the issue, if not for the way anti-Islam rhetoric has been used by right-wing political groups in the United States and Europe. In the US, this has often come in the form of scaremongering about the supposed threat of sharia law. Former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, for example, once claimed that sharia “is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States,” and more than two dozen US states have considered so-called “sharia bans.”

Rhetoric such as Gingrich’s is ridiculous because Muslims are a tiny minority in the US, and therefore unlikely to take over anytime soon. As for “sharia bans,” while their wording varies, it is often quite sweeping, leading some Jewish groups to worry it could interfere with their ability to use Jewish law to resolve disputes within their own communities.

In some cases, they are written to prohibit judges from consulting “foreign” law in making decisions, which the ACLU argues could undermine the ability of judges to make decisions involving international business, or involving international human rights and family law issues. Even more worrisome is the fact that in Europe, anti-Islam rhetoric has been picked up by such groups as the notoriously racist British National Party (BNP).

None of that means that there aren’t real problems with sharia law as found in medieval Islam and, unfortunately, many Muslim countries even to this day (something I’ll cover in greater detail at the end of the book). There are also legitimate concerns about protecting women in Muslim immigrant communities in western countries from being coerced or tricked into giving up their rights in sharia courts.

This second problem may be worth addressing through legislation, if the legislation is carefully written. Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the details of the proposal, the UK’s proposed Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, co-sponsored by the UK’s National Secular Society, contains many plausible measures, such as applying laws against sex discrimination to arbitration proceedings.

Secularists should avoid associations with the likes of Gingrich or the BNP, but no one can be evil 24 hours a day, so the mere fact that the political right does something doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. After all, the right has also co-opted the language of women’s rights, but this doesn’t make women’s rights a bad thing. By all means, American secularists should mock the fundamentalists with paranoid fantasies of an Islamic takeover, and European secularists should take a stand against the likes of the BNP–as both groups have in fact done. But that shouldn’t stop us from being frank in our criticism of Islam.

  • MNb

    I am not interested in semantic discussions on the question if islamophobia is racism or not. It leads us nowhere. More important is this. Criticism of islam, Quran, Mohammed and sharia doesn’t make one an islamophobe. Stirring up irrational fear for muslims by using tricks also popular amongst creationists does.
    Islamophobia is a real phenomenon. Don’t look further than Robert Spencer and my compatriot Geert Wilders. The way they “prove” their points is very similar to the “logic” of – well, name your favourite creationist.

  • James Croft

    I think that if you are going to include a full discussion of Islam and racism it would be wise to delve more deeply into some of the ways I which criticism of a religion is intertwined with racialized elements. Firstly, for instance, “Islam” doesn’t always simply refer to the religion of Islam. it can also refer to a whole cultural and political diaspora – in this sense it is similar to the term “Christendom”. So it behooves the critic of “Islam” to be extremely specific as to what precisely they are criticizing, which they are not always. Second, it seems clear to me that much of the rhetoric around Islam in the USA has a racial tinge: there’s no way that such heated rhetoric would be used against such a tiny minority were most Muslims, in addition to being members of a minority religion, also white.

    And this is an important point: people can definitely be motivated to attack someone’s religion because they are racist, and people’s criticisms of a religion can reveal and be intertwined with racist assumptions. Think of how many times Islam is called “barbaric”, for instance – a term which had (as far as we can tell) racist origins and which suggests more than a criticism of an idea.

    Finally, there is a way that generalizing about a religion can quickly become stereotyping of the people who adhere to that religion. And to the extent that unwarranted generalizations reinforce racist stereotypes there is a link between some forms of religious criticism and racism.

    I think, to have a more nuanced and self-critical take on this issue, it’s important to realize that there is real Islamophobia within the atheist community which sometimes will be informed by racist presumptions, and that while it is in principle possible to separate criticism of a faith from criticism of the ethic or racial groups which tend to practice that faith, in practice it is far more difficult and the lines are too often blurred.

    • Chris Hallquist

      What do you mean by “Islamophobia”?

      • Chris Hallquist


        • James Croft

          I see Islamophobia as similar to homophobia (which is probably better termed “sexual prejudice”): it is not necessarily an irrational fear or hatred of Muslims, just as homophobia isn’t necessarily an irrational fear and hatred of gay people. Rather, Islamophobia refers to actions, statements, beliefs etc. which serve to reinforce structures of oppression which marginalize, other, and demean Muslims as people.

          Hence over-generalizations, with their tendency to reinforce stereotypes, can be Islamophobic even if they are not motivated by explicit prejudice, just as a TV show which consistently portrays gay people in a stereotyped manner can be homophobic even if it is written by a staff of authors who all ride the rainbow. To say simply that “Islam is a religion of hate” can potentially be Islamophobic because it is a totalizing generalization which plays into cultural narratives which marginalize Muslims and leave them as second-class citizens.

          Context is highly important here: we live in a very racist culture which harbors great prejudice against Muslims: they are subject to hate crime and discrimination at disproportionate levels. And he have to ensure our religious criticism does not exacerbate these problems.

  • R. Wilkins

    Judaism “is an ethnic religion”. Really? What ethnicity do Ashkenazi Jews and the Beta Israel have in common? Or what about Arab converts to Judaism? (They do exist. One was a member of Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which is used by Kahane’s supporters to argue that he couldn’t therefore have been a racist.) Does the fact that there are Jews “of all races and ethnic groups” mean that antisemitism isn’t a form of racism?

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