Islamophobia is a Racism

Here’s a disturbing trend: with alarming frequency we are hearing stories of American people of color being murdered or assaulted for looking like Muslims. In a recent case, a Florida resident was shot repeatedly with a pellet gun outside of a Walmart. The victim, Cameron Mohammed, was actually armed with a real gun but chose not to fire. While his actions—or rather, inaction— could motivate an important conversation on forgiveness and ethical gun ownership, this event also characterizes a fundamental characteristic of Islamophobia: it is, largely, a form of racism.

Associate editor at Religion Dispatches Haroon Moghul has written a quite lengthy and thorough account of Islamophobia in the wake of the murder of Sunando Sen, an American Hindu who died a grisly, horrifying death for appearing Muslim. Moghul’s piece is largely a response to critics who see the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself as a tool to silence thoughtful criticism of Islam and it greatly succeeds in this respect. It is absolutely worth your time to work your way through it. However, I don’t believe that Moghul quite goes far enough when discussing the intersection of race and Islamophobia, and his account doesn’t seem consistent with the data provided from these recent violent incidents.

The case of Cameron Mohammed is notable for being perhaps the most explicit example of how race is what moves Islamophobes to hate. Mohammed’s assailant explicitly asked him if he was in fact Muslim or from the Middle East and when he answered negatively (Mohammed was born in the Caribbean and raised in Florida), this did not stop the attack. Nor did it stop the racial slurs which accompanied the violence. The assailant’s remarks to the police after the incident also betray the real motive:

When deputies told him his victim wasn’t Muslim, he told them he didn’t care, that “they’re all the same,” Schoneman told reporters.

“They,” brown people, are all the same.

What is interesting about the prevalence of Islamophobic crime as of late is that, to some extent, it hasn’t even been directed at Muslims. And when the perpetrators of this sort of crime are confronted with the fact that the brown person they murdered or assaulted didn’t represent the ideology they thought they were combating, they rush to justify their attack. Mohammed’s attacker did this by implying that all brown people have some stake in extremist Islam; Sen’s attacker had a similar justification when authorities told her that Sen was actually a Hindu from India:

“I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”

You don’t actually have to “be” a Muslim in any theological or cultural sense in order to be singled out for assault by this logic. Rather, what matters is how you look. This seems like a slam-dunk case for classifying Islamophobia as a type of racism, but Moghul raises an interesting objection:

I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims … and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same.

This is actually entirely what racists do. This is called tokenism: the practice of only welcoming select members of a marginalized identity, particularly those who have acclimated to the dominant group. Racists occasionally celebrate people of color who have gravitated away from their identity and towards the white majority, just as Islamophobes occasionally celebrate ex-Muslims who have cast aside their supposedly harmful beliefs.

Few people would willingly label themselves as racist (I think they all have OK Cupid profiles though). We all know the bigot who will start dehumanizing stories with the disclaimer, “I’m not racist, but…” Very often, as a tool to prevent themselves from viewing themselves as bigoted, racists will construct a myth that there is a difference between the subset of people of color they hate and people of color as a whole. This manifests itself most visibly as the trope that “there is a difference between a black person and a n*****.”

More depressing is the widely-held view that, to quote a phrase I’ve retweeted dozens of times since starting @YesYoureRacist, “there’s a difference between black people and ni**ers.” The sentiment was popularized by Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, but is now used primarily by white people who want to justify their use of the N-word.

Tokenism also characterizes other forms of hate similar to racism, like homophobia. Returning to Twitter, we can see how tokenism excuses homophobia thanks to Azealia Banks:

A f****t is not a homosexual male. A f****t is any male who acts like a female. There’s a BIG difference. [censorship mine]

Banks doesn’t hate the gays who have transcended these womanly qualities, so she doesn’t see herself as homophobic. However, employing this offensive language with a diatribe against queer stereotypes is absolutely what it means to be homophobic. Similarly, having a black friend doesn’t excuse one from being racist. Liking some black folks but hating “n*****s” is the definition of tokenism. It is thus strange to point to tokenism within Islamophobia as a characteristic which should exclude it from being classified as a form of racism. So, if anything, the fact that Islamophobes exalt certain ex-Muslims shows their similarities to racists, not their incompatibility with the concept.

There is a caveat that needs explicating in any discussion about Islamophobia (though I’m not confident critics will pay it any mind). There’s nothing wrong with hating evil done in the name of a religion. In fact, this is the binding force of many interfaith organizations such as the Interfaith Youth Core. These coalitions are forged by people whose personal narratives push them to weed out injustice and promote the common good regardless of creed. When we cross the line from hating injustice to generalizing large populations of people as perpetrators or supporters of the violence because of how they look, we betray this noble mission.

Islamophobia manifests itself through the surface characteristics of race. We wrongly think we can judge another’s character by the color of their skin, the style of their clothing, or the Middle Eastern sound of their name. This is not a vigilance worth protecting; this is a racism, a societal evil that needs to be opposed.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.

From the archives: are we "getting" Islam?
My Interview with David Pizarro for Religion Dispatches
How a subway step explains Ferguson
Atheism, Islam, and Race (Ctd)
About Stephen Goeman

Stephen Goeman is an atheist/ interfaith activist and first year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School. He studied Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Philosophy as an undergraduate at Tufts University, where he also served as President of the Tufts Freethought Society. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and former VIA volunteer coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He enjoys spending his free time not reading the comments while listening to David Bowie and Kanye West.