You’ve probably seen the exchange where Ben Affleck calls Bill Maher “racist” for his handy generalizations about “the Muslim world.”
This charge has somewhat reinvigorated the “religion not a race” defense among Islamophobes.
It should be enough to respond: “Well, yes it is racist, if the criticism is motivated by race.” Only thing, the Islamophobes speak as though this were impossible. This screenshot is entirely typical:
Cannot be? But why? What exactly is the argument here?
Clearly, it isn’t enough to say Islam is “a religion, not a race.” I may as well say the NAACP is “an organization, not a race,” and therefore it cannot be the target of racism.
They—the Caucasion ones, let’s say—probably mean something like: “Islam has a multi-racial membership and includes white devotees. Any criticism implicates white Muslims. Therefore, a criticism on racial grounds would be self-contradictory or absurd.”
One is tempted to counter: But people say and do contradictory, absurd things all the time. This is hardly “impossible.” As if racism should offer some perfectly coherent, rational system of thought.
But more can and should be said here, given the prevalence of the “meme” in question.
Racism toward other multi-racial groups
One problem with the “religion not race” defense: It is easy to think of other groups and practices which are clearly the target of racist views, but in which, like Islam, whites also participate; in other words, cases where white membership does not give immunity to racism.
For example, miscegenation (or “race mixing,” in old-school racist parlance): By definition, the “membership” of the institution of mixed marriage—or, if you like, of a given mixed-race couple—is not exclusively one race. The ones I (and white racists) have in mind have 50% white participation. And yet, these unions have frequently been opposed—even outlawed—on openly racist grounds (“diminishing the superior stock” and such). So why should a religion—whose white membership is a far smaller percentage—be immune to the same?
Likewise for formal organizations and movements. Nobody can deny that the African-American Civil Rights Movement earned racist contempt, even though it enjoyed high-profile white participation from the start. To have defended, “but it’s a movement, not a race” would have been absurd.
When whites-only golf and country clubs began integrating in the 1970s, many white members abandoned them—on admittedly racist grounds. The fact that these clubs remained 99% white did not magically dissolve the racist quality of this critique.
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Note: In all these cases, not only did white participation fail to render “racist criticism” impossible, the white participants were not exempted in such attacks. Quite the contrary: Often, special ire was reserved for “race traitors,” e.g. the white spouses, the country club leaders or voting majority who sanctioned integration, or the whites who marched alongside black leaders.
As the picture below illustrates, certain sentiments (e.g. “n****r-lover”) were directed only to whites, yet remained indisputably racist, attacking non-whites by implication.
(A similar phenomenon happens when white suburban youth are attacked for appropriating black stereotypes. Saying, “Pull up your pants and turn down that n****r music,” is clearly a racist sentiment, even when directed against a racially-mixed or all-white group of kids. But if “sag-phobia” and “rap-phobia” can be racist, despite the existence of white saggers and rap fans, why are we so sure Islamophobia can’t be, simply because there are white Muslims?)
So no, it isn’t actually necessary for a group or practice to be monolitically non-white to be the subject of racist attack. It is only necessary that it be someway associated with some non-white group or groups that are themselves the subject of racist attack. No, the Civil Rights Movement and gangster rap are not “a race,” but are clearly associated with one in particular. That doesn’t make every attack on these things racist—one could criticize the CRM on tactical grounds, and hip-hop on aesthetic grounds—but it sure as fuck makes it possible to do so. It isn’t clear how the same logic should not apply to Islam.
Consider the statement by a reporter covering the Boston Marathon bombing that the suspect was “Muslim-looking.” Yes, he misspoke, but everybody knew what he meant. By sheer accident of history, Islam is closely associated with certain non-white races and cultures of the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. These groups account for its origins and initial spread and comprise the populations of Muslim-majority countries today. Most Muslims are members of these groups, even those living in the West. And these groups, religion aside, are historically subject to racist ideologies.
All of the ingredients are there. And while this doesn’t prove that Islamophobia is racist per se, it is ridiculous to say that it cannot be. People must stop relying on this facile assumption to dismiss the charge of racism out of hand.
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I do believe Islamophobia is largely about race, but I will tackle that in another post.
But here is a hint: Prior to 9/11, Arab-Americans enjoyed broad recognition as a “model minority”; many simply identified as white. After the attacks, this changed. Comedian Dean Obeidallah jested, “I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th, I am an Arab.” Islamophobia went mainstream virtually overnight. Granted, certain groups were actively promoting this, but what is notable is how little effort and money (one theorist estimates $50 million) it took them to do it.
This, combined with the sheer irrationality of Islamophobia, suggests the groundwork was laid in advance. American white supremacy proved a fertile soil for the seeds of Muslim-fear to sprout. The spike in anti-Muslim violence in the wake of electing our first black president (up 50% by 2010)—and of course the “Obama is a Muslim” trope in itself—only confirm this thesis.
But yeah, more on this later.
From the reporting, you’d think the Montgomery School Board (DC) just did something grand and sinister—and all at the behest of the local Muslim community.
Fox News informs: “School dumps Christmas, Easter” and “cancel[s]…Jewish holidays” to “appease Muslims.”
As of next year, all Christian and Jewish holidays will be removed from the calendar. That means no more Christmas, no more Easter and no more Yom Kippur.” All “because they did not want to disrespect or be insensitive to the Muslim community.
For Bill O’reilly, the Board is “caving in” to Muslim pressure: “They just wiped out all our traditions because [of] these people.”
Sounds awful, right? Creeping Shariah or some shit.
Not quite. Actually, something was stricken from the school calendar, but it wasn’t Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur. Rather, it was “Christmas,” “Easter,” and “Yom Kippur.” As in, the words. And by “school calendar,” I don’t mean a yearly series of events, but literally the piece of paper on which the event names are printed.
Words on a page. Nothing else will change. Schools will still close for all the same holidays as ever before. They will just be called something else in a single run of a single year’s calendar.
(Nor is anyone picking on Christians or Jews. All religious holiday names were stricken—it’s just that all of them happen to be Christian or Jewish. Nor were any strange new “Muslim holidays” added.)
Even if this were a big deal, it makes no sense to blame the Muslim community for something the Board did. For one, it’s the opposite of what they were asking for.
For years, community leaders have petitioned the Board to recognize either of two feast festivals, Eid al-Adha (end of hajj) or Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), with school closures. This would amount to equal recognition of Muslim students given the traditional closures on Christian and Jewish holidays.
But this year, they weren’t even asking for this much. By chance, during the upcoming school year (2015-16), Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as Jewish Yom Kippur, for which schools will already be closed. So Muslim leaders modified their request, asking only that the words “Eid al-Adha” be printed in the new calendar next to “Yom Kippur”—instead of an inch or so below, where there are printed now as a kind of afterthought. (Leaders admit this is a “strictly symbolic issue.”)
The Board answered this modest request by striking all religious names from the record, calling it “the most equitable solution.”
Far from marking this as a great victory, the Muslim campaigners are pretty pissed:
‘By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,’ said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition. ‘It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification.’
(I’m sure he’s celebrating on the inside. Takkiyah and all.)
You people want equality? We’ll give you equality
Sure, the Board’s decision is “equitable.” Voting to torture every student for five minutes would be “equitable” too. But to pretend this is therefore “what the Muslims were asking for” is disingenuous.
Nonetheless, dumbasses across the county are scapegoating the Muslim community as spoilers (even though, you know, nothing is actually spoiled). The decision has deflected heat away from the Board, and onto the Muslims—exactly as it was designed to do.
Don’t buy that shit.
If you think the actions of Oklahoma beheader Alton Nolen say anything about “Islam,” you’re fucking stupid. He was emotionally disturbed and criminally antisocial long before he began playing Muslim—and he wasn’t playing it well. The few times he attended a mosque, they had to keep reminding him not to lay his fucking Quran on the floor.
The New York Times reports (as quoted from Lou Proyect of The Unrepentant Marxist):
Law enforcement officials said Mr. Nolen was a recent convert to Islam. A Facebook page that appeared to be his indicated that he was calling himself Jah’Keem Yisrael, and is filled with criticism of American culture, and dire warnings about coming judgment for those who do not follow that religion. “This is the last days,” he wrote in his most recent post, on Tuesday.
Wonder why he picked a last name like Yisrael. He might as well called himself Mohammad Cohen or Ali Bernstein. Clearly he was a bit *off*.
Aslan is correct to press that what Islamophobes like to think of as “Muslim problems” (e.g. sexism) are better seen as regional-cultural ones. (He’s also sharper and more polemical than in his last (albeit still very punchy) viral takedown. Keep ‘em coming, holmes.)
These naughty elements aren’t even nearly correlated with “the Muslim world.” Indonesia has more Muslims than anywhere else and sees legal and social equality between the sexes.
The mismatch is not only geographical, but historical. Aslan might have added: “Islamic sexism” is mostly an import from Christianity. Deepa Kumar in “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire”:
As Islam spread, it adopted the cultural practices of various empires, including those of the neighboring Persian and Byzanine empires. The Christians, who populated the Middle East and the Meditteranean had more rigid customs associated with women. In the Christian Byzantine Empire, the sexes were segregated. Women were not to be seen in public, were veiled, and were given only rudimentary education. As the expanding Islamic empire incorporated these regions, it also assimilated these cultural and social practices. In other words, the particular misogynistic practices that Islam came to adopt were largely inherited from the Christian and Jewish religious customs of the neighboring societies Muslims conquered. The…point here is that sexist attitudes toward women, far from being unique to Islam, were prevalent among Christians and Jews as well.
By rank accident of history, Western imperialism has executed a ‘chilling effect’ on some aspects of some parts of the “Muslim world,” which have—long story—benefited unequally from the advent of political liberalism. This, more than anything ‘in the Quran’, Pamela Geller, is the story of “Islamic sexism.”
 OK, not quite. Patriarchy is endemic to every nation, “Muslim” and Western alike. I should have said: The criticisms which conservative Islamophobes make about Islam vis-a-vis sexism would not apply to Indonesia. Of course, we should strive for a higher standard for treatment of women than that set by conservative Islamophobes. [t/y Eric F.]
[Continuing the theme of the last post.]
The following is not about Hamas specifically, but this quote is prescient:
That religious arguments are used by Hamas to legitimize its ceasefires as much as they are used to legitimize its violence suggests that religious ideology does not provide an adequate explanation of its behavior. -Arun Kundnani
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Turns out two British men convicted for “terrorism-related offences” prepared for their Syrian ‘jihad’ by purchasing “Islam for Dummies” and “Koran for Dummies.” Any decision to take Islam seriously came after the decision to hurt people; it couldn’t have been the cause. At best, religion provided a language in which to express their anger over world events and discrimination at home.
The evidence suggests the British “dummies” are the norm. In his book, The Muslims are Coming!, Arun Kundnani examines every high-profile ‘Islamic’ terrorist attack on US and British soil in recent memory. Behind each he uncovers a narrative similar to the above. It appears the average “Islamic terrorist” is a religious outlier-turned-wannabe with fundamentally political gripes.
To my knowledge (which is of course expansive), every serious study of the issue reinforces this conclusion. For a sampling:
(1) MI5, the British intelligence agency, performed exhaustive case-studies on “several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity” (2008). It found that most “Islamic” recruits are “religious novices” from relatively unobservant households; nor are they operating under the guidance of any or radical extremist cleric. Many “are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes” (so much for hating our freedoms). The report found “evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”
(2) A 2010 report by the UK think tank Demos profiled more than 200 Islamists throughout Europe. Some were convicted terrorists, while others held radical beliefs but hadn’t turned to violence. The study found systematic differences between the two groups: The actual terrorists “had a simpler, shallower conception of Islam than radicals—that is, their degree of interest in the actual teachings of the Koran was fairly minimal.”
(3) A 2008 Gallup poll of Muslim attitudes worldwide found no correlation between religious devotion and favorable views toward “jihad”-style violence. The 7% of Muslims classified as “radical”—defined in part by their sympathy for the 9/11 attacks and hostility toward the US—were found to be no more religious than the rest of the population surveyed. The same year, Pew Research replicated the basic results, finding that Muslims who believe “attacks on civilians can be morally justified” are no more observant than those who oppose such attacks.
And so on. (Seriously, I could go on and on here.)
All of this undercuts the view of Pam Geller-style Islamophobes, who see terrorist violence as issuing forth more or less automatically from Islamic holy texts and the “ideas” contained therein. In this view, those “moderate Muslims” who don’t engage in violence against us kafirs are simply not reading their Quran closely enough.
This opinion is more than wrong; it is dangerous.
Kundnani concludes his book with a story about “Boston Bomber” Tamerlan Tsarnaev. (Like the “dummies,” the Tsarnaev brothers weren’t particularly religious before considering a turn to violence. In his famous “boat scribble,” and later to the police, the surviving brother Dzokhar attributed their motivation to US foreign policy.)
Three months before the attack, Tamerlan, angry about US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, interrupted the imam of his mosque in the middle of Friday prayer service. The topic was a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., who Tamerlan accused of being a sell-out for limiting himself to non-violent tactics. The imam silenced the outburst by kicking Tamerlan out.
Since 9/11, mosque leaders have been under pressure to eject anyone expressing radical views rather than to engage with them and seek to challenge their religious interpretations, address their political frustrations, or meet their emotional needs. That policy has been forced on mosques by the wider climate of excessive surveillance. It has made mosque leaders wary of even having conversations with those perceived to be radicals for fear of attracting official attention. They fear that every mosque has a government informant listening for radical talk.
The Tsarnaev brothers were said to be angry about US foreign policy in Afghanistan or Iraq…[b]ut because discussions of foreign policy have been off-limits in mosques since 9/11, they were unlikely to have had their anger acknowledged, engaged, challenged, or channeled into nonviolent political activism.
The issue goes beyond mosques. The Islamophobic obsession with “radical ideas” has led Muslim community leaders to eschew engagement with these ideas on any level. Salma Yaqoob, former Birmingham (UK) councilor, traces this policy to its ultimate conclusion. As quoted by Kundnani:
If Muslims organizations are reluctant to provide the space for sensitive discussions for fear of extremist’s accusations, where are these young people to go? Where will their views and concerns get an airing? The answer is obvious. They will be expressed in private and secret, with the genuine extremists keen to provide listening ears and simplistic solutions.
Geller is the leading exemplar of the ‘text-centric’ style of Islamophobia. “It’s in the Quran” is basically her mantra. The idea is that naughty-sounding things in the holy texts of Islam more or less mechanically spawn naughty things (Islamic anti-Semitism, terrorism) in real life.
Never mind that:
(a) She interprets these texts—Martin Luther sola scriptura-style—as no Muslim scholar has in 1500 years of religious commentary;
(b) If her interpretations are correct, there are approximately zero self-identifying Muslims who actually abide by what’s “in the Quran.” Of course, the preponderance of “moderate Muslims” gives her no pause. They simply need to read “their own book” more closely. (Actually, she does acknowledge the moderates, calling them “secular Muslims”—who are basically apostates. My own view is that, if they are indeed less than “true Muslims,” they are exempt from all of her injunctions against Islam; and if so, she’s got, in statistical terms, almost nobody left to direct these injunctions against. But I digress.)
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Geller’s view is a less sophisticated version of something called the “radicalization thesis,” examined at length in Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming! Shared by virtually every state actor prosecuting the War on Terror, this is the idea the root cause of anti-Western terrorism is some version of Islamic belief.
The thesis comes in conservative and liberal flavors, depending on whether you think Islam is essentially radical, or that radical interpretations are a perversion of “true Islam.” (Geller of course falls squarely in the conservative camp.) In either scenario, violence is cast as a product of “radical ideas.”
The problem with this theory is two-fold:
(1) Among those Muslims who share extremist ideas, statistically speaking very nearly zero of these ever attempt any sort of violence.
(2) Among those few Muslims who do turn to terrorism, there is simply no correlation between this decision and radical interpretations of Islam. Absolutely none, as evidenced across a couple decades of serious study. Whatever makes “the terrorists” tick, it isn’t something they read “in the Quran.” (Though religious language is typically employed to express those grievances—mostly political—which do make them tick.)
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Granted, I started out talking about anti-Semitism, and ended up talking about terrorism. My reasoning there is that terrorism is simply easier to track. It’s more dramatic and quantifiable. Point being, if we can see that the “Islamic” terrorist threat is negligible, the “Islamic things” we can’t as readily see (anti-Semitism and all the rest) are probably negligible too.
[More on the “radicalization thesis” in my next post, specifically the evidence for (2) above.]