“It can’t be racist to criticize a religion” and other Islamophobic nonsense

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.

For example:

I never knew Dave Chappelle was muslim

I never knew Dave Chappelle was muslim

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.

Marlon Brando: 100% white, yet victim of...anti-black racism???! Islamophobic peabrains = blown

Marlon Brando: 100% white, yet victim of…anti-black racism???! Islamophobic peabrains = blown

(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.