‘You can’t be racist against Muslims because Islam isn’t a race!’
We’ve all heard that before haven’t we? It’s a lovely bit of insidious sophistry, employed by people who want to deploy the language and tone of racism, as well as enjoying its benefits, all without having to cross that final, difficult line of admitting to themselves that racist is indeed what they might actually be (it’s a bit like that moment in the glorious musical opener to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s 12th season, ‘The Gang Turns Black’, and Frank’s barely disguised glee at an apparent perk of his new skin colour—finally having a ‘chance’ to use the n-word). And it is a tough line to cross. No-one wants to think they’re racist, that they’re the villain.
People would rather dance around the truth. But then again you get different types of people using the phrase. Broadly speaking there are two.
The first, I think, genuinely believe the sentiment. When they say ‘Islam isn’t a race, therefore you can’t be racist against Muslims,’ they genuinely don’t think they’re being racist. They think they’re following what they believe is the strict dictionary definition of the word. As far as they’re concerned they’re just commenting on a religious group, and by definition how could that be racist—after all Islam is a religion that straddles the globe and there are Muslims of virtually all ethnic groups.
With the people who use the phrase in such a way, the issue is an often ‘benign’ sort of racism, born out of ignorance masquerading as knowledge, and it’s tinted with a high-minded paternalism. Many of these people may well not think of themselves as part of the problem, even though their rhetoric and actions legitimise those who more overtly engage in outright racism. This worldview is steered and guided by the ‘respectable’ side of the media—The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and their ilk. Outlets that pay lip service to a leftist, progressive perspective, but which nevertheless contribute to the othering of Muslim people by giving a platform to anti-Muslim bigots in the name of ‘balance’, or by otherwise furthering the narrative that all Muslims are somehow potential terrorists or an inherent ‘existential threat’ to ‘the West’.
This ‘responsible media’ is of course also the same media who ostensibly decry war, but who, when push comes to shove and the drums of war begin to beat, always give intellectual cover to the West’s imperial adventures against Muslim countries. Because it shouldn’t need much reminding that since just the dawn of the new Millennium the United States and its allies have dropped bombs (and more) on seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria). Sometimes we do it in the name of ‘liberal intervention’, bombing these Muslim countries for their own good; other times we bomb them out of ‘revenge’, destroying entire Muslim countries on the back of outright lies. Let’s not forget that the ‘War on Terror’ has been in all but name simply a war on Muslim countries.
If you take those shows of military aggression abroad, and you couple them with the rising tide of domestic violence against Muslims that is the direct result of bigots feeling emboldened by comments by people like Boris Johnson, a distinct picture begins to emerge: One of a broad, multi-pronged assault on a group of people whose unifying trait is their religion. Now, if racism is understood to be a system of power structures, institutions, and beliefs, that disadvantage and perpetuate crimes—both systemic and individual—against one segment of humanity, then it becomes quite clear that Muslim people are being treated in much the same way as any other victims of racism. The semantic barrier begins to dissolve. Liberals may claim to be on the side of equality, but too often their true nature is revealed when newspapers call for yet another bombing campaign against a Muslim nation, or when pundits clamour self-righteously about the so-called ‘intolerance of Islam’ and they in turn sagely and sadly nod. ‘Sensible liberals’ who use the phrase, ‘You can’t be racist against Muslims, because Islam is not a race,’ become very much a complicit part of that web of violence and its normalisation.
Religion, in other words, becomes a proxy for race. The dictionary definitions may vary, sure, but like in so many other cases, theory becomes irrelevant in the face of reality (and this doesn’t even take into account how the definitions and boundary lines of what we call ‘race’ have changed over the centuries as different ethnic groups have been ‘othered’ by the powers-that-be in order to maintain that power).
This is further and more starkly illustrated when we consider the other type of person who uses ‘Islam isn’t a race, therefore you can’t be racist against Muslims’ as a get-out-of-jail-free card. This type is contrasted against the more subtle, buried ‘liberal’ example discussed above. When the phrase is employed here, it often involves a very particular type of obnoxious, shit-eating grin, and it is tied to the overt, naked examples of racist violence faced by Muslims in the street, such as those that see a spike every time a figure like Boris Johnson makes a so-called ‘hamfisted’ or ‘clumsy’ comment. It is the type proudly encouraged by the other, more tabloid-y side of the media. For that, I turn to Ash Sarkar of Novara Media. Some of you may know Ash for the tremendous way she put Piers Morgan in his place on live television. Ash is an astute, intelligent, and funny commentator and I would encourage you to check out her work at Novara. Here she is, giving her perspective as a Muslim on how dictionary definitions and ‘well actuallys’ become meaningless in the face of everyday reality, and how religion becomes a proxy for race:
Is Islamophobia Racist?— Novara Media (@novaramedia) August 14, 2018
So, in conclusion: If you find yourself using the phrase ‘You can’t be racist against Muslims because Islam isn’t a race!’, stop for a second and consider a) why you are using it, b) what does it achieve, and c) what is actually happening right now, in the real world, in 2018, to actual people on the street.