Islamophobia vs. Racism

Picture: KSheer (CC)

According to the FBI’s database of Hate Crime Statistics, in 2010 (the latest year for which numbers are available) there were 160 hate crime incidents involving anti-Islamic bias in the United States.  Such incidents have seen a marked rise following the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 and have recently made headlines with various incidents around the country, ranging from arson attacks on mosques to pig parts being thrown at the site of a proposed Islamic center.

Such trends are rightfully worrying in an increasingly multicultural society which supposedly prides itself on freedom, equality, and justice for all.  There is however, another closely related issue, which is in its own way nearly as disturbing.  It is the hyper-politically correct reaction to such so-called “Islamophobia,” specifically, how it is consistently and fallaciously labeled as “racism.”  Setting aside broader discussion of the overall subject of Islamophobia in all its complexity (including its root causes and any possible merit or lack thereof), let’s examine this charge of racism.  Without in any way condoning or defending the ridiculous actions of the small percentage of angry, spite-filled bigots who lash out at those whom they fear solely on the basis of superficial differences, the fact remains that this particular assertion of racism is simply ludicrous.

The dictionary defines racism  as 1) “the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others,” and 2) “abusive or aggressive behavior towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief,” with race meaning “a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.”  The key word here in both terms is “heredity.”  Although it seems rather remedial to have to explain it, apparently there are many in the media, academia, and general public who somehow fail to discern what seems a very basic point, so I’ll state it as clearly as possible: Islam is a religion, not a race.

While it’s true that most people are indoctrinated into their religion osmotically from an early age through the influence of their parents and surrounding community, I think you would be hard pressed to identify any kind of allele coding for “submission to Allah” within the DNA of Muslims (or a “Jesus gene” in Christians, etc.).  Religions, no matter how deeply embedded in the psyches of their adherents, are essentially ideologies; they are systems of beliefs – collections of ideas, traditions, and practices.

Although, as Richard Dawkins has astutely pointed out, as a meme they exhibit many of the same characteristics as a virus – replicating and spreading, and altering behaviors to ensure their continuation – they are still acquired traits, and as such, they are not something you are born with, nor are they in any way intrinsically wedded to your physical being.  Regardless of the fact that “apostasy” – disavowing Islam or converting to another religion – is still a capital offense in many Muslim nations, doing so nevertheless remains a considerably easier task than Michael Jackson’s sad and misguided attempts to change his race through plastic surgery and skin bleaching.  Once again, for those still missing the essential point, this is because Islam is a religion, not a race.

Approaching this oft-repeated Islamophobia-equals-racism fallacy from another perspective, let’s look at some uncontroversial statistics.  It is estimated that there are currently close to 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth.  Of these, nearly 222 million live in Indonesia and Malaysia alone.  Another 242 million live in sub-Saharan Africa.  Around 75 million live in Iran, and 322 million live in the Middle East and North Africa.   Pretending for a moment that Islamophobia is indeed a form of racism, just how exactly is it supposed to work?

It may come as a shock to some, but most people hailing from Indonesia and Malaysia, if filling out a form requiring them to check a box for their race, will likely check “Asian/Pacific Islander.”  Those from sub-Saharan Africa will likely check “Black/African” and those from the Middle East either “Caucasian” or the recently added category “Arabic/Middle Eastern.”  Thus, racially, Islam is far from being monochromatic, and it is far from being a purely Arab phenomenon.  So presumably, this charge of Islamophobia equaling racism only applies when the perceived bias is originating from those of Western European descent? (Which smells an awful lot like the logical fallacy of “special pleading.”)

How then to categorize the ongoing religious strife taking place in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims?  Is that racism?  I mean, the two sides seem inordinately fond of chopping each other up over issues such as the forced implementation of Sharia law.  Yet they are all black Africans.  Or what about the worsening violence between Indonesian Christians and Muslims? – all of them Asians.  After centuries of relative peace and tolerance, church burnings and mob beatings there are now on the rise.  Racism?

What about the interminable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?  Perhaps one of the biggest surprises resulting from National Geographic’s Genographic Project has been the revelation that Israelis and Palestinians are genetically almost identical.  They are the exact same people – they’ve simply assumed mutually exclusive labels over the past few millennia in the name of religion.

And then what of Iran?  It’s perhaps not widely known, but the name of that nation is derived from the word Aryan, referring to the original inhabitants of the Pontic-Caspian steppe region near modern Ukraine (also known as the Indo-Europeans).  Back in late prehistory, this group, through conquest or assimilation, spread out into Persia as well as most of Europe and northern India, leaving behind a linguistic legacy uniting speakers of such disparate languages as Spanish, English, German, Farsi, and Hindi.  Considering this history, it’s really quite ironic that a group of ignorant white supremacists residing in Idaho would call themselves the “Aryan Nation,” oblivious to the etymology behind their group’s name and to their close genetic, historic, and linguistic ties to people they likely despise.

To this day, despite a predilection for dark hair, many Iranians and the inhabitants of the Himalayan regions of India are to all appearances about as white as Bing Crosby, as would be expected.  Race, remember, means “related by common descent or heredity.”  So how do squabbles over religious identity get elevated to the level of “racism” between related descendants of a single ethnic group who only diverged within the past ten thousand years?  (A blink of the eye in evolutionary timescales.)

Despite all of these apparent logical absurdities which become evident with even a cursory amount of contemplation or the slightest respect for semantics, supposedly serious scholars and institutions continue to assert that Islamophobia in any form clearly amounts to racism.  Okay then, if being less than enthused about adherents of an acquired belief system automatically amounts to racism, what does it mean to be anti-Nazi?  After all, it’s a bleak yet undeniable fact that pretty much every last Nazi was Caucasian.  So if you hate Nazis, like it or not, your rage is directed almost exclusively at white people!

Now, if the implications of that sound offensive as well as ridiculous, they should, for it employs exactly the same faulty reasoning (or total lack of reasoning) used by those myopic, self-righteous scholars who intuit an “obvious” equivalence between opposition to Islamic totalitarianism and hatred based on heredity and skin color.

Finally, to touch on one of my favorite subjects, what does all of this mean for atheists/anti-theists, who find all religion to be both false and harmful, and who feel humanity and the planet would both benefit immensely if religious belief were to suddenly go the way of the dinosaurs?  By the stated rationale of the Islamophobia-equals-racism crowd, surely all anti-theists (regardless of their own racial makeup or “post-racial” indifference to distinctions of race) must be “omni-racist” – racist against every race?  Is such a thing even possible or meaningful in any sense of the word?

The reality is, people often look for reasons not to get along.  Skiers dislike snowboarders, sailors dislike power boaters, even Brians dislike Bryans.  Coining neologisms and being sloppy with terminology is not going to change that.  That said, violence for any reason other than immediate self-defense is seldom justifiable.  Threats, harassment, and destruction of property have no place in civil society – especially as the world grows ever more crowded.  The actions of the vast majority of the morons committing these anti-Islamic acts are indefensible and should rightly be punished.  But so should the actions of fanatical Islamists such as the man who attempted to bomb Times Square back in 2010, expressing the attitude and fervent desire (as stated in his video suicide note) that, “I really wish that the hearts of the Muslims will be pleased with this attack, God willing,” going on to predict that, “Islam will spread on the whole world and democracy will be defeated.”

How are we to have constructive dialogue or debate if stifled by censorship masking itself as political correctness?  How can we rationally address the very real problem of religious zealotry and the violence it inspires (latent in the most of the world’s holy books) if muzzled by a misguided pandering to the perceived victimhood of certain special interest groups?  To try to shield radical Islam from legitimate and honest criticism by hiding behind the indefensible and unconscionable evil of racism is an affront to all victims of actual racial discrimination as well as an invitation for true intolerance to destroy our most cherished rights and freedoms.  To conflate concern about Islamic radicalism with the horrors of racism in order to squash dissent is both illogical and inconsistent with the values of a free society.  To resort to irrationality in order to confront it is not only counterproductive but profoundly idiotic as well.  We can do better than that.  Think!

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.  He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.  Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess

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  • http://www.ContraControl.com/ Zenc

    The end must truly be nigh.

    I agree with Colby Hess for once.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Yeah. Seconded.

  • Bcultral

    Actually, if you would have continue through various dictionaries you would find a wide range of definitions for racism.  As a Anti-Racist activist the working definition I am familiar with is Race Prejudice + Power.  
    http://www.antiracistalliance.com/whiteness.html which is founded on a partnership with the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond.
    http://www.pisab.org/our-principles  The founder Ron Chisom is internally acclaimed in his work: 
    https://www.ashoka.org/fellow/ron-chisom

    I agree with your differentiating Racism and Islamophobia as a religious vs social constructed racial power system.  Racism is systemic.

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    once upon a time I was partying with some fellow travelers
    in Luang Namtha, Laos
    there was an Iranian dude who got a little drunk
    and he kept saying over and over
    “I’m not a terrorist! I love everybody!”
    a few months later I ran into the dude in Bangkok
    he looked startled and said, “Remember me?”
    I said,
    “Yeah Luang Namtha. You’re not a terrorist right?”

    • Infvocuernos

       That’s funny: I got drunk with an Iranian (he preferred to be known as a Persian)
      in Phuket Thailand and he kept commenting on the signs that asked muslims not
      to drink in their establishments.  I wonder if Southeast Asia is a playground for Iranians?

      Why can’t we just treat any crime at its face value?  If you beat up someone, you should be charged according to the crime itself, and if that’s not enough, maybe the penalties need to be re-evaluated, not the labels.

      • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

        > I wonder if Southeast Asia is a playground for Iranians?

        Soi 3 in the Sukhumvit section of BKK
        is known as Little Arabia

        and yeah, if Americans think they have a bad rep overseas
        (and they don’t)
        imagine trying to travel internationally as an Iranian or Arab
        gotta be hell

        • Ayah

           If it’s known as “Little Arabia,” what would that have to do with Iranians being there, given that Iranians are NOT Arabs?

        • Ayah

           If it’s known as “Little Arabia,” what would that have to do with Iranians being there, given that Iranians are NOT Arabs?

          • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

            mainly because Little Arabia contains mostly Arabs
            and in case you haven’t noticed
            Iranians gets lumped in with Arabs
            probably because of sand, oil and Islam being held in common
            that and the Thai’s named the place not me

          • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

            mainly because Little Arabia contains mostly Arabs
            and in case you haven’t noticed
            Iranians gets lumped in with Arabs
            probably because of sand, oil and Islam being held in common
            that and the Thai’s named the place not me

  • Corey_anderson

    The only thing I disagree with here is the implication that race is a genetic and biological factor, as opposed to religion, which is a thought construct. Race and religion BOTH are socially created divisions, which exist solely in our minds.

    That said, discrimination based on religion makes a lot more sense than racism, because religion does represents to some extent who a person is, and what they believe. Whereas race is just a mental sorting mechanism based on apparent physical characteristics, and presumed common ancestry.

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  • Michael Vale tine smith

    I can’t believe I waisted my time reading this whole article expecting the author to get around to something besides the obvious. I GET IT : your hatred for religion Is not racism! Thanks for making that clear.

  • Miracles

    tl;dr: Race == Social Class == Religious Predomination.

  • Rev. Good Hair

    Why can’t we ignore race and religion, and just go back to simpler times when we murdered each other because it was fun?

    • http://www.facebook.com/eric.fischer.73 Eric Fischer

      Because murder for fun is best enjoyed as a team sport. With so many players not wearing uniforms today, race and religion are still the best ways to keep the teams organized.

      • http://www.ContraControl.com/ Zenc

        While it seems that most people would agree with you, there are some serial killers who would disagree.

        • http://www.facebook.com/eric.fischer.73 Eric Fischer

          True. There are exceptions to almost any general rule of human behavior.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eric.fischer.73 Eric Fischer

      Because murder for fun is best enjoyed as a team sport. With so many players not wearing uniforms today, race and religion are still the best ways to keep the teams organized.

  • handsomedan

    article sucks. typical “freethought” idealism pushing around a really tired agenda. never heard that one before!

  • http://twitter.com/modemac modemac

    It doesn’t help that in the the early 1980s, the Arab nations got the United Nations to pass a resolution declaring, “Zionism Is Racism.”

  • Liam_McGonagle

    I am not very hopeful of this situation coming to a constructive resolution because the radical disadvantage Islamic countries have in terms of intellectual history plays to the West’s worst tendencies.  In order to engage, there has to be a range of common intellectual concepts for the various parties to assume before one another. 

    Islamic countries are so primitive that the only models available seem to be throwbacks to Medieval barbarism.  There may be a few vestigial intellectuals left within the Islamic world, but they’re a negligible percentage of the entire population and under no imaginable circumstances can they be expected to play a decisive role in their countries’ policies.

    Whatever the reason, the Islamic world has never experienced the type of near-anarchic freedom that the West used to cultivate a much larger vocabulary of political theories.  Today’s Islamic regions. apart from a few brief and totaly uncharacteristic interludes during the early Dark Ages, were always subject to some alien imperial power, and thus never really invested in developing the sophistication of their own cultural paradigms.

    The West is only marginally better off.  These enlightenment ideals of democracy and civil rights are talked about a great deal–which is more than you can say for Islamic countries–but they’re generally misunderstood.  The current, irresponsible and frankly stupid mis-interpretations of Western culture now prevalent are not likely to strike the Islamic world as particularly sophisticated or benevolent, merely hypocritical lies reinforcing their own horribly stupid savagery.

    • Hadrian999

      one thing i think may play a role in the differences in the way western and islamic worlds developed is that in the west we have had very fractured nations constantly fighting each other for military and cultural dominance as well as the rise of nationalism, the islamic world has been dominated by large empires until the end of the world wars.

      • Rev. Good Hair

        A wise observation.

      • Liam_McGonagle

        Sometimes the countries of that region remind me of Eastern Europe–a vast blender of ethnicities, linguistic stocks and creeds that only settled into national coherence through genocide and mass deportations following WWII.  Most Islamic nations’ boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by exiting colonial powers to suit their own foreign policy goals without the slightest regard for the interests of their actual inhabitants.

        Western Europe–particularly Britain–probably benefitted culturally from being located in the ass-crack of the world.

  • Earthstar

    Wow Colby. You referenced a dictionary to make your entire argument. THE dictionary no less! Which one was it? You don’t say. Still, this argument based on one dictionary’s definition wouldn’t even pass in junior high. Yes, Islamophobia needn’t be racially motivated, but in my experience, bigots never really separate them. It was after all racism that started Islamophobia in the first place.

    • http://www.ContraControl.com/ Zenc

      First, I’m willing to forgive Hess any defects in his argument because I agree with his conclusion.

      And that is the American Way.

      Second, regardless of any relationship between racism and Islamophobia, the point does need to be made that dislike for the religion of Islam is not necessarily racist.

      I’ll go one further and say that dislike of Islam isn’t even necessarily “Islamophobia”.

      Just as my dislike for Christianity doesn’t qualify as “Christianophobia”, my dislike for Islam doesn’t rise to the phobic status. Mainly just casual contempt, unless specifically provoked.

      Abrahamics have a bad tendency to bunch up at regular intervals or otherwise make themselves very vulnerable to physical attack while making obeisances.

      As long as you are in front of the problem, there’s not much to fear.

  • Hadrian999

    islamophobia is amusing in one regard, you usually get one group bigoted religious nut jobs harping about another group of bigoted religious nut jobs that they resemble in most regards

  • DeepCough

    It is near impossible to distinguish the “Islamophobia” of the War on Terror and the “Red Scare” politics of the Cold War. Honestly, I find “Islamophiba” as about as useful a term as “Islamofascism” since they were pulled out of the rectums of conservative pundits looking to cash in on a new mainstream political trend to inflate their careers (and if you think I’m talking about Fox News, you are for the most part correct).

  • http://skadhitheraverner.wordpress.com/ Skadhi_the_Raverner

    As part of a Utopian dream, the Cultural Marxists supported immigration alongside projects like anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation etc. When the vast numbers of Moslems stayed true to their roots and fought the lefts other agendas (almost like a Chick tract lol, “betrayed by their very own Moslems”), the liberals had two choices.

    Possibility one is to side with the Moslems. Certain parts of the Old Left do this, like George Galloway. They didn’t like the Cultural Marxists, they were indifferent-to-hostile to the CM agenda (or at most supported them on different grounds) and in politicising the Moslems, they see a return to grass roots socialism.

    Two is to exclude Moslems from multiculturalism, by associating them with the Christian/Western past, whilst manipulating peoples natural feelings against immigration and race replacement, so they can redirect them against Islam itself. This is the truth of ‘Islamophobia’.Same thing will happen in America as it fills with Catholic Mestizos, there might be no bombs on subways, but immigration to the USA will put an end to gay rights and pro-choice where televangelists failed.

  • Augoagogo

    While you articulate, if occasionally slightly patronisingly, a good argument for those people who conflate Islamophobia with racism, I think you’re slightly out of touch. The fact is that in many parts of the world, my home town of Glasgow for instance, the two are intrinsically linked.

    Many people here would be amazed to know that black African people are Muslim. They’d be amazed too to know that some people from Iran are almost white in appearance. And they wouldn’t understand your argument about Iran/Aryan at all.

    Instead, they think that all Muslims are ‘Pakis’ or Iraqis, often lumping all people from the Middle East into one big race and creed. What you’re missing is the fact that for a lot of poorly educated or equally uncritical folk, hatred of Islam and hatred of race *are* the same thing.

    Hence why, when approaching the difficult subject of this latest video, for instance, many people choose to walk a careful path. It’s not political correctness, not always. It’s a recognition that when islamophobia and racism combine, you have a powderkeg of totally uncritical, often generationally learned, opinions that quickly descend from discussing the heinous actions of a violent minority, often unfortunately emboldened by politico-religious’leaders’, to dismissing all Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a violent religion.

    That they do this in a way more equatable to racism is a simple fact -they don’t fear Islam as much as they fear Arabs. It’s not comparable, for instance, to a fear of Christianity. And the other simple fact about this conflation has at the least been stoked, and at the worst provoked, by the leaders of the West.

    This is a difficult and unusual situation, and your article seems to try to reduce it with ‘facts’ that attempt to prove the PC brigade are wrong, but not recognising a reality on the ground, that the mistake is often that of the racists themselves.

  • Augoagogo

    While you articulate, if occasionally slightly patronisingly, a good argument for those people who conflate Islamophobia with racism, I think you’re slightly out of touch. The fact is that in many parts of the world, my home town of Glasgow for instance, the two are intrinsically linked.

    Many people here would be amazed to know that black African people are Muslim. They’d be amazed too to know that some people from Iran are almost white in appearance. And they wouldn’t understand your argument about Iran/Aryan at all.

    Instead, they think that all Muslims are ‘Pakis’ or Iraqis, often lumping all people from the Middle East into one big race and creed. What you’re missing is the fact that for a lot of poorly educated or equally uncritical folk, hatred of Islam and hatred of race *are* the same thing.

    Hence why, when approaching the difficult subject of this latest video, for instance, many people choose to walk a careful path. It’s not political correctness, not always. It’s a recognition that when islamophobia and racism combine, you have a powderkeg of totally uncritical, often generationally learned, opinions that quickly descend from discussing the heinous actions of a violent minority, often unfortunately emboldened by politico-religious’leaders’, to dismissing all Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a violent religion.

    That they do this in a way more equatable to racism is a simple fact -they don’t fear Islam as much as they fear Arabs. It’s not comparable, for instance, to a fear of Christianity. And the other simple fact about this conflation has at the least been stoked, and at the worst provoked, by the leaders of the West.

    This is a difficult and unusual situation, and your article seems to try to reduce it with ‘facts’ that attempt to prove the PC brigade are wrong, but not recognising a reality on the ground, that the mistake is often that of the racists themselves.

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