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Yes, Islamophobia is Racism
30 / 10 / 2014
In this piece for Sheilas, writer Ruby Hamad (who we recently featured as a ‘Bonza Sheila‘) explains why it is a cop out to dismiss Islamophobia, as well as questioning why the media gives airtime to more extreme elements of the Muslim faith in the current climate.
By Ruby Hamad
One of the key issues surrounding Islam’s place in the western world is the widespread belief that it does not – and will – never belong here. But try pointing out the racist undertones of much of the hostility towards Islam and you’ll likely meet with the smug response, Islam is not a race!
What is so concerning about this battle cry is that anti-Muslim crusaders appear to genuinely believe they are shutting down criticism of their racism. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that even if Islamophobia wasn’t racism it is still clearly bigotry, and just focus on the disclaimer itself.
Islam is not a race. Hiding behind this claim obfuscates the reality of much of the western world’s animosity to Islam and Muslims. In order to unpack the racist nature of Islamophobia we first need to understand what it is we talk about when we talk about living in a society that centers and defers to whiteness. Far from being merely about skin colour, whiteness is a barometer of who has rights and privileges in society.
In Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work For Racial Justice, Paul Kivel writes:
“Racism is based on the concept of whiteness, a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”
Whiteness refers to those cultural beliefs, values, and norms sanctioned by the white power structure. These are the barometers against which Islam is judged – and found to be lacking. Not only is Islam a religion practiced overwhelming by non-white people, it is a religion that has never been sanctioned by the west.
Despite originating from the same region as Islam, Christianity has been so thoroughly whitewashed and westernised that news anchors have on-air arguments insisting that Jesus “was a white man.”
Judaism, which only a few short decades ago was also highly distrusted (not to mention almost exterminated), now occupies a prominent place in the rhetoric of patriotic politicians who proudly refer to our “Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Not so Islam. Although indeed “not a race”, it is certainly a racialised identity, and very much a religion associated with the savage, brown other. Subsequently, Islam is regarded as fundamentally “unlike” other religions. It is uniquely deviant, particularly savage, and antithetical to western civilisation.
This was clearly apparent in the recent on-air spat between actor Ben Affleck, writer and atheist Sam Harris, and host Bill Maher on the latter’s talk show. In a debate that went viral, Affleck objected when Harris called Islam, “The mother lode of bad ideas.”
Islam has long been in Bill Maher’s crosshairs. Although an atheist that ostensibly objects to all religion, Maher, like Harris and other famous anti-theists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the late Christopher Hitchens, finds Islam particularly objectionable. In a recent tweet about ISIS atrocities, for instance, Maher concluded, “But by all means, let’s keep pretending that all religions are alike.”
In less than 140 characters, Maher managed to erase all historical context and non-religious factors that contribute to unrest and conflict in the Middle East.
But Maher is by no means alone in his view that Muslims respond to no other stimuli but religion. We see this happen all too often in Australian media too. The recent front-page headline on The Australian that read epically and ominously, “We fill fight Islam 100 years” , invokes the clash of civilisations rhetoric that goes all the way back to the Crusades.
And it is this history we have to understand to get to the roots of Islamophobia and its continued exclusion from whiteness. For centuries Islam was European Christendom’s greatest enemy, and for this reason Mohammed was cast as the “dark prince,” the diametric opposite to Jesus. Where Jesus was ascetic and celibate, Mohammed was indulgent, and a sexual deviant. While Jesus exhorted his followers to turn the other check, Mohammed was regarded as a warmonger.
His characterisation led the historian W. Montgomery Watt to declare, “Of all the world’s great men none has been so much maligned as Muhammad”. This was in the 1960s and since then, although historians have softened their view, the old perception lingers on.
Modern day Islamophobia is driven by this old dark view of Mohammed that regards terrorist groups such as ISIS as the ‘true’ incarnation of Islam, and dismisses peaceful so-called “moderates” as non-faithful adherents to the pure faith.
It is indeed edifying that both Islamophobes and Islamists have the same interpretation of Islamic scripture; the former to justify their animosity to all Muslims, the latter to excuse their own violence and excesses.
But the rejection of Islam from whiteness is seen not only in right wing circles but also in the way that mainstream media organisations trot out radical groups that exist on the fringes of Islam and hold them as representatives of the Muslim community as a whole.
Hizb-ut Tahri is an Islamist political organisation with about a million members worldwide, of which a few thousand are in Australia. They are a marginal movement within Islam, and their desire to bring about a worldwide caliphate places them firmly on the fringes of mainstream Islam. And yet, spokespeople from this organisation are trotted out with alarming regularity to speak with media.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir was the centre of the “honour killings” scandal that erupted over a talk to be given by media representative Uthman Badir in which it was (falsely) believed that he would be attempting to provide moral justification for the murder of women at the hands of their own families.
It was also a Hizb-ut Tahrir spokesman Wassim Doureihi that was also the subject in the notorious Lateline interview with Emma Alberici. In a performance worthy of the gotcha Fox news style of journalism, Alberici invited Doureihi onto her show only to shout over him for about ten excruciating minutes.
The question has to be asked is, Why is this the organistion the media is so willing to give air time to as a voice for the Muslim community? Putting Hizb-ut Tahrir in the spotlight makes it appear as though their views exemplify Islam as a whole when this simply isn’t the case.
Consequently, Dourehi’s refusal to condemn ISIS (although the group does distance themselves from the terror organisation on its website) feeds into the persistent suspicion that many practising Muslims secretly condone terrorism. And thus, despite the many decrees and statements of condemnation, the rallies and online protests and initiatives such as #NotInMyName, there are still complaints that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism.
All of which serves to keep Islam on the outer. That is not say that Islam is beyond criticism. Indeed, I and many other Muslims have publicly pointed out problematic issues within the religion. But the loud and persistent objections to Islam itself, as opposed to those elements within it that need addressing, are veering dangerously close to drowning out progressive Muslim voices, leaving only the rantings of both Islamists and Islamophobes fighting for centre stage.
Ruby Hamad is freelance writer and columnist for Daily Life. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The Age, The Drum, Crikey and more. She is fortunate enough to split her time between Sydney and New York.