“Nonsense.” That is what people say when I accuse them of being racist. Their argument goes something like this: “Muslims are not even a race, so how the hell could I even be racist? You’re an idiot.” Because Muslims are not a race, people believe that any type of violence or oppression directed towards them cannot be racially motivated; that this form of hatred – known as Islamophobia – cannot be racism.
First, let me be clear. It is true that Muslims are not a race. The word “Muslim” itself connects to followers of Islam, a world religion – not a “race.” Muslims are a diverse religious grouping, and, in fact, one of the most heterogeneous populations in the world. In theory, the ummah – or global Muslim community – is made up of many “races.” Moreover, not all Muslims are simply born “Muslim,” like people are born White or Black. Muslim identity is something that one can acquire through conversion. In this sense, Muslim identity is nurtured and not natured.
Since I am focusing on the subject of identity and race, let me extend this discussion to other social groupings.
If Muslims are not a race, than which group is? Some people might immediately point to Black people, and say, “that is definitely a race. Look at their skin color.” But, to be exact, Black people are not a race either. Neither, for that matter, are White people.
Okay, now you might wonder about Jewish people? Certainly they are a race, right? Science proves they – like White and Blacks – are not a race either.
And what about Asians? Are they a race?
Nope. Asians are not a race.
The Indigenous People of America, a race?
Nope, not a race.
You see, there is no such thing as race or races, traditionally understood. Scientists long ago proved that race is not a biological reality but a myth, a socially constructed concept. Yet, despite the data, human beings have been programmed to associate specific things to certain “racial groups”; things like intelligence, work ethic, family values, and behavior. As such, we have been brainwashed to think that some groups are inherently better than others, and that the White race – to be frank – is better than all.
Race – as one of my favorite sociologists, the late (and great) Stuart Hall put it – is a “floating signifier,” meaning that it is a fluid concept which has specific connotations during certain moments in history. Races, in short, have never been exclusively biologically determined but rather politically constructed by powerful people, usually dominant groups in societies.
According to Hall, there is a new type of racism – “cultural racism,” which is my focus here. Racism is no longer about race (skin color) but culture. People are Othered and discriminated against not (simply) because of the color of their skin (or other phenotypes) but because of their beliefs and practices associated with some “imagined culture.”
Cultural racism, therefore, happens when certain people perceive their beliefs and customs as being culturally superior to the beliefs and customs of other groups of people. Cultural racism, in-turn, reproduces the idea of “the hierarchy of cultures,” meaning, in the context of current affairs, that “our” Western culture is superior to “their” Islamic culture. This way of thinking is problematic because it essentializes diverse classifications like “Westerners” and “Muslims.” It creates a binary of “Western = civilized” and “Islamic = uncivilized.”
Bobby Sayyid, another favorite thinker of mine, argues that Islamophobia is undoubtedly a form of racism. He regards it as a type of racism that “takes up the white man’s burden for the new American century. It is a humanitarian intervention, not a mission civilisatrice; [Islamophobia] only wants to spread democracy not to expropriate resources; it does not want to exterminate ignoble savages, only to domesticate unruly Muslims.” In this context, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan can be treated as wars driven by cultural racism. Bush wanted to spread “democracy” and “liberate” Muslims, particularly women, among other things. Muslims, he theorized, were incapable of developing these “culturally superior” ways of life on their own, so they must be molded and trained to be more like “us,” the civilized people. If racism represents systemic oppression based upon preconceived notions (or stereotypes) of particular social groups, then the U.S. government is most definitely guilty of racism. To be specific, cultural racism.
Sayyid makes another point that is worth mentioning. He states that Muslims are depicted in public discourse as “arch-villains,” an idea which produces all sorts of “racist anxieties” in the minds of non-Muslims. Yet, despite the obvious connections between racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, Islamophobia has been presented as nothing as sordid as racism, “but rather a rational response to real threats to western, nay universal, values,” as he puts it.
Let me be clear here. There is nothing rational about Islamophobia. Treating Muslims poorly because they are Muslim is racism. It is that simple. If someone gives a Muslim woman wearing the hijab a dirty look, sorry, but you are racist. If someone assaults a Muslim woman wearing the hijab – which has recently happened in Toronto – yeah, you are a racist. Time to face the music.
Need more proof that Islamophobia is a form of cultural racism? Consider the experience of Inderjit Singh Mukker. Mukker was assaulted in September 2015 for “looking Muslim;” he was dragged out of his car and beaten to a pulp by a man screaming “you’re a terrorist, bin Laden!”. The twist here is that Mukker is not even Muslim; he is Sikh. The perpetrator of this crime looked at Mukker’s turban and thought “he’s a Muslim. He’s dangerous.” A cultural symbol, in this case, was used as a signifier to judge an entire group of people, however wrongly. Is this racism? Most definitely. Even Sikhs suffer from Islamophobia.
Ultimately, the issue here is “racism without race,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it. The more we assume that race is limited to skin color, the less we understand about contemporary racism faced by Muslims at home and abroad. Now is the time to teach youth that racism is much more than the white-black dichotomy. Racism is changing in its form, but the beast is still very much alive and well.