After NYC Bombs, We Need to Talk About Islamo-racism

In the aftermath of the NYC bombs, Donald Trump called for increased racial profiling of Muslims. “Our local police – they know who a lot of these [Muslims] are. They are afraid to do anything about it because they don’t want to be accused of profiling,” Trump said on Fox News on Monday. Trump pointed to how Israel, arguably an apartheid state, used profiling and “done an unbelievable job.” To me, these comments reek of Islamophobia, or the perpetuated hostility towards Islam which has produced a fear or dislike for almost all Muslims.

Trump’s latest round of anti-Muslim rhetoric is the icing on the cake. His past proposals for racial profiling include “databases,” special identification cards, immigration bans, and possibly internment camps for Muslim Americans. There is no doubt he uses Muslims as scapegoats to reaffirm America’s paranoia.

Let us be honest as a nation – racial profiling targets our fellow Muslim American citizens as if this population is monolithic. According to the Runnymede Report, treating Muslims as a homogenous body is one of the fundamental components of Islamophobia. Unfortunately, much of America is currently Islamophobic.

As I highlighted in a Huffington Post article, Islamophobia must be understood as a type of racism. Islamophobia stems from imaginaries based on cultural symbols, fears, and caricatures of Muslims, all of which depict a threatening figure of the “Other.” The Muslim “Other” is part of our racist imaginations which heighten Americans’ sense of collective anxieties and fears of Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, my argument that “Islamophobia is racism” is rejected by many Trump supporters, who claim that Muslims are not a race, and therefore Islamophobia is not racism. This Western-centric argument rests on the outdated claim that racism is tied to biology and only biology.

Scientific research proved long ago there is no such thing as “race” or “races.” But let us not kid ourselves – “racism” still exists.

Contemporary racism arises out of cultural racism, whereby people use visible cultural “markers” to box other people into “inferior” and “superior” groups. Muslims in the United States are often differentiated from “us” by clothing, skin color, beards, and religious practice. Muslim women have been regularly attacked for wearing hijab, a symbol of their faith. Since 9/11, Muslim Americans have been conflated with “Arabs,” which of course ignores the incredible diversity among Muslims in the United States. Mosques also have been the target of hate crimes. This is why we say Islamophobia is racism – people have used “Muslim identity” as a weapon against Muslims themselves.

And yet, with these developments in mind, I am thinking beyond Islamophobia. Perhaps Islamo-racism is the better term to capture the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment sweeping across the nation. Consider the following passages of Jaideep Singh in The Death of Islamophobia: The Rise of Islamo-Racism:

Like other strands of chauvinism emanating from the racial and religious supermajority’s often malevolent dominance of U.S. history, it is a well-defined racist trope with a distinct, traceable history. This history is comparable to, yet distinct from, that of other racial and religious minorities, all victims of various forms of majoritarian violence. Like other variations of U.S. racism, such as that which simultaneously denigrated the religious culture and humanity of American Indians and early Asian immigrants, Islamo-racism’s structure is significantly complicated by the melding of racial and religious bias that animates its core.

Like other configurations of U.S. racism, Islamo-racism encompasses a distinctive imagery incubated from historic stereotypes. It is anchored by the ominous figure of the bearded, dark-skinned, turban-wearing terrorist, a misrepresentation long accepted by most Americans. But this collection of Orientalist imaginings is also peopled by shrouded, oppressed women, and pre-modern fanatics guided by archaic religious strictures. These prejudice-laden conceptions shape decisively, for most Americans, their impressions of Muslims and Islam.

Islamo-racism also contains a distinct, widely misused lexicon (jihad, shariah, suicide bomber, “no-go” zone, terrorist, refugee etc.). And like other racisms in our past and present, Islamo-racism has a definite political utility. In recent years, the GOP has successfully rearticulated its extraordinarily successful race-baiting “Southern Strategy” for the 21st century, with Muslims joining African Americans as the foil to draw fearful white votes. This political ploy has helped set the stage for this latest explosion of racist rage.

Singh notes that Islamo-racism derives from a distinct imaginary of the ominous figure of the bearded, dark-skinned, turban-wearing terrorist. Once again, the bodies of Muslims are used to demonize and place Muslims outside of “our” imagined “American community.” If that is not racism, what is?

A growing number of South Asians and Arabs, from Muslims to Sikhs, who do not even follow Islam, have reported racist incidents, especially while boarding planes. These incidents have occurred because people “look Muslim,” which ultimately ties back to visions of potential “terrorists” or “barbarians.” And these encounters of racial profiling at airports are nothing new for Muslim Americans. Security officials have long been accused of searching, questioning, and detaining people because they “look Muslim.” The problem with these incidents of racial profiling is that they reflect racist attitudes and reinforce racist institutions in the United States. No doubt, racial profiling is a tool of oppression dressed up as a tool of law enforcement.

Islamo-racism is not the result of sheer ignorance of Islam or intolerance of Muslims. It is not only about ISIS or misinterpretations of the Quran and jihad. Islamo-racism is about power, about perceived “superior cultures,” not “races.” The latter does not even exist, but racism certainly does.

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