Taking racism seriously: Islamophobia, civil liberties and the state

Racism and Islamophobia are driven by the practices of the powerful. Self-proclaimed 'liberals' need to know this.

David Miller Tom Mills Narzanin Massoumi Hilary Aked
22 June 2015
Stand up to Racism

Anti-racism march in London. Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.

We recently held an international conference at the University of Bath bringing together over a hundred delegates to think about how we can research and respond to contemporary conflict and 'terrorism'. We've had a number of responses to the conference, mostly positive (see #iprunderstandingconflict).  Several responses and comments, however, have suggested a certain confusion about one of the major themes: Islamophobia. In this article we address some of the issues raised, concentrating on the facts and on what we think are the substantive issues at stake, and in doing so focus in particular on an opinion piece written by the communications officer of the National Secular Society, Benjamin Jones. 

On the basis of a single slide from one of more than 90 conference presentations, Jones informs his readers that, 'Much of the conference was devoted to... the demonization of ex-Muslims as "McCarthyites".' Impressed as we are with Jones's confident pronouncement on a conference he did not attend, we think that as the organisers we can speak with more authority. So let us set the record straight.  Discussion of 'ex-Muslims', barely featured at the conference at all, save for a passing remark by Professor Deepa Kumar in her keynote address on the 'Matrix of Islamophobia'. One of the slides from that presentation, which seems to be the sole basis for Jones's claims, and similarly overwrought claims made on social media, had nothing to do with non-devout Muslims, or atheists from Muslim backgrounds.  Rather the term 'ex-Muslims' was used by Professor Kumar to designate particular individuals and organisations operating in a broader network of Islamophobic groups (particular reference was made to the US group, Former Muslims United).

Another paper at the conference which covered some similar ground and in more detail, but which certainly involved no 'demonization of ex-Muslims', was Dr Rizwaan Sabir's paper on the Quilliam Foundation. As that presentation carefully documented, Quilliam has played an important role in facilitating the repression of politically active Muslims; appears to have more or less taken its marching orders from Whitehall; and fits into a broader historical pattern of non-white groups being utilised as part of counter-insurgency strategy.

The key issues

The key point is that what is at issue here is not religious faith, atheism, or secularism, but racism and civil liberties. The threat to civil liberties, and the civil liberties of Muslims in particular, was indeed a major focus of the conference, and we make no apology for that. This brings us to the central question of Islamophobia. The main thrust of Jones's piece is that what is conventionally referred to as 'Islamophobia' is, in his words, a 'delusion'. He pursues this provocative argument at some length, but is hopelessly muddled. He complains that the term 'is almost always left undefined'. In fact, many definitions of Islamophobia have been offered, and if it often remains undefined, it is only because it has now been widely accepted, albeit often with some reservations. We would happily accept that another word might have been more useful or appropriate to denote the phenomenon described, but there is no need to get bogged down in semantics. Jones himself uses the phrase 'anti-Muslim bigotry', which is fine to a point, but it risks overlooking the fact that racism is not simply a product of ignorance, but a form of political power – an important point of difference we will come to. In any case, we do not see the definitional question as problematic. Just as antisemitism can be defined as racism against Jews, so Islamophobia can be defined as racism against Muslims. Indeed, we use this term interchangeably with 'anti-Muslim racism'.

Jones's objection to this point is the familiar refrain that Islam is a religion not a race. He notes that 'ex-Muslims, non-devout Muslims, or even Sikhs- and others who are mistaken for Muslims' are often victims of Islamophobia. This is correct, but it is not at all clear to us in what sense this renders Islamophobia a 'delusion'. If antisemites target not only devout Jews visibly identifiable through their religious dress, but also liberal and secular Jews, or Gentiles wrongly assumed, for whatever reason, to be Jewish, that does not in any way minimise the problem of anti-Jewish racism. The same point applies to Islamophobia. A similar confusion over race and religion is evident later in the piece where Jones claims that we 'lazily use the phrase "anti-Muslim racism" – which,' he writes, 'makes as much sense as "anti-Christian racism": because in fact "Muslims are the most ethnically diverse" religion in England and Wales.' 

The argument here is a common one and superficially seems reasonable enough. Racism is discrimination based on 'race' and Islamophobia is discrimination based on a particular religion – Islam.  The problem is that this argument is predicated on the assumption that there is such a thing as 'race', on which racial prejudice is based. In fact, this notion has long been discredited by the natural and social sciences. The notion that humanity is divided into separate races arose out of pseudo-scientific categories crafted at the time of European colonialism, which held that the people of Europe were biologically or culturally superior to non-Europeans. This sort of thinking reached it apogee with the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and other groups in Europe by the Nazis. At that time, 'race science' was taken seriously far beyond Germany, and antisemitism was widespread.

But whatever Nazis and European colonialists may have thought, humanity is not divided into races.  There is one human race and within it there are a diversity of people from different cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The dominant physical marker of difference which is usually taken to indicate a person's 'race' is the concentration of melanin in one's skin, which varies according to one's ancestors' proximity to the equator. What makes physical differences such as this significant (hair and eye colour are also classic racial signifiers) is the political practice of categorising people into different groups, and privilege or disadvantage becoming attached to these arbitrary categories. This is what sociologists mean when they say that race is 'socially constructed'; it is not an objective scientific category, but is made real by racist practices. 

Most significantly for our purposes, racial categories change over time in response to new historical and political circumstances. So certain signifiers of difference become politically insignificant over time, and others become politicised and salient. Once this is understood, the fallacy of the 'Islam is not a race' argument becomes clear. For neither is 'black' a 'race', yet this does not mean that being regarded as 'black' in British society, for example, doesn't impact on your life chances or the likelihood of being subject to violence. There is no 'black race', but racism against black people is real.

This is why Jones's argument about the diversity of both British Muslims and the victims of 'anti-Muslim bigotry' in Britain, whilst true, really has no bearing on the issues at hand. And it is also why in our piece on the 'Five Pillars of Islamophobia' we turn attention to the state and powerful social movements 'from above'. It is largely the practices of the state and the activities of powerful political movements – whether driven by animus or expediency – that leads to violence and discrimination towards people of particular cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious backgrounds; in this case Muslims.

Trivialising the problem

In his effort to demonstrate that Islamophobia is a 'delusion', a 'non-phenomenon' and a 'fashionable falsehood', Jones cites public opinion data suggesting that less than around 1 in 5 Britons have an 'unfavourable' view of Muslims (the previous year Pew found that more than 1 in 4 held an unfavourable view). Jones apparently feels comfortable with 19% of the population holding unfavourable views towards a vulnerable minority. We do not. It is heartening, though, that the majority of the public has not been persuaded by Islamophobic ideas, and we would guess that this reflects the strength of liberal, multicultural sentiment in this country, and the continuing efforts of the anti-racist movement, of which it is a political legacy.  

Jones goes on not only to seek to minimise the seriousness of anti-Muslim sentiment amongst sections of the public, but argues with reference to a series of opinion polls that the more significant 'threat' is the 'large minorities (and often large majorities) of Muslims around the world who hold extremely, severely regressive views.'  He notes, for example, a Guardian article published six years ago which declared that British Muslims have 'zero tolerance of homosexuality'. It is important to note, however, that this one survey (of 500 British Muslims) focused on homosexuality as a question of personal morality, rather than political rights, and whilst there is surprisingly little research on Muslim political attitudes to homosexuality, it is notable that a US poll on attitudes to gay marriage conducted last year found opposition was significantly higher amongst white evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses than Muslims.

Jones also seems to suggest that anti-Muslim racism in Britain should be overlooked because of polls suggesting support for the death penalty for apostasy in Egypt, Jordan and Malaysia. None of the evidence he presents as far as we are concerned has any bearing on the significance of anti-Muslim racism in the UK, and we can see no obvious reason why one cannot oppose racism and repression in the UK,  Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia and anywhere else. The only point we would make, and this should be obvious enough, is that one should focus one’s political efforts where they are likely to be most effective, and that usually means seeking to influence one's own government and society, especially where there are free and democratic means to do so.

When citing the various polls about Muslim opinion, Jones adds a series of rhetorical flourishes, imagining us denouncing him as a Zionist, a McCarthyite or neoconservative. If he had read our piece on the 'Five Pillars of Islamophobia', as he has claimed to, then it should be obvious that he would fit rather well into our category of 'left/liberal currents such the pro-war or "decent" left'. Indeed, we consider the new atheist movement as one constituent of this 'pillar' of Islamophobia. We do not wish to rush to judgements about the National Secular Society, but it is concerning that according to Companies House, up until June 2014 Anne Marie Waters served as a director.

Waters has since joined UKIP, started the anti-Islam groups, Sharia Watch and VOICE (Victims of Islamic Cultural Extremism), and was recorded by the Daily Mirror saying: 'a lot of people need to be deported', 'many mosques need to be closed down' and 'immigration from Islamic countries has to stop entirely'. As far as we are aware, the NSS has never condemned these comments, nor distanced itself from Waters, whereas another of her former organisations, One Law For All (OLFA), has done so. Indeed, in its 2014 annual report published in October, the NSS pictured and thanked Waters, and even promoted Sharia Watch’s ludicrous Learning Jihad 'report' in November. In the context of Jones's attacks on our conference as hosting 'conspiracy theorists', this is somewhat ironic, as well as being deeply worrying.

The practices of the powerful

Finally, to return to the opinion polls Jones cites on the public's views towards British Muslims, as we have stated, we consider these figures concerning. But in any case relying on them as a riposte to our argument about the seriousness of Islamophobia is misconceived. Racism is not simply a set of ignorant ideas about a particular group, but a set of ideas and practices which produce disadvantages for particular groups. How far people in different sections of society accept or reject racist ideas is important, but we should not fall into the trap of believing that such views need to be widespread to be effective.

In an unequal society, it is the ideas and practices of powerful people and institutions that matter the most, and this is why we focus on the particular actors we do, rather than on the population as a whole.  In the case of British counter-terrorism policy, this has always disproportionately targeted Muslims over non-Muslims, despite the evidence suggesting that the threat from 'religiously inspired terrorism' in Europe is extremely low, and thus is in effect racist irrespective of whether or not it is rooted in 'unfavourable' views. Moreover, counter-terrorism policy has in recent years undergone a shift under the influence of radical factions of the political elite who seek to undermine the multiculturalism of modern Britain.

Understanding racism as a set of ideas and practices embedded especially within the institutions of the state means that effectively combating it entails not just challenging bigoted ideas, but scrutinising the ideas and practices of the powerful. Naturally such scrutiny is not welcomed. But is regrettable to say the least that the forces of reaction find so many allies among liberals like Jones, who rather than challenging the abuses of our government would rather pen spurious smears about those who do.

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