Islamophobia as a Form of Racism: A Response

Our Featured Paper section celebrates an excellent paper from the journal by hosting a blog post from the authors, alongside responses from interlocutors. Here we present Narzanin Massoumi‘s response to Stephen H Jones, Rebecca Catto, Tom Kaden and Fern Elsdon-Baker’s recent co-authored paper, ‘That’s how Muslims are required to view the world’: Race, culture and belief in non-Muslims’ descriptions of Islam and science‘. Read another response from Tania Saeed.

By Narzanin Massoumi

Racist generalisations made about Muslims’ beliefs are often dismissed as simply being ‘reasonable criticisms of religion’. Jones, et al. illustrate empirically how such generalisations are not only racist, but commonplace and acceptable amongst those who would otherwise consider themselves to be anti-racist. Politically this is a useful contribution. Analytically, however, I think more is needed in order to understand the process by which Islamophobic ideas become so readily acceptable.

The anti-essentialist concept of ‘racialisation’ – which was developed by sociologists to emphasise the dynamic and historically contingent nature of ‘race’ – offers a clear solution to the unnecessary analytical confusion which still surrounds questions of Islamophobia and ‘race’, as well as offering a definitive rebuttal to those who argue, one way or another, that Islamophobia, by definition, cannot be a form of racism. If ‘race’ is a fiction created when certain ethnic heritage or cultural practices attach to social advantage or disadvantage, it is hard to see religious identity as ontologically distinct from ‘race’. For good reason then, racialisation is increasingly used to explain Islamophobia as a form of racism (Garner & Selod, 2015; Meer &Modood, 2009; Sayyid & Vakil, 2011). These scholars directly challenge the position taken by Islamophobia deniers (such as Fred Halliday, Kenan Malik, Polly Toynbee) by attempting to show that the anti-‘religion’ element of Islamophobia is in fact a form of racism in that it devalues the culture of a minority group (Meer & Modood, 2009; Sayyid & Vakil, 2010). ‘Cultural racism’, according to these scholars, is not just a proxy for biological racism; the anti-Islam element of anti-Muslim racism is itself racist.

Jones et al. build on this understanding, yet point out that there is a lack of attention within this literature to the racist nature of stereotypes about religious interpretation. They focus in particular on racist stereotypes about Islam’s apparent incompatibility with scientific rationality which they go on to argue illustrates the role that popular conceptions of science play in notions of Western cultural superiority. The New Atheists – such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens – have repeatedly singled out Islam as opposed to rational scientific enquiry. As LeDrew notes of the New Atheists, they perceived modern scientific and liberal democratic order to be ‘under threat by a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism’ (LeDrew, 2015, p.2). Jones et al. highlight the role of ‘science’ as an identity marker for western superiority against Islam. This is similar to the way that postcolonial feminists have long highlighted the ways in which women’s rights claims are used to delineate a western progressive image.

Racism as cultural othering

Yet I would argue that there are limitations in understanding racism as a discursive process of cultural othering and boundary construction. The strong focus by Jones et al. on cultural misrecognition (in particular the misrecognition of religious belief) turns attention away from the agents and interests behind racism. This is a problem in the literature on racialisation and racism more generally, which has often placed too much emphasis on how the ‘meaning of race’ is negotiated and in different times and contexts, without sufficient attention to the practical action taken to put in place the infrastructure of disadvantage and subordination. Islamophobia through the lens of Orientalism and ‘othering’, fails to illuminate the social forces involved in producing racism, with interests collapsed into vague concepts such as discourse or culture.

We can, and should, be far more precise, focusing on the specific agents and institutions implicated in racist practices and in the production of Islamophobic ideas, policies and structures. Islamophobia is a form of ‘structural racism’. But it does not flow intrinsically and mysteriously from existing ‘structures’, or from ‘culture’, or a Western image of modernity.

A more satisfactory approach than starting with how the meaning of Muslim identities are constructed and contested, for example, is to focus on the activities of institutions and the policies they enact that disproportionately impact upon Muslims. Doing so should draw our attention not only to the structures, institutions and agents that produce racist outcomes, but also to the social, political and cultural action undertaken which puts the infrastructure of subordination in place and keeps it there or extends it.

Elsewhere, I along with my colleagues Tom Mills and David Miller have discussed these agents and institutions under the rubric of the ‘five pillars of Islamophobia’. By this we mean that there are specific social actors (pillars) that produce the ideas and practices that result in disadvantage for Muslims. We argue that the state is the foremost of these, in particular as a result of the activities of the counter-terrorism apparatus. We suggest that there are four other collective social actors (or social movements) that are important in supporting and extending anti-Muslim racism. These are the neoconservative movement, parts of the Zionist movement, the counterjihad movement (and the rest of the far right) and elements of liberal, left, secular and feminist movements.

It is this final current that has most relevance to the types of ideas in the empirical material presented by Jones et al. The left and liberal movements – such as New Atheists, secularists and some secular feminists – engaged in supporting discrimination against Muslims are in general united by a form of secularist politics which has come to view radical Islam as a threat to democracy or progressive values, or as outlined in this piece ‘science’. Like the neoconservatives, some conservative Zionists and the far right, the characterisation of ‘Radical Islam’ or ‘Islamism’ is often expansive, including forms of Muslim religious observance or practice, and failing to make a clear distinction between what are often termed ‘fundamentalists’ and ordinary Muslims, or in practice using the term ‘Islamist’ loosely such that it includes most Muslims active in public life.

At this stage, it is perhaps worth stating that an empirical focus on political practices does not mean ignoring ideas. On the contrary, one cannot separate ideas and practices since they inform each other. But it is important to recognise the limitations of idealist explanations of racism. Ideas do not ‘float freely’, they are materially produced and disseminated by particular actors with particular interests in the particular circumstances in which they find themselves. In the case of Islamophobia, ideas about Muslims of course play an important role in the political action we consider to be of central importance, but it is not correct to see the issue here as simply being a set of wrong ideas circulating in society.

Islamophobia like other forms of racism is a product of social structures, yet it is crucial to recognise the social action that not only takes place in relation to structures, but also remakes or transforms them. Thus, we should endeavour to provide an account which recognises the role of agency more than is often found in radical scholarly accounts of racism.

Narzanin Massoumi is lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at University of Exeter and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow researching Prevent and higher education. Narzanin is co-convener of the BSA Race & Ethnicity Study Group, and tweets @Narzanin.

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