Featured Paper: Re-describing Islamophobia in a Language of Anti-racism

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

By Stephen H. Jones

The way we speak about Islamophobia has shifted in the last twenty years, with definitions that focus upon religious tradition and belief giving way to alternatives that use a vocabulary of racism and discrimination. While this change has been underway for a while, in 2018 it seemed to become decisive, with Runnymede and the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG) both publishing reports with the aim of cementing a workable, agreed definition of what Islamophobia is and a how it can be identified. Both defined it as anti-Muslim racism, contrasting with Runnymede’s hugely influential 1997 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, which instead located Islamophobia in certain stereotypical constructions of Islam as a tradition.

Why has this shift taken place? Part of the explanation no doubt lies in the fading memory of the Rushdie affair, and the way this has facilitated rapprochement between once opposed anti-racist and Islamic activists. But there is a strategic component too. With Islamophobia so often dismissed as a fiction that functions only to isolate Islam from public criticism, many campaigners appear now to believe that the most viable pathway to public recognition involves showing the parallels between hostility toward Muslims and Islam and other forms of prejudice. In practice, this means focusing on the consequences of – rather than justifications for – hostility. It means looking at how groups of people, rather than belief systems, are misrepresented. And it means finding allies in the form of other definitions: Runnymede and the APPG on British Muslims draw heavily on, respectively, the UN definition of racism and the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.

When my co-authors and I submitted our article on Islamophobia to The Sociological Review neither of these two reports had been published. But it speaks to this shift and provides a way of interrogating what might be lost and gained from this translation of Islamophobia into a secularised vocabulary. Our article was based on interviews that formed one part of a larger project examining how people associate and integrate science with questions of ultimate meaning, and specifically how such questions are influenced by collective identities and cultural conflicts. When setting out, we expected Islam to be a prominent area of discussion – one only needs to look at what soi-disant [self-styled] spokespersons for science such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris say about Islam to see that – but the way that people spoke about Islam nevertheless stood out.

In both the UK and Canada, where we conducted the research, there was a sizeable minority of (mainly nonreligious) people who exceptionalised Islam, portraying the tradition as uniquely hostile to science and rational inquiry.  Interviewees would speak confidently and unselfconsciously about Islam having no tradition of allegorical interpretation, and about how committing to Islam as a tradition invariably meant committing to scriptural literalism. They would then typically go on to use this – false, and therefore prejudiced – belief as the basis for claims about everything from evolution rejection and demographic growth to radicalisation in schools and acts of violence.

That we encountered such scriptural determinism – as Kwame Anthony Appiah calls it – is only one part of the story, however. More notable was how these narratives meshed with claims about culture and race. In a few cases, people’s arguments about Islam bordered on themes encountered within far-right discourses: inbreeding, overbreeding, paedophilia and prophecies of demographic colonisation. This was only the case, however, for a small number of interviewees committed to libertarian, nationalist or populist political views. More often, determinism was carefully segregated from racialized language. In contrast to negative generalisations about Muslims, assumptions about literalism in Islam permeated our data, including people with all varieties of political view. Some politically liberal interviewees even expressed concern about the hostility to which Muslims are presently subjected while at the same time affirming a determinist reading of Islam. Reluctance to generalise about Muslims as a group went hand-in-hand with depictions of Islam as threatening.

Identifying racism, today at least, is often less about singling out statements and more about highlighting inconsistencies. Think of the dissonance between front-page newspaper denunciations of racism and the steady rhythm of racialized nationalism encountered on the pages within. As I write this, the UK Home Office, which defines extremism in terms of ‘active opposition to the rule of law’, is trying to deny a Muslim women accused of involvement in extremism basic habeas corpus rights. I see these contradictory portrayals of Islam in similar terms: as part of a carefully managed inconsistency that denies and normalises prejudice, making it an unremarkable, common-sense element of our social milieu. In 2011, the Conservative British politician Baroness Sayeeda Warsi claimed that Islamophobia has ‘passed the dinner table test’ in Britain – that is, it now extends beyond political extremes into contexts of middle class domestic respectability. This is what our research indicated, but in an importantly qualified way: many of our interviewees would not have dreamt of talking of a ‘Muslim threat’, but still talked of what Muslims were ‘required’ to do or to believe without any hesitation or even so much as a qualifying ‘I’m not racist, but…’ . If what distinguishes Islamophobia today is not just its prevalence but the lack of stigma attached to it, our research suggested that narratives about belief, and the positioning of belief as a category in liberal states, are fundamental to this. 

What does this tell us about defining Islamophobia as a form of racism? There is a spectrum of opinion on this, but my own view is that it should be possible to incorporate belief and tradition into conceptualisations of racism and therefore into a language of anti-racism. After all, the categories ‘religion’ and ‘race’ both emerged as part of attempts to classify and hierarchically order cultural groups, and recent work in the study of race and prejudice has amply demonstrated that racism today regularly involves few or no claims about biological characteristics. The APPG definition of Islamophobia as racism directed at ‘Muslimness’ retains some flexibility to do this (one reason why I endorsed it publicly myself). Still, one of the profound risks of the shift towards a more secularised vocabulary of anti-Muslim racism, and focusing on consequences over beliefs, is what it may achieve in facilitating public recognition of extreme manifestations of Islamophobia it loses in restricting our ability to elucidate subtle, socially acceptable instances of anti-Muslim prejudice. Certainly, understanding Islamophobia means understanding how ‘Muslimness’ is associated with ethnicity and how Muslims’ rights and wellbeing are diminished, as well as the material interests of those promoting it, but it also requires investigation of how Islam’s beliefs and traditions are represented.   

As a society, we do not do a very good job of talking about belief, and academics – including sociologists – typically do little to help with this. As a sociologist of religion, I am often puzzled at how colleagues with a remarkable ability to dance to the rhythm of human life become flat-footed as soon as any religious music plays. The fact that the sociology of religion has long been aloof from the wider discipline – with most specialists working in departments of theology and religion – is just one indication of a much broader tendency existing across the political spectrum to bypass or confine questions about religious languages, traditions and authority. Given this, it is easy to see how the translation of Islamophobia into the vocabulary of anti-racism could end up dissolving the former into terms that the religiously unmusical find less confusing or even threatening. (‘And what’, as Yahya Birt recently put it, ‘is the public language of anti-racism except a way of not talking about Islam because it is deemed to be alienating?’) This dissolution is at the heart of the current visceral conflicts within the British left over anti-Semitism. Should the same happen in the case of Islamophobia, it could easily deny us the footholds necessary to push back against this deep-rooted and distinctive prejudice.

Stephen H. Jones is a sociologist of religion whose research focuses on the intersections between belief, politics and public policy. He is General Secretary of the Muslims in Britain Research Network (MBRN) and a Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. He tweets at @StphnHwrdJns.

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