Locating Prejudice: Scientific Rationality and the Racialization of Muslim Belief

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 Tania Saeed‘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 Narzanin Massoumi.

By Tania Saeed

Jones et al provide an important contribution to scholarship on Islamophobia by focusing on prejudices about beliefs that normalize Islamophobia, reinforcing the perception that Islam is antithetical to scientific rationality. The focus of their research is ‘how science is understood in different national contexts and nonreligious groups.’ The research further focuses on ‘philosophical and scriptural interpretations’ in relation to ‘social processes and conflicts’, where the beliefs of Muslims are increasingly flagged in participant responses as being the most irrational in comparison to other religions, including Christianity. The article draws on interviews and focus groups with non-Muslim, both religious and non-religious participants from the UK and Canada.

The authors emphasize the limitation of conceptualizing Islamophobia through the lens of race and ethnicity alone, that overlooks the importance of beliefs and how they are understood within a Western framework, though they are careful in not generalizing their findings to an entire Western (British and Canadian) context. The authors also show how ‘three related forms of prejudice: (1) biological racism involving claims about somatic characteristics; (2) cultural racism involving non-biological claims about cultural inferiority; and (3) religious prejudice involving claims about the beliefs people hold’ came up in participant narratives at different stages during the research. It is the intersection between these three forms of prejudice that are crucial to unpack. They argue that ‘narratives about cultural difference’ were ‘tightly interwoven with, indeed based upon, narratives about philosophical difference,’ less so than about racial difference.

While recognizing the importance of uncovering prejudices related to beliefs, I would argue that these prejudices continue to be located within a racialized framework, where Muslim identity and Islam occupy historical places outside the ‘Enlightened’ landscape of Western democracies, as illustrated (and briefly mentioned by the authors) in the work of Edward Said, but also explored by scholars such as Liz Fekete (2009) or S. Sayyid (2014) amongst others. Jones et al may have attempted to ‘show not only that stereotypes of belief and racialization work together, but that the former follow distinctive social dynamics that deserve closer attention,’ yet, this point can only be proven if the participants’ source of information about Islamic beliefs is revealed. Logically, in locating these perceptions about beliefs within this historical discourse on Islam and Muslims, the question of where these ‘stereotypes of belief’ come from might be answered. The role of the “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins is briefly mentioned in the beginning of this article, but the extent to which their point of view influences the perceptions of the participants, especially the non-religious participants is important to recognize, to understand the source of knowledge about Islam for these participants. The distinction between the non-religious and religious participants therefore becomes all the more important in understanding why these participants view Islamic beliefs as rigid, in order to examine the connection to ‘social processes and conflicts’. By investigating the source of knowledge, the link between racialization and prejudices about beliefs can be further understood, providing a more nuanced understanding of different manifestations of Islamophobia. I would not be surprised to find the influence of media in knowledge about Islam, especially the certainty with which some participants outlined the problem of Islamic beliefs with science, in comparison to other less known religions.

Yet, this article does successfully illustrate the ‘I am not an Islamophobe but’ dichotomy in the way participants essentialize Quranic interpretations to a fixed outdated idea unproblematically, with a complete lack of awareness about how that essentialized understanding is indicative of Islamophobia itself. This is particularly evident in the narratives that show two seemingly contradictory views held by the same individuals, where Islam and the beliefs of Muslims as communicated through their holy book, the Quran were considered contrary to scientific logic, hence the principles of Enlightenment, while also highlighting how Muslims were being unfairly targeted. These narratives are important in highlighting how Islamophobia exists at different levels amongst the public, but far from presenting a distinct entry of analysis about prejudices related to belief that comes from a ‘philosophical’ standpoint, this ‘philosophical’ discussion cannot be neatly separated from a racialised framework. The authors therefore provide an important frame of reference in understanding the racialization of the Muslim identity in the form of Islamophobia, albeit through an analysis of prejudices against beliefs that are considered more acceptable than prejudices against Muslims, yet the source of this prejudice is located within a racialised discourse.

Tania Saeed is Assistant Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan.

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