Anti-Islamic bigotry is racism. How can that be when, as is frequently pointed out, Islam isn’t a race?
Biological race doesn’t exist. But the concept of biological race is an invention with a long history. Its transformations help answer the question.
One of the earliest and most detailed systems of biological racial classification existed in the French colony of St Dominguez. According to the historian C.L.R. James, the system of classification contained more than 150 gradations of “blackness”.
Only people who could prove that they were “purely white” were granted full rights. This system was overthrown by a slave rebellion and revolution. The “aristocracy of skin”, a term used by the Parisian masses to describe racism, was temporarily defeated. Those 150 gradations of blackness, which were regarded as a natural fact, have long been forgotten.
Roughly 80 years later, biological racism enjoyed a renaissance, as all sorts of new so-called races were discovered. This was the advent of pseudo-scientific Darwinian racism. For example, the Irish were considered a separate race to the English, and closer to apes. Skulls were measured, intellects compared and, lo and behold, the Irish were found inferior. This conveniently explained the Irish famine, in which between 800,000 and 1.5 million people starved to death while the British exported their food.
Nowhere did social Darwinism go further than in Germany. Prior to the late 1880s, Jewishness had been regarded purely as a religion. Of course, Jews had suffered religious discrimination, but they could escape this through conversion, as many did. Yet, from the late 1800s onward, with the aid of “science”, Jewishness was transformed into a race, which was then associated with a series of visual and cultural markers, involving facial hair, big noses, dishonesty and suspicious customs such as kosher food.
These examples highlight how racism was never really about “natural” differences. It was a manufactured ideology of oppression. Racism is really about power.
Biologically linked racism started to go out of fashion with the fall of the Third Reich. But this didn’t mean that racism disappeared. It just changed form.
Take the example of the USA. Since the Declaration of Independence, the USA has concealed real inequality under a constitution and political system premised on formal equality.
In the past, the contradiction between real and formal inequality was justified by the alleged inferiority of non-white races. But the struggles and achievements of those non-whites increasingly made such claims untenable.
Today, no one credible argues that inequality and poverty stem from innate racial differences. Rather, we are told that “cultural problems” are to blame. The new rationalisation is not biologically based, yet it is the politically acceptable code for the same old racism.
Anti-Muslim racism, which exploded following 9/11 and the “war on terror”, fits into this mould. Small-l liberals have played a special role in promoting it. The polite arguments that Islam is more repressive than other religions, that Muslims lack respect for women or democracy, or are particularly violent, are all coded signals which, like a dog whistle, prick the ears of rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth racists.
This is what happened at the Cronulla riot in 2005, where men of Arab appearance were bashed by a white mob trying to defend “their” beach and “their” women. It was referred to by participants as “Leb and wog bashing day”.
Racism always relies on stereotypes and visual or cultural markers. So, the racists portray Muslims as big-nosed, fat, fanatical, bearded misogynists who want to slaughter animals and non-believers alike, impose sharia law, prohibit tasty food and beverages, destroy liberty and reason and generally fuck things up for the “enlightened” West.
Why do they want to do this? Well, who knows, but one thing is for sure – they aren’t as civilised as us.
All of these tropes are based on racial stereotypes of Arab people, which are as old as they are repulsive. Edward Said’s magnificent book Orientalism traces this tradition of representation through Western art and literature. It turns out that “good Muslim” vs. “bad Muslim” is just an updated version of the colonial era “good savage” vs. “bad savage” trope.
Christopher Hitchens took war-mongering atheism to new depths when he endorsed cluster bombs and said that the death toll in the Iraq war wasn’t high enough. But the tradition of atheism and Enlightenment values being used as the spear tip for colonial-style racism goes at least as far back as the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt.
Racism has changed with the times, but it is still a system of oppression that commits violence towards whole swaths of humanity, who are depicted through a few crude stereotypes.
So sure, Islam is a religion. But the statement “Islam is a religion, not a race” remains the most transparent of covers for real racism.