12 June 2017

No, it doesn't make sense to treat islamophobia as racism

The man in this photo is Wagih Subhi Baqi Sulayman, more properly known as His Holiness Tawadros II, 118th Pope of Alexandria (the 98th since Athanasius), leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. I’m thinking about Pope Tawadros (Arabic for "Theodore") today because, a months old, Vox article appeared again on my Twitter feed today, which seeks to explain how it makes since to treat islamophobia as racism.

The TLDR: Even though Islam is a religion, it makes sense to treat “islamophobia” as racism because prior to 911 what we now know as “islamophobia” was previously known as “orientalism” – “the cultural and historical lens through which the Western world perceived, defined, and ‘otherized’ the East, and particularly the Muslim Middle East,” according to Edward Said.

But this is nonsense. The “orientalism” thesis is supposed to be that the West, in general, have a problem with the East, in general, and would have this problem even if the East were not substantially Muslim. We are to believe that “islamophobia” is really just “orientophobia”. But the article’s author undermines his own thesis. According to Khaled Beydoun, the article explains, “orientalism” stereotyped Muslims as a threat long before it was dubbed Islamophobia. On Beydoun's view, the anti-Muslim hate and bigotry of the past decade in the West is an extension of the fear and vilification not only of Muslims but anyone even perceived to be Muslim that’s been taking place for centuries.

I'll grant it seems plausible on its face; but on a close reading, it's verbal legerdemain. Ostensibly, we are informed that anti-Muslim hate and bigotry are extensions of something other than specifically anti-Muslim hate and bigotry, something that is not limited to Muslims, something that includes non-Muslims. This something is “orientalism”. What we truly learn, however, is that “orientalism” and “islamophobia” are indeed synonymous after all. The issue is still Islam: the distinction the author gives us is that between (i) Muslims and (ii) those perceived to be Muslims. Now, one might perceive others as Muslim who are not Muslim and act accordingly; but given that the recipients of this action, whatever it may be, are Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims, the issue, despite Beydoun’s claims, is Islam, not orientalism.

Consider this. If you find that the Arab to whom you are speaking (and whom you perceive to be Muslim) is actually a Coptic Christian, the circumstances alter. For reasons we cannot fathom, you may have concerns about Muslims, but because the Arabic-speaking man is Christian, you have no concerns about him. In fact for reasons we cannot fathom, he may have greater concerns about Muslims than you might ever dream of having. He may be “oriental”, but he is not Muslim; and rightly or wrongly, you both eye Muslims with a wary eye, and for reasons having to do with Islam, not "orientalism".

The fact is it doesn't make sense to treat islamophobia as racism because doing so doesn't account for all of the facts. For example, getting back to Pope Tawadros, a man with whom I have more in common than I do with many of the white people in my neighborhood, you may recall the Palm Sunday attack on a Coptic Christian church. That church was Pope Tawadros's cathedral, Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, where, some time prior to the attack (for which ISIS took responsibility), Tawadros had celebrated mass.  More recently, a group of Coptic Christians en route to St Samuel the Confessor Monastery were attacked, killing 28 and wounding 25. Employing the white man-brown man/oppressor-oppressed narrative, does not account for what Piers Morgan, among others, has called a Christian genocide. Again, the issue, like it or not, is Islam, not orientalism.

The real reason for treating islamophobia as racism is because doing so allows us to dismiss criticism of Islam as cover for moral turpitude. To treat islamophobia as a response to the actions of Muslims or pseudo-Muslims means having to discuss the doctrines which arguably require or permit these actions and the sources: the Quran, the Hadiths and the Sira. But these discussions are tedious, demanding, complex; and since we are dealing with a normative text, they also require minds capable of seeing the importance of admittedly fine distinctions, in other words, legal minds. Few people, arguably, are capable of this, so we need to simplify matters, put them in already accessible categories that the little people can understand, categories such as race and oppression, categories we can easily grasp, having been well-trained in their employment as explanatory models, even if and when those models are inapplicable, if not down right intentionally misleading. Never mind doctrines: these models will tell us all we really need to know.

There are only two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. In the morality play we call history, the white man is the oppressor and the brown man is the oppressed. Islam is the brown man’s religion; criticism of his religion is therefore racial oppression, an act of violence. (This characterization is shared by ex-Muslims such as Sarah Haider, by the way, beginning here.) This dichotomy is the only explanatory model we need. We need not discuss doctrinal matters because doctrine is not the true reason for this oppression. Doctrine is a smoke screen used by the oppressors, nothing more, nothing less.

But if for purposes of argument, we must discuss doctrines, let us simplify these matters as well. Both religions are either equally peaceful, teaching the same peaceful doctrines; or both religions are equally as violent. The oppressor-oppressed narrative requires grading the oppressed on a curve such that, for example, the 27 years of iterative Christian Crusades are equivalent to the 1400 years of progressive Muslim conquest of the largely-Christian Middle East. The only important distinction is the aforementioned. Christianity, as the white man's religion, is the oppressor; Islam, as the brown man's religion, is the oppressed. Critiques of Islam; denials that Islam is a religion of peace; assertions about the violent teachings in the Quran, the Hadiths, the Sira; claims of connections between Islam and terrorism; referring to jihadists as Muslims - all these acts are oppressive, violent, even.

Islamophia-as-racism helps us understand nothing. But it isn't intended to do. It's intended to provide immunity from criticism. It's intended to cow critics, and transform them into the bad - white - guys oppressing the brown man, as usual.

I'm not denying that there is such a thing as islamophobia - provided this is understood as an irrational fear of Islam and not simply any fear of Islam, or simply any criticism of Islam. However reasonable islamophobia is, or is not, it is not racism.


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James Frank Solís
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