Originally published in The Islamic Monthly
An Exchange Between Thomas Beale and Hasan Azad
Thomas Beale (an e-health expert, platform technologist and e-community builder, who in many ways is representative of an educated liberal voice in the West) and I recently had an exchange that emerged from my piece Racism Runs Through the Arteries and Veins of the United States published February 5 on The Islamic Monthly. Below is our conversation which occurred online, lightly edited for clarity, that I hope gives readers a better idea of how complex this issue is, a debate that explores how racism is never as black and white as is typically assumed.
Your article conflates quite a few things. One can’t deny the institutionalised racism in the US, but the kind of racism that corresponds to the history of black Americans is quite specific — it’s more like inter-caste racism in India — which is very deeply ingrained. Racism in the US against other people who happen not to be white, I think, is more likely to be of the mindless, casual type one sadly sees everywhere. The latter is inexcusable, but I don’t think it’s ideological/cultural, whereas the former arguably is, because it’s built into the history of the country.
I suggest the real basis of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US is the same as here in the UK, France, etc. — it’s mostly fear-of-Islam sentiment, not anti-Muslim personal racism. The problem is that people who have never educated themselves on Muslim culture or Islam don’t have a way to articulate their fears that doesn’t sound in some way racist. And there are plenty of Muslims who don’t understand Islamic and/or Arabic/Persian/Turk/etc. culture (just as there are equally many non-Muslims who similarly have no idea of the Western tradition, Indian culture, pre-communist Chinese culture, etc.), so they tend to be reactive and insulted without understanding: a) what non-Muslims are afraid of, and b) the Western tradition that their critics come from.
The parts of the Western tradition that survive today are the ones most educated people want to keep, and they’re not Western, other than historically (similar thinking can be found in other cultures). The main points are: liberty of speech and thought; rule of law; human rights; secular democracy (which is the only way to enable multiple faiths to live side by side in peace).
People who do bother to find out about Islam can then start to make sense of and contribute to the kinds of conversations being had by modernising Muslims who accept and champion these basic values, and can articulate real problems (radicalisation etc.). Any non-Muslim who makes this effort can then start to understand the difference between the term “Muslim” as a Muslim in the Western World means it (a specific interior value system, understanding of Islamic faith, etc.) and what the term is implied to mean by the Trumps and others (i.e., “potential terrorist,” “ISIS sympathiser” etc.).
Unfortunately fixing this probably requires a great deal of education and self-education and willingness to understand the history of other cultures — unlikely to happen anytime soon…
Your argument hinges on a couple of assumptions:
1. That there is a radical difference between racism towards blacks in the US and “Racism in the US against other people who happen not to be white.” You argue that the former is “more like inter-caste racism in India — which is very deeply ingrained,” while the latter is “more likely to be of the mindless, casual type one … sees everywhere.”
My argument hinges, however, not on whether or not the types of racism can be equated. I don’t actually equate the two, but rather make the point — which is a historico-philosophical one — that European history is ideologically and epistemologically rooted in “Otherness.” And it is a widely accepted thesis within the academy that Islam and Muslims have culturally (or — what historically came to be replaced by “culture” in Europe — religion; see: Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God ) and ideologically — going back to the first Crusades, through the European Enlightenment, and to the present — been constituted the radical “Other” within the (Christian) European imaginaire.
2. That there is a fundamental difference between the “fear-of-Islam sentiment” and “anti-Muslim personal racism.” You stress that the “real basis of anti-Muslim sentiment” in the West is the former — which, you emphasize is not racist, while the latter is.
My argument is rooted in some significant studies, not least of which is David Tyrer’s The Politics of Islamophobia (2013). Tyrer, who is Reader in Critical Theory at Liverpool John Moores University, closely analyses (and takes apart) the claim — which is used by almost everyone engaged in discussions regarding their “fear/phobia” of Islam — that Islamophobia is not the same as racism, because Muslims do not constitute a race.
"The attempt to deny the racist nature of Islamophobia is of utility in extending a particular racial politics without risking the accusation of racism, and in doing so it also centres problematic ideas of phenotypal racial difference, not by labeling Muslims as biologically bounded but by contrasting Muslims against other minorities who are held as such. It thus guarantees the continued hold of race as the basis for organising society and distinguishing between subjects, because it holds phenotypal race as the logical arbiter of whether racism can be said to exist. However, it also constructs Muslims as a lack — as lacking raciality." (26)
In other words, by denying that Islamophobia is racist, Islamophobes both reconfirm a politics of racism, where society is organized hierarchically by “race” (which, let us remember, is a modern Western construct that was historically, and till now, used to categorize differences among peoples for the purposes of ruling over them by white Europeans, the master race, or, which amounts to the same thing, the race which is un-marked), and they make disparaging comments regarding Muslims and Islam (that they and their religion is/are backwards, that they need to “modernize,” that they are “irrational,” that their religion is “inherently violent,” and so forth). What Tyrer is arguing, therefore, and it is a subtle but extremely important argument, is that Islamophobia is a constituent element of the wider politics of racism, and is not separate from it.
As for your claims vis-à-vis the intrinsic nature of modern Western society/tradition as being rooted in and champions of “liberty of speech and thought; rule of law; human rights; secular democracy (which is the only way to enable multiple faiths to live side by side in peace),” I would argue (and there are some major scholars who have been arguing these things for some years now) that these ideas and ideals are part of the “mythology” of the modern Western imaginaire — and mythologies are of course necessary to create cultural/national/ideological cohesion. But, on closer analysis, these ideas and ideals are not only far from being fully realized, they are systematically being eroded, not by the presence/intrusion of the “alien Other” in the heartlands of the West, but by the very secular modern institutions (in particular by the governments) that claim to be their most avid upholders and guardians.
So, contrary to you, I would argue that it is not the problem with “the Muslim” who does not know “Western tradition” (I’m afraid that in your construction, you have unwittingly relegated Muslims as “Other” and as different from the wider society in the West), but rather the self-identified — and educated — Westerner who, all too often, is in fact not sufficiently educated in his/her “own” tradition.
Although there were undoubtedly some individuals, adventurers, kings and statesmen coming from Europe with some “master race” thoughts, I think it’s a somewhat post-modernist preoccupation to try to graft that kind of ideology onto the “Western tradition” as a whole via evidence of colonialism/empire, etc. European ideas of empire were no different than those of the USSR, Ottoman Turks, the early Muslim caliphate, and all other empires back to Rome and beyond: control of resources, people and territory. The tiny number of people running those empires all thought they were superior; the intelligent among them understood that their superiority came from more evolved institutions and politics, not from being racially superior.
I haven’t read the Tyrer reference, but suspect I would not be convinced by it, because from the quote you give, it seems to want to create a “racism” where there probably is none (in the ideological sense). There’s a more obvious explanation for Islamophobia: the use of “Muslim” as a self-identifier. Consider that you don’t hear of individuals in the West of any religious persuasion self-identifying as their faith before their ethnicity, region, country, or something cultural (excepting the well-known hard-core fringe like Seventh Day Adventists, some of the evangelicals, and some Mormons). No one in the West feels the need to defend being Catholic or Anglican, or Buddhist — they assume the faith does it itself.
When one group of people perceive another group from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and also from within Western countries, etc., whose members self-identify as “Muslim” prior to any other category, they start to put them in a category like Christian evangelicals or other kinds of ideologues, and they start worrying about fanaticism. Note: I’m not making truth claims here — simply claims about perceptions. Of course there are many millions of people who are Muslim who don’t go around talking about it. Fanaticism is really not part of any version of the Western tradition since the Enlightenment period, and Westerners don’t react well to anything or anyone they think is oriented that way.
Is the so-called Western tradition imperfect? Of course. The modern “democracy” of the US is a joke, and the weak politics in Europe can be criticised in 50 different ways. But the basic fact of secular democracy and human rights-based law being an enabler of a workable civil society in which violations (real racism, hate crimes, slavery, religious violence) can at least be legally pursued if not totally removed, can’t really be contested. All those countries where you can think and speak freely (including freely exercising a faith different from that of the prevailing culture) are some kind of democracy; those where you have to be careful or silent are theocracies or totalitarian dictatorships. That’s the evidence. And that’s with very imperfect governments. Many of the ideals are in fact realised, even if they are being eroded by recent legislation designed to create a security state (without exception created by politicians completely unconscious of the dangers of sliding toward totalitarianism).
I think the thesis of “Otherness” applies to Islamic culture rather than “races” of Islamic countries; [the Islamic culture] was historically seen as a different set of basic beliefs than the Western tradition. I don’t think we should have a problem with this — it’s true. Islamic scholars for centuries have thought the same about the West.
I’m not saying there is no problem today, what I am suggesting is that it’s far more to do with fear of a radical [violent] ideology than any “race” problem.
Regarding the notion of the Western “master race,” this is in the epistemological, political, ideational and ethical sense — and all four are intimately intertwined with one another. The very idea of the intrinsic superiority of Western theories of knowledge, of Western politics, of Western ideas and of Western ethics as being off-the-bat superior to other modes of being, thinking and living historically — whether explicitly expressed as such or unconsciously assumed — goes back to colonialism and its theories of knowledge (and rule) vis-à-vis the colonies. This is not a “post-modernist preoccupation,” as you put it, but is an amply demonstrated, studied and commented-upon field of study — broadly speaking called post-colonial studies — that has some very significant names such as Hamid Dabashi, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Nicholas Dirks — many of whom teach at Columbia University and have been thinking and writing about these topics for over 30 years.
As for your dismissal of David Tyrer as seeming “to want to create a ‘racism’ where there probably is none (in the ideological sense)” — your comment highlights almost exactly what Tyrer is pointing to. Race is not a simple category that we all immediately understand, even if we think we do. Let us remind ourselves, again at the risk of repetition, that “race” is a modern Western construct whose borders constantly shift. So, for example, not too long ago, the Irish and the Italians were considered “black” in the US. Race is part of a very sophisticated politics — a politics of power and coercion — wherein Islam and Muslims are constituted as the “Other.” And this politics of power and coercion — and persuasion — is intimately intertwined in the language of mainstream media, which has been shown to have an Islamophobic agenda (see, for example, Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry ). So let us all be wary of making truth claims about anything really, but especially something as excessively political (on all sides) as Islam.
Regarding your assertion that “the thesis of ‘Otherness’ applies to Islamic culture rather than ‘races’ of Islamic countries; [the Islamic culture] was historically seen as a different set of basic beliefs than the Western tradition,” I would like to quote from Jonathan I. Israel’s magisterial Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (2009). Israel, a professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, writes:
"Muslims, from the time of Muhammad in the seventh century onwards … were invariably more tolerant than the Christians. Had Christians ruled the Ottoman Near East instead of the Turks … there would remain today no ‘trace of the Greek Church’ and Islam would have been obliterated whereas, by contrast, [Muslims] fully tolerated Christianity." (618)
I fear that there is a lot more work — not unlike the kind of conversation we’re having — that needs to be done, from all sides and quarters of human experience, for the human project to continue forward.