Islamophobia vs. Racism

By Colby Hess

According to the FBI’s database of Hate Crime Statistics, in 2010 (the latest year for which numbers are available) there were 160 hate crime incidents involving anti-Islamic bias in the United States. Such incidents have seen a marked rise following the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 and have recently made headlineswith various incidents around the country, ranging from arson attacks on mosques to pig parts being thrown at the site of a proposed Islamic center.

Such trends are rightfully worrying in an increasingly multicultural society which supposedly prides itself on freedom, equality, and justice for all. There is however, another closely related issue, which is in its own way nearly as disturbing. It is the hyper-politically correct reaction to such so-called “Islamophobia,” specifically, how it is consistently and fallaciously labeled as “racism.” Setting aside broader discussion of the overall subject of Islamophobia in all its complexity (including its root causes and any possible merit or lack thereof), let’s examine this charge of racism. Without in any way condoning or defending the ridiculous actions of the small percentage of angry, spite-filled bigots who lash out at those whom they fear solely on the basis of superficial differences, the fact remains that this particular assertion of racism is simply ludicrous.

The dictionary defines racism as 1) “the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others,” and 2) “abusive or aggressive behavior towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief,” with race meaning “a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.” The key word here in both terms is “heredity.” Although it seems rather remedial to have to explain it, apparently there are many in the media, academia, and general public who somehow fail to discern what seems a very basic point, so I’ll state it as clearly as possible: Islam is a religion, not a race.

While it’s true that most people are indoctrinated into their religion osmotically from an early age through the influence of their parents and surrounding community, I think you would be hard pressed to identify any kind of allele coding for “submission to Allah” within the DNA of Muslims (or a “Jesus gene” in Christians, etc.). Religions, no matter how deeply embedded in the psyches of their adherents, are essentially ideologies; they are systems of beliefs – collections of ideas, traditions, and practices.

Although, as Richard Dawkins has astutely pointed out, as a meme they exhibit many of the same characteristics as a virus – replicating and spreading, and altering behaviors to ensure their continuation – they are still acquired traits, and as such, they are not something you are born with, nor are they in any way intrinsically wedded to your physical being. Regardless of the fact that “apostasy” – disavowing Islam or converting to another religion – is still a capital offense in many Muslim nations, doing so nevertheless remains a considerably easier task than Michael Jackson’s sad and misguided attempts to change his race through plastic surgery and skin bleaching. Once again, for those still missing the essential point, this is because Islam is a religion, not a race.

Approaching this oft-repeated Islamophobia-equals-racism fallacy from another perspective, let’s look at some uncontroversial statistics. It is estimated that there are currently close to 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth. Of these, nearly 222 million live in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. Another 242 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. Around 75 million live in Iran, and 322 million live in the Middle East and North Africa. Pretending for a moment that Islamophobia is indeed a form of racism, just how exactly is it supposed to work?

It may come as a shock to some, but most people hailing from Indonesia and Malaysia, if filling out a form requiring them to check a box for their race, will likely check “Asian/Pacific Islander.” Those from sub-Saharan Africa will likely check “Black/African” and those from the Middle East either “Caucasian” or the recently added category “Arabic/Middle Eastern.” Thus, racially, Islam is far from being monochromatic, and it is far from being a purely Arab phenomenon. So presumably, this charge of Islamophobia equaling racism only applies when the perceived bias is originating from those of Western European descent? (Which smells an awful lot like the logical fallacy of “special pleading.”)

How then to categorize the ongoing religious strife taking place in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims? Is that racism? I mean, the two sides seem inordinately fond of chopping each other up over issues such as the forced implementation of Sharia law. Yet they are all black Africans. Or what about the worsening violence between Indonesian Christians and Muslims? – all of them Asians. After centuries of relative peace and tolerance, church burnings and mob beatings there are now on the rise. Racism?

What about the interminable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Perhaps one of the biggest surprises resulting from National Geographic’s Genographic Project has been the revelation that Israelis and Palestinians are genetically almost identical. They are the exact same people – they’ve simply assumed mutually exclusive labels over the past few millennia in the name of religion.

And then what of Iran? It’s perhaps not widely known, but the name of that nation is derived from the word Aryan, referring to the original inhabitants of the Pontic-Caspian steppe region near modern Ukraine (also known as the Indo-Europeans). Back in late prehistory, this group, through conquest or assimilation, spread out into Persia as well as most of Europe and northern India, leaving behind a linguistic legacy uniting speakers of such disparate languages as Spanish, English, German, Farsi, and Hindi. Considering this history, it’s really quite ironic that a group of ignorant white supremacists residing in Idaho would call themselves the “Aryan Nation,” oblivious to the etymology behind their group’s name and to their close genetic, historic, and linguistic ties to people they likely despise.

To this day, despite a predilection for dark hair, many Iranians and the inhabitants of the Himalayan regions of India are to all appearances about as white as Bing Crosby, as would be expected. Race, remember, means “related by common descent or heredity.” So how do squabbles over religious identity get elevated to the level of “racism” between related descendants of a single ethnic group who only diverged within the past ten thousand years? (A blink of the eye in evolutionary timescales.)

Despite all of these apparent logical absurdities which become evident with even a cursory amount of contemplation or the slightest respect for semantics, supposedly serious scholars and institutions continue to assert that Islamophobia in any form clearly amounts to racism. Okay then, if being less than enthused about adherents of an acquired belief system automatically amounts to racism, what does it mean to be anti-Nazi? After all, it’s a bleak yet undeniable fact that pretty much every last Nazi was Caucasian. So if you hate Nazis, like it or not, your rage is directed almost exclusively at white people!

Now, if the implications of that sound offensive as well as ridiculous, they should, for it employs exactly the same faulty reasoning (or total lack of reasoning) used by those myopic, self-righteous scholars who intuit an “obvious” equivalence between opposition to Islamic totalitarianism and hatred based on heredity and skin color.

Finally, to touch on one of my favorite subjects, what does all of this mean for atheists/anti-theists, who find all religion to be both false and harmful, and who feel humanity and the planet would both benefit immensely if religious belief were to suddenly go the way of the dinosaurs? By the stated rationale of the Islamophobia-equals-racism crowd, surely all anti-theists (regardless of their own racial makeup or “post-racial” indifference to distinctions of race) must be “omni-racist” – racist against every race? Is such a thing even possible or meaningful in any sense of the word?

The reality is, people often look for reasons not to get along. Skiers dislike snowboarders, sailors dislike power boaters, even Brians dislike Bryans. Coining neologisms and being sloppy with terminology is not going to change that. That said, violence for any reason other than immediate self-defense is seldom justifiable. Threats, harassment, and destruction of property have no place in civil society – especially as the world grows ever more crowded. The actions of the vast majority of the morons committing these anti-Islamic acts are indefensible and should rightly be punished. But so should the actions of fanatical Islamists such as the man who attempted to bomb Times Square back in 2010, expressing the attitude and fervent desire (as stated in his video suicide note) that, “I really wish that the hearts of the Muslims will be pleased with this attack, God willing,” going on to predict that, “Islam will spread on the whole world and democracy will be defeated.”

How are we to have constructive dialogue or debate if stifled by censorship masking itself as political correctness? How can we rationally address the very real problem of religious zealotry and the violence it inspires (latent in the most of the world’s holy books) if muzzled by a misguided pandering to the perceived victimhood of certain special interest groups? To try to shield radical Islam from legitimate and honest criticism by hiding behind the indefensible and unconscionable evil of racism is an affront to all victims of actual racial discrimination as well as an invitation for true intolerance to destroy our most cherished rights and freedoms. To conflate concern about Islamic radicalism with the horrors of racism in order to squash dissent is both illogical and inconsistent with the values of a free society. To resort to irrationality in order to confront it is not only counterproductive but profoundly idiotic as well. We can do better than that. Think!

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess

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