Qamrul Khanson
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Islamophobia as a Form of Racism

(Please note: This is an extract from The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, published by Profile Books in autumn 2000. It describes two interacting strands to be found in all forms of racism, and in this connection recalls the nature of anti-Muslim racism, also known as Islamophobia.)

The plurality of racism

In other European Union countries it is customary to use the phrase ‘racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism’ as a way of summarising the issues to be addressed. The phrase is cumbersome and is unlikely to be widely used in Britain. It is, however, helpful, as indeed are other approaches to anti-racism in Europe. For it stresses that hostility which uses skin colour and physical appearance as markers of supposed difference does not represent the whole picture. There is also hostility using markers connected with culture, language and religion. The plural term ‘racisms’ is sometimes used to highlight such complexity. For anti-black racism is different, in terms of its historical and economic origins, and in its contemporary manifestations, stereotypes and effects, from anti-Asian racism. Both are different from, to cite three further significant examples, anti-Irish, anti-Gypsy and anti-Jewish racism. European societies, it is sometimes said, are multi-racist societies. Specific words have been invented over the years for certain types of racism directed at particular groups – the term anti-Semitism originated in the mid-nineteenth century, and more recently the terms orientalism and Islamophobia have been coined to refer, respectively, to anti-Asian racism in general and anti-Muslim racism in particular.

At a popular level, the plurality of racism is poignantly evoked in an American playground chant: ‘If you’re white you’re all right, if you’re yellow you’re mellow, if you’re brown stick around, but if you’re black get back.’ Academic theory distinguishes between biological racism, which typically uses skin colour as a marker of difference, as explicitly in the playground chant, and cultural racism, which focuses primarily on supposed differences of culture.7 Either way the variations between human beings are imagined to be fixed and final, something determined by nature, unchangeable. Another way of referring to the same distinction is to speak of north–south racism (Europe–Africa, also the northern–southern distinction in the United States) and West–East racism (Europe–Orient, or Christendom–Islam). These formulations have the advantage of being easily memorable and accessible. The latter draws attention to one of the most serious forms of cultural hostility in modern Europe – anti-Muslim racism. But of course so simple an idea can all too readily lead to unhelpful simplifications. One major objection to it, for example, is that it neglects forms of racism directed against people within Europe, for example anti-Irish racism and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Muslim racism

Anti-Muslim racism has been a feature of European culture at least since the Crusades, but has taken different forms at different times. In modern Britain its manifestations include discrimination in recruitment and employment practices; high levels of attacks on mosques and on people wearing Muslim religious dress; widespread negative stereotypes in all sections of the press, including the broadsheets as well as the tabloids; bureaucratic obstruction or inertia in response to  Muslim requests for greater cultural sensitivity in education and healthcare; and non-recognition of Muslims by the law of the land, since discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is not unlawful.  Further, many or most anti-racist organisations and campaigns appear indifferent to the distinctive features of anti-Muslim racism, and to distinctive Muslim concerns about cultural sensitivity.

Silence about anti-Muslim racism was particularly striking in relation to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report. ‘Where’s the Muslim,’ asked a headline in the Muslim magazine Q News, ‘in Macpherson’s Black and White Britain?’ The magazine welcomed the report but described it as a two-edged sword:  ‘As most of us are from visible minorities, we want racism to be firmly dealt with. But as victims of Islamophobia, we know that any attempts to tackle racism without also tackling Islamophobia will be futile … Much as Muslims want to confront racism, they have become disillusioned with an antiracism movement that refuses to combat Islamophobia and which, in many instances, is as oppressive as the establishment itself.’ An editorial in Muslim News3 commented that ‘the real litmus test of whether the lessons of the Lawrence tragedy have been learnt will be if … a Muslim youngster dies in an Islamophobic attack and his murder is not treated in the same way’.

Anti-Irish racism

Anti-Irish racism has many of the features to be found in all racisms – colonisation, the establishment of plantation agriculture to provide primary commodities for the metropolis, the use of indentured labour, migration to the metropolis to furnish labour (which in the case of the Irish began more than a hundred years before migrations from outside Europe), negative stereotypes about difference and inferiority, discrimination in the criminal justice system and in the provision of jobs and accommodation, and widespread experience of social exclusion. However, anti-Irish racism has been twinned in British history, at least since the mid-sixteenth century, with anti-Catholicism, and frequently for this reason has not been adequately recognised. Until recently it has largely been ignored by organisations promoting race equality, for since the Irish are perceived as white it is not readily imagined that they might be the victims of racism rather than perpetrators. Supported tacitly by academics and other specialists, policy-makers have espoused and propagated ‘the myth of homogeneity’ – the false belief that the population of Britain consists essentially of one large majority or mainstream (‘white people’) plus an array of various minorities. ‘Non-white’ and ‘ethnic’ in this mental picture are synonymous.

Two strands

The essential point to stress is that over the centuries all racisms have had – and continue to have – two separate but intertwining strands. One uses physical or biologically derived signs as a way of recognising difference – skin colour, hair, features, body type, and so on. The other uses cultural features, such as ways of life, customs, language, religion and dress. The two strands usually appear together, but they combine in distinct ways, with one or other prominent at different times and in different contexts. Jews were vilified in medieval times because they were believed to be the murderers of Christ, and because they practised a strict but alien code of dietary law and social behaviour. But they also came to be represented as physically different – with hooked nose, ringlets and a swarthy complexion. In the anti-Semitic iconography of Nazi Germany they were consistently portrayed as subhuman. Similarly Gypsies have been discriminated against because of both their nomadic lifestyle and their ‘non-Caucasian’ physical appearance. In the nineteenth century the Irish, who had always been regarded by the British as less civilised, were racialised – represented in the press and popular cartoons as ape-like, a race apart? This tradition continued in the mainstream press into the twentieth century. In addition to Jews, Gypsies and the Irish within Europe, the targets of racism over the centuries have included peoples and civilisations beyond Europe’s boundaries, including, of course, the colonised peoples.

In both its strands racism embraces the view that the human species can be scientifically divided into different races and that differences between groups ultimately have a biological or genetic basis. In fact, as is now widely acknowledged, race is a social and political construct, not a biological or genetic fact. It cannot be used scientifically to account for the wide range of differences between peoples. There is more genetic variation within any one so-called race than there is between ‘races’. In reality the human species shares a common gene pool, and a particular genetic combination is to be found in any large population. This does not mean that racism is a myth, for though it does not have a scientific basis it does create social and political realities – those things which men and women believe to be true, it is often said, are true in their consequences; that is, they have real effects.

Groups are characterised exclusively in terms of what makes them different, and differences are reduced to a few simple either/or distinctions – a fixed set of oppositions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who belong and those who do not. Difference and inferiority become all but synonymous. Individuals are then seen and judged in terms of the group differences, and ‘we’ have the right to exclude ‘them’ from access to scarce material and cultural resources. Racism, in short, involves (a) stereotypes about difference and inferiority and (b) the use of power to exclude discriminate or subjugate.

From classical times Europe had a well-developed set of ideas and images about its own internal ‘others’. The farther one moved from the centres of ‘civilisation’ – Greece, Rome, the Mediterranean and the western provinces – the more it was believed that Europe was peopled by strange and monstrous species: the ‘wild’ men and women of the forests of the north, the ‘barbarians’ who could not speak Greek or Latin, the wild hordes or armies of the night, rumours of whose advance struck terror into the hearts of ordinary folk. Distant places were believed to be inhabited by what classical writers like Herodotus and Pliny called the monstrous races – bizarre combinations of human and animal forms, at one and the same time wondrous and threatening. Anyone who did not belong within the known and familiar communities – fools, beggars, nomads, witches, the very poor, widows, the insane, even peasants from remote settlements – was vulnerable to negative stereotyping. It was over and against these negative images of its internal, monstrous ‘other’ that European civilisation first defined itself.

The cosmology was much expanded and refined during the Middle Ages. The ‘internal other’ now included Jews (betrayers of Christ), Muslims (the infidel enemies of Christian Europe) and the Irish. When, from the fifteenth century onwards, Europe eventually began to encounter peoples much farther away, as a result of voyages of exploration, this internal template of monstrous races was transferred and applied to the new peoples encountered. For example, such ideas and images were a consistent point of reference in the accounts provided by the explorers of both the ‘old’ world, Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, and the ‘new’ – Columbus, Vespucci and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Mandeville’s account of the Holy Land and parts farther east was widely influential. It conveyed as descriptive fact the most exotic and bizarre images of people, mainly featuring physical deformities composed of hybrid human/animal elements. The New World explorers were also struck by physical differences. But what most drew their attention were differences in custom, culture and conduct. They described the ‘monstrous races’ of America as distinguished by their animal-like behaviour, cannibalism, the practice of sodomy, nakedness, the apparent lack of familial, religious and governmental institutions and of any vestige of what the Europeans regarded as civilisation. Within a decade Europeans were debating before Charles V, king of Spain, whether the Amerindians were indeed human at all – did they have souls and, if so, could they justifiably be enslaved? The papal view that they did have souls and could not be enslaved contributed to the growth of the alternative slave trade from Africa. The belief that other peoples belonged to different species and that there had been several different creations lasted a long time. It continued to be held even by some later Enlightenment scholars, who tried to develop systematic ways of categorising the ‘races of mankind’.

Anti-African racism

The image of the African was influenced less by direct knowledge of Africa and more by the wider context of the slave trade. It was based on contact with the sellers of slaves and with the slaves themselves. Though varied in their detail, these views entailed ‘one universal assumption’– that African skin colour, hair texture and facial features were associated both with the African way of life and with the status of slavery. Once this association was made, prejudices about class, race and culture blended with a long-standing iconography in European Christian thought, and imagery which counterpoised the goodness of white (the light) against the degradation and evil represented by black and darkness.

In the face of the growing anti-slavery movement racialised ideas of African slaves and slavery became more systematically codified. By the eighteenth century this general view of the physical differences and cultural inferiority of the African, and the negative social, cultural and cognitive associations associated with black skin, represented the commonsense opinion of the great majority of the slave-owning planter class and their supporters, as also of scholars and thinkers such as Hume, Kant and Hegel.

Anti-Asian racism

In the eighteenth century European trade enclaves began to develop on a more systematic colonising basis in the East, and territorial sovereignty was gradually established over substantial parts of India. At both scholarly and popular levels, a set of stereotyped views of how and why the peoples of the Orient were different and inferior developed. These were based on a set of unbridgeable oppositions between East and West – ‘and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling infamously put it.

As in relation to Africa and the New World, physical characteristics played an important part in alerting Westerners to oriental difference. But there was a much stronger emphasis on cultural difference within the various types of anti-Asian racism – the East/West divide was delineated primarily by divergences in social customs, sexual mores, social etiquette, family culture, religion, language, dress, cuisine, and the rituals of the life cycle. Scholars contrasted the development of modern civilisation in the West with the backward and tradition-dominated East, an opposition that persists today. Where African men were stigmatised as violent and sexually aggressive, and the women as openly promiscuous, oriental men tended to be seen as feminine, wily and devious, and the women as seductive.

But the two strands in racism – the biological and the cultural – continued to interweave. A character in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India captured this accurately when he imagined the English in India saying: ‘Here is a native who has actually behaved like a gentleman: if it was not for his black skin we would almost allow him to join the club.’

Scientific racism

The success of the anti-slavery movements in the nineteenth century represented something of a high point in efforts to contest extreme racist opinion. However, after the middle of the century a new and more virulent form of racism began to emerge in Europe, spearheaded by figures such as Carlyle and Gobineau. It claimed scientific respectability for the idea that human beings belonged to distinct and separate species. Each race was seen as a self-reproducing biological group whose characteristics were fixed for ever with its own distinctive ‘blood’ and ‘stock’. A scientific basis was similarly claimed for the principle of arranging races into a hierarchy, and physical and anatomical differences were measured in order that groups could be mapped on a neo-Darwinian evolutionary tree, from primitive to civilised. Biological reproduction within each group should be regulated; it was maintained, so as to allow only the physically most superior to procreate, thereby improving the racial stock.

These theories were closely aligned with increased European nationalism and with rising competition between the European nation-states for a monopoly of markets, raw materials, colonial possessions and world supremacy. Scientific racism spanned the period of high imperialism and two world wars – racial sentiments were valuable supports for military mobilisation and essential ingredients of jingoism. This race-based nationalism interacted with a race-based imperialism. In Britain, for example, the Empire was frequently celebrated the achievement of an ‘imperial race’... The revival of anti-Semitism, leading to the pogroms against Jews in central and Eastern Europe and Hitler’s Final Solution, was the climax of this pan-European trend.


Auth. Qamrul Khanson   |  Islamic Spirituality   |  Qhutba Archives   |  Marital Affairs   |  Canadian Muslims   |  World Politics
Copyright @ 2006 Qamrul A. Khanson