Yes, you can be racist against Muslims
You’ve heard this before.
Someone makes a bigoted statement about Muslims and when they’re called a racist, they invariably respond by saying “But Islam is not a race.”
It’s hard to counter such an argument because, strictly speaking, it’s true. Islam is not a race in the narrow sense of the obsolete pseudoscientific racial typologies born in the 19th century or even the census categories still in use today.
However, race is a socially constructed, fluid category and Muslims as a group have become racialized through the construction of a physical archetype.
Just like traditional racial categories often arbitrarily grouped people of vastly different ancestries and appearances—ex. classifying Ethiopians as “Hamitic Caucasoids” — the Muslim archetype binds together people from the Middle East and the Near East as well as Central and South Asia. It encompasses a variety of ethnic groups, ranging from Arabs and Persians to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Desi people of South Asia.
Other cultural markers, like dress and facial hair, serve to solidify this categorization in the public mind and associate Islam with a specific physical type. This has led to a number of hate crimes against non-Muslims, like Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was murdered four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
If you want to be pedantic you can say the killing wasn’t “racist” because he was killed for his religion (even if it was the wrong one) or one could argue that technically speaking, South Asians are considered “white” under US demographic practices, but the fact of the matter is he was killed for his perceived association with Islam based on his appearance.
He was “racially” a Muslim.
Sikhs in particular have borne the brunt of a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment because their traditional headdresses are mistakenly identified as Muslim—in no small part due to common anti-Muslim epithets like “raghead.”
A short list of non-Muslims who have been attacked for “looking Muslim:”
- Suthahar Subburaj, an Indian immigrant, knocked unconscious in Nebraska by an unknown assailant who yelled “ISIS get out of my country”
- A Lebanese-American man was shot and killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma by a neighbor who called him an “Arab” and a “dirty Muslim” despite the fact that he was Christian.
- An Indian man was attacked at a bar in Pennsylvania by a man who wrongly identified him as a Muslim (Muslims aren’t known to be big drinkers)
- A restaurant owned by a Sikh couple in Sacramento was vandalized with the word “terrorist” by unknown perpetrators, who also attempted to burn it down.
- A man shot and injured a Sikh man in Kent, Washington, and yelled “Get out of my country.”
- An Orthodox Jewish woman and her daughter were assaulted in a Queens subway station by a drunk who believed them to be Muslim.
So let’s go back to the meme featured at the top of this post. Though it shows people from various racial backgrounds, its message ultimately depends on the premise that there is a common understanding of what a Muslim looks like, and its visual impact comes from the extreme exceptions to that.
If you take the average American to a police sketch artist, and tell them “Describe a Muslim,” the result isn’t going to be some Hui Chinese or a red-bearded Irishman.
Political cartoonists all represent generic Muslims or terrorists the same way: brown skin, a comically oversized nose and a beard.
I didn’t include the full cartoon because it’s graphic and contains nudity, but bearded Muslim men are shown huddled around while their friend rapes a white girl on an altar that says “Multiculturalism.” One in the back stands ready to douse her in gasoline and light her on fire. To the right, a father screams “That’s my daughter!” but he’s restrained by British police.
The racial coding is explicit. A girl who fits the blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan ideal is being brutally assaulted by some swarthy, demonic Middle Easterners, echoing the anti-miscegenation tropes of the “black brute” despoiling the pure white woman that have been a staple of racist propaganda for centuries.
The exact same argument could be made for Judaism—that it’s not a race; it’s a religion—but most people would have no problem describing Nazi caricatures of Jews as racist. While technically it would be “anti-Semitic,” Jews are racialized in much the same way.
Historically, religion has played a key role in the formation of both racial and ethnic identity. In fact, Jews and Muslims were the first groups to be racialized prior to the emergence of modern racial classifications.
Foreshadowing the Nazi Nuremberg Code and America’s “one drop” rule, Spain implemented laws on limpieza de sangre, or “blood purity,” after the Reconquista, which effectively shut anyone with Jewish or Muslim ancestry out of any position of authority.
In the American colonies, religion was also a precursor to racial identity. Prior to the enactment of the Virginia Slave Codes, legal rights were dependent on the notion of subjecthood, which required one to be Christian. Africans, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans and other “pagans” were considered beyond legal protection.
Elizabeth Key, a resident of Virginia and one of the few black slaves to successfully sue for freedom, claimed subjecthood on the grounds that she was Christian and her father was a subject of the British crown. The slave codes removed that option by explicitly racializing slavery and declaring that social status would pass through the mother.
The racial groupings that we know today were codified in the 18th and 19th centuries with the development of scientific racism. And today, the 21st century equivalent “human biodiversity” or HBD plays a similar role in essentializing Muslims as a racial group, with all sorts of pseudoscientific biological explanations for group characteristics.
But at the end of the day, haggling over the semantics of words like “racism” or “Islamophobia” is a useless exercise. Even if someone with an irrational hatred of Muslims isn’t technically a “racist,” they’re still a bigot, which is hardly better.