‘I can’t be racist, Islam is not a race,’ is a regular argument used by those who, whenever accused of making remarks that stereotype and demonise Muslims, feel smug about falling back on.
Playing semantics and blurring definitions is a sure-fire way of undermining the fight against bigotry, racism and hatred.
It’s an argument that I have heard made often, the most recent being by Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who, when appearing on Sky News to discuss Boris Johnson’s comments about the burka and people accusing him of playing into racial stereotypes, went on to say, ‘Well Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion.’
This particular line of argument has been used by many, including Richard Dawkins, whenever there’s a debate about anti-Muslim prejudice. It’s also used by those on the far-right who explicitly use racialised tropes when promoting Islamophobia and hatred towards Muslim communities.
Indeed, Islam is not a race, yet the prejudice being pushed against Muslim communities, as well as those who ‘appear to be Muslim’, relies heavily on racial prejudices.
What many have failed to grasp is that as political priorities change, so do racial definitions. Muslims and those who appear Muslim are the group that are now portrayed as a threat to our security, to our way of life, to everything we hold so dear.
This newer, more insidious form of racism – cultural racism – is one that seeks to ‘other’ not on the basis of skin colour, but on the basis of how people look, their dress, their cultural tastes, the type of food they eat, their names and perceived ‘values’.
No doubt, some of those reading this will think nonsense, but how then would they explain the attacks on Sikhs, by people who confuse them as being Muslim?
Clearly such prejudice is based on cultural symbols being used to identify those who are viewed as a dangerous ‘other’.
So, when I hear the likes of Tommy Robinson and his supporters constantly claiming that Islam is not a race, therefore their comments and actions can’t be racist, it’s frustrating to see others not adequately interrogating such claims, remaining unaware of the real life impact these newer forms of cultural racism have.
One such example being a 26% increase in anti-Muslim attacks in the last year, with women being disproportionately affected. My own mother worry has to worry about how a piece of cloth on her head will influence the behaviour of others when she leaves the house.
There is also no getting away from the fact that the overwhelming majority of people from Muslim backgrounds are people of colour.
When tighter security measures come in at airports, it’s people from particular races and cultures, with names like my own, that are being selected for ‘random’ airport searches.
When people with Muslim sounding names are rejected from jobs despite being perfectly well qualified, as research by the BBC have proven, it further highlights once more how cultural signifiers have come to play a role in furthering cultural forms of racism.
It’s a form of racism that is frustratingly overlooked by those not on the receiving end of it. I’ve sat with people who abhor all kinds of racism against different groups, yet fail to ever mention these newer forms of racism, which cause Muslim women to be afraid of leaving their homes.
I am not claiming that it is wrong to criticise and interrogate a faith or ideology. But it is wrong to lump together a homogenous group of people – assume they are all a threat to our society, to deny them their individuality and claim they all hold particular beliefs and practices without having met them – and then on the basis of that perceived cultural identity, attack and demonise individual Muslims.
Throughout history, some in positions of power and authority have sought to rationalise and give intellectual legitimacy to different types of racism.
We must never allow them to do so by recognising that racial definitions do not remain fixed, they change as political priorities change with them.
Islam is not a race, but using arguments that rely on racial stereotypes and ignoring the newer forms of cultural racism that seek to ‘other’ on the basis of people’s names, how they look, their dress, and then using these cultural symbols as signifiers to treat people with contempt is a form of racism.
It’s what leads to attacks on those who are Muslim and ‘appear’ Muslim. As political discourse portrays Muslims as an enemy within, racism has come to adjust and capitalise on this new ‘othering’ to whip up fears and anxieties, just as it has with other groups in the past.
And it has to stop.
Freelance journalist and blogger
This article first appeared in the Metro 9/8/18