Naming Racism

Naming racism and all its interconnected parts, all the cogs in its machinery and all those who benefit from it is perhaps the greatest weapon we have in our fight against it. The framework developed almost completely by black CRT scholars with important contributions from the black civil rights movement gave the spectre of racism a body, muscles and nerves. As manifestations of racism morphed from legal to being the unspoken rules by which we govern the social, cultural and political realms, the maturing body had to be (re)named. This body has given activists and academics something to analyse and more importantly attack. By making it real we can more acutely sense it in all the places it operates. Attempts to reframe or redefine racism as other forms of discrimination often result in weakening our arsenal due the inability of those definitions to fully capture all the entangled dynamics. As the two doyens of Critical Muslim Studies, Sayid Salman and AbdoolKarim Vakil put in an article: ‘…categories such as prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination which are presented as being equivalent to racism, when at best they have only a metonymic relationship to racism. Reading racism from the prism of bigotry and its cognates renders racism as a ‘boo word’ rather than an analytical tool. It evacuates the dimension of power, empties out the category of racism, and opens the door for charges and counter-charges of racism to circulate between and within Muslims, Muslim communities, and ethnic minorities, with little sense of the structural overdetermination of unequal social relations.’1

Sadly, there exists a sizeable chunk of Muslim/Islamic activists who refuse to acknowledge the racism that exists in ours and the wider community. They refuse to believe that white supremacy can manifest in Muslim spaces, or at all, and call in to question the piety of anyone who may suggest otherwise; in particular those of us who engage with and employ a CRT approach. In the context of the Muslim community this causes a double punishment. Firstly, the victim of racial abuse is punished for receiving said abuse. Victims can often find themselves being gaslight by having their experience called in to question. The (often black) victim can be labelled anything from oversensitive to being charged with disuniting the ummah. Meanwhile the abuser has excuses made for them. Secondly, the religiosity of the victim, not the abuser, is cast in to doubt. Simply because ‘racist’ is not a charge a we are comfortable levelling against other Muslims, especially those who are in positions of religious authority. Oddly racism and sexism are perhaps the only taboos that we can indulge in (for non-Black Muslims) without having our piety questioned. This is, frankly, the “reverse racism” in the Muslim lexicon. I, the one who racialised cannot by deus ex machina be racist, while the racialised by the same token is racist for voicing his condition.

Racism towards Muslims from the outside (Islamophobia) is often not labelled as racism. Our options are therefore currently limited and usually leaves us responding to racism with apologetics which are often insufficient at adequately addressing violence. In particular when that violence is below the radar, for instance a non-practicing Muslim man who is regularly denied promotion at work despite being a very good employee. This would be a clear example of racism but would not be recognised as violence by those specialising in apologetics. Where there does exist a coherent narrative of Islamophobia it is usually limited to discussing the racisms of state or media. Important spheres and important work, to be sure, but de facto racism against Muslims remains hardly addressed. This leaves us with effectively three spheres where racism concerns us as Muslims. Our inter-community relations; that is non-Black Muslims relationships with Black Muslims. The intersection of White supremacy and Islam; that is white Muslims supposing they cannot be racist or benefit from white supremacy. And thirdly intra-community relations; that is Muslims being racialised by islamophobes.

We are punished for possessing the vocabulary to name our oppression, or the oppression of others. The Daniel Haqiqatjou’s, Sajid Lipham’s, some members of the Mad Mamluks and others who refuse to acknowledge racism and white supremacy within the Muslim community have made it an unsafe space for those who experience it. The refusal to acknowledge racisms (their own included) within the Muslim community only reinforces it. This includes the systems of white supremacy. Moreover, it greatly diminishes our ability to combat de facto Islamophobia which, as a racism, has become more and more embedded within wider society. This isn’t solely a problem with the alt-wallah though, racism in various guises has taken root in many of our Islamic institutions while also being accompanied by a lack of understanding. This intersects with the Muslim community because racism is the system by which white supremacy maintains itself.

As a microcosm of the society we live in, we are not free from the asymmetry of power characteristic of white supremacy. The inability to see that asymmetry of power between groups is a deeply troubling quality in our religious leaders. If we are to be a united ummah which treats all its members equally we must become more comfortable naming and talking about racism. This is not a call to lip service or to prosaically declare that Black people can be Muslim too! It is a call to undo the language and thinking which leads to that belief that Black people are defective Muslims in the first place. It is not enough to say that Bilal was black and call it a day, we must question why we believe that blackness and muslimness cannot co-exist and correctly identify that as a racist attitude. On the other hand we must also critically examine the hierarchies which distribute power in our communities; ‘whiteness’ and ‘white supremacy’ have their own modalities within our community. Though the larger patterns remain the same. Finally, we must do something to combat that racism. That begins by being comfortable in calling it racism.

We are punished also by islamophobes externally. In fact, many islamophobes begin to dig their heels further when they are called out for their racism; arguing that anti-Muslim racism is not in fact racism. It is acceptable to hate Muslims, so the argument goes, because they are not a race. Supposedly religions are fair game for hate. Which begs the question, whose interpretation? Islamophobes very rarely seem to specify an interpretation or a politics or a movement. The irony is that by essentialising perceived muslimness (all Muslims are terrorists) we land right back in race territory. Which is not to say that any interpretations, politics or movements do or don’t deserve hate. Once again though, it’s not until we delve deeper in to the murky swamp of this “non-racism” that we begin to see that framing islamophobia as prejudice or bigotry is insufficient. Islamophobia has shaped stereotypes of Muslims that create a binary identity; we are either good or bad. Were this begins to enter race territory is that not only do those stereotypes exist they are enforced. Every time we are asked to condemn an act of a co-religionist, they’re enforced. Every time we are asked to prove which side of the binary we fall on, they are enforced. This comes full circle when non-Black Muslims interrogate the faith of Black Muslims through the same dichotomy, good Black-Muslim/bad Black-Muslim. This is, more often than not, really a measure of how close Black Muslims are to non-Black Muslims in their characteristics. As non-Black Muslims are measured by their proximity to whiteness.

As a final thought, perhaps one of the most important aspects of naming any oppression is the ability to heal that it gives the oppressed. When it comes to racism, when we name it, we take away it’s power. Years, in fact, centuries of being forced to obey racial hierarchies have engrained behaviours in us. Undoing those behaviours and beginning to heal begins by recognising which of our behaviours have been shaped by racism.

  1. S. Salman, AbdoolKarim Vakil, Reports of Islamophobia: 1997 and 2017, https://www.criticalmuslimstudies.co.uk/reports_of_islamophobia_1997_and_2017/

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