Is Islamophobia Racism? An Interview with S. Sayyid

Recent attempts at trying to formalize the definition of Islamophobia have been met with scrutiny. Salman Sayyid responds to this criticism in this interview.

Salman Sayyid begins by stating that Islamophobia interdicts citizenship i.e. the practice perpetuates a form of racism against Muslims.

The National Police Chiefs Council(NPCC) states that the current definition of Islamophobia may undermine counter-terrorism.

It is unsurprising that there would be resistance towards the definitions of Islamophobia. The police as a whole have never been the vanguard of fighting for equality and inclusion whether it’s was around issues like anti-racist discrimination. Although subsequently many police officers and police services have come on board to deal with these issues. So in a way the current criticisms of the definitions of Islamophobia harkens back to those times. The implication being the only good policework is perpetuating racism. And years of practice has demonstrated that the fallacy of this mentality, not just morally but from a pragmatic perspective as well because good policework requires absence of racism. So it is kind of disappointing that senior officers would basically say that in order to carry out our jobs we would have to engage in Islamophobia. 

Another point of critique is that the definition of Islamophobia is too broad and might restrict freedom of speech.

Salman Sayyid dismisses the claim of Islamophobia being too broad. He reasserts that their problem is defining Islamophobia as a form of racism. What these people seem to forget that we have 50 years of work related to anti-racism. We have developed a cultural understanding of what racism which even elementary school students can understand. So clarifying that Islamophobia being a form racism is actually quite specific. It targets Muslim-ness. We are not saying that it targets Islam, it targets Muslimness. The example of Hijab being ripped off is an example of that. It would be similar to have a Nun’s habit ripped off. So in summary, the fact that we have a rough understanding of what racism is, makes it easier for officers, professionals and everyone else involved to understand the kinds of behavior that is Islamophobia. Now if people dismiss this and start delving into the history of sectarianism and the theological disputes, the essential point is being lost. It’s not how Islamophobia experienced or perpetuated. Police should ensure that those are perceived to be Muslims are able to live their lives without threat to their well-being. Another point of criticism is Islamophobia does nothing regarding sectarian divides The definition does not say much about sectarian divides, climate change or austerity. The Islamophobia is concerned with Islamophobia. The question is why are they concerned about Islamophobia not covering intra-Muslim disputes. It would be akin to me saying you can’t have a definition of racism if we don’t understand disputes between ethnic minorities. Islamophobia is not supposed to cover all the ills of society. This criticism is rather contradictory to the first one which says Islamophobia is too broad, now they want to broaden it even further. The point of the definition of Islamophobia is to describe a form of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. That’s all. It’s not necessary for Islamophobia to encapsulate other forms of injustices and inequalities. This is not to say that those issues don’t need to be tackled. We are just trying to articulate what Islamophobia is in this day and age.

A more ubiquitous criticism is that Islam is not a race so how can Islamophobia be racism? Or what would you say to those who say Muslims are not a race?

This definition is about how forms of racism targets Muslimness. Not Islam. To the latter question Salman Sayyid says there is not such thing as race. But rather there is an ongoing process of racialization where populations are grouped and certain characteristics are attributed to them over the long run. Existence of Race is a result of Racism. Fact is Muslims are being racialized. Muslims are considered to be part of a group which can be identified with markers that are part of the public conversation. Example: FBI has programs which is supposed to help people identify Muslims or Radical Muslims. Such as people saying Insha Allah are an indication of them being Radical Muslims overlooking the fact that Arab Christians also say Insha Allah — for different reasons, yes — but this an example of European Racialization.

There was another instance of a racist rant where a man was referencing to popular generalizations such Muslims do nothing but breed and they need to be sterilized. Now the question is, if Muslims are not a race, how did he identify the Muslims and use a language that is rooted in classical forms of scientific racism. He was not making references to theological issues. He was using visual cues and making racialized generalizations.

The assertion that Muslims are not a race is a bit of a red herring which partly stems from a lack of understand of what racism is and partly from racialized perspectives. An evidence of how naturalized racist perspectives have become in our societies.

If Muslims are not racialized then people should not be able to make (false) conclusions and assumptions by visual cues.

Now someone can respond that Hijab is an Islamic piece of clothing so is it not a religious marker?

Salman Sayyid answers by saying that beards can be an indication of someone being Muslim or a hipster. Or both. But the point is none of these markers are independent of the context they are articulated in. That is why the emphasis is placed on Muslimness. Another example if what is happening in France. They have campaigned against the Muslim female students wearing Hijab for years and now it has been banned. Now they are arguing that the length of the skirt of Muslims pupils are too long. So now long skirts have become an indication of Muslimness. So markers depend on context. The first victim after 9/11 was a Sikh because he wore a turban. It’s not an isolated phenomenon. Sikhs are often confused with Muslims and are victims of anti-Muslim attacks.

In the past you have asserted that Islamophobia is an attempt at erasing Muslim Political agency. What do you mean by this?

The attempt to erase Muslim political agency has many political manifestations. It varies from place to place. Let’s focus in the western contexts. Various Neocon organizations attack Muslim public figures who are not the “right” kind of Muslims for not taking a certain stance. There is also an idea that Muslim concerns should not be raised in public domains because they are not legitimate. An example of that is NCB trying to investigate the issue of Islamophobia. At the heart of it is the question whether Muslims can have a public presence, subject to context. Meaning are Muslims entitled to the same kind of privileges that are given to other groups. For a long time Muslim schools did not have the privileges that Jewish and Christian Schools had which only changed after a long campaign. So there is a perpetual struggle to make Muslims a legitimate part of the public conversation. And Islamophobia tries to erase any exercise of Muslim critical agency. So to define Islamophobia as a form racism recognizes that fact. Racism violates, denigrates and humiliates. Racism ultimately erases those who are racially marked. Racism erases them from the public sphere or subordinates them in some shape or form. Sometimes this erasure is total elimination like genocide the Holocaust, other times it’s apartheid like Jim Crow endorsed segregation.  And in modern contexts the racially marked are not considered proper citizens who are not part of the so called democratic project.


Overall a useful podcast for Muslims in the west to understand what Islamophobia is, how it affects Muslims currently and how it can affect us in the future

Some of Salman Sayyid’s works we recommend:

Racism, Governance, and Public Policy: Beyond Human Rights.

The Promise of Pakistan.

Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order

Islamism As Philosophy: Decolonial Horizons S. Sayyid

Links:

Defining Islamophobia

Network ReOrient

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