Muslims are not Racialized

(This is an addendum to my article “Muslims Are Not a Race”. I would recommend reading that first in order to fully understand this post. I discuss “racialization” there, but am expanding on it here.)

Every justification for defining Islamophobia as a type of racism depends on the concept of “racialization.” But the defenders of the notion that Islamophobia is racism do not seem to actually understand what “racialization” means. Racialization must include the belief on the part of the “racializers” that the group being “racialized” is biologically different. This is not my opinion, but reflects the understanding of those who originated the notions of “racialization” and/or “racial formation.”

That means, if one is being precise about “racialization,” that Bosnians can be racialized, Rohingya can be racialized, and Uyghurs can be racialized, but “Muslims” cannot be. The difference is important. Aggregating all the different conflicts in which a Muslim population is subtly or openly racialized does not justify the definition “Islamophobia is a type of racism” but can only permit one to say, “Racism is a type of Islamophobia.”

It’s not impossible that Muslims could be racialized at some future point. For example, researchers could propose an as-yet-unidentified gene that causes people to embrace or remain in Islam, making Islam a biologically determined behavior. Then Muslims qua Muslims would be racialized. But that hasn’t happened.

Here is one proposed definition of Islamophobia from

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness

But what is Muslimness, and what does it have to do with race?

In the FAQ section, in response to the question, “Why is Islamophobia racism when Muslims are not a race?” the authors state:

Scientifically no population is a race. Races are not natural but come about by bundling together features such as appearances, attitudes, and behaviour and mapping them on to a population, and placing the resulting group in a racial hierarchy. Muslims are increasingly being treated as other populations regarded as different races. Despite Muslims being from diverse ethnic backgrounds, they are often racialised and discriminated against based on their name, their perceived cultural identity or beliefs. 

But there are two different kinds of ideas here. First we read about “populations regarded as different races” and “placing the resulting group in a racial hierarchy.” In this respect the authors of the definition are correct, as this dynamic occurs all the time. That is, populations (e.g. the Irish) have been categorized as a racial group and placed in a hierarchy. But then the authors introduce a completely different idea of “being treated as other populations regarded as different races.” What does this mean? Notice that they do not assert that Muslims are being “regarded as a different race” or “placed in a racial hierarchy” but rather they speak of Muslims “being treated as other populations regarded as different races.” There is apparently some kind of gap between “treatment” of Muslims and the “regarding” of races, but that difference is not explained. The authors then claim that Muslims are “racialised” without at all explaining what that means, and they then state the uncontroversial fact that Muslims are in fact “discriminated against based on their name, their perceived cultural identity or beliefs.” But they have not at all established that such discrimination is racism.

Also, the question of whether there are actually races in a biological sense is actually beside the point. The argument “Muslims are not a race” does not presuppose or rely upon on the belief that other groups are the real races. Rather, what is presupposed in saying “Muslims are not a race” is that no one, not even the most vicious anti-Muslim bigots who also believe in race science, believe that Muslims as Muslims constitute a racial group, regardless of whether races are socially constructed or real.

It is precisely that notion of regarding populations as different races and placing them in a racial hierarchy that must be present in order for there to be “racialization.” Otherwise, one is dealing with other forms of discrimination. Simply mistreating someone based upon their physical appearance the attending stereotype is not always racism.

Consider a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David’s character realizes that by wearing a red MAGA hat people will avoid him (which is what he wants). An annoying friend stops trying to spend time with him. He gets glares in a restaurant but also plenty of welcome elbow room at the sushi bar. A scary biker threatens him but sees the hat and quickly backs off. Larry’s friend hears about this hat gambit and says, “No one’s gonna wanna be anywhere near you,” and Larry says, “Exactly, it’s a great people repellent.”

So is Larry being “racialized” here? Are Trump supporters “racialized”? No, because while in this case people are stereotyping based on appearance, no one imagines that MAGA people are an actual biological race and no one places them into a racial hierarchy. People’s avoidance of Larry is a form of prejudice and discrimination, but not a racial one. Is there any doubt that in Cambridge, MA or Berkeley, CA a man wearing a MAGA hat would generally be treated worse than the same man without it? That’s why the storyline in the show is funny. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s obviously true.

The following represents the form of argument defending the idea that Islamophobia is a type of racism, but recast in terms of Trump supporters:

“MAGA-phobia is a type of racism that targets the expression of Trump-support or perceived Trump-support.” 

“But Trump supporters are not a race!”

“But they are treated like one. By name, by dress, by place of residence. You don’t even have to be a Trump supporter.”

One must be precise about “racialization.” It is not merely discriminating against a group in ways similar to racial discrimination. Racial groups are often treated unfairly by other racial groups, but that does not make every instance of group unfairness an instance of racism. The fact that you can “spot” a Muslim headscarf or mistake a Sikh for a Muslim or know that the name Abdallah is a Muslim name does not have to involve any matters of race at all. To make a negative judgment about someone based on physical appearance is not racialization. Racialization is not based merely on physical appearance, but on appearance connected with some underlying biology. To assume that any woman who wears a headscarf is Muslim, or that men named Abdallah should be subject to extra screening at the airport, taken on their own, is not “racialization” in this sense.

So, while everyone acknowledges that Muslims are not a race, the counterargument is always some form of, “But Muslims are racialized.” an assertion that functions to cover up a total non sequitur. Can anyone explain, consistently and coherently, why discrimination against a woman based upon the wearing of a headscarf is a type of racism, but discriminating against a tourist accidentally wearing a MAGA hat wouldn’t be?

As far as I can tell, it is only Islamophobia theorizers who have tried to use “racialization” in a context in which no notion of racial distinctness is involved. To my knowledge no recognized definition of “racialization” or “racial formation” in the literature can correctly be applied to Muslims. It does not work with Islam and Muslims, because “racialization” must include a belief that the group in question is actually biologically distinct. It is not enough that a group is being mistreated based upon stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if races are real or not, whether or how they are socially constructed. Racialization only happens when the people perpetrating the discrimination believe that they are dealing with people who are objectively racially different.

Some Muslims are trying to make “Muslimness” into a racial attribute, but it simply isn’t, because no Islamophobe thinks Muslims constitute a biologically distinct group. That’s why “racialization” cannot rescue the Islamophobia=anti-Muslim racism idea. 

Some of those who support the notion that Islamophobia is a type of racism are realizing the problems themselves, and are growing concerned that white converts might somehow claim to have given up their whiteness by embracing Islam. Some scholars claim that white converts (and some would include merely light-skinned Muslims of any origin) actually increase their privilege through embracing Islam. Would my imaginary English friend Whitey Willoughby Jr. (who dresses and speaks just like he did before he converted to Islam) be the victim of “racism” if he wasn’t hired for a job because the employer found out he had recently converted to Islam? When people get nervous about white converts being “racialized” it becomes clear that we all know Islamophobia is not only racism, but some people are pushing hard on the idea that we are only supposed to care about Islamophobia when it actually is racism. The exception made for these converts shows how incoherent the application of racialization to Islam really is. Recently I was told by the head of a Muslim organization specializing in anti-racism training that while a white Muslim (a difficult term to define) could be the victim of Islamophobia, he could not be the victim of racism. The unintended consequence of such a stance is important: If white Muslims cannot be the victims of racism, then one is forced to say that not all Islamophobia is racism, or, that white Muslims are not really Muslim in some important way. Can white Muslims be racialized without being the victims of racism? The logical inconsistency is inescapable.

Islamophobia theorizing that restricts itself to racism actually fails to account for many reasons why Muslims encounter obstacles in life. Some manifestations of Christianity are racist, but the notion that all Christians are hostile to Islam simply out of racism and not because it represents a formidable challenge to their theological beliefs is simply absurd. Why bend over backwards to reframe every instance of sectarianism as racism? Some Zionism is racist, but can anyone seriously claim to understand Jewish attachment to Israel, and hostility to Israel’s main adversaries, without accounting for the Holocaust and the founding of Israel as a kind of redemptive event for modern Jews? Don’t many liberals look down on religion because it is has a vision of social life they find too oppressive, which began in relation to other Europeans? There are many causes of anti-Muslim sentiment, and it is not hard to find racist elements mixed in with all those factors, but that is not the same as saying that Islamophobia is simply racism.

Some anti-Muslim sentiment–often a large part of it–is fueled by racism. But not all of it, and it certainly makes no sense to define Islamophobia simply as “a type of racism,” any more than it makes sense to describe drug addiction as a form of alcoholism.

Besides, the idea just doesn’t seem to be catching on. Most people outside of Islamophobia studies, even those most attuned to racism, seem to reflexively and automatically to list Islamophobia alongside other kinds of bigotry and not only as a form of racism. In the long run it will be self-defeating to continue declaring that “racialization” somehow is a good answer to “But Muslims are not a race!” especially when the slightest scrutiny or inquiry reveals that the term cannot be correctly applied to Muslims or Islam. The efforts expended to jump on the anti-racism bandwagon will come to nothing when the actually racialized groups (i.e. those who are seen as biologically distinct) come to realize that Muslims are leeching from their hard-won political capital. Worse, the Muslims who tried to reduce their deepest commitments to a mere identity, in the hopes of becoming a member of the woke team, will in the long run be forced to choose between the substance of their religion and their new political allies who think all the non-woke parts of Islam need to go.

In short, pushing a definition that rings false to almost everyone is both intellectually weak and politically counterproductive. Muslims and others dealing with specific problems should not push universal definitions that are meant to address their limited concerns at the cost of analytical coherence and with the effect of reducing Islam as such to a secondary cultural signifier.

Update 1:

A friend pointed me to a book What is Race? Four Philosophical Views, which contains extended discussions of racialization and the nature of race. Sally Haslanger, one of the four contributors, has the closest thing to a definition of racialization. While the word racialization is used throughout the book, it is rarely defined explicitly. She writes (p. 25-26)

Notice the requirement that one observes or imagines “bodily features” as evidence of ancestral links to a geographic region. This simply doesn’t work with Islam or Muslim believers. Christians and Muslims can be indistinguishable in their bodily features and in the ancestral links to a geographic region–think of Bosnians and Croats, or Lebanese people.

Update 2:

One must draw a sharp distinction between bona fide racialized groups and groups that are allegedly “treated like” racialized groups. That “treated like” is the thing that pops up when racialization is applied to Muslims. “Treated like” is too vague and does too much work, as I noted above.

There are people out there who imagine “bodily features” as evidence of ancestral links to a geographic region. That has to be part of racialization for Haslanger, and it’s easy to see this belief among racists even if they won’t say it in so many words.

But that belief, explicit or implicit, is completely absent with regard to “Muslims”, and so people who want to say that Muslims are racialized will insert the language “treated like a racialized group”. But that is a huge conceptual leap.

I have yet to see a definition/theorization of “racialization” or “racialized group” that does not explicitly make some kind of belief about the bodily nature of the group in question a necessary condition—aside from the case of Islam example where people insert “treated like” language. Why do none of the theorists of racialization (except some Muslims and non-Muslims whose work has no significance in race studies in general) ever include language like that? Are Muslims “treated like” they have distinctive bodily features? I don’t think anyone can make that argument cogently. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s