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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Islam is not a race

Over the past few years, distinguished British author Martin Amis has been scathing about contemporary political Islam, and concerned about how we should respond to it politically. There is an argument that some of his musings take him too far into the "war with Islam" camp. Some of the statements I've seen from Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and (I now see) Dan Simmons also strike me as too pessimistic about the possibility of Islam finding the resources to take a more liberal direction.

But that said, Amis and company have every right to make the contributions that they do to public debate. If, from time to time, we think they are wrong - or not entirely correct - we should engage with their arguments on their merits, not try to shut them up.

It's tiresome that there's a need to defend Amis from misplaced charges of racism as Hitchens does ably in this newspaper comment, where he responds to an intemperate rant by Ronan Bennett. We really must find a (non-coercive) way to stop people trying to suppress legitimate criticism of ideas by accusing the critics of being racists. I suppose all we can do is hammer the essential points over and over again. And again.

Another good example of the problem is this annoying article by British comedian Chris Morris, who does everything but call Amis a racist (and much of the other commentary on Amis buzzing around the internet does not stop short of that explicit accusation). Morris wonders whether or not Amis' "negativity about Islam" is "technically racist" and seems to conclude that it doesn't matter, since in any event it is "an incoherent creed of hate".

When he says that we need to be able to make distinctions, Morris has a point. Yes, as I've argued before Islam is not monolithic. Let's give the liberal Muslims a chance, if we can. Give them some room to move.

But here's another point: it's about time that debate on these matters in the press and on the internet got beyond people wondering aloud (hmmm, "just wondering") about whether somebody like Martin Amis is being racist when he expresses views on contemporary political Islam. We definitely need to get beyond explicit charges of racism and attempts to stifle strong criticism of Islam, or of any other religious or secular belief system.

Islam is not a race. Islam is not a genetic variation of some kind. It is a belief system. The same applies to its various strands, historical stages and so on. As belief systems, Islam and its particular varieties are fair game for attack, just like any other beliefs that people happen to have. As with many other belief systems, we have reasonable grounds to be wary of it.

Islam is no more immune to scrutiny and attack than communism (or some particular variety thereof), monetarism, Keynesianism, Nazism, Roman Catholicism, Satanism, Randian libertarianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Sikhism, Buddhism, any of the strands of what we call "Hinduism", Shinto, wicca (perhaps of some specific kind), Sartrean existentialism, Scientology, the religious system of the Aztecs, or whatever beliefs were tied up in ancient Middle Eastern fire worship. They are all open to criticism on their merits.

Islam is more worrying than many belief systems precisely because it offers such a comprehensive account of how individuals should live their lives and how societies should be ordered. What we really need right now is not the ongoing attacks on critics of Islam (though reasoned debate with them is always good). We really need to hear more from liberal Muslims about how they are going to reassure the rest of us that they oppose Islam's undoubted theocratic and totalitarian tendencies. How, exactly, are they going to make the distinction between crime and sin, and reconcile Islam with the values of a liberal, secular society? Exactly what resources do they find in their tradition?

We need to hear a lot more about that from Muslim leaders (the same applies to the leaders of other religions, particularly Roman Catholicism with its own theocratic tendencies, but that's a matter for another day).

Meanwhile, racism is not only ugly, nasty, destructive, and cruel; it is also clearly irrational and indefensible. Looking down on somebody for where she fits into some kind of clinal variation of genes and superficial phenotypical traits, such as skin colour, is ignorant and stupid - though it took a long time for people to work this out, and there are plenty around who still don't get it. The very idea of "race" is unhelpful. What clinal variation does exist in the human genome is biologically unimportant.

By contrast, criticising particular belief systems and worrying about how they might motivate the relevant believers are perfectly rational activities. In fact, this sort of criticism and public expression of worry is absolutely necessary. Islam is not a race, Martin Amis is not a racist, and we need the voices of Amis, Hitchens, and others, even if we don't always agree with what they say.

23 comments:

Brian English said...

Damn straight! Great article Russell. I think parts of the west are so desperate to bend over backwards and appease minorities that they attack legitimate comment. Islam is not immune to questioning. It makes serious claims and tries to enforce them. It has to be queried and attacked if necessary. This process has nothing to do with a person's genome. Which has nothing to do with a persons worth, intelligence or whatever.
Bringing up race is like bringing up Stalin and communist purges as a way to show atheists are dangerous or immoral and kill the argument. Bleh!

Blake Stacey said...

Bravo.

Coathangrrr said...

Islam is not a race. Islam is not a genetic variation of some kind. It is a belief system. The same applies to its various strands, historical stages and so on. As belief systems, Islam and its particular varieties are fair game for attack, just like any other beliefs that people happen to have. As with many other belief systems, we have reasonable grounds to be wary of it.

Race is not genetic variations. Race is a construct built historically that has oppressed and injured people who are not white. Given this and the fact that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are not white, and you end up at a place where a large amount of the attacks on Islam are in fact attacks on people who are not white.

How do I know this? Well, take a look at that horrendous story about someone from the future spouting off about how the Muslims want to rule us. First off, it's wrong. Every terrorist attack on the west and on western interests has been, or has been claimed to have been, because of western actions toward Islamic peoples. The idea that Muslims are after us is absurd and is a manifestation of the racist assumptions that we get fed by the media and by "intellectuals" on a regular basis.

Yes, we should be able to criticize Islam. And we are! I'm not really sure from whence this idea that we are somehow unable to criticize Islam came. Every day I read another babbling comment on some blog or another written by someone who clearly has no knowledge of Islam beyond the afore mentioned media assumptions. And yet no one criticizes them, with the exception of me.

Why not? Perhaps because the others either don't care enough to correct obvious wrongs or because they too have no idea about the content of those views which they condemn. I tend to think that it is a combination of the two. They don't know and they don't care.

Among atheists Islam is an especially potent bogeyman. Yes, if you need a religion to point out that has some horrible doctrine, never mind that many doctrines have little to do with the religion and more to do with other cultural and historical norms, one can easily grab Islam; because everyone knows how horrendous Islam is. I mean, it's assumed is it not?


Islam is not immune to questioning.

Clearly. Was that ever in doubt? And if you doubted it, then where have you been for the last ten, twenty, or hundred years. Longer even.

None of these "criticisms" of Islam is new in the least, the wording has been slightly changed to sound more tolerant for our modern ear, but the essential hate of the "mohomeddan" remains as ever in the Christian world.

P.S. You want to do something really useful, get moving on getting the nasty fundies out of Western politics and all you Euros and Aussies quit appeasing Bush.

clodhopper said...

"And if you doubted it, then where have you been for the last ten, twenty, or hundred years. Longer even."

yEAH.....where have you been? Slacker.

Total agreement. Can Anyone point me to Any moderate muslims speaking out?

Third Rail said...

Call in and check out our interview tonight at 8PM EST with Dr. Paul L. Williams, author of The Day of Islam at thirdrailradio.com

Coathangrrr said...

Total agreement. Can Anyone point me to Any moderate muslims speaking out?

Because you're too lazy to do any research to counter your racist assumptions about Islam and Muslims? Fine.

Google has some stuff, but of course there is a lot of the same racist crap that people write. (the jawa report? really) But your knowledge or lack thereof on the issue does not determine where people stand.

clodhopper said...

Our class has decided to call our teddy bear Boutros Boutros Gali.

Russell Blackford said...

Rather than write a long reply to coathangrr's muddled remarks, I'll merely note that he or she is doing exactly what he or she claims does not happen and is not a problem, i.e. accusing people of racism. Very odd.

Those accusations demonstrate the point of my post, and why such posts are needed. If you criticise Islam you know that someone is likely to come along and vilify you as a racist.

As it happens there are some liberal Muslims who have useful things to say, and I think they are in a difficult position: damned by secularists if they are silent, damned by conservative Muslims if they speak up. I'll continue to argue that we secular liberal folk should try to give them space, and to engage with their thinking as constructively as we can; but I'll also continue to argue for the legitimacy of criticising Islam, or any particular strand of Islam, without being accused of operating from "racist assumptions", etc., etc.

Coathangrrr said...

I'll merely note that he or she is doing exactly what he or she claims does not happen and is not a problem, i.e. accusing people of racism. Very odd.

Where do I claim that accusing people of racism doesn't happen. What I am claiming is that it happens because people say things that are racist and write stories that are racist and do things that are racist.

What I am saying is that the people who are criticizing Islam, in general, are merely parroting past claims about the same groups of people. Claims that are racist.

but I'll also continue to argue for the legitimacy of criticising Islam, or any particular strand of Islam, without being accused of operating from "racist assumptions", etc., etc.

So anyone who wants should be able to make any disparaging claim about Islam, racist or otherwise, and not be called racist? That's completely absurd. If someone criticizes Islam and does so based on racist assumptions then there is absolutely no reason that they should get a free pass.

Brian English said...

So anyone who wants should be able to make any disparaging claim about Islam, racist or otherwise, and not be called racist? That's completely absurd.
If the remark is about "black" or "tanned" people or something similarly abhorent then it's racist. If it's about a belief system, then it's not racist. Unless you are using the word race to mean any group of like mined individuals. Like the electronic enthusiasts race, or the green party race.....

Coathangrrr said...

If the remark is about "black" or "tanned" people or something similarly abhorent then it's racist. If it's about a belief system, then it's not racist.

Even when the default assumption is that the people that hold that belief are of a certain race, as it is with Islam? That's the issue. You all seem to think that one can only be racist if one outright declares that one hates people of a certain race. That is a rather thin description of racism in my eyes.

Brian English said...

You all seem to think that one can only be racist if one outright declares that one hates people of a certain race. That is a rather thin description of racism in my eyes.
And you seem to label all who question a belief system, particularly Islam, as racist. That's a rather silly thing to do isn't it?
You can't possibly know anybody else's motives. You may assume that there is racism bubbling under the surface, which drives us to question Islam. But it's an assumption. A false one in my case at least.

Coathangrrr said...

And you seem to label all who question a belief system, particularly Islam, as racist.

No, I don't. I don't believe in Islam. There is no Allah. I'm not racist for saying that. Hitchens et alia are not doing this. They are claiming that "the jihadists" are going to try to take over The West, which is total nonsense, and that interpretation of Islam comes straight from imperialist claims used to justify the subjugation of Muslims the world over. Quite similar to the way these claims are being used to justify the subjugation of Muslims the world over.

You can't possibly know anybody else's motives. You may assume that there is racism bubbling under the surface, which drives us to question Islam. But it's an assumption. A false one in my case at least.

I am not saying that you are a racist, nor am I assuming that Russell's critique of Islam is based on some sort of deep seated racism, even though I don't think he's completely correct. What I'm saying is that the criticisms that we see in the majority in the mainstream media are racist, either outright or more hidden.

Let me reiterate. I'm not calling you a racist just because you don't like Islam!

clodhopper said...

"Because you're too lazy to do any research to counter your racist assumptions about Islam and Muslims? Fine."

coathangrr: unless I am missing something, the above comment heavily implies that any comments I may make about Islam are based upon my 'racist assumptions'. Therefore I am a racist, yes?

To clarify things then. My view is that there is one race: The Human Race. Sets of persons within that race hold views of a political and religious nature which I consider to be highly dangerous to the well being and development of that race. One of these is Islam. Another is Christianity. Totalitarian political regimes of any flavour are others and yes, I can make a very good case that unrestrained global capitalism (even if conducted all within exclusively liberal democracies) is pretty lethal too. There are many others. They are (or should be), all open to rational debate and criticism without anyone having to fear for their life or well being. It seems we live in dangerous times though as, I am sure you know by now, a UK national working in a primary school in Sudan will this morning appear in court accused of inciting racial hatred and of insulting Islam because her class chose the name Muhammed for their teddy bear. She therefore now faces imprisonment or 40 lashes in public. Not a single racist or imperialist assumption is required to underpin my criticism of this, nor do I make any.

Russell Blackford said...

I actually thhink that clodhopper has made the main points that must be made, so I'll go off at a tangent.

Coathangrr, re your comment that people have the default belief that Muslims are of a certain "race", I honestly wonder which "race" you have in mind. The Muslims I've met have mainly been Turks or Javanese. Oh, and Malays (in the sense of the particular ethnic group from the Malay peninsula, not in some other sense of the word). Is it one of those? Surely not.

Did you have Arabs in mind, perhaps? I suspect you might, but my image of a typical Muslim is actually not that of someone from that part of the world but someone from Indonesia. That is the largest Muslim country, after all.

And what about all those Persians in Iran? Or did you have in mind one of the black African ethnic groups, such as the one Ayaaan Hirsi Ali comes from? (By the way, is she a racist?) Or is it some other group entirely?

I really can't see how anyone who is at all sophisticated, as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens are, could possibly be associating Islam with one particular "race" or be motivated by hatred of that "race", whichever it is. Or do they hate people of all the above races and more? Or what? Or do they have some other attitude which is not hatred, since you think that that's a thin idea of racism (but isn't the hate involved in racism, or the belief that some people are sub-human and should be treated accordingly, what actually makes racism so horrible?)?

This business of trying to see sophisticated people's attitudes to Islam in terms of racism is just a mess.

Here's a better way of looking at it: many people of good will are genuinely concerned about the structures of doctrine - which I, like you, believe to be false - that constitute various forms of Islam. Those people are especially worried about those forms of Islam that are strong on political theology, and about the political ambitions of people who teach those forms of Islam.

In having those concerns, which I share to an extent, some critics of Islam reach conclusions that I think are too strong and actually disagree with ... and I've criticised Hitchens and AHA when I've felt it warranted.

Sometimes they are too quick to conclude that Islam is monolithic. I don't think it is. In particular, I don't think that Australians have much to fear from most of the Muslims, young and old, who form part of our multi-cultural community and whose presence in my country I actually welcome.

But to go around branding Hitchens, or AHA, or Amis, or Dan Simmons as a "racist" (even in some extended, rhetorical sense of the word) is both offensive to him/her and intellectually unhelpful. All it does is produce heat and obscure the light.

Aragon said...

Edip Yuksel says he became an "islamic reformist". I've recently come across his articles in an atheist forum. He is smart, knowledgeable, has great sense of humour, and relaxed attitude. Already made a big impression on us, deists, agnostics and atheists.

http://www.yuksel.org/e/

This is a good indication that wheels are rolling. As a non-militant atheist I certainly support reform in Islam.

Russell Blackford said...

There was a debate between Ed Hussain and AHA just recently. I suspect that I might be on Hussain's side from the way the topic is written up, but I haven't yet had a chance to listen to it, so it's not clear to me exactly what points they both make. It's reposted on Dawkins' site if anyone wants to track it down.

Coathangrrr said...

If you want an idea of the racism I'm talking about I'd suggest Edward Said's "Orientalism."

But to go around branding Hitchens, or AHA, or Amis, or Dan Simmons as a "racist" (even in some extended, rhetorical sense of the word) is both offensive to him/her and intellectually unhelpful. All it does is produce heat and obscure the light.

I'm not using it rhetorically any more than you are. No one here seems to admit of the fact of systemic racism or the possibility that one can hold racist views and support them without actually referring to race. So yes, I think it is helpful to point out that Hitchens is racist and is saying shit that supports racist policies and supports a war that is racist.

Russell Blackford said...

I've read Orientalism and was not that impressed by it.

In any event, "racism" has a fairly clear meaning. It means hating someone on the ground of their so-called "race" (a biological concept, albeit an unscientific one), or thinking they are sub-human on the basis of their so-called "race". You are using it in an extended way when you apply it to Hitchens(say) while trying to retain its despicable connotations. That is in fact a rhetorical trick, and you should be ashamed of yourself for stooping to it. That many others also do this is no excuse.

Coathangrrr said...

I'd note that I'm not "trying to retain its despicable connotations." I have zero control over the connotative meaning of a word. What I am saying is that Hitchens is contributing to a systematic oppression of groups of peoples from which he benefits. I find that to be despicable, whether or not you want to call it racism.

Russell Blackford said...

Don't use the word "racism", then. As soon as you do that you tar Hitchens, or whoever, with a brush that has been dipped in all the historical images that we associate with the word. You know, images of Jews being starved and gassed by Nazis, American blacks being sawn in half with barbed wire by Ku Klux Klan members, images of swastikas, burning crosses, poisoned flour, white men hunting black men like animals, black women being raped by white men, cruel slave owners with guns and whips on southern plantations, etc., etc.

Words like that do have histories and historical connotations. The connotations are perfectly appropriate if we keep in mind the kind of hatred and deep contempt (as in seeing people as less than fully human) that went along with the sorts of actions I've described and made them psychologically possible.

If you genuinely mean to say no more than that Hitchens is profiting (in some sense) from some misunderstanding of the nature of Arab culture that is widespread in his own culture, or that he is contributing to that misunderstanding, to the detriment of Arabs, or whatever it is that you want to say about Hitchens, then just say that (and put your argument in support,of course). I might even agree with you. But if you use the words "racism", "racist", etc., don't be surprised if you meet with strong reactions and appear to other people to be using a dishonest debating trick.

Surely I'm not the first person to point this out.

Coathangrrr said...

Don't use the word "racism", then. As soon as you do that you tar Hitchens, or whoever, with a brush that has been dipped in all the historical images that we associate with the word. You know, images of Jews being starved and gassed by Nazis, American blacks being sawn in half with barbed wire by Ku Klux Klan members, images of swastikas, burning crosses, poisoned flour, white men hunting black men like animals, black women being raped by white men, cruel slave owners with guns and whips on southern plantations, etc., etc.

Great, so I suppose that I can't use the word physics because it conjures up images of atomic bombs. Or should I not call someone who refuses to serve Jews anti-semetic because Hitler was anti-semetic. Moreover, to say that we are somehow separate from the sort of mass deaths of the twentieth century when there is such a assive blood letting going on in Iraq as we speak, is absurd

If you genuinely mean to say no more than that Hitchens is profiting (in some sense) from some misunderstanding of the nature of Arab culture that is widespread in his own culture, or that he is contributing to that misunderstanding, to the detriment of Arabs, or whatever it is that you want to say about Hitchens, then just say that (and put your argument in support,of course). I might even agree with you. But if you use the words "racism", "racist", etc., don't be surprised if you meet with strong reactions and appear to other people to be using a dishonest debating trick.

If it *is* racist, then why should I not use the word racist? And what should I call it?

Coathangrrr said...

Oh, and I just remembered, Amina Wadud is another great progressive Muslim intellectual. She has taken a bunch of heat from more conservative elements in American Islam for leading Friday prayers.