On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

29 Responses to “On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.””

  1. Robin James (@doctaj) Says:

    Falguni Sheth & Alia Al-Saji have really fabulous accounts of the ways “Muslim” has been racialized.

    Here’s Sheth’s: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-4752-toward-a-political-philosophy-o.aspx
    Here’s Al-Saji’s: http://web.mit.edu/~sgrp/2013/no1/Al-Saji2010.pdf

  2. Concrete Heart Says:

    What exactly is Western discourse? If you take Western discourse to mean public discourse in the US, then yes, Islam is being treated as a race. But I think this is only due to equation muslim = Arab prevalent in the US. In Europe, you have Bosnian muslims, Turks, people from Iran and central Asia as well as Arabs. It is much harder to identify Islam with a set of specific visible, bodily traits.

    Take muslims from Bosnia. They don’t constitute a race, but rather a nation or an ethnicity (i.e. Bosniaks). So it’s a complex problem. Western discourse is quite multiple in itself.

  3. danbarber Says:

    when Christianity makes itself universal in the name of spirit, then whatever is not Christian is defined as fleshly particularity, and along these lines as a race. Hence during the conquering of Iberia, even those Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity still could not be full Christian due to their ‘blood.’ Long story short, Christianity has long racialized those who resist it, or has long called ‘race’ that which fails to be Christian — more broadly, Christianity is central to the constitution of race discourse, even as it makes itself the race that is not a race. (in this sense a template for whiteness)

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Concrete Heart, It should be obvious what strain of “Western discourse” I am talking about — namely, critiques of Islam as such that seem to treat Islam as though it is a race. As for your observation that Islam embraces multiple ethnicities, I literally say that in the first paragraph. You do not seem to have understood the point of my post at all.

  5. Concrete Heart Says:

    I’m not saying merely that Islam embraced different ethnicities. I’m saying that especially in Balkan region, Islam is identified with a particular nation. To be muslim in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia means to belong to a certain nation, i.e. to Bosniaks. Similarly, to be muslim in Germany usually means to be of Turkish descent. Therefore, “Western discourse” doesn’t always “racialize” Islam. Sometimes it treats Islam as a defining trait of a nationality, and certainly not of a race.

    The fact that Western discourse generalizes doesn’t mean we have the right to generalize Western discourse.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The fact that Western discourse generalizes doesn’t mean we have the right to generalize Western discourse.

    That is a simplistic and unworkable claim.

  7. Elliott Grieco Says:

    CH: I certainly don’t know what some European discourse around Islam looks like, but in principle if someone is pointing out a “Muslim problem”, it fits a definition of race which Adam uses:” a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.”

    So the fact that a Muslim could be thought of as from Iran or Palestine or Asia kind of doesn’t matter. Any kind of xenophobia likely rests on a racialized discourse. The only exception is perhaps a very pure kind of sports fandom. Therefore, once anyone has something to say against Islam, it is likely not a religious (delving into theological categories perhaps) or nationalistic (criticizing the form of government elsewhere) critique, but a racial one.

    However, if you have beef with the term “Western discourse” (which is always a generalization), I would say that anti-Muslim sentiment is treated in racial terms by non-Westerners as well; but then the question becomes whether those racialized conceptions of a Muslim enemy (for instance, where I live in the Philippines) also has predominant historical roots in Western ideas.

  8. ess emm Says:

    @doctaj Thank you for linking to the brilliant paper by Alia Al-Saji. I found her account convincing. When in contact with Islam, the process of justifying the superiority of Western culture and institutions leads to cultural racism which she describes as continuous with color racism, where what is differentially visible is not skin color as such, but culture defined largely through the perceived presence of gender oppression (ostensibly embodied in [Muslim] veiling practices). She finds bodily difference as important to both kinds of racism (clothing, of course, is an extension of the skin).

    Adam said: Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment. And, as Al-Saji remarks, in order to scapegoat the other race for the collective guilt of white society.

  9. Concrete Heart Says:

    @Elliott: I think that in that case there wouldn’t be much difference between racism and nationalism, which is a distinction I wouldn’t throw away.

    One more thing. The whole discourse on IS is currently based around the idea of conversion. That is, in order to become a member of IS, you have to convert, either from moderate Islam, christianity, or non-religious beliefs. And the point is that the idea of conversion is obviously at odds with the idea of race. The whole problem of the IS is that their members are impossible to identify by any set of visible bodily traits, which is again essential for any form of racism.

    As Dan have mentioned, the idea of conversion was often connected to the problems of race. There’s a nice book on this topic, Kruger’s Spectral Jew. In the given case, however, it is not a question of being stuck with a wrong kind of body (Jewish, Arab, “non-christian” flesh), but rather converting to a wrong religion or wrong (radical, extreme) form of a certain religion. So the body is not an object of suspicion here, quite the opposite.

  10. Charles R Says:

    I take it Concrete Heart is pushing back on the implicit equation of ‘Western Discourse’ with the “strain” that sustains “critiques of Islam as such that seem to treat Islam as though it is a race.” Concrete Heart points out that not all people of the West make this their criticism of Islam: perhaps this has more to do with particular North American cultural associations with their own ways of thinking as the ways representing what counts as West, since outside of the North American sphere of influence but still within a West, there are alternative critiques. Stepping aside from whether or not those critiques are valid, we can at least acknowledge what isn’t a universal phenomenon,

    The reality of these alternative critiques suggests alternative ways of thinking about how not to go about thinking of Islam as a race—and isn’t that the takeaway from the post? That we need to notice in what ways hegemonic influences shape how we go about constructing the things we oppose?

    If this is the case, then perhaps, since what we’re doing is opposing racial construction originating within Western discourse, is look for ways in which Western discourse itself opposes and thwarts the construction of Islam as a racial identity. But if we reserve the right to say that what we mean by Western discourse is specifically how Americans talk and behave, and all we’re really doing is critiquing America, then what we’ve done is identify Western discourse with Americans talking and behaving.

    In that sense, we need to ask, when we find that our response to the dodge is “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race,” just who is the person we’re talking. Besides it being “a critic” and a member of the “they,” who is it?

    And, is that person a universal representation of Western discourse?

    Since when?

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t just mean Americans. I mean a form of discourse that appears to me to be hegemonic. The way Bosnians talk about Islamic ethnic groups that have lived in the region since time immemorial is not a good candidate for the mainstream or hegemonic Western discourse — it is an exceptional situation, in a region whose status as “Western” is historically contested. I understand the strategic reasons why one would wish to emphasize the Westernness of said discourse, but it’s pretty clear that I’m making a claim in this post to be addressing a strain of Western discourse that is (a) hegemonic and (b) destructive. My own existence testifies to the fact that Western discourse includes other strains that are (presumably, in my opinion) less destructive.

    In my opinion, none of this needs to be made explicit. It’s obvious that when I generalize about “Western discourse” I am not trying to paint a picture of every single Westerner’s ideas, but rather to identify a particular discourse as hegemonic or dominant. That’s the very function of a generalization. And yes, every cultural discourse is multiple and conflictual, etc., etc. — again, that’s clear from the fact that I, a Westerner, am entering into explicit conflict with the hegemonic Western view.

    All of this could and, in my view, should have been drawn from the main post. Hence my impatience with CH. Perhaps I should be nicer to people, but that would require a longer-term program of self-improvement. Yet the fact remains that I was responding to a critique that completely missed the point of my argument and that even made me wonder whether the person in question had read my post at all.

  12. Concrete Heart Says:

    Well, Western Discourse doesn’t end with Fox News. There are plenty of nationalisms, racisms and hegemonic discourses waiting to be discovered. So yeah, it’s a question of being nice and open towards the other — perhaps not the Other, but rather the other westerner.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad you don’t engage in racializing discourse toward Islam. I like to hope that I don’t either. But in no case is that the point of what I’m saying, at all! Again, sorry to be impatient, but you did something to which impatience is an understandable response: namely, responding to my post as though you had neither read nor understood it at all. And you continue to do so.

  14. Concrete Heart Says:

    Well, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that Western Discourse is in the process of turning Islam into a race. I replied that’s not true, given that Western Discourse is too multiple and has to many open fronts with Islam to reduce it to a single stance towards muslims (e.g. there are some perceptions of Islam that construe it as a nation etc.). To that you replied that a special brand of Western Discourse can in fact be called hegemonic. And with that I don’t quite agree.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Do you simply not understand the concept of hegemony?

  16. Concrete Heart Says:

    Briefly, there are two levels of hegemony here. First, Western Discourse is by hypothesis hegemonic in relation to other discourses (for example, “muslim” discourse). On the other level, there is a question of hegemony within the Western Discourse (and here the concept is closer to Laclau’s notion of hegemony). In given debate, two meanings of the term sometimes overlap, as in your statement:

    “It’s obvious that when I generalize about “Western discourse” I am not trying to paint a picture of every single Westerner’s ideas, but rather to identify a particular discourse as hegemonic or dominant.”

    But those are nuances! You have to forgive me, I don’t feel entirely confident in my English, so I might have missed a subtlety or two.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I am not talking about whether Western discourse is hegemonic over non-Western discourses. I am exclusively talking about which strains of Western discourse are hegemonic within the sphere of Western discourse, including in the statement you quote.

  18. Hill Says:

    There are a couple of ways to interpret the phrase “Western discourse.” One of them is as an incoherent concept (CH’s interpretation), all of the others allow this post to be lucid and insightful.

  19. Concrete Heart Says:

    Well, Hill, perhaps Western Discourse *is* an incoherent concept. For instance, what Adam thinks is hegemonic in Western representation of Islam may differ from what a German thinks that is. A German critical theorist may say: “Western Discourse transforms Islam into a kind of nation (for example, it identifies Islam with Turks)”. An even more sophisticated theorist will say that the main problem of Western attitude towards Islam is the conviction that Islam is religion in the same sense that Christianity is (and not, for example, a set of laws and practices meant for everyday and public life). So yeah, I agree with you, my concept of Western Discourse is incoherent, because, honestly, I really cannot think of a coherent one.

    But the problem runs deeper. For if you’re willing to admit that Western Discourse is essentially unified, then there is nothing preventing you from saying that Islam is unified as well, that, for example, IS = secular Islam = al Quaeda = Wahhabism = etc. The main point of people such as Huntington is exactly that West *is* unified. It is only under the assumption of an unified West that one can construct narratives of West vs. Islam.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No one, literally no one, has said Western discourse is essentially unified. If you know Laclau, you know that hegemony emerges out of conflict! If it were not conflicted and multiple, there would be no need for hegemony! And again, the fact that some random German might disagree does not necessarily matter. Deciding which discourse is hegemonic is not a matter of counting the number of individuals who hold a certain opinion.

  21. Concrete Heart Says:

    I don’t know if it is an issue of purely Laclauian hegemony. There is no competition or conflict between let’s say the way muslims are presented in Germany or Norway or, on the other hand, in the States. In fact, there is very little communication between them. The fact that Fox News construe Islam as a race has absolutely no bearing on how German media perceive it (i.e. primarily as a culture). It is just a random American TV network, just like those are just some random Germans for you. Yet both are supposed to be instances of the same Western Discourse. This is for me highly problematic.

  22. OTL Says:

    Perhaps some examples of this would clarify what you mean somewhat? “Western Discourse” sounds an awful lot like “mainstream media in the USA” to me. If it is the case that “today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.” then it should be easy to give examples of this.

    In the “Western Discourse” of my old school, the concept of “muslim” only had meaning in RE; despite the fact that about 40% of the students were muslim when I was there.

    In fact the muslim student body was divided into the descendants of people from: Somalia (which people in the USA would say were black), “Asians” (which in my country is a codeword for working class Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) and assorted arabs (Yemenis in particular). There was actually even one kid called Rejimond who’s family was from Bosina (and was about as white as you could be). These “national” divisions were felt to be more real in everyday life by us students than the overarching one of religion. So to be “black” was no indication that you would be Christian or Muslim as black students were evenly split.

    Ironically whenever we were studying Hinduism or Judaism all the muslims and christians could put aside their divisions to have a good old laugh at, what appeared to us, the ridiculousness of these religions. I still remember one kid from Libyia finding the very concept of polytheism crazy. This was because all the Hindus and Jews went to richer schools so nobody felt as if they couldn’t make fun of them.

    Anyway the point of all this is that if you are mainly talking about your personal experiences and what you perceive to be “Western Discourse” then your experience of muslims will be limited to the media and what the media constructs.

  23. OTL Says:

    Actually to be more specific I don’t know where the majority of people with a Jewish or Hindu background went to school in my city. That was inaccurate. All I can say with certainty is that there were no people of that background at my school.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Any further posts about the question of whether it’s justified to generalize about “Western discourse” in the way that I do in the main post will be deleted. I am absolutely sick and tired of this bullshit.

  25. pvcann Says:

    However, while Islam is not a race, international law recognises religious and cultural values, and places them alongside race, so that the accusation racist can be used against someone vilifying a religious group.

  26. E. Lim Says:

    Am I right to think that, in the US, the “Muslim problem” is predominantly understood as a geopolitical one (i.e., Muslims from abroad pose a threat to the West) while in Europe as a domestic one that very nearly constitutes “the immigration problem” or “the problem of failing to assimilate” (i.e., Muslims in our own cities threaten our social cohesion).

    I ask because the potentially disqualifying schism in “Western discourse,” the schism that CH and others identify as they argue here for the incoherency of the concept, is one between the US and European communities such as Germany and perhaps, perhaps Bosnia. And here I’m going to leave Bosnia aside because I want to ask another question about how, in the popular imagination of Western Europe, Muslim immigrants are understood: in the popular imagination of Western Europe, is or is not the category of the immigrant, considered independently of the Muslim (if the popular imagination even can), strongly racialized? if so, can’t we expect the image of European Muslims to be racialized as well? I remember reading that white French will call “émigrés” the children, born in France, of North Africans immigrants. If this is true, French “émigrés” are then born into a social grouping they can never fully renounce for reasons of heredity — and if this is true throughout Europe, I’d argue that Muslims in Europe do undergo racialization by a dominant Western European discourse.

  27. Charles R Says:

    The thing is, I take it incoherence is just part of the fleeting way our words do not live the way we intend them, but go off and say and do things in the minds and hearts of other people, so that when they come back from their journey having gained a few scars or flowers or chest-pinned medals inside those others’ hearts and minds, we don’t quite recognize them. We pause at the oddity of what our words have become. “Is that what I’m saying? It doesn’t seem like that’s what I meant.”

    But if we have a certain kind of special investment in the words we use, as if we personally live within those words, if we have only those words to hold us, such that those different experiences other people had, or have been having, with our own words feels like a deep insult to our own personal integrity, then it’s understandable to feel personal insult in how what were our children grew up apart from our expectations of them. Our own identity as having given birth to them in our minds, our own claim to their meaning and their inheritance, gets threatened by the miscegenation: just look at how other people are corrupting our legacies!

    Since we cannot have that, we have to silence, forbid, or prohibit the mixing of the species. You keep your thought’s children over there. I will keep my thought’s children over here. Coherence of the genetic legacy contained with the thought’s expression in *words* becomes more important than the spirit of learning new and hybrid things through how others occasionally, even willfully, consent to those words’ self-driven seduction. It’s as though they had lives of their own out there, even lovers we wouldn’t approve of. What happens in the erotic and intimate union of a thinker and thinking, no one can really say ahead of time. In this sense, sending words out into the void carelessly but with full expectations of exact, precise return is such an Abrahamic way of approaching what those words did. Fathers expect their children to be submissive to only their will, but mothers have long ago severed the cord for each child.

    What does this have to do with the topic? Hard to say, but I venture that construction of concepts occurs through reoccupation of what’s previously positionally available for thinking by new (and sometimes fangled) repositioning networks of ideas, symbols, habits of mind, cultural cues, and so on. If race as such a constructed concept comes about through the particular ways in which the border between identity and language collapses—if we make an identity into a race through how we act upon it within our own sphere of influence—then awareness of the encodings of racial identity must also permeate how we, ourselves and always our selves, think the words we use and then enforce our own particular meanings through, not just differential treatment, but exclusion of what differs from the authoritative discourse.

    So, it’s not about being “nicer to people.” It’s about recognizing that one recognizes race precisely as a legitimation of differential treatment means observing how one differs in treatments. The physician diagnosing the diseases in other’s thinking has to look in the mirror from time to time—even the mirrors of our admirers and our detractors. The borders of race cut some of us up right through the insides of our minds in peculiar ways—as a mixed race person, my own experience of this great Southern border all around me has its intensities in constantly wondering not so much whether I’m being misunderstood, but whether I ever had a chance in the first place to be heard. It’s a very different experience being a commentator, whose footing is solely the whim of a self-professed tired and sick person, but this isn’t that person’s fault.

    It’s the institutions who raise us, and are always raising us.

    It’s on that note, I guess, I am particularly sensitive not so much to insults deriving from being misunderstood, but on the foreclosure of any hearing in the first place. Maybe that’s the womanist in me? Hard to say.

  28. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Charles R., I wish you would try your hand at genres of comments other than psychoanalysis of me. It’s beginning to become a little repetitive — I’m always guilty of whatever I diagnose. Wonderful. This very comment will presumably prove your point exactly.

  29. Lauri Says:

    Your post made me ask myself what kind of race this “Islam” is. (This is not to be taken as a claim to original thought.) I’ve heard it proposed that Muslims now occupy the position in the racist imagination once held by Jews, but it seems that “Islam” in its racist construction combines, for example, “black” and “Jewish” features: the prodigious breeding and sheer base population of blacks (“demographics”) plus the cultural corruption of the Jews. It’s like viruses exchanging and recombining genetic material or something. If you could combine the best bits of Jewishness and blackness and add the contagious potential of, say, Bolshevism…

    So maybe Islam is being made into a new kind of race. (I guess it would be surprising if it weren’t.) In the old-fashioned system, a white person can’t become black, and conversion to Judaism was (I gather) always looked on as being, while not unheard of, not really a serious possibility. (I get this mainly from viewing The Big Lebowski.) You have as much black or Jew in you as you were born with and that’s that. As regards Islam, however, one of its really insidious features, in the racist construction (let’s just assume that when I say Islam or Muslim I’m talking about the way these might be imagined by islamophobic racism), is its power to attract (white) converts. Both women, who submit to “the veil” to become child-bearing machines, and men, who are presumably attracted to the adventure of violent jihad and the red-blooded ideals of manliness that are surely the envy of white guys.

    So in this way, Islam’s being “not a race” could actually mean it’s seen as a more threatening kind of race. Isn’t it a pretty common racist idea that Islam is in fact just fine and natural as long as it’s not here in the West, like an animal virus that’s not a problem until it crosses into the human population but when that happens it’s super-dangerous? Now it has not only come here, it is evolving to overcome our previous generation of defenses. Now we urgently need to study the “memetics” of Islam to better understand the threat! (Richard Dawkins has apparently said something on that subject but I haven’t the stomach to find out what exactly.) I dunno, maybe racists who pull the “Islam is not a race” card are in some way basically earnest in their denial of the charge. Seeing themselves as having moved on to a new iteration, when you accuse them of “racism”, maybe they just think you’re accusing them of being obsolete.

    Looking at what I’ve written above I think about what you said about race not pre-existing racism: racism does create race but does so by picking and recombining existing materials in a freewheeling fashion – what matters, after all, is not that it’s historically or logically coherent but that it works, so to speak. That it tells a story about those who are not-us, not of the universal whiteness, and can mobilize action against them. There is no need to commit to the particulars of any previous version. So it’s only natural that now “race” in the biological sense is discredited and the charge “racist” is seen by racists as an unfair trump card, they figure they can simply disown the “race” bit and unbalance their critics with this jiu-jitsu move.


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