It’s the new ‘I’m not racist but…’, but with an Islamic twist. And it’s no less ridiculous, writes Michael Brull.
Anyone who has been on the internet and witnessed far right goons, New Atheist cultists, or the lawyers of Channel 7 would be familiar with how the argument goes.
Person A says something heinous about Muslims. Reply: isn’t that a bit racist? Person A leans back triumphantly, knowing they’re about to clinch the argument. Obviously, Person A proudly explains, I can’t be racist against Muslims. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion.
Whenever this argument is made – and it is made constantly on the internet – there is the same sense that the argument has just been settled. I imagine it is repeated constantly in the echo chambers of the far right, giving it the status of an axiom among those who have heard the same assertion endlessly.
It presents a kind of surface plausibility. After all, it is true that criticising religion isn’t the same as criticising a racial group. One can in good faith reasonably say that the miracles attested to by a religion have not been proven, or subject the ethics of a religion to secular humanist critique.
However, despite its surface plausibility, the argument is facile garbage. Let us test this argument against some of the most widely accepted examples of racist governments around the world.
It is hard to think of many cases of governments more widely recognised as racist than Apartheid South Africa. It may seem straightforward to the Islam-is-not-a-Race-Brigade that the Apartheid government was racist, unlike critics of Islam. But think about it for a moment longer. The Apartheid government also oppressed those it classified as “Coloured” – people of mixed descent.
Was that racist? Sure, maybe black Africans in South Africa constituted a race – but could people of mixed descent? Coloured people could have different mixes of Indian, black and white descent. How could they be a race if they came from different racial and ethnic backgrounds?
So under this argument, the Apartheid government was being racist when it discriminated against black people. But when it oppressed Coloured people – who again, were not a race – was it something else, something different to racism?
Let us turn to the case of Australia. The oppression of Aboriginal people can surely be regarded as racist. They were disfranchised, denied all civil liberties, had their wages stolen and so on. But what about people who weren’t oppressed on the basis of being Aboriginal? The government discriminated against people of partial Aboriginal descent, using grotesque language to refer to Aboriginal people of mixed backgrounds (“octoroon”, “quadroon” etc). Aboriginal people of mixed descent were particularly subjected to the policies of forced removals from their families. As Justice Bromberg observed, “the flawed biological characterisations of many Aboriginal people was the basis for mistreatment, including for policies of assimilation involving the removal of many Aboriginal children from their families until the 1970s”.
Now, under the theory of INARB, oppressing Aboriginal people is racist. But what about the people who were oppressed for being of mixed descent? What about those who spent their whole lives not knowing they had any Aboriginal descent? If being of mixed descent isn’t a race – and presumably it isn’t – then it seems it should follow the way they were treated wasn’t quite racist either. Only those who were regarded as Aboriginal under this logic were subjected to racism. Those obscenely regarded as “octoroons” or otherwise not really Aboriginal, under this theory, weren’t exactly subjected to racism either. Already, the noxiousness of the logic of this position should be clear.
But let us take one more example. Nazi Germany is perhaps the only government more notoriously racist than Apartheid South Africa. It openly espoused theories of racial superiority, with some races towards the top of the hierarchy, and others at the bottom. For example, the Nazis regarded the Slavs of Eastern Europe with contempt. Their murderous policies towards the civilian populations of Eastern Europe killed tens of millions of people – and would have been worse, if the Nazis had won the war.
Let us suppose that ethnicities can count as a race, even though today most would regard this as white people murdering other white people. What about the Nazi treatment of the Jews? Jews come from a diverse array of backgrounds. For example, there are fair Jews in Western Europe, and black Jews from Ethiopia. There are Arab Jews and Indian Jews. Whilst today they are considered a national as well as a religious group, only the Nazis and fringes of the far right have ever considered Jews a racial group.
So was the oppression of Jews racist? One can imagine a smug figure of the far right explaining that his hatred of Jews and Muslims couldn’t possibly be racist. After all, neither are actually races. They’re just religions! Checkmate, PC liberals!
The fallacy, by now, should be obvious. Racist governments treat collective groups of people in a racialised way. Aboriginal people – and those of mixed Aboriginal descent – are classified in a particular way by the government, and subjected to discrimination on that basis. Likewise “Coloured” people in South Africa, and Jews in Nazi Germany.
The point is, not everyone oppressed by racism is what has traditionally been considered a racial group. And indeed, modern science has long exploded the myth of races. The idea that there were various races – the “Caucasoid”, the “Negroid” and so on – developed out of theories from Europe in the 18th Century, and developed into a field of quackery that inevitably proved that Europeans were better than everyone else.
Modern research into genetics has firmly established that there is more variation within racial groups than between them. See the extract from the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report on genome research below.
“One of the most interesting outcomes of the Human Genome Project and other current scientific research is that there is no meaningful genetic or biological basis for the concept of ‘race’. As discussed in Chapter 3, any two human beings are 99.9% identical genetically. Within the remaining small band of variation, scientists estimate that there is an average genetic variation of 5% between what are called ‘racial groups’—which means that 95% of human genetic variation occurs within ‘racial groups’.
It is now well-accepted among medical scientists, anthropologists and other students of humanity that ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs, rather than matters of scientific ‘fact’. In 1997, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) recommended that the United States government no longer use the term ‘race’ on census forms or other official data collection documents, because the term has ‘no scientific justification in human biology’. The AAA noted that:
ultimately, the effective elimination of discrimination will require an end to such categorisation, and a transition toward social and cultural categories that will prove more scientifically useful and personally resonant for the public than are categories of ‘race’.”
That is, there is no actual scientific basis for the idea of race. It is simply a social construct. And if races are socially constructed, that means so is racism. Racism isn’t directed at races. It is directed at groups that are racialized, people who are socially constructed as a particular collective. They are then, on the basis of certain allegedly shared traits, oppressed.
So, is it possible to be racist to Muslims? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if they are a race – again, there is no such thing as races anyway. The important thing is how they are treated. Which means – and this may upset a lot of internet trolls – saying Muslims aren’t a race is not the knockdown argument many think it is.