Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Islam And The Notion Of Race

Caption: From left, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, and Dzohkar Tsarnaev. None of them "look Muslim", and two of them aren't. (see NOTE 1)

Image credit: Wikimedia. See expository links for details.

Recently, I've noticed a trend among atheists to deny that their discussions of Islam and its dangers are not motivated by racism, because Islam isn't a race. Both Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have recently expressed this view, which as that first link notes, Richard Dawkins has also supported in Twitter messages. To which I can only reply: Horse pucky. Perhaps that's not erudite enough given the caliber of folks I'm arguing with here, so allow me to rephrase:

It's smug nonsense.

Let's start with definitions, shall we? Here's what Websters, generally considered the reference on American English, has to say about what racism means:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: racism

As you can see from the italic emphasis, all it takes to be a racist is to like your race over all the others.

Just to avoid accusations of parochialism, here's the Oxford Dictionary's online definition of racism:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Oxford Dictionary of English: racism

Once again, I added the italic emphasis.

Belief that one's own "race" (a term I have to put in quotes these days for reasons anyone familiar with how arbitrary the notion of who belongs to what race can be) is the one with better qualities is, in fact, racism. This is a point made in at least some of those articles decrying "racism" against Muslims. Most Muslims are not white. Many Westerners, including Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, are. Christopher Hitchens, often mentioned along with Dawkins prior to his death, was white as well. They're right to wonder whether it's some subtle manifestation of racism, especially when Harris' deeply unfortunate comment that we know who "looks Muslim" is taken into account.

I don't believe for a second that Dawkins or Coyne are racists. I've read their writings for too long to think so. I have my doubts about Harris at times, but he and Hitchens strike me as more xenophobic than racist, with the "xeno" here implying a strange religion and culture, not just the looks of people. Nevertheless, this is a reasonable thing to wonder if you're not familiar with their work. Preference for one's own "race" is as much racism as is prejudice against another.

Plus, as this unfortunate young woman found out while trying to attend a cocktail hour at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, sometimes that racism isn't subtle at all:

As I left the hotel and my husband went to the ballroom for the dinner, I realized he still had my keys. I approached the escalators that led down to the ballroom and asked the externally contracted security representatives if I could go down. They abruptly responded, "You can't go down without a ticket." I explained my situation and that I just wanted my keys from my husband in the foyer and that I wouldn't need to enter in the ballroom. They refused to let me through. For the next half hour, they watched as I frantically called my husband but was unable to reach him.

Then something remarkable happened. I watched as they let countless other women through -- all Caucasian -- without even asking to see their tickets. I asked why they were allowing them to go freely when they had just told me that I needed a ticket. Their response? "Well, now we are checking tickets." He rolled his eyes and let another woman through, this time actually checking her ticket. His smug tone, enveloped in condescension, taunted, "See? That's what a ticket looks like."

When I asked "Why did you lie to me, sir?" they threatened to have the Secret Service throw me out of the building -- me, a 4'11" young woman who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet, who was all prettied up in elegant formal dress, who was simply trying to reach her husband. The only thing on me that could possibly inflict harm were my dainty silver stilettos, and they were too busy inflicting pain on my feet at the moment. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw the men ask a blonde woman for her ticket and she replied, "I lost it." The snickering tough-guy responded, "I'd be happy to personally escort you down the escalators ma'am."

My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Seema Jilani is, as she noted, a native-born American. She is also a Muslim, but if her description of events is not complete fiction, it's hard to imagine that the guards would have questioned any of those white women about whether they were Muslims. Appearance alone seems to have determined her treatment. She could have been an atheist, or possibly even a Christian, and received the same treatment.

That's what "looking Muslim" means in America these days. And yes, that's racism. I can't blame American Muslims, many of whom "look Muslim", for wondering if what all those white folks believe about their religion might not be motivated by racism, too.

That's why I termed the attitude of these particular atheists as "smug nonsense". The world looks a lot different when you're the one who is treated like shit just because of the way you look.

NOTE 1: Tsaernov's guilt has yet to be demonstrated in court, and thus should be considered a possibility rather than a certainty. Let's face it, though, he doesn't "look Muslim", either.

Afterword: Anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at the atheism or religion keywords here ought to realize that I think all religions are nonsense. Most have a bit of wisdom wrapped up in that nonsense, but you'd probably do better at finding wisdom by reading comic books or watching television. Still, in America we don't have freedom from religion, we have freedom of religion. That means that, as long as they are functioning and law-abiding members of our society, all people are supposed to be treated equally no matter what their beliefs. As I've mentioned before, the Constitution only mentions religion in two places, and in neither place does it say that there's a right or wrong choice in that realm. It just says we all get to be Americans, and government officials, no matter what our convictions are.

Which, as long as people are as they are now, is how it should be.

I've also objected in the past to the over-use of the word "racism", as this article and this one, among others, should make clear. That over-use cheapens the word. It has been used to characterize just about anyone who criticizes President Obama, for instance, as a racist. That's not what's going on here. Right or wrong, this is a different conversation. It's about people being mistreated, if not demonized, because they look a certain way. To say this isn't helpful to either our country or its relations to the rest of the world is beyond obvious.

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