The Problem is Not Semantics: A Response to Jaideep Singh

Protestors hold signs at a protest against Islamophobia at Dundonald Park in Ottawa on Sunday, December 13, 2015. (Patrick Doyle / Ottawa Citizen) ORG XMIT: 1213 Islamophobia07

Last night, I came across Jaideep Singh’s article, “The Death of Islamophobia: The Rise of Islamo-Racism,” featured on Altmuslimah and RaceFiles. Singh argues that the term “Islamophobia” has become obsolescent and proposes that we use “Islamo-racism” instead. The latter, as Singh contends, helps us see anti-Muslim/anti-Islam hostility and discrimination as more than a phobia and linked to “our nation’s lengthy history of white and Christian supremacy.”

I do not disagree at all with Singh’s assertion that vilification of Islam and racism against Muslims and those who are perceived to be Muslim must be understood within the broader context of white supremacy. As my regular readers know, I have argued this same point throughout my blog. That is, Islamophobia (as I still choose to call it) goes beyond ignorance or individual racist acts. It is not an “isolated” phenomenon, but rather deeply embedded in the larger structures of violence and oppression that have long existed before 9/11.

Singh describes bigotry against Muslims as being a “continuation of a centuries-old American tradition of demonizing people of color,” and while he is not incorrect, I would just add that demonization of Islam and Muslims goes back even further than the violent “founding” of the U.S. Recently, I gave a guest lecture where I mentioned other Muslim writers, activists, and scholars who insist that Islamophobia pre-dates 9/11. In fact, one could argue that Islamophobia began during the very advent of Islam. When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) started to preach Islam, the dominant ruling tribe, the Quraish, perceived it as a threat to social order and subsequently persecuted and oppressed the early Muslims. Islamophobia can be traced back to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and to Western colonialism and wars in Muslim-majority regions. As detailed in Sophia Arjana Rose’s book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, medieval Christian literature, paintings, travel diaries, and other historical documents are filled with racialized demonizations of Islam and Muslims.

Throughout this history, we also see the intersection between anti-Blackness and Islamophobia. As pointed out in an article on Chapati Mystery, the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649 compares Prophet Muhammad to an “African monster” for “people to gaze at, not to dote upon.” This likening of the Prophet to an “African monster” is significant as it reflected medieval Europe’s view of black skin symbolizing the devil, demons, and monsters. Arjana elaborates:

“Dark skin was understood as a theological consequence of sin… Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess ‘dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.’ Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.”

The brutal European conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands in the Americas and the Caribbean islands led to colonizers demanding the labor of enslaved Africans. According to Muna Mire’s important article, “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance,” about ten to fifteen percent of enslaved Africans “brought to America as chattel practiced Islam as their faith.” Mire also emphasizes, “Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself.”

I do not doubt Singh would agree that these intersections are critical in understanding the ways in which anti-Muslim/anti-Islamic ideologies are systemic and interconnected with institutionalized racism or white supremacy. In fact, Singh’s article acknowledges and mentions the long history of violence against Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and other people of color in the United States. Singh also notes that demonization of Muslims constitutes racism because Islam has become racialized. His points on the racialization of Islam and Muslims are reminiscent to the ones I raised in my 2011 blog post, “Debunking the ‘Islam is Not a Race’ argument.” Singh believes these points about racialization and connections to white supremacy are more accurate and effective when one adopts use of the term “Islamo-racism” in place of “Islamophobia.”

Respectfully, I disagree. Every once in a while, I have heard people (both Muslim and non-Muslim) voice their criticism about the term “Islamophobia.” During a campus event about Islamophobia at my undergrad university, the non-Muslim white man who co-presented with me told the audience that he did not “like” the word “Islamophobia,” and instead insisted that we use “anti-Muslim racism.” What this did, no matter how unintentional, was discredit my use of “Islamophobia” during my portion of the presentation. Furthermore, the emphasis he placed on the semantics of the term reduced my use of it to “fear of Islam” or “fear of Muslims.” The dynamics of a white non-Muslim man explaining why he did not like a term that many Muslims use frequently to describe their own experiences was also a little troubling.

Indeed, when one examines the term “Islamophobia,” it sounds like it would refer to just that, “a phobia of Islam.” However, during a conversation about Singh’s article, a friend articulated to me that language is a social contract. That is, words are not inherit; we are taught and learn them from our environment. We, as societies and communities, agree on the use and meaning of words, no matter how limited the semantics are. For instance, when we look at the term “anti-Semitism,” we agree and understand it as referring to hostility and prejudice against Jews. If we were to examine the literal definition, we could make the argument that this term is used inaccurately since there are many non-Jews, including non-Jewish Arabs, who are also Semitic peoples. Another example is the term “homophobia.” As many activists would explain, we know this word is not limited to a group of heterosexual individuals who are fearful of gay and lesbian-identified people, but rather extends beyond phobia and is maintained by the structure of heteropatriarchy.

Despite the manner in which we can critique the semantics of “anti-Semitism” and “homophobia,” we do not see similar proposals to change or shift the use of these terms as we do with “Islamophobia.” Another point my friend raised was that focus on semantics often leads to derailment and division. I am not accusing Singh of derailing from the serious realities of bigotry and violence against Muslims, but I worry that such proposals have the potential to distract us from these realities. Even if a significant group of people adopt “Islamo-racism,” it runs the risk of isolating one’s self away from those who continue to use “Islamophobia.” Additionally, the call to change the terminology can work to delegitimize or discredit the work that many Muslims and allies are already doing. This is especially important because not everyone who uses the term “Islamophobia” sees it as merely being a sentiment or “fear of Islam.”

Islamophobia is not acknowledged as a real social problem by the U.S. or the West in general. However, “Islamophobia” as a word has stuck with the Muslim community. More than that, the term is widely used to organize, protest, and name personal experiences with anti-Muslim hate crimes, bigotry, discrimination, and microaggressions. For those of us in academic settings, “Islamophobia” is the word many Muslims and allies use to advocate curriculum, workshops, and programs that address anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic demonization. Calling for a shift in language, while seemingly harmless, does not only face the challenge of replacing a word that is so widely used, but also causes an unnecessary disruption to the efforts being made to fight Islamophobia.

I also do not see any advantages of using “Islamo-racism.” Like many Muslims, I have lost count of the times non-Muslims (mostly white, but not always) have told me, “Islamophobia is not racism! Islam is not a race, idiot!” Saying “Islamo-racism” is not going to change these responses. People will still cry, “Islam is not a race, it cannot be racism to hate Muslims/Islam!”

Just to be clear, I do not think there is anything wrong if someone chooses to use “Islamo-racism” instead of “Islamophobia.” The problem arises when one asserts and implies that “Islamo-racism” is the “correct” and “accurate” way of naming Islamophobia. Arguing that “Islamophobia” is a term of “obsolescence” is one thing, but framing it in the article title as “The Death of Islamophobia” comes off as a bit polemical. In any case, the main reason Singh calls for a shift in language is because he does not believe “Islamphobia” captures the way vilification of Muslims is entrenched and connected to white supremacy. However, this problem is not due to semantics, but rather with the way society is conditioned to treat racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression as being limited to “isolated cases” or interpersonal forms bigotry. For example, when the media reports cases of racism, it is not discussed as being systemic. Elizabeth Martinez draws another example:

“[People] will reduce racist police behavior to “a few bad apples” who need to be removed, rather than seeing it exists in police departments all over the country and is basic to the society. This mistake has real consequences: refusing to see police brutality as part of a system, and that the system needs to be changed, means that the brutality will continue.”

Martinez does not propose abolishing the word “racism,” but instead argues that we frame racism as being part of a system, “a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: economic, military, legal, educational, religious, and cultural.” Furthermore, she states, “We will achieve a clearer understanding of racism if we analyze how a certain action relates to the system of White Supremacy.” In cases of Islamophobia, we often see media and society treat perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crimes as “lone wolves” rather than being products of a violent, white supremacist society. As S. Sayyid writes, “Islamophobia has been presented as nothing as sordid as racism, but rather a rational response to real threats to western, nay universal, values.”

I agree with Singh that vilification of Muslims and Islam needs to be understood within this systemic context, but I do not believe the solution is re-naming or changing the terminology. What needs to change is how we frame Islamophobia, which many Muslims and allies are already doing. I have cited Houria Boutelja numerous times before, but here is her quote again: “To speak of Islamophobia as sentiment is a euphemism. Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” S. Sayyid has also expressed similar arguments for understanding Islamophobia in his piece, “Racism and Islamophobia.”

Rather than focusing on semantics, we need to work towards shifting people’s understanding of Islamophobia and other forms of oppression from “isolated incidents” to being rooted in systems. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other oppressive forces are products of interlocking systems, namely white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and so on. The more we focus on deconstructing the semantics of “Islamophobia,” the more it will lead us into cyclical debates about whether or not we are describing something “accurately.”

By using the term that Muslim communities have largely agreed upon does not mean we cannot recognize the limitation of the literal definition. However, wide usage of the term demonstrates an example of how language is a social contract and how we come to agreement on what words like “Islamophobia,” “anti-Semitism,” and “homophobia” mean and refer to. I believe the choice to continue using these terms – rather than creating new ones and shifting the focus to semantics – is not about being “inaccurate,” but about showing solidarity.