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Rose’s book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, medieval Christian literature, paintings, travel diaries, and other historical documents are filled with racialized demonizations of Islam and Muslims.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.

Newspeak: “Terrorist” Means “Muslim”

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After I parked on campus, a bumper sticker on the car next to me caught my attention:  “Support Israel! Fight Terrorism!”  Nice way to start off my day, right?  I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t the sticker just say ‘Fight Muslims/Palestinians’ because that’s what it really means anyway?”  If I had seen the owner of the car, I seriously would have confronted him/her with this question.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the word “terrorist” is synonymous with “Muslim.”  It is a term that evokes stereotypical images of non-White, oriental garbed, angry, and irrational Muslims who have absolutely no motive other than to kill and conquer (White Muslims are seen as brainwashed “terrorists”).  Even Muslim women cannot escape the stereotype, regardless if they wear hijaab or not.  This is Orwellian Newspeak at best, courtesy of the George W. Bush administration, where language is restricted according to the aims of the totalitarian government.  Amusingly, critics of President Obama accuse him of implementing Newspeak because he refuses to use the word “terrorism” when addressing conflicts in the Muslim world, but this is quite ironic since the Bush administration used the term (and other invented words like “Islamofascism”) to simplify complex realities.  In other words, the word “terrorist” limits freedom of thought and speech because it completely vilifies and dehumanizes the opposition — it generates no sympathy or empathy and brainwashes the masses into thinking “Muslim terrorists” hate the West because “we’re free” and “democratic.”  It is restrictive vocabulary because alternative perspectives on “terrorism” result in criminalizing the individual who criticizes the government.   Besides, Bush’s “Patriot Act” has more disturbing parallels with “Big Brother” in Nineteen Eighty Four than Obama’s alleged “Newspeak.”

Onward, I can guarantee that if you asked non-Muslims in your local town/city what comes first in their mind when they hear the word “terrorist,” most will respond with either “Muslim” or “Arab” (or “Osama bin Laden”).  Just a run an image search on google for “terrorist” and you’ll see the results are associated with Islam and/or Muslims.

Later in the day, I attended my “International Studies” class where we began our lesson on Spain.  The professor had to bring up the attacks on Madrid.  I knew it was coming.  She said, “Do you all remember when those terrorists attacked those poor people in Madrid?”  All I can think about was how the word “terrorist” means “Muslim.”  Everyone in the room knows exactly what group of people the term refers to.  No one needs to ask, “Who were the terrorists?” or “Where were the terrorists from?”

When my professor mentioned King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, her choice of words were quite interesting.  “They finally got rid of all those Arabs.”  Did she really just say that in an “International Studies” class?  I suppose “Christian” and “Jew” is equated with democracy and “good,” while “Arab” and “Muslim” are “dictators” and “evil.”  I raised my hand and told her, “You forgot that they got rid of the Jews too.”  She replied, “What?”  I added, “The Spanish Inquisition.  They didn’t just expel the Muslims, but they kicked all of the Jews out too.  They killed a lot of Muslims and Jews.”  Students in the class started to laugh for some reason.  My professor simply replied, “Oh yeah, you’re right.  And we’re going to get to that, I’m just saying that the Arabs got there around 711 and it took a while to get them out.”  I didn’t take that response too well.  I said, “Wow, that sounded biased.  First of all, they weren’t all Arabs.  Second, the Muslims were actually integrated in the country and they coexisted with the Jews and Christians.”  I heard a girl on the other side of the room say, “Shut up.”   Figures.

Yes, I will shut up so that the professor can brainwash us into otherizing the Muslims, but then again, the brainwashing isn’t really necessary because we’re already conditioned by the media to think that Muslims are “misogynistic terrorists” who want to destroy Western civilization as we know it, right?  How convenient for my professor.

About a week ago, a friend and I were speaking about Pakistan.  Then, the inevitable question came, “Are there terrorists in Pakistan?”  There’s that word again.  But what does “terrorism” mean?  Let’s do a quick exercise in semantics.  According to Dictionary.com, “terrorism” means:

(1)  The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.  (2)  The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.  (3)  A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

Ok, let’s look at what happened last Winter when the State of Israel launched relentless airstrike attacks on Gaza which not only bombed homes and two UN schools, but also killed over 1,400 Palestinians.  Yes, that is a lot of people!  Is this not “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce” aka “terrorism?”  Yet, you would never hear someone ask the question, “Are there terrorists in Israel?”  (unless, of course, they’re asking about the Arab and Muslim citizens in Israel).  Why?  Because we’re conditioned to perceive Israel and the West as the “good guys” and “upholders of democracy.”  It’s all about reinforcing “us versus them.”  As Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.”  There is good and evil.  There is no gray area.

If the shooter of the Virginia Tech school was Muslim, the headlines would have been screaming “Terrorist Attacks Virginia Tech,” and everyone would know what it meant.  Recently, a radical White man opened fire in a Holocaust museum.  He was called a neo-Nazi, and rightfully so, but we all know that if the man was Muslim, he would have been called a “terrorist.”  When certain US soldiers tortured prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, why wasn’t that called “terrorism?”  Or what about the Iraqi civilians who were killed in the US invasion — why is that not called “terrorism”?  What about the recent murder of Marwa El-Sherbini — was her non-Muslim killer called a “terrorist”?

To elaborate more, I must cite myself from a previous post I wrote:

In 2002, over 2,000 Muslims were massacred in the Indian State of Gujarat, while hundreds of Muslim women were gang raped. The worst part is that the government was complicit in these horrible crimes and many of the victims have yet to receive justice. Where was the mainstream western media when those atrocities were committed? Did we hear the media call the assailants “Hindu extremists?”

Over 200,000 Muslims were butchered in the Serbian genocide against Muslims in Kosovo, but the Serbians were never called “Christian terrorists.” When over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians were forcefully evicted out of their homes by the Israeli military, the Israeli soldiers were never called “Jewish terrorists.”

When Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, the media neglected to report that he was a member of the extremist “Christian Identity Movement.” [I]f the perpetrators were Muslim, you could count on the media to label them “Muslim terrorists.”

The reality is that the meaning of the word “terrorism” should not be restricted or assigned to a particular group of people — that is sheer propaganda.  Terrorism exists all over the world, it happens every day, and we’re all victims of it.  Since Republican Newspeak has conditioned us into thinking “terrorist” means “Muslim,” I believe it’s time we either stop using this word or we use it accurately.  When Israeli soldiers oppress Palestinians, that must be condemned as an act of terror.  The more we use “terrorism” for Muslims and Arabs, the less progress we make.  Worst of all, liberals, democrats, anti-war activists, and even Muslims and people of color engage in Newspeak without even realizing it.

It is time to reflect on the words we say and understand their meanings otherwise the propaganda of “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” will only continue.  Only through understanding can we generate solutions that make the world a better place.

(Photo Credit: Obey)