How anti-Muslim feeling becomes normalised


In a televised interview of Prime Minister Scott Morrison by the Australian public intellectual Waleed Aly, Morrison was asked whether Australia has “a problem with Islamophobia.”

Less than a week after the Christchurch massacre, Morrison replied, “I don’t know if Australians understand Islam very well … and that can often lead to a fear of things that you don’t understand.”

The Prime Minister’s response reflects two myths about Islamophobia:

  • that it is about a lack of understanding, and
  • that it is primarily about fear.

This reflects an egregious misunderstanding of anti-Muslim feeling ― one that denies the deeply entrenched racial logics that serve to render Muslims inherently “other” and therefore incapable of sharing in equal belonging as Australian citizens.

One of the earliest definitions of Islamophobia described it as “unfounded hostility towards Islam” with practical consequences of “unfair discrimination” and exclusion “from mainstream political and social affairs.”

The 1997 report from a London-based racial equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, helpfully contrasted “open” and “closed” views of Islam.

“Open” views see Islam as internally and historically diverse, interdependent with other faiths and cultures, and sincere.

“Closed” views see Islam as monolithic, separate from society and manipulative.

Islam and Muslims are often seen as a monolithic bloc that is unresponsive to new realities, with separate and conflicting values.

At worst, Islam and Muslims are seen as backward, irrational, aggressive and engaged in a “clash of civilizations” incompatible with “the West.”

Claiming that Islamophobia is only about fear distracts us from seeing it for what it really is: a form of racism with historical and cultural depth and a hydra-like manifestation.

Like antisemitism, Islamophobia is a form of racism. And racism never stands still. It shifts throughout history and resurfaces in new and familiar vile guises. Underlying its historical mutations and forms is a shared racial logic that marks others as different and inferior.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Islamophobia-as-racism argument by saying that it is merely “playing the race card” or that Islam is not a “race.”

But that misses the point that racial categories have always been fabrications ― alongside the notion of “racial purity” ― that serve to legitimise control and subjugate inferior “others.”

The deeper point, whatever language we use, lies in the need to understand how groups and identities come to be categorised in ways that render them inferior and unequal.

Racism lies most powerfully below the surface in ordinary opinions and activities.

Take the flourishing of online anti-Muslim and antisemitic jokes.

Simon Weaver argues that these jokes work rhetorically by supporting a “race truth” that maintains and reinforces a “racist commonsense.”

They work because of background racial stereotypes of the “Muslim terrorist” or “greedy Jew.” Continue reading

  • Ryan Williams is Lecturer in Studies in Religion in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge.
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