The racism of the white wolf who cried Islamophobia
There’s a bee in my bonnet. Let’s talk about the racism of the white wolf who cried Islamophobia.
I’m tired of a certain faction of Western liberals, especially white guys, Westsplaining about how anti-Muslim bigotry and Western colonialism and imperialism and international geopolitics provide *essential context* for understanding the sources of Muslim problems, which don’t come from a vacuum, how there are striking *parallels* between liberal critique of Islam and right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry.
Hey guy, I had no idea that you had such an adept understanding of what it’s like to live in a Muslim culture under the influence of the effects Western colonialism and international geopolitics. Please, tell me more, Westsplain to me, oh white man, how imperialism is responsible for me being forced to wear hijab for 15 years, suffering honor violence, and living a dangerous double life until my escape. Please condescendingly explain to me in the terms of your own culture where my oppression *really* comes from.
Look, I’m not denying that imperialism and geopolitics certainly help this ish along, often significantly. I’m not denying that anti-Muslim bigotry is a pervasive and significant problem. But those things are not an *explanation*. They are contributing factors at best that neither sufficiently explain nor excuse the blatant transgressions of Muslims and the horrible conditions in Muslim-majority countries. There is also an ironic lack of focus on Arab imperialism and the manner in which Islam has been reified, propagated, and been used to justify horrors in the Middle East and South Asia *far preceding* the West dipping its fingers into that mess. Sorry to strip you of credit for this, really, but it’s not the West that created the dehumanizing elements of Muslim cultures. There is also ironic lack of focus on the booming (essentially) slave trade disguised as a migrant worker system exploiting Africans and South and Southeast Asians that is utterly normalized in the Gulf and Levant. This isn’t some big bad monster wrought by the damning hand of Western imperialism and anti-Muslim bigotry. It has well transcended reasonable standards of the acceptable under those constraints, and the prevalence of normalized oppressive sentiment is not some fringe side effect of the injustices of white men. Growing up in Hezbollah culture, it was plain to see how Western-driven war and occupation helped fuel the return to fundamentalist Shia Islam, but it hardly exonerates us South Lebanese and Lebanese-Palestinian mashups from responsibility for the decisions we’ve made since then, for our violence and bigotry, for the culture of control and oppression and we’ve rooted ourselves into in response to these problems. Surely it doesn’t come from a vacuum, but you might have to live and be socialized in a Muslim country under the effects of such imperialism to recognize how fully much of it comes from ourselves, how essentialized scripture and deeply-rooted honor-shame codes fuel Islamism and the grave and rote dehumanization built into our cultures.
Sorry, but the West can’t take credit for this too.
And the supreme irony here? The blatant condescension of this PoV. It really is such a white-centric thing to try to explain the Muslim issue in those terms, to essentialize our problems in terms of your culture’s imperialism. It is also–and I’m not holding my breath for anyone to realize this anytime soon–buying into the same anti-brown racism to continually draw analogies between liberal critiques of Islam and right-wing anti-Muslim bigotries, to present eg the often-racist ignorant spewings of Dawkins and his ilk as the FACE of liberal and atheist discourse regarding the matter so you can self-righteously jump to condemn the obviously condemnable just as you raise it to the level of being representative of the entire liberal and atheist community, ironically completely drowning out and excluding the voices of Ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims, especially women, from the categories of ‘Western’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘atheist discourse’, othering us and contributing to our silence and marginalization. We don’t want Dawkins and Harris to be the driving voices of liberal discourse regarding Islam either. Stop excluding us. Stop alienating us. Stop reducing us to the norms of our home cultures, as if we’re incapable of engaging with them or transcending them, and stop creating a binary between us and our values and liberalism and its values.
Stop making our issues about you and your imperialism. By focusing so long and hard on your condemnation of anti-Muslim bigotry and white savior complexes, you are silencing us. You are othering us. You are explaining things about the very people whose marginalization you decry over and above their own voices and lived experiences. Cut that shit out.
And this is what I hear from you when you continually raise the flag of anti-imperialism above all other concerns regarding the Muslim issues. I hear that you do not think well enough of us as Muslims and Arabs and Persians and Kurds and Turks and South Asians and Africans to grapple with these imperialistic and geopolitical forces without being expected to refrain from falling into dehumanization and violence because of them.
That, because of imperialism, it is okay to hold us to standards that deplete to even the sub-human.
That we cannot or should not be responsible, strong, or aware enough to resist becoming aggressors ourselves because we have been aggressed against.
That Western imperialism is a greater driving force than anything we make, say, or do.
That you do not believe that Muslims and Ex-Muslims and people from Muslim-majority countries speaking on the matter–whether in affirming or critiquing ways–are powerful enough voices to speak to their own experiences, or to be taken as key or representative.
That it is okay for you to refuse to acknowledge our oppression as specifically non-white in source in order to avoid enabling the ‘save the brown women narrative’, because you somehow can’t see anything other than such a white-centric result being possible, as if we do not fucking exist as powerful critiquers of our own cultures, as if acknowledging the oppressive matters of fact of our existence suddenly renders us weak or incapable of engaging with it, as if your refusal to acknowledge our victimhood is anything more noble than a silencing mechanism, because you yourself somehow subscribe to some strange essentializing view that a victimized brown woman is a silent and passive one.
I hear you implying, too, that you have any real experiential knowledge from which to assess the horrors of Western imperialism vs the horrors of Islamist control and misogyny and decide which to decry. That in your transcending fear of enabling the right-wing bigotry that leads to further imperialist force, you can and will make judgments as to what is best for us regarding which of the damning powers contributing to our shitty lives should be enabled or discouraged, that you can and will make judgments as to which of the damning powers holding us down and controlling us is more or less serious or grave.
That, friend, is what is fucking racist.
Ohai! Please consider a donation to help keep my blog running (and to help me get to the Women in Secularism Conference next month!)
UPDATE ABOUT YOUR QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS:
I have had responses to this piece coming from various platforms (email, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit) and two lines of questioning continue to reappear, so I’ll address them here. This will be the final place I will address them *on this post*. This is what I have to say about the subject and I will not approve further comments that ask questions that have already been answered below (including in the pieces I will link to) or that repeat points made by others. I will not approve further comments that misrepresent or misunderstand my position. I will approve comments that ask or point out something new, but I won’t engage with them — please understand that I’ve been responding to questions and explaining my position for a long time and I need a small break. I *will* try to write future posts regarding these things in more detail:
1) Questions about my addressing liberal Westerners and white men and talking about racism regarding Muslims. Some people continue to point out that 1) being white and being Western ought not to determine whether/how Islam can be reasonably talked about, and 2) especially as Muslims can be and are white and Western too. As for the first point, I don’t disagree as a matter of necessity, but I will stress that your background is relevant to the amount of knowledge and experience that informs and strengthens your arguments. As for the second point – YES- that only reinforces my stance. Perhaps some subtleties of my argument above need explaining:
The proponents of the argument that I’m critiquing endorse it *precisely because* they feel, *particularly as* white Westerners who want to acknowledge and grapple with their privilege, it would be racist to critique Islam due to the inluence of the West in Muslim -majority countries worldwide. I’m showing that *in their very attempts* to not be racist towards brown people, who *they* are concerned with as constituting the majority of Muslims worldwide, they are excluding us from the categories of “Western” and “liberal” and silencing us and speaking for us — which is *ironically* racist because their argument to start with is born of an awareness of their whiteness and Westernness and a desire to not be appropriative of others. My piece is in critique of the fundamentally flawed premise that their argument is anti-racist. Thus I’m grappling with the terms the original argument sets out in order to meet it head on. THAT is why racism and being Western and white is relevant. Thus eg the “oh white man” in the second paragraph is used satirically– when white guys consistently say “as a white guy I think we need to not talk about Islam because of how our colonialism and imperialism and islamiphobia leads to these problems for the Muslim world”, it is appropriate to respond by saying “hey white guy, you’re silencing us in your very attempt to not appropriate us”. When being white and Western is the reason *given* for this stance, It’s appropriate to respond according to those terms.
If that’s still unclear maybe I’m just bad at explaining. But if you still dont get what I’m doing in this piece, I’m sorry, I dont really know how to further elaborate.
2) Questions about why/how I am calling Dawkins racist and what problem I have with Harris.
Re: Dawkins. I said Dawkin’s stances are often racist– this has nothing to do with him being white or him critiquing Islam. Let me emphasize: *I want everyone of all backgrounds with adequate knowledge to continue to be free to critique Islam without blame for doing it as such*. It has to do with the racializing and othering *manner* in which I have great reason to believe *Dawkins in particular* does it. Yes, Islam is not a race — but neither are *most things* that are or can be discussed in racist ways, eg rap music, poor working single moms, sports mascots, Halloween costumes, etc. While critique of Islam doesn’t have to be racist, and so much of it is NOT, it certainly can be. So here it is: I find the *manner in which* Dawkins discusses Islam (and to be honest, feminism and sexual harassment too) to be often fundamentally problematic. And to be clear, I’m a fan of a good portion of Dawkins’ work on biology and atheism. I wrote a paper for Dennett’s graduate seminar in defense of the selfish gene theory. So my stance is also not so much regarding either Dawkins himself or the bulk of his work, but regarding particular of his stances on particular subjects he is less adept in.
For a little more detail to why I think Dawkin’s approach is often incredibly problematic, there’s this post (and the post to which it’s replying) that detail a lot of my views regarding critique of Islam. I don’t go into too many specifics of many of his particular stances, choosing instead to comment on his general approach. I suppose I could go into detail in the future, but I’m not super invested because I think there are far important things to devote my limited resources to discussing than critiquing Dawkins, and several people have already written on the matter in compelling ways. But in any case, this post clarifies a lot regarding my standards for reasoned critique of Islam:
As for Harris, I *did not* say his stances are often racist as I did about Dawkins, so please don’t conflate the two statements. I love a lot of what he does, especially because he is careful and detailed and freely fearlessly outspoken, and I take far issue with a very few of his stances (except as regarding his encouragement of what is basically racial profiling in airports but I’d have to tackle his detailed argument in detail myself to clarify my stance regarding that)– my statement was rather that I don’t want his voice to be the driving one in liberal discourse regarding Islam I hope to see ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims, who are more knowledgeable and uniquely experienced and can speak first-hand to certain horrors in Muslim-majority countries in articulate, compelling ways– ESPECIALLY women, the largest sufferers under Islamism, have their voices enabled as the leaders of this discourse instead of being consistently overshadowed by famous Western men speaking for them–I hope Harris et al to be strong secondary voices in support of us, in addition to ours, but for us to no longer be silenced in the name of anti-racist liberalism.
I make a strong argument for the adequate representation of ex-Muslim women here:
”To be clear, it is a wonderful thing that we have allies, friends, and supporters championing our causes to highlight and critique the circumstances that have structured our experiences. However, the status quo at the moment in mainstream media has those voices largely overpowering ours when it comes to speaking about our experiences. Despite the fact that this is less than ideal for powerful, effective critique. Why give space to secondary sources when people with more insight and knowledge are easily accessible and readily available to speak for themselves? People who have lived knowledge of the intricacies of the power-privilege and honor-shame dynamics of the societies in question, who were intimately involved in the very religious systems that are being scrutinized? Women are often the greatest sufferers under Islam, and our experiences can be very difficult to adequately imagine and capture indeed. Why forgo the opportunity to let us tell the powerful, compelling, sometimes unbelievable stories of our lives and our critiques of them? Especially when so many of us are so incredibly intelligent and articulate when it comes to these matters. To be clear, secondary sources are a strong asset to support and champion our own–but when they are magnified to our exclusion, there is something quite amiss going on.
… Now imagine if the largest liberal platform regarding this issue was given to Ex-Muslims, who are largely people of color who were socialized and lived enmeshed lives in Muslim-majority countries and societies, who have the requisite knowledge and experience to discuss these matters in informed ways, who are far less likely to fall into mistaken generalizations. Who also cannot be easily discounted as ignorant appropriators–who have incisive, eloquent critiques to give about being marginalized, who refuse to be swept aside using the No True Muslim fallacy. Who will not stand to have their legitimacy to speak about their own lives challenged without powerful retort.”
Thanks for reading. Well wishes.