Last week was the 20th anniversary of a major report on anti-Muslim sentiment in the United Kingdom. To mark the occasion, another major report was released. In it, the phrase "anti-Muslim racism" was used, which attracted interest in and of itself. Is this the phrase we now ought to be using to be describing structural societal hostility towards Muslims in the West? Or does it raise questions that we may not have holistic answers to?
The most common objection to the term "anti-Muslim racism" is a simplistic, often misleading one: that Muslims are "not a race". Of course, this is utterly true – Muslims are not a race. They are a religious group, characterised by their affinity to a set of religious beliefs. At the same time, the vast majority of objections in this regard seem mostly to be made in order to escape accusations of bigotry. We can't be bigots, so the claim goes, because Muslims are not a race. It's a deceptive statement when deployed in this fashion, and it should be recognised as such.
Yet Muslims are indeed not a racial group. In some places, Muslims might be predominantly from a certain ethnic background, but that doesn’t make them a race. Anyone can become a Muslim, just as anyone can leave Islam: the very nature of that kind of commitment is quite different from a racial category.
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And yet, there is an important reality at play here – and it is that, while Muslims may not be a race, anti-Muslim sentiment has become increasingly "racialised". Sikhs, for example, will be mistaken as being Muslim, and attacked as such. The rhetoric in the public sphere around Muslims is often far more akin to anti-Semitism, rather than simply critiques about Islam and religious practice. As Bristol University professor Tariq Modood puts it, it is a "non-biological form of racism" that Muslim Britons in particular – but one could extrapolate to the rest of Western Muslim communities – suffer. One should make no mistake: critique and criticism of Muslims in the public sphere is, indeed, "racialised", even if there is no "race" per se that is involved.
Nonetheless, there are still legitimate and genuine objections to the phrase "anti-Muslim racism". It may well be that the usage of the term will help in tackling the phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiment, and the structural bigotry they face in various forms in western societies. But then, if the term is used in order to push back on injustice against Muslim Western communities, rather than out of a recognition of its internal, intellectual cohesion, then this may be more of a political decision. It may well be that is the way to go – but if so, it needs to be made abundantly clear.
There may be other reasons to object to the phrase, which have to do with bigotry or prejudice against other groups, albeit not necessarily in the UK. Does the appalling treatment, for example, of Coptic Christians in Egypt by radical extremists mean there exists an "anti-Copt racism"? What about when Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims clash, or systematically abuse one another in different geographical contexts – are these types of racism?
They might well be considered as such, just as "anti-Muslim racism", according to its supporters, ought be considered as such. But if so, perhaps this says more about how we recognise and consider the appalling ways in which race is engaged with in the West today, rather than the internal intellectual cohesion of how these types of words are actually used. Perhaps it says far less about the theoretical reality of what racism actually is, and far more about recognising the Muslims of our country and the continent of Europe are viewed, wrongly, as the "other". They are citizens and so forth – but they are certainly not universally recognised within the UK as being truly British. The "otherising" of the Muslims has become so pronounced and widespread, and perhaps as a result, the phrase "anti-Muslim racism" becomes less problematic.
But this is the problem with our intellectual discourse today – it is reactionary at the best of times. Hence why today, we find many who are so very keen to embrace the term "anti-Muslim racism" with open arms. Perhaps the use of the phrase is "political" and even "pragmatic" because of the "othering" of Muslim communities in the UK and beyond.
I remain less than completely convinced by the intellectual underpinning thus far of the phrase "anti-Muslim racism", though I am open to changing my mind. But I wholly agree that the critique of Muslims is seldom due to interest in scholarship of the Quran – these are polemical, bigoted attacks, and they often do indeed remind me of anti-Jewish tomes of the 1920 and 1930s. In that regard, they are racialised, whether, again, we like it or not. And while that is the case, there are going to be people who will use the term precisely to fight back against anti-Muslim bigotry and racism in many parts of the world. For that, we've really nothing to complain about.On the contrary, our attention ought to be deployed far more vigorously in ensuring this structural and societal bigotry is tackled head on.
Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London