• What is the relationship between the criticism of Islam and racism?


    This question often comes up when Islam is being discussed, with critics of Islam (either in general or just of related issues like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or gender segregation in universities) being accused of racism.


    The Simple Answer

    Criticism of Islam is not racism, as Islam is a religion, not a race.


    The Intuition Problem

    I think the simple answer is true, but it is worth discussing further as it runs counter to many people’s intuition that there is some element of race involved.

    The first explanation for the intuition is that Islam is a relatively recent* foreign import into the West, with most of its adherents being brown-skinned.

    The second is that groups and individuals considered racist for other reasons often oppose Islam as part of their agenda.


    It is this second explanation that gives us a clue to solving the intuitive problem. The British National Party is seen as racist not because of their stance on Islam in particular but because of their policy (and history) overall. Their opposition to Islam is likely motivated by racism, and that is what makes us associate the hostility towards Islam of groups like the BNP and racism.

    Compare this motivation to that of secularists, atheists, and liberals. They oppose Islam because it is a religion like any other (and so it discovers its doctrines by revelation rather than reason), and it tends to be associated with practices unpalatable to a consistent liberal, such as female genital mutilation, gender segregation, and opposition to core liberal values like free speech†.

    It is in this latter camp that you’ll find people like Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher. They are occasionally accused of racism because of their sometimes heavy-handed criticism of Islam, but I believe that to be a result of confusion based on the intuition problem above.

    Now, while I’ve stated that criticism of Islam is not itself racist, it is possible to be racist in one’s criticism of the religion. This tends to be confined to the former group – the far right groups who oppose Islam because they are racist. Examples might include saying things like “well if they’re going to come over here…”, and concerns about their “breeding rates”. It is not that they’re criticising Islam per se, but because they are talking about Muslims in general as if they are unwelcome immigrants. I’ve never heard this sort of language from the secular liberals.

    In summary: the far-right racists oppose Islam because they are racist, and see Islam as “the religion of the foreigners”. The secular liberals oppose Islam because all or some parts of Islam run counter to secular liberal values. If we are honest, we need to be careful that we aren’t mistaking the motivations of the latter group for those of the former (and vice versa).

    So, when answering the central question of this post, I tend to give the simple answer but include a caveat:


    The Simple Answer With Caveat

    Criticism of Islam is not racism, as Islam is a religion, not a race. However, it is sometimes motivated by racism.


    * A more recent foreign import than Christianity, at least.

    † I don’t want to say that these vile practices are a necessary part of Islam – that’s another discussion entirely. All we need to consider is that many liberals find the motivation to oppose Islam (in some sense) in these sorts of practices.


    Category: FeaturedReligion

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • Why wasn’t there a Notung while Ben Affleck was growing up?

      Great post, Zach!

    • Johnny Wong

      ‘concerns about their “breeding rates”’.

      Yeah, which Bill Maher has expressed concerns over.

    • ssed

      Islam is a political Ideology disguised as a religion

    • All the various flavours of xenophobia can get mixed together easily enough. Here in the American Southwest, the old-fashioned evangelical conservatives are afraid of Hispanics because we tend to be Catholic, and swarthy, and hardworking, etc. (Yes, they really do believe that Catholics are non-Christians.)

      There is fear of the outgroup as heretics, as economic threat, as foreign looking and sounding.Which is just to say that the race thing gets easily mixed in with all the actual cultural distinctions.

    • iamcuriousblue

      It’s Islamism that’s a political ideology, and often a fascist one. Islam is simply a religion. The problem with Islam in today’s world is that Islam has a pretty significant and influential subset who are Islamists, something that’s significantly far larger than the portion of Christians who are Dominionists.

    • I haven’t seen that myself, and Google isn’t giving me any joy either. If he did say it then that’s surprising.

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