The Racist Nature of Critiques of Islamic Culture

There’s something that just has not managed to permeate the collective skulls of Western discourse, and by extension the atheist community. This something is second nature, an obvious sense, for anyone who takes part in or is schooled by radical progressive social movements. That thing is the nature of how racism works. And honestly, in this post, I don’t have a lot new to add to this conversation if you’re a regular reader of Crommunist’s, or of Crunk Feminists or the many many awesome bloggers who focus on racism out there. My only goal here is to tackle this beast that continually dogs atheists, and that they refuse to engage with in a really childish way: Islamophobia.

The particular strand of Islamophobia I’m going to talk about here is the sort that is directed from the atheist movement by its leading lights; for ten years now, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, and plenty of others have reserved their best vitriol for anything associated with Islam. They attack it and its followers in a way they don’t attack Christianity or Judaism or any other faith; they declare Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” use words like barbaric , warlike, savage, words that generally evoke images of medieval warfare and pagan blood rites, terminology more akin to hordes of orcs than human beings who worship a certain way. And it’s not just Dawkins et al who do this; when pretty much anyone writes about Islam in Western media, it is always accompanied with these dehumanizing terms. The same cannot be said of when they write about creationists.

First of all, I want to make a claim that will already put most people who read this post into a spluttering rage: Islamophobia is a thing that exists. Just as much as any other phobia, i.e. an irrational fear, can exist. Saying that irrational fear of Islam does not exist, as some have done, is to ignore evidence and common sense in the same way that creationists poo-poo evolutionary theory. So, for those of us who accept that there are those who blindly hate and fear Muslims, we can pillory those who deny it, and furthermore engage in noxious attacks on the Muslim world at large, in the same way PZ Myers attacks fundamentalists. In fact, it’s rather poetic that we can do it in his way, since he’s one of the ones who routinely denies Islamophobic attacks.

Frankly, whenever it happens, what springs to mind for me when I read these posts is the old literature about blacks; the great white intellectuals like Meiners and Kant who spoke of them as being human in form but animal in mind and other pseudoscientific tropes. Blacks were cast as barbarians, less-evolved beings from “the dark continent” who were not true human beings because they had not been the beneficiaries of white knowledge and learning. The same is now done in our modern society to Muslims. Since 9/11, we’ve been taught by the government and the media to fear not just Islam as an idea, but anyone who “looks Muslim;” as such, stories of suspicion, discrimination, and violence against American Muslims and those who are not Muslim but look like they might be are legion.

Think back to the manufactured uproar around the Park51 community center that an Islamic group wanted to build near the site of Ground Zero in 2010. Hysterical newscasters and pundits declared that this place was going to become a terrorist training camp, with tiny children working the monkey bars and firing AK-47’s, young minds formed by wicked imams to become the Battery Park Taliban. Sam Harris, ever the neocon, was right there, speaking out against it, raving about how it would be seen as a conquering moment for Islamic terrorists. But it isn’t. It’s a JCC run by people with Middle Eastern-sounding names who happen to think a seventh-century political leader was pretty cool. Divine, even. The controversy was a manufactured one, based on cultural stigma and racism, nothing that was substantive in any way.

Now, I don’t mean to discount the fact that there are Islamic terrorists who do terrible things. Obviously, there are. But they are often cast as being the only terrorists, or the most evil and dangerous, when plenty of white Christians are committing terrorist attacks; Anders Breivik, Wade Michael Page, and Adam Lanza’s atrocities are not couched in the same kind of racial, imperialist language as are Muslim attacks. The epidemic of sexual violence against women and killings of trans* people in the United States isn’t acknowledged by these thinkers, but they practically froth at the mouth over honor killings and veils in the Middle East. Nathan Lean made this point as well in a recent piece for Salon:

Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”

Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”

I don’t know if these people are truly racist or not. They and their fanboys certainly don’t think that they are. But they exhibit a strong pattern of critique that is based on racist and imperialist assumptions of Muslims and their society, not on the substantive fact that this violence of the sort they pin on Islam is systemic and permeates every single group of people on this planet. Honor killings and beatings of wives and daughters is not an exclusively Muslim practice: it happens everywhere. Terrorism is not a Muslim invention; it comes from everywhere. They only critique patriarchy and violence when it involves Muslims, and ignore it elsewhere; their rhetoric smacks of opportunism, not of real concern.

Dawkins, Harris, and all the others who continuously pick out Islam as the world’s one true problem need to think bigger, and need to realize their own innate prejudices. Their critiques are not fair, and they are not rational; they are attacking a certain pattern of behavior and attributing it to one extremely oppressed and marginalized group of people, and seem to have blinders on to the same behavior when it involves white, “civilized” people. That is racist. That is bigoted. That is lazy thinking. We can, and should, critique Islam without bowing to these kind of tropes.

Football, Rape Culture, and The Great American Gaslight, Part 1

[trigger warning for rape]

In my day to day life, I try to avoid American football at all costs. For me, it has always been symptomatic of everything loathsome about America; the games seem more like three hour advertisements than sporting events, designed to carry on the capitalist dream at all costs by selling viewers everything they can while a game of some sort happens in the background. In certain parts of the country, particularly Texas, the high school game is an inextricable part of the culture, with some schools’ stadiums holding as many people as do those of professional teams, and costing astronomical amounts of money. Money that could be spent teaching children proper history or science regularly is diverted to the football teams, with predictable results; the game is a religion unto itself, unlike any other sport in the world, even proper football.

This kind of thinking, privileging football above education, has continued into the college game in several high profile instances, most publicized being the case of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State University, the latter being one of the most well known college football programs in the country, whose upper echelons conspired to cover up Sandusky’s sexual abuse of 52 children over a 15 year period, some of whom were involved in The Second Mile, Sandusky’s program for underprivileged youth. After this came to light, he was eventually indicted,  convicted and sent to prison, but not without riots breaking out from large parts of the Penn State student body, who flipped a news van and caused property damage over the firing of coach Joe Paterno, who was among those who assisted in the coverup.

The whole affair, particularly the protests in support of Paterno, was one of the most visible manifestations of male privilege and rape culture. I realize that both of these are very loaded terms, and, thanks to some feedback from friends, I realize I’ve been a bit lax in actually defining social justice terminologies for those of you who read this blog, so I’m going to try and do that from now on. So, over the course of this post and the ones that will follow it, I am going to try, via the lens of football as America’s true civil religion, which seems to stand inviolate above nearly everything else, to present privilege and rape culture as the driving forces behind the whole apparatus of the game, as the things which make it so powerful and entrenched. Who knows, we may get into a little bit of nationalist theory too. First off, I am going to introduce my theoretical framework of feminist epistemology as the grounding for all of this.

I mentioned privilege above, and also its loadedness as a term, and so I’m going to try and defuse that a bit. Privilege, as elucidated at greater length here and here, we define as being a set of unearned advantages conferred upon a person or group based upon socially constructed (i.e. skin color is not genetically determined, women aren’t naturally less rational than men, etc.) notions of normalcy. Our society has over the past several decades, particularly since the Civil Rights movement, been oriented to ignore aspects of identity that have historically been used to ostracize and demean those who do not ascribe to Western societal norms; thus, we have, through a widespread, nearly all-encompassing apathy, made it so that it is nearly completely taboo to even discuss gender or particularly race; the done thing is to prove that you’re not prejudiced by not even taking into account issues of identity, only viewing your black friend based on their personality and moral character, because after all, if race is a social construction, then surely it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be considered, right?

Well, not quite. When we do that, and ignore aspects of identity that determine entire groups of people’s social status, we’re not being caring or sensitive. What we’re doing when we make ourselves blind to the issues inherent to gender, race, class, or any socially constructed divide is further exercising our privilege. In epistemology, this is referred to primarily in the “problem of the rational knower.” Lorraine Code, in her book What Can She Know?, analyzes this problem in depth, and it is from her that I shall draw here.

Referring to that problem, that being whether or not it is important for us to be aware of the sex of the knower. According to Code, academic philosophy has the habit of treating the knower as a “featureless abstraction.”[1] In the logical proposition “S knows that P,” which is the most basic form at the heart of philosophy, she claims that the emphasis is never on who that knower is, but instead what it is that they know; this then leads to understanding of everything that prevails in those conditions stated. This is a part of the grand project of modern philosophy, which, it is posited, examines the “problem of knowledge” in order to determine the “possibility and justification of knowledge claims” in order to establish a “relation of correspondence between knowledge and ‘reality’ and/or ways of establishing the coherence of particular knowledge claims within systems of already-established truths.”[2] These set methodologies, then, endeavor to make these truth claims in order to ground them within a “permanent, objective, ahistorical and circumstantially neutral framework or set of standards. The question ‘Who is S?’ is regarded neither as legitimate nor as relevant to these endeavors.”[3]

It is this latter part wherein lies the rub for Code; those making the judgments about permanence, objectivity, ahistoricity and neutrality are, in attempting to live up to those mandates, working for a sort of purity in which questions of identity cannot enter. Code disagrees strenuously, for she believes that such an unattached, impartial knower is nonexistent, nor is it truly possible for such a person to ever exist. She introduces a type of relativism into the conversation, asserting that a certain epistemological relativism can hold that “knowledge, truth, or even ‘reality’ can be understood only in relation to particular sets of cultural or social circumstances… Conditions of justification, criteria of truth and falsity, and standards of rationality are likewise relative.”[4] The universal purity that her targets ascribe to simply does not exist in the real world.

There are however many critics of relativism in this context, asserting that it would be a disaster to move in such a direction, but Code believes it is possible to avoid the slide into subjectivism that they so fear; her relativism is one that would sidestep reductionism and simplified planes of knowledge, and could keep open “a range of interpretive range of possibilities… it creates stringent accountability requirements of which knowers have to be cognizant.”[5] With this, she has introduced a moral-political requirement to epistemology, but cautions against not just authoritative statements on the matters of knowledge and rationality, but on any idea that the subjectivity and circumstances of the knower are the only paradigms to consider; they are significant, but not definitive. This distinction will be very important to the rest of the book.

Returning to the sex of the knower, Code posits that this sort of absolutism in epistemological endeavors has led to the construction of women as, simply, not-men. It is the case that the “S” of “S knows that P” has been “tacitly assumed” as male, but not just any male; “the S who could count as a model, paradigmatic knower has most commonly – if always tacitly – been an adult (but not old), white, reasonably affluent (latterly middle-class) educated man of status, property, and publicly acceptable accomplishments. In theory of knowledge he has been allowed to stand for all men.”[6] These expectations are not mere habit, she asserts, but instead the product of the conscious convictions of philosophy, and has been engrained for centuries; when this issue arises among male philosophers, they say that things are “as they should be.”[7]

This being the case, women are in effect judged to lack the capacity to be proper knowers. Code recounts Aristotle, my man Rousseau, and Kierkegaard amongst others in the Western philosophical tradition who have said as much. Amongst all, women’s knowledge is “inherently and inevitably” subjective, whereas the defining feature of knowledge has been commonly regarded as objectivity. Here, Code has an easy answer to the question of the knower’s sex; if women’s knowledge is naturally subjective, then “if the world-be knower is female, then her sex is indeed epistemologically significant, for it disqualifies her as a knower in the fullest sense of that term.”[8] It comes down essentially to a question of access; historically, many forms of knowledge, particularly those explored at institutions of higher learning, have been unattainable for women; this leads to the question of whether “maleness” or “femaleness” are subjective factors of the sort that form and are constitutive of knowledge; however, given the fact such a binary consideration would fail to adequately take into account how gender functions across a spectrum in society, which Code very rightly points out, such an analysis would be far too problematic to be able to form a proper answer.[9] The question, then, is not necessarily between genders, but between the natural and the socialized, and whether that dichotomy has any validity.

In short, what we find ourselves faced with when we enter into the social world is one built on foundations of inequality. Our society has been constructed so that a normative class of white men are perceived at all turns as being the most rational, the most knowledgeable, the most trustworthy. With this in mind, in my next post, I will further add to this rationale and begin to apply it to the stories I briefly introduced at the beginning of this post, as well as in other instances.

[1]    Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge.

                (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991): 1.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    p. 2.

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    p. 3.

[6]    p. 7.

[7]    Ibid.

[8]    p. 10.

[9]    p. 12.