Hasan Azad (a doctoral candidate at Columbia in Islamic Studies) and Thomas Beale (an “e-health expert, platform technologist, and e-community builder”) recently discussed – in a solemn and turgid “exchange” for the benefit of readers of The Islamic Monthly – the momentous question of whether “Islamophobia is racism,” and further, whether the “attempt [by “Islamophobes”] to deny the racist nature of Islamophobia is of utility [to them] in extending a particular racial politics without risking the accusation of racism.” Hasan Azad’s short answers: Yes. And Yes. Of course, the more that the racists who are Islamophobes deny that racism has anything to do with Islamophobia, the more that proves, obviously, that they are racist Islamophobes, or Islamophobic racists, or something. Q. E. D. It’s at that level. Next question.
It’s an appalling but comical performance. Thomas Beale and Hasan Azad appear to be engaged in a debate, but in truth, they both take for granted and agree about the very things that most demand discussion. Both are given to breezy pronouncements (“One can’t deny the institutionalized racism in the US,” “I make the point – which is a historico-philosophical one—that European history is ideologically and epistemologically rooted in ‘Otherness’”), often using the modish vocabulary of what Azad calls “the academy,” full of attacks on such things as “post-colonial hegemonic discourse” that only a Hamid Dabashi or a Rashid Khalidi could stand or understand.
They assume that the Western, white world is guilty of “Islamophobia,” a term that’s everywhere in the perfervid musings of Hazan Azad, somewhat less so in the more subdued contribution of Thomas Beale – but which neither deigns to define. Now commonsense tells us that “Islamophobia” ought correctly to be defined as “the irrational fear of, and antipathy towards, Islam.” For Beale and even more for Azad, there is no possibility of a rational fear of Islam. For Azad, all fear of Islam is “irrational.” Not Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, not Al-Baghdadi or Al-Zarqawi, not the Islamic State’s beheadings and immolations, not Boko Haram’s kidnappings, not Osama bin Laden, not Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood , not Mohammad Atta, not Anwar Al-Awlaki, not Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook at San Bernardino, none of the Muslim participants in more than 27,000 separate acts of terror since 9/11 – none of these are mentioned by Beale or Azad as just possibly constituting reasons why some non-Muslims might now be displaying signs of what they inaccurately call “Islamophobia.”
What Beale and Azad are arguing over is not the existence of “Islamophobia” (they agree that it exists, and agree that it is wrong), but whether “Islamophobia” should be considered a form of “racism.” Beale says Islamophobia is not “anti-Muslim personal racism,” but rather, a “fear-of-Islam sentiment.” Of course there is no good reason for that “fear-of-Islam sentiment”; the problem is the ignorance of non-Muslims who “have never educated themselves on Muslim culture or Islam,” and when they express their (baseless) fears, they naturally “sound in some way racist.” And Muslims in turn feel “insulted” and become “reactive.” So what we have here is apparently a Failure to Communicate. What is needed is for non-Muslims to “bother to find out about Islam” (apparently non-Muslims still know so little, after all these years), so that they can “contribute to the kinds of conversations being had by modernizing Muslims” and “can articulate real problems (radicalization etc.).” Those last two words constitute Beale’s only recognition that there might just be something wrong – a “real problem” – not with Islam itself, but with that supposedly bizarre version of it that always appears after “radicalization.” It’s not much, but more than the nothing that Hasan Azad concedes.
Azad doesn’t think there’s any failure to communicate. He thinks “Islamophobia” is “racism” even though Islamophobes deny it – they would, wouldn’t they? — and he quotes favorably a paragraph from one David Tyrer, a “Reader in Critical Theory at Liverpool John Moores University,” which deserves to be given in full:
The attempt to deny the racist nature of Islamophobia is of utility in extending a particular racial politics without risking the accusation of racism, and in doing so it also centres problematic ideas of phenotypal racial difference, not by labeling Muslims as biologically bounded but by contrasting Muslims against other minorities who are held as such. It thus guarantees the continued hold of race as the basis for organising society and distinguishing between subjects, because it holds phenotypal race as the logical arbiter of whether racism can be said to exist. However, it also constructs Muslims as a lack — as lacking raciality.
No, I didn’t understand all of it, either. But I gather that Hasan Azad had no trouble with the mumbo-jumbo, for he confidently explains: “In other words, by denying that Islamophobia is racist, Islamophobes both reconfirm a politics of racism, where society is organized hierarchically by ‘race’ (which, let us remember, is a modern Western construct that was historically, and till now, used to categorize differences among peoples for the purposes of ruling over them by white Europeans, the master race…)”
Now do you feel better? But you already knew that most of world history is all about white Europeans and their belief that they constitute a “master race” – which is why they had to “construct” the idea of “race” in the first place. And now those diabolical Europeans, racist Islamophobes all, deny that Islamophobia can be racism, because Muslims, they claim, are not a race. Europeans “make disparaging comments regarding Muslims and Islam,” claim that Islam is “backwards,” that Muslims need to “modernize,” that they are “irrational,” that their religion is “inherently violent.” (Where do those Islamophobes get these crazy ideas?) Europeans even seem to believe in the “intrinsic superiority of Western theories of knowledge, of Western politics, of Western ideas and of Western ethics.” And if that kind of criticism isn’t the “racism” of a would-be “master race,” I don’t know what is. I’m only surprised that Hasan Azad neglected to name-drop Adolf Hitler, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Simon Legree.
To bring us back to reality: Islam existed for 1350 years before anyone brought up the notion that Muslims constituted a “race.” And the only people who did so are the hasan-azads of this world, in order to attribute the claim to, and thereby blacken the names of, those they call “islamophobes.” Now those putative “islamophobes” know perfectly well that Islam makes a universalist claim. It is open to all, and unlike Hinduism or Judaism, is not limited to a particular people (though Arabs have pride of place). We’ve all seen the photographs of Mecca during the hajj, where every racial group is represented. And in the benighted West, we know that Muslims no more constitute a “race” than do Christians. But Azad refuses to let this go.
Beale agrees with Azad that there is a real problem with “Islamophobia.” It’s just that he sees this “phobia” as having “far more to do with fear of a radical [violent] ideology than any ‘race’ problem.” That “radical [violent] ideology” is a threat to those “parts of the Western tradition” that “most educated people want to keep” – “liberty of speech and thought, the rule of law, human rights, secular democracy” – and he implausibly describes these achievements of the Western world, attained over two millennia of struggle, as “not Western, other than historically” (what does that mean?) and insists that “similar thinking can be found in other cultures.” Which other cultures does Beale have in mind? If one of those “other cultures” is that of Islam, it would be helpful to have him forthrightly state that, so we could then ask him to expatiate upon this “similar thinking” about “freedom of speech and thought, the rule of law, human rights, secular democracy” in Islam. Don’t we have a right to be provided with the textual and historical evidence that would support such an astonishing claim?
Here and there Beale does hint that there may be some slight validity to Western worries about Islam. For example, he says that when “one group of people” (i.e., Christians) perceive “another group from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia” whose “members self-identify as ‘Muslim’ prior to any other category,” they – those Christians – “start to put them [the Muslims] in a category like Christian Evangelicals…and… start worrying about fanaticism.” So when Muslims “self-identify as Muslims,” they put Beale in mind, in their potential for fanaticism, of….Christian Evangelicals. Now think of all the acts of terrorism and mass killings by Muslims. Then think of all the similar acts for which Christian Evangelicals have been held responsible. Compare. Contrast.
The “exchange” between Thomas Beale and Hasan Azad includes a segment on that still-fashionable academic topic, “Otherness.” For Azad, Europeans fear Muslims because their own history is “ideologically and epistemologically rooted in ‘Otherness.’” Apparently those Europeans have always needed an “Other” to fear and to hate. For Azad, the fear of Muslims has nothing to do with the Muslim conquests in past centuries, or with the Muslim invasion of Europe at the present time, but everything to do with the psychic needs of Europeans themselves. Hasan Azad doesn’t appear to recognize – he says not a word about – how the conflict between Believer and Unbeliever sits at the very center of Islamic teachings. Nor is history his strong suit. There’s not a word about the Muslim armies that conquered the once-Christian East, and North Africa, and subjugated its peoples, went into southern France and, while turned back at Poitiers by Charles Martel, managed to hold onto the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years, won the Christian territories in Anatolia and southeastern Europe, and transformed the Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Empire into the Ottoman state where Muslims rule to this day, while for more than a millennium, by sea Muslim corsairs from North Africa ravaged the coasts of western Europe, raiding villages as far north as Ireland and even, on one occasion, Iceland, while the Ottoman Turks, having carried their conquests ever deeper into eastern Europe, sent their armies into Hungary and, on two occasions, managed to lay siege to Vienna. Azad’s failure to mention any of this suggests he considers it all irrelevant; for Hasan Azad, Europeans needed someone to play the role of “the Other,” and there were the Muslims, just waiting for their close-up.
A few years ago, in a piece posted at The Huffington Post, Hasan Azad bemoaned the fact that Muslims were beginning to feel unwelcome “in their own country” (America) because “[Americans] are who we are in the truest deepest sense, as a result of our coming to know each other – in the truest, deepest sense.” I allow myself to believe that in reviewing his vaporings on “Islamophobia” and “racism,” I have come – in the “truest deepest sense” — to know something about what makes Hasan Azad tick, and I’m sorry to say it has little to do, in the truest deepest sense, with these United States.