This seems to be a rallying cry for many atheists, particularly those who criticize Islam. And I do think that most really believe that’s all they’re doing, and aren’t consciously singling Muslims out due to racial bias. However, as I argued in my last post, reality is a bit more complicated than this assertion portrays, and I’m going to look at two historical examples of religiously and racially motivated prejudice to illustrate why I believe this is true.
Typical caveat: as a white woman, neither prejudice has affected me personally, nor has Islamophobia. Readers with first hand experience, please do correct me if I get something wrong.
Historically, anti-Semitism has manifested itself in dual ways: racial prejudice and religious prejudice. Take, for example, the Inquisition. Europe’s Catholic rulers drove out the Muslim Moors while also targeting its minority Jewish population–and this wasn’t just due to religion. To European Catholics, Jewishness, and the Jewish religion, were inextricably connected to blood. It’s why inquisitors like the infamous St. John of Capistrano targeted even conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution and death. Christianity was measured by blood, and not just by confession. In Spain, inquisitors believed in a concept called limpieza de sangre, or cleanliness of blood. Blood purity, in case the white supremacist connotations weren’t clear enough. Your status as a good Catholic depended on how many Catholic ancestors you could claim. Conversos, obviously, couldn’t claim very many. They were of impure blood. And they died for it.
I think you can also see echoes of limpieza de sangre in Hitler’s Final Solution. The rise of the Nazi Party was accompanied by laws that specifically targeted and forbade the religious practices of Germany’s Jewish community. Once again, religious prejudice was tied to racial prejudice–and we know what happened in the Third Reich.
Japanese Internment Camps
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans became the targets of an American government intent on rooting out foreign interlopers. Many Americans viewed their Japanese neighbors as subhuman, alien figures with allegiances to a foreign power–and religion played a role. Japanese identity, like Jewish identity, was actively characterized as a threat to American sovereignty not only because of its racial distinctiveness, but due to its association with Shintoism. According to many supporters of Japanese internment, Shintoism compelled Japanese Americans to obey the Emperor over the American government and to subjugate their non-Japanese neighbors.
That might sound familiar.
As a direct result of these sentiments, the American government interned over 110,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor until the end of World War II.
So Why Is This Relevant?
When a ruling class targets a minority class, it’s never just about religion. Religious and racial prejudice have historically walked hand in hand. I’ve been repeatedly accused of trying to argue that we can never criticize religion, and I want to make it clear that this is not a thing I have ever or will ever argue. Rather, I’m arguing that our critiques need to be historically informed. We need to understand and acknowledge that religious prejudice exists and that it is linked to racial prejudice. We need to understand the consequences of reducing a community to a monolithically barbaric Other.
When white liberals say that the hijab is intrinsically misogynist, that’s what they’re doing. They are calling this symbol, which is not their symbol, which is, for better or worse, associated with a racial identity they do not share, backwards. They have declared open season on anyone who wears it. They have erased an individual’s specific relationship to this symbol and imposed their own meaning upon it and make no mistake, that is a form of cultural violence. That remains true when they attack a white convert for adopting it; we are delusional if we don’t believe there’s a racial component to that. How could a free white woman prefer the sexism of brown men?
If we know our history, then we should know the consequences of cultural violence. This doesn’t mean we become cultural relativists. We can say unequivocally that female genital mutilation, or blasphemy laws, or other forms of oppression, are wrong and should be eliminated. But the roots of these laws are not to be found in religion but in something far more banal and universal: human nature. They are what happens when privilege goes unchecked and power is corrupted. This is not a religious problem. It is a human problem. And so it is absurd to assert that the hijab, as a religious symbol, represents a unique injustice unless it is always accompanied by oppressive practices. Of course, this is not the case.
It is convenient to characterize Islam as particularly violent and oppressive, but it’s not true. It wasn’t true when Catholic Christians, and later the Nazi Party, attacked Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t true when the American government attacked Japanese Americans and Shintoism. Lazy generalizations have profound consequences for those most affected by them. We need to remember that when we’re “just criticizing religion.”