Racism and Religious Critiques: False Equivalencies
Religious criticism, more specifically criticism of Islam, is often equated with racism and ethnic hatred. There are so many problems with this equivalency that I am actually bedazzled by it. It is as though I am watching the moon crash into the Earth’s north-pole and everyone else is skipping about attempting to finish up their Christmas shopping. That is how strange this incongruity seems to me.
I’m not going to cite any examples because they’re so numerous only Patrick Star would doubt me. Ben Affleck was probably among the most recent to accuse Sam Harris and Maher of racist rhetoric during his incoherent tantrum on Maher’s show – all this despite their very cogent, non-race related arguments. Wild claims and emotional assumptions are hardly uncommon in America today. Nor is calling someone a bigot when you can’t counter their argument. The ad hominem and non-sequitur often show up when you’re on to something, their purpose is to scare you into stopping.
Let’s unpack why race and religion are two entirely different identities which in no way can be conflated with one another. The subsuming of all identities under some general super-category has been common place since the birth of identity politics, just another one of its blessed legacies. And while discrimination in general, whether directed at race or sexuality, is virtually the same experience on the whole, that doesn’t translate to all identities being exactly the same. Discrimination works the same across the board, but how each identity is experienced and acquired varies.
Now you may be thinking, but wait, how does identity politics generalize identity when it dissects so much of it? Well, even though recognizing difference is a key aspect of identity politics, recognizing their varying degrees of value is not. That is what I am referring to. For example, race as feminists understand it is entirely socially constructed while sexuality is not. Race only has consequences because we allow it to. Sexuality on the other hand has consequences whether or not we recognize them. In the very least sexuality shapes who we are and are not sexually attracted to. Objectively speaking, sexuality has consequences. Race’s consequences are man-made.
For these reasons I can make character judgments about someone based on their religious identity that would fail utterly if I did so based on their perceived racial identity.
Let’s imagine two scenarios. In the first one I am in a café waiting to meet a blind date. My date walks in. He is clearly of Asian descent. He’s very handsome and sits down while introducing himself. We hit things off right away and begin talking about all manner of things in an attempt to familiarize ourselves with one another. During this initial ten minutes what has this man’s ethnicity told me about him? Well, absolutely nothing.
It doesn’t reveal his political ideology, life philosophy, or whether he’s a democrat, republican, or independent. It hasn’t exposed his class or education either. The only thing it might say is what region of the world his ancestors from however long ago were from. But even if I knew precisely what nation his great, great, great whatever hailed from that would scarcely be valuable information insofar as his character is concerned. None of the answers regarding how this young man views the most important aspects of life could be inferred from his ethnicity. This would hold true whether he were of African, Middle Eastern, or European descent as well.
In scenario number two however, my blind date is of European descent and he too sits down while introducing himself. He is wearing a gold crucifix around his neck and a ‘WWJD’ wrist band. He confirms his evangelical upbringing and punctuates this tidbit of information with the more important matter of his continued adherence to his parents’ faith. He is, in his words, a ‘practicing’ evangelical.
Now if it is true that racism and religious discrimination are the same then their consequences should be equally deleterious and founded upon equally shallow and baseless assumptions. But are they?
In scenario one if I were to assume anything about my date based off his race it would be due to harbored stereotypes which irrationally ignore the fact that being Asian is not a precondition for any kind of personality or ideology. An Asian man could believe and act like anything or anyone.
But, in scenario two we have a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian. Now, in the VERY LEAST this person believes in the biblical Abrahamic God and that his son, Jesus, died on the cross for our sins. He believes in heaven, hell, and the trinity. It is also safe to say that he believes that those who don’t agree with him are doomed to hell for lack of eternal salvation. These would be facts about this person. If he didn’t believe these things he wouldn’t actually be who he claimed. This highlights that a religious identity gives us reliable information about a person that ethnicity or race does not.
We can see that the consequences are not the same. My race-based assumptions about my Asian blind date (were I to make them) would be based off of fallacious stereotypes, leading me to misapprehend his character. But were I to simply acknowledge what I know to be true about the evangelical Christian faith, I couldn’t possibly be misrepresenting my Christian date’s views. I would merely be recognizing facts. There is an obvious difference here. Namely, racist assumptions are based off of societal lies about a group of people. While my understanding as to my religious date is founded upon facts about his faith.
It is true that there are degrees to which I could stereotype my Christian date. But it also remains true that there are parameters within which I couldn’t possibly be misrepresenting him. Each religion and its subsects are defined by certain core beliefs. If you don’t adhere to those core beliefs you can’t actually call yourself a practitioner of that religion. Race isn’t practiced. Nor is it chosen. Religious identity parts company with other identities when we acknowledge that it is CHOSEN. In the United States and many other countries you have complete agency to engage or disengage from a religion. It is therefore more like a political identity than anything else.
Religion is an ideology. It is an explanation of life, its origin, and how to lead it. This comes concomitant with beliefs that lead to distinct actions. In other words, it forms a person’s character. Beliefs can and must be scrutinized and criticized when they fail to cohere. On this basis Islamophobia doesn’t exist. There are certainly people who harbor irrational fears of Islam-associated peoples. But this is a misnomer attempting to highlight an existing ethnic hatred. I guarantee that a Muslim who looked like Elijah Wood would not be treated the same way as a guy who appeared like Osama, even if both acknowledged their being Muslim. Islamophobia should not be applied to people who rightfully critique Islam the faith but do not subsume any one ethnic group under it.
In summary, when you reveal your faith you expose your most important world views. What more relevant information is there to judge a person by?