In the wake of the horrific murders at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, you may find dozens commentaries on free speech, on hate speech, on Islam, on integration, and what the killings tell us about all of that. (There are too many to list here, but this one featuring Claire Adida is notable because she’s a French political scientist who actually studies Muslim integration in France.)
You should also read commentary that reminds us that Charlie Hebdo’s satire really was difficult. It was, indeed, offensive. Divisive even among non-Muslims in France. You may also read that the way that Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam is racist. Two examples are Jacob Canfield at Hooded Utilitarian, and Richard Seymour at Jacobin.
This allegation of racism is problematic. It fundamentally misunderstands Islam, the challenges that Muslims face in Europe and elsewhere, and the role that race does play in shaping and supporting the grievances of Muslims in the West.
It is, of course, obvious that Islam is not a race. As a faith, Islam eschews racial categorization in favor of a humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. In my work on Muslim Southeast Asia, I have found it profitable to think explicitly about the ways in which perceptions of racial distinction shape interethnic relations. Doing so brings into relief the role of Islam in bridging these perceived racial differences. (Nowhere is this clearer than in Malaysia, where the fundamental prerequisite for becoming Malay [masuk Melayu] is to become Muslim.) At the same time, racism has long existed within the Muslim world based on place of origin, phenotype, or perceived descent.
But this point is almost too obvious. I imagine Canfield, Seymour, and others reading these words and rolling their eyes. “Of course Islam isn’t a race, but the way in which Islam is portrayed is racist.”
This reply also fails. We know from recent research that Muslims face conditions of discrimination that transcend their perceived race. More to the point, though, Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam targets not the Muslim as a person, but a set of beliefs held by a subset of Muslims. That mockery has power because it forces readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, to examine the essence of religious belief. These cartoons play on the contested foundations of a spiritual identity. And those foundations are indeed contested, they are political, within Islam. That is how to “get” the cartoons, even if you find them offensive and inappropriate.
Eliding anti-Islam rhetoric with racism also obscures racism qua racism. It won’t do to label every instance of “whites punching down” as racism, because it prevents us from seeing that the mechanisms that produced hierarchies of race, class, and privilege really are different for Muslims and racial and ethnic minorities. They may be interrelated, of course. Nigerian Muslims in the United States are not merely Muslim, they are also Black. But my point is this: the narratives of the dangerous convert, the sleeper, the invisible cancer, all of which characterize the contemporary condition of Muslims in the West, none of those has a clear analogue in race. When racists imagine the problem of integration, they imagine a condition that stems from birth, a destiny inherited biologically. When Islamophobes imagine the problem of integration, they imagine a struggle of ideas, one in which all are vulnerable, in which the most frightening threat is the convert. (This is why commentary about Islamic radicals is so obsessed with pointing out that radicals, say, used to smoke marijuana or visit prostitutes. Even a “bad” Muslim is a dangerous one.)
The analogue for this kind of panic about Islam is not race. It’s communism. And the mockery of Islam by Charlie Hebdo is biting precisely because it targets a belief held sacred, not because it portrays all Muslims as having inherent, immutable attributes.
Note that I am not arguing that there is nothing racial about anti-Muslim attitudes, or the larger problem of Islam in Europe. There surely is. But the term that describes this phenomenon is the racialization of Islam in the West. The Tsarnaev brothers offer a compelling example from the U.S. But the racialization of Islam is an example of a broader racialization of poverty, of violence, of class. (A vivid example of these is Vinz, Vincent Cassel’s character in La Haine.)
Thinking through the racialization of Islam in France, and in the West in general, is obviously good, in a way that Edward Said (enlisted by Seymour as his first line of defense) would approve of. But understanding exactly how Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam is not racist is the first step in taking the challenges of Charlie Hebdo seriously.