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Message to Richard Dawkins: ‘Islam is not a race’ is a cop out

'[Richard] Dawkins himself dedicated a large part of his riposte to a dissection of whether race is a biological or social construct.' Photograph: Murdo Macleod

‘[Richard] Dawkins himself dedicated a large part of his riposte to a dissection of whether race is a biological or social construct.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Message to Richard Dawkins: ‘Islam is not a race’ is a cop out


A focus on the academic distinction between religion and race is often used as a fig leaf for prejudice and outright bigotry

Of late, a new variation of the old chestnut “I’m not racist but …” has emerged. It goes: “I’ve got nothing against Muslims, it’s Islam I hate”. Otherwise known as the “Islam is not a race” argument.

After I wrote about Richard Dawkins’s snide attack on the supposed dearth of Muslim scientific and cultural achievement, some critics hit back along these lines. It is acceptable to criticise and belittle Islam because it is a religion, not an ethnic grouping – and therefore fair game.

Technically, they are right – Islam is not a race. But too often, those who deploy the argument, are borrowing from the Bill Clinton school of sophistry: “I did not have racist relations with that religion”.

Dawkins himself dedicated a large part of his riposte to a dissection of whether race is a biological or social construct. The argument over Islam and race was a “simple semantic disagreement”, he said, before proceeding to define race according to the dictionary.

So what does the dictionary say? Racism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. But what does this mean in practice?

Under British law, Jewish people are classified as belonging to a race (something that Dawkins, incidentally, disagrees with) since they are deemed to have a shared culture and history that goes beyond the religious sphere. Do I share history, culture and other reference points with Muslims around the world that go beyond the practice of Islam? Definitely. But it is a loose, secular feeling.

Does this make me immune to discrimination that Muslims face? Certainly not, given the long hours I have spent in immigration queues, undergoing extended background checks and visa processing times. So clearly, in that sense, Islam is not a race, but Muslims are. It’s entirely legitimate to question and interrogate Islam as a religion. It is not fair to do so against Muslims based on their religious or cultural identity.

Equally, it is disingenuous to claim that Islam has no colour. There is actually quite a strong racial dimension to Islamophobia. Muslims in the UK are predominantly brown, Asian or Arab, and there have been instances where non-Muslims from Asian communities have been lumped together with Muslims and discriminated against.

After the 9/11 attacks, some bearded and turbaned Sikh men found themselves coming under hostile scrutiny. Following the more recent Boston bombings, some media outlets described suspects as being of “Muslim appearance” – whatever that is. In the wake of Theo Van Gogh murder, racist targeting of Muslim immigrants increased.

When discrimination against some eastern Europeans in the UK is called racism, you don’t hear cries of “Polish is not a race” to justify plain prejudice. The fixation on terminology and not the reality suggests a society that does not want to come to terms with the creeping ugliness of hatred. The likes of the BNP and EDL lack even a basic grasp of the rudiments of Islam, let alone an ability to parse religion and race.

Racism is behaviour, not an informed academic position. I doubt that anyone abusing Muslims in the street, or defacing a mosque, or snatching a veil off a woman’s face, has paused to examine their premise beforehand. The argument that Islam is not a race is a cop out. It’s time that we dispensed with it once and for all, because it prevents us from identifying acts motivated by hatred for what they really are. Islam might not be a race, but using that as a fig leaf for your unthinking prejudice is almost certainly racist.

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  • Mehdi

    Democracy and religion are two things and not incompatible as far as I’m concerned.

  • Mehdi

    Okay here’s something we’ll agree on

  • Tighe McCandless

    I see.

    For what it’s worth (not that I would imagine you care too much), I would rather you continue posting. We’ve butted heads in almost all of our interactions, but I would not want someone to stop posting – and certainly not if I was a cause of it, to an extent. I believe you should have a right to say whatever, even if we disagree on almost everything, it would seem. Perhaps the only thing in common between us is that we both detest Islamophobes. 😛

    In regards to your self-identification (politically-speaking above), I believe the term you’re looking for is syndicalist, which is someone who believes that trade unions should control means of production, amongst other things.

  • thegreenmantle

    double entendre ? socialist ? I must have grown up somewhere very sheltered . I didnt get that one?
    Sir David
    Marxist ( groucho wing )

  • Tighe McCandless

    I’m not really sure why you’re so mad to the point that you feel the need to insult me, but whatever, I guess. I will comment on this first:

    “…wow, you went right below the belt with that one, old chap!”

    Or, alternatively, I was not trying to be a jerk and you misread my statement for hostility. My larger point was that the United States has laws that declare murder illegal, irrespective of any religious basis. My point was that I presumed you could agree on this, because I think everyone would agree murder is bad.

    So I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression; I just tend to be very forceful with my beliefs, especially on an issue like this.

    “…pathetic and cheap.”

    No, not really. That is the situation as it stands. Arguing ‘what if…?’ is a pointless exercise when it comes to discussing the real world. If you’ve read my comments in the past, you’d be aware that I was not supportive of intervention in Iraq. Indeed, I have previously described it as more or less the very caricature of a nation doing everything that shouldn’t be done in a military affair.

    And of course, for better or worse, the Iraqis must deal with the situation on the ground. Who else is going to do it? Americans? We couldn’t do it in over a decade, so there’s no way we could (or quite frankly, should) do it now. It’s an unfortunate situation of making someone’s bed and forcing them to lie in it, but that’s the size of it – and nothing you or I can do can change that.

    “As for the rest of the systems; it is silly to assume that because somebody who does agree with democracy, will have to succum to to those.”

    Why not, though? If you (a general statement, to refer to anyone) believe democracy is a flawed system, then there has to be an alternative to it. While political systems frequently are complex and often mix with each other (the Roman republic, to use an example), those would all be considered legitimate – if wrong, in my opinion – alternatives and are just as full of problems.

    “In yours I think the “myth of god and gods” does play much so be it.”

    I genuinely have no idea what you’re trying to say here. Please elaborate?

  • Jekyll

    I would not identify myself as a socialist here in the US because of the double entendre meaning, but growing up reading Che and Marx (whom I still respect), many of my economic social views would undeniably be considered socialist, and I guess then I would classify myself as a social socialist.

    For example I do believe if someone who works at a certain factory for long time, should be allowed to own the factory as well (not via shares though, juts by working there!).
    Though I have doubts about OWS, the satanic capitalism of today is disturbing since many at the bottom do not get a oz of what the top tier makes (so much for Trickle down theory. Chomsky really goes into that). Though I think I can call myself a conservative socialist….hmmm…

    Oh yeah back to Dawkins…lol!

  • Jekyll

    Democracy does not dictate morality, unfortunately religion does…hmmm….

  • Jekyll

    There is really no point of arguing with you, because fundamentally we come from two completely different point of views. Sovereignty belongs to God, and God alone. And we are vicegerents…oops I forget this is not a religious blog so God or as you said gods don’t mean anything.

    -“Probably worse;…”…pathetic and cheap. I guess if I were to come to your house, throw you and your family out, burn everything down, bring mad crazy fanatics to your block, and then say I come with offerings of democracy and say in ten years time you can built a wonderful future together…I reckon you would not buy it. Of course YOU must work for it. The onus lies on you to make your life I better.

    -NSDAP gave the german people a ounce of respect they did not have since 1919. What ended up doing is of course a different story.

    -That is the nature of political systems; they evolve to fit the needs of the people. Of course a 100 years having a black man as a president would have been unthinkable (though DuBois would have made a fine president; certainly better than Obama!)

    -So having the fantasy that you contributed to something is better than finding out you didn’t Yeah America is still a better place to live than anywhere else, but let’s fool ourselves that we are equal participants in the illusion that we elect the representatives.

    – Though I have monarchical tendencies, I hardly thinks in this day and age it would be befitting. As for the rest of the systems; it is silly to assume that because somebody who does agree with democracy, will have to succum to to those.

    ” I’m guessing you probably think murder is wrong…”…wow, you went right below the belt with that one, old chap!

    Like I said we come from two completely different point of views. In yours I think the “myth of god and gods” does play much so be it. Mine is that of religious and on this blog, that argument is pointless.

  • Mehdi

    Agreed, I would add that democracy is about accepting the opinion of the majority, it doesn’t always mean that the opinion is right or that the person selected will take that opinion into account (e.g. Tony Blair going to war against the opinion of the public), but it’s better than nothing, and checks and balances are necessary in there.
    This is why I’m firmly opposed to the coup against the MB, while I disagreed with them, I always thought they had to be allowed to do their work within the scope of law.

  • Tighe McCandless

    “Now honestly tell how many Iraqis are well off now than they were under Saddam ?”

    Probably worse; but what of the long term? The Iraq of today will certainly not be the one of 20 and more years from now. If they can steer their ship right they can be a great nation. Certainly, it can work out much better for them than the autocratic rule of a brutal strongman; they must work for it, though.

    “As Noam Chomsky stated ‘ you can have democracy, as long as it our kind of democracy’.”

    It’s not really a new idea that nations will put aside ideals when it comes to realpolitik. “We don’t like your government, so we’ll make your life difficult for you” is not all that much different from “We don’t like your claimant to the throne, so we’re going to invade and put him on the throne.” Bad? Yes, but such is international relations. It is also why democracy is a flawed system of government in its own way. It is idealistic, but systems that are idealistic do not survive contact with the real world well; but I will address this below.

    “Come to think of it, the NSDAP also was technically speaking democratically elected.”

    If by ‘technically speaking,’ you mean ‘bullied, physically beat and threatened any opposition to them’ and then had their candidate seize extralegal powers once he was appointed by his predecessor, then yes, ‘technically speaking’ it is.

    “Democracy is ruse, and the founding fathers sort of knew that hence the electoral college.”

    They also thought a lot of other things, too. Like how women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, that blacks were inferior human beings and that the natives (whom they frequently broke treaties with) were beyond civilization. The democracy of the United States today is not theirs and I highly doubt many would approve of much of it.

    Besides: a frequent aspect of American-style government that often comes up? The electoral college, if not the basic duopoly of government between two parties that our system has a feature.

    “Much worse than not having any freedom, is having the illusion of having any freedom.”

    Really? Because even if I were to accept the premise that I have no say in affairs of my state and it’s all decided for me, I’d think that having the possibility of being dragged off in the middle of the night on simply saying I don’t agree with an aspect of state policy (or worse, nothing at all and I was simply turned in as an excuse for a neighbor who doesn’t like me to get rid of me), tortured, the lack of a free press, unemployed (much like everyone else in such situations), starving or being half-starved (dictatorial governments don’t like sharing with the have nots) and the possibility of execution for the slightest little thing seems a hell of a lot worse than my vote not mattering.

    “Besides religious people believe the ultimate authority belongs to God, not the people.”

    If God or the gods isn’t/aren’t willing to come down and rule here on earth, then I’m afraid all we have left is the rule of men. Sorry.


    Yet, my quote of Churchill still holds true. Even with all of democracy’s flaws – voter apathy, ignorance on the issues, the possibility of monetary corruption, etc. – it’s still superior to anything mankind has produced before or since. What are the alternatives?

    Theocracy? Wonderful – except that not everyone is going to agree with anyone else’s pet faith. It’s going to suck for anyone not part of the main religion of a given place. Besides: doesn’t criticism of your priests, rabbis, imams, etc. mean you’re going directly against God’s will on earth?

    Monarchy? Why should I be forced to be the subject of some man or woman who happened to be pushed out of the vagina of someone whose family did something important once at some distant point in the past?

    Fascism (and its mentally handicapped cousin, Nazism)? You cease to be an individual and you no longer have any importance than what you can offer to the state. Say goodbye to being able to say anything against the government. Free speech is for effeminate and weak liberals and their representative democracies.

    Communism? Sounds great in theory, but it turns out that life being structured around the guesses of ‘experts’ (a fault for technocracy as well) kind of sucks. It’s hard to account for food shortages, even more when the government refuses to acknowledge its fault in not preparing the people for it.

    Autocracy/Oligarchy? How can anyone critique democracy, saying that it can lead to this (and it can), but be alright with it if there were no elections? They don’t govern in anyone’s interest but their own and wouldn’t care a whit under this system if the rest of nation starves. With no constitutional limitations on their powers, either, they can continue unabated.

    “It provides no sound criteria for discerning what is ‘right’ from what is ‘wrong”.”

    Sure it does. I’m guessing you probably think murder is wrong, that the environment is something we need to protect, that smoking is bad for not only your own health but others’ as well, that lying under oath should be punished and that crimes should shave consequences. This is all legislated by our courts and enforced by the government, whether local or national.

    Indeed, the fact a democratic government can change in such a fundamental way is its best feature. If we lived under an autocracy, we’d still have such wonderful institutions as (legal) slavery, a draft and the stupidity that was prohibition, to use a few examples.

    “For two millennia politicians and philosophers regarded democracy as an
    inferior form of politics dominated by mob rule and class warfare”.”

    Appeal to tradition is a pretty lame argument against democracy. Yes, I’m sure that men like Genghis Khan, Louis XIV, Joseph Stalin and the like are very much worth listening to when it comes to what the best system of governance is. It should go without mentioning that while some of the societies you could name in the past weren’t ‘free’ in the modern sense – and prosperity is not inherently tied to how ‘free’ a society is (see: China, now) – it’s not an ideal that should ever be striven for.

    Everyone deserves a say, for better or worse, because the alternative is unconscionable.

  • Mehdi

    Good point Sir David, in the US I would say the term “liberal” describes people with left-wing leaning ideas, whereas in many European countries, liberal would be used more for Neoliberal, thus right-wing leaning ideas in terms of economics…
    Just like you, I would identify as a socialist, hence my self description as liberal in the US sense :-)…

  • thegreenmantle

    er Whats a liberal ?
    As someone who self identifies as a socialist are we confusing american and english terms here ?
    Sir David

  • Mehdi

    When I said “silly”, it’s not about your ideas, it’s about the fact that you sideline me with guys like Dershowitz or Dawkins, I said “silly comparisons”, let’s be clear, I never schooled you.
    Otherwise, nope it doesn’t only work if you agree with me, my point is that it’s not fair to dismiss all liberals simply because some of them are intolerant, just like it’s unacceptable for other to dismiss all your thoughts or compare you with Hitler.

  • Jekyll

    Silly ? Really ? I say not. Liberals do have a problem; it only works if you agree with them. Question God; considered intelligent. Question certain types of revisionist histories; Bad Guy.

    And I have been schooled for better not worse. It was the shitty public education system that was the bad schooling.

  • Mehdi

    The fact that others wrongly school you doesn’t mean you have to go for silly comparisons or groupings. Indeed the world ain’t black and white.

  • Tighe McCandless

    I disagree that Christianity ‘defeated’ paganism because it was more advanced (a relative term anyway – parts of the Roman Empire were still pagan well after the WRE fell apart; there were places in Laconia that still worshipped the old Greek gods well into the 10th century, though the Norse are probably the more famous example, even if never ruled by Rome). It also really only succeeded in attracting the urban elite (indeed, the term ‘pagan’ roughly comes out as basically meaning someone is a country bumpkin or hillbilly in its historical context). It’s worth noting a lot of early Christian converts were in cities. If you can convert the people at the top, working your way down is much easier – there are countless examples throughout world history.

    What Christianity had going for it was really the right message at the right time. It came about in an era where Roman prosperity was already beginning to look faulty, even if the Pax Romana wouldn’t end until about 150 A.D. People wanted answers and saw the old faiths as unable to provide them. Christianity, a religion that promises there are better things for you after death, has a strong appeal due to that very fact.

    Gone, too, is the complex, secretive and exclusionary rituals of worship towards gods like Mithra. The universal appeal of something like Christianity (also something rather unique at the time, though it did have its competitors in places like Egypt, with the worship of Isis) worked well for it and was, in no understated way, revolutionary for its time. Not only could you be saved, but anyone could. Lastly, it (at least in theory) was egalitarian towards women something that a lot of the old cults weren’t. Since women are the primary transmitters of religious instruction, especially early in children’s lives, it went a long way towards ensuring successive generations venerating Jesus; it snowballed from there.

  • Tighe McCandless

    “(And the democracy is the whip!)”

    If democracy is so utterly horrid, please provide an alternative system of government that will be subject to the same possibility of checks and balances, is efficient (usually) in shunting out tyrants and has the capacity to turn over leaders who are being inefficient at their terms in office.

    Democracy, as Winston Churchill once said, is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.

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