We Need to Talk About Race

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Illustrative picture. (Photo: Quinn Mattingly/Creative Commons)
Illustrative picture. (Photo: Quinn Mattingly/Creative Commons)

Race is a touchy subject. But it would be impossible to have an honest and meaningful conversation about Islamic extremism without mentioning it.

This is because although Islam is not a race, it has become “racialized.” The overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims are non-white. Most of them live in countries traditionally described as “Third World” or “developing.” Many of those countries were colonized by European powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Imperial systems were primarily about economic exploitation. To justify it, the ruling powers developed a pseudoscientific hierarchical racial classification system with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.

It is important to understand this system in historical terms in order to understand how it impacts the current debate surrounding Islamism.

Following the publication of On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859, evolutionary theory took off in the Victorian world. Dog and horse breeding became competitive and highly scientific, as people began using selective breeding to create and purify breeds.

Those theories then became applied to people, under the name social Darwinism.

Since natural selection posited that the strong will thrive while the weak fail, social darwinism saw the success of European countries as proof of the genetic superiority of the white race. The domination by whites of blacks was seen as a natural and therefore moral occurrence brought about by the alleged superior intelligence, fortitude and character of white people. Within European societies, these ideas were held to be proof of the superior virtues of the upper classes. Philosopher Herbert Spencer framed natural selection as “survival of the fittest.” This idea underpinned the justifications for the rigidly hierarchical system of the world before World War I.

Fast forward to the present day. The UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice declares:

The differences between the achievements of the different peoples are entirely attributable to geographical, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors. Such differences can in no case serve as a pretext for any rank-ordered classification of nations or peoples.”

Unpacking these ideas has been to a large degree successful, especially since the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  

But those ideas were taken incredibly seriously at the time and spread widely. The systems established in that era still form the basis of the world we know today and were heavily influenced by such scientific racism. The descendants of white Europeans still benefit from those systems today at the expense of black and brown people around the world. Islam became thought of as a non-white religion in the West, and therefore considered to be a lesser religion than Christianity, the default religion

This has two important impacts on the struggle against Islamism.

Firstly, many non-white Muslims know white people did a tremendous amount of damage to them and their countries and feel adequate restitution has not been made. Many other people from different backgrounds agree. Aside from colonialism abroad, many Muslims in Western countries have faced race-based discrimination within Western countries. This is across the board, whether it’s black Muslims facing discrimination in America, Pakistani Britons getting beaten up by National Front thugs in the UK, or the exclusion and contempt shown to North African French in the banlieue (depressed urban suburbs).

Many people are involved in fighting that struggle for racial justice. Those people place prime value on that fight, and therefore often end up on the same side as Islamists when opposing discriminatory governmental practices or social movements. Since they are focused on challenging racism and bigotry, they may not be attuned to or notice radical Islam or the problems inherent in Islamic political groups. Both Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami opposed British rule during the colonial period, making them seem more sympathetic in the eyes of many.

Thus, attempts to expose and challenge radical Islam can be misconstrue to be motivated by white supremacy.

The second problem is that white supremacy is still alive and kicking, albeit in a much reduced state. Last year’s notorious United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia saw Nazi insignia, Confederate flags and chants of “White Lives Matter.” Since radical Islam is always in the news, white supremacists use it as a way of recruiting and projecting their hateful ideas into the mainstream.

This puts the lives of black and brown people in danger, makes non-white Muslims more defensive about criticism of radicalism and lends credence to those who wish to dismiss all critique as mere bigotry.

None of this means that the living are responsible for things that the dead did. It also doesn’t mean criticism of Islamism (or Islam for that matter) is racist. But it does mean that addressing radical Islam effectively has to include an understanding of histories of racism and contemporary racial issues. Without that sensibility, there is a strong chance attempts at speaking on this topic will become swamped in the broader struggle over civil rights and racism.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.