By Asim Qureshi
The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.[i]
These words by Jesse Williams at his famous BET Awards acceptance speech are perhaps more relevant than ever. While of course Jesse Williams is speaking about the context of black people in American specifically, what he really means, is racism. When we speak about Islamophobia, what we mean to talk about, is a manifestation of racism that is explicitly directed towards those who are Muslim, or those who are perceived to be Muslim.
Of course, Muslims are very concerned by anti-Muslim violence on the streets, which seemingly all sections of liberal society seem to acknowledge is a bad thing? The question emerges, why are the government, police, media and think-tanks scared of the word Islamophobia? In their view, they claim it will shut down free speech and potentially increase the level of threat in the country – as Muslims will have a definition that can be applied to the actions of the state. In fact, that’s the entire point. Muslims were in need of a term that specifically identified how structures are involved in a form of racism that is targeted at Muslims. The book ‘What is Islamophobia?’, helps to identify this:
We regard the state, and more specifically the sprawling official ‘counter-terrorism’ apparatus, to be absolutely central to production of contemporary Islamophobia – the backbone of anti-Muslim racism.[ii]
If we want to understand how racism and Islamophobia connect, we need to understand how racism is a process of pathologising, one that sees danger of black and Muslim lives in not just the colour of their skin, but also in the beliefs, ideas, culture and superficial registers.
So, for example, when tens of thousands of British Muslim citizens are stopped each year at UK airports are stopped only due to a profiling exercise, we need to be able to call this racism and Islamophobia – in the same way SUS laws were identified in the 1980s. The markers that are used are not just linked to actual evidence of wrongdoing, but rather part of a pathology that identifies Muslims as being problematic by virtue of their very existence. It is no surprise then, that Tony Blair, who brought in these counter-terror measures, recently resurfaced in order to call for the increased securitisation of minority communities over knife crime:
but remember the communities that are most affected by these crimes are the communities that will be sensitive to these questions. Whatever it takes, you do it.
This is precisely the response of those who have no desire to hold up a mirror to themselves or the machinery of the state. In the UK, there are many cases of individuals who have been arrested or interrogated for these outward symbols of danger. So a UK academic studying terrorism for his PhD is arrested for reading the al-Qaeda training manual as part of his research. I have a client who was interrogated by counter-terrorism police about his views on Palestine, at the age of 7. These are all markers that are problematised due to racist and Islamophobic assumptions.
We need to acknowledge one thing at this point. Racism is violence. When the architecture of racism and Islamophobia deploy to harm an individual, the impact of that violence cannot be understated, as its long-term impact of trauma has not been fully understood yet. The fear system that is invoked when this violence takes place changes the physiology of the impacted person, so they are changed forever by their experience. We still don’t know what this might mean intergenerationally.
Ultimately, our lives are on the line, and we do not have the luxury of engaging in the systems of racism and Islamophobia. The Christchurh killer, Brenton Tarrant, is a low hanging fruit. While I want to see him pay for his crimes, I’m much more interested in the systems that produced him and his thinking – what are the root causes of his violence. I would argue that it is the structures of racism that permitted him to carry out this violence, and so it is the structures that we need to hold to account before anyone else.
It is the reason why the state has sought to privilege voices in its assessment of the word Islamophobia, that have traditionally called for the increased securitisation of Muslim communities. A letter signed by 40 individuals who have consistently warned of the dangers posed by Muslims comes as no surprise, as it is these very same individuals who are open to be accused of being involved in Islamophobia, as they seek for Muslims to be subjected to increased scrutiny for their very faith. None of these individuals has any track record of calling out the structures of racism that exist within the state, particularly in relation to Muslims, but have rather been involved in a process of increasing it. And so I return to the words of Jesse Williams I began this piece with:
If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
[i] Lasher M. (2016) Read the Full Transcript of Jesse Williams’ Powerful Speech on Race at the BET Awards. TIME
[ii] Massoumi N. et al (2017) What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State. Pluto Press
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)