I’d like to point out that this article desperately simplifies a multifaceted issue with intricacies that require unpicking. I envisage many ‘buts’ with rebuttals and counter-arguments. Here I’m simply attempting to start the conversation on anti-Asian vs anti-Muslim hatred. Before I do so, a few important points:
- This conversation includes a whole host of sub-groups amongst Asian Muslims and others. Often groups are misidentified or inaccurately bunched together illegitimately. There are those who acknowledge familial heritage, those committed to ethno-cultural norms (and those in-between!), and from these those who are godly and others who are secular (with varying degrees of commitment to God’s way) – and this along with variant understandings of what Islam is.
- Understanding context: Humans are complex in all sorts of ways (psychologically, socially, etc) and various competing interests in plural societies compound such complexities. Often things are subsumed into a category that happen to be circumstantial rather intrinsic. For example, a person may dislike Manchester United players and at a match holler: “I hate you, you red shirted, big nosed footballer.” Now applying some reason here, the critic does not hate people who wear red shirts, nor those with big noses (his beloved father has a big nose) although he uses these things in a negative sense. The reality is that he hates ManU players because they are opponents and adds in arbitrary remarks which he thinks will provoke the most offence. These descriptors are not the basis of his hate but circumstantial, and it would be inaccurate to conclude that he is also prejudiced against red shirted or big nosed people.
- There is no ethno-culture/ethnicity on earth that is entirely beyond moral reproach. By culture here I mean the man-made ideas, customs, and the social norms of a particular people or society. One may like or dislike aspects of a culture based on their personal proclivities – to each their own. Where other aspects of any culture are reprehensible to God – we enjoin good and disparage wrong. The Prophets of God and their companions would evaluate the general virtues and shortcomings of their own people as well as other nations. Even the jinn were self-critical (see Surah Jinn). No culture or its norms is above critique or criticism nor does mature critique of one’s own culture or another’s indicate racism (immoral behaviour).
Beyond these general points, in this brief article I intend to make some brief comments here on anti-Asian hatred being construed as anti-Muslim hatred. I’ll be using the Azeem Rafiq case as a recent example of it taking place.
Is what Rafiq has experienced ‘Islamophobia’? It depends on what’s meant by the term, but if we assume some centring around Islam then not really. What we can be certain of is that it was anti-Asian hatred and prejudice. He was called derogatory terms and treated with abuse, and how he and others were treated at the Yorkshire club is of course unacceptable.
But where does Islam come into it?
My argument here is that it does not and should not. Rafiq has not provided testimony to the Select Committee that speaks of the Yorkshire team openly targeting the religion of Islam or speaking of Muslims as those who ‘aslama lillah’ – submit to God acknowledging His authority. Where there are allusions to Rafiq being a Muslim (including by his own self-reference) it revolves around his ‘Asianness’ and Pakistani heritage. In fact, there was little for them to assume faith was a central tenet of his being.
Now in response, some draw on the alcohol event as evidence that the Yorkshire team targeted his deen, but that’s highly questionable. Yes, he was forcibly bullied into drinking alcohol at 15 years old which firstly, adults at the cricket club cannot reasonably be held to account for, and secondly Rafiq’s recounting of the story reveals they knew little of Islam as a faith in as much as they probably know nothing of Hinduism. In fact, throughout Rafiq’s testimony it was inferred that the racists saw Islam as an ethno-cultural aspect of being Asian. To them, alcohol abstinence is an aspect of Asianness, Asian culture, and Asian norms. As far as I’m aware they did not explicitly attack his religion as they did his ethnicity. Yes, non-Muslim Asians might drink but to many non-Asians, religious differences within the ethnicity are simply variances between Asian sub-cultures. So it was an attack on his specific ethno-culture and Rafiq’s testimony suggests that is also the way he took it. In fact, his testimony clearly demonstrates that he regards Islam to be a peripheral cultural attachment – he testified that he boozed and clubbed to “to fit in”, ostensibly ditching a restrictive aspect of his culture. As a point of comparison to illustrate my point, those who might also despise West African believers for being black tend not to include Islam in their racial hatred simply because ‘blackness’ or ‘Africanness’ is not conflated with deen as Asianness tends to be.
Now for the mindful who consciously acknowledge God’s authority and submit to it, rather than those who transliterate the Arabic word muslim and present it as a political ethnic identity born out of cultural heritage, there are various problems with incorporating the Abrahamic deen into Rafiq’s ethnic identity:
- We suggest secular cultural attachment is a legitimate expression of subservience to the Most High that ought to be acknowledged. And in the context of Rafiq, we’re affirming that Asianness is deen which is consequently taken by many as saying that the deen is Asianness. This also infers that non-Asian believers will need to rethink their identity as ‘Muslims’ in the political/public space, disassociate themselves from Muslim/Islam, and recognise that Muslim interests and identity excludes them. The believers of (circumstantially) Asian heritage will be caught between identifying with their ethnicity or their deen. If Islam is Asianness de facto, then those on the Quranic faith share little with them.
- If commentators can, irrespective of Rafiq’s own assertions and behaviour, arbitrarily ascribe Islam to Rafiq because they see the faith as a cultural attachment to Asianness, then accepting this means we acquiesce to determining what’s acceptable to God via their secular standards.
- If we can secularly direct the racism to Rafiq’s Muslim identity, then should we not accept that it was this Muslim identity that informed his anti-Semitic Facebook posts and an Instagram meme containing a saying relating to African people? Some commentators have responded that this is not the case since Islam doesn’t permit racism. The inconsistency here is telling: on one hand they use secular standards to appropriate the faith for ethnic interests and reject a theological understanding, but then resort to theology to defend it.
To make the differentiation between anti-Asian hatred and anti-Muslim hatred, especially where racists tangentially reference religiously inspired behaviour, we need to ask: What is ‘Islam’ to many ethno-cultural Asians? How does Rafiq himself view it?
Many Asians are unable to demarcate between their culture/cultural inheritance that may include aspects of the shari’ah, often internalising those aspects as cultural inheritance and inadvertently behaving as such. And because of this internal confusion they’re unable to distinguish between motivations. Society has a serious anti-Asian problem, but it also tends to be confused about what Islam is as opposed to Asian culture, and much of it is down to what they’ve heard or seen from Asian co-citizens themselves. I do not blame society nor simplistically put it down to “they should better educate themselves” since the people they’re most likely to go to for such education are the ones perpetuating the misrepresentation.
Often the issue isn’t that racists hate Islam, they (despicably) hate Asians. But where many Asians illegitimately pull Islam into the realm of Asianness, it is inescapably drawn into the prejudice – circumstantially rather than of equal centrality. In such circumstances, drawing Islam into the mix when it has little to do with intent makes Islam an unintended target of hate – and going on about it as if it is intended encourages it to be the case. It’s like someone telling a person that they hate him and those like him, and his response is to involve his wife into the mix because she happens to share an opinion of his. Neither was she specifically intended, nor would they have meant her in the same way, so not only did he unnecessarily make her a target of hate, but also recklessly made her vulnerable.
This is what commentators do to God’s message: rather than rightly deal with racist anti-Asian sentiment as anti-Asian racism whilst understanding that many attacks that tangentially draw on Muslim practices are seen as Asian practices, they lead racists down the path to the faith, unnecessarily making it a target of hate, placing it in a negative context, and diminishing the prospect of a meaningful engagement with God’s message. And this is why we ought to lean on the side of racial hatred rather than using the contentious term Islamophobia or claiming anti-Muslim hatred where anti-Muslim sentiment isn’t clear. If commentators keep telling people that they hate Islam when they overtly don’t (their small minds haven’t even got that far – they simply don’t like Asians/Asian culture), they urge it to actually be the case. In a self-fulfilling prophecy their expectations about the racists will eventually result in racists acting in ways that confirm the expectations.
In such complex situations where various identities are engaged, isn’t it just easier to put it down to anti-Islam sentiment? It’s not about what’s easier but what is relevant and morally correct. As I’ve already outlined, anything that animates hatred of God and what He has revealed, either directly or otherwise, is deeply reprehensible and an unacceptable strategy. Here, literally leading the racists’ ire towards the faith is insidious, especially where it’s out of ethnic interests. God praisingly speaks about the godly Madinans who were “firmly rooted in faith” giving believing Makkans preference over themselves and saving themselves from their own souls’ greed (59:9). If this was the case for other humans, imagine what they were like for God! Of course, for secular commentators and academics this is a moot point as they do not have the same godly (shar’i) priorities. Their mission is to locate as many subjective forms/categories of bigotry and prejudice that they can in order to amplify liberal minority rights (and protections). I am not criticising this here but pointing out that as a matter of priority, it is the believers’ moral responsibility to love God and show allegiance to Him and encourage other people to do so whilst discouraging, preventing or removing any impediment to that objective. This is also why simplistic references or deference to experts on Islamophobia in response to my points are severely misplaced – the secular academic endeavour of ethnographic research on the subjective experiences of ethnic Muslims (which is descriptive) is completely irrelevant to our (normative) shar’i endeavours.
Now one can only ask, why would any believer knowingly do this to the aspirations of Abrahamic monotheism? (Just as the aforementioned analogy would go: “why would any man do this to his wife?”) There are some who argue that this is the secular realm, so a secular outlook is fine. For believers it is not. For us, nothing is ever secular – it is impossible to turn off the godly lens and put deen on the backburner, but then still claim be a subservient subject of the Most High. Furthermore, it’s counter-productive to our existence – not only does invite the ire of God, it also provokes divine abandonment: “You who believe, if any of you go back on your deen, God will soon replace you with people He loves and who love Him, people who are humble towards the believers, hard on the disbelievers, and who strive in God’s way without fearing anyone’s reproach. Such is God’s favour. He grants it to whoever He will. God has endless bounty and knowledge. Your true allies are God, His Messenger, and the believers – those who keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and bow down in worship. Those who turn for protection to God, His Messenger, and the believers [are God’s party]: God’s party is sure to triumph.” (5:54-56)
I’ll end here with two points for clarity:
Firstly, not all these commentators are Asian and of course, many British believers of Asian heritage are foremost in differentiating (where the need arises) between political ethnic interests and their commitment to Abraham’s faith. Just like believers of other ethnicities their deen goes far beyond trifling cultural attachments. They always put God first and see the world through a godly lens, with their ethnic identity a mundane aspect of their being in comparison.
Secondly, I’m not denying the reality of anti-Muslim hatred. Douglas Murray is a prime example of someone who manifests it clearly. In response to the Rafiq case, former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, offensively suggested that Pakistani Muslims tend to bomb hospital visitors (the perpetrator was a convert to Anglican Christianity) openly aiming at Rafiq’s perceived religious association. Here both “Pakistani” and “Muslim” was explicitly vilified. And there are many other examples.
In conclusion: Anti-Muslim sentiment is real. Anti-Asian sentiment is also real. But neither are they synonymous nor does it help to draw Anti-Asian sentiment into the faith, even where the lines might seem blurred to some. Rather than assuming racists consciously intend Islam, we ought to know better for two prime reasons: 1) Most people conflate the two due to the way some Asian Muslims portray their ethnic culture and its interaction with the shari’ah to wider society, so the ‘outsider’s’ conflation is not only understandable, but also clearly a conflation, and 2) if commentators keep telling people that they hate Islam when they overtly don’t they encourage it to actually be the case, unnecessarily making God and deen a target of hate, placing it in negative circumstances, and diminishing the prospect of wider society’s meaningful engagement with God’s message.