Short answer: Yes.
The long answer: So you remember Don Imus? The sports commentator who called the teenage girls of the Rutgers basketball team “nappy-headed hoes” and was dropped from NBC? How about Michael Richards—the guy who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” caught on tape, a few years back, in a comedy club saying some nasty things to a bunch of black audience members who were heckling him?
Were they racist?
Of course they were. Despicable words. Race used as a weapon to casually demean and degrade people who have a long history of suffering indignity at the hands of others.
But there’s a twist. Both of these men almost immediately set out to make amends, to distance themselves as much as possible from those beliefs. Michael Richards famously appeared on Letterman, insisting “I’m not a racist” and calling what happened “insane.” Apologizing directly to both Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Jackson’s radio show, “Keep Hope Alive,” Richards said he wanted to find the two men he had verbally abused in his “three minutes of crap” and personally make amends. Imus also apologized, publicly on Sharpton’s radio show and privately to the Rutgers team at the New Jersey governor’s mansion.
And I believe, knowing that I’m treading the fine line between exoneration and explanation here, that even in a darkened bar in the desert at the edge of the world, these two men would never promote the beliefs that we have come to condemn as racist: They would never say, even away from the light of public scrutiny, that they believed one race was superior to another. And isn’t that, after all, what racism is?
And since, as anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller and the English Defence League are fond of reminding us, Islam is a religion, not a race, how is it possible that anti-Muslim prejudice is racist in the same way that anti-black or anti-Latino prejudice is racist?
During the 2008 election, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a piece, “Racism Without Racists,” about new research coming out about our perceptions about race. For Kristof, “racism” in what we might call the “standard form” was hardly an issue at all in the 2008 campaign. The people who put up White Supremacist websites or organize hate groups weren’t making any significant dent in the polls, and they would have voted 95% Republican anyway. But, Kristof points out, an “unconscious” sense—something that springs up in our emotions and actions but never quite takes shape in words—that then-Senator Barack Obama was different, was Not-Like-Us, may have been at work, tinting perceptions of his character and intentions. It is this “soft racism” (no less cutting, but harder to identify and define) that Kristof diagnosed.
This was just as true in the 2008 election as it is with the Tea Party movements today (and the 2010 midterm elections they seek to influence). Very few of those folks out there at those rallies would stand up and tell you that whites are better than blacks—again, even behind closed doors. But the alarming increase in people—especially Republicans—who will tell you that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim is evidence of how racism is actually symptomatic of something deeper: an impulse that lives in all of us to separate people out, to draw a hard line between Us and Not-Us.
Race is only the easiest, most obvious way that this can happen. Racial coding markers are in the open—they’re eminently visible, impossible to miss. And they work just as well for Muslims—who are often differentiated in America by clothing or skin color (how often is “Muslim” conflated with “Arab,” either in the US, ignoring the enormous population of African-American Muslims, or internationally, where many think that Saudi Arabia = Islam?)—but also by their “exotic” practices and rumors (the blogosphere burns with them, in the sense that a syphilis infection burns) of secret mandates, sick teachings, backwards worldviews.
This Us-Them game can happen on any battlefront. It happens with race just as easily as it happens with religion. It happens in non-white and non-Christian communities. (No more of the claim that some groups have become so ennobled by their own oppression that they are above the temptations to divide and hate that come along with being human. True nobility comes from knowing oneself, knowing these temptations and struggling against them—not pretending that we can achieve a sinless state.) It can even be applied to members of one’s own race or group—not white enough, not Jewish enough, not Muslim enough. Members of a community who express sympathy or solidarity with outsiders are often branded and shunned in this way—sometimes more violently than the outsiders themselves.
But there can be no doubt that this past summer, anti-Muslim attacks and episodes of discrimination skyrocketed. More and more, Americans—usually white Americans—wanted to turn Muslims away from these shores, ignorant of the fact that Muslims have been here for centuries, with thriving, well-established, peaceful, religious communities stretching back decades. (Why, I always want to ask people who claim that Islam is an “existential threat” to democracy, is the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism so very recent?) Although certain elements made a lot of noise about the proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan—many of them claiming that they merely wanted it moved—the fact is that Muslim communities around the country have been subjected to terrorism and intimidation by angry non-Muslims. Muslims became the Not-Us, the Unwelcome, the They. Is there any difference between the death threats made against Martin Luther King, Jr., and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (and his wife, Daisy Khan, whose security detail I saw with my own eyes last week)? In both of these cases, we see the same goal, the same tactic, and the same underlying affect: an attempt to purify the social body through violence, to purge “foreign” elements, to return to a conservative fantasy of harmonious homogeneity that never existed.
I know what defenders of Islamophobia are going to say. They’re going to say that Islam “isn’t a religion, it’s an ideology, it’s a political system.” They’re going to say that Islam “requires” Muslims to kill infidels. They’re going to say that “all Muslims” want to impose “Sharia law” on the United States. They’re going to say that “any Muslim” who claims otherwise is practicing “taqiyya.”
And there are some people who are so fascinated by these ideas (or who have built a career out of them) that they will never, ever, ever give them up. But there are also people who hold these views, but genuinely want peace and want to understand Islam better. These people want to learn, want to hear that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but not one Pope, not one world council, no caliph or high Imam (as much as the American-backed dictators in the house of Sa’ud and the politically isolated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran would like to persuade you otherwise) who speaks for (or to) the collective. Many want to know that, according to many commentators on Islam, Islam doesn’t even have priests, but only scholars offering opinions, interpretations of Islamic tradition. Many want to know that Islam may be the most diverse, pluralistic religion on earth. Many hear Daisy Khan when she asked on This Week on ABC, “Have you cut me open that you know my heart?”, and many understand.
Racism is not just a set of beliefs. It’s an impulse that lives in all of us. We need to be constantly asking ourselves: When I use these words of power, “We” and “They”—“They need to take responsibility,” “They need to speak up,” “They need to change”—who are “They”? Are “They” real people that we’ve listened to, shaken hands with, had a conversation with, or even seen with our own eyes? Or abstractions—composites, sketches made by filling in the blanks between a few terrible, misunderstood images—fairy tales told by those who traffic in fear? And me: what do I stand for when I use those words—and am I being true to my values? And am I honoring the people that I condemn (for condemn we must) to the best of my power?
I remember where I was on 9/11, and I remember the days after. I remember being swept up in that tide, that great, great tide that lifted so many of us up and gave us a Cause, an Answer, a Target, someone to blame, an easy solution to this extraordinarily difficult, extraordinarily unlikely problem. I remember how satisfying it was to be told that a clear enemy was in sight. I remember, and I am confident in confessing this only because, through conversations, I know it was shared by many others (though many more, wiser than I was at that young age, knew better), the thrill of feeling like a war was coming, a War that Would Change Everything. The fantasies of apocalypse that have driven every generation of human bodies since we could speak and dream of the future seemed to be made flesh.
And I am thankful that when that tide put me down, I was able to look back and say, “What just happened?” This is my answer.
Racism: using a person’s identity as a weapon against her. Racism: “You are not one of us. You are out in the cold. You can go to Hell.” But racism today is not what it is often mistaken for: a set of beliefs. Racism is a pulse, a surge of feeling that wells up in you. It is not a certainty you hold with all your heart, not an opinion you build and reflect on, not even something you say—though, as with Richards and Imus, the impulse can take its most virulent form in words. And, as with Islamophobia, those who have followed the pulse of hatred far and long enough to its cold, giddy outer reaches will always be able to come up with litanies of justifications for their beliefs. They are only the many masks worn by a deeper impulse that lurks in all of us, the face painted on the wall of the building where the real decisions are made. We must be forever vigilant against ourselves, against what rises up within us in moments of grief, anger, and righteousness. We must guard against the sweet, deadly playground games of Us-and-Them; we must ignore the distractions from the difficult, winding, and obscure paths of peace.