The racialisation of religious affiliation is both profoundly dishonest and a considerable step backwards towards religious obscurantism and tribalism

A relatively minor news story from a few months ago provides a compelling insight into a current political trend, with considerable implications for Left-wing activism in particular. An article published 3rd February 2020 on the website Scottish Legal News reports that “Sikhs have threatened to take legal action against Scottish government ministers if they are classified as a religion rather than an ethnic minority on the census”. The government refused to accede to this demand, deciding to leave Sikhism under the religion section of the census, but nevertheless “it will be possible to write in Sikh under the ethnic section as well”.

So Sikhs in Scotland want to be recognised as an ethnic group, not just a religion. What does it matter? It matters greatly because the implications are vast.

Religious Affiliation is not “Race”

According to both Wiktionary and Merriam-Webster on-line dictionaries, the terms “ethnicity” and “ethnic group” are fairly loosely defined and may include religious affiliation. However, affiliations based on ancestry, race, tribe and nationality are given higher priority. The old Oxford Dictionary from almost a century ago simply defines “ethnic” pithily as “of race”. This author considers an ethnic group to be an extension of the concept of a racial group.

While not neglecting the sometimes problematic nature of the term “race”, the essential point is that it is a biological concept, identifying a group with a common genetic heritage. An ethnic group is such a group but augmented over time by the accretion of many individuals, of varied backgrounds, who have become assimilated by adopting the language, customs or other cultural characteristics of the host group.

To summarise then, ethnicity, like race, refers principally to a person’s innate, immutable characteristics. Religion, on the other hand, is an ideology, a collection of ideas, beliefs and practices. Ethnicity is a personal identity, whereas religion is an opinion and an option. The distinction is crucial. To change one’s “race” is impossible. To change one’s religion may be easy or difficult, depending on one’s degree of indoctrination, but it is certainly not impossible. It may be as uncomplicated as changing one’s mind.

If religious affiliation is elevated to the status of ethnicity, then it becomes viewed as practically unchangeable, fixed for the person’s lifetime, making the individual a prisoner of the religion in which he or she was born and raised. Conflating race or ethnicity with religion implies the negation of freedom of conscience. It also opens the door to social—or even legal censorship of criticism of religion, because if a religion is a “race”, then is not criticising religion a form of “racism”?

Racialism and Religion

We are witnessing the racialisation of religion, or at least its ethnicisation, an extremely dangerous development. Looking at two other religions: Islam and Judaism, we see a similar issue concerning racialism.

Consider the term “Islamophobia” which, despite being repeatedly challenged, has become widely accepted and used, mainly as a synonym for prejudice against Muslims. As is already well understood, there are at least two serious problems with the term:

  1. It refers to the religion Islam, not to its adherents—Muslims—so that its use to mean a prejudice conflates an ideology with a group of persons.
  2. The suffix “-phobia” implies an irrational fear, but to fear a religion, and, in particular, to fear a fundamentalist variant of that religion is not necessarily irrational. Indeed, it may be prudent, even wise.

It is the first of these two problems which interests us here. If “Islamophobia” is a prejudice against a group of persons, then it is difficult to criticise Islam without risking specious accusations of prejudice against that group. Even worse, if that group is considered to be an ethnic group or “race”, then those accusations become condemnations of racism. This, of course, is precisely what Islamists seek (By “Islamist” I mean anyone who promotes political Islam, i.e. who attempts to obtain political power, influence or privileges for the religion Islam). By racialising Islam, they seek to obtain impunity for that religion, placing it above criticism. The costs of that racialisation are enormous, first and foremost for Muslims themselves, who thus become hostages of an ideology which most did not choose but merely had the bad luck to be born into.

What Islamists are trying to do with Islam—unfortunately with considerable success so far—has already occurred with Judaism. Consider the noun “Jew”. It has two principal meanings:

  1. An adherent of the religion Judaism.
  2. A member or descendant of the Jewish people.

The first is a religious affiliation. The second is an ethnicity. The single word “Jew” covers both. Here, the conflation of religion with ethnicity is complete and has been for centuries or even millennia, for well known historical reasons: the age-old persecution and ghettoisation of the Jewish people. This conflation can make it difficult to criticise the religion Judaism without attracting accusations of antisemitism—although, to be frank, in the current political context, criticising Judaism is rarely as controversial or perilous as criticising Islam. At any rate, the goal of Islamists in using the questionable term “Islamophobia” is to do for Islam what has already occurred for Judaism: racialise religion. Conflating race and religion was the norm in the distant past, and to a lesser extent in the more recent past, when tribalism was the norm. In fact, racialising religion is closely related to tribal loyalty.

What we must do to counter this retrograde tendency is to reject the term “Islamophobia” and, furthermore, to separate the two meanings of the term “Jew” by making it clear which one we mean every time we refer to Jewishness. One way to do this is to use the term “Judaism” explicitly
whenever referring to the religious aspect.

Freedom of Conscience

We can recognise the wisdom of the Scottish government in refusing to ethnicise Sikhism. If we allow the conflation of race or ethnicity with religion, then we are throwing freedom of conscience out the window and returning to the ancient era of tribal religions, when “Once an X always an X” was the norm. The Scottish government has, however, been less wise in its plans for a new “Hate Crime and Public Order Bill” which arguably threatens freedom of speech and amounts to a new anti-blasphemy measure, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Religious apologists tend to love the idea of conflating “race” or ethnicity and religion, because such conflation is a perfect tool for deflecting criticism of their religion. However, they need to think seriously about the implications. If we accept seriously the idea that anti-religious sentiment
is indeed a form of “racism” then the three Abrahamic monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—become, for this very reason, explicitly and unequivocally racist. Judaism asserts that the Jewish people are chosen by Jehovah and tough luck for everyone else. Christianity holds that those
who fail to accept Christ are doomed to an eternity of punishment in hell. As for Islam, its holy book the Quran repeatedly expresses violent hostility towards non-Muslims and, in some contexts, enjoins Muslims to kill them.

Adherents of these three religions would do well to reflect on this before embracing the religion-equals-race fraud. Although other religious traditions may be guilty of similar extreme intolerance, Sikhism is apparently more tolerant of other religions.

What is “Race” Anyway?

So, if “race” is a strictly biological concept, what precisely is the word’s meaning? The term has of course been regularly used and abused by racists —hence the frequent use of quotes enclosing it. It is not a synonym of species, but rather of subspecies (or even sub-subspecies), where the prefix “sub-” is used here in the sense of a subset or subdivision, not to indicate inferiority. The genetic variations among human beings are so tiny that, if we define a “race” as a subspecies, then there is only one human “race” and we are all part of it. Racists are those who exaggerate the significance of these genetic variations, establish groupings which they mislabel “races”, and then attempt to establish a hierarchy amongst them. Such groupings have little reality, as the borders between them are extremely fuzzy or nonexistent.

Often it is said that there is no such thing as “race” among humans. We also hear that we are all one human race. But these two statements contradict each other. You cannot have it both ways. The first says that the number of races is zero, while the second says that number is one. It is the latter which is true if we define a race as a subspecies. There is only one human subspecies and it is identical with the human species. This means that such expression as “black race”, “white race”, etc. have no real basis unless one defines a “race” as a sub-subspecies, indicating just how inconsequential such categories are (or perhaps useful for medical or tracing purposes but little else).

To be accurate, there is only one human subspecies currently. There have co-existed in the past more than one subspecies of human beings, for example when Homosapiens neanderthalensis coexisted with Homosapiens, although the scientific consensus now considers them to be a separate species i.e. Homo neanderthalensia. And who knows what the distant future may bring? If a population of humans became physically separated from the rest of humanity for a long period of time—for example, if humans colonized Mars, and if travel between Earth and Mars remained very infrequent—then that separate population of humans might constitute a distinct subspecies after a few hundred thousand years or more of adaptation to their distinct environment. It is important to preserve the biological meaning of the word “race” in order to prevent the apologists of certain ideologies from hijacking the concept for their own dubious purposes.

The Degeneration of 21st Century AntiRacism into Racialism

The racialisation of religious affiliation is only one of several ways in the current 21st century antiracism movement has deviated from its primary goal of countering racism and degenerated towards racialism:

  • The movement has abandoned universalism and is now obsessed with each person’s racial identity (or other identities). This problem is so serious that the movement itself has received accusations of being racist. Although the term “racialist” is probably more appropriate.
  • The movement is rife with American chauvinism, i.e. it exports American priorities, ignoring the obvious fact that other countries usually have very different histories of racism from that of the USA, where the major economic role of slavery in the republic’s first century and the legacy of that odious institution have made anti-black racism such a crucially important issue. In Canada, for example, anti-black racism exists, of course, but racism against First Nations peoples is a more significant problem.
  • The movement sees racism everywhere, even where it does not exist, or where it is much less important than the movement claims. And yet, that same movement neglects to denounce certain blatant examples of racism or ethnic bigotry. For example, we rarely hear criticism of the strong anti-black racism common among Arabo-Muslims in North Africa.
  • The movement has taken a therapeutic approach to racism as if it were a purely individual problem and not societal. According to the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan (quoted by Kena Malik in “From Anti-Racism to Psychobabble”), this has turned racism into “a combination of mental illness, original sin and biological determinism”. This therapeutic approach, in this author’s opinion, turns antiracism into a parareligion at best, and a lucrative scam at worst.

By “racialism” is meant a near-synonym of racism, but a variant rather than an exact synonym. Racialism is typified by an exaggerated and unhealthy obsession with racial identity, which is certainly a characteristic of many contemporary antiracists who are alarmingly attached to pseudoscientific 19th-century racial concepts such as “black” and “white”. At its most extreme, racialism becomes downright racist. For example, the statement “There is no such thing as anti-white racism” is itself an example of anti-white racism. That being said, the movement’s obsession with “whiteness”, “white privilege”, “white fragility”, etc. is only a symptom of the underlying problem: the abandonment of universalism and Enlightenment values.

The racialisation of religious affiliation and the specious accusations of “racism” which it facilitates are hallmarks of racialism and probably the most important and toxic propaganda weapons of the fiercest opponents of secularism. These opponents are currently on the warpath in several countries. Let us consider a few examples. But first…

What is Secularism?

Before discussing the opponents of secularism, we must define secularism itself. A variety of definitions have been proposed, but here is one which represents a fairly large consensus of opinion:

Secularism is a political programme inspired by the universalism of the Enlightenment and based on the following four principles:

  • Equality of persons, including equality between women and men;
  • Protection of freedom of conscience, which includes freedom both of and from religion;
  • Religious neutrality of the State;
  • Separation between religion and State.

Secularism is motivated by the observations that (1) religions generally become dangerous whenever they obtain any degree of influence in government and State (indeed the greatest threat to freedom of religion is from religions themselves) and that (2) influence in the other direction tends to corrupt religion. Hence the need for the separation between religion and State. Indeed, without such separation, the other three principles are all weakened.

Racialism in France

In France, Houria Bouteldja is a self-styled activist against “Islamophobia” and neocolonialism, a spokesperson for Les Indigènes de la République, a political party which defines itself as antiracist and decolonial, and author of Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous (2016), published in English as Whites, Jews, and Us (2017). Bouteldja is recognized by many in France as antisemitic, misogynistic and homophobic, while rejecting secularism and displaying a pronounced racialism in which antisemitism and antipathy towards “whites” converge.

Yet in the USA, Whites, Jews, and Us has been much better received, even lionised, in particular by Ben Ratskoff of the Los Angeles Review of Books who, like many Americans, is particularly enamoured of Bouteldja’s hatred for secularism:

Bouteldja ends with a stirring critique of French secularism (laïcité), its collusion with state racism, and the disenchanted white man with which it replaces God […] Secular readers may squirm at Bouteldja’s frank discussion of God and the radical potential of submission before the One. Such a response would only reveal their own submission to the hegemony of the secular, with its dismissive racializing of the religious.

Ben Ratskoff (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Ratskoff’s final phrase is particularly duplicitous: It is not secularism which racialises the religious, but in this case rather self-styled antiracists such as Bouteldja.

Henri Peña-Ruiz is a French philosopher, secularism expert, and author of several books including Histoire de la laïcité (2005) and Dictionnaire amoureux de la laïcité (2014). In August of 2019, he was invited by the political party La France insoumise (LFI, party of the presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon) to give a workshop on his specialty.

At one point in the workshop, Peña-Ruiz remarked that one has a perfect right to be “Cathophobic”, “Islamophobic” or “atheophobic”, but not the right to discriminate against persons for what they are. This is an eminently reasonable statement which expresses one of the key lessons of secularism: that criticism of systems of belief or non-belief must not be conflated with attacking people. In other words, people deserve respect but ideas and ideologies do not.

For this rather innocuous assertion, in particular his use of the word “Islamophobic”, some elements of LFI accused Peña-Ruiz of “racism”, a patently false accusation given that the esteemed philosopher had taken pains to make precisely the necessary distinction between ideas and people. Such are the results of the racialisation of religious affiliation.

Racialism in Canada

The Canadian province of Quebec recently (June 2019) adopted legislation (Bill 21) which partially implements State secularism in that province. The law includes a ban on the wearing of religions symbols by State employees in positions of authority—police, judges, prosecuting attorneys, prison guards and school teachers and principals—while on the job. The ban applies to all religions and all persons except for those who held such a position before the draft bill was first published in March 2019.

Bill 21 is an eminently sensible and moderate piece of legislation. It is a matter of professional ethics. A representative of the State, while on the job, should not display partisan political or religious symbols. To allow the wearing of such symbols by State employees represents an unwarranted and unacceptable privilege accorded to the ideology which the symbol promotes. Several nations—France and parts of Switzerland, Belgium and Germany—also ban the overt display of religious symbols worn by some or all State employees. Bill 21 also bans face-coverings worn when providing or receiving government services, which is also the case for many European and African countries, some of which are Muslim-majority countries.

However, the reaction from some elements, including many who claim to be on the political Left and who thus should support such measures, has been, well, extremely reactionary.

At least 18 municipalities, most outside of Quebec, as well as two provinces, Manitoba and Ontario, have adopted formal resolutions condemning Bill 21. These resolutions share common themes: usually, assertions that Bill 21 is discriminatory (FALSE), threatens freedom of religion (FALSE) or excludes certain religious minorities from employment (FALSE). Many conflate race with religion, as is very common among anti-secularists. At least two explicitly accuse Bill 21 of being “racist”. The mayor of the Montreal suburb of Hampstead wins the prize for the most outrageous declaration by alleging that Bill 21 constitutes “ethnic cleansing”, thus adding his support to the ethnicisation of religious affiliation.

But wait, it gets worse! On the website Ricochet.media, one particularly creative opponent of Bill 21 links the bill to anti-black and anti-indigenous racism and asserts that it could very well lead to genocide:

Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs are not now being killed by police on the streets of Quebec, but history indicates that Bill 21—by making them second-class citizens—could lead to that in the not too distant future.

Indeed, the stakes are unbearably high: If we succeed in our fight against Bill 21, we will save lives that might otherwise be lost to racism decades from now, in 2050 or 2070. If we falter or give in now, we will be responsible for those future deaths.

Ehab Lotayef (Ricochet.media)

In light of the examples listed above, to say that Bill 21 meets with a hostile reaction is an understatement. The reaction has been hysterical, fanatical and patently insane.

Although Bill 21 is supported by all major secular organizations in Quebec, outside the province not a single one has expressed support for the legislation, and at least two have come out explicitly against it, a gesture which is not only cowardly, capitulating to the ambient hysteria, but also grossly hypocritical given their claim to support secularism. In the USA two decidedly unfriendly “Friendly Atheist” bloggers have displayed similar hypocrisy by condemning Bill 21 as “discriminatory”.

Exploiting Murder to Promote Racialism

Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the chorus of specious accusations against Bill 21 has risen to a fever pitch. The legislation is condemned by antiracist-activists (i.e. proponents of racialism)—who, for some strange reason, seem to include many hijabis—as “racist” and reinforcing “systemic racism”. Just what a law imposing religious neutrality in the Quebec civil service has to do with the murder of a black man by a policeman in a foreign country is never explained.

It should be noted that the Canadian chapter of Black Lives Matter condemns so-called “Islamophobia”. One of that organisation’s demands is to “END ISLAMOPHOBIA & WHITE SUPREMACY”. Just how one jumps from fighting anti-black racism to condemning criticism of religion is not explained.

Accusations of “Islamophobia” function effectively as social censorship. The notorious motion M-103, adopted by the Canadian parliament in March 2017, condemns “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”, thus explicitly linking religion with race. It is to be feared that the motion may be a first step in the re-criminalisation of blasphemy but privileging a particular religion. Ironically, Canada’s old anti-blasphemy law was repealed only four months previously.

Motion M-103 arose in the wake of the horrific massacre in Quebec City in January of 2017, when a gunman attacked a mosque, killing six and seriously wounding several others. This tragic event, an extreme example of anti-Muslim bigotry and violence, was made even worse by being exploited by the unscrupulous actions of proponents of racialism. Because the gunman had “liked” a few social media pages which proponents of racialism dislike, his actions were labelled “white supremacist”. This disinformation was repeated by many mainstream media as if it were fact, thus establishing a false link between an act of violence directed at a particular religious community and an extreme form of racism. Proponents of racialism and their Islamist allies pushed for M-103 as a result. Furthermore, that motion led to the formation of a parliamentary committee whose recommendations would open the door to allowing federal funds destined for anti-racism programmes to be misdirected into defending religious minorities and, through them, the religions themselves.

Although white supremacism is a crucial issue in the USA, as it was the principal ideology used to rationalise and legitimise slavery in that country and it persists even today, in Canada, it is of little import. However, Anglo-supremacism is a major theme in Canadian history and politics, what with the British asserting their superiority over both First Nations peoples and Francophone Canadians. This Anglo-supremacism has been revived as a significant component of the current antisecular mania. Secularism, in particular its key component of religion-State separation, is poorly understood in the English-speaking world but it is much better supported and implemented in the French-speaking world. Bill 21 is a manifestation of the French’s fuller understanding of secularism, while the hysterical opposition to it is based at least partly on anti-Québécois bigotry, i.e. racism.

Racialism and Religion: Conclusion

Racialism and the racialisation of religious affiliation are both profoundly dishonest and a considerable step backwards towards religious obscurantism and tribalism. It amounts to jettisoning freedom of conscience and abandoning universalism by labelling each individual indelibly with an attribute—i.e. religious affiliation—which is no more significant than an opinion: an opinion which not only may change but which must be allowed to be changeable if we are to respect the individual’s fundamental human rights.

The inanity of allowing this religious labelling can be amply illustrated by the example of Sinead O’Connor. The Irish singer distinguished herself in 1992 when, by an impromptu gesture on American national television, an act of great courage, she denounced child sexual abuse by the Catholic priesthood. However, years later, in 2018, she announced her conversion to Islam, threw on a hijab and expressed her disgust with “white” people. The idea that one can change one’s ethnicity simply by donning a religious garment is absurd in the extreme.