September 9, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Rejecting Islamophobia, Rejecting Racism

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By ANNA-LISA CASTLE ’14, KEVIN MCGINNIS ’13 and REBECCA JOHN ’14

In his column, “Islamophobia and Racism,” Julius Kairey thinks he is challenging us to think “outside the box” about racism, but what he’s actually doing is making a tired argument about political correctness that asks his audience to understand Islamophobia as an acceptable form of racism. He suggests that we redefine Islamophobia as justified critique of Islam, and decries the term itself as unwarranted silencing of critical opinions. Kairey does this to provide cover, unsurprisingly, for a blatantly Islamophobic argument that tries (and fails) to uncouple anti-Muslim, anti-Arab fervor from racism more generally. He unlinks “critique of Islam” from an ongoing history of exceptionalizing and essentializing Islam as a singular cause of violence and oppression. Furthermore, he is publishing Islamophobic and racist speech at a time where Muslims-American students on college campuses are regularly silenced, targeted, and alienated, and does so in such a way that contributes to a hostile environment for all students of color, women and other marginalized people at Cornell.

Islamophobia is the prejudice, hatred and fear of not only Muslims, but those who are racialized as “Muslim” in a post 9/11 world. This means that Arabs, North Africans, South Asians and anyone perceived as Muslim become victims of Islamophobia. Islamophobic, racist acts of violence in America often fall on people who carry the physical markers of “otherness,” whether that is ahijab or aturban, regardless of their beliefs. Like any form of racism, Islamophobia does not see Muslims as complex and diverse human beings. Rather, according to Islamophobic discourse, “Muslim” constitutes a single, monolithic group, often characterized as inherently violent and having distinctly un-modern values, placing Islam itself as the root cause of terrorism (relatedly, one could argue that  a cycle of American military and cultural dominance feeds fundamentalist, anti-American sentiment), the oppression of women, and irreconcilable cultural differences. Kairey’s column relies on these assumptions to argue in favor of a “critical” response to something as broad as Islam and people as diverse as Muslims.

As evidence for why “the West’s core values” are not only inherently different from those that “predominate the Muslim world,” but “better,” he cites the possibility of women being stoned. Violence against women is deplorable, and it exists in the “West” as much as it does in the “Muslim world.” (Kairey also glosses overmillions of examples of Muslimwomens’ resistance.) Kairey plays on a highly racialized image of a particular form of violence against women to justify Islamophobia. In doing so, women become a tool in his argument, objects rather than subjects, meant to demonstrate cultural superiority of an assumed “us” as opposed to “them.” This represents a rhetorical violence against women that should not be overlooked. (Furthermore, in the past, Kairey has shown that he does not have the same regard for women in his local community in a column where he suggests that sexual violence on campus is exaggerated, even claiming that rape culture does not exist.) This sort of categorization and generalization that defines Muslims as inherently anti-woman parallels other forms of racism in America, such as anti-blackness, which conceives all black people as criminal, or anti-Asian racism which conceives all Asian people as perpetual foreigners. The function of racism is not legitimate critique; the function of racism is dehumanization. Although Kairey adds a sidenote that he does not mean to denounce all adherents of Islam, he proceeds in 978 words to dehumanize the entire “Islamic world.” The discourse that he evokes is related to a long and horrifying history of justifying  imperialism, conquest and genocide.

In writing this, we are reminded of something Toni Morrison once said: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Some time ago, members of Islamic Alliance for Justice at Cornell wrote an op-ed in The Sun addressing “What Does It Mean To Be A Muslim American.” Two years later, Kairey’s article compels us to explain once again why Muslims are not terrorists, why Muslims are human beings. This is not something we should have to do.

As a note from the weary alumni authors of this piece, we are not only mindful of the distraction Kairey poses — distraction from daily life, from progress, from collective liberation, from caring for one another — but also the real harm this kind of rhetoric represents for students who might feel compelled to tacitly accept its presence both on campus and, shamefully, inked in their student paper. So let us use our last inches not to address purveyors of hate but instead to offer loving words to those in their crosshairs: We hope no Cornellian feels shamed by upperclassmen like Kairey who speak not from a place of love and compassion but from bigotry and supremacy. No young Muslim should feel added pressure to prove themselves to be a “good Muslim” on Cornell’s campus. No young woman or queer should feel like they have to accept a man like this using their identity to make a point he doesn’t understand. No young Cornellians of color should feel silenced when a white man tailors the definition of racism to suit his own hateful ideology. There’s enough of that already happening every day. Though Kairey has a right to express himself, we find it outrageous and appalling that the student paper, which already represents a relatively small sampling of students, has been allowed to provide the platform for such insidious, poisonous speech. Think more critically next time, Sun editors, about what your writers are actually saying and maybe it will be possible to distill honest points of discussion from racism wrapped in rhetorical flourishes masquerading as a simple “throwdown” by a freedom-loving American.

Anna-Lisa Castle, Kevin McGinnis and Rebecca John graduated from Cornell. They can be reached at amc394@cornell.edu, kjm232@cornell.edu and rj224@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.