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Ray HarrisRay Harris is a frequent contributor to this website. He has written articles on 9/11, boomeritis, the Iraq war and Third Way politics. Since 2007 he took to writing his novels Navaratri, Wild Child and Eden. Harris lives in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.

A Letter to My Fellow Progressives

Islam is Not a Race

Ray Harris

Let me be clear about this. It isnít the generic Arab/Muslim who is responsible for modern acts of terrorism.

Another week [July 24th, 2016], another salafist atrocity, more progressive self-flagellation about Islamaphobia and racism. Why is it that whenever salafist extremists kill innocent people (anywhere) progressives shift the attention to Islamaphobia? Iím over it. Time to interrogate the misconceptions and polemic to uncover whatís really going on.

Iíll break this down into three sections: the question of Islam as a race, what Muslims gain from switching the blame and why my fellow progressives fall for it. And yes, I did say Ďfellowí progressives because I am resolutely a progressive: anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-patriarchy, pro-feminist, all for LGBTQI rights, freedom of sexuality and artistic and political speech - the whole shebang. In fact thatís why Iím writing this letter.


Islam is not a race, it is not a culture. Like Buddhism and Christianity, Islam is a universalist, conversionist religion. Anyone can become a Muslim and from its inception Islam has welcomed converts from every ethnic group it has conquered/encountered. There are no exceptions. There are African converts, European converts, Asian converts, Melanesian converts, even Aboriginal converts. And once you have converted you are not required to speak a specific language, wear specific clothes, eat a specific cuisine, listen to a specific music or conform to particular cultural conventions. The only constraints placed on you are religious, the bare minimum of which are the five pillars.

In this regard, Islam is most like Christianity. You can keep your own language and customs provided you accept the core religious principles (accepting the authority of Jesus or Mohammed).

This raises another controversial issue Ė the difference between custom and religious doctrine. The inconvenient fact is that many of the practices that Islam is criticised for: female circumcision, honour killings, child marriage, homophobia, patriarchal attitudes; are practiced by Christians and non-Muslims living in the same regions.

Now, it is true that through ignorance/malice some conservative bigots confuse Islam with ethnic Arabs and make essentialist claims about Ďall Muslimsí, but Iíve got to say that it isnít only conservatives who conflate Muslims with Ďbrowní people, itís also surprisingly common amongst progressives and even Muslims. True, Islam began in Arabia and quickly expanded into what we now call the Middle East, but not all Arabs converted and the Middle East is home to wide variety of minority religious groups, including Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Mandaeans. These groups speak Arabic (or Persian) and maintain historical cultural practices. When the French and English carved up the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot agreement it wasnít only Sunnis who were negatively affected and when the US Coalition invaded Iraq, their bombs fell on Christians, Jews, Mandaeans, Yazidi and Shia just as much as they fell on Sunnis.

So when Western progressives argue that the current wave of salafist terrorism in the West is a result of imperialist aggression in the Middle East, they make a fallacious essentialist argument. In fact they make the mistake two ways: they essentialise the Middle East as some kind of Arab/Muslim monoculture and they essentialise terrorists as generic Muslims. Let me be clear about this. It isnít the generic Arab/Muslim who is responsible for modern acts of terrorism; itís a multi-racial network of specifically Sunni supremacists who are responsible, both for attacks in the West and attacks in Muslim countries.

If terrorism in the West is the result of Muslim anger over past colonialist aggression, then why donít the terrorist groups include non-salafists amongst its adherents? And if the salafists are doing it in response to Western colonialism, why are their main targets other Muslims, especially Shia?


Quite understandably Muslims seek to both defend and promote their faith. It is quite unremarkable that they want to present Islam in the best possible light and to use all the tricks of persuasion to achieve that end.

But arguing that discrimination against Muslims is racist is pure polemic, and effective polemic at that.

The west has a long-standing secular tradition, one that dates back to the Greco-Roman era. Despite appearances and the apologetics of Christians, the West has always maintained a degree of scepticism about religion and a separation between church and state. The European aristocracy may have used religion as a means of control but they were hardly exemplars of the faith in private. When circumstances allowed, the underlying currents of the classical tradition erupted to the surface, the Enlightenment was the turning point.

What this means is that an appeal to respect religion doesnít carry as much weight in the West as it does in Islam. Ever since the Enlightenment, Westerners have openly questioned, ridiculed and attacked religion. Over time secular humanism became the dominant ideological paradigm (creating several political movements Ė the notion of left and right in politics comes from the secular French revolution). Some even dared to declare that they were atheists.

So when Muslims ask that their faith be respected because, well, just because, Westerners tend to turn away. It just isnít a strong enough argument.

But racism is. Ever since the evils of slavery, eugenics and fascism, progressive Westerners have reacted strongly to all allegations of racism. Accuse a Western progressive of racism and you get their immediate attention because racism is considered the great moral failing of the West.

It goes without saying that polemic is notoriously hypocritical and here I want to point out that Islam is every bit as racist as the Christian West. One example is the differentiation of slaves into racial categories. White slaves were especially valued, fetching a higher price than brown slaves, the lowest category of all were the black slaves (in Muslim Spain a black slave girl was worth 300 dinars and a white slave girl was worth 1,000). Oh, have my fellow progressives forgotten that there was a Muslim slave trade that was every bit as vicious as the Atlantic slave trade, one that helped supply African slaves to the Atlantic market, one that also enslaved millions of Europeans for exploitation in the Arab market?

Okay, so hereís how the argument is constructed. Islam is designated a culture. Discrimination against a person on the basis of culture is a form of racism. Another way to say this is that Islam has been racialised. However, this line of argument seems to be reserved solely for Islam. If Islam is a culture, then so is Christianity, so is Buddhism, so is Hinduism, but you rarely hear the argument that discrimination against them is racist. Why is Islam a special case?

Hereís an uncomfortable fact for my fellow progressives. In recent years the Christian communities in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Syria (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) have faced extreme persecution. Many have fled. The Christian communities of the Middle East have been decimated. If discrimination against Muslims in non-Muslim countries is racism, then surely discrimination against non-Muslims in Muslim countries is also racism? But we donít call it that. We label it for what it is, religious discrimination.

But polemic isnít about being fair. It is about depicting your rival in the worst light possible. And nothing can be worse than being labelled a racist.


I understand why because I once fell for it. Itís deceptively simple and has to do with misunderstanding history. The veil falls away when you study the history of Islam, and what you find is an Islam that is every bit as expansionist and imperialist as European Christianity. The progressive narrative is defined in terms of the opposition to ĎWesterní imperialism and so it tends to focus only on recent history. Very few progressives take the longer view.

Here are some key dates:

Mohammed conquered Mecca in 629. In less than a 100 years Islam had taken Jerusalem, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. Its advance into Europe was stopped in 723 at the Battle of Tours, just 200K from Paris. In 826 Islam invaded Sicily. There were even attempts to gain a foothold on the Italian mainland, with Islam controlling the slave trading port of Bari between 847-71. Meanwhile in the east, Islam made constant attempts on the heartland of Christianity, the Byzantine Empire. It conquered Damascus in 634 and Jerusalem in 637. In 655 there was a significant naval battle, which opened the Mediterranean to Muslim ships. The first siege of Constantinople was in 717. It failed, but for centuries Islam maintained pressure on the Byzantines. It finally succeeded in taking Constantinople in 1453. But Islamís European ambitions did not stop there. It swept into Eastern Europe through the Balkans, conquering Athens, the home of Western civilisation, in 1458. In 1521 it took Belgrade, in 1529 it attempted to take Vienna - Venice was also under constant threat. This marked the apogee. The next few centuries saw the steady decline of Ottoman influence, but it took until 1832 for Greece to regain its independence. The last Islamic caliphate was officially dissolved in 1924, creating modern Turkey.

Here I want to make two observations:

Islamic imperialist expansion into Europe lasted over 1000 years. During that period Islam succeeded in pushing as far north as Tours in France and Vienna in Austria. Raids by Barbary pirates reached even further, terrorising villages along the Atlantic coast as far north as Ireland and Iceland. It is estimated that somewhere around 4 million Europeans were enslaved (a paltry figure compared to the estimated 14 million Africans).

As a result of this imperialist expansion, Islam still controls many of the lands that gave birth to Christianity, including the most important city of all, Constantinople (including arguably the greatest church in Christendom, the Hagia Sophia). It is a particular bias of Western Europeans to think of Rome as the center of Christianity, but millions of eastern Europeans would beg to disagree. In a curious twist of history, the British sided with the Ottomans against the Russians in the Crimean war. I mention this to point out that Eastern Orthodox Christians faced their own battles against Islamic imperialism.

It is worth reflecting that in contrast, the home of Islam, Mecca, has never once been occupied (in fact the whole city is closed to infidels).

Despite this history, most progressives only think of Christian-Muslim relations in terms of Christian aggression against Islam, beginning with the Crusades. Most of the focus is on modern history, particularly the French and English colonial period. According to this narrative the West bears collective responsibility for the problems of the Middle East. In this narrative Muslims are only ever historical victims, never perpetrators. The entire history of Islamic imperialism is conveniently ignored.

I said above that as a progressive I am anti-imperialist. This means I am against all imperialism, not just Western imperialism (here I will note that I havenít mentioned Islamic imperialist expansion into Asia, which preceded Western expansion by centuries).


As progressives the last thing we should do is generalize and resort to stereotypes.

The argument of racism is classic misdirection (the informal fallacy of ignoratio elenchi). It is used to divert attention away from the real problem and to shift the blame.

Muslims use it to claim victim status and to avoid a close examination of Islam.

Progressives do it to return the focus to the evils of Western imperialism, ignoring the history of Islamic imperialism.

I said that at the beginning that I was a progressive and thing I have struggled the most with during this whole debate; is how some progressives betray the very principles they say they stand for. We know that salafists violently oppose the entire progressive agenda. When ISIS declared its salafist caliphate, it immediately reinstituted sexual slavery. In doing so they were simply following the traditions of Islamic imperialism.

The thing is that Sunni salafists who are committing these acts of terror have told us exactly who they are and what they want - repeatedly. We just have to learn to pay attention.

“All in all, we request of Allah ... that the umma should regain its honor and prestige, should raise again the unique flag of Allah on all stolen Islamic land, from Palestine to Andalus.” Osama bin Laden.

“The other city, Rome, remains, and we hope and believe that it too will be conquered. This means that Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor, after being expelled from it twice Ė once from the south, from Andulasia, and a second time from the east, when it knocked several times on the door of Athens.” Dr Yusuf Qaradawi, Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, not all Muslims are salafists and most reject the salafist neo-imperialist project. And yes, Muslims face constant discrimination, but this is really only because of the actions of the salafists. If it werenít for the fact that terrorist acts are real, common and very deadly, very few Westerners would pay them much attention.

As progressives the last thing we should do is generalize and resort to stereotypes. To avoid this we need to be specific and name the problem for what it actually is Ė salafist supremacism.

We canít do this if we get derailed by the polemics of racism.

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