Opinion: If we're going to challenge Islamophobia and controversial comments like those of Boris Johnson, we need to start recognising it as anti-Muslim racism

Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, is no stranger to Ireland. For the past decade, I have been researching with Muslim communities across the Republic of Ireland, specifically focusing on this pernicious phenomenon. Early August witnessed the topic of Islamophobia come to the fore again in public debate in the UK context, this time through the pen of Conservative MP and former minister, Boris Johnson.

His controversial comments on Muslim women and Islamic veiling practices generated much debate. While arguing that the British state should not regulate how Muslim women dress, Johnson referred to those female Muslims who wear the burqa/niqab as "letter boxes" and "bank robbers."  

Needless to say, Johnson’s comments were met with strong criticism from a range of commentators. The issue of whether or not Johnson, a well-heeled white non-Muslim male, was best placed to advise on how Muslim women should dress was at the heart of much of the criticism directed towards him; criticism that repeatedly regarded Johnson’s comments as Islamophobic or racist towards Muslims.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Michael Crick, Political Correspondent for Channel 4 News, reports on calls for Boris Johnson to apologise for comments he made about Muslim women

There were also those who defended him in the ensuing debate. In one discussion, a male panellist, and defender of Johnson, took issue with the notion that Muslims could experience racism as Muslims are not a "race". This is not the first time that I have encountered this point and I want to use the opportunity afforded by Johnson’s comments to address this point.

Drawing from decades old research, we know today that distinct "races" do not exist. That is not to say that some in society do not refer to people of different skin colours and/or cultures as belonging to different "races". Over the centuries, racial thinking, which has been underpinned by socio-political and economic motivations, has taken root, meaning that people are at times identified by others (and themselves) on the basis of belonging (or not) to distinct "races", even though there is no such thing in reality. 

There are over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with all  the diversity you would expect in 1.6 billion plus non-Muslims

It is important to recognise though that while "races" do not exist in biological terms, "race" is recognised as a sociological concept. From a sociological perspective, "race" is socially constructed and the process is referred to as racialisation. Through racialisation, people are marked out as being members of a particular "race" with all members associated with ascribed, and deemed innate, characteristics, attitudes and tendencies. At a basic level, think of the negative stereotyped characteristics associated with being black, Jewish or a member of the Traveller community. As these examples demonstrate, skin colour, religion and culture can all be implicated in this process of making "race".

In the contemporary context, Muslim communities have been in the crosshairs of racialised thinking. There are over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. They have different skin colours, speak different languages, hold different political perspectives, levels of religiosity, class positions, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities and gender identities. All the diversity you would expect in 1.6 billion plus non-Muslims.

"When it comes to discussing issues relating to Muslim communities such as veiling practices, Muslims are thought of as a single homogenous, racialised community"

No, Muslims are not a "race". Yet, when it comes to discussing issues relating to Muslim communities such as veiling practices, Muslims are reductively thought of as a single homogenous, racialised community, the members of which are deemed as holding certain innate characteristics, attitudes and tendencies.

For example, Muslim men and women are constructed as innately inclined towards terrorism. While Muslim men are perceived as "hyper-patriarchal", to quote Canadian scholar Sherene Razack, Muslim women on the other hand are deemed passive and oppressed, devoid of intellect and agency. The list goes on. Understood in this light. it does not take too much effort to realise that Muslim men, women, boys and girls as members of a reductively homogenised racialised group can be the targets of anti-Muslim racism.

Examples of anti-Muslim hostility and discrimination in the Irish context often reference international events

My research for the past decade has pointed up evidence of the lived realities of anti-Muslim racism in Ireland. In a survey I conducted with over 300 adult Muslim men and women, one in three reported experiencing anti-Muslim hostility (verbal abuse, physical assault, threats). Just under the same number stated that they had experienced anti-Muslim discrimination while looking for work, in employment and accessing goods and services. In both cases, Muslim women were almost twice as likely as men to be targeted.

Examples of anti-Muslim hostility and discrimination in the Irish context often reference international events. For example, the blame for a terrorist attack abroad being laid at the feet of a random Muslim woman minding her own business. The individuality of this Muslim woman is lost. She is instead perceived as a member of a racialised community known as Muslims, a community that that is too often dehumanised by political figures such as Johnson.

From RTÉ Archives, Doireann Ní Bhriain reports for the PM show in 1978 on the Muslim students, doctors and textile industry workers from Libya, South Africa, Mauritius and Palestine living in Galway

The use of such terms not only dehumanises Muslim women, but also serve to legitimise the actions of would-be assailants. Recent reports of anti-Muslim hostility in the UK directly reference Johnson’s comments with those targeted being referred to as "letter boxes".

Commentators on the issue have suggested that Johnson made his comments on the burqa and niqab to make political capital. This point alone underscores the need to recognise anti-Muslim racism as racism. In doing so we open up the space to discuss what is going on in terms of the way Muslims are constructed as a racialised community; their experiences as such; why this is so; and for whose benefit. "Races" do not exist, but anti-Muslim racism does.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ