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« A "Swift" Retaliation | Main | Cassandra George »

October 11, 2006


This strikes me as a specious way to structure the question, since "race" is itself an arbitrary construction. The classic on this subject is, of course, Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, first published in 1952. Elaborating on Sartre's argument that the Jew is a creation of non-Jews, Fanon (a man of African origin from Martinique) argued that blackness is a creation of whites. He contrasted the interior versus exterior enforcement of these masks in the case of Jews and Blacks. As with all else, a salient extract exists on the internet:

Another classic, Edward Said's Orientalism, a sort of Fanonian analysis of Middle Eastern identity, is more directly relevant to the question of projected perceptions of Islam.

The point I'd draw from these theorists is one that the law also recognizes: the question of discrimination involves an analysis less of the person discriminated against than of the person doing the discriminating.

I agree that criticism of the wearing of veils, or orthodox Jews who demand non-coed dormitories for female Jewish college students, or of the practice of widow burning is not inherently discriminatory. That it's not discriminatory, however, is not because religion is a choice, but because the criticism is directed toward the behavior or belief, rather than based on a priori assumptions about the people engaging in it. I would also say that it's not discriminatory to criticize say, an inner city resident who happens to be black, who loots a quickie mart during a riot, even though it is discriminatory to meet a black person and assume that he's from the inner city, or that he'd have any special inclination to loot.

Conversely, the hypothetical woman introduced to a man named Ishmael Salaam who assumes that he's a misogynist, or who argues against women wearing veils using essentializing rhetoric about "foreign elements" that equates the behavior with an Islamic background; the woman in my office a number of years ago who told me that she couldn't stand our boss's "Jewish management style" and that I was okay because I was only "half-Jewish" (though my mother, who converted to Judaism, would disagree and, on the other hand, though I am not religious) and who would also rail against Israel with a subtext of "this is what you get when you turn over power to a bunch of Jews"; or the hypothetical man who hears a woman tell a story about celebrating Diwali, and assumes that she plans someday to fling herself on a pyre, and thinks "barbaric"...all these people are engaging in discrimination, and it seems to me wholly irrelevant that their bigotry classifies by religion.

To use my own example, what is my "choice" to avoid the hatred of an Anti-Semite? I would definitely change my name from Levine (which as recently as a few weeks ago, elicited a snort of contempt from some hick out in the desert seeking my legal advice; other of my legal aid clients have made it clear that they're glad to have a Jew lawyer because, you know, we're "connected"), call myself "Russian" a la George Allen's "French and Spanish" ancestry, stop celebrating High Holy Days, Passover, and Hannukah (it's mostly force of habit and guilt that keep me going, anyway: like one of those chain emails that insists something bad will happen if you don't forward it, somehow my Hebrew school teachers and family got the message to me: through death and destruction we've been performing these rituals for thousands of years, and now you can't even eat a little apple and honey at Rosh Hashanah? For this, we suffered?). Then I just wait and hope that I don't come across a savvy bigot who "outs" me, which I'd put at decent, 75-25 odds in my favor-- I'm neither at the Fran Drescher nor the Alicia Silverstone end of the spectrum of "recognizably Jewish."

Frankly, this doesn't strike me as much of a "choice." My actions would convince the people who weren't prejudiced to begin with, but not the bigots. The comparison to racial prejudice also reminds me of the threadbare old argument between agenda-driven Jews and agenda-driven African Americans over which was worse, the 6 million estimated victims of the Holocaust, or the 40 million estimated victims of the African American slave trade (both figures are probably inflated, but that's neither here nor there). I've always felt the answer, both were horrible, should end this argument, and all related ideological justifications.

This is a complex topic, which I could have easily spun off into a rant at my fellow Jews who charge Anti-Semitism whenever someone criticizes Israel (though, viz the race vs. religion question, I don't like the racially motivated activities of Mugabe's settlers better, notwithstanding their anti-colonial context). I could have rambled about the weirdness of the racial category of "Latino," and people who identify Salma Hayek, of Lebanese extraction, as a "woman of color" (a silly term), while at the same time identifying even Mizrahi Israeli's as white. I could compare increasing pan-Islamicism to the tragic loss of rich, regional Jewish identities (from Gaelician-Jewish to Uzbekhi-Jewish) following the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. And I could tell my own troubling anecdotes ahout increasing Arab-islamic identification among friends from moderate Muslim (Pakistani, in this case) backgrounds. All these would be long tangents.

For a dynamic perspective on the last phenomenon, I recommend (as I have in the past) the Lebanese Catholic Amin Maalouf's "Identites Meurtrieres" available in English as "On Identity."

For an interesting, but quite tangential to this discussion, historic work on the mutability of "whiteness," another classic is Noel Ignatiev's "How The Irish Became White."

Not to belabor the point, but if the the moderate Muslim commentator had said, for example, that it's not acceptable in public discourse to mock someone who happens to be Muslim as a "towel head," I think most of us would have agreed, and shrugged. To again use my own group: "What kind of evil God keeps people away from lobster-- screw Judaism" is a far cry from "Screw the kikes."

The frightening peculiarity of the Muslim commentator's statement is in its equation of mocking a belief with mocking an essentialized category of people, and its implicit rationalization of violence and intolerance in the process. The minority of African American leaders who justified the Reginald Denny beating as "payback" for the Rodney King verdict were equally scurrilous. The disturbing difference in this situation, is the lack of a significant Muslim parallel to the African American leaders who condemned the violence of the 1992 riots.

This strikes me as a specious way to structure the question, since "race" is itself an arbitrary construction.

it isn't arbitrary. see here for why it isn't arbitrary genetically. see the paper referenced above elucidated upon by the author here, question #4.

just because a concept is not a clear and distinct platonic ideal does not mean that it does not exhibit a statistical central tendency. just because zeno's paradox is of interesting does not mean that there is no difference between here and there just because the boundary between here and there is an arbitrary construction along the distance between here and there. if given 100 pieces of genetic information from person x, you can assign assign person x to population a, b or c with a 99 out of 100 probability of accuracy in correspondence to self-identification is it an 'arbitrary construct'? i say no, because 99 out of 100 implies that there is a tendency or bias, and that the construct isn't arbitrary.

This is why I am not down with the modern concept of "respect". When someone says they deserve "respect", what they are really saying is: "don't criticize me. Ignore the consequences of my beliefs." Every group, mob and idealogy attempts to innoculate itself from criticism by utilizing a victim mentality of this sort, a perfect example being the so-called "War on Christmas". That Christians can perceive a threat during a holiday where their religion is openly and widely celebrated is bizarre, to say the least, but it is an effective stance. It gives Christians a club with which to beat back a tiny, miniscule quantity of criticism. And certain Muslim commentators are doing that now as well. Like many groups, Muslims do face very real discrimination, but the idea that they should be free from tough questions and criticism is absurd. Not when their beliefs can entail treating women as property (women aren't even allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia!) and beheading homosexuals (a practice that occurrs regularly in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia).
Anyway. Respect can mean a lot of things, but it should never mean turning a blind eye to abuse and hypocrisy.

I suppose the big problem is that when you criticize an extremist (be they Christian or Muslim), non-extremists of the same religion feel threatened. My attitude is: tough; be thick-skinned enough to handle nuanced differentiations. When a religious group (or any group) responds to an extremist who shares their religion by circling the wagons and demanding "respect" (i.e. immunity from criticism), they only demean their own beliefs. Bush is the perfect example. Christians should have been the loudest voice oppossing him, not the left. Muslims, it seems, can be guilty of the same selective amnesia.

Anyway, I really appreciate your point of view on this Ruchira, it's a direction that too many people aren't willing to go. You rock.

I understand what you mean by race being a spectrum of racial characteristics. I also agree with Razib's point about a cluster of phenotypes defining race broadly and often accurately.

As an example, my husband is a Punjabi with ancestry in western Punjab. He could pass as a middle eastern. My family belongs to Bengal in the east. My physical features to some extent resemble the Burmese, Phillippino type. This difference is quickly picked up by other Indians. The questions and answers that follow are almost always something like this:
Q:"So, it was a love marriage?" (arranged marriages almost invariably occur within the same regional/linguistic group)
Q:"How did you guys meet?"
A: "In college."
Q:"Was there family opposition to the match?"

But when non-Indians see the two of us, they see an Indian couple and they may or may not assume one or more of the following.

1.Hindu or Muslim
2.Do not eat beef and / or pork
3.May have had an arranged marriage involving dowry.

Except for tenuous Hindu roots, none of the above is true for either one of us. But I don't feel any urgent need to disabuse the person of these assumptions until the specific question comes up or I find them acting upon those pre-conceived notions.

Indeed our racial identity is both how we see ourselves and how others see us.

When we were in Omaha, my husband and other near and middle eastern employees of the University of Nebraska Medical Center were classified as "white" by the state of Nebraska. As implausible as it sounds, it was so - probably for affirmative action purposes. They just did not want to create new groups of minorities to deal with. Did that convince us to call ourselves "white?" No, we unfailingly entered "Asian" in the US census beureau's questionnaire and see ourselves as brown.

Our identity surely goes beyond race. Religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental handicaps, political conviction and religious beliefs, all contribute to that identity. Some of these are indeed "chosen" while others we have no control over.

My point though was a simpler one, like Matt's. I don't think that we can hide behind any of those identities to make mischief or break the law.

The reason why Akbar Ahmed'd comment irritated me was precisely that he was trying to create a race based Muslim identity which is false in order to ward off legitimate criticism.

BTW, I don't believe that race should be a cover for bad behavior either as both Matt and Anna pointed out.

The pernicious aspect of identity politics is that it infantilizes the very group whose pride is presumably being protected. What does that mean? That I am Hindu so don't criticize me for extorting dowry from my bride's parents or acting on caste prejudices. I am Christian; I can't help being against Darwin and superciliously thanking Jesus in public meetings with non-Christians. And, I am Muslim; please don't hold it against me if I blow up a few airplanes.

Ridiculous. There is no doubt in my mind that G.W Bush has kicked open the door for this kind of muddled discourse by his own thinly veiled Christian partisanship. The so called "Uniter" has divided the world like no one else before.

Fun conversation here. (Incidentally, I really enjoyed reading Anna's comments.)

Ruchira, if I object to anything here, it's how you frame the issue (see: title, first two paragraphs).

I believe that religion SHOULD be considered on an equal footing with race.

That said, race itself is not a legitimate shield from criticism. I think we're all in agreement on this point, which is probably what's most important/relevant here.

I should have made myself clearer in framing the question.

Perhaps the first two paragraphs of my post came across as my saying that I make a distinction between certain types of behavior that can be explained by our race and others by our religion / culture. I DON'T. Let me explain.

Race, however one defines it, is a part of our identity which is wholly physical in nature, over which we have no control. We can in some rare cases, find correlation between race and certain physical conditions (heritable diseases for example) -- and that's it. We can predict NOTHING about a person's abilities, proclivities or preferences based on race.
Those are all determined by our cultural milieu, of which religion is a big part.

The specious nature of the question in this case was framed by Mr. Akbar Ahmed. One, he implies that race indeed determines how people may behave in certain cases and since that behavior is based in the perpetrator's genetic make up, he or she cannot "help it." Wrong. Secondly, he suggests that because Muslims now are a distinct "ethnic group," certain behavior and beliefs can be attributed to their ethnicity and therefore must remain above reproach. That too is patently false.

Whatever uniformity is seen today in Islamic thought and practise, is due to the recent global phenomenon of pan-Islamic group think. It has NOTHING to do with their ethnicity which is as diverse as the ethnicities of Christians.

What I am saying is that one's race is the part of one's identity which most emphatically should remain above criticism. I cannot and should not judge another person based on it - their character and abilities are NOT determined by their race.(which by the way, is distinct from individual genetic make up) To assume that it does, is the basis of all forms of racism.

However, our behavior (which is not related to race) is shaped by our philosophy - religious, cultural and political - all of them "choices" in some sense and therefore not inherently unmodifiable. They are therefore open to questioning and debate.

Religion is therefore not on an equal footing with race because race DOES NOT determine behavior.

And yes, none of the above, including race, is an excuse for bad behavior.

I too enjoyed Anna's colorful comment. Anna should weigh in with her wisdom more often, don't you think? Perhaps she will post the review Amin Maalouf's book "In the Name of Identity. (I have the book in my Amazon cart along with Maalouf's Samarkand which seems very interesting also.)

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