The Race-Religion Constellation: The Dangers of Racial Dehumanization (New Project)

Many of the current conflicts in the Netherlands, Europe, and globally are entwined with different forms of racism. With the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, there was a global wave of solidarity for the demand of racial justice. Sparked by the call for an end to police violence, these protests – especially those in Europe – equally stipulated that institutional racism be acknowledged and opposed as part of a much broader public decolonisation project (e.g. education, media, streets/statues/museums etc.). For this to be possible, it is essential that scholars, in dialogue with affected populations, activists and policy makers, understand how racisms work, and the complexity of its different manifests. As much race research demonstrates, it is exceedingly difficult to define racism, which is time and space dependent and thus continuously transforming itself (cite). That it has proven very difficult to define, however, should not be taken as an argument for its non-existence.  There is a dire need to both discuss and study it in order to better understand it and combat it. It is fallacious to argue that racism doesn’t exist, and as such there is no reason to discuss it (public/political) or study it (academic). Globally, denials or diminishments of racism, and specifically its structural or institutional forms, makes race scholarship even more challenging (cite). European scholars of race (and activists) face an additional challenge because of the post-Shoah silence on race (Lentin). This silence not only prevents much research on topics such as slavery and colonialism, it masks the fact that ‘race’ and ‘religion’ are entangled concepts (Topolski 2018). Their entanglement has deep roots in the past which continues to strongly affect the present. Antisemitism, antigypsyism, and Islamophobia – manifest globally but most portentously in Europe – substantiate this reality. This proposal, building on my original research on the race-religion constellation (2018), aims to investigate the entanglement of ‘race’ and ‘religion’ in order to better understand the logic and effects of racial dehumanisation. While many undoubtedly will challenge the need to re-open the painful past of European antisemitism in order to better understand its contemporary manifestations, just as many will refuse to acknowledge that islamophobia and antigypsyism are forms of racism, it is imperative that these challenges be met not only by society/activists, but also by academics. 

Researchers in the trailblazing field of Critical Philosophy of Race (CPR), inspired by and learning from pioneering critical race theory scholars, study the social construction of ‘race’, the mechanisms of racialisation and their structural institutionalization in particular forms of racism. The latter is understood to be a system rooted in hierarchical power relations and comprised of exclusionary practices. Until now, the vast majority of CPR research has focused on what W.E.B. DuBois christened the colour-line, the violent effects of the experiences of slavery and colonialism in the Americas. In the aftermath of the Shoah, DuBois visited the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Astonished, he realised that an understanding of European antisemitism was essential for “a more real and complete understanding of the Negro problem” (2000, 198). DuBois’ astute insight has sadly been overlooked in European scholarship which is unfortunate as what transpires beyond Europe’s border and within are connected (Goldberg 2006; Rothberg 2009). A thorough investigation of the deep entanglement of race and religion is absolutely essential. This work, with a European focus, has only recently begun (Topolski 2018). Building or expanding upon these initial conclusions, by means of further interdisciplinary and cooperative research, is critical. It would also be a fundamental contribution to the field of critical philosophy of race as it would allow scholars to better understand the diverse forms of racism prominent in Europe. Furthermore, as there is a lack of research on race in the Netherlands – especially research that would connect different manifestations of racism (e.g. anti-black racism and Islamophobia) (cite), such research creates more space to study racism in Europe, to understand how it similar and different from racism in other countries, to understand its intersection with not only ‘religion’ but also gender/sexuality, class, nationality etc. Yet while the framework is philosophical, this kind of collective research is not possible if limited by any one discipline nor without the voices of those most affected as a guide and equal participants.

While there is a  partial consensus in contemporary scholarship on racism that ‘race’ is a social construct and based on phenotype/colour, there is no consensus about the definition of the term ‘race’ (Bernasconi and Lott 2000). An alternative and very influential approach to research racism is Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory, which focus’ on the social, economic, and political processes “by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed and destroyed” (2014,109). While limited by its US focus, this theory emphasizes the fact that the concept of ‘race’ is dynamic and malleable, an important insight that challenges the dominant view held in Europe that race is biologically fixed. Another approach is to focus on the effects of racism. The exclusionary effect of structural racism cannot be conceptualised without understanding how intricately rooted it is to its context (Voegelin 1997; Mamdani 2012). With regard to the three European manifestations of racism central to this project, antisemitism, islamophobia and antigypsyism (this is how discrimination against ‘Gypsies’, Romas, Sinti etc. is generally referred to), this requires us to consider the context of European history and political theology (Anidjar 2003; Anidjar 2014; Baar 2011; Lloyd 2012; Vries 2008).

Race research is also particularly challenging in Europe because of a sensitivity and shame with regard to the Shoah. Sadly one of the results, intended or not, is that it has led to the reduction of the category of race to a particular 20th century biological social construct and to the denial of these other forms of racism which must be studied (Essed and Hoving 2014; Wekker 2016). Europe’s post-Shoah ‘silence’ on race, has thus made it much more difficult to conceptualise and clarify new forms and adaptations of racism including the ‘new’ antisemitism, islamophobia and antizyganism (Baar 2011; Maeso 2015; Klug 2012; Meer and Modood 2009; Romeyn 2014; Maeso 2015). This silence, combined with and the alarmingly high rates of Islamophobia in the past decade, makes this project all the more crucial as the vast majority of academic research on Islamophobia avoids the question of racism (for both pragmatic and political reasons). While understandable given how difficult it is to discuss racism in almost any setting, academic being no exception, this silence has concrete negative effects, economic, legal and social on Muslims in Europe.[1]

This silence also perpetuates a problematic binary between religion and secularism (which enables the masking of contemporary forms of religious racism such as islamophobia) (CITE). The concept of ‘religion’, like that of race, is a highly contested and constructed concept with a complex genealogy (Asad 1993; Taylor 2007; Anidjar 2007). In addition to engaging with this critical scholarship, race-religion constellation research makes clear that very often the concepts of ‘secularism’ or ‘religion’ are actually cloaks for a dynamic and often contradictory theological logic of the Western Catholic Church who had the power to name and demarcate what was, and was not, included as a ‘religion’ (Pandian). In this vein, it also entangled with the modern discourse of secularism which it produced to be both its enemy and friend, and also serves to name what is, and is not, to be included in today’s secular public sphere (Butler et al. 2011). The discourse of secularism, which several scholars have argued is in fact a continuation of Christianity’s previous hegemony, denies the fundamental role ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ categories continue to play in the structure of political communities. This also points towards a rather paradoxical aspect of Christianity itself, equally true of liberalism. While both openly aspire to be inclusive and universal, both implicitly maintain a masked distinction between us/them often along racial lines that leads to structural exclusion. With regard to liberalism this has led to a logic of blaming the ‘other’, whether Muslims, migrants etc., for their own exclusion as it is depicted as a refusal to integrate (which in fact requires assimilation) (Jansen 2014; Topolski 2016a). In order to substantiate this claim, we will also make use of literature from other fields, which critically deconstruct the concepts of religion and secularism, as well as the institutionalisation of structural Christian (Protestant/privatised-faith) privilege (Asad 2003; Darian-Smith 2010; Ward 2014; Mahmood 2015; Fadil 2016).