This talk was given by Nakita Valerio at the University of Alberta for a panel discussion on Islamophobia: Intersections & Cross Currents in honour of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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Peace be upon all of you

First of all, a huge thank you to Professor Janice Williamson for making the time and necessary efforts to create space for this kind of dialogue here at the University. I am honoured to speak among so many talented colleagues and recognize that there are many brilliant thinkers who could be up here instead of myself, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Islamophobia and its intersections based on my community work and personal experiences.

We have to be brief so I want only to touch on a few points about Islamophobia as it relates to feminism. Before I do that though, since we primarily have well-intentioned allies in the room and since the theme for today is the intersectionality of Islamophobia, I need scarcely point out that literally anyone on earth can be a Muslim – regardless of gender, orientation, origin, race, ability, economic status or any other social variable. Islamophobia is therefore related to and can permeate all other forms of discrimination. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim that didn’t have some kind of compounded discrimination by virtue of their intersectionality. Even a rich, white, heterosexual cis-male convert to Islam, experiences marginality from the greater non-Muslim global community due to Islamophobia, and also endures the hardship of being a largely ignored or even resented minority within a minority of the Muslim community, not to mention being highly socially isolated. While the discrimination he faces is (undeniably) significantly different than, say a veiled indigenous female convert to Islam or African, African-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean Muslims, it still holds that intersectionality and Islamophobia have to be understood as always going hand-in-hand. And that these will take different forms for different people.

We have to remember that human beings are complex and particular in their social groupings, and that they must not be rigidly compartmentalized according to one discriminatory signifier over another, nor does one necessarily have primacy over the other (particularly visible ones). We know that both oppression and privilege compound through race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability and economy, and that if people are to be understood in their entirety, we have to actually take the time to know them. There is too much shoot-from-the-hip activism these days based on a rigid understanding of an oppressed/privileged dichotomy and, the disturbing part to me, is that even with the best of intentions, people are regularly  being dehumanized in the process.  So some subtlety and patience is in order when dealing with these delicate intersections.

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So that’s the first thing to note. The second thing, following from this, is that Islamophobia is therefore a feminist issue. What do I mean by this?

At the superficial level, Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobic words, actions and rhetoric. Part of the reason for this can be our visibility and this is, in large part, due to the veil if it is worn. Veiled Muslim women are verbally and physically harassed and assaulted with increasing regularity and are also the targets of racial hatred, and I want to stress, regardless of their ethnicity. Even for “white” converts, the veil acts as a second skin which automatically signifies “colour” to prejudiced people uninterested in the nuances of what constitutes complex Muslim identities. And this is important to note this because within the Muslim discourse and within groups speaking about racial justice there is a tendency to dismiss the racialization that the veil automatically entails, whatever intra-community privilege we hold.

But Muslim women are not only disproportionately targeted by Islamophobia because they might veil. No, non-veiled Muslim women are also the excessive subject of xenophobic words, actions and rhetoric for a much deeper reason.

The Muslim woman represents the vehicle by which the people who hate us, call for the eradication of Islam. The Muslim woman who is pious and stubborn in her piety is declared subconsciously oppressed regardless of how loud she declares her piety to be her choice. The Muslim woman is seen as indoctrinated in Islam, a barbaric way of life that exists only to exact patriarchy in its highest form.

Muslim women, who practice the Deen, are regularly accused by those outside of Islam, of being in need of liberation not recognizing that we view Islam as our liberator. That the antidote to patriarchy for us, is a deeper understanding of Islamic philosophy and law, and not anything less than that. In fact, these accusations are not even limited to non-Muslims. There are countless “scholars” within the Muslim purview who reiterate these bunk theories that the more a woman practices Islam, the less liberated she is.

At this very university, I met with a prominent scholar of Islamic law and was shocked when he stated to other unveiled women in the room that I might be oppressed or duped because I choose to cover my hair for the sake of God, or I say Insha Allah, or I unapologetically leave the room to pray on time. And this stuff was said right in front of me, as though I was not even in the room. Muslims can be as colonized by Islamophobia as anyone and we have to view that, at least in part, as the trace of a colonial project that has spanned centuries.

The declared solution to the issue of Islam for both Islamophobic non-Muslims and Muslims with internalized hatred of Islam is to either eliminate it from the face of the earth or to temper it and secularize it so it is palatable enough to so-called Western sensibilities, as though Islam does not and cannot have similar desires, goals and expressions as other cultural systems around the world, particularly in Western Europe and North America where we have a rich shared history.

If a pious Muslim woman seeks to resist through submission, her intelligence is insulted and her agency is called into question. Islamophobia, in this sense, is merely one strong arm of patriarchy (even its synonym) crushing the right of a woman to choose how she lives her life. And going forward, that needs to change.

Thank you.


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

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