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Classifying bigotry accurately matters


6 March 2015

If you describe the world incorrectly, it is impossible to deal with it properly.

I frequently encounter people who use the term "racism" to describe anti-Muslim hatred, when Muslims are clearly not a race. Such use of sloppy language inevitably leads to sloppy thinking.

Accordingly, I recently submitted a piece to the Conservative Home website with the title “Racism” and the poverty of language. The editor used his prerogative to change the title to Language must reflect the nuances of bigotry which I recognise was an improvement. You can read it below.

Mohammed Amin: Language must reflect the nuances of bigotry

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

As humans, all of us have a natural tendency to favour people like ourselves, and to feel somewhat distant, perhaps even hostile, when we encounter people who are very different from us.

The evolutionary reason for this is quite obvious. The more someone is like us, the more likely they are to carry the same genes. Sometimes we know this explicitly, as with close family members (identical twins being the extreme case); at other times we may not be aware what proportion of our genome is carried by the other person, but we do recognise that they are “like us.”

As Richard Dawkins’s masterpiece “The Selfish Gene” makes clear, it’s all about the survival of the genes.

The development of human civilisation from primitive hunter gatherers to the world of today can be summarised as a process of learning to transfer our loyalties from explicit kinship groups (extended families and tribes) to larger intellectual constructs, ultimately comprising the whole of humanity.

However people vary on the extent to which they have generalised their loyalties, and all of us feel differing degrees of loyalties to differently defined groups, from the nuclear family to all of humanity.

Racial differences

The best known, and perhaps the most damaging form of group loyalty is that to one’s extended biological group.

If you divide a broadly homogeneous group of humans into two groups A and B, with the people in groups A and B primarily marrying within those group, different genes will start to predominate within groups A and B. This can be seen most obviously with geographical separation.

The humans who left Africa about 30,000 years ago were all pretty similar. Those who went north developed white skins since the gene for low melanin (which causes your skin to be dark) is an advantage when there is not much sunlight and you need your body to make vitamin D.

Those who went south, e.g. to Australia, retained dark skins since high levels of melanin help to protect you against skin cancer in regions with strong sunlight.

Some genetic differentiations have been used as the basis of major social divisions, skin colour being the most significant. Others, such as eye colour, largely get ignored.

How you define your genetically different groupings is ultimately a social decision about which genetic differences are to be regarded as significant and which are to be ignored. That is why social scientists say that race is a social construct. Wikipedia covers this well.

Differentiating people based on race has led to appalling human behaviour, such as the African slave trade, US segregation, South African apartheid, the Holocaust, etc. Hence it is no surprise that the word “racism” has such emotive power.

However biology is not the only reason humans classify themselves and others into groups and then proceed to discriminate.

Religious differences

From time immemorial, religious differences have provided a reason for killing people. For example Deuteronomy 20:16-18, King James version:

“But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.”

However religious observance and practice is a choice, whereas your biology is not. Religious persecutors are normally willing to let you convert to their religion, whereas you have no scope for changing your race.

Accordingly it is a corruption of the English language when campaigners talk of “Islamophobia” (a word I detest anyway, see this link) as a form of racism.

If somebody hates me because I am of Punjabi ethnicity, that is racism. If he or she hates me because I am a Muslim, that is religious bigotry, but it is not racism.

Of course they may hate me for both reasons, but if he or she hates me but is fine with Punjabi Hindus, you can be confident that they are not racist, just a religious bigot. Unless we know what form of bigotry someone is committing, we are not well placed to challenge it.

Since the chattering classes like single word aspersions to cast at people, the obvious sin to accuse religious bigots of is “religionism.”

Cultural differences

As Wikipedia explains, anthropologists use “culture” to refer to learned human behaviours, as opposed to those which are genetically inherited. As such, it would include religion, but for this purpose I think it is better to treat religion separately as I have done above.

The leaves culture to describe other behaviours, of which by far the most significant is one’s choice of language. Culture can be a source of discrimination in its own right, even when people share a common race and religion.

For example in the UK at present there is some limited hostility towards Polish immigrants not because of their race (they can easily pass as white British) or their religion (practicing Roman Catholicism is rarely a reason for discrimination in mainland Britain today) but because of their language, and to a lesser extent food preferences.

To the extent that such culturally based hostility exists, it is wrong to call it racism. The neologism “culturalism” is required.

An empirical test

“Racism” is of course widely used, and when I Googled it I had 77,800,000 results.

I was pleasantly surprised to get 77,000 results for “religionism”, and the first 10 results essentially do use it in the way that I do above. Accordingly here we do have a well-defined word which can be used in place of “religious bigotry.”

I strongly encourage its use, and the absolute avoidance of the word “racism” to describe a hatred which has nothing to do with race.

Culturalism returned 701,000 results, and some of the first 10 do seem to use it broadly in a similar way to the definition I give above.

However despite the larger number of results than religionism, it is not as clearly defined, perhaps because cultural hostility is less common than religious hostility.

Accordingly opportunities to use it are likely to be limited, for which we should be grateful since there is too much bigotry around anyway!


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