In the forest of concepts – Thoughts and questions about racism and secularism in relation to Islam

I have been thinking about the relation between secularism and racism. Whereas on my blog I pay a lot of attention to the issue of race, in my articles for journals and edited volumes I think I mistakenly left out the issue of racism in most of my analysis of contemporary politics regarding Muslims in the Netherlands. And I still am, so this is just a thinking-out-loud-blog.

The Colony

When we look at the time when the Netherlands colonized Indonesia (back then Dutch East-Indies) we can find a remarkable uneven working of secularism. Dutch scholar on Islam and (albeit circumspect for many) Snoeck Hurgronje argued that Islam and Muslims needed to be modernized which at the time by definition meant following the European example. Islamic rebellious thought should be repressed while Islam and politics had to be separated as (according to Snouck Hurgronje) the entanglement of religion and politics was a central feature of Islam. In particular the school system had to acculturate the Dutch East-Indies subjects with the correct secular Dutch values.

At the same in the Netherlands the political elite was establishing the religious pillars allowing a certain degree of recognition and autonomy to religious circles while at the same time being able to monitor and regulate religious differences and inequalities; something that was probably most clear in the sphere of education where catholic and protestant schools received state funding. In the colony however education was used to regulate unruly colonial subjects and to teach them the superior Dutch culture whereby the Dutch state attempted to secularize religious differences and to repress politico-religious thought.

Note also the distinction that was being made between the Islamic nature of the East Indies (seen as non-political folk Islam) which needed modernization (meaning secularisation and education) on the one side and the fear for a violent Islam (thought of as originating in the Middle East) which needed to be banned in order not to influence the people of the East-Indies.

But there was another relation between secularism and colonization as well. An important category of people invented by the Dutch state was ‘Europeans’. A crucial criterion for being European was ‘originating from Europe’ but there is more to that. First of all it is male centred. The milieu and upbringing of a person that defined Europeanness were dependent on the husband’s position. Only ancestry in the male line mattered and women followed their husband’s legal status. When a native woman married a European man, she became European. When a European woman married a native man, she became native.

Origin did not suffice in defining Europeanness and the Dutch law therefore included the criterion of family law. People from elsewhere who in their country of birth were subjected to the same principles as Dutch family law, were categorized as European.  This meant that immigrants from outside Europe could be included as well and in fact meant the inclusion of a religious criterion into the law as the regulation referred to what one saw as Christian principles such as monogamy and privileging children who were born in a marriage between one man and one woman. In this way religion, ic Christianity, became an important marker of Europeanness even though the law did not explicitly mention those principles as Christian. Through this criterion of family law also white settler colonies outside Europe (such as US, Canada, the Afrikaners and Australia) could be included as well as the Armenians who were regarded as Europeans because of their Christian faith and social position.

Secularism, culturism and securitization

We see here how class, religion, secularism, skin color determined if and how people could be included or excluded in the category of European. Later the Dutch state created a category called social Dutch which included white or light-skinned Christians who lived in the Dutch sphere of influence in the Dutch East Indies.

If we turn then at the current politics in Europe regarding Muslims, minorities and migrants we can see a particular mixture of secularism, racism, securitization and culturism. The Muslim, who is usually the centre of these debates, features in the debates as a sort of icon detached from daily life and concrete individual lives as the dangerous, dis-integrated and intolerable migrant. Whereas in the past racism had a regulatory function by identifying the other and what was tolerable or not, nowadays secularism, securitization and culturism create the problem categories that identify what is tolerable. This pushes the issue of race and racism to the background but one can wonder if the current regulations and social imaginaries concerning Muslims are not shaped by the colonial and racist regulations and arrangements of the past while at the same time the issue of ‘race’ is dismissed through redefining race as solely based upon fenotypical features excluding culture and religion and by insisting that we are post-racial.

In the past in the Netherlands it was suggested that Article 23 on the freedom of education of the Dutch constitution should be removed in order to prevent (more) state funded Islamic schools and to promote as such the integration of Muslim minorities. In the case of the Swiss minaret ban and the French and Belgian headscarf bans, the insistence in the debates that diversity should be limited and boundaries should be set for tolerance and superstitions and sensibilities deriving from that should be mocked, the pleas for a liberal Islam, are often times seen as necessary not only for securing cohesion against the threat of terror, unruly diversity and the threat to women but also as civilizing missions for tolerance and inclusion. But one may wonder if these are not just a re-appropriation of past (racist, colonial) strategies, missions and regulations. Moreover, just like in colonial times being Christian entered through the backdoor as a criterion for being European (defined as white), the current emphasis on Europe and the Netherlands in having a so-called Judeo-Christian heritage while at the same time claiming ‘we are a secular country’ shows I think an interesting, subtle relation between secularism, culturism and racism.

How to move on?

I think any analysis of the position of Muslims in relation to secularism and securitization should take into account the issue of racism (and Islamophobia) but I don’t have a clear idea as of yet how to do that. In many publications dealing with securitization, culturalism or secularism, racism is absent and occasionally dismissed as incorrect, misleading and unhelpful. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that the current emphasis on secular values, threats to social cohesion and the need for Muslims to integrate is not so much a neutral post-racial mode of regulating people, it is the contemporary mode of racism. At the same time secularism, securitization and cultural integration provide the focus on Muslims with a self-evident, neutral and de-politicized mask and provides elites with the language to disconnect the Muslim issue from racism which in contemporary politics and debate is now reduced to a biological notion and a phenomenon of the past (holocaust and slavery). Furthermore it enables the dominant, white, majority to claim its own identity, and customs and values that are neutral and universal at the same time and which is under siege from intolerant and intolerable migrants. Culturism, secularism and securitization are not separable from race, do not present a break with racism but are the current racist strategies to regulate people, provide the language for racist identity politics and the mask that gives the dominant group the self image as the innocent and neutral norm.

Not including racism in the analysis means not questioning the (various) ways Muslims are essentialized in reducing them to the dangerous, over-religious, intolerant migrant and deconnects this issue from the Dutch (European) history of racism and the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Does it really matter if people are perceived as biologically/genetically incompatible with the purity and viability of the race nation or as incompatible through a cultural, secularist or security lens? When the states, politicians and opinion leaders propose a return to national values as the ‘leitkultur’ as a response to the perceived threat to social cohesion of society how is that different from the fear that the integrity of a race is threatened? Nevertheless, I have to revisit the issues of racism and secularism more thoroughly and think about, for how example, how they overlap and how they are separate strategies for regulating people. Also for example how are Islamophobia and securitization of Islam different modes of managing and talking about Islam but also have some common features. If racism is articulated in relation to Muslims through the language of secularism then what are the possibilities for Muslims for empowerment, activism and so on? If there are (and I think so) historical parallels between the management of religion and regulation people in the colonies and in current society, what are the similarities and differences and what are the consequences?

If by now you think he is lost and confused in a forest of concepts and societal developments, you are correct. That is what happens sometimes when you revisit and question your own work.

2 thoughts on “In the forest of concepts – Thoughts and questions about racism and secularism in relation to Islam

  1. Dear Martijn,

    A very brief comment. I found this a very interesting and pertinent contribution to an issue with which I myself am very much engaged. The point that you make about ‘the current emphasis on Europe and the Netherlands in having a so-called Judeo-Christian heritage while at the same time claiming ‘we are a secular country’ shows I think an interesting, subtle relation between secularism, culturism and racism’, is well taken and very relevant to the current British context.

    You also say: ‘I think any analysis of the position of Muslims in relation to secularism and securitization should take into account the issue of racism (and Islamophobia) but I don’t have a clear idea as of yet how to do that’. In fact your article does just what you are seeking to do, though you might want to think of making direct links with the now vast literature on Islamophobia, cultural racism, cultural essentialism etc etc


    Ralph Grillo

  2. Dear Ralph, thanks for your comment and suggestion, much appreciated!

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