Nothing makes my blood boil like racism. I got a lot of angry mail over a recent column about Norway’s rightist mass murderer and his sympathy with “racist Islamophobia.” Muslims are not a race, the writers claimed.In my career, I have often bumped into labels such as "ethnic and religious politics/conflict" or "ethnic and racial/politics/conflict." For me, ethnic conflict is a broad category within which race and religion fit, rather than as similar but distinct phenomenon. Why? Well, I have always relied on Donald Horowitz's (Joseph Rothschild had a similar one) definition:
Funny, several of the angry notes were from Jews, who seemed to have forgotten that not being a race but a religion had scarcely saved Jews from racist persecution: Perhaps the Einsatzgruppen just got in a semantic muddle before opening fire. Perhaps the Malaysian soccer crowd who just booed Chelsea’s Yossi Benayoun, an Israeli player and a Jew, were not really racists. Dream on.
Ethnicity is based on a myth of collective ancestry, which usually carries with it traits believed to be innate.”
The keys here are perception, shared sense of ancestry and associated traits. Ethnic groups are perceived to exist by members and outsiders as any identity requires a definition of us and them. What separates ethnicity from class are the ideas of ancestry--that you are born with this particular group membership--and of key traits, such as race, religion, language, and kinship. Sure, one can adopt a new religion or language more than one can change one's race or kinship, but these traits serve as markers of shared identity and of opposition. Consequently, the dynamics around race are not especially distinct from those around religion and so on. We can think about how the differences might matter (linguistic divisions always involve jobs, religious differences are more likely to produce divisions over justice systems, etc), but there are processes, such as outbidding, that are common to all kinds of ethnic identities.
Racism, as used by Cohen, may be a confusing term since it more than just implies race but requires race to be the focal point. Ethnocentrism or xenophobia might seem more inclusive of the dynamics that Cohen is talking about--how hatred of a particular group, defined by its religion, can lead to assertions of racial differences. Muslims and Jews are certainly distinct ethnic groups, whose key trait is, indeed, religion, but who are often seen as having racial ties within the group even though, for the most part, race is not really something that unites members of either religious group. Jews of Eastern European descent see themselves as distinct from those of North African descent. Muslims come in all colors--and folks in Africa have long seen Arabs as distinct from those with darker skin.
But Cohen is right about the larger point: hating someone for their perceived cultural identity, be it race, religion, language or kinship, is awful and destructive. Again, I have been delighted over the past few years that my second book suggested that xenophobia might have some positive effects, and I still believe that is the case. Yet relying on xenophobia to keep irredentist campaigns at bay is a pretty desperate strategy that has negative tradeoffs domestically. It is abundantly clear to me that where irredentism is not a threat, hatred of others is something that must be opposed.
The Islamophobia that exists in Europe, anti-immigration movement in the US, the opposition to reasonable accommodation in Quebec are all part of the same problematic processes--that some members of privileged ethnic groups are finding themselves in harder times and want to keep their privileges even though they are directly counter to the bases of their political systems and cultures. The US is a country of immigrants with the obvious exception of the Native Americans, so it is always strange yet predictable to see folks want to close the door behind them. European countries have equality as a basic part of their DNA, but want things to be less equal for the newcomers. Quebec is a place where there is a deep memory of being a discriminated minority, but now that Quebeckers have much power locally, much of it is aimed at today's minorities.
The funny thing is that staying true to the core beliefs and values in each of these places is the way out. Equality of opportunity in the US is the path for immigrants to move up and become part of American society. Taking care of everyone from cradle to grave is the way ahead for European social democracies. Canada's multiculturalism is the way to keep the country intact.
This post started as an effort to clarify some conceptual confusion--that race and religion are similar identities that fit into the larger category of ethnicity--and then moved into arguing about the values of advanced democracies as the way to address these distinctions. Of course, as a scholar of ethnic conflict, I know that the politics of intra-group competition (ethnic outbidding) and inter-group conflict will dominate, making it hard but not impossible for those who try to build multiethnic coalitions based on the core values of these societies. It make not require a Mandela or a Martin Luther King, but it sure does help.