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Islamophobia as Cultural Racism: The Case of Islamic Attire in Turkey

Grasping the various aspects of Islamophobia in Muslim societies requires much finer methods in order to decipher the intentions of the actors in distinctive life situations varying from the media to education. This article engages in a debate as to whether Islamophobia is a new type of racism, i.e., cultural, geographical, phenotypical, or Xeno-racism, and the relatively recent type that has emerged in neo-liberal states: anti-Muslim racism. In a Muslim-majority society, the ‘culture’ of members is fairly homogenous, so Islamophobia takes another cue, focusing on external markers, like the headscarf or beard. While anti-Muslim racism is sometimes exercised along more subtle lines of cultural difference in Muslim societies, it prevails through old-fashioned, phenotypical racism. The representation or rather misrepresentation of Islam and/or Muslims in the media can be understood as the prevailing source of antagonism between the secular and the traditionalist segments of Turkish society; indeed, Turkish media representation produces and reproduces a racialization of the majority, predominately by rendering Islam invisible, or by depicting Muslims in ways that denigrate their clothing, manners, style, and way of living across various mass media forms.

Islamophobia as Cultural Racism The Case of Islamic Attire in
From the Center: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (1 L), Vice President Fuat Oktay (2 L), attended the 1st International Symposium on Media and Islamophobia. Ankara, Turkey on May 25, 2021. MUSTAFA KAMACI / AA
 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Islamaphobia has often been treated as a new form of racism in terms of its ideological, structural, and cultural configurations.1 It is argued that cultural racism differs from phenotypical racism, which classically discriminates on the basis of skin color or particular body types. However, signifiers of Islam, like clothing, beards, names, or even different skin colors, have become new symbols of racism. This paper argues that, in a context in which phenotypical differences like skin color are not significant, other types of markers such as headscarves are employed to discriminate against, or spark, negative judgment in a similar way. If there is no difference among people in terms of their so-called racial characteristics, then slight or even insignificant differences in deportment and appearance, or even socio-economic disadvantage may be ‘racialized.’ In this article, I seek to develop a new framework with which to situate people who claim they have been marginalized due to their sheer appearance or assumed religiosity in Turkey. I will treat clothing, stature, education, and various social actions of individuals as if they were observable phenotypical, i.e.physical or biochemicalcharacteristics determined by genetic makeup. I am suggesting that classical racism arguments lack a capacity to deal with cultural racism toward persons of the same ethnicity. I argue that it is far more difficult to detect racial discrimination in a Muslim-majority society than in other societies where Muslims are exposed to Islamophobia.

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