Forgetting Uniqueness and Individuals
Anti-Muslim Bigotry Among the New Atheists
Murtaza Hussain *
""For the same reason we no longer talk in broad terms about "the Jews" or "the Blacks" we should no longer talk about "the Muslims", especially when making negative generalisations which are today beginning to mimic the darkest xenophobic rhetoric of the 20th century."
"Richard Dawkins recently ignited a minor furor by pointing out that "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge". His defenders rushed to point out that his statement was merely a fact and as such there was nothing bigoted about it whatsoever.
Dawkins declaration also happens to be true when you substitute the word "Hindus", "Blacks" or "Chinese" for Muslims here, but his admirers would have had a harder time defending the same statement made about any of these groups without being tarred as xenophobes."...more
-- Murtaza Hussain
* Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics. This article is an excerpt from his opinion piece published in Al Jazeera on August 12, 2013. Follow Murtaza Hussain on Twitter: @MazMHussain.
An Appreciative Response from Jay McDaniel
Thanks to Murtaza Hussain for this excellent opinion piece and a special thanks for giving us language to describe anti-Muslim bigotry: "selective individuality."
For those of us in the JJB community, anti-Muslim bigotry is indeed an example of selective individuality, amid which we appreciate some people as individuals deserving respect but others as mere instances of a larger social group. No individual person is reducible to a social group and, for that matter, no individual creature is reducible to a species or any other taxonomy.
In the language of Whitehead, each individual creature consists of his or her moments of experience, and each moment is a singularity, incomparable to others, yet connected to a wider whole. Each moment is a one emerging from a many, and a unique one. We are these moments, as lived from the inside. We are concrescing subjects.
When we forget the uniqueness of the individual, we fall into what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. We treat other people and sometimes also ourselves as abstractions, losing the immediacy of the here-and-now of feeling and agency: theirs and our own. They become its rather than thous.
To be sure, as Mohsin Hamid puts it, we need to acknowledge variations, to acknowledge individual humanities. In Islam as in Judaism, in Hinduism as in Christianity there are many, many variations. But the truth goes still deeper.
Individuals are always more than the abstractions by which they understand themselves. An individual human being who is Jewish or Muslim or Christian is always more than her Judaism or Islam or Christianity. An individual who is Indian or African or Chinese is also more than her ethnic identity. Identities only go so far.
Yes, our religious and ethnic identities are part of who we are as individuals to whatever degree we are attached to them, consciously or unconsciously. And we are no doubt perceived and treated by others in light of these identities. Ask any Muslim or Jew or Christian who lives as a minority anywhere in the world: Egypt, the United States, Russia, or Iran. She knows how she is perceived and perceived by her neighbors. Identities have power.
But those of us who are Muslim know that, deep down, the mystery at the heart of the universe prehends each of us, not as "Muslims" or "Jews" or "Christians," but as souls who yearn for and are responsible to the unity of the universe, to the merciful and compassionate one who is closer to us than our breathing but more than anything we can fully understand. This reality -- the very "light of heavens and the earth’ (Qur’an 35:24) -- is beyond all particular identities and yet available to individuals who live by different identities.
We cannot but wonder if atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris might somewhere in their hearts have a sense of this unity, too, albeit understood without reference to what they understand as "religion." We cannot but wonder if they, too, carry an intuition of the divine -- fitrah (Arabic: فطرة) - which runs deeper than their divisiveness. They deny it; but we cannot help but wonder. Aren't their own appeals to peace and love and justice, to honesty and respect and inquiry, rooted in a sense that reality is one and that there is nothing real but the Real?
But what is clear to us -- as Muslims and Jews and Christians -- is that there are variations within religions and also that, at some level, the very notion of "religion" is an abstraction from something much more fundamental, the life of each individual person, moment by moment, as responsive to a multiplicity of created signs (aya) of the oneness and to the merciful and compassionate One, however understood and named.
There's an interesting and rather illuminating thought experiment you can perform when listening to media figures and politicians discuss Muslims. Take the recent interview on Fox News of the author Reza Aslan, where the host interrogated him at length about his religious background, at one point accusing him of having "gone on several programmes while never disclosing [he is] a Muslim".
Or take New Atheist ideologue Sam Harris, who has said "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim", as well as his counterpart Richard Dawkins who has become famous for asking incisive questions like "Who the hell do these Muslims think they are"?
Believe it or not, like other groups in society, Muslim people are also individuals. There are over a billion Muslims in the world and correspondingly there are over a billion different, individual interpretations of Islam.
This is all above-board language in today's popular discourse. But as a simple test try replacing the word "Muslim" with "Jew"; or "Muslim" with "Black" in each of these quotes and see how it sounds in your head. Most likely, it sounds significantly less comfortable, normal, and acceptable than it did just a moment ago.
Indeed, it's difficult to imagine how Harris, Dawkins, or the Fox News host who questioned Aslan about his faith could continue as public figures were they to make the same types comments about any minority group other than Muslims. They would've in all likelihood won broad, well-justified, condemnation and even been drummed out of the public sphere for their frank bigotry.
Perhaps they'd have been taken up as martyrs by the fringe-right where such xenophobic language about Jews and Blacks is still commonplace. Instead they've so far been permitted to continue spreading hatred against one of the few minority communities it is still acceptable to negatively generalise, degrade and menace.
It's worth remembering why making sweeping statements about "the Jews" and "the Blacks" became considered unconscionable behaviour in the first place. Both groups were once spoken of by racists and anti-Semites as though they were a homogenous mass of people, undifferentiated in any meaningful way and all sharing the same (largely negative) characteristics.
This view obliterated the reality of lived human experience; that such constructed communities are not a featureless horde but are actual individuals with names, families, and an essential personhood which invariably defies the simple and easy logic of mass generalisation. Such generalisations were used to great effect to whip up hatred and to deny the essential humanity of selected minority groups - that is until sufficient horror was generated to make society pause and reflect on what makes such rhetoric so unsavoury.
Believe it or not, like other groups in society, Muslim people are also individuals. There are over a billion Muslims in the world and correspondingly there are over a billion different, individual interpretations of Islam. As the author Mohsin Hamid put it , stark generalisations of Muslims " represent a refusal to acknowledge variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush " .
Critics of this seemingly reasonable position argue that in fact Muslims are different, that there is something unique about them and their religion which negates their essential humanity and homogenises them all into one convenient mass. There's actually nothing new about this argument. In fact, it's the same type of bigoted and falsifiable claim which was at one time regularly made about Jewish communities in the West.
For the same reason we no longer talk in broad terms about "the Jews" or "the Blacks" we should no longer talk about "the Muslims", especially when making negative generalisations which are today beginning to mimic the darkest xenophobic rhetoric of the 20th century .
Immanuel Kant claimed that "Jewish law…[made Jews] hostile to all other peoples." while Voltaire described Jews as "ignorant", "barbarous" and said all of them "were born with a raging fanaticism in their hearts". Contemporary anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians, media figures and New Atheist philosophers sounds almost identical to this repulsive hatemongering. Rather than being the standard bearers for enlightened liberalism as they claim, such individuals are little more than modern purveyors of the same type of bigotry, albeit with a new target in mind. Blinded by arrogance, self-assuredness and hatred, they've become exactly what they claim to stand against....more