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.
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.
This situation is often decried by New Atheist advocates and their fellow travellers as a ‘refusal to acknowledge reality’ – the ostensible ‘reality’ being their own inherent superiority over others. Nonetheless, they are hesitant about whom they relate this to and toe the line when it comes to which minority groups it is safe to attack and which must be avoided. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor explained the fallacies behind this crude chauvinism:
Dawkins, as an educated man, should be well aware of the legacy of colonialism and of simple poverty…. When the Nobel Prize was founded in 1901, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims lived in countries ruled by foreign powers, and for much of the 20th century Muslims did not have much access to great centres of learning like Cambridge. The ranks of Nobel Prize winners have traditionally been dominated by white, Western men – a reflection of both the economic might of the West in the past century, preferential access to education for that class of people as well as a wonderful intellectual tradition .
The same reasons why Muslims are underrepresented in the halls of Western scientific achievement are also applicable to essentially every other group in the world besides white males living in Western countries. If there’s nothing bigoted about saying it about Muslims, Dawkins and his defenders should come out and make the same unqualified and context-free statements about other groups in society whom they see as not stacking up. The fact that they refuse to do so signals that this has little to do with courageously speaking the truth and more about picking out which minorities it is still safe to bash.
A simple test
If you’re ever unsure whether a statement about Muslims is bigoted, simply substitute the name of another minority community into the same sentence. If it sounds uncomfortable or even heinous to you upon doing so, rest assured that the original statement is probably just as malign. 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.
Contrary to what today’s popular discourse may suggest, Muslims are also individuals with essential humanity and are deserving of the same level of respect and decency as any other group in society. It’s almost certain that the language of today’s anti-Muslim crusaders will one day also be looked back on with as shame and embarrassment as anti-Semitic and racist statements are now. Such rhetoric and its purveyors belong in the dustbin of history and in any progressive view of society that is where they will inevitably reside. Our duty today is to recognise and ostracise such bigotry wherever it exists, and to ensure that this kind of hatemongering against minority communities becomes a thing of the past.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.