In late 2014 I wrote an article for Jacobin Magazine called “New Atheism, Old Empire”. While acknowledging the somewhat disparate politics of the leading figures in the New Atheist movement, it attempted to expose the ways in which their thinking and rhetoric has helped to construct and legitimize one of the principle intellectual currents undergirding the War on Terror and its destructive geopolitics.
At the core of this project, and often dwarfing its other thrusts, has been, and continues to be, the demonization and singling out of Muslims in the United States and Europe as an ideological, political, and even demographic threat.
The response to the article from New Atheist Twitter (and sometimes the still more sinister alt right) was breathtaking in its sheer vitriol and, once again, almost singularly obsessed with the supposed “threat” posed by our neighbours of Muslim faith.
Striking in many of these responses was their uniformity: the anti-Islamic troll brigade, a permanent feature of social media these days, delights in quoting bits of scripture out of context and treating them literally. Even on the occasions when actual Muslims intervene to disrupt the arguments of Sam Harris acolytes and other ideologues, the same arsenal of quotes is simply drawn from again and again. In other words, it matters less to this subset of the atheist community what practicing Muslims actually think about their own faith and its teachings than what they’re convinced it means and need it to mean to sustain their chosen worldview.
Having been caught in enough of these arguments I’m convinced there’s more at work here than basic intransigence. Political disputes on social media have become infamously stubborn, ugly, and often more liturgical than anything else. But the nastiness hurled at Muslims on social media every day (a reflection of increasingly sinister developments in Europe and the United States) carries with it a deep prejudice that goes beyond the usual boundaries of most toxic online discourse.
The favoured New Atheist tactic of quoting Islamic scripture is a perfect example of this prejudice in action. In the probably hundreds of exchanges about Islam I had following the publication of “New Atheism, Old Empire”, I rarely got the sense that my interlocutors knew any Muslims or had any real knowledge of Islam in practice (and nor did they care to). Their Islam was an abstraction, and their Muslims were caricatures drawn from the pages of Sam Harris books, the screeds of neocon writers like Mark Steyn, shameless propagandists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and anti-Islamic talking heads like Bill Maher.
One thing the experience taught me is that you can’t effectively combat deep prejudice with pure facts. To a person who hates an entire religious identity – whether they be an armchair New Atheist, a right wing public intellectual, or a European politician who opposes immigration from majority Muslim countries – it doesn’t seem to particularly matter what Muslims actually do or what they believe. The first maneuver in othering a group of people is essentializing them: straining them of any pluralism or heterogeneity. In the face of this a lone fact dissolves instantly, like a sugar cube dropped into a boiling cup of tea.
So what can be done?
One of the contacts I made thanks to “New Atheism, Old Empire” was Qasim Rashid. In his new book Talk To Me: Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion, & Education, Rashid provides us with something of answer to the question posed above.
Talk to Me is a collection of stories from people of different backgrounds, voices, and faiths. Its implicit premise is a simple and incredibly potent one: that meaningful and human communication carries with it a unique power that can undermine parochial prejudices and hatreds far better than any raw fact ever could. Stories are lived experience as narrative. They force readers to empathize with their subjects and build relationships with them.
As Rashid writes in his introduction:
Meaningful conversations are not about words—they’re about action. They push us out of our comfort zones and traverse new waters and landscapes. They oblige us to learn about those different than us from those different than us. And when these conversations are conducted effectively, the results are revolutionary.
The stories themselves are a pleasure to read, though too numerous to recount. My personal favourite comes very early in the book when Rashid himself recounts a childhood memory of a new boy arriving at his school in Chicago (in a scene that brings all the social dynamics of the playground flooding back from the depths of memory…): Joseph, like all the other kids in the school in almost every respect, finds himself immediately ostracized when his classmates learn that, as a Jew, he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Having just arrived in a new city, Joseph’s anxiety is immediately compounded by loneliness and exclusion from his school community.
Encouraged by his father, Rashid befriended Joseph the next day:
“Want to play together at recess today?”.
Joseph opened his mouth, as if shocked I’d asked the question. He closed it without speaking, then nodded and smiled.
“My name is Qasim Rashid. Q-a-s-i-m. There’s no u after the q.”
“That’s a strange way of spelling. I like it,” he said. “I’m Joseph.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll see you in class, OK?”
Joseph nodded again and we parted ways.
This short and simple tale of childhood friendship across cultural differences sums up so much of what is great about Talk To Me. Joseph had very little, apart from his cultural background, different than other children – he played the same games and probably spent much of his time doing the things most young kids do. But it took very little for his immediate exclusion.
The story is doubtless a simple and familiar one, but its message resonates well beyond the context of its setting. Cultural and religious differences can produce huge schisms and relations of exclusion (with minority groups almost invariably carrying the burden of corrosive hatred and political persecution, as Muslims in many parts of Europe and the United States do today). But the sharing of lived experiences, through relationships and stories, can be a powerful antidote.
Talk To Me is proof and, with any luck, will receive the wide readership it deserves – particularly from younger generations.
I only hope the right people are listening.