I some­times attend the Seat­tle Athe­ist Church on Sun­days, and despite the many virtues that group has an orga­ni­za­tion and pos­i­tive argu­ment it makes by exam­ple for sec­u­lar human­ism, the fact that the “Four Horse­men” of the New Athe­ism move­ment were four white Anglo-Amer­i­can men reflects accu­rate­ly the bias­es you’ll find in the athe­ism move­ment in the Unit­ed States, Unit­ed King­dom, and the Anglos­phere more generally.

Seat­tle’s athe­ist com­mu­ni­ty is bet­ter than many oth­er spaces I’ve seen, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regards to gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, but one ele­ment it con­tin­ues to deal with is anti-Mus­lim racism.

“Race” is not a real thing and does­n’t hold up when sub­ject­ed to crit­i­cal analy­sis. West Africans and East Africans and South Africans have less DNA in com­mon with one anoth­er than Eng­lish do Japan­ese; sub-Saha­ran African peo­ple are as far removed from Andamanese, Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralian, or Melane­sians as any humans can be. Yet, all are social­ly black in the Unit­ed States and all would be sub­ject to the same racism.

Like­wise, “Mex­i­cans” are, strict­ly speak­ing, a nation­al­i­ty and an indi­vid­u­al’s ances­try might ulti­mate­ly be indige­nous Amer­i­can, Euro­pean, Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, North African or Mid­dle East­ern, or every com­bi­na­tion of these because La Raza Cos­mi­ca has been blend­ing the peo­ple of the world for near­ly half a mil­len­ni­um now.

Yet the 1930 U.S. Cen­sus had “Mex­i­can” as a race pri­or to forcibly expelling hun­dreds of thou­sands of nat­ur­al born U.S. cit­i­zens, and Fox “News” recent­ly said the qui­et part out loud in label­ing sev­er­al Cen­tral Amer­i­can nations as “Mex­i­can coun­tries”.ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_01-01

“You can’t be racist against Mus­lims because Islam is a reli­gion, not a race” and yet peo­ple find a way to invent non­sen­si­cal racial cat­e­gories like “African” or “black” then pseu­do-sci­ence it up into “Negroid”. We’ve clev­er­ly been racist against “Mex­i­cans” even when they hap­pen to be from Hon­duras and eth­ni­cal­ly Lencan.

The impor­tant thing to remem­ber about racism is that it’s always less about the sense it makes than the sys­tem of oppres­sion it can slot a group into, and that’s true for peo­ple who are Mus­lim.

So in the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, fas­cist groups shift­ed from anti-Jew­ish rhetoric which was too obvi­ous and eas­i­ly called out to “anti-Zion­ist”; they also shift­ed to “anti-immi­gra­tion”, and specif­i­cal­ly to anti-Mus­lim talk­ing points so as to be more social­ly accept­able while still accom­plish­ing the same white nation­al­is­tic purpose.

Athe­ists and those on the Left who already were against the most aggres­sive­ly theo­crat­ic and regres­sive ele­ments of Islam could be coaxed into mak­ing com­mon cause with white fas­cists based on the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that Islam, and all its adher­ents, were inher­ent­ly and unique­ly vio­lent, misog­y­nis­tic, and awful—that they posed a threat oth­er reli­gions, for all their flaws, just didn’t.

A Mus­lim per­son was thus as inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous as any past racial group had been and could be regard­ed similarly.

I don’t say this from a place of smug superiority.

It is some­thing I still emo­tion­al­ly, irra­tional­ly feel. It’s some­thing that due to my South­ern Bap­tist upbring­ing and assertive athe­ism now, I find com­pelling in the gut but rec­og­nize is not there in a rea­son­able or sat­is­fy­ing way.

I’ve seen vari­ants of “Islam is a reli­gion of peace” at least ten times more often as racist trolling in response to a vio­lent inci­dent per­pe­trat­ed by a per­son who is Mus­lim than I have assert­ed sin­cere­ly, and my mind is not so invul­ner­a­ble that I won’t be affect­ed by rep­e­ti­tion even when I rec­og­nize it’s iron­ic and I rec­og­nize it’s not actu­al­ly a joke.

Thus, any counter is use­ful to the pro­pa­gan­da received by big­ot­ed cul­tur­al osmo­sis that por­trays Islam and Muham­mad as blood­thirsty and mon­strous, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a mem­ber of a coun­try where our knowl­edge of geog­ra­phy is large­ly depen­dant on what we’re present­ly bombing.

What makes Juan Cole’s his­to­ry slash biog­ra­phy slash tex­tu­al crit­i­cism “Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires so valu­able is that you walk away scratch­ing your chin about how so much revi­sion­ism could have been accom­plished in so lit­tle time, but large­ly because you even­tu­al­ly real­ize you had so lit­tle actu­al knowl­edge to begin with.

Cole has been described as eru­dite, but that main­ly comes across in the broad­ness of his vocab­u­lary. I do mean that actu­al­ly and not as a back­hand­ed crit­i­cism. He’s not the sort of author who would default to a lati­nate choice when some­thing sim­pler would do. “Wend­ing” sticks out as an exam­ple of the sort of word he uses that you can imme­di­ate­ly suss the mean­ing of despite his use being your first expe­ri­ence to it.

In the same way that a bet­ter-read per­son might not be so impressed with Cole’s vocab­u­lary, a per­son who knows already about the geopol­i­tics of Late Antiq­ui­ty might not be so blown away by Cole incor­po­rat­ing the ebbs and flows of what approached a world war into a his­to­ry of some­one liv­ing in the mid­dle of it.

But this — plus Cole’s (I would call) sup­po­si­tion that Muham­mad was lit­er­ate and direct­ly influ­enced by Greek philo­soph­i­cal ideas, by monotheisms, and by late pagan reli­gions in the Near East dur­ing his time as an inter­me­di­ate-dis­tance trader—blows open a hole in the usu­al wall of received big­otry so that Cole can por­tray Muham­mad as some­one much more tol­er­ant, for­giv­ing, and peace­ful than his con­tem­po­raries, Chris­t­ian, Jew­ish, Zoroas­tri­an, or Per­sian-aligned pagan alike.

Now, all his­to­ri­ans have to start with some assump­tions for the sto­ry they plan to tell in order to make any sense.

Cole choos­es to give the Quran pri­ma­cy in his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Muham­mad’s life, which is defen­si­ble and does make sense, but it also nat­u­ral­ly allows a con­fir­ma­tion bias to creep in due to the absence of nar­ra­tive con­text present.

The Quran is the most trust­wor­thy doc­u­ment we have for under­stand­ing Muham­mad’s teach­ings. The lat­er rec­ol­lec­tions whether known as his­to­ry or as hadiths ought to be judged, to greater or less­er degree, in rela­tion to that doc­u­ment. To some­one who is not already well-versed in Quran­ic schol­ar­ship, Cole makes a fine case for this approach, but that seems to allow him to toss out all things that don’t align with Cole’s One True Pair­ing of Muham­mad and an inter­pre­ta­tion of his teachings.

Islam: 632 CE

The quar­ter-cen­tu­ry-long Byzan­tine-Sas­sanid War at the start of the sev­enth cen­tu­ry is often brought up in the his­to­ry of Islam but only in the most dis­mis­sive way. In the final apoc­a­lyp­tic bat­tle between the Mediter­ranean Gre­co-Romans and the Per­sians of the Iran­ian Plateau, the blood and trea­sure of two empires gushed all upon Lev­an­tine dust to accom­plish absolute­ly noth­ing for either pow­er except mutu­al ruin.

The con­flict is used to explain-away the rapid gains of the Rashidun Caliphate with­in 20 years of the death of the Prophet, but Cole’s book was the first time I had seen the wars exam­ined to pro­vide con­text for the fac­tion­al pol­i­tick­ing with­in the var­i­ous­ly aligned Ara­bi­an cities of Mec­ca and Med­i­na, or the effect of those events on the teach­ings of ear­ly Islam itself.

As Cole frames it, not con­sid­er­ing this has been quite an over­sight because Per­sia had vas­sal states all the way around the Ara­bi­an coast to Yemen, and as their for­tunes rose through­out the war, so did their allies and vas­sals in the inte­ri­or. Cole posits that Muham­mad was clos­er to Chris­tian­i­ty than Zoroas­tri­an­ism and had more ties to the Byzan­tine Empire than the Sas­sanids, mean­ing his brand of uni­tar­i­an monothe­ism encom­pass­ing Judaism, the var­i­ous extant Chris­tian­i­ties, and his own syn­cret­ic reli­gion became endan­gered when the Sas­sanid-allied pagans were embold­ened by their patrons’ own suc­cess against the empire of Chris­tian­i­ty crum­bling before them.

Using some cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence from the biog­ra­phy of Muham­mad, pas­sages in the Quran sim­i­lar to sto­ries in oth­er tra­di­tions, and a bit of what’s known in fan­doms as “head­canon”, Cole also con­structs a retroac­tive con­ti­nu­ity where Muham­mad was mul­ti­lin­gual and very lit­er­ate to explain how he grabbed cer­tain threads from oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions in his area to weave them and new­er ideas into what would become Islam.

To be clear, Cole is not say­ing he’s engag­ing in head­canon; his expla­na­tion is exact­ly the oppo­site, but there are many ques­tions that lie beyond the scope of his­to­ry to actu­al­ly deci­pher; Amer­i­can Chris­t­ian New Tes­ta­ment schol­ar Bart D. Ehrman gives the exam­ple of what his grand­fa­ther ate for break­fast on a par­tic­u­lar day, and the his­tor­i­cal Muham­mad is most­ly beyond our abil­i­ty to defin­i­tive­ly describe.

This read­ing is use­ful because it man­ages to be plau­si­ble and to cut against the bias­es of West­ern Chris­ten­dom and its var­i­ous heretics. It gives anoth­er pos­si­ble vision of the ear­ly com­mu­ni­ty of believ­ers who sur­round­ed Muham­mad and what true Islam could have meant and there­fore could mean.

Cole claims that the gen­er­a­tion imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Muham­mad’s death were bedouins less attract­ed to Muham­mad’s spe­cif­ic teach­ings than the uni­ty and pos­si­bil­i­ty for mil­i­tary plun­der his move­ment provided.

Which I don’t think says any­thing damn­ing about those teach­ings but does­n’t espe­cial­ly argue for their divine rev­e­la­tion, either.

In the West, even athe­ists tend to be much more for­giv­ing of lat­er gen­er­a­tions of Chris­ten­dom in their embrace of “Just War” than the reli­gion that sprung up watch­ing Chris­ten­dom do so while choos­ing to be bet­ter in comparison.

The oth­er day at the Seat­tle Athe­ist Church, there was a pre­sen­ta­tion on the Euston Man­i­festo cre­at­ed in 2006, and the most star­tling thing about it in ret­ro­spect was just how bad­ly its defense of the inva­sion of Iraq has aged.

British jour­nal­ist Nick Cohen even­tu­al­ly worked it up into a full-length book called What’s Left?, and, like that man­i­festo, goes full-in defend­ing the Anglo-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary adven­tur­ism in Mesopotamia that seems to have accom­plished lit­tle of ben­e­fit for any­one except Iran and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions like the Islam­ic State.

A more refined crit­ic will notice how much time the Man­i­festo spends crit­i­ciz­ing and warn­ing of the dan­gers of Islam in par­tic­u­lar while white suprema­cy gets not a peep—nor, for that mat­ter, is glob­al warm­ing regard­ed as a pri­or­i­ty for a unit­ed left.

doesnt look like anything to me

So in the mid-Aughts, this group of self-defined left­ist aca­d­e­mics, jour­nal­ists and activists con­sid­ered the 5 per­cent of all Mus­lim peo­ple in the Unit­ed King­dom inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous and a threat to democ­ra­cy by virtue of their pri­vate reli­gion. Mean­while a few years lat­er, UKIP got near­ly 4 mil­lion active vot­ers and 12.6 per­cent of the vote in 2015, and in 2016, Brex­it got an out­right majority.

Per­haps the strain of the so-called left focused on the threats caused by Mus­lim immi­grants was based on some­thing oth­er than the inher­ent dan­ger of the peo­ple belong­ing to that reli­gion. Per­haps the fact that in the Year of Our Lord 2019, Sam Har­ris still can say that “white suprema­cy does­n’t look like any­thing to me” after call­ing Islam par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­ble­some and immune to the nor­mal rules of ther­monu­clear pol­i­tics, ought to tell you something.

In near­ly a mil­len­nia and a half, Islam has nev­er been close to destroy­ing Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion. In a decade and a half, fas­cism near­ly did. In a polit­i­cal actu­ar­i­al sense, it might be worth con­sid­er­ing that and behav­ing accordingly.

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