Muslims are individuals, they are not a homogeneity
The other day I picked up a spare shift working at the Bangladeshi Restaurant that I used to work in. I picked it up because I was motivated by the extra cash I’d gain from the normally quiet Monday evening shift and also because the owners have become close friends of mine and they needed someone to cover. It also happened to be the end of Eid al-Adha.
I spent most of my night in the usual way, which includes laughing when customers ask me ‘So what part of India are you from?’ (I’m as white as they come), and trying not to lay myself open-mouthed underneath the Kingfisher beer tap. It was a very quiet night so I spent most of it chatting and taking selfies (deplorable, I know) with the Bengalis I work with. The chefs, who are all Bengali immigrants, were notably more jovial than they normally were, and one even bought me a drink to celebrate Eid. Of course my idea of buying someone a drink and his were somewhat different, I certainly didn’t think that he meant apple juice.
Never the less, I very much appreciated this gesture. I felt involved in their celebration, and it was a great feeling. I had purposely researched Eid al Adha before I came into work, just as I did during Ramadan earlier in the year, hoping to show both my interest and willingness to be involved. When the tandoori-chef opened the back door to me, I greeted him with a recently-googled ‘Eid Mubarak!’ He responded the same, and laughed as he walked back to his post by the tandoor oven, probably laughing at my admittedly terrible Arabic pronunciation; my Bengali is even worse. There’s a reason why I don’t possess a language GCSE I suppose.
I don’t want this post to be overtly political. I want it to be more personal; I want to illustrate a problem in the way that political discourse talks about Muslims. I understand that anecdotal evidence is often pretty weak evidence, but it has a notable strength in its ability to dismiss absolutes. The Muslims I work with are fantastic, peaceful people, which shatters some of the broad accusations made often towards them as a grouping.
Whilst I think it is perfectly healthy and necessary to criticise Islam as it is all religions, and we certainly shouldn’t be stopped from doing so, when the media and some select individuals talk about Muslims they seem not to view them as individuals who follow a certain religion, rather a mindless zombie-like horde with a shared hive mind. This is similar to how ISIS (on a far, far more extreme scale) discuss ‘Kaffir’, or non-believers. To the Jihadi in the sands of Syria I think exactly the same as the stereotypical white, western, person of Christian descent.
In his mind I indulge in the same rituals, agendas, and desires as a selected at random white, western, person of Christian decent in the south of France or maybe even another randomly selected person in Alaska. He collectivises individuals into a mass grouping, and then makes judgements and decisions based upon that. That is why, to the Jihadi, there are no innocent ‘Kaffir’. It’s why he can kill them without any remorse. It’s why all members of this group are dirt to him. We are in danger of following this dangerous collectivism in our own viewing of Muslims, and that presents a departure from British values, but more on that later.
Personally, I find a lot of the tenants in Islam hard to stomach. It shocks me that in one-thousand-five-hundred years it has not had one reformation to bring it in line with advancing theories on justice, society, and liberal democracy like the other Abrahamic religions. I don’t fully understand why someone would want to call themselves a Muslim when it literally translates to ‘one who submits’. But that doesn’t matter. People can believe what they believe. I will happily argue about why I dislike certain parts of Islam. I will criticise it just as I criticise other religions and ideologies. It is indeed true that lots of Muslims believe in the things I find distasteful about the religion. It’s also true that lots don’t. Herein lies the problem with certain calls to ban Islam in the UK or to ban Muslim entrance to other Western countries. It relies on collectively judging multiple individuals. It is a belief that is fundamentally dangerous and finds itself in similar families of belief with Communism and Fascism (which aren’t that different) or as Ayn Rand famously pointed out, Racism.
Collectivism chooses not to judge people on the nature of their character, but rather on an arbitrary and designed grouping such as race, religion, wealth, or creed. Islam is a religion of around a billion people, with countless different sects. Not all Muslims are Arab either; unlike some people might believe. Islam as a faith was one of the first true multi-ethnic religions, and it’s probably quite difficult to group together a Shia Muslim from Iran with a Sunni Muslim from say Indonesia.
Those who complain that Muslims are a threat to the very fabric of British values are clearly slightly misunderstanding the king pin of all British values: Individualism. It’s what makes us great, it’s what makes us British. We judge people on their character, not the behaviours of others who seem similar to them in our eyes. We understand that things are ultimately very complex and as such blanket judgements don’t make sense. It’s why in Common Law we have lawyers very actively involved in courts. Judges aren’t allowed to make decisions based on merely presented knowledge; there’s more to it than that. It is also this great love for individualism in Britain that resulted in the English language having no regulatory body, an unstructured grammatical system, and a colossal lexicon that allows people to express themselves how they see fit.
In fact, this has led to the creation of a fantastic but not yet dictionary inhabiting word: ‘sonder’. ‘Sonderness’ is the emotion you feel when you realise that strangers have their own lives that are incredibly complex and exist beyond your personal awareness of them. It comes from the German ‘sonder’, which means ‘special’. It’s a fantastic little word with a big scope, and I wish it all the luck possible in becoming officially recognised.
‘Sonder’ puts into words perfectly what I felt during my Eid al-Adha shift. At the end of the night, as they always do, my Muslim colleagues got me a plate of on-the-bone lamb curry that tastes far different to the curries on the menu. I sat down with a beer that I bought with my tips, and I ate with my fingers like they taught me a long time ago how to do. Here two cultures were mixing in a dimly lit industrial kitchen in the south of Wales; here I drunk beer like a Brit and I ate curry like a Bengali. No one told me off for drinking, they recognise that it’s my choice to do so, even if they don’t agree with it.
They have stories of their own. They, like me are individuals. They’re special, and we cannot imagine or judge their stories. I didn’t know what I was feeling at the time, but now I know that I was feeling quite ‘sonder’. Perhaps we could all do with a bit more ‘sonderness’ in our lives. Perhaps it would help us keep away from collectivist tendencies; ‘sonderness’ could save the British values that those who collectivise Muslims purport to love so much. Western society is at its best when it shuns collectives and embraces individuals. We should remember that when we talk about Muslims. We should remember that it’s what makes us British, and that we cannot complain about a loss of British values if we are ourselves choosing to ignore them at their best.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty