Thank You Breitbart, For The Islam

I start my day like every Muslim does. By checking my phone.

Breitbart, though, is hardly the first, second, or even third website I’ll check. Actually Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos’ “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the AltRight” might be the first Breitbart essay to have held my attention. But it did more than that. There’s always a few articles we come across, perhaps every month, that don’t just engage us, but force us to go back and read them a few more times. In fact they’re fun to return to.

To keep digging into. This was one of those.

Probably what I like most about the essay was the opportunity afforded to hear how conservatives see new trends within their own movement, and describe the dissension that appears to be tearing the Republican Party apart, between “establishment conservatives” and younger, more radical voices. But what’s neat about these essays is also that they offer us a window into how the authors see other identities, including my own.

There are several mentions of Islam or Muslims in Bokhari and Yiannopoulos’ essay, two of which I quote here because of the deeper meaning revealed by these invocations. Intentionally or not, they put to rest the idea that Islam is purely a religion (and that Islamophobia cannot be a form of racism), because they see, or describe, how Islam and Muslims are seen on the right, in ways that suggest identity isn’t ever reducible to a single category. Take, for example, this first:

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This is a neat summation of an AltRight tendency. But notice that it mirrors how conservative Muslims see themselves. (But not all Muslims.) That’s because, in every society, there are parallel approaches to the same problems. Allow me to explain.  

Many Muslims are African-American. A rising proportion are Mexican. Where do the boundaries between these groups lie? If “Muslim” is separate from African-American, does that mean Islam trumps (sic) blackness? What happens with Eastern European Muslims—who are, by any reasonable definition, white and (obviously) European? Are their “culture and politics” more like white, Christian, Italian-Americans or brown, Muslim, Pakistani-Americans? This isn’t really a question the essay sets out to answer, but it’s revealing, isn’t it? American Islam is tremendously variegated, as indeed is the conservative movement, as the essay itself reveals.

But do all American Muslims cluster together, culturally and politically, because they are Muslim? Is their (our/my) Islam more important than anything else?

The point comes out more forcefully here:

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Read this again.

“Culture is inseparable from race.” Because there’s no mention of religion, although the juxtaposition is between “Englishness” and “Muslimness.”

How is the much smaller and narrower category of Englishness comparable to the far vaster and more diverse category of Islam (or Muslim)? A British Asian might be a Muslim of Kashmiri origin, but that doesn’t mean she’s the same as a Muslim raised in and living in Kashmir. She might not fly St. George’s Cross, but she might not go to the mosque, either. She probably has more in common with other Britons of her class and community than religion abstractly.

And if it is the case that a mosque and a row of English houses are immiscible, then what happens to a synagogue, a Hindu Temple or, indeed, even a church?

At what point does national identity become fixed, and closed to other religions? How can Englishness accommodate secularity, considering that widespread agnosticism and rising atheism are arguably as new to England as Islam?

And what happens to the fair number of ethnically English Muslims? They may well see no contradiction between a mosque and St. George’s Cross. They may choose a mosque that is dominated by their own ethnic group, as indeed often happens in the United States.

To be clear, of course, these are not points the authors are explicitly claiming to hold to, but examples they use to describe the AltRight generally. But in so describing the AltRight, they reveal what many of us have sensed all along: that Islam is not, in my subjective definition (or the experience of many Muslims), purely a religious identity, and that Islam, as it is publicly discussed and framed, especially on the right, is never purely a religion, separable from cultural, ethnic, racial and nationalist markers.

One way to make this point more forcefully: If the overwhelming majority of American Muslims were Polish Tatars or Bulgarian Slavs, with deep roots in Europe, would Donald Trump be talking about banning them? (Probably he’d try to marry one of them.)

And if, alternatively, the majority of American Muslims were brown and black, as they indeed are, could any discussion of Islam preclude any consideration of race?

There are of course many different types of conservative thinkers, but many of these otherwise different thinkers essentialize and reify Islam when, at the same time, they argue for the need to protect organic, lived culture (excluding Islam of course), Western society as it is, and the hierarchy and institutions that reflect that order, talking not abstractly about an idealized America shorn of its lived experiences, but America as it is breathed and processed on the ground.

Again, Islam is often precluded from such generosity.

Do read the essay. It’s a fresher perspective on what’s really happening on the right than is usually heard. You may very well find, as I did, many of the ideas discussed deeply worrying, if simply incoherent. But that should be no argument for refusing to engage with them. And sometimes the most relevant thinkers are the ones who are still rising, who have not yet entered the mainstream, who hint to us where our national conversation might be headed.