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Yousef Khalil

New Atheists and New Optimists, but still Eurocentrics

'Modernity raises expectations universally, but delivers on them unequally' [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 November, 2017

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Comment: Both the New Atheist and New Optimist schools of thought serve as a thin veneer for a highly unjust distribution of power and wealth, writes Yousef Khalil.
Over the past few years, a new wave of contrarians has emerged in the West to shake up the discourse around some major political and economic questions. 

While these contrarians span the political spectrum, they share a common understanding of Europe's position in world history that would not meet much resistance in right-wing circles. This Eurocentrism reveals a lot more about the actual substance of their arguments, than the glossy rhetorical sheen of liberalism or positivism that their adherents present.

The New Atheists and the lesser-known, but increasingly prominent, "New Optimists" both frame their arguments as common sense re-examinations of basic facts that have been obscured in western political discourse.

For the New Atheists, political correctness has obscured the connection between Islam as a religion and the myriad social problems faced by Muslims.

For the New Optimists, the fact that the world is getting better and better - as progress is made in combatting poverty and its symptoms - is consistently obscured, whether by a hardwired pessimism or guilty self-flagellation, in the West. This, they say, creates a false sense of impending doom and the general feeling that things are unravelling.

The New Atheists rose to prominence in the aftermath of September 11th, seeking to shake up western liberalism through a critique of organised religion that is sharply at odds with a prevailing commitment to political correctness and inclusiveness of religious minorities.

It's easy to see how this disproportionate focus on Islam effectively ends up collapsing into Eurocentrism

While mainstream liberals in the West and the New Atheists share an aversion to encroachments on liberty that are pushed by Christian conservatives - after all, the main threat to secularism in the West logically comes from the most widely practiced religion in Western society - they differentiate themselves from mainstream liberals when it comes to Islam.

The latter argue that mainstream liberals widely criticise Christian conservatism - of the sort that is pushed by the Republican Party in the United States, for example - but, hypocritically, do not apply the same standard to other religions, especially Islam, because of political correctness, a desire to be inclusive, or even fear of retribution.

In doing so, the New Atheists argue, mainstream liberals are abandoning the ideals of the Enlightenment; the truly secular and positivist liberalism that is the foundation of modernity itself. 

Though the New Atheists would describe themselves as liberals, they certainly share a similar understanding of Islam with conservatives.

It's easy to see how this disproportionate focus on Islam effectively ends up collapsing into Eurocentrism - the idea that European political and economic dominance is the result of unchanging cultural traits that are superior to others - and outright Islamophobia.

Read more: Conservatives have got The Handmaid's Tale all wrong: Muslims aren't the problem

Bill Maher in particular, has a history of outrageous and racists statement in this regard. Maher and his cohort respond to accusations of Islamophobia by assuring their critics that they attack all organised religion from the same perspective. The reason they so often focus on Islam, they say, is because many of the world's most pressing problems when it comes to the question of secularism affect Muslim-majority societies.

As is often the case with conservative arguments - at a very surface level, the New Atheists are not wrong; Muslim-majority societies can make much progress when it comes to the question of secularism and its adjacent issues. However, these problems need to be addressed with the understanding that the modernity the New Atheists and conservatives lay claim to, is not without its victims.

The political and economic systems that underpin the modern world were created to benefit Europeans at the expense of the rest of the world. Like right-wing movements in the West, the New Atheists fail to acknowledge that fundamental contradiction of modernity; it is a project that was birthed by the radical idea that universal emancipation is possible through the application of reason, but in practice, created a world in which most people were subjugated.

The modernity the New Atheists and conservatives lay claim to, is not without its victims

As Salman Sayyid, one of the preeminent thinkers on Islamism and Islamophobia wrote, "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one of largest groups of people in the world who do not seem to be content with the current division of world power would describe themselves as Muslims."

One does not need to mine the archives for examples to find the roots of these grievances; they are not relegated to history. It is no coincidence that the Arab world has been a flashpoint for conflicts between the West and the Other, and is the ideological birthplace of the main oppositional movement to the Eurocentric conception of modernity; contemporary Islamism.

That division of world power as it exists today is not an accidental one, it was shaped by and is maintained by violence, coercion and exploitation. The erasure of this context is a feature of ideologies concerned with defending an unjust world order, from the centre and the right, precisely because that erasure absolves the West of its complicity in the many of the conflicts it is mired in.

France, the secular republic par excellence, and theatre of the revolution that ushered in the modern era, would not exist as it does today had it not conquered, subjugated, and looted Algeria, Senegal and Vietnam.

We ought to measure the progress of humankind against what is possible today, not what was possible 100 years ago

The New Atheists are wrong to demand that Muslim-majority societies should resemble secular western societies without acknowledging that the modern world itself was built over hundreds of years to benefit the latter, materially and politically, at the expense of the former, and everyone else. We can acknowledge this history and its innumerable, lasting effects without falling into the trap of relativism.

And this is the same terrain that the "New Optimists" who adopted the name self-consciously as an homage to the New Atheists, gained some notoriety in 2017, playing the contrarian to the stream of "2016 was the worst year in history" think pieces.  

Their groundbreaking thesis: Compared to say, 1882,"[when] only 2 percent of homes in New York had running water," things in 2016 were not really so dire.

One would struggle to think of anything that is not better, in absolute terms, than it was in 1882, but is that a useful basis upon which to judge the modern world?

Again, the ability of conservatives to make the absolute most surface level arguments is on full display here.

It is no coincidence that the Arab world has been a flashpoint for conflicts between the West and the Other

Intuitively, people seem to understand what the New Optimists fail to consider; that we ought to measure the progress against of humankind against what is possible today, not what was possible 100 years ago. Fewer people die of starvation today than they did in the past, and for the New Optimists, that is reason alone to celebrate.

For most people, the fact that global food-insecurity is still an issue, despite the massive technological advances that have greatly expanded the amount of food people can produce, is a tragedy, especially given that the nearly half of all the food that is produced ends up in western rubbish bins.

The prevailing pessimism that the New Optimists are railing against is not pessimism at all, it is an intuitive understanding that, ultimately, the most pressing questions are those of distribution and waste, not capacity.

This is a central feature of modernity; it raises expectations universally, but delivers on them unequally, necessarily. The universalist and emancipatory ambition of modernity exists in contradiction with the political and economic system that it birthed; world capitalism.

The world of the New Optimists is one in which people should be content to just hang around until the vaunted and illusory trickle down reaches them

In the words of Egyptian-French economist and critical theorist Samir Amin, "Enlightenment thought offers us a concept of reason that is inextricably associated with that of emancipation. Yet, the emancipation in question is defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows."

The world of the New Optimists is one in which people should be content to just hang around until the vaunted and illusory trickle down reaches them.

Implicit in this outlook is a defence of global capitalism and those who benefit from it most, by those who benefit from it most; Europeans and Americans. 

Ultimately their analyses fall flat, not because of some inherent psychological defeatism, but because they ignore a central feature of the modernity it celebrates; it benefits the few at the expense of the many, whether that is between countries, which was more the case in the past, or within them, as is increasingly the case now.

Effectively, both schools of thought serve as a very thin veneer atop a defense of a highly unjust distribution of power and wealth. It is no wonder that the most prominent thinkers associated with these schools of thought are almost exclusively white men from Europe or America.

Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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