When it comes to religion, I am a cheerfully godless individual.
I believe that the broad arc of history bends towards both justice and mercy. I find freedom of speech – the clash of ideas in the verbal arena – both essential and intoxicating, if vulnerable to abuse. I have faith in the notion that while not every individual is good, each one of us has the potential to be good, so long as we constantly pass our beliefs through the twin crucibles of empathy and the search for truth.
And yet, the amount of fear, anger and prejudice that I’ve seen levelled at Islam – a multifaceted religion of over 1 billion faithful – would be enough to shake the optimism of any humanist.
In the United States of America, the 45th leader of the Land of the Free has imposed a travel ban on migrants from 7 Muslim-majority countries. In France, attorney and politician Marine Le Pen stokes conservative fear surrounding Islamic migrants and open borders. In Australia, Senator Jacqui Lambie tussled verbally with Muslim activist Yasmin Abdel-Magied on national TV, spouting misconceived vitriol about Sharia.
Perhaps it is because of the global milieu that we live in that a world religion like Islam finds itself under siege. Cultural conflict – once the domain of global struggle and the clash of civilisations – now manifests in our everyday lives. We encounter difference as we jostle with strangers on the trains, queue up at the supermarket, await our turn at job interviews in unfamiliar offices.
It is easy to virtue signal, to mouth platitudes, to espouse tolerance. But tolerance without understanding is a brittle, anaemic thing. When we face differences in beliefs, it is far too easy to fall into one of two extremes: Rhetoric that professes acceptance but avoids difficult questions for fear of causing offence, or reactionary aggression towards difference, which stunts any sort of true understanding.