Coconut: response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #5 (Chapter 4)

In this chapter, Alom Shaha exercises his right and his prerogative to use a certain vernacular word on his own terms, rather than in the way it will usually be understood (we are of course talking about ‘connotation’ rather than ‘denotation’ at this moment). This post will question the validity of that decision. It will also draw attention to some singularly important points of principle on which Shaha and I are in complete and utter agreement. However, it will also make the point that the actual argument that this chapter is supposed to be narrating exemplifies a hideous type of confusion that cannot possibly be a successful advert for atheism. The conflation of race and religion espoused – almost certainly more unwittingly than wittingly – by Alom Shaha is peculiarly disastrous at the precise time in which this blog post is being written; a time in which Western societies are discovering that is rather difficult to say that ‘Black Lives Matter’ when the legacy of centuries of post-Enlightenment racism – the very same ‘Enlightenment’ that Shaha celebrates as a science-toting atheist – continues to shape dynamics of power which themselves shape every social action within our societies; actions which for the most part continue to manifest the unreadiness of many white Westerners to truly accept that all people are anthropologically equal.

The word in question is, of course, in the title: ‘coconut’.

Let’s begin with one thing Shaha and I do not have in common: I have not ever been called a ‘coconut’ or an ‘Oreo cookie’ by any of my friends, associates, colleagues or even my enemies (across all ethnicities). Even when I have been accused of operating in ways in which do not correspond to those which various types of black person expect of other black persons – some of those being ‘what white people do’, no one has ever been stupid enough or inhumane enough to suggest that I may actually have forgotten ‘what colour I am’. But in fairness, it must also be noted that despite very strong associations between both black African people and diasporic black people and Christianity, there is simply not the same ecology of relationship between being black and Christian and being Bangladeshi and being Muslim. That last sentence has been written from the external position of being other-than-Muslim and from a country in which Islam is not part of culture itself. However, I suspect that Alom Shaha would not disagree if I were to suggest that one of the main points he wishes to get across in this chapter is that in the same way that there is no ‘necessary’ relationship between being black and being Christian, there is no ‘necessary’ relationship between being Bangladeshi and being Muslim. As an uncomplicated ‘philosophical’ ‘proposition’ (yes, both of those two words really are supposed to be within individual sets of quotation marks), we can take this as de facto. However, in ‘anthropological’ terms this assumption is less straightforward. Exactly how is Bangladeshi identity understood, negotiated and articulated as distinct from Islam?!

This is an example of the kind of question that sociologists of religion really enjoy. Quite right too. But it is also an example of the kind of question that all thinking persons should take as seriously as possible. This question needs to be pondered outside the ivory towers of academia because it points to assumptions that many of us make that we really should not. Shaha is quite right to be concerned about the pernicious reality that Islam is not a Western religion and therefore it is important to many people for no other reason then it becomes a relatively straightforward practical means of asserting defiance against totalising Western hegemony. And so to be Bangladeshi but not Muslim will be construed by some people (from multiple ethnicities, but it could be argued that his interest is particularly in his fellow Bangladeshis) as having abdicated one’s actual Bangladeshi identity – something that (from what I can make out) he most certainly has not done. But it seems impossible for a significant number of people to draw any conclusion other than that if a Bangladeshi person eschews Islam, then they have vitiated any prospective claim to have avoided the totalising hegemony of the West. Seen from this perspective, atheism becomes a uniquely Western privilege – an entirely laughable concept given that the origins of the actual word itself have nothing to do with the way it is now used with specific regard to the Judaeo-Christian tradition – which itself gets more unstraightforward by virtue of the fact that the concept of ‘God’ shared by Judaism and Christianity – where it becomes a singular monolithic entity – is also shared by Islam, despite the fact that Islam has a completely separate trajectory once we move past the historical point of origin (namely, the understanding that both Judaeo-Christianity and Islam come from Abraham).

Here, in sequential form, is the ‘argument’ at the heart of this chapter:

  1. Being Bangladeshi means being ‘brown’.
  2. Being Bangladeshi means being Muslim.
  3. ‘Coconut’ connotes (rather than denotes) a person who is black/brown/yellow/etc on the ‘outside’ and ‘white’ on the inside.
  4. AS is Bangladeshi but chooses not to be Muslim.
  5. AS is a ‘coconut’.

Now as a black person who is also Christian, I would be completely outraged by this argument. Shaha’s decision to walk away from Islam is not (in and of itself) a decision to forget what colour he is. I see the rejection of one’s ethnic, racial and cultural identity/ies as a very different problem – and in many ways a much bigger problem (something weak-minded Christians may not ever get their heads around) – than changing religious/worldview perspectives. [Actually, this needs clarifying: I am not a religious pluralist, and I am not a Christian liberal of the type which is celebrated in certain quarters, not least for being so liberal it is no longer clear if one is actually Christian). But I have no problem whatsoever with people changing their worldviews, irrespective of whether or not I agree with their religious-and-other choices. I do, however, have a massive, massive problem with people abdicating their ethnic and racial identities (which, unlike our ‘cultural’ identities, we cannot choose because they are part what we are indisputably born with). Indeed, in some contexts ‘culture’ has become a word-concept (a bye-word, even) by which ethnic and racial difference is to be eroded…but that’s another can of worms altogether. It is precisely in losing the sense that unity without the adequate celebration of diversity means nothing (because what is fostered therein is the sense that unity is impossible without the abrogation of diversity) that has created the conditions for the multiple forms of racism and xenophobia that we can see (empirically) escalating in societies that have had the temerity to call themselves ‘civilised’.] Had Alom Shaha decided to behave as if he were other than brown, and other than Bangladeshi, that would have gotten me going. Once again, the evidence I see by virtue of his testimony does not offer grounds for any charge that this man is a coconut.

However, just as I am gearing up to defend Alom Shaha’s honour, he concludes this chapter with the following words:

The sad truth is that I am a rare breed – a public ‘ex-Muslim’ – and one of the reasons I have written this book is to let countless others keep their lack of faith a secret know but they are not alone. This may sound overdramatic or self-aggrandising but, on the other hand, at least I don’t believe I’m one of a special people ‘chosen’ by God. My delusions are of my own making.

While I will continue to ponder my beliefs, I suspect that I will never go back to Islam, never again call myself a Muslim. I don’t doubt that there are still some out there who would call me a ‘coconut’ because of this. But if what that means is that I have really made my own choices about who I want to be and how I want to live, then I am proud of the label.

pages 110-111

I am struggling once again to see how prose of this order has been celebrated by so many well-known public figures whom one would hope would know better. It is indeed important that former Muslims with genuine pastoral concerns for those who may have made the same decision but do not feel able to live out those decisions on a daily basis speak up and speak out against the oppressive socio-cultural forces that obtain in these situations. But in characterising all people who adhere to religious faith traditions where there is some sense of having been ‘chosen’ as ‘deluded’, Shaha has once again crossed a line. This is not the place to discuss philosophical versions of scepticism, but even renowned atheist philosophers have recognised that much of the time spent in thrall to notions generated by whatever varying forms of scepticism is time very badly spent. Tolerance of the genuinely humane (if not always ‘humanistic’, a circumstance that should make so-called humanists think more carefully about the alleged superiority of their ethical positions) variety has to allow that people choose to see the world and its origins (cosmology) and its inhabitants (anthropology) in very different ways. Irrespective of our worldviews, we are all at risk of becoming deluded at times because the mind is fragile and we do not always take care of our brain health. And even when we do, neuropsychiatric challenges do not domesticate themselves to the understanding of even the very best researchers our planet has produced – and so a person may be deluded by virtue of misfiring synapses the aetiologies of which it is impossible they could ever be ‘intentional’ about ‘making’ (hmm…you might not be surprised to learn that I have been spending rather a lot of time recently working through arguments concerning both ‘causality’ and ‘intentionality’…). For a man of science who claims to respect philosophy, this is disastrous beyond contempt.

Be all of that what it may, the fact that Alom Shaha is prepared to accept the label ‘coconut’ (albeit under the definition he offers) puts me in a position where I can only wonder about how certain Asians with a very high public profile here in the UK appear to behave towards the plight of black people. It seems to be increasingly clear that despite the multifarious forms of racism exhibited by white people towards non-white people in general, there is a great deal less inter-ethnic-minority-solidarity than one would think, given the shared challenges of lived experience. Priti Patel is determined to downplay the challenges of systemic racism in the United Kingdom – to the point of non-existence. How is this possible for such a senior politician – herself BAME (although she says she does not like BAME, so as I do not want to simply refer to her Asian identity, I can only say ‘non-white’ which puts ‘whiteness’ at the centre yet again) – when people of so many different ethnicities marched in widespread public protest for black lives for the very first time in living memory here in the UK!? Alom Shaha says that he is happy to be a coconut. But a coconut is somebody has indeed made a decision ‘about who they want to be and how they want to live’ and decided to abdicate their ethnic/racial identity……!

Perhaps there is no way that this blog post can begin to help certain minds understand that the concepts of freedom and autonomy and equality that emerge in Enlightenment thought from John Locke and Immanuel Kant onwards already assume the anthropological inferiority of non-white people in ways that students of the humanities have ignored for a very long time at the cost of their own humanity (genuinely outstanding black philosophers like Lewis Gordon, the late Emanuel Eze and Charles Mills have been on the case for some time now talking about racism at the heart of Western philosophy, and I only wish I had known about these gentlemen and their work earlier in my life). Ibram X. Kendi makes a distinction between a) segregationism; b) assimilationism and c) antiracism – and he argues that assimilationism may be less racist than segregationism but it is in fact still racist. By proudly wearing the label of ‘coconut’, Alom Shaha has held up his own assimilationist credentials and that is exactly what the white establishment is looking for from all BAME people. He is saying that it is okay to be brown on the outside and white on the inside – he is actually saying that. He has made an elision between race and religion and culture that I do not believe will withstand scrutiny – nonetheless, he does make one howitzer of an observation that fairness dictates I point out.

One of my best friends, now an atheist, was a member and then leader of my school’s Christian Union. She has told me that it gave her ‘a set of family and belonging’ and that, for her, it was ‘a platform for being rebellious at the same time as righteous’. Whereas I had chosen to be non-conformist through the way I dressed, membership of the Christian Union gave her a way of challenging her peers.

page 104

In an email to Shaha, she went on to say:

I guess (looking back on it now) it was a proxy war – a way of saying ‘I am proud of who I am’, ‘I’m not afraid of you’ – sentiments I would love to have felt in many other contexts, but didn’t. I would have loved to be able to feel (and say), ‘It doesn’t matter that I’m not cool’ and ‘I am worth as much as any of the rest of you.’ I couldn’t, but I could say ‘I’m a Christian and I don’t care what you think about that’.

page 104

There is absolutely no question that a significant number of people across all religious traditions are looking for something other than the propositional truths held by those religious traditions. It is incredibly sad that this girl was not secure enough in herself to be herself and so weaponised a bankrupt version of Christianity against her own fractured psyche as well as against others. In recent times there have been several very-high-profile Evangelical ministry types who have ‘come out’ as atheists, leading to some intense soul-searching on the part of many people. When the emphasis on ‘community’ is higher than the emphasis on really empowering people to make cognitive as well as emotive decisions, there are consequences. I know ALL about this – because if I only had the resources of my church, I myself would be an atheist. But my ferocious investment into both humanities and social sciences has done more for my Christian identity than nearly all the sermons I’ve heard. [Please don’t twist this – sermons are still really valuable. But it is true that many Christians abdicate rational thought for pseudo-spirituality when it is a religion of paradoxes which can only be processed by rigorous thought as well as prayer and study.]

I am sorry to use this word, but the stupidity of this line of thinking whereby the only reason that anybody becomes part of a religious tradition is about something other than propositional truth  finds one apotheosis in the fact that there is no community to which human beings can belong where this is not applicable – therefore it is just as possible that some people have become atheists because the first community that they felt that they could be part of espoused atheism. But I hope that somebody reading this is mentally switched-on enough to understand that there is a difference between calling a line of argument ‘stupid’ and a person ‘stupid’. Neither Alom Shaha nor his formerly-Christian schoolfriend were or are stupid – but some of the Muslims I know who have really taken comfort and found solace in the beliefs and practices of Islam as they understand it have their doubts and uncertainties at times, but they have understood that being Muslim means nothing if it has made no genuine difference to the reality of who they want to be as people who are worth knowing. I cannot speak beyond a certain level as to the niceties of Islamic theology, but I can certainly say from a Christian theological viewpoint that the reality of being a Christian means that I am not the judge of people who choose to ‘wear’ Christianity (if that were even possible) as some sort of label, but I am called to decide whether or not that is the type and concept of Christianity that I would affirm.

Another concept routinely misunderstood by Christians many of whom (like Shaha’s schoolfriend) have been socialised into Christian communities rather than patiently and genuinely being taught how to think through the faith for oneself comes from Immanuel Kant (yes, I did indeed say that he was racist and this brings us to another ‘rub’: if Hitler had said that grass is green, that would be true despite his being one of the most evil people history has recorded; ad hominem arguments attack the integrity and personhood of the person making the argument rather than the argument itself and are understood by some philosophers to be significant ethical failures rather than merely extremely bad arguments) who got a lot of things right (one reason why we are still talking about his ideas 200 years later and counting). Kant argued that in a coherent system of thought, ethics had to come before religion. So conservative Christians – many of whom are indeed the kind of anti-intellectual that Alom Shaha has been lampooning in his book (and I have been agreeing with him) see this as undermining the authority of Scripture – itself just the kind of thing philosophers do as far as they are concerned – and so they lambast this Kantian position.

But this is a significant failure of thought on the part of any Bible-believing Christian. God may be sovereign, but Jesus died so that everybody has the right to make whatever decisions they make. Again, there is no scope for a robust discussion of ethics, theological ethics and other cognate disciplines which raise technical concepts such as ‘divine command theory’ (DCT) et cetera BUT: if there is no ethical framework prior to religious belief, there are no grounds for making a sentient choice to live by the code of any religion. Why would one choose to be a Christian if one did not feel that the ethical norms and values of Christianity were those that matter most?!

And so to the terrible irony that my defence of Alom Shaha’s right to be a Bangladeshi who is not a Muslim and who should not ever be called a coconut is precisely because of my Christian views which hold that a person is free to make whatever decisions they choose about what they want to believe and how they want to live. But this does not extend to changing one’s race and ethnicity. If I have to bleach my skin like Michael Jackson when other black people cannot afford the technology to do that, then is any black person supposed to be changing their skin colour when not every black person can access such technology? That means that we are not okay in our ethnicity/ies and this is exactly how racism – and associate behaviours/attitudes such as colourism – get started. [Yes, this needs more argumentation, but hopefully you get the point for now.]

Again, the wrongness of conflating race and religion in this kind of way is absolute. Alom Shaha has not chosen to be Bangladeshi. But the outworking of his Bangladeshi identity is very significantly undermined by his assimilationist presuppositions that very strongly suggest that the very position he is desperately trying to present – namely, that he is an enlightened Bangladeshi who has made an autonomous decision to walk away from Islam on his own terms and therefore it does not matter if people use racist epithets against him because he’s the one who has set himself free – is in fact a position that is far less secure and trustworthy than he is able to admit to his own consciousness. This is not an underhanded way of saying that Christianity offers greater cognitive certainty than Islam (although I can see more than one person trying that on). It is saying that if Alom Shaha has not understood that his assertions of intellectual autonomy should not admit the possibility that he has forgotten for so much as a nanosecond what colour he is in any way shape or form, then maybe the fact that Enlightenment atheism offered a means for him to bury God for good when his mother died (see Chapter 1) has a darker side: his atheism is not an atheism which happily allows others to believe differently (again, as I have said elsewhere, I am not saying that people who believe differently to me are deluded purely on the grounds of those differing beliefs), which suggests that he does not own it and is simply not as independent as he claims (and as we all should be).

I know one reason why no one has ever called me a coconut – and it is because when I realised that the very fabric of my entire existence was set up for a type of neo-colonial assimilationism even before I knew those words (much less what they meant) – during my pre-adolescence – I took steps to ensure (despite being only a young boy) that I was not going to forget that I was black, and no one else was going to forget either. I have battled assimilationist thinking for my entire life since then and it has been a terrible shock to discover that a) it really is the case that black people can only progress by virtue of assimilationist thinking (for every David Olusoga, others have fallen by the wayside because it is much too much); b) that I still processed assimilationist ways of thinking without realising it as I tried to make my way in this society. NO MORE. Henceforth, I think that a psychoanalytic read of Shaha’s decision-making around fashion and identity as a teenager would say rather more about rather more things than he would be comfortable with. When you know you are, others know it too, even if at times they are threatened by it. If Alom Shaha’s own close friends jokingly call him a coconut, then at this moment I find myself terrifyingly defending a version of atheism against Alom Shaha to the very people he is trying to reach: it is possible to a) be from a Muslim background; b) choose to be atheist and c) not forget what colour you are. To be a coconut is to lose your soul, and the God of Christianity loves everyone far too much for that to be acceptable. So if you are wondering if I really would prefer the company of an antiracist atheist to that of a Christian coconut/Oreo cookie, the answer is ‘yes’.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Alex, thanks again. I love this sentence: “It is precisely in losing the sense that unity without the adequate celebration of diversity means nothing (because what is fostered therein is the sense that unity is impossible without the abrogation of diversity) that has created the conditions for the multiple forms of racism and xenophobia that we can see (empirically) escalating in societies that have had the temerity to call themselves ‘civilised’”

    And about the book you are scrutinizing (and that i did not read): is the problem with that terrible word coconut that it is implicitly believed that outside Bangladeshi should mean inside Muslim, where you suggest that outside Bangladeshi can go well with inside Muslim as well as inside atheist or Christian or whatsoever without making the c – word acceptable? Do I understand well that Shaha accepts the epitheton because he somehow changed identity – and so accepts the c-word as applicable? He then still would see the identity of Bagladeshi and Muslim to be one. Islam being a missionary religion from the outset this cannot hold because the Muslim inside should be in harmony with many different cultural ‘colours’.
    Maybe the problem has to do with what one considers to be her or his identity? How the layers of the fruit we happen to be created into, relate: outside, inside, skin, flesh and juice – tree and fruit, environment and care, rain and sunshine? There are I would say many more than two, and even a coconut has its juice.

    Great how you dig into some of these at first sight self-evident remarks by Shaha, and very important that you bring your criticism of the Enlightment and its racism in. In our country you might know we ‘indigenous’ are still learning to see ourselves as people of colour (being white – for as much our skin is white in comparison to other people’s skin tone) instead of having – differently from all others because we were the only normal – ‘no colour’ (you know the Southafrican word Blankes, that is what we use to say in Dutch, ‘blanken’). We used to be in the position of the observer (just like men would treat women as a different kind than ‘normal man’), and the perpetrator of course. That has a certain analogy in the Enlightment, I guess, being so stubbornly sure of itself, self-evident.

    Bye from Holland!

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