Muslims and Non-Muslims Breaking Silence and Bread: James Fallows on Individual Idiosyncracies and Large Group Traits

At the Atlantic’s website this week, James Fallows cautions against making hasty generalizations about Muslims:

It is just as possible to say what typifies “Muslims” as it is to say what typifies all Indians, or all Chinese, or all of the world’s Christians. Each of these is a grouping of roughly a billion people, and each has some similarities but far more dramatic internal differences. (James Earl Ray, Desmond Tutu: both Christians. Discuss.) Most Americans know that about “Christians,” and may have some growing awareness when it comes to “Chinese” or “Indians.” But a lot of Americans lack the individual awareness of the variety within Islam — and think that the violent, hateful, dangerous parts define “the Muslims” as a whole.

And he makes a crucial distinction:

[A]ll of life is on a spectrum of individual idiosyncracies and large group traits. We’re each our own person, but we’re all marked to some degree by the categories that contain us. Yes, I am a unique and special and independent thinker! But I’m also an American, a male, a white person, a dreaded Baby Boomer, a member of the dreaded and doomed media, a parent, a rich person compared with most of the world, etc. Along this spectrum, one obvious truth is that the more populous the category, the less it tells you about any individual within it. Yes, “men” are all a certain way. But there are three billion of us, and Kim Jong-Il doesn’t have that much in common with Lance Armstrong — or either of them with Benedict XVI or Stephen Hawking or Lil Wayne. Another obvious truth is that the less contact you have with individuals, the more you necessarily rely on group traits — or stereotypes – for your images.

Fallows’s two categories—individual idiosyncracies and large group traits—convinces me that my intuition about trying to start International Have a Meal with a Muslim Day, in which individual Muslims and non-Muslims take the initiative, at least once a year, to meet for coffee, a walk, or a meal is right. As Fallows puts it:

[T]he less contact you have with individuals, the more you necessarily rely on group traits — or stereotypes – for your images.

Fallows also makes another startling observation:

I grew up in a town with a very large Latino population. So whenever I hear some statement about “the Mexicans,” I listen about possible group traits but I also know my friends Chris, Hank, Yolanda, etc in their individuality. I also grew up with many gay friends –but wasn’t aware until years later that I had done so. It was only from college age onward that I had lots of friends who were out as gays, which inevitably affected my view of “the gays” and made me wince in recalling the standard thoughtlessly cruel high school jokes about “the fags.” One reason opposition to same-sex marriage is sure to disappear is that straight Americans born after about 1980 have always been aware of having gay friends and can barely fathom the “threat” posed by their right to marry. (For proof, see here.)

In other words, James Fallows is suggesting that lack of communication between individual Muslims and non-Muslims in a community is akin to the gay closet: silence defaults to stereotype. Muslim and non-Muslim dialogue can thus be seen as a form of human liberation and empowerment. And Fallows offers his own experience interacting with Muslims throughout his lifetime as a source of perspective on the so-called clash of civilizations:

By chance, like the (Hindu) reader I quoted yesterday, I’ve had a lot of Muslim friends over the years. They’re from outside the country [that is, the United States], thanks to our years of living in (Muslim-majority) Malaysia, where our house was near a mosque, and visits to my wife’s parents when they lived in (overwhelmingly Muslim) Indonesia. They’re [also] from inside the country [that is, the United States]– mainly immigrants or children of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Xinjiang/China, and elsewhere. They have as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I do. So when I hear that “Muslims worship violence” or “Muslim life is cheap,” I think this is either ignorance or bigotry, and it’s claptrap in either case.

Fallows also reminds us that peaceful interaction between people from very different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds is part of the genius of Jeffersonian America:

The real secret of American inclusion through the generations is that when you grow up with, work with, live next to, intermarry with, and in all other ways get to know people from different categories, you have less patience for generalizations about “the blacks” or “the Irish” or “the Jews” or “the gays” or “trailer trash” etc.

I would put what Fallows is saying this way: Jeffersonian America—the “American Experiment”—is a real-time demonstration of the correctness of the three premises that underpin the Anglo-French Enlightenment:

  • humans beings have more in common than not in common;
  • one is a rational individual first, a group member second; and
  • we need not be opaque to one another.

But the problem is that, with regard to Muslims, the American Experiment is not quite complete, for there are a lot of non-Muslim Americans who do not, in fact, know any Muslims, or only observe them from a distance. They’ve never worked with a Muslim, or grown up with one, or been to a mosque, or shared a cup of coffee with one. This is why I think that we, as individuals, need to take the bull by the horns and initiate a conscious effort to arrange contact and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in our communities as a way of forwarding the American Experiment. 

And because suspicion, paranoia, and fear of the “other,” given the proclivities of the human psyche, must surely go in both directions, individuals must step forward from both sides to bring down the wall. If you’re Muslim, you should think about reaching out to non-Muslims: having them over to your house for dinner, for example. And if you’re a non-Muslim, you might consider doing the same. Isn’t this exactly what Muhammad and Jesus, in your highest ideal of them, would do?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Muslims and Non-Muslims Breaking Silence and Bread: James Fallows on Individual Idiosyncracies and Large Group Traits

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    A great post – thank you for that. In my case partly an age (similar) thing, but he also speaks directly to a number of parallels(substituting blacks and jews for latinos and muslims) during the first half of my life spent in southern Africa .


  2. santitafarella says:


    I’m glad you liked the post.

    Like you, I think what Fallows is saying is really important.


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