Nikola Tesla, the Serbian- American inventor best known for his experiments with electricity, has been “revealed” as a Muslim.
The claim, which comes from a prominent Serbian mufti, has electrified – pun intended – the wider Balkans over the past few weeks, with eulogies and angry denunciations littering social media. Whether or not it is true, the claim is being treated as true. More importantly, and of greater concern, this small detail of Tesla’s biography is being treated, more than half a century after his death, as if it were a decisive part of his career.
Tesla led a dramatic life. But in recent years he’s acquired cult status among young, internet-savvy users, especially in geek subculture. It isn’t clear why he’s been adopted as a hero – perhaps it has something to do with a feeling that Tesla was marginalised by the less intelligent but more business-savvy Thomas Edison, a feeling that resonates in geek subculture.
His new status as a hero is reflective of the modern era. But so too is this focus and fascination with his religion.
Faith, and in particular Islam, holds an unusual position in public discourse at this moment – a position, I am certain, we will look back on in perhaps a generation as a moment of collective madness, a sort of McCarthyism for the 21st century.
This collective madness, this mania for interrogating, suspecting and blaming Islam for so many of the ills of the modern world is one of those historical events borne out of a confluence of domestic and geopolitics, society and culture. It is quite unique to this moment in history, just as Communist witch-hunts in 1950s America were specific to their time.
Yet what is most fascinating about this particular drama is that many of the leading players don’t appear to realise what a period piece they are acting in. Those who earn a living by suspecting people based on their faith appear unable to reflect that they are doing exactly what was done a few years ago. Forgetting the past, they are dooming all of us to repeat it.
Take one well-known example. When people like the former scientist Richard Dawkins say they are surprised at how few Muslims have won Nobel Prizes, people seek to defend him – even though he doubtless has a similarly conspiratorial explanation for why so few women and so few black people have won Nobel Prizes.
Read more about the war of ideas in the Middle East:
That’s what’s interesting about this new racism – it purports to be about religion, but it is really about the old-fashioned assertion of privilege and assumption of superiority. Dawkins today is attacking Muslims – but a few short years ago, he would have been attacking black people or women, were it socially acceptable. An old racism returns in new clothes.
It is not merely the West, however, that is gripped by this mania. The Arab world is, too. The region may not have caught the mania for interrogating Islam, but it has certainly bought the idea that sect matters.
The idea of a Sunni-Shia schism, the idea that someone’s sect is an important element of their biography and that, worse, has a role in understanding their motivations, has reappeared with startling ferocity in the region.
Just like the new McCarthyism that the West is living through, this sectarian lens has come about because of a unique political and social context. The shattering of old expectations and certainties, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and stretching through the Arab Spring, and the rise of Iran, have created fertile ground for old suspicions to resurface. But, again, as with the West, those who believe in the sectarian lens appear to have short memories.
Do the centuries – centuries! – of Sunni-Shia coexistence, intermarriage and, even better, ignorance of the sects of friends and colleagues, mean nothing?
It is one thing to recognise the reality of Iranian influence in the Middle East and see how the Shia faith, of which Iran is a leading centre, is used as an entrepôt and identity marker. But far too many, particularly in the online space but tragically also in person, believe it to be real, and ask about people’s sects as if that tells them something of value.
Which brings us all the way back to Tesla and his apparent Islamic faith. If you believe his supporters, it was Islam that made him such a great scientist – though they struggle to explain the many millions of Muslim scientists who live and have lived, some of whom were and are mediocre. His detractors face the same problem: they argue he couldn’t have been Muslim because he was such a good scientist – forgetting, too, the millions of Muslim scientists.
The fact is that Tesla’s temperament and his science were influenced by many factors – some of which, like religion and politics – he was born into, and others, such as being an immigrant in America, he grew into.
The idea that Tesla’s faith, which he appears to have made little of in public, is the defining element of his life is simplistic. Like his scientific discoveries, Tesla, like all human beings, was too complex for simple answers.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai