I'm a Muslim who spends a lot of time on Twitter. Too much time, according to pretty much everyone. When I signed up in 2012 things on the site were fairly bland – you'd retweet the news, make some comments on the news, DM the Guardian to ask for an unpaid internship and maybe call a footballer a dickhead.
Twitter, as you know, really isn't like that any more. And if you're not a straight white guy, a Trump supporting bot or a brand, you'll probably have experienced the darker, more vindictive side of Twitter. If you happen to be a Muslim on Twitter in 2016, it's fairly likely that alongside being called a "cuck" you'll have also been called a rapist, paedophile, terrorist or some fun combination of the three. I've got lots of Muslim friends who've left the site after receiving non-stop abuse, while others tend to limit how much they say about their faith. Last year, one of my good friends, who wears a hijab, decided to stop posting about politics and now just tweets about Naruto.
Trolling has always been a fundamental part of the internet, but recently it's become unavoidable. President-elect Donald Trump is venerated as the world's "Greatest troll", reigning victorious over an army of Pepe the Frog avatars in their ongoing tirade against liberal journalists, transgender people and, most recently, the Kellogg's company for its decision to stop advertising on right-wing website Breitbart. Meanwhile, spend 10 minutes on UK Twitter and you're bound to find an anonymous egg called "PatriotChurchill2651" screaming about how "Brexit means Brexit" and how no one can say Merry Christmas any more because everyone's turned Muslim.
This brings me to a situation on Twitter last week that garnered a bit more attention than I expected: my interactions with Raheem Kassam, editor of Breitbart UK, the British branch of the pro-Trump, climate change-denying site beloved by the alt-right. Earlier this year Raheem ran for UKIP leader for a couple of weeks before quitting the race and getting back to his website and its crusade against a children's cereal company. Outside of Westminster politics, Raheem's largely known for being provocative and confrontational on Twitter.
Raheem and I have a lot in common. We both err toward the lower end of the five-foot mark, we both wear roundish glasses and neither of us look particularly good on camera. Oh, and we both have gentrified accents. And we're both of east African Asian Muslim heritage. The similarities are apparently so uncanny that the last time I was in Westminster I was called a "UKIP cunt" by a passerby, which is why I'll never wear a poppy in public again.
But how could I get in contact with Raheem to start building bridges? Ordinary tweets wouldn't work; just look on his Twitter feed and see how he treats anyone who doesn't have a Union Jack avatar. So I did what any good immigrant adhering to British values would do. I sent a series of humorous tweets his way, in the hope of breaking the ice.
Sadly, Raheem didn't take too kindly to this, or, indeed, any of my other pleas to him. So he did what anyone following his Twitter feed knows he'd do. He called me an Islamist because I once spent two weeks working at a Muslim TV channel, before suggesting I was a shill for Iran. Which is true.
His shit tweets were favourited by more anonymous Pepe avatars than usual – but it turned out that Raheem, editor of a website that – according to its own tech writer, Milo Yiannopoulos – prides itself on "doing satire" simply wasn't very good at it. In the end, after more people on Twitter joined in on the joke that Raheem was in fact my cousin, he did what any anti-safe space, free speech warrior would do: he blocked us all and left this message:
My encounter with Raheem was short-lived and surreal, but it did illustrate something poignant about the times we live in. Twitter isn't a place for rational conversation, despite the hopes it might have been. As a result, anyone who tries to take on the new band of "alt-right" trolls through reasonable discussion is likely to fail, buried under a thousand anonymous avatars calling you a cuck.
But that doesn't mean these guys aren't vulnerable. If anything, the resurgence of the proto-nationalist right is fragile, divided and fuelled by a form of weird identity politics. And as the first few weeks of President-elect Trump shows, despite purporting the absurd, they still yearn to feel important, authoritative and respected. The challenge for any liberal commentator, writer or tweeter, in 2017 will be to go beyond the confines of respectful and dignified rhetoric and embrace their own uncomfortable, absurdist language to take on these trolls – at least until they've blocked you.
As for the future of mine and Raheem's relationship? I'm not too sure, but if you're reading this, cousin, please come home. The ras malai's almost ready to eat.
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