Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Should we drop the term "Muslim World"?

Here is an interesting article in the Washington Post that argues against using the term "Muslim World" (tip RNS blog). Giving advice to Obama, Parag Khanna writes,
Just as there has not been any meaningful "Christian world" since the Holy Roman Empire, there has been no unified "Islamic world" since the Middle Ages. For centuries thereafter, Turks, Persians and Arabs squabbled over ideological hegemony. Sunni versus Shiite is just one of Islam's divides today, reminding the world that the faith has no supreme authority to which all believers adhere. By using the term "Muslim world," we only elevate the likes of Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden, whose rhetoric turns archaic Islamist fantasies into self-fulfilling prophecies. Speaking to all Muslims is speaking to none of them.
This is an interesting approach. It got me thinking about our own work on the reception of evolution in the Muslim world - or for that matter, Islamic creationism. Is this a valid approach? I think it works - as long as we highlight (which we always try to do) the cultural diversity inhabiting the Muslim world. In fact, sorting out the commonalities and differences tell us a lot about individual countries and of their influence to and from Islam. Second, the importance of religion features quite highly in almost all Muslim majority countries (and also in Muslim diaspora). Thus, I think, it is reasonable to assume certain key cultural factors shaped by religion - and sometimes treating these countries as a collective. The existence of Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) - a collection of 57 countries - further underscores this point and shows how these countries see themselves.

What about the term Latin America? We know that they are quite different individually. However, it is also often useful to talk about them as a collective. While many (all?) of them are strongly Christian, the dominant identity is shaped by their Latin heritage (though, that in itself is shaped by Christianity). In the same way, I think, many Muslim countries may be geographically separated - but their dominant identity is shaped by Islam. This is not the case for all Muslim majority countries and there are indeed some strong exceptions: Former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan, or some non-Arab African Muslim countries. However, I don't think we loose individual identity of countries when we use the term Muslim world any more than when we use the term Latin America.

Yes, as mentioned in the article, there are some political disadvantages in using the term Muslim world by the US. But there are some advantages too. After all, Obama can claim (and he does) to have a connection to the whole Muslim world through his Kenyan father and from his stay in the largest Muslim country by population, Indonesia. So, I'm not convinced by the argument presented in the article even from a purely political perspective. Overall, I think this is an excellent example of the tension between identity, culture, and the idea of nation states. The term Muslim world has its pros and cons. The key point is to realize the diversity that underlie the umbrella term of Muslim world.

In any case, read the full WP article here. My disagreement aside, it is an interesting idea.


ungtss said...

I agree with you. The term is useful within a certain realm, but can also be misused to overgeneralize. However, the fact that a term is misused does not invalidate the use of the term. The word "Tall" may mean any number of things, and it would be absurd to assume that "tall" meant only one particular height -- yet it's still a useful term when speaking in generalities.

One should be precise in how one means it, though. Majority of the population subscribes to the religion? Then Europe is certainly not the "Christian world." State religion? Then Turkey is certainly not "Muslim world." Universal belief? Then there is no "Muslim world" or "Christian world."

The problem is imprecise use of the term, not the term itself.

Marina said...

Ungtss, your second paragraph is very well-put. But I would argue that the precise definition of the term "Muslim world" is less important than the understanding behind it. The term becomes dangerous when it is used as a blanket statement, when people start thinking of Turkey and the UAE as being essentially the same country. But that problem will not be solved by a more precise definition of the Muslim world, nor by the abandonment of the phrase; xenophobia will not be cured by semantics. What is necessary is, as Salman suggests, an understanding of the subtleties of Egypt compared to Pakistan compared to Guyana compared to Palestine, and the realization that they may have many similarities but also many differences. If this was understood not only by world leaders but also by its citizens, I think the phrase "Muslim world" would be as close to harmless as anything wielded by humankind could be.

In response to the original article, I shudder to think what people would come up with to replace that phrase.

ungtss said...

Good point, good point. I understood you to mean that "the solution" (to xenophobia) lies in understanding the subtleties between the countries. I'm interested in how this would work. Does failure to note subtleties lead to xenophobia, or does xenophobia lead to a failure to note subtleties? Seems to me it's usually the latter -- Islam is a whole is so foreign and scary that people push it away from their minds, never bothering to investigate the subtleties. The forest is so terrifying they can't even see the trees.

But as you said, semantics is not the answer to xenophobia. In my opinion, the only solution for xenophobia is daily contact with the normal healthy specimins of the group you fear. Geography makes this naturally difficult, of course. Politics doesn't help either.

My only point about precision was that the article is arguing that we should get rid of the term, and I don't see any point in that -- but it would be nice if we knew exactly what we were saying when we referred to "the Muslim world." Do we really? I don't think we do.

Robin said...

The term will be used, abused, appropriated, misappropriated, misused by many -- that's the nature of language and culture. The WP piece is an opinion piece, not truly a story the way journalists refer to stories (news). For the writer's purposes, the term "Muslim world" is useless, but it's clearly useful to others, some of whom are Muslims and I question advocating hard for taking a cultural/community term away from anyone. My question is what are the intentions of those using the term "Muslim world" and what do they mean by it. Probably hard to pin down, but just because it's inaccurate, imprecise, historically wrong, doesn't make it a bad term. It's a cultural object and people will make use of it (see 'queer'; see 'n*****'; or its successor that I hear is circulating in NYC now -- 'president.') I agree it's interesting to learn how people make sense of the term and that it's helpful to me when people make clear what they mean when they use it. Like many cultural terms, is it not a beautiful mess? Is there a defensiveness to the WP essay, which is also useful for provoking this discussion?

Salman Hameed said...

Is there a defensiveness to the WP essay, which is also useful for provoking this discussion?I guess the WP piece is following the logic of changing the name of "war on terror" to "overseas contingency operation" or OCO :)

But I think you have raised an interesting point about who owns a particular term and who gets to use it or not? So if Muslims are happy with "Muslim world" with all its messiness, should the State department decide - umm....no, we won't use it. Of course it is easier to reverse course with newer phrases - like "war on terror". Or even the short-lived Af-Pak - referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, both countries were offended by being lumped with the other.

By the way, Muslims were also called Muhammadans - I think back in the 19th and early 20th century. But I think this was used primarily by the west and not by Muslims themselves. In any case, here is a case of shifting the term - but this is different than the justification provided by the WP article.

Don said...

Salman, you're right about the use of Mohammadans-- it looks like a Victorian/Colonial term. It even pops up in William James' writings.

Wait... what am I doing here? Back to div III.

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