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Avoiding the monolithic Islam and Muslim

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    Avoiding the monolithic Islam and Muslim

    The below are excerpts from one of my term papers related to Islam. Obviously, I don't expect you all would agree with the opinions expressed. I would appreciate any constructive critic/follow up on them.

    Avoiding the monolithic Islam and Muslim:
    How this false imagery gets into our perception and how can we avoid it


    One important characteristic of this particular imagery is, it is ubiquitous, uniform, and unchanging for the whole Muslim demography of more than a billion people around the globe. On the contrary, when critically contrasted with the reality, this imagery turns out to be quite unrealistic and stereotypical. Nonetheless, it is so wide spread and deeply rooted in what Edward Said calls Western Orientalist discourse (Said, Orientalism) that the general people are unable to distinguish them from the reality. There are various dimensions of this whole Orientalism project (for e.g. its formation, structure, dynamics, and utility) and each requires detailed attention. I have selected a particular dimension of this project for my present study: How this false perception about Muslims and Islam develops in the mind an average American individual. News media is the major source where people get information about Islamic religion and Muslim cultures, and it is from this source where they form their perception about them. Therefore, I would more specifically concentrate on the influence of news media in the formation of this inaccurate perception, simultaneously discussing: how can one avoid getting this inaccurate perception.

    Unfortunately, Muslims and Islam are mostly discussed in American media in times of political crisis, whether this may be the bomb in Saudi Arabia or the hostage crisis in Iran, the threat of violence against the United States from Al-Qaida or the killing of an American journalist in Pakistan. A viewer, therefore, gets only a fragmented image of what Muslims and Islam are from the media, which probably is his only source of information. The viewer otherwise is generally unaware of the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures.

    At other times, news media covers events in countries with significant Muslim population as something solely nationalistic or cultural phenomena such as “Irani” Film festival or “Pakistani” Music Band. The viewer gets a misleading impression that these have nothing to do with Islam in those countries. An average observer therefore is not able to see that they (art, music) are coexisting with dominantly Islamic system and is unaware of the role Islam has played in their promotion. Yet, when news media tries to cover Islamic characteristics in these countries, because of its capitalistic nature, it is more interested in finding what audience might find different, uncommon (in West), and exotic. The audience too expects this view because of their already developed taste from Arabian Nights and Aladdin. No surprise, then to the general audience Islam and Islamic laws mean just “Islamic prohibitions” and “Islamic punishments”. However, not to forget the relatively objective efforts by news sources like PBS and NPR in presenting more accurate imagery of Muslims and Islam, but as Said points out, these have been ineffective in balancing the large corpus of negativity coming from other corporate news sources (Said, Covering Islam 16).

    This incomprehensive and blur imagery essentially poses a threat to an individual’s security, and his/her need for security demands that his/her enemies and friends be clearly identified. Therefore, instead of placing specific events in the framework of a complicated chain of reasoning, he/she tends to reduce the whole complexities of Islamic religion and Muslim cultures into simple, “easily comprehensible categories-good and bad, beautiful and dangerous, desirable and repulsive” (Progler), where Muslims are “the other” and polar opposite to “us”, and if “us” be good “the other” has to be evil.
    The corporate news media also seems to be very comfortable with this “the other” business. They are there to sell whatever is fit to sell or using the New York Times manifesto “Whatever is fit to print” in their information business. Now, if they can sell security and comfort to people by making convenient, simplistic, and consequently belligerent reductionism to present a clearly identified and easily comprehendible evil, they would efficiently do it, and people would buy it. After the tragic event of Sep 11, no wonder then we see many media discussions with the topic: “Why They Hate Us.” This labeled all the billion Muslims (including the one residing in the United States) and Arabs (which also consist non-Muslims) to be polar “the other”, as perpetrators, as people who hate America and therefore a constant threat to the America and its people.


    My contention is not argue, who is right and who is wrong above and whether any of them are justified in whatever he/she is or does, or what is Islam’s position on these particular issues and events. My plea is that all Muslims couldn’t be objectively and justifiably considered in the same monolithic imagery. And not all the actions done by Muslims are necessarily Islamic therefore to blame Islam. My request is to be critically conscious in our way of seeing Muslims and Islam. My concern is to make my readers aware of monolithic perception we get from media due to fragmentation and reductionism, to evade the unnecessary threat we feel from them in general and the stereotypes for all Muslims being lecherous, fanatics, uncivilized, greedy, and mean people.


    In its course of promulgation around the globe, in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and America, Islam has gone through cultural processes of diffusion, amalgamation, and assimilation into the regional local cultures. Those local cultures had their own history, languages, belief system, values, traits, and norms. The local cultural knowledge and Islamic belief system in these cultural processes get mixed into each other and at many places to such an extent that people themselves couldn’t distinguish them. Many local traits in these cultures, today, are practiced as Islam. Such as female circumcision used to be practiced in Sub-Saharan African countries including Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Chad before Islam came in there and is still practiced there, appallingly, under the label of Islam, which Islam strictly prohibits. (“Position”)

    It is true that in its philosophy Islam is a comprehensive system of life that is suppose to regulate all the individual and social aspects of its followers. And it does have that potential. However, appallingly, the current Muslim practices and cultures are very far from the original teachings of Islam. Why is it so, I reserve this discussion for a separate study. The bottom line is, the present Muslim society is very different from the Ideal society in Islamic vision. This refutes any provocative notion of clash of Islamic civilization with Western civilization because it is simply not justifiable to characterize the whole of Muslim population, “which numbers a billion people, and includes dozens of countries, societies, traditions, languages, and, of course, an infinite number of different experiences” (Said, Covering Islam xvi) into monolithic Islamic civilization.

    Today, we see sporadic surges for “revial of Islam” in different parts of the world. But except at few places, the extremist and irrational approach generally adopted by their proponents, these movements couldn’t embrace support from the majority of the Muslim population. And, the reality remains what Said aptly points out: “ “Islam” defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world, … It is simply false to try to trace all this back to something called “Islam”…” (Said, Covering Islam xvi).

    Moreover, there is need to understand the interest of people in power who use Islam to legitimize their misdeeds, and Said again points out the difference between Islam and Muslims: “The fact is that in many—too many—Islamic societies repression, the abrogation of personal freedoms, unrepresentative and often minority regimes, are either falsely legitimated or casuistically explained with reference to Islam, which is doctrinally as blameless in this regard as any other of the great universal religions” (Said, Covering Islam1vi).

    After understanding the difference between Islam and the Muslim cultures, the next reality to be aware of is the plurality in Muslim cultures. One should be aware of the differences in the perception of Islam and practice of Islam in different Muslim cultures keeping in consideration the assimilation of Islamic teachings into local beliefs and practice. It will be then more comprehendible when one sees the difference, in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive car or work with males but in Iran women can, they are in parliament and the vice president there is also a woman. Interestingly, both the governments claim themselves to be Islamic (Barsamian).

    What is necessary here is, if someone wishes to know about Islam and Muslims is to be critically aware of the plurality in Muslim cultures and the difference between Islam and Muslims. The next thing to do is to refer to the first hand and original sources. That is, in addition to learning from the interpretation of a non-Muslim writer, the person should also listen to what a Muslim has to say about him/herself and his/her religion. Instead of picking up a strand and judging it from our ethnocentric standards, we should try to understand Islam and Muslims terms of their value system. Ask a Muslim woman if she really feels being oppressed in her veil.

    One cannot expect a society to be serene and prosperous if its member fear and mistrust each other. Avoiding a monolithic Islam and Muslim and thus evading the stereotypes and prejudices created out of it is therefore very necessary. Not only for the stability and prosperity of our American pluralistic society, which has significant Muslim population, but also for the peace and harmony of our global community.

    I didn't find anything that I could disagree with. Some might argue on the details of some examples you mentioned but I am sure everyone here agrees with the overall theme of your efforts.

    If you have this published somewhere on the Web it will be good for people like myself, as I would benefit from it by sending it to my interested non-Muslim friends.

    If you don't have a website that you can post this article on but would like to post it somewhere, then you might wanna check out Muslim Writers. Or if you like, I would be more than happy to post this article on my own website.

    [This message has been edited by ahmadjee (edited May 09, 2002).]
    I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
    - Robert McCloskey


      You may not like what I have to say, but I know you are smart enough to know that atleast it is sincere.
      I truly believe that you are knocking down a strawman, that is the west has painted a negative unidimensional view of Islam and it is the narrow media that is responsible for it. I know that is a gross oversimplification of what you say, but that is the thrust.
      Regardless of whether there are many reputable thinkers in the west who view Islamic people as unidimensional or not, you simply avoid the issue whether 9/11 and its aftermath gives any cause to wonder whether it was the principles of Islam that contributed to those events or not? It is the examination of that aspect of Islam that has been placed under a microscope. 19 suicide terrorists, (or warriors ?) carried out 9/11. There has been a steady stream of suicide bombers creating havoc in Israel. Yesterday, there was suicide bombing carried out by a palestinian in Israel, and the first suicide bombing killing 15 in Karachi pakistan, and bombing in Dagestan by Chechans. All the attackers presumeably belonged to the Islamic faith.
      It is not enough to state that Islam is a peaceful religion, and not address the obvious that everyone is really wanting to know: then why is there such a violent strand within it? Why is it that you can find people (even on this site) telling you how the west is weak because it loves life, and they are strong because they crave death?

      You may have addressed these issues in your paper and just have not posted those portions. The portions you have posted, looks good. Hope you publish it.