Required class: Islam 101

Required class: Islam 101

There’s been a lot of talk about Muslims and Islam in the media lately, with the reprinting of the Danish cartoons. We can debate what the newspaper’s intentions were, but for whatever reasons the newspaper decided to reprint the cartoon, one thing is clear and that is those cartoons were not only offensive to radical or fundamental Muslims but also to the moderate Muslim majority.

Now what does that mean? We will now go into what I like to call Islam 101. This is very necessary considering the shortage of maps in the U.S. and the fact that mostly people do not even know basic facts about non-Western peoples and countries. In the same way that Africa is not a country but rather a continent of 53 countries of people who do not speak African but instead over 2,000 different languages. The Muslim world is not homogeneous. Muslims do not all live in the Middle East, and all Middle Easterners are not Muslims and Arab. This is just the basics, not including economic, social, linguistic and cultural differences in the “Muslim World.”

Now when you think “Muslim,” what image pops into your head? I can’t assume what you’re thinking, but the images shown by the media revolve around turbans, camels, violent mobs, bombs and terrorists. Now let’s use some real facts to be able to envision the real Muslim world. One-fifth of the world population shares Islam as an ethical tradition, and Muslims are the majority in 57 nations. The world’s largest Muslim population resides in Indonesia with over 200 million. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India account for another 400 million Muslims. Over 100 million Muslims live in Turkey and the Turkic Central Asian republics, well over 100 million Muslims are Chinese and Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for several-hundred million Muslims. Over 50 countries of the world have Muslim majority populations. And nearly one-third of the world’s Muslims live as minorities, for instance in Europe, North America and Latin America. It is important to note that the world’s fastest growing Muslim populations are found in Europe and the United States where they are the second or third largest religious communities.

Islam is first and foremost a religion based on monotheism. It is a part of the Abrahamic tradition along with Judaism and Christianity. Its prophets are the same as those of its monotheistic counterparts, as are its basic teachings and values. But Islam as a religion is organized primarily on the basis of law. Like Judaism, it places more emphasis on practice than on doctrine. Interestingly, in fact, Jews and Muslims observe very similar laws concerning diet, cleanliness or purity and marriage, among other things.

However, Islamic law is also diverse. Muslims are also extremely diverse in terms of culture and ethnicity. Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, African, European, Euro-American, Latino, African-American are all highly distinct cultures. What is more, no individual culture is monolithic. Every cultural family manifests differences between urban and rural societies, for instance, and between wealthy and poor, and educated and uneducated. Take the case of Pakistan. The country has nearly 150-million people, representing several distinct ethnicities and languages, two-thirds of whom are illiterate and the majority of whom live in rural conditions, many at the level of bare subsistence. Yet Pakistan has also produced one of the Muslim world’s three female prime ministers alongside Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Perhaps nowhere is the diversity of Islam more evident than in the United States. The first mosque in America was built in Maine in 1919 by Eastern European Muslims, and since that time the population of Muslims has increased steadily. Part of the increase of Muslim population results from immigration; American Muslims come from around the globe and therefore include Sunnis, Shias and Sufis. But the American Muslim population also includes many converts from the Euro-American, Latin American and African-American populations. Within the African-American Muslim population, as well, there is unique diversity. The vast majority of African-American Muslims follow mainstream Sunni teachings and practice. A minority, however, are members of a uniquely American approach to Islam that are represented by the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam offers its followers a view of humanity and divinity that is rejected by most Muslims due to its apparent lack of egalitarianism and monotheism.

Perhaps more significant than all the ethnic, cultural, legal and sectarian diversity within Islam, however, is its ideological diversity. Like all religious communities, Islam encompasses people whose views range from extremely traditional to fundamentalist to mystical to highly progressive. While all Americans know there are Muslims who rationalize their terrorism through religion, few are aware that the vast majority of Muslims utterly condemn terrorism. There are Muslims who condemn homosexuality, and there are Muslim gay-rights activists. There are Muslims who condemn family planning and those who support it. In short, as in any international religious community with multiple millions of adherents, there is little upon which all Muslims agree beyond the most basic tenet of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Taking all of these facts into account, it is clear that the media has been misrepresenting Islam. If Indonesia, a country in Southeast Asia, holds the largest Muslim population of any country, why is it that we almost never hear about Indonesia in the news when Islam and Muslims are being discussed? Why is it that we hear all this talk about the incompatibility of Islam with democracy but never hear about the democratically elected female leader of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, or Turkey which is seen as the most “Western” nation in the Muslim world? Even Pakistan, which is seen as radical and fundamentalist, elected Benazir Bhutto multiple times as Prime Minister. Could it be because that is not what the typical ethnocentric image of a Muslim, as backwards, camel-riding and female-oppressing, is? The Arab world is not synonymous with the Muslim World, even though that is what we see in the media. If anything, the media is doing a disservice to the world, creating more alienation and animosity in the third world by depicting Muslim people, their cultures and religions in a way that is simply inaccurate, simplistic and sometimes, as was the case with the Danish cartoons, completely offensive.

Sada Farah is a Massachusetts Daily Collegian columnist.