Planet of the Muslims?

planets

“The Muslim World” – Otherizing much?

Whenever I hear expressions like “The Muslim World,” or “The Arab World,” especially when they’re used by white non-Muslims, I think of those old science-fiction serials where the title screams across the screen in scary green text, accompanied by ominous music and a male radio broadcaster voice saying “The Muslim World!”  Admittedly, I have used these descriptions in college papers and blog posts in the past. Sometimes I used them out of simplicity and other times I used them because I didn’t know of any alternatives. I prefer saying “Muslim-majority countries” when referring to groups of countries that have predominant Muslim populations, but also make it a point to critique the Orientalist stereotypes that treat Muslim-majority countries or any Muslim population as monoliths.

I don’t like terms like “The Muslim World” or “The Arab World” for a number of reasons. First, it attempts to reinforce generalizations about all Muslim-majority or Arab-majority countries. Rather than acknowledging the complexity and diversity among and within Muslim-majority societies, “The Muslim World” simplifies these differences for the sake of Orientalist narratives and stereotypes. All Muslim-majority countries, according to this label, follow the same rules, laws, norms, lifestyles, beliefs, etc. In the Orientalist imagination, it’s like one of those exoticized “New Age” shops you’d find in an American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, etc.) suburb or city, where everything that “looks Indian or Arab” is showcased and treated “as the same.” Yeah, that’s racist.

Second, the language itself is absurd. It’s too intergalactic for me. Not only are Muslims from different racial and religious backgrounds, but they might as well be a different species. The language is dehumanizing and implies that Muslims are from an entirely different world – that their beliefs and ways of life are completely alien to planet Earth. Meanwhile, western white-majority societies are made out to be the real representatives of human beings on our planet. Ever notice how western science fiction movies, novels, and comic books about alien invasions tend to have white people representing Earth (and if they’re not white, they make sure you know that they’re American citizens)? Recently, I heard a non-Muslim writer say, “You’re right, our site needs more writers from the Muslim world.” What is being said here? That a random group of Muslims who happen to be from a number of Muslim-majority countries are going to represent a  homogenous “Muslim world”? That if a Muslim writer is based in, say, Lebanon, s/he is going to be an “ambassador” of an imagined “Muslim world”? That Muslims have some kind of shared “home world”? Though sometimes these phrases are used with good intentions, it’s important that we examine the language we use (in this case, the language used to describe Islam, Muslims, and Muslim-majority countries) and understand its implications.

Lastly, I don’t like these descriptions because of the way they’re often used to fuel generalizations and stereotypes that have harmful and deadly effects on real people.  “The Muslim world is evil,” which means all Muslim-majority countries need to be monitored by the U.S., invaded, occupied, and bombed. The “Muslim world” is characterized as a “dark, treacherous, and violent” place, and this kind of racist demonization maintains white supremacy, policies like racial profiling, hate crimes, and imperialism. If you listen to the hate speech of Islamophobes in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and other countries, their hostile hatred of “Sharia law” and Muslim immigration sounds like they’re warning against an “alien invasion.” Muslims, as well as other people of color, are viewed as perpetual “threats” and “uncivilized savages” that need to be cleansed to keep Earth (i.e. the family of white nations) “pure.” Yes, people have differences, especially different realities and experiences based on factors like race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth, but I find the manner in which phrases like “Muslim world” or “Arab world” are used are often otherizing and exoticizing. It reminds me of sexist language that asserts “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus,” which likens our differences to different planets and claims that we are “stuck in our ways” due to our biology; that we will always fit gendered and racialized stereotypes; that we have always been this way.

A few months ago, I was meeting with a white male administrator at my previous university and the conversation, unsurprisingly, shifted to where I was from. He then talking about how he wanted to visit Egypt and said he wanted to learn Arabic. Then he joked and suggested that maybe I could teach him. I told him I didn’t speak Arabic, mostly because Arabic is not spoken by majority of Pakistanis. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Wait, I thought Pakistan was in the Arab world?” As many Pakistanis know, we hear this a lot, so it wasn’t utterly shocking.  It would be racist to react with disgust to his question because there’s nothing wrong with being Arab, of course, so I took a moment and then said, “No, we’re on a neighboring world. You know, the planet next to the Arab world.” There was an awkward silence and the administrator’s face went blank. Then he laughed nervously, “Oh, ha ha ha ha.” I laughed genuinely – not with him, but at him. “You see what I did there?” I asked. He nodded and then apologized because he “didn’t mean it that way.” I then proceeded to explain to him why I find that language silly and offensive. He seemed to understand and said that he would “make a note of that.”

Perhaps its a message he can deliver back to The White World, right? :)

11 thoughts on “Planet of the Muslims?

  1. Lovely post as usual from you. :) It seems these narratives have actually gotten worse. I know there’s been efforts from Muslims and non-Muslims to help dispel stereotypes, but these efforts are largely focused on Muslims who live in the West. Though what’s even more frightening is I noticed when there’s an attempt to showcase the complexities of Muslim-majority countries, there’s usually some backlash that “well that’s just showing those places in a romanticized fashion!” I hate to say it, but I don’t see this changing anytime soon. :(

    • Thank you, RenKiss! :) You’re right, I’ve seen it getting worse, too. I’ve heard those kind of responses you mentioned and it’s disturbing how people have a problem with efforts to break simplistic stereotypes.

      On another note, it’s good to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well. :)

  2. I love this post. I am a Muslim and an African american. I am asked frequently where I am from, complimented on my good diction, and have even been asked to answer questions on behalf of the “Muslim world”. Of course I can not.” I’ve been asked if I’m from “over there”. Over there must refer to that Muslim planet.
    Jokes aside it is disheartening. I have the ridiculous expectation that we, in this global community, will actually know better. I guess some of is don’t have to…

    • I know, it’s frustrating. I often get “complimented” on how “good” my English is and then get asked to answer questions about the “Muslim world.” Isn’t it annoying how we’re treated as spokespersons for over 1.2 billion Muslims in the world?

      I have that expectation for humanity too, but it can be hard sometimes.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi there! Brilliant post as usual!

    I was just thinking about how the arab/muslim world concept allows the huge diversity of people who identify as muslims, to be defined by outsiders as the same homogenous group. As you said, it makes no sense to conflate the huge cultural, material, social and political histories and contexts of more than a billion people.

    Yet the creation and repitition of this false homogeneity under the umbrella ‘Arab world’ is important in the context of 9/11 and the military actions of the US and Nato since then. Such a term enables the possiblity of making simplistic claims about ‘those people over there’ as being inferior, culturally backward or whatever other propaganda and essentialising nonsense, the media and so called political experts would like peddle. If only all muslim countries or people got along with each other and agreed about everything! Things are a lot more complicated than that, but then complicated stories are harder to sensationalize or sell!

    • Thanks for your comment, Coco! The terminology’s connection to imperialism is incredibly important and shows how language is used to reinforce those kind of attitudes. Thanks for bringing that up!

      And I totally agree, media loves to simplify and sensationalize rather than discussing complexities.

  4. At the end of the day the fact is that for all the diversity in the Muslim world, there is still the unity of basic beliefs and attitudes: All Muslims accept the hate and violence in the Quran without question or criticism and all Muslims believe that Mohammad is Allah’s greatest (and mostly last) messenger and a great moral example — in spite of the very nefarious deeds narrated in Islam’s own histories. That, my friends, make them (Muslims) a very homogeneous group on issues that count, which are not related to race, gender, nationality, language or physical abilities.

    So, instead of blaming everybody else for your troubles, Muslims should take a long, hard look at Islam’s teachings. Perhaps, who knows, maybe, they will find the source of their problems.

    Need a few hints? Ask yourselves if the hundreds of verses in the Quran that denigrate and vilify non-Muslims promote peace and harmony. Now ask if these verses may contribute to the to the way that Muslims treat non-Muslims where they dominate, or to the hostility that Non-Muslims (you know, those “lower than animal” folks) feel towards Muslims (the “best of peoples” ) Or maybe Muslims should consider the practical consequences of their devotion to a man that spent 10 years attaching his neighbors, doing things that if done by non-Muslims would be condemned relentlessly.

    or just continue to blame others for your troubles — it is so much easier. Oh yes, use fancy words when you do it.

    • You again? Seriously? How many years have you been stalking and harassing me on my blog? Do you ever stop and think about how much anti-Muslim hatred you have filled in your heart?

      I seriously find you creepy. It is extremely disturbing how you use different IP addresses to comment here. I have blocked you numerous times in the past, yet you persist in wanting to comment here.

      STOP HARASSING ME. It is sad, pathetic, and disturbing how you waste so much of your time following me around and leaving these hateful comments. Yeah, we get it, you clearly hate all Muslims, so why are you commenting here? You probably fantasize about slaughtering Muslims in your dreams and then you most likely cheer out of joy whenever you hear about hate crimes committed against Muslims.

      GET. A. LIFE. Turn inward and examine your own prejudices and hatred. You are generalizing about an entire group of people; about 1.2 BILLION people in the world. You have serious issues and this hatred is going to make things worse for you in your life. Not because people will detach from you, but it will also cause you to do harmful things. Take my advice and switch off the internet, and do the work to dig yourself out of hate.

      I have no interest in speaking with you. I’ve made that very clear over the years. STOP STALKING my blog. You’re coming off as one of those creeper types.

    • “At the end of the day the fact is that for all the diversity in the Muslim world, there is still the unity of basic beliefs and attitudes: All Christians accept the hate and violence in the Bible without question or criticism and all Christians believe that Jesus is God’s greatest (and mostly last) messenger and a great moral example — in spite of the very nefarious deeds narrated in Islam’s own histories. That, my friends, make them (Christians) a very homogeneous group on issues that count, which are not related to race, gender, nationality, language or physical abilities.

      So, instead of blaming everybody else for your troubles, Christians should take a long, hard look at Christianity’s teachings. Perhaps, who knows, maybe, they will find the source of their problems.

      Need a few hints? Ask yourselves if the hundreds of verses in the Bible that denigrate and vilify non-Judeo-Christians promote peace and harmony. Now ask if these verses may contribute to the to the way that Christians treat non-Christians where they dominate, or to the hostility that Non-Christians (you know, those “lower than animal” folks) feel towards Christians (the “best of peoples” ) Or maybe Christians should consider the practical consequences of their devotion to a man that spent 10 years attaching[sic] his neighbors, doing things that if done by non-Christians would be condemned relentlessly.

      or just continue to blame others for your troubles — it is so much easier. Oh yes, use fancy words when you do it.”

      Funny how this post is exactly as accurate when you change the religion of the targets.
      You’re welcome to stop generalizing, stereotyping & bearing false witness any time, kactuz.

      Signed,
      A non-bigoted non-Muslim

  5. Hi. I’ve definitely been guilty of using the term “Muslim world” or at least thinking in this way. I plan on stopping by again to learn more and to remind myself that 1.2 billion people are too many in number to take such shortcuts in describing in just a sentence or two.

    I’m earning an MFA in Creative Writing and worked with other students to create a mock anthology of writers from all over the world writing in prose. I was very surprised at how hard it was to find fiction written by writers from countries in the Middle East and South Asia.

    In the anthologies of short fiction I did find, I was surprised to find that many of the writers included were not Muslim and that sectarian concerns were minimal. Researching one project for one class does not make for a very broad education, though, does it?

    Can you recommend a novel or two by writers, Muslim or not, who might help reinforce the idea that the Middle East and South Asia are as varied as any other region of the world?

    I’m also interested in reading poetry from “other” parts of the world. I do believe that the more “other” material you read, the more “us” there is and the less “other.” My only experience to date is with the translations of Rumi and Hafiz made by Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky.

    Thanks.

    • There is an enormous number of fiction writers in the Middle East and South Asia. Most of their work is not translated into English, so maybe that’s why you’re having a lot of difficulty.

      Read “Orientalism” by Edward Said. One of the most important books written about the racist misrepresentation, exoticism, and demonization of Islam and Muslims.

      Poets I personally recommend, aside from Rumi and Hafez, are Bulleh Shah, Zeb-un-Nisa, Baba Farid, Sultan Bahu, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Rabia Al-Adawiyyah, Mahsati Ganjavi, Mirza Ghalib. Also, the “translations” by Coleman Barks are inaccurate and misrepresent Rumi. Barks does not speak a word of Farsi and he is notoriously known for deliberately omitting Islamic references from Rumi’s poems. Read these important critiques (which also recommend accurate translations):

      http://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/corrections_popular.html

      http://omidsafi.religionnews.com/2013/03/02/facebook-rumi-how-a-muslim-mystic-became-a-popular-meme/

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