March 31, 2009

CSM: Ten Terms Not to Use with Muslims

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on ten terms not to use with Muslims. I am including the ten terms in the excerpt below, plus the second paragraph, the second sentence of which I think is very important to remember. More below.

I have learned much from my Muslim friends, foremost this: Political disagreements come and go, but genuine respect for each other, rooted in our respective faith traditions, does not. If there is no respect, there is no relationship, merely a transactional encounter that serves no one in the long term.

...

1. "The Clash of Civilizations." Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. There is no clash of civilizations, only a clash between those who are for civilization, and those who are against it. Civilization has many characteristics but two are foundational: 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.

2. "Secular." The Muslim ear tends to hear "godless" with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.

3. "Assimilation." This word suggests that the minority Muslim groups in North America and Europe need to look like the majority, Christian culture. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another amid the public square of a shared society.

4. "Reformation." Muslims know quite well, and have an opinion about, the battle taking place within Islam and what it means to be an orthodox and devout Muslim. They don't need to be insulted by suggesting they follow the Christian example of Martin Luther. Instead, ask how Muslims understand ijtihad, or reinterpretation, within their faith traditions and cultural communities.

5. "Jihadi." The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one's spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating "just war" when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting "jihadis," we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public's – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.

6. "Moderate." This ubiquitous term is meant politically but can be received theologically. If someone called me a "moderate Christian," I would be deeply offended. I believe in an Absolute who also commands me to love my neighbor. Similarly, it is not an oxymoron to be a mainstream Muslim who believes in an Absolute. A robust and civil pluralism must make room for the devout of all faiths, and none.

7. "Interfaith." This term conjures up images of watered-down, lowest common denominator statements that avoid the tough issues and are consequently irrelevant. "Multifaith" suggests that we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.

8. "Freedom." Unfortunately, "freedom," as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. "Freedom" is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.

9. "Religious Freedom." Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.

10. "Tolerance." Tolerance is not enough. Allowing for someone's existence, or behavior, doesn't build the necessary relationships of trust – across faiths and cultures – needed to tackle the complex and global challenges that our civilization faces. We need to be honest with and respect one another enough to name our differences and commonalities, according to the inherent dignity we each have as fellow creations of God called to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.

Of the ten terms, I agree very strongly with numbers 2 through 6 (Secular, Assimilation, Reformation, Jihadi, Moderate); also, with number 9, Religious Freedom. Here's why:

  • "Secular" - To a Muslim, there is very little positive about this word. I've heard many non-Muslims complain over time that there must be some secular Muslims out there somewhere, not knowing that "secular Muslim" is a contradiction in terms. A Muslim does not lead a secular life; if only non-Muslims knew how often the name of God passes a Muslim's lips. About to start up the car? Bismillah! Just burped? Alhamdulillah! Something wonderful just happened? Masha'allah! Not sure if something's going to happen? Insha'allah! To be a Muslim means to lead a religious life; if non-Muslims can accept that then we can move forward together.
  • "Assimilation" - This seems to be a term favored by the far right. At the very minimum, "assimilation" seems to mean for them a shared common language; hence the popularity of the "English Only" movement in several states around the U.S. Beyond that, to be honest, I'm not really sure what people expect when they want others to "assimilate." Does that mean going to the bar for drinks? Eating pork chops for dinner? Neither of those are going to happen with Muslims, obviously. The way the term is bandied about, it seems like "assimilation" really means "conformity." You must be just like everybody else. And if "we're" engaging in sinful behavior, don't rock the boat! Come and join in, too!
  • "Reformation" - This is another common plea from non-Muslims: if only Muslims would reform their religion. Here's a clue: it ain't gonna happen! Actually, I find the suggested word ijtihad to be almost as offensive as "reformation." Too many weak Muslims pray for a renewal of ijtihad because they can't take their Islam straight. Ijtihad, when spoken of by non-Muslims and weak Muslims, has largely become synonymous with "reformation," with secularism.
  • "Jihadi" - This is a perfect example of people twisting the meaning of words into something completely the opposite of its original intention. Jihad in Islam is such a positive force, and non-Muslims have completely perverted that positiveness. For more on the subject, see here.
  • "Moderate" - "Moderate Muslim" isn't necessarily a bad term per se, but the real problem is that for most non-Muslims, a "moderate Muslim" really means a "secular Muslim." The way non-Muslims talk about Muslims, there's little to no difference between an observant Muslim (one who prays, fasts, etc.) and the al-Qaida types. That's what makes "moderate Muslim" such an offensive term. It doesn't help matters when governments promote this type of thinking, such as in the recently leaked British documents that "define" who is an extremist Muslim. (According to the British criteria, I qualify as an "extremist," an idea I find patently absurd.)
  • "Religious Freedom" - Finally, the author's description of "religious freedom" as how American Protestants perceive it is spot on. Muslims ask for minor changes here and there to accommodate our lifestyle and non-Muslims become upset! Consider the recent case of a Domino's Pizza in the UK that recently switched to halal toppings, the first in the country to do so. "It's a disgrace. ... I can appreciate them having it as an option but to have it completely halal is just not on. I'm all for racial and religious tolerance but if anything this is intolerant to my beliefs and discriminatory against me. Instead I had to travel two miles out of my way to another branch – I was appalled." "This is a global pizza chain that is isolating western values and choice. It's alienating people and that's just not on. I'd been coming here for ages but now I'll go elsewhere because I can't get a pepperoni pizza, which is what I always have." (Actual comments from the original article.) The whining! It's amazing! At least here in S'pore, more and more restaurant chains continue to switch to halal foods. But in the intolerant West, religious freedom really means Christian freedom. Thank God for the East.


Update: Although I cross-posted this essay on Street Prophets back on March 31st, the discussion about the diary seems to have finally reached its conclusion (insha'allah!) nearly two weeks later. The essay received a total of 140 comments to date (a personal best; the most comments any of my previous diaries over at SP had gotten was a mere 60). So give that discussion a look-see if you're interested, but be sure to budget at least a half-hour's reading time. ;)

8 comments:

bambam said...

"secular Muslim" is a contradiction in terms
Thank you ! i've been trying to tell them but not because of your reason (what you mentioned is fine by secular terms) it's because you can't seperate islam from the legislation and shari'a
Too many weak Muslims pray for a renewal
So I take it you find that applying islamic legislation would be beneficial to the make up of society ? if not then isn't that a reformation of islam ? what would happen to malaysia if it was fully under sharia law ?
Jihadi they certainly got a lot of help doing that !
moderate muslim the fact of the matter they exist and are the actual majority.
"Religious Freedom" Hmm i'm not sure how i feel about this, cause personally i see religious freedom is the freedom to practice any religion,or lack off, you want freely. with just that definition Islam gets negative point, but then again religious freedom in the US isn't much better... hmm i think i like the japanese model :D and regarding accommodation i think that muslims in the west shoot themselves in the foot all the time... so it goes both ways.

Naeem: said...

AA- JD,

Excellent post! I was thinking along the same lines...so much so, that I'm gonna plagiarize your entire post. Isn't there a saying 'plagiarism is the best form of flattery'? Consider yourself flatterized.

Seriously, I thought his entire list was correct. Terms such as freedom, clash of civilizations, and tolerance are also (in addition to the terms you highlighted) understood differently by the vast majority of Muslims. The author displayed a great amount of intimate knowledge of the Muslim mindset.

I would just disagree with his explanation of the 'clash of civilizations' term. I'll go into more details in my post...

JDsg said...

@ BamBam:

...it's because you can't seperate islam from the legislation and shari'a

I agree with this as well. There was an interesting documentary on TV recently, Inside a Shari'ah Court, where the judge featured in the documentary tells boys at a school, "Islam is Shari'ah, Shari'ah is Islam." And I would agree with this. Just as we parents must discipline a child in order for him or her to be raised properly, including saying that all-important word ("No!"), I believe Islam with the legislation and Shari'ah disciplines us "children" here on Earth. Good parents set limits for their children; Muslims too have limits in terms of what is acceptable behavior through Islam.

So I take it you find that applying islamic legislation would be beneficial to the make up of society ?

Yes; however, with the usual caveat that Shari'ah be applied only to Muslims and those non-Muslims who wish to live under it. Those who don't wish to live under Shari'ah may use other courts/legal systems. (One of the interesting things about the above mentioned documentary was that more and more non-Muslims in this one state in Nigeria were using Shari'ah courts to settle disputes rather than the government courts because they could see how quick and equitable the judgments were, much to the chagrin of a Christian attorney who was finding it more and more difficult to attract clients. Another point the documentary made was that a number of crimes and vices had almost completely disappeared from that area with the introduction of Shari'ah, much to the approval of the local people whom the documentarian interviewed.)

what would happen to malaysia if it was fully under sharia law ?

I suspect it would be sort of a cross between the ideologies of PAS and UMNO's Islam Hadhari. Part of PAS's problem in the past is that they tried to implement Shari'ah in the states they governed with a heavy hand. They seem to have learned their lesson and it appears they've moderated their stance somewhat in the past few years.

"Religious Freedom" Hmm i'm not sure how i feel about this, cause personally i see religious freedom is the freedom to practice any religion,or lack off, you want freely.

I don't have a problem with this definition, but the author's comment about American foreign policy being used as a tool for Protestant missionaries is all too true.


@ Naeem:

Wa 'alaikums salaam.

Thanks for the complement; go ahead and "plagiarize" away; I just feel jealous that you'll have a billion comments on your blog about my post and I'll have a paltry few. ;) I'm looking forward to reading your post.

bambam said...

JD well you are familiar with PAS, and not sure about whats the definition of moderate is but up until 06 they were still quite harsh and mobish from what i know, either way. (why am i turning this into a discussion about shari'a law ? maybe cause your stated position intrigued me)
Well if you see sharia court as an opt in mechanism doesn't that need to create some over rides for certain hudood or qisas measures? and have sharia as an opt in when its private law rather than public law for instance ? and thanks for the comment over at mine, you should do so more often i don't bite(much)

George Carty said...

If "secular" has connotations of "non-practising" or even "apostate", what would be a better word to describe a Muslim (perhaps practising) who rejects integration of mosque and state?

JDsg said...

@ BamBam:

Well if you see sharia court as an opt in mechanism doesn't that need to create some over rides for certain hudood or qisas measures?

Actually, now, that was one of the interesting things about the documentary I mentioned earlier. The woman who made the documentary looked into the matter of hudud punishments, which made for several interesting scenes. In one case a man had been accused by the police over some incident without any proof brought forward. The judge ordered the defendant to be whipped (I think 20 times). The defendant said he'd gladly take the punishment because it was less severe than the beating he had gotten by the police. And they filmed the whipping. And when it was done the man walked off with no show of emotion. She also looked into the matter of amputation for theft, finding that only two people had had their hands amputated since the implementation of Shari'ah law in that state. She found one of the men still in prison. She asked him whether he was upset that his hand was amputated and he said no, that he had actually insisted on it. He freely admitted his crime to the camera, but said that he'd rather be punished now, in this life, than in the afterlife. So I wonder if Shari'ah is implemented into a region, is there really a need for overrides on hudud and qisas if things are done properly?

...and have sharia as an opt in when its private law rather than public law for instance ?

Which types of private law are you referring to? Commercial contracts?


...and thanks for the comment over at mine, you should do so more often i don't bite(much)

You're welcome. I'll try to get over more often, insha'allah.


@ George:

...what would be a better word to describe a Muslim (perhaps practising) who rejects integration of mosque and state?

Weak? Ignorant? Pro-regressive? Cafeteria?

bambam said...

"but said that he'd rather be punished now, in this life, than in the afterlife"
I think thats what it boils down to when it comes to sharia, if you are a muslim at any level you would be more accepting of it. generally speaking, while the others will only utilize it when it benefits them not because its intrinsically better (kind like what the coptic did back in the day in egypt, they accepted islam because it had a better taxing system than the romans for instance)
Personally speaking i would have my head chopped off for speaking under sharia law...

Isha' said...

Domino's? I've heard bad things about them. I'm not sure though! Have you?