HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Islamic or Islamicate: The Mishmash of the Modern Middle East

Josh Jacob

President Obama riled up his detractors two weeks ago with his remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. In his nearly half-hour long speech, the part that attracted the most attention was his reflection on the countless ways faith has been distorted to justify horrible atrocities. He brought up several examples in the news today, from Pakistan to Paris, from Syria to the Central African Republic. This segment was undoubtedly well-received, but his following statement was more controversial: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” That last sentence rings all the more relevant as a study by the Equal Justice Initiative released just last week has documented nearly 4,000 gruesome lynchings that took place in the South between 1877 and 1950.

Obama has been criticized from both sides for these remarks, as he often is. Some to the right have called the president’s remarks “pernicious” and offensive to “every believing Christian in the United States.” On the other hand, and more interestingly to me, an op-ed by Rami Khouri in Al Jazeera America criticizes Obama for misguiding Americans “by making religion the key that explains some people’s criminal conduct.” This critique addresses the more worrisome trend in modern American society – that is, identifying a problem like violent extremism and then attributing it to religion alone rather than the more complex mishmash of politics, culture, history, and socioeconomic circumstances.

When Bill Maher and Sam Harris took to the airwaves last October to criticize Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas” responsible for terrorism, oppression, and cultural backwardness across the Muslim world, they were guilty of this oversimplification. Their generalizations extended beyond political incorrectness and strayed into the realm of careless, pseudointellectual stereotyping. The fact that they did so under the guise of promoting liberal principles makes their misinterpretation even more deleterious. Categorizing violent extremism as a problem unique to Islam or implying that Islam is the cause of social stagnation demonstrates a dearth of analysis and a disregard for history. It ignores the influence of autocratic governing institutions, the historical memory of European colonialism, and the distressing nature of socioeconomic underdevelopment. It perpetuates a dichotomous clash of civilizations and does very little to address the problems at hand.

That all being said, I don’t think President Obama can be accused of making these same sweeping statements, as Rami Khouri might suggest. Contrarily, Obama has made a conscious effort to avoid using incriminating terms like “radical Islam,” particularly in his most recent State of the Union address, in favor of more neutral phrases like “violent extremism” (which is a wording decision that he has also been criticized for, unsurprisingly). In fact, just today he gave a keynote address on changing the narrative on Islam to make it clear that the US is not at war with Islam, but rather with “the people who have perverted Islam.” This highlights an important distinction, that this sort of fundamentalism is not an Islamic phenomenon, but perhaps an Islamicate phenomenon – associated with regions where Muslims constitute the dominant cultural groups (the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of South and Southeast Asia), but not necessarily a product of the religion itself.

Recognizing this distinction may prove to be far more fruitful in eliciting a societal change. Rather than blaming a religious faith observed by about a quarter of the world, which implies that the only solutions are either for the religion to change or for the people to change religions, we may instead focus on social mobility and economic empowerment. We may focus on politically inclusive institutions and rectifying centuries’ worth of exploitation, instrumentalism, and Western exceptionalism. This coheres more logically with the actual course of history, which has shown that Islamicate civilizations such as the Abbasids and the Gunpowder Empires were fully compatible with scientific, economic, and cultural advancement while at times, as President Obama noted, predominantly Christian civilizations were not.

It should be fairly obvious that the cause of these fluctuations in progressiveness is not religious doctrine. Muslims today still believe there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, and Christians today still believe that Jesus is the son of God, just as both groups did a thousand years ago. Rather, these beliefs have now mingled with modern history and geopolitical conditions which have been more favorable to some civilizations than others. The result is the persistence of rampant inequality throughout the Middle East, fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, a hostile theocracy in Iran, and US-backed oil-rich monarchies. But not because of religion; as Fareed Zakaria puts it, “You can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause.”

Sources:

http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/2/misgovernment-not-religion-has-sunk-the-middle-east.html

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31523213

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/48950/samuel-p-huntington/the-clash-of-civilizations

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/21/opinion/thomas-friedman-say-it-like-it-is.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/us/politics/obama-national-prayer-breakfast-terrorism-islam.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/us/history-of-lynchings-in-the-south-documents-nearly-4000-names.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-islam-has-a-problem-right-now-but-heres-why-bill-maher-is-wrong/2014/10/09/b6302a14-4fe6-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast

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10 Comments

  1. khospedales3 says:

    Making the distinction between religious faith and the perversion of that faith by extremist groups seems like common sense. A faith practiced by a quarter of the world’s population can’t possibly be inherently violent and backward.

    And yet, we have multitudes of people in our country (including what seems line an entire political party) blinded by prejudice and ignorance. So many believe the narrative of the heroic Western Christian society vs the evil Islamic empire and don’t take the time to question its validity.

    Anyway, this is no place to rant about it. I applaud the President’s very eloquent and insightful commentary, making it clear that man’s twisting and distorting of the principles of their faiths is what brings about this “religious” extremism. It should be clear that it’s not a religious battle we should be fighting, but because of various factors it unfortunately just isn’t.

  2. ashumway3 says:

    It’s terrible that the level of ignorance still exists that people blame Islam for problems in the Middle East. The only people who could claim this clearly don’t know anything about the religion itself and are going based off of feelings and generalizations rather than facts. The only way to decrease tensions between our two cultures is to reach a greater sense of understanding so that neither side is unjustifiably judging the other.

    • mdsmith910 says:

      Yeah I agree. It’s also interesting, because if you look at both religions, they’re agreeing that there is only one God. One would think that people could use that belief alone to relieve tensions between the two cultures. Isn’t a goal of religion to better yourself through goodness, and learn from your mistakes?

    • jenglish7 says:

      Absolutely. I’m always been curious to analyze the root causes of the predisposition against Islam; my personal guess is that this dominant attitude is fueled by a smattering of negative media attention, lack of education regarding it, and to some extent the desire for a “silver bullet” in attributing blame for the destabilization of the region. I feel that in a sense, people cling to these generalizations and emotional biases because they have been engrained so deeply into our understanding of the Middle East as presented to us through mass media.

  3. jackjenkins2015 says:

    I think this blog post is incredibly important. There has definitely been a perversion of ideals in these radical extremists like ISIS that really affect the way we in the West view Islam. I think it is important for our government and our society to redefine how we look at Islam and how we look at these terrorist/extremist groups. For instance, the Chapel Hill shooting that occurred last week was implied to be hate crime related against three muslims who were incredibly passionate and good people. Our world has made the word muslim equivalent to evil. Also, any time there is a serial killer or terrorist that is christian/white/non-foreigner, we are quick as a society to blame mental illness, troubled childhood, or other sad things in their lives as a cause. Why do we not do this with terrorists? Terrorist groups are much like cults, which rely on manipulating desperate people into following a strong, psychopathic leader in their “quest.” None of it is true religion. They have learned to hate, and to teach others to hate, to make their own twisted goals possible. I’m glad that President Obama does not blame Islam for the horrors of these terrorist groups, and I hope that we learn to do the same.

  4. cfundora says:

    Thanks for writing this. I commend the President for stepping forward to clarify the difference between violent extremism and Islam. Although he may be receiving criticism from the left and right, hopefully this is a step to bring awareness to the root problem of fundamentalism and shed light on how terrorism is covered in the media. I’m surprised we have yet to talk about the incident at Chapel Hill. Something I’ve observed from reading various sources is that when a Muslim commits a crime, their whole religion is to blame. However, when a white person commits a crime, they are just a crazed, lone individual. Its definitely something worth thinking about.

  5. nrassam3 says:

    Would involvement in middle eastern affairs maintain the same level if Islam was not criminalized? I think it is very obvious of how the media have formed a criminal image of Muslims in the United States. Chapel hills incident was avoided by the media and for the channels that did discuss it they decided to completely ignore racial involvement into the incident. Just because the president says something doesn’t mean it is exactly true. 9/11 coverage by the media completely changed people view of Islam, and it will take generation for that view to change.

  6. elenajoy92 says:

    There are many organizations of Muslims who are against terrorism and try to advocate that this is not a product of Islam and that they are more angry being Muslim against terrorism than anyone else. I think this could be a great channel to change the american perspective on Islam and what terrorism really is and its causes. I see this change possible if the media promotes these groups more and public events are organized to further promote their ideas and have their voice heard. Even starting organizations like these I’m colleges would be great. I think Obama is definitely going in the right direction and thank you Josh for this great post!

  7. apabst3 says:

    Like many have you have already pointed out I think President Obama is taking strong and righteous stand against many who view all Muslims as the bad guy. We need to get out of the Fox state of mind where every one is is trying to destroy America. Way to many Americans think that everyone who wears a turban (which is actually a sikh practice) is a “terrorist”. But just as you pointed out in your post it is not just the conservatives that are guilty of giving Islam a bad name, as you showed that Bill Maher bashed the entire religion of Islam in a liberal scope. We need to separate religion from the atrocities that are often connected with a said religion. We really need to stop stereotyping and generalizing.

  8. zhu64 says:

    while religion alone does not attribute to terrorism I believe religions are one of the biggest factors in these violence. Religion allows outdated ideals to survive. When these ideals doesn’t change with the modern reasoning and morality then violence results. What ISIS are doing is not unique, they are not doing anything that is very different from what happened more than a thousand years during the rise of the Muslim conquest. Of course it is not unique to Muslim, just look at the violence that occured during the crusade.

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