Journal/Islam:Muslims and Cultural Diversity

Editorialist aclash of civilizations diagramnd columnist in the major US newspapers and news magazines have long attempted to provide a general analysis of Islam that is premised on the idea that this religion with its origins in the Arab Middle East can be defined as a unified civilization.  The tendency to view Islam as a civilization found expression in an influential 1993 Foreign Affairs essay titled “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington.  In the essay, Huntington states: “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years.”  US news reporting perpetually reinforces the idea of a monolithic Islamic civilization defined in opposition to a similarly monolithic western civilization.  This Islam is often associated with violence and cultural backwardness. On an almost daily basis, the New York Times as well many regional and local newspapers run stories about Islamic terrorism, the veiling of women, or the authoritarian practices of Muslim politicians.  The cumulative effect of mainstream reporting on Islam does not deviate from the clash of civilizations discourse which posits an enraged Islamic world against a rational modern West.  Consider for example, Thomas Freidman’s editorial in the New York Times titled “The Core of Muslim Rage” (March 6, 2002).

This discourse blocks out the great variety in the intellectual, legal, customary and religious traditions among the more than one billion Muslims across the globe.  But even within the pages of the daily newspaper reporting on events in the Muslim world, one encounters evidence of the variations within Islam.  First among them is the distinction between Sunni and Shi’a, which garnered significant media interest at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and again since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Despite the importance of this distinction to contemporary US politics in the Middle East for the last 20 years and regular news reports about the sectarian divide, US counterintelligence officials and politicians with involvement in the region remained largely incapable of explaining the Sunni-Shi’a split and how it relates to geo-politics (see Jeff Stein’s “Can you tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” NYT October 17, 2006).  To test your own knowledge of the Sunni-Shi’a distinction, try the test. For an informed US perspective on the Sunni-Shi’a distinction see the PBS Wide Angle Episode, “Pilgrimage to Kerbala.”

Apart from the distinction between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam, diversity among Muslims stems from the vast array of contexts where Islam has developed either as the principal religion or as an important presence.  In countries where Muslims form the majority population, such as Indonesia and Iraq, or where they constitute large minorities such as India and Nigeria, a variety of religious institutions, practices, and beliefs have developed over the last 1400 years.  Even within a large country like Egypt or a small country like Lebanon, everyday practice among Muslims varies from village to city.

Increasingly the US press is acknowledging the diversity across the Muslim World.  For instance, Philip Bowring writes in his New York Times editorial “Islam’s Diversity” the following: “Islam, a religion that like Christianity has shaped, and been shaped by, the societies to which it has attached itself” (June 9, 2009).  But even as some journalists, like Bowring, explicitly address the diversity of Islam, one senses that in emphasizing cultural variation among Muslims, especially the distinction between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, an equally distorting discourse on the hegemony of Arab Islam emerges.

islamic-diversity-world-muslim-population2Muslims around the world share the basic principles of their faith (or pillars).  All Muslims accept the Qur’an as the word of God and Mohammad as the prophet.  They acknowledge the importance of daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan and paying zakat (religious tax).  Yet, Islam is as varied as any other global religion and since its emergence in the Arabian Peninsula in the first half of the 7th century, it has adapted to the various contexts where it has taken root.

Salah D. Hassan