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Friday, April 29, 2011

Islamophobia and the etymological roots of the King hearings, part II: The emerging Western semantics of Islam and Muslims

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Islamophobia in America. Part I discusses the premises and implications of the King hearings. Part III examines Islamophobic language trends in major English and Arabic media outlets and their implications for public policy.

Nazir Harb, MPA

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” I recently gave a talk on the semantics of talking about Islam and Muslims in America as part of a new series, Islamic Literacy at the Woodrow Wilson School, which took place throughout April. During the talk we briefly examined the etymology of Islamophobia—that is, the words, phrases, and orthographies that exist in our language and its history that convey anti-Muslim or Islamophobic sentiment. While some of these terms have fallen out of popular usage, they are increasingly coming up on anti-Muslim and Islamophobic websites and in books and articles written by Islamophobes. As future policymakers it is important, if only for analytical purposes, to be able to identify these thinly-veiled lexical forms of bigotry.

Descriptor or epithet?
The word “Moor” is a derogatory term for a Muslim that arguably stems to 8th century Muslim Spain—it is related to the Greek adjective for “black” and referred to someone from Mauritania. It took on a racist connotation when it became the slur used to refer to all Muslims. Another egregious term for Muslim is “Saracen”: a Roman Crusader word for Muslims that harks back to the 11th century. Some may also come across the word “Mohammedan,” or its derivation, Mohammedanism. This is an archaic construction that referred to a Muslim and was common in Western and English literature, taken from the 14th century Latin word “Macamethe.” The use of such words today is not only inaccurate, as they are no longer conventional, but it’s also derisive: it disregards the words and names that Muslim people have chosen for themselves and for their religion. It should therefore be avoided by anyone who is trying to maintain a measure of inter-communal tolerance or by academics attempting to use sterile terminology.

Moslem or Muslim?
While not always necessarily Islamophobic, the way a word is spelled might also raise a red flag; like other groups, Muslims have reached a consensus regarding the preferred spellings of words that pertain to their identity. As such, “Moslem” is now obsolete. The preferred spelling is “Muslim,” as it better approximates the correct pronunciation of the word. “Muslim” is a proper noun, and so one can refer to “a Muslim” or to “Muslims” in the plural. “Muslim” is also the adjective that pertains to a Muslim, so while it is grammatically appropriate to refer to a “Muslim person,” “Muslim man,” “Muslim woman,” or the “Muslim people,” it is incorrect to write, “Islamic person.” (Needless to say, "Islamic" is exclusively an adjective, so certainly "an Islamic" is also not a correct way to refer to a Muslim person.) Furthermore, a country cannot be “Islamic”—it may contain a population that has a Muslim majority, in which case it is a “Muslim majority country” or “Muslim majority society,” but it is not an “Islamic country,” nor is there an “Islamic world.” “Islam” refers to the religion and “Islamic” is an adjective that is reserved for cases wherein something has a distinctly Islamic property, as opposed to “Muslim” that refers to something or someone pertaining to a Muslim person or persons, i.e. Muslim identity.

Thus, an “Islamic government” is a government which is, or asserts itself to be, in accordance with sharia (Islamic law), not merely one that presides over a preponderance of Muslim adherents or is run by government officials who are Muslim. (Note though, that it is usually a misnomer, or at least a subjective articulation. Many Muslims take issue with claims by governments in the Middle East, North Africa, and South East Asia that claim to be "Islamic" or assert that they govern in accordance to sharia because such usage disingenuously implies that there is indeed one clearly-defined way to govern Islamically or that sharia somehow exists in a book or a written decree that can readily be referred to, easily interpreted, and facilely lends itself to political implementation.)

Similarly, while the awkward phrase “Islamic terrorism” has become a frequently used buzz word in popular discourse, I would argue that it is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect. It would be better (grammatically) to say “Muslim terrorist,” as neither the act of terrorism nor the actor carrying out the terrorist action is “Islamic.” One way to employ the phrase without legitimating it grammatically is to write it between quotation marks.

Mohammed or Muhammad?
On a related note, “Muhammad” is the standard spelling of the name when it refers to the last prophet of Islam; “Mohammed” is a common spelling for other people who have that name. The spelling is the same in Arabic in either case, but in Arabic the Prophet’s name is customarily followed by an honorific. In English, the honorific usually appears in parenthesis immediately after every use of the Prophet’s name. The one generally used is “(pbuh),” an acronym for “peace and blessings be upon him.”

Koran or Quran?
While some continue to argue that the spelling “Koran” is “more germanic” and better follows standard English spelling conventions, this spelling is largely considered obsolete and most Muslim scholars or scholars of Islam use the spelling “Quran.” This is due to the fact that Arabic has two different letters, “kaf” and “qaf,” each pronounced differently. The first is pronounced similar to the English “K” while the second has a more guttural sound, officially transliterated with a “Q” (with no necessary “u” to follow, as in Iraq). The holy book of Islam is spelled with the latter. Thus while in English the pronunciation is “kəˈrän” (kor-aan), the word should be spelled “Quran” (alt. Qur’an, Qur’ān).

Islam or ‘Islām?
Not to worry – “Islam” is the correct and conventional spelling. (‘Islām is the official academic transliteration.) It is grammatically correct to refer to “the religion of Islam” or, similarly, “the religion of Muslims,” or “the Islamic faith.” However, “Muslim religion” is inaccurate and ungrammatical because “Muslim” is either a noun or an adjective that describes someone who practices Islam—the religion of Islam is not “Muslim.”

Moderate or Mainstream
In response to the uptick in the use of phrasings that conflate Muslims with extremism, fanaticism, radicalization, fundamentalism, “jihadism,” and terrorism, many – including some Muslims – have started adding the word “moderate” as a neutralizing adjective to indicate a Muslim who is not radicalized. However, scholars such as Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad agree that this only perpetuates the collapsing of the terms “Muslim” and “terrorist”—thus, appending the word “moderate” before “Muslim” implies that “Muslim” itself is inherently pejorative. Without “moderate,” a Muslim is therefore presumed to be a violent extremist or a terrorist. If this newfound convention prevails, then Western discourse would have accepted al-Qaeda’s worldview wherein “(true) Muslims” sympathize with or engage in violent global jihad. For al-Qaeda, Muslims who do not sympathize with them are “nominal Muslims,” a term which refers to the same people as the phrase “moderate Muslims.”

“Al-Qaedaist,” Not Islamic or Islamist
There are 1.5 billion Muslims across the globe; al-Qaeda’s total membership is less than 30,000 people. Academics and specialists agree that for those relatively few Muslims who join al-Qaeda or affiliated networks, Islam is not the primary motivating factor, let alone the only one. Al-Qaeda pulls from Islamic and non-Islamic sources alike—they quote Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations alongside Islamic sources (usually quoting him in context while distorting Islamic sources). Still, al-Qaeda’s actions are not characterized as “Huntingtonian terrorism”—it is wrong to allow al-Qaeda to appropriate and unquestionably claim Islam, Islamism, and Islamic terminology. It is best then to describe their operations and ideological tenets as “al-Qaedaist,” (granted, a bit tautological) as well as for the actions and conceptions of those who are affiliated with al-Qaeda or sympathize with their views and methods.

Al-Qaeda’s “Jihad”
It is critical to consider that in the phrase “commit jihad,” for example, what is implied is that jihad is in itself an action (or even a crime) that is committed—this is at least true on the syntactical level. That connotation, however, is not correct according to mainstream Islam and is disingenuous to Muslims for whom the term maintains a certain spiritual, completely non-violent, resonance. In avoiding the use of al-Qaeda’s vocabulary, it is important to resist its militant misappropriations of spiritual and theological terms like “jihad.”

When talking about American Muslims, it is important to consider that most estimates hold that there are between 6-7 million Muslims in the United States. Most of them are of South Asian origin. Thirty-eight percent are African American, born and raised in the US. Only a minority are Arabs or of Middle Eastern origin. Additionally, though the Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam, only 12% of all Muslims are Arab. The top five largest Muslim majority countries are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and China—none of them an Arab country. Moreover, not all Arabs are Muslim. In fact, in the US most Arab-Americans are Christian.

Next week I will discuss the implications of this terminology (and its use in the media) for public policy.

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