When we pick up the newspaper, read a book, watch television, or engage in conversation, we come across the terms “Muslim” and “Islamic” for descriptions of things related to the religion or to its adherents. Often, the two adjectives are used interchangeably as synonyms. They may truly be part-and-parcel of a family of vocabulary in the everyday usage of language. But the question arises as to whether they are one and the same. And here comes the dilemma.
If we fuse the two together, as they often are, we risk adding inappropriate or meaningless terminology and connotations that do not belong to the system of codes, values, ethics, beliefs, rituals, bonds, and understandings Muslims know as “Islam.” For instance, the mainstream discourse often refers to a particular kind of illegitimate violence committed by some Muslims against civilians as ‘Islamic terrorism.’ Muslims would take offense at this characterization because the implication here, deliberately or mistakenly, is that fault lies within Islam itself. Using the phrase “Islamic world” to describe the area of the world where Muslims form geographic majorities presents similar problems. First, it risks associating underdevelopment, conflict/warfare/civil strife, inequality and discrimination, and other negativities or “backwardness” with teachings from Islam or with steadfastness to them. Secondly, it risks excluding, or at the very least marginalizing, the contributions, status, and plights of the diaspora of Muslims residing elsewhere (like in the West).
On the other hand, if we are to make a distinction between the words muslim and Islamic as adjectives, we open ourselves up to another dilemma. We have to decide when and how should one or the other be used. For instance, should we designate “Islamic” for something theoretical, and “muslim” for something practical? If we follow that course, we risk creating a gap between theory and practice Islam may never have intended. After all, every aspect of what Muslims are taught in an Islamic sense is meant to applied, and will have some significance/implication for their present life, the hereafter, or both. But if we don’t follow that course, we may risk generalizing all actions of a Muslim as representative of Islam by confusing teachings with individual or group behavior. Then we might conclude that both terms describe neutrality can be deduced from the statements published in an Editors’ Note in reference to the article’s Series: “Anyone wondering how the struggle for the soul of Islam could play out in America should look to Europe… For the 11th part of this occasional series, a Tribune reporter traveled to a Paris suburb to examine the future that Europe is straining to handle.”
The term “jihad” has been reserved as an exclusive designation with a decidedly charged connotation. For example, consider the title of Benjamin Barber’s book Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World. As the title suggests, the book is premised on a critical clash between two cultural universes readily at odds with one another. According to Barber, “McWorld” represents progressive modernity as embodied in Western trends and values, and “jihad” represents retrogressive, or backwards, traditionalism. Carrying the analysis further, the universe of jihad consists of trends that are “tribal, local, fragmentation, centripetal, parochial, emotional, identity driven, tradition, heterogenity” and McWorld consists of opposing traits that are “universal, global, integration, centrifugal, cosmopolitan, cool, market driven, modernity, and homogeneity” (ed. Strada , Through the Global Lens: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, pg 359). Indeed, Barber goes so far as to describe jihad as “dogmatic and violent particularism” (9) and as “a kind of animal fear propelled by anxiety in the face of uncertainty and relieved by self-sacrificing zealotry” (215). Even more specific in differentiating between the two universes, Barber states jihad “pursues a bloody politics of identity, McWorld a bloodless economics of profit” (8). Because the struggle of reform and improvement as embodied in jihad is essential to upholding Islamic tenets, Barber’s characterizations present problems to Muslims seeking to rectify common misconceptions about the basics of Islam and seeking to publicly abide by them. And while Barber’s ideas may represent a small extreme point in the spectrum of American public thought, numerous other writers, commentators, and professionals have been emboldened to present views that seem to be more in line with his. This is occurring alongside the denial of expression to so-called “moderate” figures to present their views, such as the cases of Professor Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam demonstrate.
Nor does the simplification “holy war,” used often in print and other media, remedy problems of misconceptions that Muslims and Islam face. Although books and public discussions are beginning to take notice of other considerations of jihad, “holy war,” by far, still serves as the predominant operative lens of discourse. Muslims and Islam are still presented in monolithic tones, all of which further threatens to discourage diverse and meaningful input. Indeed, Professor John Esposito of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University concludes:
“The easy path is to view Islam and Islamic revivalism as a threat unfortunately, Islam has been used by a tiny minority as an instrument of bloodthirsty barbarism. I am so angry for that.
“I want to know that somewhere out there are Muslims that won’t condone the acts perpetrated by Islamic terrorists all over the world and that Islam is not a threat to everything I hold dear. In other words, I’m looking for some sign that the ‘clash of cultures’ between Islam and the West is not inevitable. I know I’m asking a lot, but all I’m looking for is some middle ground.”
This is a very legitimate concern for many, many non-Muslim fellow Americans. So let me say again what I initially told this fellow American: I do not, never have, and never will condone acts of murder and mayhem in the name of Islam. I reject it, I hate it, I despise it, and I condemn it with every cell in my body. The terrorists who act in the name of Islam are as much my enemy as they are yours. What you hold dear, I hold dear. Islam is not a threat to that. My whole purpose in writing is to be a bridge between America and the Muslim world. I am trying with all my keystrokes to avert a “clash of civilizations.” Islam and the West live in harmony in me, and it can do so around the world. Again, please don’t confuse Islam for the ugliness you see done by Muslims. Please. It is the same as judging Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, or judging America by “Baywatch.” Both are fallacious.
I am so very grateful to God that I had this conversation, and hence I called it a “sacred” one. I am confident that these very same thoughts and feelings dwell within the minds and hearts of a good number of non-Muslim fellow Americans. I am so grateful to God that this fellow American had the courage to tell me about them.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.