The Muslim Country Myth

Reza AslanPhotography courtesy of US Embassy Canada Words by Persephone Hallow

Reza Aslan is my hero, for many reasons. He’s one of the finest theological scholars of our era, he’s written multiple compelling books on various theological issues, and, in a recent interview, he has delivered some smack-downs to the hosts of CNN. Here’s my favourite part.

Presenter So you don’t think that there’s anything more … the justice system in Muslim countries, you don’t think, is somehow more primitive, or subjugates women more than in other countries?

Reza Aslan Did you hear what you just said? You said “in Muslim countries” … Stop saying things like “Muslim countries.” The actions of individuals and societies and countries, like Iran, like Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, must be condemned, because they don’t belong in the twenty-first century. But, to say “Muslim countries”, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same, as though somehow what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, is representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country is, frankly – and I use this world seriously – stupid.

Damn.

“Did you hear what you just said?” Reza Aslan is not impressed.

The reason I love this response so much, however, isn’t just the way he handled himself – it’s the subject of the debate itself. Reza Aslan went on CNN to bash the idea of “Muslim countries” as a specific, theocratically-governed system that is culturally identical in multiple nations across the globe. I’ve been waiting, as the anti-Muslim rhetoric grows, as Britain First becomes more popular, as UKIP gather votes based on racial tension, to see someone finally talk facts about a religion and culture we, as westerners, fear so much, we have demonized and relegated to the realm of the uncanny, the Other, throughout our media depictions – and Reza Aslan was worth waiting for.

Talking in terms of Us and Them is the bread and butter of racial tension in the UK. They cover their faces and oppress women with draconian ideas of modesty; They speak in foreign tongues and We are scared, because We don’t understand them, and this is Our country. Our culture is slipping to accommodate people who don’t belong. We are being oppressed by Them.

Britain First’s Facebook page has nearly half a million subscribers. As I scroll through the comments, gauging the temperament of its members, the message that it’s Us versus Them comes up time and again. An American supporter says she supports the movement’s aims; she writes, “I pray we too can come together, return to days of kindness, manners and love for one another in a Muslim free America.” The comment has over 200 likes, and thirty-one comments.

The rhetoric of Britain First is startlingly militant, drawing on images of Britain as a fighting force for the greater good, and frequently evoking the second world war. Joseph Palermo writes,“Islam is fascism, only the cost of destroying it, if it’s possible, will be many times that required in world war two. All free peoples must push back.” He then goes on to say (in response to what appears to be a deleted comment, that many participants on the thread are berating), “Could you point out those people advocating mass murder of innocents because of their creed? Islam is the only faction I’m aware of currently indulging in such methods.”

​“Fascism.”

But World War II wasn’t won with prayers for peace.

And then there is this, from commenter Nicky Pantelli: “I don’t understand why people are bending over backwards to keep Muslims happy when it ain’t a Muslim country. If they don’t like how we live then f**k off to a Muslim country” (asterisks her own). The assumption is once again made that a Muslim country is a homogeneous state determined by faith and cultural ideals.

But what is a Muslim country, besides a nation wherein the predominant practised religion is Islam? Many of the key arguments stem from the idea that a Muslim nation is one which oppresses women, in multiple ways, including restricting their freedom of movement (denying women the right to drive), their right to participate in politics, and even mutilating them sexually. These assertions aren’t entirely without merit; Somalia, a predominantly Muslim country, does practice female genital mutilation (FGM), as does Saudi Arabia, where women are infamously banned from driving. However, in Ethiopia, 75% of women are subject the procedure, as are almost 90% of women in Eritrea – both of which are Christian nations. Additionally, Muslim-dominated countries have elected seven female heads of state – far more than the western world.

Whilst a Muslim woman in Iran or Afghanistan might be subject to oppression, women in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Malaysia aren’t subjugated as inferior, despite being part of Muslim nations. The truth is, the western idea of what constitutes a “Muslim country” is skewed by misinformation, fear and bigotry. Islam is a religion of over 1.5 billion people; it cannot be boiled down to a handful of ideas and ideologies that sit uncomfortably in the modern world, any more than Christianity can be summed up by any of its more extreme parts.

Christianity can be divided into multiple, fractured religious beliefs and practices, including the Amish, Baptists, Catholics, Orthodox Russian and Greek churches, Protestants, Unitarians, Mormons, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Calvanists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are over 2.1 billion Christians out there, all with varying beliefs on fundamental matters, including sexual expression, medical treatments, and who gets into heaven. They are all Christian, each with their own nuanced set of practices, beliefs and interpretations of (mostly) one central text; countries which reflect these practices are vary wildly in their law and culture, and many of them do better reflect these religious beliefs in their national legislature than more secular nations. But how many times have you heard someone tell a Baptist to fuck off to a Christian nation if they don’t like the way we protect the civil rights of homosexuals here?

The idea of “Muslim Countries” as a single type of theocratic political state, defined by violent practices based on religious ideology, is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. By assuming that the beheadings of Saudi Arabia or the FGM of Somalia is indicative of the core message of Islam, we validate our own fear of Muslims, by insisting the religion is built on violence. As Reza Aslan put it, “we’re not talking about women in the Muslim world, we’re using two or three examples to justify a generalisation – that’s actually the definition of bigotry.”

Hence the greatest overlooked irony of blind panic of Muslim invasion, and the evocation of the fight against fascism in the second world war.

Bigotry. Isn’t that exactly what we fought to eradicate in World War II?

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