Beyond Labels: The Islamic World and the West
I worry sometimes that news stories like this from Reuters, “Dangerous and deepening divide between Islamic world, West,” serve to reinforce a sense of fatalism about our ability to understand each other across culture, religion and region.
For those who believe in a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and Western democracy, the last few weeks must seem like final confirmation of their theory.
Even those who reject the term as loaded and simplistic speak sadly of a perhaps catastrophic failure of understanding between Americans in particular and many Muslims.
It’s the West versus the Rest, or it’s Islam versus the West. It makes it hard to reconcile a possibility for mutual understanding when we start out with such Manichean (dualistic) ways of thinking. Take a look at this book title:
While I have not read the book, the title alone makes Islam the object of my Western attention. It is something to figure out, to hold in some mystery. The late Columbia University professor Edward Said referred to this mental process as Orientalism, in particular reference to Arabs who reside in the Middle East.
We know from Edward T. Hall that cultures matter, but we should also be careful how we describe each other. What, for instance, is the Islamic world? If we are referring to people who practice the religion of Islam, then we must account for the over 1.6 billion who predominantly reside in Asia-Pacific. (Over 60% of Muslims live in this region.) But the Reuters article, “Dangerous and deepening divide between Islamic world, West,” is primarily about the approximately 20% of Muslims who reside in the Middle East and North Africa, not the Asia-Pacific region. It makes just passing reference to Afghanistan.
We should always read the news with a critical eye, paying special attention to loaded terms that even the Reuters staff acknowledged in this article were simplistic.