How to write about Muslims

So it turns out my little rant last week about Dawkins and Krauss and ‘How to be an Ally 101’ was a little more relevant than I expected, as this seems to be a big week for ‘really kind of failing at being an ally.’  Between Femen, and the current wave of Islamophobic bus adverts and the responses to those, it’s been a great week for people who really enjoy rolling their eyes.  There’s a great recap of these events over on woodturtle and also a brilliant collection of the Muslim feminist responses to Femen on badassmuslimahs (via arzitekt and theuncolonizedmind).

So it seems reasonable to revisit the subject of how to be an ally, and as it happens, my good friend and all-around awesome person Lydia over at thebookarchaeologist sent me this article from Al-Jazeera English last week, which works as a nice starting point.

But first, a disclaimer – for casual readers of this blog who might be unaware of this fact, I am not a Muslim.  I am an Islamicist, that is a person, Muslim or non-Muslim, who studies the history, culture, art or theology of Islam as part of a field of academic research.  I’d also like to think of myself as an ally, and it’s those experiences I’d like to speak to.

As someone who has worked with Muslims in the US and the UK for most of the last decade, the Al-Jazeera article strikes me as good advice, but also as missing the forest for the trees.  I think the most basic advice for ‘how to write about Muslims’ is – don’t.

By that, I don’t mean that no one from outside a tradition ever has reason to discuss it.  What I mean is that discussions of an individual’s or a group’s religious beliefs crop up an awful lot when discussing Muslims, in situations where it’s really not relevant to the discussion at hand.  “Muslim terrorism.”  “Islamic extremism.”  Even I did it, just now, calling attention to “Muslim feminist responses.”

In technical terms, this kind of calling attention to specific features of otherwise common or recognizable concepts is a kind of exotification – making everyday things seem foreign or strange.  Robes are common, kimonos are exotic.  Hats are common, turbans are exotic.  Exotification often expresses institutional bigotry – it’s the reason we talk about surgeons and doctors and psychiatrists, but nurses and male nurses.  Being a doctor has (sometimes begrudgingly) become a genderless profession – you don’t need to refer to the gender of your doctor, although we often find it useful to refer to specific kinds of doctors.  But we still think of ‘nurses’ as essentially female, and so we feel the need to point out when they’re not.

But this kind of calling out of that particular feature also perpetuates the system that considers it abnormal or extraordinary – every time we talk about a male nurse, we’re reaffirming, however unconsciously, that a man can’t ever just be a nurse.  The same goes for the constant repetition of “Islamic extremist” and “Islamic terrorist” – each time it’s repeated, it makes it feel slightly more true that there’s something particularly “Islamic” about this terrorism.  After all, if there wasn’t, why is that word there?

The other thing I would suggest is really more advice for authors who want to write about people who write about Muslims[1], which is not to assume that Islamophobia is only something that conservatives do.

Certainly there’s a kind of conservative Islamophobia – after all, Pamela Geller’s website, despite being largely Islamophobic fearmongering, is entitled “Atlas Shrugs.” This same brand of conservative Islamophobia was seen in Senator King’s Homeland Security congressional hearings last year, and in the ‘foreign law’ prohibitions making the rounds in state legislatures throughout the US.   But conservative Islamophobia is not the only kind of Islamophobia.  Casual Islamophobia is common throughout Western culture, and it’s exactly what we witness in the Femen responses to Tunisia’s repression of Amina Tyler.  Tyler was threatened by a specific person in a particular position of power in Tunisia, but much of Femen’s response was against a whole of range of vaguely Islamic things – in their announcement, they called for a new Arab spring “free of mullahs and caliphs.”  I’ve explained before that “mullah,” if meant as a title of authority, really only applies to Shi’is, and Tunisia is a predominantly Sunni country. The reference to caliphs is even less applicable – the last caliph was the leader of the Ottoman empire, and he was removed from power by the Allies.  Even then, he wasn’t even widely recognized by Muslims as a caliph (as he was Turkish, and Islamic law generally holds that the caliph must not only be Arabian, but Qurayshi, that is, from the clan of the prophet).  The last widely-recognized caliph died in the sack of Baghdad in 1258.  Thus, in their call to defend Tyler, Femen also revealed both their ignorance about Islam, and their apparent disinterest in being less ignorant about it before attacking it – a quick google search would have revealed that their call sounded slightly ridiculous.

This is not simply an attack on Femen, however – this kind of casual Islamophobia, characterized by a general, comfortable ignorance about Islam, is common throughout Western rhetoric.  “Mullah,” “Taliban,” and “burka” are quickly becoming rhetorical catch-alls, in the same way as “Hitler” or “organized religion.”  The vast majority of people who use these terms are not concerned with the precise history, culture or philosophy of the thing they’re referencing.  They’re not really interested in the thing they’re referencing, at all.  Instead, it’s metonymy – the thing stands for something else entirely, usually something to do with Western culture and Western identity.  In the same way people get called Hitler on the internet because they want to regulate gun ownership or because they don’t like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, they get called Mullahs or the Taliban.

It’s certainly debatable if this sort of metonymy is exotification when it’s applied to Hitler – I would argue probably not, as most people who use it are actually aware of at least the general history of the Third Reich (although you do get the weird outliers, like the long-standing belief that things in Germany changed almost imperceptibly slowly, and that we could all ‘slip’ into a fascist state without noticing it, despite the fact that both Hitler and Mussolini made quick and sweeping changes to state structure).  However, with concepts like “mullah” and “burka,” the probability of exotification is much higher – many people honestly don’t know what these terms mean outside of their metonymic usage.  Just google image-search ‘burka’ and you get the clear picture that most Westerns are largely unaware of the distinctions in kinds of Muslim, or even generally Middle Eastern and Central Asia, dress – some of those things are burkas, some of those things are niqabs, some of those people are men, some of those images just show traditional Central Asian styles of dress, and some of those are pictures of dogs.  I don’t even.

Metonymy is supposed to work because the two things being compared are closely related (so the White House and the President – the White House doesn’t really release press statements, because it’s a building, but it’s obvious why it’s directly associated with the actions of the President, a human[2]).  But with casual Islamophobia, the original meaning or concept disappears, become completely subsumed by the figurative meaning.  It doesn’t matter what mullahs actual are – it matters that they’re standing in for repression or sexism or whatever else the person is discussing.  And that’s the danger of it – it completely silences the reality of the thing being discussed, for the sake of a rhetorical point.

So that would be my advice for how to write about Muslims.  First off, don’t, unless there’s a really clear reason why it’s important to the thing you’re talking about that Muslims are involved.  And if so, do research, find out about the thing you’re discussing, and don’t simply use vaguely Islamic references as stand-ins for other concepts.

[1] Did I mention that my alma’s unofficial motto was ‘anything you can do, I can do meta’?

[2] Or lizard, depending on the President.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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5 Responses to How to write about Muslims

  1. Pingback: Islam, Metonymy, Fatwas and Fox News | Tariq Al-Hubb

  2. FloweryHedgehog says:

    Cool! I think there’s more ideas here for that “How NOT to be an Ally” checklist I wanted to write up. I’m running out of excuses for not writing it 😛

  3. Pingback: On looking like a duck. | askanislamicist

  4. Pingback: Imaginary Islamophobic strawmen: Islamic extremism | askanislamicist

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