On "Desert Muslims"
Don't you love it when someone tries really hard to defend us poor, miserable, uncivilized bunch of Muslims and Arabs by indicating that "we're really not THAT bad"? I especially love it when a "seasoned" journalist or politician makes this attempt. This is how I read Nicholas Kristof's editorial in today's New York Times entitled "The Muslim Stereotype".
Kristof is in Brunei, an exotic predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian country, where the "sultan has two wives... women can drive... and young people can flirt together in cafes". There he declares that he "find[s] the common American stereotypes of Islam profoundly warped." One might assume that some good will come out of this piece, right? That Kristof will declare once and for all that Muslims are not terrorists and they don't live in the desert. Well, not quite.
In an attempt to indicate that the international media focuses too much on Arab Muslims (where most of the terrorists come from), Kristof makes a failed attempt at highlighting the "good" that comes of out of the predominantly non-Arab Muslims around the world, and specifically in Asia. He seems to have just discovered that Indonesia is a democracy and that Bangladesh has had two female prime ministers.
He writes that the West is really tried of looking at an Arab world that "sometimes seems to put its creative juices mostly into building better bombs". Someone help me here, please. When was the last time you saw an Arab country building an arsenal of weapons to protect itself? You'd think he would be referring to some of the most powerful nations in the world whose stockpiles of weapons continue to swell and their victims can be found in Iraq and elsewhere.
Oh wait, maybe he was referring to Iran's nuclear weapons program? But Iran is not Arab, or did Ahmedenijad turn it into an Arab state while I was sleeping? Well then he must be talking about suicide bombers! How could I forget?! How creative does one have to be to build a suicide belt? It's really an insult to say that all of Arab "creativity" is focused on bomb-making. If anything, suicide bombs represent a lack of power and a resort to cheap materials to create weapons that are used to attack Israeli checkpoints and Iraqi markets. If they were really creative, Arabs would be building stockpiles of conventional and nuclear weapons to rival the threat posed by the very creative Israelis.
Kristof is right in the sense that "Muslims" are often confused with Arabs, and subsequently, non-Arab Muslims get lost in the picture. This is not a fault of Arab Muslims, however. It's the fault of an ignorant media that chooses to reinforce this misconception. It's also true that most of the news headlines today focus on the Middle East, but that should not translate into "everyone involved in those conflicts is Muslim". He concludes by making an absurd correlation between the level of religiosity and modernity in the Muslim world and the geographical location of the country involved.
The plain fact is that some Muslim societies do have a real problem with violence, with the subjugation of women, with tolerance. But the mosaic of Islam is vast and contains many more hopeful glimpses of the future.This is not in defense of the wrongs that take place in the name of Islam across Arabia. One cannot deny that problems do exist, many of which are caused by oppressive dictators and ignorance of Islamic teachings. But to attempt to highlight the "goodness" of Asian Muslims by overemphasizing the faults of Arab Muslims does nothing to help the ever increasing stereotypes and accusations hurled at Islam on daily basis. Kristof would be well served if he made an attempt to take a closer look at the lives of those "desert Muslims" and the reasons behind the problems he indicated.
There is a historic dichotomy between desert Islam -- the austere fundamentalism of countries like Saudi Arabia -- and riverine or coastal Islam, more outward-looking, flexible and tolerant. Desert Muslims grab the headlines, but my bet is that in the struggle for the soul of Islam, maritime Muslims have the edge.
After doing that, he should come by to Washington D.C. where cab drivers and children crossing streets are gunned down everyday, where women wait in alleys at night to be picked up, and where airlines pull passengers off planes because they pray to their Lord. Seems to me like a healthy dose of violence, subjugation of women, and intolerance right here in our nation's capital. See you soon, Mr. Kristof.
[The full article is only available to TimesSelect members. If you can't access it, email me and I can send it to you. A simple blog search will also lead to blogs that posted the piece.]