December 10, 2006

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.

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.
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.

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.]

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At 1:04 AM, Anonymous swinginjazz said...

Arab Muslims aren't the only ones to get stereotyped. I'm a Pakistani Muslim, and even we're associated with fundamentalism and anti-woman extremism in the Western media; even though we are the first modern Muslim nation that democratically elected a FEMALE prime minister. kind of progressive thing to do, if you ask me. especially considering the fact that by the time it happened, our nation was only about 40 something years old. on the other hand, the great US of A, with its glorious 230 year history, still has not had a female head of state. golly, these americans are so fundamentalist and anti-women. it's a shame ;)

At 4:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that in the US you can get away with such opinions but if you write a similar piece on Christians and Jews you are shallow, bigoted, opinionated person.

At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, it was the US that killed the most civilians be it in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, or by funding campaigns that kill civilians be it in Nicaragua, Kampodia, Lebanon, Palestine.

Al-Qaeda and all the arab terrorists combined are amatures when compared to the American crimes against innocent civilians.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger OmAr said...

I guess that unconsciously the west draws a picture of Arab Muslims that is the same as their image of Saudi Arabia, you'll find them very comfortable in saying that people there are violent, though, have you ever heard any Western media stating the simple fact of that Saudi Arabia has the lowest rate of crimes?

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous bushra said...

GREAT post moi! I loved it!

At 3:51 PM, Anonymous kamran said...

instead of looking at extremist behavior and then generalizing about a 1400 year old faith with over a billion adherents, why doesn't mr. kristof read our holy text and then judge whether or not it's religion that's causing all the backwardness or decades old injustice.

At 3:57 PM, Anonymous faizan said...

There is a historic dichotomy between the heartland bible belt Christianity -- the austere evangelical fundamentalism of countries like America -- and the liberation theology of Latin Aemirca, more outward-looking, flexible and tolerant. Evangelical Christians grab the headlines, but my bet is that in the struggle for the soul of Christianity, South American Christians have the edge.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous sulmaan said...

is kristof serious? does he not realize that muslims are more concerned with the suffering going on in palestine, iraq, lebanon, etc. to care about some kind of unjust "war on terror", which itself is a wierd title for a war. terror is a tactic. it's like declaring a "war on jealousy" or something. who exactly is this a war on? as far as muslims are concerned, the iraq war was our 9/11, an unprovoked attack by extremists with a radical agenda against another nation where the majority of the victims were innocent civilians.

At 4:14 PM, Anonymous omar said...

umm... mr. kristof, riverine or coastal islam has its own issues. think bali. and desert islam has been kind enough to sell your country oil at ridiculously low prices for a very long time. show some gratitude.

At 4:41 PM, Anonymous tarek said...

HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah is a member of the Brunei Royal Family. He is most famously known for his 'playboy prince' lifestyle. In the year 2000 he was accused of inappropriately using the assets of the Brunei Investment Agency to fund his lifestyle, possessions of which included a 50 metre yacht called Tits which contained two lifeboats named Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.

Possessions included in his extravagant spending included:

* Gold plated toilet brushes
* A $12m Airbus A340 simulator
* Thousands of tonnes of marble and other materials for which he intended to build a grand palace.

What a great example for Muslim countries. Wait a minute, an authoritarian state in which members of the royal family live lavish lifestyles. Are we talking about Brunei or Saudi Arabia. It's becoming harder and harder to distinguish desert Islam from coastal, riverine Islam.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous aamir said...

"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 quote reeks of hypocrisy. Problem with violence? Aren't there more murders and rapes in the US than in Muslim societies? Isn't it subjugation of women when the media bombards young girls with images of the perfect woman, and leads them to believe that boys will only like if they starve themselves and dress like trash? He may be right about the tolerance part. Can't argue with him there.

At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Andy said...

Yeah, guys, West is bad BAD B-A-D!
America is also, well, you know.. bad. So what the heck are you doing here, buddies? Here's a bad place for pure and peaceful fellas like you to be. Here'a a bigotry and racism and people really, really don't like to be blown to pieces, believe it or not. Don't like it - GO HOME! Return to the joys of your beautiful, clean, peaceful and developed native countries so rich with culture and civilization with highly educated, tolerant and hard-working populance. Leave our corrupt, godless and selfish West to its evil devices. We, the locals will surely mourn your departure - but what man can do? People vote with their feet, right? Cheers!

At 4:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, I'm not sure if any of these comments were critical of the West or the US. I think they were critical of a particular columnist's simplistic views regarding a very complex and nuanced issue.

At 12:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, you don't understand. This is God's green earth and we can live wherever we want. And we certainly can criticize the wrongs of US just like we sometimes criticize our countries. We have the right to stand up for justice wherever we are.


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