There Is No “Muslim World”

There is no Muslim world, only a variety of nations with Muslim majorities. Some of these call themselves Islamic states, but the extent to which even these are governed according to Islamic principles and under Islamic law is a matter for debate.

At his inauguration, President Obama said: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Is that possible? What must happen?

Substitute "Hindu" or "Christian" where President Obama has "Muslim", and we begin to see the problems as well as the promise in his overture to the "Muslim world".

Tempting as it might be to adopt Samuel Huntington's Manichean view of global conflict or some variation thereof, President Obama has to resist the impulse to speak of Muslims as a single bloc. This master of language knows that words matter. It may be convenient to speak of the "Muslim world" in a speech, but there are dangers in painting with so broad a brush when it comes to the articulation and implementation of policy.

It makes no sense to speak of a "Christian world" as though it were possible to extrapolate, from their religious affiliation, the shared values of all Christians everywhere. Even within a major denomination such as Roman Catholicism, there are major disagreements as to how the hierarchy of values should be stacked. Some U.S. bishops made opposition to abortion the one and only criterion for how one was supposed to choose a candidate to vote for in the recent elections. The outcome of the elections showed that the majority of U.S. Catholics had greater moral discernment than some of their shepherds.

There is no Muslim world, only a variety of nations with Muslim majorities. Some of these call themselves Islamic states, but the extent to which even these are governed according to Islamic principles and under Islamic law is a matter for debate.

The Arab world does not represent Islam, but one would be hard-pressed to recognize this fact when faced with what is written and said about Islam in the U.S. Many commentators identify the Palestinian problem as the key neuralgic point behind Muslim discontent. The Palestinian problem is not a Muslim one – many of the most important and prominent Palestinian activists and leaders have been Christians – and should not be viewed as such. The political leaders in Arab countries are more than happy to highlight the sufferings of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and to call for "Muslim" solidarity with them: this distracts their own populations from the democratic and economic deficits that mark so much of that part of the world. When I lived in Egypt in the 1990s, I saw the conditions in the settlements there for displaced Palestinians, and the legal, social and political constraints under which they lived: there was little evidence of Egyptian solidarity with their "Muslim" brethren.

If the U.S. is to be seen as an honest broker in the Palestine-Israel conflict, it has to be seen to be speaking the truth of political pragmatism and compromise to Israel, just as it should speak the truth of democratic change, human rights, and economic equity to its Arab neighbors.

There are more Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia than in the entire Middle East, but they seem to have little impact in shaping American perceptions of Muslims. The president's family ties and lived experience in Indonesia should give him a unique vantage point from which to appreciate the complexities of Muslim identity.

We have a tendency to form our opinions about any group of people according to what we hear from their loudest members. Greedy hedge fund managers and unscrupulous lawyers come to mind. The loudest voices among Muslims today are those of the jihadists and extremists, and so much of U.S. public perception and political reaction has been formed by the violence of these voices.

There are other Muslim voices, muted, even totally unheard, and often silenced by their own governments. In Malaysia and Indonesia, these voices are often asking for greater government accountability, for the elimination of corruption, for a more equitable distribution of the economic pie, for laws to protect women against violence and discrimination, for a system of education that prepares young people to compete in a globalized marketplace. When President Obama calls for a conversation to find a way forward based on mutual interest, these are the voices he must strain to hear.

Muslims are not one political and cultural bloc; neither are they a separate and different species from the rest of humanity. They want their children to have a better life than they themselves have had. They want lives secure from poverty, crime, violence, disease, and all the other pains to which we are all prey. During the recent Gaza conflict, some political leaders in Malaysia called for a boycott of American goods and the dollar. No such boycott ensued. Malaysian Muslims were more concerned with their economic wellbeing than with making political gestures. If the president is looking for mutual interest, then it is at this level of interest that he must pitch his policies, rather than at the level of the mutual political interest of the US and the Egyptian or Syrian police states, or the web of economic, military and political interests that link the U.S. with that paragon of oppressive and undemocratic rule, Saudi Arabia.

The president also said during his inauguration address, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." He should give the speechwriter responsible for this tone-deaf bit of rhetoric his walking papers. The present economic crisis is clear evidence that the American way of life has to change, and that Americans should apologize for it. For too long there has been in the U.S. a sense of entitlement, expressed in a lifestyle that has resulted in the consumption of a disproportionate share of the world's resources, and the wholesale plunging of the nation into debt as a way of life. The thirst for oil and for markets has distorted U.S. policy, and its relations with Muslim states, for far too long. The way of life here in the U.S. has now been discredited, and it cannot be defended. The task before the president is to seek for the U.S. a sustainable and common way of life with the rest of the world, and to convince his fellow citizens that there is no alternative

Aloysious Mowe, SJ, is a Woodstock International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.