On the Distortion of Islam and the Muslim World

I never really thought of myself as someone who would feel the need to editorialize on Islam; it’s ironic. I was born in Egypt into an ethnic and religious minority, the Coptic Christians. In Egypt, Copts confront the brunt of extremism, and ultimately my family fled the country.

In the United States, however, most do not distinguish between shades of brown. In a post 9/11 world I was assumed to be Muslim, and therefore, by default, I spoke for all Muslims. In the first grade my teacher brought back Iraqi currency and Arabic documents that her husband, a former Marine, had collected from the Gulf War. My teacher asked me to translate the documents, a simple collection of dates and places—I received a one-hundred-dinar bill with Saddam Hussein’s face on it for my contribution. Needless to say, since Hussein was deposed it is worthless, but I oddly prize it. 

This time it is different. I am translating because I find it incumbent upon myself as someone who has navigated spaces defined by and reacting to political Islam. Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to aggression. Extremism exists in every faith and in every place, and essentializing the Muslim world is counterproductive.

Fury has one major outlet in the Middle East and North Africa: Islamism. Since the 1970s, the United States and regional autocrats supported by our government have systematically eliminated unions and leftist movements in the Muslim world. Unstable oil markets, American hyperinflation, the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis all put the Middle East in the limelight. Social and cultural forces, which had been fermenting for the past century, revealed themselves through religion. Iranians were rightfully furious with British and American intelligence services for orchestrating the overthrow of their democratically elected prime minister so that the Shah would continue to protect Western oil interests.

Today, the most organized and viable political and cultural movements across the Middle East and North Africa are Islamist parties. They have had decades to build networks, provide social services and speak to the justified feelings of oppression and anti-Western sentiment. Following the most recent uprisings, well-established groups like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt easily filled power vacuums. Other parties and candidates, such as social and economic progressives, were in disarray.

In an arena denied political alternatives, the phrase “Islam is the solution” carries weight. Despite popular belief, this is not a bad thing—Islamic parties have been, and can be, a force for good. The point here is that in the Middle East and North Africa, Islam was politicized because of colonization, domination and the elimination of any political movement that threatened Western hegemony. Recall that the United States armed a variety of insurgent groups and propped up dangerous leaders when it was politically expedient.

Islamic extremism and insurgency are undoubtedly our own inventions; blaming them on Muslims is comparable to pinning the crisis of 'black-on-black' crime upon urban, African-American neighborhoods—it’s absurd. But since our need for security and stability is the prism through which we view the Middle East and North Africa, we have created permanent rifts in societal understanding. Islam is presented to most of us in violent terms, but we cannot accept that narrative. We must change the representation of the faith.

Today, Daesh, Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fīl-'Iraq wa ash-Shām, commonly referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has ravaged much of the region. I did not want to print the term ISIS/ISAL because this nomenclature is sickening. This gang of fools is neither Islamic nor a state—hundreds of Imams, leaders in the Muslim faith, have disavowed them and pleaded that they not be linked with their religion. We ought to give the word of these Imams the respect we would give to Pope Francis; to do otherwise undercuts them in a most Orientalist fashion. The French government and many international agencies have accepted the term "Daesh," loosely related to the word for desecration in Arabic, a most fitting name and one the group itself takes great offense to.

This is a simple fix—changing how we refer to this group can change the way we speak about them.

On a similar note, Islam is seen as a cultural toxin that makes for hostile environments for women, LGBTQ people and non-Muslims. This is another dangerous notion that feeds into the account that Islam is a backward and archaic faith. As a recovering Copt, I will be the first to admit that some permutations of Arab culture are not hospitable, but that is as a recovering Copt. Yes, Saudi women cannot drive (for the record the Shura, consultative council, has just approved the lifting of this ban—it is awaiting the signature of His Majesty), but King Abdullah has six times as many women in his council as President Obama has in his cabinet, and in much of the Middle East women are enrolling in universities at higher rates than men.

Culture, not religion, dictates these norms and gender roles, which will change, if they are meant to, at their own pace and in their own time. Ultimately, we must be cautious when we assign blame and be critical in our reading of a religion observed by a quarter of the world's population. 



Go in peace.

Beshouy Botros PO ’17 is an economics and Middle East/North African studies double major from Cairo, Egypt.