Let’s lose the religious labels

Image of Simon Kuper

You’d almost think Muslims really do control the world. Certainly the American and French elections seem to be mostly about them. After Mohammed Merah killed seven people in Toulouse in the name of Islam, Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to turn the election into a referendum on who can best protect the French from Muslims. In a curious echo of medieval controversies in Europe, he also wants to protect the French from halal meat, which they have belatedly discovered they’re all eating. In that other Enlightenment nation, Newt Gingrich is warning of sharia law being imposed on the US through “stealth jihad”. That won’t surprise the many Americans who already believe they are ruled by a Muslim. I had got the impression in recent years that the US and France had other problems, but clearly I was wrong.

The words “Islam” and “Muslim” are overused and have lost almost all meaning in western discussion. They have become catch-all terms to explain everything. I’m not calling for a moratorium on the use of “Islam” in public debate, but nearly. Once the word is used as sparingly as, say, “Shinto”, the volume of daily nonsense talked will plummet.

“Muslims” were discovered in the west only on September 11 2001. Riem Spielhaus, an expert on Islam (not a self-appointed one) at Copenhagen University, says that in the 1990s “Muslims” usually appeared in European surveys under rubrics like “Turks” or “former guest workers”. Only after 9/11, and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe, did researchers start calling them “Muslims”. Instead of national origins, or social class, suddenly only religion mattered. This was true even if the “Muslims” didn’t have any religion. Only a small minority of France’s five million nominal Muslims attend mosque each Friday. This begs the question of what makes the others “Muslims”, but no matter. Since 9/11, “Islam” explains everything from the French riots to Saddam Hussein.

Of course, if politicians, media and researchers keep telling nominal Muslims that they are “Muslims”, that that is their prime identity, and that they are unlike everyone else, then these people will tend to start thinking of themselves as “Muslims”. That has happened in Europe and the US. This is good news for a small set of professional Muslims, who proclaim themselves leaders of the nonexistent “Muslim community” and then “build bridges” with other “communities”. In doing this, they are duplicating the language of crusaders such as Gingrich. Like him, they see two separate groups: Muslims, and everyone else.

But as the economist-philosopher Amartya Sen points out, people have multiple identities. Sen writes: “I can be at the same time an Asian, an Indian citizen, a US resident, a British academic, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry,” etcetera. Similarly, for most Muslims in the west, “Muslim” is only one of their identities, and not always a very prominent one. This is how most of them live: they wake up, take the kids to school, do mundane work or errands, watch bad TV and then collapse asleep. It’s hard to distill the essential Muslim component here. A French Muslim once told me the key difference: “We have a barbecue, some people don’t eat pork.”

The one thing all religious Muslims have in common is a book written 1,400 years ago. That hardly explains the gamut of them from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Zinedine Zidane. As the French scholar Olivier Roy says, Islam is whatever Muslims say it is, and with one billion “Muslims”, you’ll get quite a range of views.

True, Merah considered himself Muslim. Most terrorists in the Irish Republican Army considered themselves Catholics. However, using Catholicism (let alone Christianity) as a tool to understand them doesn’t help much. Rather than wielding Islam as the great explanatory device, we could class Merah with other young men drawn to death cults: Anders Breivik in Norway, the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and One Goh who is charged with killing seven people in Oakland on Tuesday. After all, Muslim Merahs are pretty rare: of the 12,996 murders in the US in 2010, Islamic fundamentalists committed zero.

“Islam” cannot explain the world. I hesitate to say this in the FT, but: bring back Marx! He reminds us that people act on economic motives. Alternatively, we could understand nominal Muslims in the west as “immigrants”, who have typical immigrant problems. For instance, they tend to have high unemployment rates. Well, so do Christian immigrants from Africa.

Banging on about “Muslims” is boring and misleading. Nobody calls David Cameron the “Anglican prime minister”, or Paul Simon the “Jewish singer”. Similarly, we’d get a better take on Iran if we stripped away religious labels and just interpreted its behaviour through old-fashioned realpolitik.

In any case, the words “Islam” and “Muslim” have been contaminated. For the purposes of western public debate, they are still owned by Osama bin Laden. That being so, when a western politician starts talking about Islam, he’s generally up to something. And – probably deliberately – he’s missing what’s going on in his country.


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