It is time to dispel the myths surrounding Muslims – namely, that we are all terrorist, anti-feminist teetotallers.
With George Bush and Osama bin Laden, those two prodigal sons of oil dynasties, locked in an ideological battle of global proportions, folk like us who stand in the middle and believe in multiculturalism, can feel under fire. But in the name of tolerance, we must fight back to reclaim our common ground. It is time to declare a “war on error”.
For those not in the know, an Arab Muslim man currently ranks slightly higher than pond life. As someone who fits into that ethnic category, I find the unflattering assumptions hard to swallow. Similarly, as a European Arab, I find stereotypes about the West that circulate in conservative Muslim circles equally bewildering.
In this article, I want to challenge some of the myths about Muslims and Arabs terrorising westerners' common sense. In part two, I will turn the tables and look at the surreal legends about the West that enjoy growing currency in the Middle East.
In the space available, I can only scratch the surface.
Error 1: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but the majority of terrorists are Muslims. And Islam is a religion of violence and Muslims do not value life.”
This is a popular refrain among neocons, the papacy and even Islamophobic liberals and socialists. Given the age-old rivalry between Islam and Christendom, the popularity of this view is hardly surprising.
Islam, like many other religions and ideologies, can be used to advocate peace or violence, push for social reform or maintain the status quo. In contexts where a philosophy has a position of broad acceptance and dominance in a society, different interest groups need to couch their arguments in the framework of the dominant ideology.
As much as we can generalise about a billion-plus humans, Islam in its totality is no more or less violent than other faiths, and Muslims value life just as much as non-Muslims. As in other religions, suicide is forbidden. Islamic traditions make allowances for people's temporal lives, not just the afterlife. As religions go Islam, with the exception of the Sufi mystics, is a fairly materialistic here-and-now kind of faith.
Indeed, Islam was spread partly by the sword, just like Christianity or any other missionary faith. But it won far more converts by the word, particularly in Asia.
Every religion (and almost every ideology) has its fair share of terrorist/violent resistance groups. Christian groups include the KKK and the anti-abortion Army of God in the US and the brutal Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Jewish groups include the Kahane Chai today. Previously, the extremist Lehi and more moderate Hagannah (which became the IDF) were both described as a “terrorists” by the British at one point or another.
That's not to mention all the violent anarchist and communist groups around the world. And, of course, when one brings state-perpetrated terrorism into the equation, then the picture changes even more dramatically.
Error 2: “Arab and Muslim women are oppressed and have no rights.”
Personally, I am a dedicated feminist. I believe in complete equality between men and women, and do my best to practice what I preach. Besides, if ever I were to lapse, my wife would have no qualms about reminding me! In fact, given the quality of some of the women in my life, I am sometimes tempted to believe that if there must be a superior gender, they may be it.
Nevertheless, strangers do sometimes give Katleen pitying looks when they see us together, as if to say: “Poor woman, bet you didn't realise what you were getting yourself into!” I find this particularly ironic if it comes from some middle-aged housewife or a young woman in tow of some “Jack the Lad”.
And there are plenty of Muslim and Arab men like me. However, the status of women has not progressed as far in most Muslim societies as it has in the West – but they are decades, not centuries behind. In fact in the most conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Sudan, it has gotten worse.
Nevertheless, in secularised Arab and Muslim societies, women enjoy many of the rights enjoyed by their western counterparts. Professionally and academically, many Arab women have caught up with and overtaken their male counterparts. The feminist movement is alive and kicking in many Muslim countries and religious feminists are striving to remould their faith along more egalitarian lines.
That said, the way society regards women's sexuality and their relative position in marriage leaves a lot to be desired.
Error 3: “Muslims do not drink alcohol.”
Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, but the Quran did this gradually and some verses do attribute to alcohol some beneficial effects.
Despite this divine injunction, the majority of Muslim countries do not outlaw alcohol and never have – it is just too popular. It is only the most conservative and extreme countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan that do so. In Saudi Arabia, there is a thriving bootleg market and the Sudanese still continue to distil their own date wine. As the United States quickly learnt in the 1930s, prohibition or not you cannot stop people from enjoying their favourite tipple – and so most Muslim countries wisely leave it in the private sphere.
In fact, drinking has historically been such an important part of Arab culture, that it was Arab chemists who discovered the chemical substance alcohol (an Arabic word) in the middle ages. Arabic poetry is full of wine analogies and metaphors and Sufi mystics compare the euphoria of their spiritualism to drinking wine.
Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world's most famous diva, sang a love poem by Omar Khayyam in which she emphatically declares over and over: “Has love ever witnessed drunkards such as us?” Of course, she was being metaphorical, and was not forecasting the advent of binge drinking snog-fests in Manchester on a Saturday night.
Khayyam's passion for wine as expressed in his rubaiyat (quatrains) is so famous that a fairly decent Egyptian wine is named in his honour.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 22 May 2007.