I had CNN on mute the other morning and saw something out of the corner of my eye about President Barack Obama speaking at Cairo University in Egypt about muslin.
I was only half paying attention, but it seemed like he went on for, like, a whole hour about how the U.S. has no quarrel with muslin in general, but only with violent muslin radicals who want to destroy America’s traditions — by which I assume he meant denim. I guess he did the speech in Cairo because Egypt is one of the world’s largest growers of cotton and is therefore a hotbed of muslin extremism.
I sure hope the muslin world isn’t too cloth-eared to accept Obama’s benevolent overture.
If you think the muslin/Muslim pun in the first three paragraphs is stupid, I don’t blame you. Rereading it now, I haven’t quite cottoned to it myself.
OK, I promise I’ll stop.
But punning muslin and Muslim is only slightly sillier than politicians and journalists suggesting over and over that the "Muslim world” constitutes a coherent grouping of people.
“Muslim world” is about as nonspecific as one can get. Targeting a speech to the "Muslim world" is like walking up to a podium and saying, “Greetings, Earthlings,” or “Welcome, my fellow vertebrates.”
To see Muslims as a "Muslim world" reveals a lot more about the seer than the seen. In that sense, it’s not unlike the phrase “Middle East,” a region of the world named for how you get there from London.
Even if you limit the definition of “Muslim world” to mean countries where Islam is the dominant religion, you’re still lumping at least 1 billion people on three continents together on the basis of not a whole lot.
To be Muslim simply means someone believes there is one god and that the final, authoritative word of said god, the Holy Quran, was delivered by an angel named Gabriel to a seventh-century Arabian shepherd named Muhammad.
That’s it. That’s all the designation Muslim means.
Being Muslim is not a predictor of one’s politics, economic views, social values, taste in food, movies, video games, dress or haircuts.
To assume all Muslims act a certain way or do certain things because of something the Quran might say is as silly as assuming all Christians are the same because of something written in the Bible. The Old Testament explicitly commands the ceremonial sacrifice of bulls and goats to atone for certain sins. I was born and raised in the “Christian world,” and I have yet to see or hear of that happening.
With all my kvetching, I actually thought the substance of Obama’s speech was great. Its primary objective was to turn the page on an especially destructive era of American foreign policy.
Insofar as the speech reminded people who heard it that “Yee-haw” is no longer our foreign policy, it was a success.
But I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the speech as an address to the "Muslim world."
The (halal) meat of the speech consisted of the U.S. acknowledging some (but not all) of the destruction wrought by U.S. policies in the predominantly Arab Middle East, Israel and Iran.
If you look at opinion surveys of people in the region, like the ones conducted regularly by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, you’ll see overwhelming anger and resentment at the U.S. for its support of dictatorial governments, the killing fields that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and of Israeli policies widely viewed in the region as brutal and oppressive.
But that’s not all, or even most, of the “Muslim world.” The most populous, predominantly Muslim nations on Earth are in East Asia (Indonesia) and South Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh). It takes just as long to fly to Jerusalem from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, as it does to fly from Washington, D.C.
It’s not that Palestinian suffering or free elections in Egypt aren’t important to Indonesians. But southeast Asians are far away and kind of have other stuff going on. Lumping all Muslims together in a “Muslim world” doesn’t acknowledge that.