The headlines about Islam have been dominated by the brutal and violent activities of extremists. This includes the brutal regime of ISIS in the Middle East, the killings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the attack on the Canadian Parliament or the attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Their reign of terror has slaughtered thousands of Muslims and Christians.
These headlines though miss the complexity of the dynamics of Muslim societies, of the pressures of post-colonialism and of the 21st century. The real story of the Muslim world gets lost.
First, the term “Muslim World” can be misleading. Islam is not a monolithic entity; there is no equivalent of a pope in Islam. Muslim majority countries encompass a variety of ethnicities and linguistic groups from the Pacific Rim, to the Middle East, to Africa.
Second, extremists badly misrepresent the faith and history of Islam. For example, the Islamic State group employs the term “caliphate” for their regime.
But while the Islamic State brings repression and terror, historic caliphates are much different. When Europe was in the grips of the Dark Ages, the Islamic caliphate was a place where art, literature, science and philosophy flourished.
Extremists like to depict Islam as being at war with the West, but this is not a notion widely shared. Muslims are your neighbors, your friends, and your co-workers who, like you, are working hard and trying to survive in life.
Dearborn, a quintessentially American city, home to the iconic American automobile company Ford, is 40 percent Arab American and contains a large Muslim population. Dearborn is home to the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America.
Islam is an important part of America and it is a major part in what can be considered one of the most iconic American cities, Dearborn.
Saudi Arabia, under recently-deceased King Abdullah, is an example of the stark contradictions in the Islamic world that expose a narrowness in how the religion is perceived.
A harsh form of purism is practiced in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to drive, even though there is no basis for this in Islamic history or theology. While there were clearly no cars in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, his wife Aisha led troops into battle riding a camel, which could be an analogy to a car in that time.
On the other hand, a crass materialism has taken hold of Saudi Arabia in recent years, as seen in Islam’s holiest city Mecca. Mecca has been transformed into a gaudy Las Vegas-style landscape devoid of history or culture, all an attempt to profit from Muslims who make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Kaaba, a holy site in Islam, is overshadowed by a giant mega structure containing a massive mall and a luxury hotel offering “platinum” haj packages. A historic Ottoman fort was demolished to make way for this megastructure, which was built by the Bin Laden group, the construction company owned by Osama bin Laden’s father. The home of Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was demolished to make way for a mega-bathroom.
Nothing is sacred. Could one imagine such things happening adjacent to the Vatican?
The “Muslim World” is a vast and diverse group of countries and people. Where extremists grab the headlines with their brutal acts of violence, there is much more going on in Muslim countries, including drives to materialization and profit in Islam’s holiest city. The Muslim community spans the globe, from the Pacific Rim to Africa to a city that represents American innovation and entrepreneurship, Dearborn.
We must not succumb to stereotypes and simplifications, or take the actions of a small group of violent extremists as being representative of the majority. Muslim society is diverse, complex, and contradictory, as it copes with the realities of the 21st century. Sounds like almost all cultures and religions.
Hassan Arif is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of New Brunswick.