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Why “Islamic terrorism” is more insulting that we realize

with 26 comments

Body by FisherCross-cultural communication is tough. I’m told that when GM first began selling cars in Europe, the then-omnipresent “Body by Fisher” seal in the door sill was mistranslated to read “Corpse by Fisher.” I doubt it helped GM get what it was after.

Juan Cole, U of Michigan’s brilliant Middle East scholar, wrote a valuable Salon article offering cross-cultural insight into the difference between Islamic and Muslim.

clipped from www.commondreams.org
Juan Cole“Islamic” has to do with the religion founded by the prophet Mohammed. We speak of Islamic ethics … or Islamic art, as things that derive from the religion. “Muslim,” on the contrary, describes the believer. It would be perfectly all right to talk about Muslim terrorists, but calling them Islamic terrorists or Islamic fascists implies that the religion of Islam is somehow essentially connected to those extremist movements.
Giuliani complained that during their debates, Democratic rivals “never mentioned the word ‘Islamic terrorist,’
But people are not “Islamic,” they are Muslim. And one most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called “Christian terrorists” even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement.
Muslims point out that persons of Christian heritage invented fascism, not Muslims
  blog it

Get it? Islamic means from the religion. Muslim describes a person.

I’m not too bothered by calling Timothy McVeigh a “Christian terrorist,” given that Christian can describe either the faith or a person. But I would be troubled if McVeigh were labeled a “Biblical terrorist;” that would suggest that terrorism would derive from following Jesus. And I’d want to oppose that idea everywhere it arose.

So it may be, a bit, with Islamic and Muslim.

Now, the argument could be made that it’s a free country and people can say whatever they want. AhmadinejadThat’s true, but it isn’t the point. If we want to seriously communicate with people of languages or faiths other than our own, we have some homework to do. Or we’ll find ourselves saying things we didn’t intend. Our communication won’t work very well. We won’t get what we’re after (indeed, this is part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s problem: he has not understood what his words mean in western culture; journalists and politicians have failed to work hard at accurately translating the intent behind his words, opting for the simpler route of calling him crazy. Corpse by Fisher).

What do we want, then, from interaction with others? Those of us who see a part of our faith as becoming peace-makers, what do we want from communication?

Can we afford the shallowness of understanding only our own views, or talking in only our own way?  Will it get us what we’re after?


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Written by Monte

February 2, 2008 at 2:03 pm