Posted on April 2, 2016

Misconceptions of The Middle East: What’s the Difference?


“What’s the difference?” This question seems like a common go-to when a concept is particularly hard to understand. It’s okay to ask when it comes to things like DNA and RNA—what’s the difference there? Or about century old mysteries like the difference between jelly and jam? But when it comes to individuals and the aspects that make up our identities, that question shows an apathy towards understanding and makes room for lazy blanket statements.

In what could become the “United States of Trump” after the upcoming election, along with a failing Syrian peace talk and a growing Islamic State, (ISIS) threat, Muslim Americans could soon face even more potential discrimination. The mentality of “What’s the difference?” doesn’t sound like the end of the world, but it can be all too easy to forget that there is a stark difference between stereotypes and what something actually is.

Reza Aslan, a Muslim and leading academic with a Ph.D. in the history of religions, has recently become a symbol for religious tolerance and for simply understanding the grey area that is human identity. Aslan has written several stories for the New York Times and Washington post in an attempt to dispel any misconceptions about the Middle East and Islam. Islamophobia is created and fostered in part due to that “What’s the difference?” mentality, which halts any progress that people have made to understand one another. In one article from The New York Times, Aslan stresses the importance of being a little more conscious about the human identity, saying, “Critics of religion must refrain from simplistic generalizations about faith…failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture–and making a blanket judgement about the world’s second largest religion–is simply bigotry.” Knowing the difference between and stereotype can make the world of difference.

Knowledge is key and is free to anyone that wants to learn. Here are a few misconceptions of the Middle East everyone should be mindful of.

The words “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous

That statement may sound a bit obvious, but that being said, it can be easily overlooked or forgotten in conversation. Understanding can cure most conflicts, and that starts with dispelling even this most basic misconception. Islam is the second largest religion on earth and is widespread in Arabic-speaking countries, which means there are plenty of Muslims who are Arab. But to say that all Muslims speak Arabic is the same as saying that all Jews speak Hebrew or that all Christians have memorized the Bible—it’s a sweeping generalization that may be harmful to some.

Islam is actually a peaceful faith

The misconception that Islam is a destructive religion or somehow fundamentally different than Christianity or Judaism also ties in with the misconception that Islam has more extremists than any other religion. Muslims have ISIS and Christians have the Westboro Baptist Church, right? Reza Aslan deals with these misconceptions more than most people, and insists that it’s because people are ready to dismiss what isn’t part of their reality and give the easy answer (Remember: “What’s the difference?”) to something they don’t care to understand.

ISIS is not representative of the whole religion and when writing about it, Aslan makes solid points, saying “dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world. But considering that most of its victims are also Muslim–as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic state–the groups self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a religion.” And he’s right.

Women in the Middle East are valued and respected

It is a common misconception that mistreatment of women is an Islamic issue. Sure, there are countries in the Middle East where women’s rights are oppressed, but that is also a worldwide problem. To say that the issue is only in Muslim nations is incorrect. Women in Turkey were granted the right to vote in 1934, 10 years before women in France did. In another interview with CNN, Aslan fights more misconceptions about women’s rights, saying that when a few examples are used to generalize an issue, entire perspectives are changed. Aslan also claimed there is a difference between Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh or Iran and Indonesia when it comes to women’s rights. It’s important to keep the facts straight about which communities are having problems before spreading misinformation like wildfire.

Asking your Mom “What’s the difference?” when it comes to getting the chores done today or tomorrow is also asking for a grounding. Asking your girlfriend “What’s the difference?” when she shows you two outfits that she was really excited about, is the same as saying “I don’t care, wear whatever you want.” That question is a dangerous one, but mindfulness of generalizations, misconceptions and blanket statements will stop the perpetuation of incorrect information. The world won’t instantly become a better place with mindfulness, but it’s a start.

Photo by: Michael Shuey

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