Beware misconceptions about Islam that can mar Western accounts of society and politics in Muslim-majority nations, an expert tells News-Decoder.

By Nelson Graves

Beware misconceptions about Islam that can mar Western accounts of society and politics in Muslim-majority nations.

That was the advice of Jonathan Lyons, an expert on the Islamic world, in a mini-course for students in News-Decoder’s pilot program.

“We need to recognize in the first place what I call the anti-Islam discourse,” Lyons said, noting that some Western news reports present faulty stereotypes of Muslims, which can skew one’s perception of the Islamic world.

He cited language used during U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, which urged a “crusade” against Muslim opponents, pitting two civilizations against each other. Non-Muslims commonly misconstrue the meanings of “jihad”, “fatwa” and even “Allah”, Lyons said.

“Many textbooks give very little attention to the wonderful and powerful and unavoidable conclusion that Muslim science was extremely important in the foundation of Western science,” Lyons said during the mini-course on April 12.

The webinar was part of a series of online events hosted by News-Decoder for students, faculty and administrators in 11 academic institutions that are partnering with the not-for-profit start-up in a pilot program.

“Islam is incredibly rich and varied.”

It is incorrect to say there is one Islam governing the behavior of millions of Muslims around the world, Lyons said. “Islam is incredibly rich and varied in its interpretations and its applications.”

He continued: “There have been many attempts to centralize and standardize Islamic belief, but they have gone nowhere, and I suspect they always will go nowhere because in fact one of Islam’s greatest strengths is its flexibility.”

Muslims share many of the same social and economic concerns as non-Muslims — health care, education, jobs and financial security — with religious issues far down the list, he said.

Lyons urged his listeners, including aspiring journalists, to empathize with those from other societies and not to fall victim to false assumptions.

News-Decoder seeks to expose young people around the world to contrasting perspectives so that they become better global citizens.

A News-Decoder correspondent, Lyons is the author of four books focusing largely on the Muslim world and Western attitudes toward Islam. He worked for two decades for Reuters, with posts in Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran and Jakarta.

His expertise includes Islamic political movements, sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Iranian domestic politics and the roots of Western Islamophobia.

One comment

Watch out for anti-Islam language

  1. It seems at the very least disingenuous for Jonathan to raise the Bush administration’s use of the word ‘crusade’ against Muslim opponents as pitting civilisations against each other and then say non-Muslims commonly misconstrue ‘jihad.’

    The fact is that ‘crusade’ has for centuries divested itself of the religious connotations of the rampage of lunatic religious Christian crusaders running amok. It today means no more than a determined and possibly protracted effort, as in Eisenhower’s book ‘Crusade in Europe.’ Secondly that terrible Bush administration made very clear that its war was not on Muslims but on terrorism. So Muslims and their supporters should stop misconstruing ‘crusade.’ Thirdly, unfortunately, many Muslim extremists themselves use the term ‘jihad’ in the sense of an implacable fight to the death against ‘infidels,’ the west, and its rights and freedoms.

    As for ‘fatwa,’ misconstruing its true meaning will not obscure the very real fact of the death sentence imposed on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, ordering Muslims anywhere to kill him, reaffirmed by Khamenei and for which 40 Iranian state-run media organisations raised an additional $600,000 just this year.

    The issue, then, is not the magnificent contributions Islam has made to world civilization over the centuries, the glory of its golden age, and the multiplicity of its interpretations – from lunatic extremism to live-and-let-live moderation. This moderation can be seen in this new century in the most populous of Muslim countries, Indonesia, where Abdurrahman Wahid, president from 1999 to 2001 and himself a Muslim religious leader, disassociated Islam from anti-Zionism. ‘I think there is a wrong perception that Islam is in disagreement with Israel,’ he said. ‘This is caused by Arab propaganda. We have to distinguish between Arabs and Islam.’

    It is not a denial of the multiplicity of Islam or its past glories but the facts on the ground that give Islam a bad name and lead, rightly or wrongly, to Islamophobia and the demonization of the religion as a whole because of the practices of some of its followers – and let’s face it: Islam’s religious texts do include what many would now consider egregious and outrageous human rights abuses, as does the Old Testament, by the way, except that nobody is trying to put the latter into full practice.

    It is not just the ISIL or the Taliban who have given Islam a black eye. There are all those other Islamic states from Sudan to Pakistan and beyond who officially make blasphemy and apostasy an offence, in places punishable by death. There are the floggings and amputations considered heinous torture by much of the world. There are the ghastly abuses by Saudi Arabia and Iran (remember the Bahai executions), and the floggings even in moderate Indonesia’s fundamentalist province of Aceh.

    It’s no use combatting Islamophobia by pointing to the multiplicity of Islam or a possible Shiite tradition against political rule when the facts on the ground in Iran lower an iron curtain which no such message can penetrate.

    The most effective method to combat Islamophobia must come from within the Islamic world itself. Meanwhile we journalists can best navigate the reality by simply and honestly reporting all the facts, eschewing adjectives and any selective filtering to favour a particular point of view.

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