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.

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Culture Discovery Watch out for anti-Islam language