Today, we suffer of entirely too many generalizations about Muslims. There are many reasons why this is the case, and our position in the global conversation since 9/11 has no doubt contributed to it. But I believe there is much more to it.
If you consider any national group, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Americans: one and all have the exact same tendency. Each finds that within their own group, no generalization based on nationality can really be made. Of the tens of millions of their co-nationals, they will have nothing in common with most of them. But that does not stop them from painting the others with the broad brush of “national character”. To others, the Englishmen are pompous, the Frenchmen are rude, and the Americans are arrogant. To themselves, such generalizations are quite obviously silly, and sometimes even quite insulting.
Muslims suffer from being painted like this as outsider “others” every day. Everyone seems to know what Muslims are like. But unlike Englishmen, Frenchmen and the others, we do not seem to mind being categorized and reduced to “essential character.” What is quite remarkable about Muslims, I believe, is that we generalize about ourselves almost as much as they generalize about us. Of course, we do not generalize in the same ways. But fundamentally there is no difference of mindset. The only thing we object to is the accuracy of the generalization. Otherwise, we will not hesitate to tell every Muslim or non-Muslim, what Muslims do, what they are like, and especially what is expected of them. We never tire of telling each other how Muslims should behave.
Obviously, this is hugely problematic – not least because it is completely divorced from fact. But it has much more serious consequences. And we ourselves are largely responsible for those consequences.
Talking about ‘Muslims’
Take for example just the way in which wider society talks about “Muslims.” Some will make profoundly offensive and inflammatory generalizations: the kind that some of our more impressionable youth have taken as evidence that the West is at war with Islam, just like ISIS would like them to believe. And then there will be others who will stand up and point out just how much of a ridiculous generalization that is. But what do Muslims and especially Muslim leaders do? They go on TV and start some lecture or sermon about the “Muslim Community” and its role in society. Notice the singular “Community”. We are very enamored with our Ummah. Never mind that there is no such thing. That between a Moroccan, a Saudi and an Indonesian, they only have as much in common as a Scottish Presbyterian would have in common with an Ethiopian Copt. We talk about ourselves as one monolithic thing. And then we are surprised when non-Muslims fail to notice our differences and our individuality.
And this is deeply rooted in the essential character of Islam. When it emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam was a social revolution against the brutal, violent tribalism of Arabian culture. It established a new community based not on blood ties, but on shared faith in One God, and a shared moral outlook on the world.
But that was a community of a few thousand within a much larger social context. A few thousand people who self-select to join together in a new group with a new group identity can reasonably be described by that group identity. 1.5 billion people who were born into the religion, in different places around the world and in vastly different cultures, will have next to nothing in common beyond their shared humanity. There is exactly no reason to expect that a Moroccan will have more in common with a Pakistani than he would with a Spaniard, just because they happen to have been born in a culture which calls God by a same name, and worships him in a vaguely similar way.
What is quite remarkable about Muslims, I believe, is that we generalize about ourselves almost as much as they generalize about usDr. Azeem Ibrahim
And yet here we are, most of us pretending that all 1.5 billion of us are a community. This self-delusion may seem benign. Indeed, it is easy to see why we find it so charming. But let us not ignore its dark side. It is a profoundly totalitarian thought. That all 1.5 billion us are not just the same, but that we should be the same. This is what sectarian wars are fought over. And if we are all the same, of course we should all want to be one body politic – a Caliphate, like in the Islamic Golden Age. Nevermind that the Golden Age was one bloody sectarian bloodbath after another, typically fought over the dynastic aspirations of petty tyrants and not the high ideals of Islam.
Yet still we yearn with foggy eyes over an Ummah that has not existed since the 7th century CE, and still we lust over holy Caliphates that never were all that holy. The rest of the world is looking forward. And they are moving forward. That is the one thing that the historical Muslim caliphates did: they moved forward. Muslims today not so much. We are still trapped in a fantasy past, when we think we were a Community, just as we keep fighting with each other today.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahimSHOW MORE