Define “Muslim” (UPDATED)

UPDATE: See the comments section, particularly Liadnan’s comment and my reply to it. Maybe the news report was even less competent than I thought!

Richard Dawkins has been taken to task at times for his assertion that raising a child in one or another religious tradition is a form of child abuse, as it constitutes an abuse of the trust given one with a child. My friend Marvin and I have been discussing the intricacies of this issue over at his LJ (in the comments, but do read the post!) but I ran across an article online that demonstrates how right Dawkins is about the silliness (and, in this case, outright idiocy) of labeling children by their parents’ religion.

The article in question is titled Pope rejoices over conversions on Easter and in the snippet included where I found the link, it’s claimed that a “prominent Muslim newspaper editor” was baptized on Saturday night. But look a little closer, and you see:

The converts included Magdi Allam, a prominent journalist and commentator in Italy who has received death threats for his denunciations of Islamic fanaticism.

Allam, 55, deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper, was born a Muslim in Egypt, but was educated by Catholics and says he has never been a practicing Muslim. (emphasis mine)

Is this even coherent? If he has never been a practicing Muslim, then what has he been? A non-practicing Muslim? A hereditary Muslim? It just doesn’t make sense. It might make sense to say he was born to a Muslim family but never practiced the religion himself. It might make sense to say he was raised by Muslims, but never practiced Islam. Did he even consider himself Muslim? That’s a tougher question, of course: perhaps he did, but only as a child, when his malleable identity was warped by religious parents. Or maybe his parents urged him not to get too wound up about Islam, but the society in general mandated that Islam was the polite, natural default — like the default Christendom that Kierkegaard railed against so harshly in letters and articles. As I don’t know, I can’t say what a better formulation of that information could be.

But I do know that the above is both nonsensical, and that the fact so few see it that way reflects something very odd (and rather nonsensical, really) about how we think of religion, something Dawkins speaks directly to.

He’s not the first, of course. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill observed that:

…the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes into contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same cases which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. (emphasis mine) Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.

What can you say to that?

14 thoughts on “Define “Muslim” (UPDATED)

  1. I think it’s really just a matter of coming up with a label that doesn’t require too many hyphens.

    You meet a lot of people around here who call themselves “culturally Jewish.” I think it’s in these cases — where a certain confluence of dress, cuisine, holidays and cultural/ethnic identity has no agreed-upon label except the name of a religion — that phrases like “non-practicing Muslim” can be applied sensibly to those who observe the traditions but not the religion itself.

    I suppose it does speak to a habit we all have of taking religious identity as a synecdoche for cultural identity. But it makes you wonder what would work better, since we don’t really give names to cultures. Language? But then you have these culturally Jewish people who want to call themselves something but don’t speak a word of Hebrew or Yiddish.

    Maybe we should do what the ancient Greeks did and refer to cultures by their mythical progenitors. Then Jewish people (practicing or otherwise) can be called Davidians, Muslims (practicing or otherwise) can be called Muhammedans (again), and white North Americans can be called Columbians. It’s a perfect system!

  2. Did he even consider himself Muslim?

    Yes, it would seem he did. What he says is:

    There was a time when my mother’s loving presence and religious zeal brought me closer to Islam, which I occasionally practiced at a cultural level and in which I believed at a spiritual level according to an interpretation that at the time — it was the 1970s — summarily corresponded to a faith respectful of persons and tolerant toward the neighbor, in a context — that of the Nasser regime — in which the secular principle of the separation of the religious sphere and the secular sphere prevailed.

    Mill’s point of course applies equally to one’s political opinions.

  3. Tristan,

    Yeah, I dunno. Maybe we could stop labeling one another and ourselves instead? There’s this phenomenon here in Korea of people (usually intellectually-challenged young men) labeling themselves “pure Korean” to rejoice in the fact that they have never gone abroad or had extended, meaningful contact with non-Koreans. It bugs me, but it also reflects the truth a little: Koreans who live abroad often do change — becoming hybrids culturally, and much more comparable to those Westerners who, after living in Korea a long time become relatively more hybridized between Western and Korean cultural norms.

    But self-described “pure Koreans” tend to bandy the word around not as a descriptor so much as a badge of purity, the opposite of the implied pejorative that describes whatever you are if you aren’t “pure Korean” — ie. “sullied” Korean or “impure” Korean.

    And they often do this to limit behaviours of this or that kind. Like speaking good English, or interacting with Westerners, or dating one, or eating “non-Korean” food (not strictly non-Korean, just whatever they feel like labeling non-Korean), and so on. They especially love to make these assertions to try get control over what such fellows quite comfortably refer to with the possessive — “their women.” Meaning all women of the same ethnic background.

    So personally? I don’t know, I think the labels ain’t cool. I figure if someone actually asks you about your background, they should bloody well be willing to listen to a microstory, or not ask in the first place. Like, in Korea, people ask, “Are you American?” or “Where are you from?” and I tend to say, “I was born to British-African and French-Canadian parents in Malawi, grew up mostly in central Canada, and have lived in Korea for six years.” That’s much more expressive than any label.

    And why should we be labeling? It seems so bureaucratic to me.

  4. Liadnan — of whom I’m getting a striking sense of recognition: you’re right to point out my error. Reading that page to which you linked, all I can say now is, why the hell did the news report claim that he claimed he had never practiced Islam. He says he “occasionally practiced it” on various levels.

    Of course, practicing a religion “at the cultural level” also gives me pause. He highlights that his spiritual beliefs also entailed separation of [mosque] and [secular world].

    So is the newspaper minging words, citing a different quote from another place, or what?

    It’s all very confusing now, but at least it’s more interestingly confusing. Thanks!

    BTW I know you from Culture List but can’t place you… hint?

  5. I suspect the original quote may have come from a different source: it may well be an innocent misleading take on a short response to a question.

    His fuller explanation of his religious past is interesting for its own sake in context, I thought. (Not least because he seems to have gone through a period of atheism, or perhaps philosophical and abstract theism, at some point.) I am not sure that it’s helpful to talk about “culturally x” because I have a suspicion that what people mean when they self-describe as “culturally catholic” is distinct from what others might mean by “culturally Muslim/Jewish/etc”.

    It’s probably right to observe that my own perspective is that of someone who went from cradle catholicism to agnosticism (in the strict sense) to philosophical theism and do now descibe myself as a Catholic, albeit a far from orthodox one in an unsettled relationship with the church.

    Culture list, yes, though infrequent these days. I try to maintain something of a thin identity shield in the blogosphere for various reasons but the initials are MF.

  6. I don’t know. Nothing screams “self styled member of the (Canadian) intellegentsia” more than saying “I hate hockey. I love Jazz. My Dad is from the X and my Mom is from Y”.

    After four years abroad, as much as you might hate the place you are originally from, it occasionally defines you better than you think. When I saw a picture of you with a chin strap beard, I smiled and couldn’t help but think, “You can take the boy out of the prairies, but you can’t take the prairies out of the boy.”

  7. Liadnan,

    Good points, all. I suspect that self-description of oneself “culturally Catholic” does mean something somewhat different, largely because these days there’s a variety of religious “norms” (including no religion at all) in many societies where people would self-describe that way. In Jewish communities, it’s mixed with ethnic identity, and in Islamic ones one expects a good deal less variety in norms.


    Ha, well, I happen to hate hockey, but I don’t usually declare it at people. Canadian intelligentsia? Don’t Americans self-describe that way a lot too? (“I’m one-sixteenth Cherokee, one-sixteenth African American, an eighth German, an eighth French, an eighth Swedish, and half Irish.”) I’ve heard plenty of that among Westerners of all stripes around here, when the subject comes up. (It usually doesn’t, though.)

    But anyway, this is all still labeling. I’m really one for saying it’s the story that matters, not the label. Like, my favorite story is explaining the differences in how French people typically engage in conversation, how British Anglos typically do, and how these two styles clashed at my family’s kitchen table.

    By the way, chinstrap? Like, a recent picture? Because dude, that’s not on purpose. The hair just doesn’t grow all that high up. As for anything I had in grad school, all bets are off.

    But I will confess that while I really don’t identify as a prairie boy, I see elements of it more and more, the longer I’m away.

  8. And wait, isn’t a chinstrap normally sans moustache? That Amish style thing? Because I can’t recall ever having worn one of those, and I’d be curious to see it…


  9. I could have sworn in some of your photos you have either a full beard, or at the very least, thick, plentiful, manly, five o’clock shadow. Maybe the moustache part of the beard/stubble is coming in a little light.

  10. Hey,

    Oh, yes, I normally have a full beard, and/or lots of shadow (5 o’clock three-days-ago shadow, sometimes).

    But there’s always a moustache. Ugh. No moustache = horse-and-buggy. I never went for that, as far as I can remember. Must be the lighting, as you say.

  11. It can be horse and buggy, but in Manitoba, I’ve noticed it can be (provided it’s trimmed properly) a hip way to give a shout out to your Mennonite heritage.

  12. Weird! Well, actually, I knew a guy in Jeonju who hailed from, oh, hell, it was Pennsylvania, and he once sported a chinstrap.

    Me, I have no Mennonite heritage, though. Just cussed colonials, all the way down.

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