During a recent episode of HBO’s “Real Time,” host Bill Maher mocked President Obama’s insistence that the Islamic State does not represent Islam, and lambasted Islam as “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” One of Maher’s guests, actor Ben Affleck, called his remarks “gross” and “racist.”
The testy exchange went viral, prompting an important debate about the relationship between religion and violence. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, for instance, lamented the “cancer of extremism within Islam today,” while the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff described the diversity of the “Islamic world” and a bygone era where “Islam was not particularly intolerant.” Author Reza Aslan emphasized that the Islamic State, like Al Qaeda, is a “jihadist” group, not an “Islamist” one.
Embedded within many of these well-intentioned discussions is a central part of the problem: a lazy lexicon that has come to dominate how we speak about, and subsequently what we think about, Islam. Words matter, and the linguistic terrain born of post–Cold War politics and fortified by 9/11 is riddled with imprecise language that perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and associations.
We talk about an “Islamic world” or “Muslim world,” despite the fact that such an ill-defined expanse does not exist. There are Muslim-majority countries, which are geographically concentrated in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. But to emphasize religion as the common link between them, or to assume that it is the dominant feature that animates the lives of their inhabitants, is odd given that there are precious few examples where other spaces around the globe are identified and categorized in terms of their religious composition.
Read more at the New Republic.