Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Few Basic Facts about the word Muslim and the population carrying that label


The airline incident in Detroit this week was, of course, scary, but it also was confusing. The accused bomber is black, and from Nigeria, and doesn't look anything like the images we'd previously seen in the media of who we're supposed to suspect. Although I already knew that not all Arabs are Muslims, nor vice versa, I've never been completely certain about terminology or pronunciation, so I looked again to Phil Herbst's Dictionary of Ethnic Bias, and found the following. 
     Muslim. Arabic muslim, from aslama (to surrender to God, to seek peace)--an adherent of Islam. Islam (surrender, sub­mission) corresponds in meaning to Muslim. As The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1991) explains, the s in Mus­lim is pronounced with a hiss; to pro­nounce it as the s in nose alters the mean­ing in Arabic to "cruel," thus becoming offensive. 

     As both adjective and noun, Muslim is preferred by adherents of Islam to the Westernized Moslem. According to re­search done for Allan M. Siegal, assis­tant managing editor of the New York Times, Muslim is seen in print almost two to one to Moslem (reported in Safire 1991). In the United States, Muslim is used to refer to a diverse population of Ameri­can Muslims, including African Ameri­can Muslims and immigrants from Pa­kistan, Egypt, India, and many other countries (an Arab, however, is not nec­essarily a Muslim). 
     So that's what Phil had to say. I also wondered about population distribution, and found this, from the Economist (October 8, 2009). This should be a surprise to people who still equate the terms Muslim and Arab, as they will soon see that the largest Muslim populations live in Asia: 
     A new survey of the world’s Muslim population, by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC, . . . estimates the total number of Muslims in the world at 1.57 billion, or about 23% of a global population of 6.8 billion. Almost two-thirds of Muslims live in Asia, with Indonesia providing the biggest contingent (203m), followed by Pakistan (174m) and India (160m).
   Perhaps more surprising will be the finding that the European country with the highest Muslim population is not France or Germany, but Russia, where 16.5m adherents of Islam make up nearly 12% of the total national population. Compared with other surveys, the report gives a lowish estimate for the number of Muslims in France (3.6m), as it does for the United States (2.5m); in both those countries, secular principles make it impossible to ask religious questions on a census.

     So that's the Economist. At least we have some basic information now. And, wow, about 23% of the world population.  That's a lot of people to have so many fears and misconceptions about.

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