I’ve been privileged to travel widely, and have had conversations with educated people in several countries where Islam is the norm. On one visit to the Levant, one of my acquaintances made statements starting “Christians should…”. I was taken aback. After all, what characteristic do all Christians have in common?
When you eliminate all the doctrines that are contested, balance for those who support right- and left-wing politics, allow for two millennia of schisms and state co-option and factor the micro-fragmentation of the protestant portion of Christendom, the only thing left in common is the syllable “Christ”. I realised the term was being used as shorthand for a stereotype, embracing everyone far away in the western world, summarising a set of sketchy facts mixed with biases and misunderstandings.
So when we in the west who are not adherents to Islam speak of “Muslims”, who are we talking about? We are doing the same thing my acquaintance in the Levant did; taking countless unfamiliar people who we consider “different” and tagging them with a word that doesn’t mean much to us but does allow the application of a stereotype.
More than that, it’s a bad stereotype. Just like calling everyone in the western world “Christian”, I have a problem with the attribution of any motive or collective responsibility to the 1.6 billion people who actually are Muslims, or of a unified strategy by the 49 countries where they are the majority, let alone to the others caught up in the stereotype’s dragnet (many of whom are in fact Christians, as well as other religions).
To say “Muslims should…” is to immediately use an impossible generalisation, to invoke a stereotype, to validate the rhetoric of discrimination and to indicate unfamiliarity with people who might fall into the classification (as well as to covertly engage in ignorant proselytism as some of the conversations I’ve followed this weekend illustrated).
How can discussion of a statement that starts something like “Muslims should…” by people who are not Muslims do anything other than harm? Given the number of people, of countries, who are tarred with that brush, certainly nothing actionable could arise from it. That’s why, when I hear people ascribing actions or motivations to “Muslims”, I now respond: “which Muslims, where, and how do you know?”