At the time of 9/11, my family was part of an Eastern Orthodox parish in South Florida in which most of the members -- a strong majority -- were either Arab or Lebanese. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.
One strong memory: The anger of grandparents noting that their grandchildren were being harassed at local schools -- in one case, pushed around on a playground -- because they were "Arabs" and "Arabs" attacked the World Trade Center. This American-born child from a Christian Arab home was wearing his gold baptismal cross at the time the other kids jumped him.
Don't people realize, parishioners kept saying, that "Arab" is not a religious term, that "Arab" is not the same thing as "Muslim"? Don't they know that Christians have been part of Middle Eastern culture since the early church? Don't they know that the "Muslim world" is not the same thing as the "Arab world"?
I thought of this while reading a New York Times Sunday Review article that ran with this headline: "The Sexual Misery of the Arab World." Here is how it starts:
ORAN, Algeria -- After Tahrir came Cologne. After the square came sex. The Arab revolutions of 2011 aroused enthusiasm at first, but passions have since waned. Those movements have come to look imperfect, even ugly: For one thing, they have failed to touch ideas, culture, religion or social norms, especially the norms relating to sex. Revolution doesn’t mean modernity.
Note the reference to "ideas, culture, religion or social norms." Let's continue:
The attacks on Western women by Arab migrants in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve evoked the harassment of women in Tahrir Square itself during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution. The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women. In some places, women are veiled, stoned and killed; at a minimum, they are blamed for sowing disorder in the ideal society. In response, some European countries have taken to producing guides of good conduct to refugees and migrants.
OK, so this is not an article that simply uses the term "Arab world" all the way through without mentioning the actual subject of the article -- which is the fact that there are bitter divisions INSIDE Islam and the Muslim world over sexuality and the lives of women, in particular.
However, it would be easy -- unless the reader knew better -- to read this article and assume that the Times editorial team is equating the "Arab world" and a large, crucial part of the "Muslim world." And while the article does mention Islam, it never really offers details explaining why some Muslims believe one thing concerning sexuality issues and other Muslims believe something else.
You know, Arabs are Arabs are Arabs and they do what they do.
There are moments when readers are told that something specific is happening and religious labels are attached to these attacks. For example:
In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition. During the summer in Algeria, brigades of Salafists and local youths worked up by the speeches of radical imams and Islamist TV preachers go out to monitor female bodies, especially those of women bathers at the beach. The police hound couples, even married ones, in public spaces.
Is this a problem that exists only among Muslims in the "Arab world"? After all, some of the largest Muslim cultures in the world are far outside the Middle East. And while we are asking questions, are these behaviors and beliefs found among Arab Christians and members of other minority religious faiths found in the "Arab world"?
Who knows? Muslims are Muslims are Muslims. Later on, as a kicker, readers are told:
People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.
How would the Times respond if, oh, a Republican presidential candidate made a statement during a debate painting this picture of the "Muslim world" with such a broad, vague and, I would argue, dangerous brush?
But think back to my Arab friends, many of whom dread reading the news right now because of their justifiable fears about what is happening in Syria and the Middle East in general. Do you understand why they have -- for decades -- struggled to understand why so many Americans do not realize that the Christians of the Middle East (many of whom are Arabs) are in danger?
The bottom line: It doesn't help when elite, influential media assume that "Arab" equals "Muslim" and "Arab culture" equals major trends inside "Muslim culture."
This Times piece, in reality, was describing a set of horrible trends common among many Muslims, primarily in the Arab world. It should have said that.