The World’s Muslims: Does One Size Fit All?

Book excerpt: Who Speaks For Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think.

While many people commonly speak of Islam and Muslims in broad, all-encompassing terms, there are many interpretations of Islam and many different Muslims. Muslims comes from diverse nationalities, ethnic and tribal groups, and cultures; speak many languages; and practice distinct customs. The majority of the world’s Muslims live in Asia and Africa, not the Arab world. Only about one in five of the world’s Muslims are Arabs. The largest Muslim communities are in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria rather than Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran. And millions of Muslims live in Europe, the United States, and Canada, where they represent the second and third largest religion (second largest in Europe and Canada and third largest in the United States). Because of globalization and emigration, today the major cities where Muslims live are not only exotic-sounding places such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Mecca, Islamabad, and Kuala Lumpur, but also London, Paris, Marseilles, Brussels, New York, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Religiously, culturally, economically, and politically, there are multiple images and realities of Islam and of Muslims.

Religiously, Muslims are Sunni (85%), who are the majority in most Muslim countries, or Shia (15%), who predominate in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. After the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ passed away, Sunnis believed that the most qualified person should be selected as his successor. A minority, the followers of Ali (Shi’ites), said the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had designiated Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, to be leader (imam) and that leadership should be within the family of the Prophet ﷺ. In contract to a Sunni Caliph or ruler, a Shia imam is both a religious leader and a political leader and has special spiritual significance. […]

Like other religions, Islam also has different – and sometimes contending – theologies, law schools and Sufi (mystic) order. Finally, Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, can be observant or non-observant – conservative, fundamentalist, reformist, secular, mainstream or religious extremist.

The world’s 1.3 billion Muslims live in some 57 countries with substantial or majority Muslim populations in Europe, North America, and across the world. […] Muslims speak not only Arabic, but also Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Swahili, Bahasa, Indonesian, and Chinese, as well as English, French, German, Danish and Spanish.

Muslim women’s dress, educational and professional opportunities, and participation in society vary significantly too. Women in some Muslim societies cannot drive cars and are sexually segregated, but women in many other parts of the world drive cars, ride motorcycles, and even fly planes. Some Muslim women are required by law to fully cover themselves in public, while others are prohibited from displaying the Muslim headscarf. A growing number of Muslim woman are choosing to cover their heads, while others do not. In the United Arab Emirates and Iran, women make up the majority of university of students. In other parts of the world, women lag behind men in even basic literacy.

Women serve in government in parliaments and cabinets and have headed governments in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while in other Muslim countries, women are srtuggling for the right to vote and run for office. Muslim women may wear a sari, panstsuit, blue jeans, dress, or skirt, just as Muslim men may wear flowing robes, blue jeans, pullover sweaters or three-piece business suits and may be bearded or clean shaven.

Perhaps the most striking examples of diversity in the Muslim world are in economic and political development. Economically, the oil-rich and rapidly developing Persian Gulf states such as Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia and worlds apart from poor, struggling, underdeveloped countries such as Mali and Yemen. And politically, Islamic governments in Iran, Sudan and the Taliban’s Afghanistan stand in sharp relief with the more secular-oriented governments of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Indonesia.

In Turkey, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, and Malaysia, Islamic activists have emerged as an “alternative elite” in mainstream society. Members or former members of Islamic organizations have been elected to parliaments and served in cabinets and as prime ministers and presidents of countries such as Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Islamic associations provide social services and inexpensive and efficient educational, legal, and medical services in the slums and many lower middle-class neighborhoods of Cairo, Algiers, Beirut, Mindanao, the West Bank and Gaza.

All the while – and in stark contrast – militant groups have terrorized Muslim societies in the name of Islam; attacked New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; and set of bombs in Madrid and London. They reflect the radicalism that threatens the Muslim and Western worlds.

The vast diversity of Islam and of mainstream moderate Muslims has been overshadowed and obscured by a deadly minority of political (or ideological) extremists. In a monolithic “us” and “them” world, Islam – not just Muslims who are radical – is seen as a global threat, and those who believe in an impeding clash of civilizations, are not only the bin Ladens of the world, but also many of us.


Check out Link TV's Documentary, Who Speaks For Islam: Muslims On Screen

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