Last Friday before going to the mosque I stopped to buy some groceries. I was wearing a headscarf and talking to a friend on the phone in Spanish. When I hung up, a lady came to me and said, “It’s surprising, I didn’t know they spoke Spanish in Saudi Arabia.”
I didn’t really know what to say. I wasn’t offended by it, because with time I’ve learned to deal with comments like that, I just felt very uncomfortable. I just smiled and walked away.
The thing is, this is a pretty common misunderstanding. Well, I don’t actually think that there are many people who think that Muslims are all from Saudi Arabia, or at least I want to think so. However, most people do not really differentiate between an Arab and a Muslim.
This is a very important thing to know about, more nowadays, when we hear about it everywhere. This is not a mistake only common to “average” people. The news coverage sometimes misses the point, too.
Only by understanding the difference between Arab and Muslim, we can understand many of the issues related to Islam.
The biggest mistake usually made, is to see Islam as a uniform block.
They are all Arab, they all speak Arabic, and they are all terrorists. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula, today only 15 percent of the Muslim population is from Arab ethnicity. That includes countries in both the Middle East (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) and in North Africa (i.e. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).
Even more surprising is the fact that people in those regions, people with Arab ethnicity, aren’t always Muslim. So, yeah, not all Muslims are Arabs, but also not all Arabs are Muslims. In Lebanon, for example, there are important Christian communities; those are Christian Arabs, they speak Arabic, do Mass in Arabic and read the Bible in Arabic. In Morocco, there is a Jewish community; Jewish Arabs that speak fluent Arabic, my French teacher in junior year of high school was from that community.
So, if only 15 percent of Muslims are Arab, which ethnicity does the other 85 percent belong to? Well, without going too far from the Arabian Peninsula, we can find other “Muslim” ethnicities.
Turkey, for instance, is a country where almost 95 percent of the population is Muslim. Their ethnicity is Turk not Arab, and even some of them don’t get very happy when they are called “Arab.” They speak Turkish, not Arabic, and still they are Muslims just like the ones in Syria or Tunisia.
The ethnicity for Iran is Persian. They speak Farsi, but are still Muslim. In Afghanistan the official language is not Arabic but Dari and Pashto, and even though Pakistan is a country with a big Muslim majority, and yet the population is not Arab, but has many different ethnicities.
In Africa, there is also a big Muslim population. Most of them are from African ethnicity, and speak the official language of their country.
And located in Southeast Asia and Oceania, Indonesia is the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world, and they are not Arab nor do they speak Arabic.
Of course, there is also another ethnicity added to Islam, or should I say, many other ethnicities. Those are the ethnicities of those who, like me, convert. I didn’t change my ethnicity when I converted, I don’t think that’s actually possible, and even if it was I wouldn’t.
I am Hispanic and Muslim, not an Arab who speaks fluent Spanish. The same happens with Americans or Europeans that convert to Islam. It is normal for people to get confused and sometimes call us “Arabs,” but this is a mistake that only reveals ignorance.
Islam is very broad, and the main reason we sometimes get it wrong is because we don’t really go in depth with it, and just believe everything the Media says.
This whole explanation narrows down to one thing. Taking into consideration how many different ethnicities, countries and cultures are involved with Islam, it would be very shallow to justify everything by blaming it on the religion.
Just as religion helps to shape culture, culture also tends to add or even modify things in religion. The way a Christian practices their Faith here in America is not the same as the way Christians practice it in South America, in Africa or in Asia.
The way religion is practiced doesn’t only depend on religion itself, but also on a cultural and social context.
It is the same with Islam. Different countries practice Islam differently.
To take a simple example, when the time for Iftar (breaking the fast after sunset in days of Ramadan) comes in Jordan, they won’t probably eat the same things that we eat in Colombia for that same event. We break the fast with arepas and papa salada, and that’s how we contribute our culture to the religion.
Now, this is kind of a simple example, but it also applies for other things. Some practices that are attributed to Islam, such as the burqa don’t really come from Islam, but from the particular culture of a country.
It’s only by understanding the diversity that exists within Islam, that we can understand the difference between culture and religion, even if sometimes it seems blurry.
Carolina Medellin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.