Why Arab and Muslim Are Not Synonymous

The first lesson of journalism might just be this: Mind your facts. (That goes for the editor, too).

I share this obviousness with you because of an engaging paragraph that came my way in the course of my morning New York Times reading routine. (I know, I know: Maybe this is just God telling me to break the habit, or at least enlarge the reach of the ritual.) In the course of a decent article on the famous Arab poet known as Adonis, originally from Syria but now based in Paris, I found this fun paragraph:

He has also become interested in the plight of women in Islamic countries. Visiting a class taught by Mr. Mattawa, he said: "Right now we feel Arab culture is paralyzed. We suffer from women's sense of their lack of freedom, of being deprived of their individualism. It's impossible for a culture to progress with men alone, without women being involved."

You will notice, of course, that "Arab culture" and "Islamic countries" refer to very different things. Arab culture can be, for example, Christian or Jewish or entirely non-religious. As for the very unhelpful term "Islamic countries," I don't know if that means countries whose identities or politics incorporate Islam, all Muslim-majority countries or Islam itself (and, by implication, all Muslims, since we are pretty much interchangeable). And while I'm sure Adonis cares about the plight of women in Muslim countries, and I know he has strong feelings about Islamism and its ideas of femininity, this is not communicated by the quote above. (Nor does Islamism in one place exactly reflect Islamism in another.)

What I'm not sure about is how concerned I should be about the lazy and incorrect equation of Islam with Arabness. First, because I am not an Arab, and I resent the insinuation that the two must be associated (or are crudely inseparable). Second, because most Muslims aren't Arabs, either. Since Adonis is a poet who writes in Arabic, and most Muslims don't speak or understand Arabic, I'm sure Adonis is not a well-known figure in many Muslim countries (if that's what we're talking about).

I'm actually just more irked that one still has to offer such clarifications, and for The New York Times, no less. Perhaps this doesn't, at first, seem meaty enough for a full-on article. But consider what kind of nonchalant sloppiness this reflects toward one of the most relevant regions of American life today, and consider then the consequences of such an attitude.