The scene is this: a tourist returns to the United States from her first time in Morocco. She has never been to North Africa, an Arabic-speaking country, or a predominantly Muslim country before. The experience is new and different, but enjoyable. She returns and is excited to share with her friends what “Muslim culture” is like.
This is a phrase I’ve heard often. It’s not one used by everybody, but I’ve heard it enough for it to catch my attention. Because I feel specificity of language is so central to communicating an idea efficiently and correctly, I personally find the phrase problematic and worth examining.
What specifically is the tourist referring to when she uses the phrase “Muslim culture?” As could be said of phrases like “Jewish culture,” the phrase refers to a set of customs and traditions common to most Muslims- their call to prayer, religious ceremonies like marriages and funerals, etc. The components of this term are limited because culture varies so much between the vast geographical territories that are predominantly Muslim. For example, the use of Arabic cannot be classified as a part of Muslim culture for two reasons: because it is spoken by non-Muslims and because many Muslims do not speak Arabic. Labeling a cultural practice as “Muslim” just because it is associated predominantly with people who happen to be Muslim is easy to do but is not correct or specific. (And why don’t we hear terms like “Christian culture” or “Catholic culture,” anyway? No one would come back from Spain and share what “Catholic culture” was like.) This makes the term “Muslim culture” problematic for communication and likely to cause offense.
Likewise, this tourist is using the term “Muslim culture” synonymously with “Moroccan culture.” What culture did she experience in Morocco? The food, clothing, language, music, etc. are not Muslim but distinctly Moroccan, the products of thousands of years of interaction between many North African ethnic groups with their own distinct cultural practices. Certainly, many of these Moroccan cultural elements are influenced by Islam, as 98.7% of Moroccans are Muslim; Moroccan architecture tends to adhere to a series of tenets on Islamic domestic life.
I believe that the influence on Islam in what we saw in Morocco actually played a small part. The live music we heard was distinctly Moroccan and based not on Islam but on the history of the people who perform it. The food was Moroccan and would not be found the same in another country. I only noticed outright Islam with the call to prayer- other manifestations of the religion (clothing, family values) were uniquely colored by Moroccan-ness and individual choices.
The way we use language is so important to how we are understood. Perhaps others disagree with me, and I’d love to hear their opinions. However, I believe that the term “Muslim culture,” much like the way the term “Middle East” is currently being contested for its Euro-centrism and lack of specificity (but that’s for another blog post), should be re-examined. Its usage reveals a lot about the intentions or lack of understanding of its user.
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