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Ten Terms Not to Use With Muslims

Monday, March 30th, 2009

 My favorite paper media for years has was the Christian Science Monitor which sadly from here on out is only going to be a weekly. Since I started traveling I have been subscribing to the online edition which will continue. This article appears in their last daily edition.

 There’s a big difference between what we say and what they hear.

By Chris Seiple

from the March 28, 2009 edition

“In the course of my travels – from the Middle East to Central Asia to Southeast Asia – it has been my great privilege to meet and become friends with many devout Muslims. These friendships are defined by frank respect as we listen to each other; understand and agree on the what, why, and how of our disagreements, political and theological; and, most of all, deepen our points of commonality as a result.

I have learned much from my Muslim friends, foremost this: Political disagreements come and go, but genuine respect for each other, rooted in our respective faith traditions, does not. If there is no respect, there is no relationship, merely a transactional encounter that serves no one in the long term.

As President Obama considers his first speech in a Muslim majority country (he visits Turkey April 6-7), and as the US national security establishment reviews its foreign policy and public diplomacy, I want to share the advice given to me from dear Muslim friends worldwide regarding words and concepts that are not useful in building relationships with them. Obviously, we are not going to throw out all of these terms, nor should we. But we do need to be very careful about how we use them, and in what context.

1. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. There is no clash of civilizations, only a clash between those who are for civilization, and those who are against it. Civilization has many characteristics but two are foundational: 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.

2. “Secular.” The Muslim ear tends to hear “godless” with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.

3. “Assimilation.” This word suggests that the minority Muslim groups in North America and Europe need to look like the majority, Christian culture. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another amid the public square of a shared society.

4. “Reformation.” Muslims know quite well, and have an opinion about, the battle taking place within Islam and what it means to be an orthodox and devout Muslim. They don’t need to be insulted by suggesting they follow the Christian example of Martin Luther. Instead, ask how Muslims understand ijtihad, or reinterpretation, within their faith traditions and cultural communities.

5. “Jihadi.” The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one’s spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating “just war” when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting “jihadis,” we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public’s – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.

6. “Moderate.” This ubiquitous term is meant politically but can be received theologically. If someone called me a “moderate Christian,” I would be deeply offended. I believe in an Absolute who also commands me to love my neighbor. Similarly, it is not an oxymoron to be a mainstream Muslim who believes in an Absolute. A robust and civil pluralism must make room for the devout of all faiths, and none.

7. “Interfaith.” This term conjures up images of watered-down, lowest common denominator statements that avoid the tough issues and are consequently irrelevant. “Multifaith” suggests that we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.

8. “Freedom.” Unfortunately, “freedom,” as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. “Freedom” is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.

9. “Religious Freedom.” Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.

10. “Tolerance.” Tolerance is not enough. Allowing for someone’s existence, or behavior, doesn’t build the necessary relationships of trust – across faiths and cultures – needed to tackle the complex and global challenges that our civilization faces. We need to be honest with and respect one another enough to name our differences and commonalities, according to the inherent dignity we each have as fellow creations of God called to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.

The above words and phrases will differ and change over the years, according to the cultural and ethnic context, and the (mis)perceptions that Muslims and non-Muslims have of one another. While that is to be expected, what counts most is the idea that we are earnestly trying to listen to and understand each other better; demonstrating respect as a result.”

Chris Seiple is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a “think tank with legs” that promotes sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.

On Language

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Camille Paglia, in  today, can not be accused of political correctness in her article bashing Dick Cavett for his piece on Sarah Palin.  I love it. But what she does not mention is that it might have been the content of the Palin repetoire that everyone was objecting to.  Nonetheless, I like Camille here and her poke in the eye. I happen to like frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run on sentences too…much easier to set a tone than “veddy veddy proper English.”

Camille Paglia:

“Once the Republican ticket was defeated, the time had passed for ad feminam attacks on Palin. Hence my surprise and dismay at Dick Cavett’s Nov. 14 blog in the New York Times, “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla,” which made a big splash and topped the paper’s most-read list for nearly a week. I have enormous respect for Cavett: His TV interviews with major celebrities, which are now available on DVD, set a high-water mark for sheer intelligence in that medium that will surely never be surpassed.

However, Cavett’s piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her “frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences.” He called her “the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High,” “one who seems to have no first language.” I will pass over Cavett’s sniggering dismissal of “soccer moms” as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons.

How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude.  In sonorous real life, Cavett’s slow, measured, self-interrupting and clause-ridden syntax is 50 years out of date. Guess what: There has been a revolution in English — registered in the 1950s in the street slang, colloquial locutions and assertive rhythms of both Beat poetry and rock ‘n’ roll and now spread far and wide on the Web in the standard jazziness of blogspeak.

Does Cavett really mean to offer himself as a linguistic gatekeeper for political achievers in this country? Yes, that is the lordly Yale that formed Dick Cavett’s linguistic and cultural assumptions and that has alarmingly resurfaced in the contempt that he showed for the self-made Sarah Palin in “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla.” I am very sorry that he, and so many other members of the educational elite, cannot take pleasure as I do in the quick, sometimes jagged, but always exuberant way that Palin speaks — which is closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.

English has evolved, and the world has moved on. There is no necessary connection between bourgeois syntax and practical achievement. I have never had the slightest problem with understanding Sarah Palin’s meaning at any time. Since when do free Americans subscribe to a stuffy British code of veddy, veddy proper English? We don’t live in a stultified class system. In the U.K., in fact, many literary leftists make a big, obnoxious point about retaining their working-class accents. Too many American liberals claim to be defenders of the working class and then run like squealing mice from working-class manners and mores (including moose hunting and wolf control). What smirky, sheltered hypocrites. Get the broom!”

Learning Spanish Amid “False Normalcy”

Monday, January 29th, 2007
Have been taking Spanish lessons in one of the local schools...Amigos del Sol. Three hours a day sitting in a chair. Only one other student in my classes so I can't space out. Present, past and future. ... [Continue reading this entry]


Tuesday, April 11th, 2006
1wXSp3CkNsDoJl3s0SgHmw-2006171144731304.gif Seeing the Mekong in Vientiane during dry season was a worse shock than seeing it in Luang Prabang...down hundreds of yards from the water line in the wet season. Leila, my Australian travel ... [Continue reading this entry]

Visa Run Misery

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006
Burma.gif Every month my son Doug has to cross into Burma and come back into Thailand to get another 30 day stay in the country. If you are late it's a $12 fine per day. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Shower Lay Down

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006
Doug and Luk call me every morning. Sometimes I am awake and sometimes not. This morning Luk says "Good morning mom!" "I love mom!" "I miss mom!" "One more day!" Doug gets on the phone ... [Continue reading this entry]

Another Country

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005
I knew we were living in a country other than the U. S. A when I dropped into a Dunkin Donut shop (hey it's been three years!) for a couple sugared donuts. "I'll have two sugared donuts," I said ... [Continue reading this entry]

“Oh New Shoes Lost Me!”

Monday, May 16th, 2005
1wXSp3CkNsDoJl3s0SgHmw-2006171163517229.gif After a flight from Bangkok on Bangkok Air, I have been enjoying my 26 year-old daughter-in-law on quiet Khlong Muang Beach in Krabi Province the last couple of weeks while my son Doug is ... [Continue reading this entry]

A Talk By Shirin Ebadi

Thursday, April 14th, 2005
Bob has been in the north for the last week so I joined the Foreign Correspondents Club the other day as a way of meeting other English speaking people in Bangkok. Membership is reciprocal with Foreign Correspondents Clubs around ... [Continue reading this entry]


Monday, December 6th, 2004
East China.gif Currently in a delightful city (Yangshau) that is on the Yangtze River about 100 miles north of Shanghai. China's autumn has been fantastic, the people interesting (and challanging) and the food tasty (most of ... [Continue reading this entry]

Lao Shan Mountain Climb

Sunday, October 31st, 2004
East China.gif Spent 3 days in Quin in new part of town, one in old town and one on a mountain north of town called Lao Shan--subsequently took train to Tai'an and climbed Tai ... [Continue reading this entry]

Chinese Mysteries

Monday, December 16th, 2002
The Chinese have incredible confidence in themselves...and consider themselves unquestionably the most superior people in the world...mostly due to their long history. We Westerners are the barbarians. (So we don't need to think we are "all that" as my ... [Continue reading this entry]

He Ho To Rangoon

Thursday, September 5th, 2002
Burma.gif Flight to Rangoon From He Ho Question: How do you know the Westerners standing behind you in the airport check-in line are not American? Answer: Their backpacks are pink, purple, yellow and orange. ... [Continue reading this entry]

A UNICEF Advisor

Saturday, August 31st, 2002
Burma.gif In Kalaw, at an outdoor tea house, I called out to a Western looking couple walking by...look...somebody from the West! The couple, from Israel, laughed and joined us at our low ... [Continue reading this entry]

Repression & The People

Wednesday, August 28th, 2002
Burma.gif Next door to the restaurant in Taunggyi I struck up a conversation with a young university student who was tending a a small bookstore. "Can everyone speak (out) in America," he asked. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Taunggyi…Last Frontier of Burma

Wednesday, August 28th, 2002
JTOL4njiflVtj5kLlwVbAM-2006175061519331.gif Taunggyi is the official end of the line for east-bound foreigners in Burma--at least if you are travelling by road. Beyond Taunggyi lies a world of black-marketeers, ruby miners, insurgent armies and opium and methamphetamine warlords. ... [Continue reading this entry]

A Bit Of Thai Culture

Tuesday, August 6th, 2002
Thai people are usually friendly, warm, charming and hospitable. Sanuk, the Thai word for fun or enjoyment is paramount to the Thai�s way oflife. For something to be worthwhile it must be sanuk. If it is not sanuk ... [Continue reading this entry]

Citrusdal and The Baths

Friday, June 14th, 2002
S12J2pKbmw6zVZyRvmb7L0-2006193181305721.gif June 14, 2002 My birthday The Baths is a health spa about 16 km from Citrusdal in a pretty wooded gorge. It is a long weekend in South Africa; Monday is Youth Day-(SA has ... [Continue reading this entry]

Orange River Bush Camp at Fiddler’s Creek

Wednesday, June 12th, 2002
The facilities are nice-big grassy campsite and there is a lapa (open air shelter) covered with green leaves of a plant with purple flowers within which to eat and wash dishes. At camp we eat left-over Kudo steak sandwiches ... [Continue reading this entry]

Hobas & Fish River Canyon

Tuesday, June 11th, 2002
t5vdleC6v9bjElbi1QdXwg-2006193172914229.gif June 11, 2002 On the way from Serus the topography is incredible--perfectly formed mesas and buttes-almost Utah-like. We stop in the tiny wide spot in the road called Bethanie. Bob mails a card ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Dunes & Sarus Guest Farm

Monday, June 10th, 2002
t5vdleC6v9bjElbi1QdXwg-2006193172914229.gif June 10, 2002 After a night camping near Sesriam, everyone else is up at 5:00 to go hiking in the Dunes. No coffee and no "breaky" (breakfast). These are the largest Dunes in the world ... [Continue reading this entry]

Okavango Delta By Makoro

Wednesday, May 29th, 2002
The Makoro Trip through the Delta By the time the 1300 km long Okavango, southern Africa's third largest river, enters Botswana from Angola, through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, it begins to spread and sprawl as it is absorbed by the ... [Continue reading this entry]

New Words In Lusaka

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2002
Otnq3CnZDrMlnlEtEldfpg-2006197135244488.gif In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa your car "hoots" not honks. Hoot, I tell them, is what an owl does! Rod says Geese "honk" and cars "hoot!" We laugh. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Animal Spotting The Big 5 In The Sarengeti

Thursday, May 9th, 2002
I love the remnants of the Swahili cadence in Victor's English. Giraffe: "It is raining and he is very happy there-he is getting a shower." Bob watching elephants: "This makes you feel badly there are zoos. Topi: lives up to 20 ... [Continue reading this entry]

Nairobi to Cape Town Overland

Monday, May 6th, 2002
HF0m0NezqDnitkljwNP8lg-2006188104829364.gif May 5, 2002 We left for the 4000 mile seven week trip in a Mercedes Benz truck overland from Nairobi to Capetown. As Bob suspected there would be, there are 17 kids all under ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mother Country English

Monday, February 18th, 2002
Last night we were walking to the theater and a guy sitting on the sidewalk against a building waiting for the bus after work called out and asked if we were tourists. I turned and smiled and said yes. He ... [Continue reading this entry]