Muslims as ‘cultural objects’ 


More and more we can find examples in which Muslims are reduced to their material culture and religious culture: Muslim women reduced to their hijabs, niqabs, burkas, chadors; Muslim men represented as repressive, violent, fanatic and irrational and so on. Just read some commentaries about Muslim women, or about Muslim life in general, and you will be able to understand why I say that Muslims are reduced to their ‘material culture’.

The main element of this grievous fallacy, as I have explained in The Anthropology of Islam, is the idea that Muslims are shaped by culture and in particular by their own religion: Islam. If you think that this cultural objectification of Muslims is innocuous, it is time to rethink and read the story of a woman in Germany who was killed because of her hijab.


Contrary to the expectations of many, the killer is not her husband or father trying to defend their honor or Islam, but rather a white German neighbor whom the victim had brought to court for slander. Indeed, for this killer, what he wanted to offend, and then ended in murdering, was not the victim as a human being, but rather her dress, her hijab, the cultural material expression of what he hated: Islam.

And so blind hatred brought the killer to stab the victim eighteen times, and in the midst of the chaos, when her husband intervened in an attempt to save his wife, a nearby security guard shot him instead of the aggressor. When the critical decision to shoot must be made, it must be made in seconds.  Unfortunately, in this case, cultural stereotypes provided the target before objective judgement could.

Some of these stereotypes are ‘latent’ and the product of mainstream discourses, while others are expressly aimed to represent Muslims as different, prone to violence, controlled by Islam (whatever it might be), and as somehow ‘less-than-human’. I could spend energy to provide, link after link, examples for each category. Yet, it would be an endless, if not futile, effort.  Rather, let me debate the root of and the methodology behind such pernicious process.

First of all we have to consider that ‘Muslim’ is essentially within any discourse a mere linguistic label that can only derive its meaning from contexts. Surely ‘Muslim’ is not a ‘person’ in the agency signifier of the term, but rather an ‘idea’, or in other words, an abstraction. Let me put it like this, paraphrasing Bateson’s example (which refers to lions instead): if you happen to be sitting on a train and notice a dark complexioned man wearing a long beard and a Muslim cap sitting near you, and if his cumbersomely large rucksack makes you feel uneasy, it is a logically incorrect mistake to say that you fear the ‘Muslim.’


Indeed, there are no ‘Muslims’ or even ‘Christians’, ‘trains’ or ‘rucksacks’ present within your mind (i.e. brain).  Instead, there are only mental representations of the above nouns alongside millions of others. Bateson refers to these representations as a ‘difference that makes a difference’ (i.e. a bit of information), or more simply, an idea. In other words, you have an ‘idea’ of the ‘Muslim’ seated on the train, or even possibly of all ‘Muslims’ as a category. It is clear, however, that it would be wrong to confuse your idea, your mental representation, with the reality of the Muslim person sitting near you.

A person’s mental representations are equivalent to a map representing a territory; but as Alfred Korzybski loved to remind us, ‘the map is not the territory’ (1958: 58). Furthermore, in the case of Muslims, the map is often shaped by illusion and abstraction – namely, that something called Islam may exist in itself. Of course, this is not the case.


You will never meet something called ‘Islam’ on the street or in the queue at the Post Office.  Moreover, there is no person who can claim to know what ‘Islam wants’ because Islam is, in human terms, an ‘idea’, a bit of information, a difference that makes a difference.

There exist only ‘ideas’ about Islam, and these ideas can only be debated and discussed by people, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Muslims are human beings. As all other human beings, they too think and act upon their thoughts that derive from various interpretations and contexts.  Indeed, even when opinions and ideas appear similar, an attentive observer will discover that no two Muslims have identical ideas about Islam.  Although the fact that a person, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, can only learn about Islam from another person and so forth, this process of learning does not occur within a vacuum.  Instead, it happens within complex internal (mental and neurocognitive) and external (social and natural environment) contexts.

Back to the so-called ‘veil’, burka, hijab and women. It is clear that the reason for wearing one has multiple motives, both internal and external. Each case is different and personal and to try to discuss an ‘epistemology’ of ‘veil’ is not only a useless exercise but also an objectifying one. The danger is particularly high in anthropology and sociology, since these disciplines have a methodological tendency to deny individuality. I cannot other than agree with Rapport:

[there is a] social-scientific tendency to regard the individual actor as put upon rather than ‘putting on’. I find much here in the critique of displacement which accords with social-scientific analysis of individual behaviour in social-cultural millieux per se: ‘because’ motives are widely inferred while ‘in order to’ motives barely figure. Questions such as how individuals deal with life, how they make meaning in the midst of everyday life and change, suffering and good fortune, become questions largely of social determination. (2003: 52)

Indeed, the reality of everyday life is more complex – as is dealing with emotions, memories, dynamics of interaction and communication, so that, as Milton has observed,

First, the individual is the only entity in human society capable of experiencing emotions and having feelings, the only seat of consciousness, and therefore the only entity capable of learning. So, if we are interested in how human beings come to understand the world around them, we have to focus first on individuals, because societies and cultures as whole entities do not learn—individuals do.

Second, the individual is the only entity sufficiently discrete to have an environment […] I suggest that entities like ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘population’ are too abstract to be surrounded by anything with which a substantive relationship is possible. (Milton 2007: 71)

To reduce the individual to society is a misleading analytical approach, but to reduce the individual to his or her material culture and (stereotyped) religious beliefs is not only intellectually dishonest but also extremely dangerous.  An example of the dangers of this approach can be observed in the objectification of Jews that occurred in Nazi Germany, and the Final Solution planned for the Jewish culture, and consequently the entire Jewish population, as the ‘Jew’ was believed to be merely an expression of Judaism.

Certainly today we can find some social scientists who fully embrace the fallacy of considering Muslims to be the product of a religion and material culture.   An illustration of this can be found in much of the work of, for example, Dr Marie Macey (I will discuss her work in another post, but read this chapter to have an idea).

Sometimes, however, such–intellectual and analytical–fallacies can produce laughable results. Look at this academic article entitled, ‘Is ethnicity and religion an aetiological factor in men with rapid ejaculation?

If you cannot access it (or if you are not linked to a university account), allow me summarise the ‘scientific’ research: the study analysed which group, on the basis of the religion they professed, has higher incidences of reported rapid ejaculation among Muslims, Christians and Others (there is ever an ‘Other’!). The study showed that Muslims, particularly those from Bangladesh, suffer the most from this unpleasant sexual disfunction, while Christians (all of them?) seemed to perform better in prolonging their bedroom antics.


However, if anyone now thinks that this may be a good argument to convert, say, Muslims in Afghanistan – think twice, since the same study tells us that Christians suffer more from erectile disfunction!

I think that this last example can clearly highlight what happens when we truly believe that ‘religion’ can ‘cause’ events and have effects on the behaviour of humans (or even their physiological functions!).

I hope that many scholars, and in particular doctoral students, will take seriously the weakness of a culturalist approach to religion, and consider the consequences of acting and making policies that draw upon such a false way of understanding Muslims, or any other religion.

Otherwise, one day we may wake up to discover Viagra vending machines in churches.


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17 thoughts on “Muslims as ‘cultural objects’ 

  1. People in courtrooms often want to kill each other. She died because the security was so terribly lax, he was able to get at her.

    My previous post in the Camden article mentions the elephant in the living room. There is a regular flow of news stories about the gross intolerance of muslims in other lands. For each other as well as non-muslims.

    I believe it happens because of the lack of penalties for such behavior in those places.

    You may say “I am a peaceful man, what has this to do with me, it is happening elsewhere why should it matter here.” But I think it does.

    Every time a Friday mob runs murdering out of a mosque, or a church is bombed, or non muslims otherwise set upon, one wonders, when will it happen here?

  2. Am a bit perplexed by the response from ‘eliza’.
    A ‘Muslim’ is also human. They react to stimuli. To bring up the moot point of “gross intolerance” of Muslims overseas is beside the point. Does that response justify our intolerance to a Muslim here?
    I am an ethnic male in Sydney. I have received more taunts, and experienced more discrimination by ‘white’ Aussies than any other cultural or racial grouping. Does that mean I have the right to hate all white Aussies?
    Absolutely No!

  3. Good article. Thanks

    @eliza,

    Have you ever heard of “Manufacturing Consent”? That is what you are! You should read The Clash of Civilization one more time, or some other book of memeber of CIA’s Brain Trust.

    Quote:
    “I believe it happens because of the lack of penalties for such behavior in those places.”
    Enf of Quote

    Fallacy and stupidity of this statement is infinite. Penalties…more penalties!? Will it resolve anything? Of course not. Hate and hatred which promoting governing elite is key word. After you Gov. killed over 1.000.000 Iraqis 4.500.000 have escaped vicious killing caused and initiated by UK and US you ask more penalties. OK but for who?

    What about the news that killer will be charged for manslaughter? What about that guard shot victim’s husband? Isolated case? No way, rather it is resurgent Nazism with western “values”.

    If you are sincere and honest then confront imperialistic and colonial policy and politics of your Gov.,otherwise shut up!

  4. ‘Is ethnicity and religion an aetiological factor in men with rapid ejaculation?’ — this is amazingly similar to my favourite branch of nutty racist colonial pseudo-science — Phalloplethysmography, which compared penis sizes by race! See Anton Gill “Ruling Passions: Sex, Race and Empire (BBC Books, 1995).

  5. Oh, yes, we’re all human.

    Before 9/11, Zawahiri told OBL to quit his theatrical attacks on US, because sooner or later America would go berserk and murder multitudes of people. I believe that is an accurate description of what happened. I bet OBL had no idea.

  6. Pingback: Friday Links — July 24, 2009 « Muslimah Media Watch

  7. Non-Muslims are not the only ones obsessed with a Muslim woman’s clothing.

    What about Muslims obsessed with a Muslim woman’s clothing? So many Muslims have reduced Marwa El Sherbini to her hijab. Read some of the commentaries written by Muslims about Sherbini as the “Hijab Martyr” or “Martyr of the Veil”, she as an individual is forgotten and the focus is on her Hijab.

    Tell the Muslim community to stop obsessing about my clothing and my hijab. As long as we are obsessed with it so are others!

    • Dear Hakena,
      your point is a very valid indeed. I do not say that Muslims are reduced to their material culture only by non-Muslims. There are many and many example that Muslims do the same indeed.
      By the way, I am all surprise that the focus in all the time about women: what about the young Muslim boys whom have to ware (without feeling conformable) a traditional ethnic Muslim dress (included a cap and very short hair) and grow a traditional ethic (Muslims?) beard?

      Why speaking only of women? I see in those individual obsessed with ‘Muslim women dress’ the same with ‘Muslim men dress and style’. I am sure that you know that the Taliban in Afghanistan were not less cruel towards men whom did not respect what they assumed to be the ‘Islamic’ way of being and dressing (and indeed now the selling of fake beards with the right beard-length in kabul is very much a dead business).
      An interesting question may be: when this ‘obsession’ with ‘material culture’ started within the Muslim communities (and how and why has spread?) I think this may be an interesting debate and possibly a future post.
      thanks
      Gabriele

  8. When has this ‘obsession’ with ‘material culture’ started within the Muslim communities and how and why has spread?

    That’s a GREAT question and you make a good point about young men being pressured as well (When it comes to pressure and abuse usually do forgot the men don’t we) . But I honestly believe in my hearts of hearts when it comes to “material culture”, I as a woman I receive more DIRECT pressure than a young man. OR maybe it’s easier to target women. The precious times the Imam at my local mosque directly addresses us women- is when he wants to talk about modesty and hijab, and the workshops for women always include clothes. (sucks)

    Gabriele, you ask an interesting question.

    • Dear Hakena,

      thanks for your comment again. I have no evidences to say with certainty whom may receive the highest pressure because there is no statistical studies available. I agree with you, however. My impression is similar to yours.

      However, we have to consider some factors. While the pressure about ‘material cultural’ and ‘modesty related behavior’ for women is expressed within Muslim communities (within and outside the western countries) is often in the public sphere (i.e. the Kuthbas,) and public places (mosques and son on), the pressure on young Muslim men is one of the most hidden and often even not discussed by the person whom feel to be victim of such pressure.

      The same goes with the mass-media. If a Muslim woman is murdered by stoning in a remote rural village, the mass-media will fully report the account, human right organization will, rightly enough, scream about it, and Robert Spencer will use the case to show how barbarian the Muslims (or at least the religious one) are.

      Yet I can say that young man are stoned to death, or punished in villages in a very physical and severe way, but nobody knows their names, nobody really care. This is a very easy thing to actually test.

      I may explain more here from my own research, but it will take too much space in a post and it will make it unreadable. Maybe I am going to write an article or a conference paper on it and then link to the discussion here.
      thanks for you contribution
      Gabriele

  9. Pingback: “Islam is evil”. “No! Islam is peace”: The fallacy of the ‘scripturegnosis’ argument « Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist

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