Fighting Western reductionist perceptions
Arab, Muslim – whatʹs the difference?

Writer and activist Myra Al-Rahim examines the nature of her own Arab identity, the prejudices of her American peers and why religion is not the last word

"Is your family religious?" is almost consistently the follow-up question to someone asking me where I am from. Ever since I moved to the U.S. as the daughter of a Lebanese mother and Iraqi father, I have had to contest with the reality that Americans, particularly white Americans, remain intensely curious about my religious affiliations.

Typically, this curiosity gives way to shock and confusion – nay, distress! – when I inform them that I, an Arab, am totally and categorically a progressive secularist, descended from a long line of secularists. It is as if my American peers, fellow progressives, are unable to conceive of an Arab identity devoid of religion. For them, the challenge to imagine an Arab beyond the framework of Islam or religion is certainly too tall an order.

At best, inquiries into my religion and the subsequent shock I encounter after disclosing that I have none can be brushed off as a mere faux pas. But, more and more often, I find myself wondering if these interactions denote a culture of progressive Arab erasure reinforced and propagated by multitudes on the left who have grown far too comfortable with lazy perceptions of Arabs as a monolithic people.

No sense of nuance

Often, there is no differentiation made between Arab and Muslim, no sense of nuance. On both the left and right there exists a deep seated attachment to the monochrome and it has fallen on non-religious Arabs to reject the efforts of the West and Arab sectarian leaders to erase us from discourses surrounding Islam, immigration and discrimination.

At this point, it is essential to establish a sound and respectable definition of the term secularism. The Oxford Living Dictionary describes the term as "the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions", while providing the example sentence, "He believes that secularism means no discrimination against anybody in the name of religion".

Here, I am discussing secularism not so much as it pertains to the constitution of a state apparatus, but secularism as it concerns an individual's value system. In the case of Islam, particularly Islam in the Arab world, the implications of religion transcend far beyond state institutions and permeate the day-to-day lives of civilians, both religious and non-religious alike.

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