The Need for Self-Definition
Minority communities in the United States unfortunately share many of the same negative experiences with reference to their integration into the general social framework of America. African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans and host of other no less important groups have fought for their civil rights, civil liberties, for self-determination and self-definition.
Possibly most interesting in the social development of minority communities in the United States has been the issue of self-definition. For so many peoples that were either brought to these shores as labor or who chose seek new lives in this land as immigrants, the question of self-definition has been a struggle.
From the earliest days of discovery until the present, American culture has played a major role in defining the peoples that comprise its patchwork society. Unfortunately America's definitions have not always been accurate or appropriate for the peoples being described.
For instance, are the descendants of African slaves done any measure of justice by being labeled Negroes, Niggers, Spooks, Darkies or Coloreds? By the same principle, are peoples belonging to Native American tribes treated with the respect they deserve by being called Redskins, Savages or Indians?
Of course over the decades, minority communities have reclaimed territory by settling for nothing less than definitions for themselves that were conceived by their own people. In this way, the descendants of African slaves have chosen to be referred to as African Americans. Native Americans have in many instances chosen to identify with the specific tribes from which their ancestors came: the Ohlone, the Cheyenne, the Sioux and the Iroqois, to name a few.
But the struggle continues. For some reason, the American societal machine seems to so effectively rehash the process of acclimation to new cultural additions. And at this particular point in time, Muslims happen to be one of the unlucky groups currently fighting to move from a state of being defined to one of actively making definitions.
Nowhere is this fight more apparent than in the world of the media. Many Muslims detest having to gather information from mainstream media, in which an entire vocabulary has been contrived to define Muslims. Consider the indignity of knowing that the only way to get information about Muslims on the world or national scene is to endure a litany of derogatory terms such as "Islamic fundamentalist," "Muslim extremist," "Islamic raider" and "Islamic terrorist."
But can the American system be faulted for its definitions of Muslims? In the absence of self-definition, the answer to that question is no. After all, a group of individuals who carry out acts of violence and who say that the main drive behind those acts of violence is their belief in the religion of Islam, are almost by textbook definition "Islamic terrorists." It is unfortunate that such definitions ring offensive in the ears of Muslims, but what more can be expected from the American media?
Therefore it is time for Muslims to do what other minorities have done to help eradicate the use of loaded terminology: Create a vocabulary that provides accurate definitions for a wide range of circumstances. If a core set of descriptors can be coined, then these can begin to take precedence in Muslims' speech and writing. Eventually the prevalence of these descriptors in Muslim circles will filter into the broader society and, in turn, into the media.
The challenge then, is to create that set of terms. Are Muslims willing to concede that a "Muslim extremist" is indeed a Muslim extremist? Can a term such as "religious malcontent" be substituted in various situations involving Muslims engaged in violence? Are Muslims living in United States "American Muslims" or "Muslim Americans?"
The ball is in our court. The media is awaiting the final verdict on preferred language. So what's it going to be?
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com