Photo: modified from an original by TIME Inc.
Photo: modified from an original by TIME Inc.

There are some terms that people in Islamic and Western countries should never say to each other, because they confuse and inflame more than they clarify. The most obvious ones would be “jihad”, “crusade” and “great satan”. All of them are used in somewhat innocuous ways by the people who utter them, but mean something completely different – and much more inflammatory – to foreign ears.

I would like to propose a topical addition to the list of words that should never be used, and that would be “myth”. Specifically when it is used in the context in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Egyptian Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef have mentioned it in recent months, i.e. to speak of “the myth of the Holocaust” (Egyptian Islamists deny Holocaust; BBC News, 23 Dec 2005) . They know what they mean by the phrase, and I know what they mean, but if they think that most people over here are going to hear it and respond with anything more profound than “Holocaust deniers!” then they are deeply ignorant of how central is the Holocaust in U.S. perceptions of the Middle East, how superficial is the U.S. public discourse on relations with the Muslim world, and how much that discourse is framed by those who are pushing for a “clash of civilizations” and who are currently fixated on finding a justification to bring about regime change in Iran.

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