Is There A 'Muslim World'? President Obama's speech from Cairo today has been repeatedly billed — both in the media and in political circles — as a major address to the "Muslim World." But what exactly does that mean? Does such a world really exist as an international community, or is it just political rhetoric?
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Is There A 'Muslim World'?

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Is There A 'Muslim World'?

Is There A 'Muslim World'?

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And now we want to continue our conversation about the president's speech in Cairo, part of his ongoing efforts, as we said, to forge better relations with countries with large Muslim populations. Nations that the president, other political leaders, and the media have taken to calling the Muslim world.

President BARACK OBAMA: In fact our partnership with the Muslim world is critical.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I have great confidence in the future of this nation and in the future of the Muslim world.

Unidentified Man #1: To the Muslim world...

Unidentified Man #2: By reaching out to the Muslim world.

Unidentified Man #3: President Obama's soft approach to the Muslim world.

STEVE INSKEEP: Reaching out to the Muslim world.

Unidentified Woman: Engaging the Muslim world.

Unidentified Man #4: To the Muslim world.

MARTIN: But what exactly is the Muslim world? Who's included? What are their politics? And is it really appropriate to group together members of the world's second largest religion who live in more than 30 countries? To talk more about that, we called Ramzy Baroud. He's an editor of the online publication and recently wrote for an article for the Asia Times titled "The Myth of the Muslim World."

Also with us is Nihad Awad. He's the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And he recently wrote an open letter to President Obama explaining how he hopes the president will address Muslim nations. We called them yesterday in advance of the president's address. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RAMZY BAROUD (Editor, Thank you for having us.

Mr. NIHAD AWAD (Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, Ramzy, I'm sure you didn't choose the title of your piece; most writers don't. But you write in your piece, why is there an insistence on addressing Arabs and Muslims as one unified body, that is the so-called Muslim world that behaves according to specific rationale predisposed to respond to the same stimuli? What made you want to write this piece? Is this something that's just been driving you crazy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAROUD: Well, frankly, it's been driving me crazy since 9/11, you know, the whole reductionism where we ended up having a Muslim world that is being judged as one and eventually victimized as one, you know, has been the case for years and years. And with President Obama, instead of recognizing the uniqueness of every region, of every country, of every polity within every country, we are yet perpetuating this kind of convenient illusion that there is one unified political entity called the Muslim world that has to be addressed collectively, as well. And I think it's a grave mistake.

MARTIN: But isn't there sometimes an identity, a shared identity? Within Islam, isn't there the Ummah, the community of Islam?

Mr. BAROUD: Absolutely. And I've been to many Muslim countries in which I spoke to Muslim audiences and whenever I mention the subject of Palestine or Iraq or other issues that are of concern to Muslims, there's always this kind of sense of solidarity with these issues. But does that mean that these issues represent something politically as far as these groups and collectives are concerned? Or is it confined within the realm of the intangible, the romantic, the spiritual? And does it really have any real political translation in the real world?

MARTIN: Let us bring you into the conversation, Nihad Awad. In your letter to President Obama, you use the term Muslim world several times. Fair term, you think it's a reasonable term to use? Is there a collective Muslim identity? Is there a Muslim world?

Mr. AWAD: I think, as Ramzy said and I don't disagree with him, that the Muslim world...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Again I use the word world, is diverse, is multicultural. There are Muslims who belong to every ethnicity, culture, language, almost every nation on the face of the earth. They have different issues, different priorities, different feelings about different things. But there is a common thread vis-a-vis the United States. They are viewed collectively that the United States has wronged the Muslim world by being on the wrong side of history when it supported occupations, supported injustices.

So I remember when President George Bush traveled to Indonesia, he asked to meet with Muslim clergy. And I think he was surprised, according to reports, that the main issue they raised with him was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was not issues in Indonesia, but wherever you go, these hot, you know, spots, whether Israel-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, are on the minds of all people, Muslims and non-Muslims. And I believe the president is right by reaching out to the Muslim world not as a collective mindset but addressing issues that are common among Muslims in their views and perception of the United States.

MARTIN: Ramzy, do you take the view that the term simply should not be used, or you really don't think there is any collective identity? Because it seems as though you and Nihad agree that there are issues on which there is a consensus. I mean, just as among, for example, African-Americans, for example, there's tremendous diversity among African-Americans in life experience, country of origin, world view, even politically. But there are issues on which people would say, yes, I am part of the black community and this is my - I am part of sort of the consensus of view around some of these issues. So Ramzy, is it your view that there is no such consensus at all, or that the term is useless?

Mr. BAROUD: Michel, frankly my problem is not exactly with the term. I mean, I personally take pride in being a member of this collective, in a way. But not in a political sense. For example, when I went to Brunei, and I went to certain areas and I kind of got lost trying to find my way back to the capital. And I - when the, you know, locals found out that I was a Muslim, they were extremely helpful and I was so excited, you know, to - being able to relate to people so far away from me.

But on the other hand, what really bothers me is the reductionism that is affiliated with the Muslim world, the reductionism that made somehow more than one billion Muslim responsible for 9/11, the reductionism that made us answer questions about Osama bin Laden, the reductionism that divides, even within the Muslim world, divide the Muslims into moderates versus extremists...

MARTIN: But who are you blaming for this reductionism? Forgive me. Forgive me for interrupting, but it strikes me that President George W. Bush took pains in the days and weeks after 9/11 to be very sure to urge Americans and other listeners not to collectivize the event, not to blame all Muslims for the events of 9/11. It seems to me that he made those statements very strongly and very repeatedly.

Mr. BAROUD: Yet, Muslim charities throughout the world were targeted. Pretty much every Muslim who is in contact with any Western entity after 9/11 somehow found himself to be a target, from a student to any person. And I've been targeted in airports more than once, not as Ramzy Baroud but it just happened that my middle name was Mohammed(ph).

I think this collective Muslim identity can be viewed in two ways. The fact that they have been targeted as a collective and also the fact that they have developed the sense of collective victimization as a result of all of this. So when we talk about the Muslim world, I do not think that we are talking about the collective spirituality or the collective frames of reference as far as religion or culture is concerned. We are talking about pure politics, being collectively targeted and being collectively victimized.

MARTIN: Nihad, what about Ramzy's point of view here? He says the term encourages a collective thinking.

Mr. AWAD: I think there's a backlash to that. And definitely Muslims have felt the backlash because they suffered in the United States when they were blamed for 9/11. And they paid the price for 9/11 in terms of discrimination, alienation, in many places.

So that is a form of collective punishment and generalization. But at the same time, we have to recognize that Islam, in a way, is unique because of the concept of the Ummah, which is a nation or a community. You walk into any mosque in the United States, you see a sense of unity among nations, color. They just see people as one body.

In fact, the Koran mentions that, that the believers are one brotherhood. I personally like that term because it gives me a sense of duty that I have to do my best to be part of this body. It's a test for me to live to the ideals of Islam, which are no different than the American ideals when it comes to the sanctity of human life, respect for diversity, human rights, democracy. All of them are part of the model if Islam is lived truly and properly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about whether there really is such a thing as the Muslim world, whether it really exists as an international community or just a piece of political rhetoric. Our guests are Nihad Awad, he's the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and writer Ramzy Baroud. He's an editor of, the online publication.

Ramzy, you made a point earlier I wanted to pick back on. Isn't it also the case that there are leaders of some Muslim countries who also use the term, for whatever reason, as a way to extend their own political reach, as a way to identify themselves with something larger than their own nations, a way to extend their political influence?

Mr. BAROUD: Thank you, I think that's exactly correct. I think the term is not only used conveniently by U.S. decision makers, but it's also used conveniently by various Arab and Muslim polity. But if you actually kind of look at the term with a microscope, you find that within the Muslim world, we actually have different definitions of what the Muslim world means politically.

Obama's choice that Cairo is going to be the center of his reach-out to the Muslim world was not an accident. Cairo represent a group of Arab and Muslim countries that are considered moderates. Obviously, there is an attempt here at giving the moderates a boost in the face of the so-called extremists, represented by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other polities around the Middle East.

So the term is convenient, but it's also shrewd in a way because by speaking in Cairo, Obama is saying that it is Egypt that represent this greater imaginary, political entity called the Muslim world, and is trying to pull the rugs, basically, from underneath the others who are not deserving of being, you know, seen as the center of the Muslim world.

MARTIN: Nihad, I want to ask you your opinion of the president's decision to give his major address in Cairo. And Ramzy, at some point, we must put you on the spot. You have to tell us, if you don't want us to use the term Muslim world, what term should we use? So I'm going to ask you to think about that while I ask Nihad, what is your view of the president's decision to give this address in Cairo?

Mr. AWAD: Cairo represents a historic value in the Arab world and in the Muslim world. It is the largest populous Arab country. It is the first country that struck a peace deal with Israel. And I think the significance of the place is important, but more important to me is the content of the speech and whether or not Muslims worldwide will believe it. Because Muslims worldwide are frustrated and tired, and I think America has been hurt, America has hurt itself, and there is no winner. Everybody is almost a loser in this, and we need a shift in the mindset.

MARTIN: Ramzy, now is that time. You've told us that you find the term the Muslim world unhelpful, misleading in some ways. So what terms would you recommend?

Mr. BAROUD: I have to admit that this is a difficult question because I haven't considered it, but I would say perhaps the term Arab and Muslim nations could replace it. But that is really not my intention as much as dealing with the specific grievances in every Arab and every Muslim country. That's what really matters at the end.

MARTIN: Ramzy Baroud is an author and editor of, the online publication. He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Nihad Awad is the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. You can find links to writings from both men on our Web site. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. AWARD: Thank you very much.

Mr. BAROUD: It was a pleasure.

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