Communicating with Muslims

Cultural Insights — By on April 1, 2009 at 7:20 am

People in various cultures perceive the world differently. This is one of the main causes of communication miscues between individuals from diverse regions of the world. If you want to see an excellent example of how the meaning of simple words can vary from one person to the next, check out this article in the Christian Science Monitor in which Chris Seiple dissects 10 words or phrases that may be meant one way by a Western speaker but understood differently by a Muslim. An excerpt:

– “Secular.” The Muslim ear tends to hear “godless” with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.

– “Jihadi.” The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one’s spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating “just war” when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting “jihadis,” we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public’s – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.

– “Religious Freedom.” Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.

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