Muslim = Arab + Iran?

Somehow, a lot of people and the media think most Muslims are Arabs. It pisses me off. Can’t the media look up some data? The latest is a CNN story about the case of Sultana Freeman, a Muslim woman who has brought a lawsuit against Florida for revoking her driver’s license with a fully-veiled photo. (Niqabi Paralegal has detailed coverage of this issue.) Here are the Muslim countries whose laws about photo IDs are mentioned by CNN.

Country Population Photos on IDs
Saudi Arabia 23,513,330 Women aren’t allowed to drive.
Iran 66,622,704 Women wear a traditional chador, which does not cover the face.
Egypt 70,712,345 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures
United Arab Emirates 2,445,989 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.
Oman 2,713,462 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.
Kuwait 2,111,561 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.
Qatar 793,341 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.
Bahrain 656,397 Women do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.
Jordan 5,307,470 Women can drive if their faces are covered but do not cover their face in I.D. pictures.

(Population figures from CIA World Fact Book)

All of these are Arab countries except Iran. In addition, except for Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the others are really small countries. Compare this list to the list of the countries with the largest Muslim populations.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

25 thoughts on “Muslim = Arab + Iran?”

  1. Remember that Reuters article that mentioned veiled4allah? The reported called it an “Arab-themed” blog. Excuse me! I’m not Arab and I don’t write about Arab culture or society. You could say the same thing of course since you write about Pakistan.

  2. A regular joe not knowing this is fine, but reporters should know better.

    I wonder what people like this would think if they knew that my mom’s first language is Arabic. Would they classify me as an Arab? (I am not, and neither is my mom.)

  3. well-

    i’ve had to correct this misimpression a lot to, though most people are told at least once in their life that indonesia is the most populous muslim country.

    BUT-i have to say that arabs tend to add to this confusion sometimes. for instance, arab-american organizations have pamphlets, and sometimes, they start almost interchanging “anti-arab” and “anti-muslim.” now, we all know that ~5% of arabs world-wide are christian, and 30-60% (depending on who you believe) in the united states are, so this is a problem from the other perspective to. when you see people from arab american organizations that go on TV who seem to have “muslim” names (some lebanese maronite last names are pretty obvious, helou for instance)-i also notice that sometimes they slip up and interchange arab with muslim. edward saaid-a christian-has even asserted that though not all arabs are muslim, they are all of muslim culture and part of muslim civilization.

    while iranians have a pre-islamic persian identity and turks have forged a post-islamic nationalistic one, what arab nationalism is there subtracted from islam? the baathist ideology is thin gruel indeed (pushed in part by christian arabs who wanted to feel part of the “arab nation”) that has been supported through terror.

    anyway, i don’t want to excuse the reporters for their ignorance. i just want to assert that though arabs are only 20% of the world’s muslim population, they do loom larger in that faith than italians or greeks (the preeminent early gentile converted people) do in christianity, though obviously are not an identity with the religion like the jewish people are with judaism.

  4. What exactly does “covered face” mean? If the eyes are covered as well (burka style), isn’t it dangerous to drive with it?

    Agree on the absurdity of classifying every Muslim as an Arab, but you are not the only ones suffering from such over-simplifications. It took W. Europe about a decade to realize that the countries of the fmr. Soviet Union aren’t populated by Russians alone. Many still use the term “Russian” for anything between Armenians and Kazakhs — “it’s easier for us this way, you know”…

  5. Miranda: Here’s an image of Sultana Freeman on her license. Basically her eyes are uncovered. I haven’t seen anyone driving wearing a classical burks with a semi-transparent screen over the eyes as well.

    I agree that the problem of confusing Arabs and Muslims is not unique.

    Razib: Arab Christians have usually the same names as Muslims. I think I have seen a Muhammad who was Christian as well!

    I do agree that representatives of Arab American organizations do not make the distinction clear. Also, many Arabs do consider the Arab world to be the center of the Muslim one. Geographically it is, but in terms of population more than half of the world’s Muslim population lives in South and Southeast Asia.

  6. Looking at the photo, I thought of something else. The point of putting a picture on a document is to facilitate unique identification of its proprietor. Yet, I could be driving around with S.F.’s license. Her veil renders the document almost useless.

    (I don’t know the American regulations in detail. Niqabi Paralegal mentions a photo-free type of driver licenses. Here, there is no such thing at all, driver licenses are even sometimes accepted as surrogate ID cards.)

  7. this might be kind of off topic-but i am skeptical of a democracy being healthy when half the population might have their face covered. i think seeing your fellow citizen and knowing them on sight is important ….

  8. Interesting debate. I’m not sure where I stand on this, as a ‘fundamentalist Muslim.’ However, I do believe that the United States was founded to allow people religious freedom, no matter how odd their religion and no matter if people approve or not. I think that for this woman, in the name of religious tolerance and acceptance, some sort of compromise should be made. Perhaps they can use her fingerprint on her IDs, since we all have unique finger prints and all it takes to check one is a bit of ink and a trained eye. Or perhaps a retina scan would be appropriate, since eyes can also be used as a foolproof method of identification.

  9. Agrees with Owlie-Bird too. Btw Zack, I responded to the comment you posted on my site (on modesty and rape and stuff) in my recent blog. Check it out.

  10. well, compromise is good-but the united states was really not founded for freedom of religion. let’s not get carried away with cliches-the US was founded because of taxation without representation, and the anger colonists felt at having possibilites of settlement over the appalachians being blocked because of treaties the british gov. was making with natives.

    i believe you are speaking of the pilgrims & all-but the puritans who ruled mass. bay. colony did not believe in religion freedom at all costs-they believed in the freedom to worship their specific religion-they were fundamentalists in the church of england who rejected a broad latitudinarian church that excepted both calvinist & arminian theological positions as well as ‘papist’ ritual & liturgy. the irony of course is that the puritans were probably less religiously tolerant than the high church that they opposed. this is the reason that rhode island was founded by roger williams, to create a genuine haven for religious freedom for those driven out of mass. bay colony. the southern colonies like virginia were founded as commercial enterprises while the mid-atlantic states had even more mercantile origins.

    maryland & pennsylvania to a lesser extent were founded for religious freedom (catholics & quakers)-but that raison detre had disappeared by the founding of this republic.

    additionally-there have always been limits to religious freedom. some religions like christian science have legislated the right to have wacko beliefs-but many, like santaria, are prevented from having less wacko beliefs [1]. muslims could do the same. but religious freedom can’t be used as a cover to violate laws that are applied equally to everyone-the ACLU is arguing that freeman can protest because there are secular exceptions made for not taking picture IDs.

    [1] background, christian scientistists reject modern medicine, so some of their children die now & then, they are protected in many states from prosecution for negligent homicide. on the other hand, the santaria folks believed in animal sacrifice, chickens & goats usually. a city in florida banned this practice. now, personally think both beliefs are wacko, but the christian scientists are probably more harmfull in that people die, but the santaria cult was the one that was persecuted. similarly, sectarian mormons and muslims can not engage in polygamy in the united states though both religions permit it (the sectarian mormons encourage it). personally i don’t have a problem with the decriminalization of polygamy, but the intent of the law is not against specific religions, but a secular practice.

  11. Miranda: In the US, a driving license is a de facto photo ID also, but non-photo driver licenses are allowed in some circumstances as well. This is what has enabled courts to rule in favor of religious objections in previous cases. Eugene Volokh thinks it could go either way, but the claim by Freeman is reasonable and not ridiculous based on previous US law.

    I myself am in favor of photo IDs and see no problems with national ID cards (a big no-no for libertarians here). Also, I am not sure what Freeman would do if the court allowed her a photo-less license but she had to get a separate photo ID. She would be in the same dilemma she’s in now. OTOH, some people are clamouring against Freeman just because she’s a Muslim wearing a veil. That’s simple bigotry.

    Owl, Tora, Abez: If you check the “Niqabi Paralegal” and Eugene Volokh, you’ll see that there is some merit to her case according to previous case law.

    BTW, do you know if Pakistan allows driver licenses without photos nowadays? The national ID card used to allow a thumb print instead of a photo for women when I was there.

  12. The arba and muslim confusion extends further than this. The local NBC Rochester affiliate I watch used to call Afghanistan a “middle-eastern country”. This on the local evening news! Not so smart.

  13. Ikram: Regarding the definition of Middle East, Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:

    the Middle East consisted of the states or territories of Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine (now Israel), Jordan, Egypt, The Sudan, Libya, and the various states of Arabia proper (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, or Trucial Oman [now United Arab Emirates]. Subsequent events have tended, in loose usage, to enlarge the number of lands included in the definition. The three North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are closely connected in sentiment and foreign policy with the Arab states. In addition, geographic factors often require statesmen and others to take account of Afghanistan and Pakistan in connection with the affairs of the Middle East.

    It seems sometimes Pakistan and Afghanistan are included in the definition basically because of some of the cultural and religious affinity. It doesn’t seem right though. If you include these two, then why exclude India or the central Asian states?

  14. Zack, I don’t know whether they have non-photo IDs, or allow women to be photographed with their faces covered here in Pakistan. Generally, the Islamic sects that are prominent here are not opposed to photography and removal of the veil for necessary purposes. But I really don’t have enough info on this so perhaps I should shut up.

  15. Owl: C’mon, don’t talk to me like I have never been to Pakistan 🙂 I lived there for most of my life and last visited in December.

    The last time there were plans of making photos required for NICs (national ID cards), there was a huge hue and cry and the plan was abandoned.

    Things might have changed in the last 6 years. But during my last visit, I saw more scarves and niqabs in Islamabad and Karachi than I had ever seen before.

  16. only so many classifications for the american public-how could they juggle “middle east,” “central asia,” and “south asia,” not to mention transitional nations like iran/afghanistan and pakistan, and india, if you include the vale of kashmir as having central asian connections.

    PS-i’m from bangladesh, originally, and sometimes they put it under “southeast asia,” which geographically is plausible, thougn culturally nonsensical.

  17. Notice something else about the list? All but two of these countries border the Persian Gulf. It’s not even like they’d be a representative sample of the Arab world! Most Arabs are not from the Gulf, do not have vast oil reserves subsidizing their states, do not wear designer robe-and-headdress outfits / all-black full-body hijabs, are not ruled by kings/emirs, and do not import most of their labor force. (/rant) Yet somehow, whenever anyone mentions Arab, or even Muslim, people think the Gulf…

  18. as salam ‘alaikum

    I would caution my Muslims, from believing in those CIA figures of Muslim populations.

    Having known Bahrain for so many years, the population of that country is not 667, 238 but now above 800,000. This inculdes all non nationals who number more than 275,000.

    The populations of UAE and Oman have passed the 3 million mark long ago

    and Allah knows Best

  19. wadood: The CIA figures are based on official censuses and estimates on the most part.

    There does seem to be a discrepancy about UAE which is mentioned in a note on the CIA website as well, but the Bahrain estimate is 650,604 for 2002 which includes citizens and non-citizens.

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