Intrigued by his lecture titled “Why Are We so Ignorant About the Islamic World?” a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a Monday lunch-hour community talk given by Mehrdad Kia, a native of Iran, former history professor and current director of the University of Montana’s Office of International Programs.
For starters, there is no such thing as what the Western media is fond of calling the “Islamic World,” Kia said to an overflow crowd in a lecture hall at UM’s Gallagher Building.
There is no easy, catchall name by which to group the complex and ancient cultures of the diverse groups of people who have for the past 14 centuries – and longer – inhabited the region the modern world knows as Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
“There is no homogenous Islamic world,” Kia said. “There are no five adjectives to describe these people, this region.
“They are as different as countries can get in terms of culture, literature, politics and religion.”
Thanks to the West’s infatuation with ancient Greece, all things European, a cultural penchant for stereotypes and television media that loves to perpetuate stereotypes, Americans are left with simplistic, misrepresentative images of this part of the globe, Kia said.
Most Americans consider the “Middle East” – which is also a misnomer – as a place of vast deserts, where fanatics live, where camels roam, where people wear towel-like headgear, where there is lots of oil, where tyrants live, where a death culture thrives.
Few Westerners are aware of the gorgeous costal stretches or the mountain ranges; few can name a poet, a writer, philosopher, scientist or musician from any one of the many countries in the region. Even more disturbing, Kia said, few people know about the sophisticated cultures that were at their zenith just as Europe was evolving and wrestling with the Dark Ages during the 14th century.
Few people know, for instance, that inventions that have changed the world such as the concept of algebra was invented by Arabic speaking mathematicians, and that an Arab is not always a Muslim, but is a person who speaks the Arabic language and could also be a Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or a member of any other religion.