By Vanessa Larson
In August, U.S. News and World Report put out a “Collector’s Edition” called “Secrets of Islam: The essential guide to the world’s fastest growing religion.” While the endeavor seems eminently well-intentioned, the title is perhaps the magazine’s most problematic aspect. Why the need for the Orientalist-sounding word “secrets”? Does Islam really contain more secrets than, say, Christianity?
The notion of secrets, by implying a closed-off religion whose intricacies must be unlocked to be understood, distances the reader from the subject. Such use of language — despite the magazine’s efforts to paint an in-depth, intimate portrait of Islam — subtly contributes to an insider/outsider, us/them dichotomy between Muslims and non-Muslims. Substituting another religion for Islam in the title phrase further illustrates why this language is problematic and inappropriate: Were the title of the magazine “Secrets of Judaism,” it would sound, by some peoples’ standards, anti-Semitic—one might expect it to elaborate “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”-like conspiracy theories. But in describing Islam, this type of language is somehow still deemed acceptable.
While the text of the magazine is for the most part factually accurate, there are numerous statements that, like the title, subtly cast Islam and Muslims as “other.” In the introduction, Susan Headden refers to Islam’s “ancient rituals.” Given that Islam is a far younger religion than Christianity or Judaism, why this emphasis on Islam as an “ancient” religion? By implying that Islam is therefore “traditional,” such language disingenuously sets up the idea that Islam — unlike other world religions — is uniquely incompatible with modernity.