What is the difference between “Arab” and “Muslim”? –

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A reader asks through our form of EOM explains How are Arabs different from Muslims?

Terms such as “Arab”, “Muslim” or “Islamist” are often used as if they were synonyms. However, there are important differences between all of them. These expressions cannot be used interchangeably, since they refer to factors as diverse as language, ethnicity, religion or ideology. So why is there such confusion between these terms?

Muslims are those people who believe and practice Islam, that is, a monotheistic religion that is governed by sacred scriptures – the Koran – and that emerged in the 7th century in Arabia at the hands of its main prophet, Muhammad. It has five basic pillars: declaring faith in God, prayer, fasting during Ramadan, charity and the pilgrimage to Mecca, the main sacred city of Islam.

The Arabs, as an ethnic and linguistic group, are characterized by their common use of the Arabic language. Coming from the Arabian Peninsula, in the 7th and 8th centuries they would have emigrated to different territories, extending their influence throughout the regions of North Africa and the Middle East. This is how their language and their majority religion, Islam, also expanded. Twenty-two countries are usually considered to have an Arab majority—the same ones that make up the Arab League—which are located in North Africa or the Middle East.

Now, not all Arabs who inhabit these countries are necessarily Muslims, and there are many minorities such as Jews, or Christians in countries like Egypt. Likewise, in Arab countries the population is not exclusively Arab, and there is also a certain ethnic variety: in countries like Morocco or Algeria, Arabs coexist with other ethnicities such as Berbers. As if that were not enough, not all Muslim-majority states are Arab, and even in the Middle East examples can be found such as Iran and Turkey.

Although Islam is the majority religion in Arab countries—where more than 90% of the population identifies with that religion—more than half of the Muslim population worldwide is neither Arab nor resides in Arab countries: The region where most Muslims are concentrated is Asia-Pacific. In fact, the state with the most Muslims in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Egypt is the first Arab country on the list, and already appears in fifth position.

Of the list of ten countries with the largest Muslim population in the world, only three are Arab, and the first—Egypt—appears in fifth position.

Islamists, for their part, are those people who support Islamism or political Islam, an ideology that brings together the most varied discourses with a common trait: the vindication of the Muslim religion as the central axis of political life. Although jihadists are often called Islamists, there are clearly Islamist parties such as Erdoğan’s AKP in Turkey or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that have held power in their respective states without carrying out a jihadist agenda. Furthermore, it should be noted that, given the variety of discourses it encompasses, Islamism does not have to oppose democratic systems, as the case of Tunisia demonstrates.

In short, “Arab”, “Muslim” and “Islamist” are totally different words that refer to very different traits. Arabs share ethnicity and language; Muslims, religion; and the Islamists, political doctrine. It is possible to be a Muslim and an Islamist Arab, but having one of these characteristics does not necessarily imply having the others.