For decades if not more, the British Empire used “Moslem” to refer to inhabitants of its Mideast colonial conquests. “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it,” Winston Churchill — who, by the way, may have considered converting to Islam as a young man — once wrote.
But then, after Sept. 11, that lackadaisical attitude changed. “Muslim is preferred,” according to the United Kingdom’s Society of Editors. “People refer to themselves as Muslims. Many regard Moslem as a term of abuse, like people of African descent like being called negroes. Also avoid Mohammedan and Musselman.”
What happened? Media “began to report more stories about Islam, which led newspapers needing to find ways to represent concepts and groups that were initially written in Arabic script but now required translations to the English alphabet,” according to “Discourse Analysis.” Most of the spelling differences didn’t seem ideological, such as the spelling “Osama bin Laden” or “al Qaeda.” But one was different.
“Although the above examples do not seem especially ideological, a notable distinction arises around the spelling of Muslim,” the authors wrote. They found between 1998 and 2003, the word “Muslim” occurred nearly 200,000 times in British newspapers, while “Moslem” was used merely 7,000 times. The papers that used it the most were the most conservative, calling it “evidence of a subtle form of hostility.” The conservative Daily Mail was the major proponent of the word “Moslem” until it suddenly dropped it in 2004, two years after the Media Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain sent a letter to its editors asking it to stop.
“They specifically objected to the spelling Moslem, as they noted that it can be pronounced as ‘mawzlem,’ which is the Arabic word for oppressor,” according to “Discourse Analysis.”
Is it Muslim or Moslem?
When Baby Boomers were children it was Moslem. The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) noted,”Moslem is the form predominantly preferred in journalism and popular usage. Muslim is preferred by scholars and by English-speaking adherents of Islam.” No more. Now, almost everybody uses Muslim.
According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies,”Moslem and Muslim are basically two different spellings for the same word.” But the seemingly arbitrary choice of spellings is a sensitive subject for many followers of Islam. Whereas for most English speakers, the two words are synonymous in meaning, the Arabic roots of the two words are very different. A Muslim in Arabic means”one who gives himself to God,” and is by definition, someone who adheres to Islam. By contrast, a Moslem in Arabic means”one who is evil and unjust” when the word is pronounced, as it is in English, Mozlem with a z.
For others, this spelling differentiation is merely a linguistic matter, with the two spellings a result of variation in transliteration methods. Both Moslem and Muslim are used as nouns. But some writers use Moslem when the word is employed as an adjective.
Journalists switched to Muslim from Moslem in recent years under pressure from Islamic groups. But the use of the word Moslem has not entirely ceased. Established institutions which used the older form of the name have been reluctant to change. The American Moslem Foundation is still the American Moslem Foundation (much as the NAACP is still the NAACP–the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The journal The Moslem World–published by the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut–is still The Moslem World.
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