Some of the terminology regarding Muslim-Western relations has been widely misused or misunderstood, confusing key issues and clouding constructive opportunities. In an attempt to improve ongoing communication, we have developed the following Terminology in Muslim-Western Relations guide. A downloadable PDF version is also available.
Terminology Guide
Term: Secularism / Secular Society
Intended Meaning: A political system in which religion does not dictate to, or interfere with, matters of state; one where religion and politics are formally separated, yet where religious freedom is guaranteed and protected
Why a Problem: This is a tricky term because one of its dictionary definitions is the outright rejection of religion and so is translated in Arabic and other "Muslim" languages as areligiosity/irreligiosity; this can cause conflict because, according to extensive studies of Muslim public opinion, a majority of Muslims want religious principles to be a source of legislation.

The term secularization is generally perceived as an attempt to recreate Muslim societies in the West’s image.

Note: In practice, Western secular states preclude the abolition of religion and religious values and endorse pluralism and religious freedom, even protecting them. In fact, many Western constitutions are based on religious (Christian) values, and many political leaders speak openly about their faith. The French concept of laicism, or laicite, denotes the strict separation of public and private, or non-interference of religion in politics and vice versa (often associated with France and Turkey). This is usually considered a more severe or strict form of secularism. In Turkey and France, laicism actively confines religion to the private sphere.
Impact: Knee-jerk rejection by most Muslims, who are religious and want some role for religion in public life, exacerbating already-prevalent feelings among Muslims that the West has disrespect for their religious values
    Use "secularism" but indicate intended meaning:
  • Pertaining to this world
  • Religious Pluralism/Pluralistic Society
  • Multiculturalism/Multicultural System
Additional Distinctions
Term:Muslim (noun/adj.)Islamic (adj.)
Definition:Denotes an adherent of Islam or a characteristic of its adherents (descriptive, adj. comparable to "Jewish")Denotes the religion or its institutions (prescriptive, comparable to "Judaic")
Example:A Muslim country is one where the majority of citizens follow the religion of Islam An Islamic country is one whose political system is based on Islamic law
Why Important: Avoids negative events, acts or ideas being attributed to the religion of Islam itself (rather than its followers)
Definition:Worn by many Muslim women to cover their hair in public; usually accompanied by non- revealing clothes Worn by a small minority of Muslim women to cover face; usually accompanied by non-revealing clothes
Referred to as:Hijab Niqab
Why Important: Important "Veil" conjures up "barrier" and has a negative impact on bridge-building efforts
Note: neither garment necessarily says anything about one's political viewpoints