Dealing with Misconceptions about Muslims
Jo Arrem examines misconceptions and the solutions that Muslim communities use to overcome falsehoods that persist around them and their faith.
‘Nothing is more annoying than being called a “modern Muslim”,’ laments Aisha from Kuala Lumpur. ‘What does that even mean? Just because I don’t wear a hijab, it does not mean that I belong to a separate group of Muslims who are different from other [so-called] “old-fashioned” Muslims. Why can’t people understand that Muslims are a diverse group of people just like in any other religion?’
Misconceptions about Muslims and Islam are sometimes merely annoying or even mildly humorous, and silly misunderstandings about the teachings of Islam persist. A Hindu male friend once asked me whether he was still allowed to say ‘hello’ to a classmate who had recently started wearing the hijab.
In many cases, however, misconceptions are downright dangerous. Insidious insinuations that Islam is inherently violent in nature serve to promote further falsehoods. This makes confronting and correcting misconceptions a part of life for Muslims who live in religiously diverse societies.
Many people have the impression that Muslims are a monolithic people – that they all have to behave or dress uniformly, otherwise they are not really Muslim
Aisha’s frustration with being called a ‘modern Muslim’ is not at all uncommon. In fact, being called a ‘modern Muslim’ is seen as a compliment by some non-Muslims, who seem to think that it is ‘cool’. On the flipside, Fadi from Egypt has been called ‘not a real Muslim’ because he sometimes drinks alcohol. Many people have the impression that Muslims are a monolithic people – that they all have to behave or dress uniformly; otherwise they are not really Muslim. This in turn fuels the application of stereotypes onto all Muslims.
However, just as not all Christians follow the 10 commandments and Jews do not all observe the Sabbath, there are probably as many ways of being Muslim as there are Muslims themselves. In a 2011 interview with Katie Couric on CBS News, author Asra Nomani pointed out that battles of religious interpretation and understanding happen within Muslim communities as much as they do in any other religious community. Muslims are no different. Indeed, reiterating this simple point is the most common way that Muslims who encounter this misconception deal with it. Fadi explains to his friends that even if he does not follow the teachings of Islam to the letter, and may commit some sins, he is still a Muslim. Aisha also points out that it is certainly not Islam that is the problem. Other Muslims sometimes judge her, she says, while the Islam that she believes in accepts her the way she is.
Another common misconception about Islam was highlighted in the same CBS interview by actor Zaib Shaikh, of Little Mosque on the Prairie fame. He spoke of how many people think that ‘Allah’ is a markedly different concept from the Christian or Jewish ‘God’. Stemming from not understanding that Allah is merely the Arabic word for God, this misconception about the Islamic faith serves to make Islam seem alien from other religions. ‘It’s understandable, I guess,’ says Azzah, a college student living in New York. ‘I find that it helps when I point out that Jews use the word “Elohim” for God, and it sounds very similar to Allah. It reinforces the closeness and common source of the Abrahamic religions.’
I just try to be exceptionally polite and friendly in public and around strangers. That’s the best way of breaking the stereotype
Of course, perhaps the most common misconception of Muslims is that they are violent, or that Islam is a religion that preaches violence. The reaction to this stereotype by most Muslims is now a sigh of resignation, wearied by the years of defending Islam against this accusation that took off with vigour after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. ‘Actually, I’ve realised that there is no point debating or explaining this to people who truly believe that Islam is a violent religion, or that violence and terrorism is an integral part of our way of thinking and the way we live,’ says Layla, a community worker in London. ‘I just try to be exceptionally polite and friendly in public and around strangers. That’s the best way of breaking the stereotype.’
Disproving stereotypes or clearing up misconceptions is indeed often best done either through example, or by pointing out the fallacies in the ideas. The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, created by an Iranian, an Egyptian and two Palestinian stand-up comedians in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, took on this very serious issue, using humour to dispel many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that people hold about Muslims and Arabs. Through their ‘stand-up diplomacy’, they reached out to audiences across the world and appealed to people not to judge Muslims and Arabs. The Axis of Evil comedy tour was a phenomenal success and lauded by numerous prominent personalities, including King Hussein of Jordan. Other Muslim comedians have enjoyed similar success, using lighthearted comedy to overcome stubborn stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.
Increasingly, Muslim communities are turning to media to take a leading role in not perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. A few remarkable films have been produced over the last few years that have confronted difficult issues surrounding Muslims being stereotyped as terrorists – notably, My Name is Khan (India) and Khuda Ke Liye (Pakistan).
In some other instances, communities have specifically called on the media to work on combating the perpetuation of misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, such as a recent initiative in the Philippines by the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos. In the United States, positive portrayals of Muslims in the media are rewarded. The Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American organisation that fosters greater acceptance of Islam and Muslims, holds annual media awards to recognise the positive portrayal of Muslims. Television programmes like Grey’s Anatomy and films such as Syriana have been honoured. The hope is that this recognition will serve as an incentive for more media companies, writers, actors, producers and directors to portray Muslims just as they do any other group. Sometimes, just being ordinary is a good thing.
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