Islam: Stereotypes Still Prevail

Rick Blasing

In the aftermath of the explosion that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, the false assumption was immediately made by many that international terrorism had struck America's heartland and that the terrorists in question were "Islamic fundamentalists." Reports circulated of suspects with "Middle Eastern accents." A number of individuals with Arab backgrounds were held for questioning. A Jordanian-born naturalized American on a flight from Chicago was detained in London.
Some in the Oklahoma state government spoke of the possible involvement of "fundamentalist Islamic terrorists."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher informed the country that he had sent "Arabic interpreters" to Oklahoma City to aid in the investigation. Indeed, in the hours following this tragic event, many were making the assumption that Muslims were responsible. The Islamic community in the greater Oklahoma City area was immediately held suspect. Events in recent years, such as the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993, led many to assume Islamic involvement.

Muslims in central Oklahoma, many of whom were concentrated on two university campuses within a twenty mile radius of Oklahoma City, experienced immediate concern about speculation that the bombing involved them. The mistrust and fear of Islam that was induced by the bombing manifested itself in many ways. Muslim children were called names and harassed at school. Threatening phone calls were received by Muslims in the Oklahoma City region. One Muslim woman who was seven months pregnant, a Shiite Muslim refugee from Iraq, was terrorized when a rock was thrown through her living room window. The trauma of this event caused her to bleed uncontrollably and eventually deliver a stillborn boy.

More than two hundred incidents of nationwide attack or harassment of Muslims in this country followed the Oklahoma City bombing even though no evidence existed of any Muslim involvement. The effects of negative stereotyping on the Muslim community were evident. Certainly, the media-reinforced image of the machine-gun-toting Muslim contributed to this backlash against Muslims in Oklahoma and throughout the country. That many in the United States apparently thought of Islam and terrorism as interconnected if not synonymous only exacerbated the climate.

The name "Islam" conjures up certain images reinforced through media stereotypes and through the violent actions of those who, claiming to follow Islamic teachings, confirm the worst fears and prejudices of the non-Muslim world. Existing stereotypes are deeply ingrained and consistently reinforced through books, movies, and even classroom texts.

Public Perceptions of Islam
The reaction to the Oklahoma bombing made me recall an event that I had attended not long earlier. In December 1994, I was invited to the Seventh International Sirah Conference in Buena Park, California. Sponsored by the Islamic Society of Orange County, the Sirah Conference provided a forum for scholars and teachers from around the world to discuss issues related to Islam. Presenters discussed the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Workshops examined issues related to youth, the family, and the media. The Council on Islamic Education (CIE), a non-profit, California-based organization, facilitated a workshop on educational issues.

As an educator, I was invited to attend the Sirah Conference to meet with one of the conference presenters: Yusuf Islam. Yusuf Islam is a classic example of an individual who, having left the spotlight of public scrutiny and embraced Islam, is no longer portrayed as he used to be. For Yusuf Islam, once known worldwide in the 1970s as the musician "Cat Stevens," media acceptance of his new direction has generally not been forthcoming. Cat Stevens, a British-born songsmith and poet, created a worldwide following in the 1970s with such songs as "Peacetrain," "Morning Has Broken," and "Moonshadow." With lilting lyrics and spiritual themes, Stevens's songs gave indication of his personal search for truth. Cat Stevens embraced Islam in 1977, and soon afterward he left the music industry altogether. In 1983, Yusuf Islam started a small school for Muslim children in London.

Today, at the age of 48, Yusuf Islam is the headmaster of Islamia School. He is married, a father of five, and a devout Muslim. He also serves as the chair of Muslim Aid-an organization that has assisted Muslims in need throughout the world, including such places as Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since becoming a Muslim, Yusuf Islam has experienced a significant amount of negative reaction from those who might once have been his admirers or fans. Indeed, his embrace of Islam has often been portrayed in the media as being bizarre or extreme. This singer's decision to quit the music industry to become an educator has not been given much respect, and it clear that his religion has a great deal to do with that.

In his remarks, Islam observed that the British government does not accept the Islamia School to the extent that it supports Christian parochial schools-a reality that characterizes the Muslim experience in education and society. He stated that the media like to define things in simplistic terms of "good and evil." "People are in that kind of mode of identifying something that they don't understand as being evil," he said. With respect to Bosnia, Yusuf Islam describes the hesitancy of European involvement as resulting from a sense of being threatened by free elections that resulted in an "Islamic-minded government." He characterizes the ongoing tragedy in the former Yugoslavia as "unleashed echoes of past conflict, all coming out in this moment where Islam, through democracy, came to Europe." He posed the question, "How can you deny a people, if you believe in democracy, from accepting or choosing the party of their choice-be it Islamic or be it democratic?"

Yusuf Islam has implored the West to accept different ideas and cultures as its source of strength-not as a threat or challenge. "The most important thing," he says, is that if you keep the doors open, things flourish. If you shut the door, things die and the culture will die.

Perception is, indeed, at the heart of the matter. Media perception of Yusuf Islam has generally been negative. In the same way, media perception of the Muslim world has been characterized as one dominated by gun-toting radicals and extreme fundamentalism. Textbooks used in most American schools have reinforced these stereotypes. Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education (CIE), related a particular experience that began what he refers to as his "American journey-an ongoing effort to correct inaccurate stereotypes about Islam." Mansuri, a native of India who came to the United States in 1969, recalled how he found his daughter giggling over a chapter in her sixth-grade history text. She was reading a description of the Muslim method of prayer that included "rubbing their faces with sand." It was this and other factual errors that motivated Mansuri to form CIE. In the five years since its inception, CIE has worked actively to correct such errors in information contained in the textbooks used by the majority of public school students throughout the United States. Working with scholars, educators, and textbook manufacturers, Mansuri and CIE have made significant progress in exposing ethnocentric perspectives that are reinforced in textbooks.

In Kansas, where I live and teach, Muslims are exposed to the same forms of prejudice experienced by Muslims in other parts of the country. Muslims located in the great plains region feel a particular need to maintain a low profile. Some Muslim students at area colleges have experienced the pressure of prejudice against them. They quickly realized, for example, that publicly assuming the posture of bowing to the ground during worship, the "prayer" or salat done five times daily, resulted in sarcastic remarks and public ridicule. They soon realized the benefit of not discussing their times of fasting or other aspects of their faith with non-Muslims. One student told of being served pork in a college cafeteria after having been assured by the cafeteria staff that it was not pork. Because Muslims do not eat pork, this student immediately became ill, much to the amusement of the non-Muslim cafeteria staff. A Muslim university professor at an area college told me of his efforts to maintain a distinct separation between his profession and his personal faith. He blamed the media for "magnifying the negative" image of Islam in the world. He concluded that people "driven by religion, no matter what, tend to lose all logic."

It is in this context of prejudice that Islam, along with other belief systems, must be examined and understood in the classroom. Islam is too important a force to ignore. About one billion of the Earth's five billion inhabitants are Muslim. Although Arab countries are home to 180 million Muslims, the number of Muslims in southeast Asia, Africa, and India/Pakistan greatly exceeds that number. Furthermore, there are nearly six million Muslims in North America today from various parts of the world. Of these, 47 percent are under the age of 30. The United States has more than 1,100 mosques, 80 percent of which were built within the last fourteen years. Islam is currently the nation's fastest growing religion. Muslims who populate the United States are as diverse as any other ethnic group that immigrated before them, contributing greatly to the American mosaic. The many faces of Islam in America run the gambit from immigrants in traditional dress to American-born Muslims who wear typically western clothes. Despite these realities, the stereotypes, media misinformation, and textbook inaccuracies continue to persist.

The myths and misconceptions held by many about Islam are too numerous to be comprehensively discussed here. Three of the most common deal with the relationship of Islam to Christianity and Judaism, the connection between Islam and violence, and the practice of polygamy.

Some Common Misconceptions

1. Islam Has Little in Common with Christianity and Judaism. Even though the three religions worship the same God, Muslims are sometimes portrayed as if they worship a God, "Allah," who is different from the God of Judaism and Christianity. It is important to be aware that "Allah" is simply the Arabic word for "God," in the same way that "Dieu" is the French word for God. Christian Arabs, like Muslim Arabs, pray to "Allah."
Islam acknowledges many of the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, and regards Christ as a prophet. The doctrines of Islam treat Christians and Jews as "People of the Book," requiring that their beliefs be accorded respect because of what they share with Islam, even though Christians and Jews reject the central Muslim belief in Muhammad as the Prophet of God.

2. Violence and the Nature of Jihad. Some radical Islamic movements have engaged in spectacular campaigns of violence. The mere fact that these groups are violent should not be taken to mean that most Muslims either endorse the violence or believe that it is religiously acceptable. Most governments in the Muslim world are adamantly opposed to violent Islamic radical movements. Many of these governments are, in fact, targets of such movements. Likewise, most Muslims are not interested in violent politics and never join or support such movements.

It is also a serious error to treat terrorism as if it were some kind of problem that can be specifically linked to the Islamic world. Terrorism is a phenomenon that is associated with radical politics of many kinds, religious and non-religious, in many different regions of the world. It can be found in places as diverse as Central and South America, Northern Ireland and other parts of Europe, Africa, and non-Islamic regions of Asia.

Although there have been highly publicized acts of violence by radical Muslims, it is absurd to presume that the acts of extremist groups somehow reflect on all Muslims. We would consider it unacceptable if foreigners judged the United States to be a society of criminals because it has a high crime rate.

In media accounts, however, Islam is frequently reduced to an idea that all Muslims are militant "fundamentalists," and that all of these Islamic fundamentalists are "holy warriors." A common stereotype is that all Muslims engage in acts of "jihad," often described as a "holy war" against infidels, a military struggle in which death is an acceptable, even desirable result. During the Persian Gulf War, calls made by Iraq's Saddam Hussein for all Muslims to join in a "jihad" against the West only contributed to this negative image.

In Arabic, the word "jihad" literally means "struggle," "striving," or "effort." It is different linguistically from the Arabic words for either "holy" or "war." It is commonly translated as "holy war," because that was the closest equivalent in English that western translators could find for one of the meanings of "jihad," which is a military struggle justified on religious grounds. "Jihad," however, also has a much broader meaning, which includes non-military struggle for any good cause (e.g., the personal struggle of a good individual to overcome temptation). Like most societies, Muslims tend to see wars they fight as having been imposed on them by others, so that typically when Muslims describe a war as a "jihad," they are thinking of a struggle in defense of Islam or a Muslim community rather than an aggressive war.

3. Polygamy. Muslim men are sometimes portrayed as possessing a harem of wives who follow obediently behind their husbands, with children in tow. This commonly reinforced imagery of Muslim women conjures up the idea of heavily veiled women living in virtual subjugation to the males in their lives. This interpretation of the situation of married Muslims is extremely ethnocentric and one-dimensional.

Islam does permit polygamy, and a Muslim man may have as many as four wives. The religion mandates that the male support and treat each of his wives equally. Contrary to the stereotype, however, polygamy is widely disapproved by educated Muslims, and monogamy is increasingly the rule in most Muslim countries. In Islam, the institution of marriage constitutes a religious as well as a civil contract. Divorce, though disliked and discouraged, is permissible when all other attempts at reconciliation are exhausted.

In discussing issues of women's status, as well as other issues of life-style, it is important to take into account the enormous diversity of the Islamic world. Different Muslim countries differ greatly in educational and economic development; within Muslim countries, there are great differences in the way people live and think, depending on their class and region, and on whether they live in a major metropolis or a tiny village. A middle-class Muslim woman in Istanbul or Beirut lives a life that is closer to that of a woman in the West than to that of a peasant woman in South Asia. A realistic examination of Muslim women in the world will portray them in the cultural context or country in which they reside. For example, although many women in Muslim countries choose to wear the veil or the head covering (hijab), many Muslim women in North America choose not to wear these.

Breaking the Barriers of Ignorance
Today's students must be prepared to live in a world vastly different than the one in which their parents were born. The sweeping political and socioeconomic changes that have characterized the last decade all contribute to this dynamic environment. Classroom teachers need to be mindful of these dynamics. Teachers need to remain fully informed of the changes that envelop the earth, and present these changes in the classroom with balance.
Examining different religions provides an excellent example of how different belief systems are often judged or critiqued. Studying different religions in the classroom, especially in schools in homogeneous areas, is a particular challenge for a teacher seeking to engage in an open, comparative study of religions. The danger is that other religions will be evaluated in comparison to the ethnocentric "norm" of the culture in which the class is conducted. Such units degenerate into an "us versus them" ideology, frequently reinforcing the worst of the existing stereotypes.

Social studies teachers frequently develop resources wherever they can find them-sometimes in the most unlikely places. For example, the social studies curriculum can be enriched by inviting foreign students who are attending nearby colleges into the classroom. Such visitors can add tremendous depth and dimension to the unit of study. Invariably, cultural barriers are broken and minds are opened. Furthermore, educators can attend workshops and conferences whenever possible to further develop their resource base of information and materials.

Teachers interested in teaching units on Islam can obtain assistance from a number of institutions, which are listed in an appendix to this article. Instructors should be sure to approach their classroom text with a critical eye, always looking for inaccuracies-on any topic-that may be perpetuated. Teachers should always supplement their curriculum with information from a variety of sources, not relying simply on one textbook manufacturer for the final word.

Developing a sense of tolerance and acceptance of diversity in today's students is essential in fostering an environment of international cooperation in the coming years. The future will be characterized by constant global change. Those individuals who absorb and grow will best flourish in this environment. The nations that welcome the dynamics of change with open doors and open minds will best command the next century.

Rick Blasing is a social studies instructor at LaCrosse High School, LaCrosse, Kansas. He also serves as a part-time faculty member in the social science department at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas.