Islam is not a country: the hidden assumption that all Muslims are the same

By Ameena Jandali, Content Manager

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

As President Trump’s travel ban directed against mainly Muslim-majority countries was challenged once again before the United States Supreme Court this week, a slip of the tongue has brought some humorous relief to a tense and controversial topic. 

On Wednesday, during his closing arguments to the Supreme Court in support of the ban, Solicitor General Noel Francisco stated, “He [President Trump] has made crystal clear that Muslims in this country are great Americans, and there are many, many Muslims countries who love this country, and he has praised Islam as one of the great countries of the world.” 

Twitter and Facebook lit up with comments mocking the mistake as yet another confirmation of anti-Muslim bias. 

For me, it was reminiscent of the kind of questions I have often received when presenting about Muslims and their faith in public schools as a supplement to social studies classes. 

Just last week I was asked by a seventh grader, “Have you ever been back to visit Islam?” 

I hid my amusement and calmly explained that I was born and raised in the US but had visited Pakistan, where my father comes from, when I was nine years old. 

The incident reminded me of the other challenges with basic terminology and facts about my faith. I was once introduced as the speaker on the “Muslomic” religion. Thankfully, use of the term “Moslem” has become rare, and most people are able to pronounce the “Muslim” with an “s” sound rather than the “z” sound of “muslin.” 

Another common challenge is the false assumption that most Muslims are Arabs. In reality, Arabs make up only around 15% of the global Muslim population. 

There’s a hidden assumption that all Muslims are the same, despite the fact that Muslims are found in over 50 Muslim-majority countries and nearly every other country on earth. This assumption also extends the worst stereotypes about Islam and Muslims to all Muslims. 

When Muslims commit violence, it is automatically assumed that their faith is to blame, while other perpetrators of violence are given the benefit of having their motivations examined and even understood, as with the recent vehicle terror attack in Toronto.

Indeed, as a recent report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has shown, perpetrators of violence perceived as Muslim receive far more media attention—and far harsher sentences if convicted—than perpetrators of similar acts who are not so perceived. 

It is not surprising that such ignorance about — and bias against — Muslims persists despite the greater availability of information. According to a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, “only 16% of the public report knowing a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, while more than eight in ten say they know a little (57%) or nothing at all (26%).“ 

And until recently, U.S. schools provided very little or no education about Islam, and what education they did provide was generally inaccurate and biased. The history textbooks at my high school in Colorado had only a single, error-ridden page about Islam. These days, curricula are more inclusive of all world religions, but most adults have not had the opportunity to properly study Islam, and the unknown — the “other” — can easily provoke fear. 

Studies show that face-to-face interaction is one of the best ways to humanize the “other.” 

According to a 2017 Pew Research poll which found that Muslims were the lowest-rated faith group in America, those who knew a Muslim rated Muslims at 56 (on a scale of 100 representing the “warmth” with which religious groups were viewed) while those who didn’t know any Muslims rated them at 42.  

At Islamic Networks Group, we have worked to dispel stereotypes about Muslims and their faith for a quarter century through face-to-face interaction with diverse audiences. We encourage them to ask honest, even blunt, questions so that we can challenge their hidden assumptions about Islam. 

Most importantly, as our internal evaluations show, this interaction moves the needle in humanizing a population that has for too long been demonized in popular culture and beyond.