Islam and the Problem of Religious Stereotypes

Muslim children in AfghanistanSo far, the United States has done a rather good job at including Muslims into society, and at differentiating the vast majority of followers of Muhammad from the lunatic fringe who sow chaos and tragedy.

In spite of the individual atrocities, the country, the government and by and large the population has striven to be fair, to give the benefit of the doubt and to try to include Muslims in Western society, because of our belief that religious freedom is a precious thing, and that cultural differences can for the most part be accommodated.

But Westerners must also try to understand the horrific actions of the few. Of ISIS, of so-called honor killings, of mass murderers who are promised seven virgins upon their deaths, of girls killed or abducted because they want an education. So the question becomes – what are the actual beliefs of mainstream Muslims, what does the Qur’an say and how can Westerners begin to assimilate and understand Islam?

I watched a video by Steve Ray, a speaker with a funny hat who maintains we are being fooled, that Muslims are not like us, that Islam is a political force as well as a religion, which intends to subdue the world and place it under Sharia Law. Allah is not the same God as that worshiped by Christians and Jews, he said, that he latter is a God of love and the former, a God of power. The good Muslims that live among us and seem like nice people, are only nice because they are bad Muslims, not following the dictates of the Qur’an as loyal followers should, according to Ray. But once they become a majority, they will force their culture and Sharia law upon that country.

Most religious conflict comes about not from the dictates of a religion, but from religious intolerance and bigotry. Mr. Ray’s views hit a nerve – even the most welcoming of interfaith members do not want to be foolish in our acceptance of other faiths. But we should know by now that we cannot accept out of hand the opinions of others as to what to believe, especially in matters as personal and profound as religion. And that means we should keep our own counsel and make our own decisions if it is at all possible to do so.

In a stormy confusion of information, it is helpful to find an anchor, a stable foundation upon which to think. I believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is such an anchor. Article 18 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” I find this article – and most of the other articles as well – to be a sane and workable principle of getting along in a multi-cultural world. It does not compel agreement, but advocates tolerance.

The United States Bill of Rights – which basically keeps the federal government out of religious belief – is the law of the land, but unfortunately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an unenforceable international standard of good conduct, which cannot be legally compelled and which many nations and groups choose to ignore. Nevertheless it is an international standard against which actions may be measured.

To study a religion such as Christianity or Islam, one would ordinarily study the primary source, the Bible or the Qur’an. There are difficulties in that, of course. The Bible has many translators and versions. “… The Qur’an was revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over approximately 23 years,” said Ahmed Mossad El-Saba. But he goes on to say that only 20 percent of Muslims speak Arabic as their first language. And there are other difficulties. “The Qur’an is written in a highly symbolic and classical form of the Arabic language, so translating it requires a profound understanding of its meanings and an ability to reflect those meanings into the target language.” And then, as in any religion, there are individual interpretations and selections made by people of all emotional timbre and political stripes.

Regarding Sharia and its potential incursion into American life? I found the Islamic Networks Group (ING) to be a thoughtful resource for interfaith study. I found the assertion by Mr. Ray that “the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim” to be particularly distasteful. According to him, if you meet and like a Muslim, he’s probably not following the Qur’an. I have found that while I may object to some group’s political or social practices, I have rarely disliked individuals from such groups who are willing to communicate. The person is real, the group is a stereotype, defined as “a fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

I have heard many bigots trying to prevent interested people from talking to members of this or that religious group. “You might like them and then what?” seems to be their point. Stay away from the reality, feed on the interpretations, the stereotypes and you’ll be safe. That is a cowardly approach, and it is only by rubbing shoulders with ideas and people, by actually looking for yourself that you can become informed. Be as skeptical as you want, ask pointed questions, but look and listen for yourself. If everyone did that, there would be much less religious intolerance in the world, and a much higher level of understanding among those who believe in the spiritual nature of man.