There are nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world, and the religious group continues to grow rapidly. Yet Islam continues to be largely misunderstood by many, which has given way to Islamophobia and even violence against Muslims.
While Islamophobia existed long before 9/11, a dislike for Islam and Muslims became more deliberately weaponized in the service of war and politics in the post-9/11 world, says Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
Mogahed and others say that post 9/11 Islamophobia has manifested in different ways around the world, including the adoption of the Muslim travel ban – one of former President Trump’s signature policies; the persecution of the Uyghur people in China since at least 2017; and the mass murder of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Twenty years after 9/11, ignorance about Islam and an “othering” of its adherents continue to be driven by tropes. Here are the most common:
1. All Muslims are Arab
Islam started in the Middle East, but has since spread all over the world. From the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the Uyghurs in China, and Bosniaks in the Balkans, Muslims are an extremely diverse community and do not come from a single region.
Although many people use the terms “Muslim” and “Arab” interchangeably, it is not accurate to do so.
“Arabs are actually a minority of the Muslim population, both globally and in United States,” Mogahed told CNN. “They make up 20% of the world’s Muslims.”
Muslims are not a monolith, and are of all different races, skin tones, ethnicities and speak different languages.
2. All Muslim women are oppressed
Patriarchy and the oppression of women are issues that exist in all communities, not just Muslim ones.
“This is a common one we get, and it speaks to the ignorance and lack of context about Islam,” said Zainab Chaudry, spokeswoman for the national headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “Islam granted women rights to an education, property ownership, inheritance, and divorce.”
“One of the key points to keep in mind is that culture often gets conflated with religion,” Chaudry said. “Islam actually encourages women to keep their autonomy and agency.”
While interpretation of religion can result in the oppression of women, it’s usually rooted in other issues as well, Mogahed said.
“It is a problem of egos, power, and self-interest and happens in spite of Islam, not because of it,” she said.
3. All Muslim women wear or must wear the hijab to be practicing
The hijab is a veil covering the hair that some Muslim women wear in order to practice modesty.
“The reality is that according to survey research, about half of Muslim women in the US wear it and half do not, it’s an even split,” said Mogahed of the ISPU’s findings.
While some governments, like those of Saudi Arabia and Iran, have made the hijab mandatory for women in public spaces, Islam itself forbids compulsion of any sort.
“It should be a personal decision for each woman,” Chaudry said. “It alone is not an accurate indicator of piety.”
4. The Quran encourages Muslims to commit acts of violence against non-Muslims
Claims that Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims are usually the result of people isolating verses from the religious texts that grant Muslims the right to defend themselves.
“Cherry-picking verses from any religious text, including the Quran, and isolating them from their broader context and misapplying them to justify or condone any kind of violence is inappropriate and deeply harmful,” said Chaudry.
In fact the Quran is very clear about violence. Chapter 5, Verse 32 states: “Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”
Members of all faiths have carried out violence, Chaudry said. It has more to do with the individual than it does the religion.
“People who regurgitate the myth that Islam is violent haven’t studied the religion,” she said.
5. Muslims want to wage holy war by way of Jihad
In the West, the term “jihad” is often used interchangeably with “holy war.” But that’s not what it means.
Jihad is an Arabic term meaning “to strive” or “to struggle.” In the context of Islam, it means to work toward becoming a better Muslim.
There are two types of jihad, inner and outer, with the former being known as the “greater jihad,” and can encompass anything from not giving into temptations or making a greater effort to pray.
Outer jihad, or “lesser jihad,” can refer to a military struggle, but more commonly refers to actions like being kind to others or being a good representative of the faith.
Mogahed points out that the term “holy war” originated from The Crusades, a series of wars initiated by the Christian church, and does not originate in Arabic or the Muslim tradition at all.
“And war is not and can never be holy,” she added.
6. Muslims worship Allah, their own special god
Allah is the Arabic word for “God,” not a special and specific god that Muslims worship.
“Muslims worship the god of Abraham, the same god Christians and Jews worship,” Mogahed said. “Christian Arabic speakers call God ‘Allah’ as well.”
7. Muslims don’t believe in Jesus or respect his teachings
Jesus is a prophet in Islam, just as Muhammad is. The notion that Muslims do not believe in Jesus is one rooted in the “othering” of the religious group.
“Muslims believe in all of the prophets mentioned in the old and new testaments [of the bible],” Mogahed said. “Muslims see Muhammad as the final prophet, rather than the first and only, like many incorrectly believe.”
As a matter of fact, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Quran, Chaudry said.
“Jesus has a really prominent role in Islam, and he is beloved to Muslims just as Muhammad is,” she said.
8. Muslims want to bring sharia to the West
Sharia has become a bit of a dirty word in the West, and is sometimes interpreted as incompatible with democracy. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Chaudry said.
“Sharia is a set of guidelines that are taken from the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad that are designed to help Muslims live a moral and ethical way of life,” said Chaudry. “People have developed misconceptions about it because of misinformation shared through media, pop culture, and anti-sharia bills that contribute to hysteria.”
As a matter of fact, part of Sharia is that Muslims must abide by the law of the land in which they reside, said Chaudry, which debunks the notion that Muslims want to bring the guidelines to the West.
Even Muslim-majority countries don’t fully adopt or follow sharia, but rather a hybrid of laws left behind by European colonialism and sharia, added Chaudry.
9. All Muslims must take accountability for the actions of Muslim terrorists
The collective blame of the Muslim community following the actions of terrorists is “immoral,” Mogahed says.
“It’s unethical and bigoted to blame an entire group for the actions of individuals,” she said. “It says that unless and until we condemn acts of terrorism, then by default, we are guilty.”
“The idea that Muslims have to do that or it’s fair game to assume we agree with terrorism is unacceptable.”
The endorsement of any and all Islamophobic tropes is dangerous not only for Muslims, but for everyone.
“Endorsing these tropes is linked to approval of war, violence against civilians and anti-Muslim policies,” she said. “Fear kills freedom, so Islamophobia is bad for democracy, not just Muslims.”