Stereotypes About Islam

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: In this country a lot of people see Islam as a violent religion. What is your reaction to that?

A: It is not also in this country. Unfortunately people in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries people have been exposed to this stereotype. I know when you said, "Islam is a violent religion" you decided to use the term religion in your question, but you could have used the term culture. I think this is a typical stereotypical, derogatory statement to say that a religion is violent because every religion has teachings to solve problems in violent ways. Also many religions have bases in teachings to justify the use of non-violence and cooperation, persuasion in resolving conflict. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other, even the atheists, have their own ways of resolving conflicts violently and non-violently. I know in terms of the stereotype of Islam has to do with, the not only recent, relationship between the West, Europe and the US, toward the Muslim world. That is where the stereotype is coming from in the last 1200 years of interaction between the Islamic civilization and the Western countries.

This notion that Islam is a violent religion really comes from ignorance, lack of information about Islam, as well as inability to understand that not only Islam, but your own faith, if you are capable of saying that Islam is a violent religion. I have told you earlier that I have written a book of 250 pages explaining the sources of non-violence and peace building in Islam. How can a religion that's name is Islam, which in Arabic is "peace," be practiced as a violent religion? It is almost ironic to look at this theme from this label of a religion equaling violence. I could give you many examples of what the sources of peace, non-violence, and cooperation in Islam and you could read that or find it in many books and many articles.

Every Muslim views his or her religion of peace, and a peace that encourages kindness, mercy, and forgiveness to people who commit wrongdoings or who commit any misbehavior on interpersonal relationships as well as on a community level. The question is why is there this stereotype and image that Islam is a religion of violence and it is really due to the fact that there are smaller groups of militant Muslims who have taken it upon themselves the agenda to liberate their own countries or their own religion by using violence or terrorism on the international level; I am referring to the work of al Queda and so forth. As I said the stereotype against Islam as a violent religion is not from al Queda and it is not from 9/11, you could go back to the 12th and 13th century and writers, scholars, and philosophers viewed the Muslim, the Spanish, and Mindanao in the Philippino with the same stereotypes. The British colonials in the Middle East had the same stereotypes about Muslims there.


What I am curious about then is what impact that stereotype has for conflict?

A: Why don't we have stereotypes against Christianity when we have hundreds of battles and millions of people killed by Christian governments and by Christian groups in the Muslim War, the Arab War, and on the African continent, I think the question should be who perpetrated this stereotype and who does this stereotype serve in terms of power relations to justify Iran as a country, against Afghanistan, Indonesia, or any country. It becomes very easy to believe and also to perpetrate this slogan that Islam is a violent religion. There are small groups of militant Muslims that base their reasons on the poverty, the lack of development, and due to the historical relationship with the West and due to the repression of the local regime and the abuse of human rights by many of the Muslim regimes. These radical militant groups do not find any way to express their opposition except by using, in their perception, violence, bombs, whether it is suicide bombs in Palestine or in Algeria through internal civil war, all these activities are due to these four or five factors.

The implication for peace building, for conflict and for conflict resolution is that every time I work with Muslims and the Christians, like now I am going to Mindanao, Philippines to work with them, one of the major stereotypes that we have to deal with that Christians come to the table thinking that Islam is a religion of violence, and then the Muslims have to spend time defending his or her faith because of this prejudice and this stereotype that the people come with. The implication is at the end of the workshop they leave thinking that they learned a great deal because they discovered that not all Muslims are terrorists. It is a good thing that this person has discovered that but it is sad that it takes a meeting with a Muslim to reach such a conclusion because of that dominant perception of this stereotype out of the Western media toward the war. I think there is very little education that has been done in this country and also world wide on this notion of understanding the complexity and the nature of Islam as a religion and this is not only to blame the Western governments and their educational system, but part of the problem in the Muslim world and those who speak for Islam do not really reach out enough to the Western world, or the outsider, to teach about the non-violence, peace, and cooperation principles in their own religion and they rely mainly on traditional leadership or the dictatorship to convey the message.

There is a great implication in our work, as I said I invest so much energy in phase of the workshop, meetings between Muslims and Christians just to overcome that specific question. In one workshop I did this mock mediation, conflict in the group and after two days I role played as a devil's advocate with one other participant, without having all of the members of the group being aware of this is a role play. One of the reactions of the participants in the debriefing was that "You have been working with us so nicely the past two days and when you suddenly became agitated and aggressive with one of the participants who was a Christian, I thought, oh he is Muslim, I was wondering when this was going to come out." Even as a facilitator you don't escape this labeling and categorization. It is engrained so deeply in the images of people not only in conflict zone areas, and this is not to blame the Western people, but also these are one of the major consequences of having al Queda, all the campaigns launched by the US administration against so called Axis of Evil, which were four of the five were Muslim countries. Then you still struggle against this US unilateral policy, which I think support these types of images.