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Ten Things You Need to Know About Arabs and Muslims

by Shannon Jammal-Hollemans

I am an Arab American. I’m the daughter of a Muslim. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, and I now live and work in Reformed circles most days. And I have some frustrations about the misconceptions that many (particularly in Reformed churches) have about Arabs and Muslims. Here are a few things that I wish my friends in Reformed circles understood.

1. Not every Arab is a Muslim and not every Muslim is an Arab.Canadian-Muslims
I have found this to be a surprisingly common misunderstanding. Muslims are people who belong to the Islamic faith. Arabs are people who belong to an ethnic group whose roots are in North Africa and the Middle East. The singer once known as Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam), basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, and activist Malala Yousafzai are all Muslims. Heisman trophy winner Doug Flutie, activist Ralph Nader, and singer/choreographer Paula Abdul are all Arabs, but not Muslims.

2. Arabs and Muslims are not who you see on T.V. and in film.
For a number of years, depictions of Arabs and Muslims in film and entertainment fell into one of three categories–billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers. While Arabs had the privilege of being an “exotic minority” in the U.S. for a number of years, the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims is not a recent development. Yet the events of the past twenty years have led to a sharp increase in these negative images.

3. Arabs and Muslims are diverse.
Arabs and Muslims come from vast geographic contexts. The majority of the world’s Muslims live in Indonesia, and Arab cultures differ in the same way that Latin American, African, and European cultures vary depending on the region, tribe, or nation. Surprisingly to some, most Muslims in the United States are African American.

4. Arabs and Muslims have been in North America for a while.


This mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the longest standing mosque in North America, dating to 2314.

When many people think of Arabs and Muslims in North America, they tend to think of recent immigrants, but Arabs and Muslims are not new to this continent. Arabs began immigrating to the U.S. in the mid 1800’s, and Muslims have been here since the transatlantic slave trade. President Thomas Jefferson was the first American president to host an iftar (the meal Muslims eat after sunset during Ramadan) at the White House in 1805 for a visiting dignitary from North Africa.

5. In many Arab cultures, religion and family are closely tied.
In many cultures, a person does not choose their religion, they are born into it (covenant theology, anyone?). Many Muslims in Arab cultures are that way. For this reason, many Muslims cannot conceive of ever being anything other than a Muslim because they were born Muslim. Family and religion are inseparable. Converting to any religion other than Islam would be difficult not because their families hate Christians or would threaten violence. It would be difficult because they are rejecting the family that they are born into by making that choice.

6. Just as there are “Easter and Christmas” Christians, there are “Eid” Muslims.
One of the most common misunderstandings that I hear about Muslims is the assumption that they are all super-religious, and if they are not, they cannot be a real Muslim. I would not tell a Christian who only attends church on Christmas and Easter, or who fails to volunteer in their community on a regular basis, that they are not a real Christian. It is not my place to judge, and I’d rather encourage them to do these things than to wonder why they don’t. Islam has a lot of rules, but the failure to follow all of those rules does not negate a Muslim’s faith.

7. Every act of violence committed by a Muslim or Arab is not terrorism.
The assumption that every act of violence committed by a Muslim or an Arab is tied to a larger plot to destroy America or its values is all too frequent in media reporting. When a white man shoots and kills innocent people, he is often called a mentally disturbed, lone gunman. When a black man does the same thing, he is labeled a thug. A Latino man who does the same thing is assumed to be a gang member. Media reporting tends to assign collective responsibility to the communities that ethnic minorities belong to, rather than individuals.

8. Arabs are not the descendants of Ishmael.
This is commonly used as a way to explain violence in the Middle East, and even to justify poor foreign policy. While Ishmael is considered a patriarch in the Islamic faith, most modern day Arabs are not his descendants. There were people in the ancient Middle East and North Africa before Ishmael was born, and while the ancestors of Ishmael are likely Arab today, not all of the world’s Arabs descended from him. To ascribe the violence of modern conflicts to biblical prophecy about Ishmael is inaccurate and racist.

9. Women are not all oppressed in Islamic or Arab culture.
Do not get me wrong–women are certainly mistreated in the Arab world and in Islamic communities. But growing up in West Michigan, I have seen many women mistreated and abused in Christian communities. The way the Church has justified discouraging women to use their God-given gifts in ministry, and the harmful effects of a complementarian understanding of women’s roles, have hurt the Church, women, and our communities. Before Christians go pointing out the slivers in the eye of Islam, we best be taking a close look at the logs in our own eyes.

10. Muhammed and the Quran are not the Muslim equivalent of Jesus and the Bible in Christianity.
The teachings of Muhammed are at the center of the Islamic faith. The words that Muslims believe were revealed to him by God are considered sacred, particularly in the Arabic language. Muslims see God’s words to his people as a sacred gift. In this way, the Quran is more similar to the role Christ plays in Christianity than what Muhammed is to Islam.

Today’s guest-blogger, Shannon Jammal-Hollemans, is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, serving as a collaborative program developer for Faith Formation Ministries, and the Office of Social Justice of the CRCNA in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Shannon!


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