MAGAZINE FEATURE

Busting Common Myths About Islam

Fighting Islamophobia in schools means countering bias and misinformation when we hear it—and being aware of our own biases. Take an important step toward becoming an ally to Muslim students by brushing up on these common misconceptions about Islam.

 

Does Islam promote terrorism and violence?

Time and again, Muslim leaders and groups have condemned terrorism done in the name of Islam. The “Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi,” which was signed by dozens of Muslim theologians and leaders, uses the Quran and related scholarship to dismantle—point by point—the ideology and practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL (sometimes also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] or just the Islamic State). Just as the great majority of Christians find the beliefs and practices of the Ku Klux Klan abhorrent (the Klan considers itself a Christian organization), the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by terrorist acts carried out or inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Anti-Muslim groups frequently cherry-pick passages from the Quran to site as evidence that Islam promotes violence. Anyone who is looking can find similar passages in the Bible—particularly in the Old Testament—including justifications for intolerance, violence, genocide and slavery. Yet both books also include many passages about tolerance, peace and love.

It is also worth noting that every religion has extremist elements. Even Buddhism, a religion known for its peaceful teachings, has radical factions that have conducted violent attacks.

 

Is Islam inherently sexist or anti-female?

The Quran and related teachings of Islam propound many views regarding gender that were quite progressive for the time in which the prophet Muhammad lived. Women may own property, for example, and keep their last names after marriage. Muhammad also strongly advocated for the education of girls.

But Islam is a religion practiced by Muslims, and Muslims interpret and follow the teachings of their religion in a variety of ways influenced by many factors. Like Christianity, Islam exists across many regions and cultures and, in many places, cultural practices trump religious teachings. That includes attitudes about the status of girls and women. In progressive cultures, Muslim women can rise to the tops of their professions as doctors, lawyers, scholars—whatever they choose. In conservative cultures, however, women may be prevented from participating fully in public life. In either case, this status may not be unique to Muslim women.

Intersectionality is an important concept in considering the complexity within cultures. Intersectionality refers to the ways in which our multiple identities interact to influence and shape our personal experiences—including the way we experience privilege and oppression. These identities include race, ethnicity, religion, economic class, and gender and sexual orientation, among other characteristics. Media and news reports, though, tend to reduce groups to single identity characteristics, which perpetuates the idea that Islam is inherently misogynistic.

Wearing the hijab has become a hot-button issue in some Western countries. Some feminists—including some who practice Islam—view the headscarf as a sign of oppression and a way for religious authorities to control Muslim women. Some Islamic polities, such as Saudi Arabia, do require women to wear a headscarf while in public. However, many Muslim girls and women who choose to wear the hijab describe it as a deeply personal decision, and see the headscarf as a symbol of self-respect and a reminder of their spiritual practice.

 

Do Muslims want to establish Shariah law in the United States?

Shariah law refers to the moral and legal framework that informs how Muslims should behave and relate to the world. It literally means “the path to be followed” or “the path of water.” It is supposed to influence Muslims’ actions in business, politics and relationships. It does influence legal codes in Muslim-majority countries, but it is more of a philosophical and religious precept, not a universally applicable set of laws. However, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, have combined state and religious power to create a theocracy.

In recent years, Islamophobic groups in the U.S. have pushed at least nine states into passing legislation banning the consideration of “foreign laws” in judicial decision-making. The original intent was to ban references specifically to Shariah law, but federal courts ruled the singling out of any one religion to be unconstitutional. These anti-Muslim groups often highlight extreme forms of misogyny and punishment in conservative Muslim countries to make their case.

Most legal scholars counter that, in the United States, U.S. law always supersedes Shariah law. No U.S. court has ever made a ruling based on Shariah and, according to the Constitution, no court ever can. Says Asifa Quraishi-Landes, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School: “If local law conflicts with Muslims’ Shariah obligations? Some scholars say they should emigrate; others allow them to stay. But none advocate violence or a takeover of those governments.”