Stereotypes and Muslims (by Josh Graves)

Stereotypes and Muslims (by Josh Graves) June 18, 2014

For the last several years, I’ve conducted research (academically and personally) regarding the way Christians view Muslims. The results should concern people of different faiths committed to truth, understanding, and dialog. While it is easy (as I will demonstrate below) to mix up global Christianity and global Islam with North American Christianity and North American Islam . . .  my primary research interest has been how the tension and stereotypes affect religious and cultural life in the U.S. While Christians (2.5 billion) and Muslims (1.2 billion) make up about half the world’s population, the United States is less than 2% Muslim. That is, there are only about 3-6 million Muslims living in the U.S. There are more Detroit Tigers fans in the U.S. than there are Muslims.

The Muslim male portrayed in cartoon form is predictable. He is the one with sinister squinty eyes, large nose, and kafiyya (Arab headdress) rubbing his hands, asking where he can get a pickup truck and a homemade bomb. Or, he’s the one standing with a sign that reads, Death to All American Infidels next to a minister whose sign reads Pray for Peace. Or he’s pointing to a chart that targets Manhattan, nursery schools, nursing homes, and maternity wards, asking whether there are other nominations before the vote on which to bomb first.

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who have been made in God’s likeness,” (3:9). My friend, John Barton, highlights the problem.[1]

Muslim/Christian interactions are often about as rational and helpful as what is depicted in the comedy routine between Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert on the Daily Show in which they argue over which religion is better. Like all good comedy, this piece entertains while it delivers a sharp indictment. It mocks the inappropriate ways Christians and Muslims often employ apologetics or “power encounter” tactics; it belies assumptions that Christian/Muslim interactions must involve political positioning and debates over superiority, or that the primary purpose of interactions is to address conflicting visions of salvation. It also playfully critiques the idea that the only Christian/Muslim alliances that are possible are those built on the shared mistrust of a common opponent (e.g. Jews). As Christians, we need to promote a different posture for Christian reflection and missional engagement with Islam and our Muslim neighbors.

So go the stereotypes: the Christian is a wealthy middle-class white man who loves war, women, beer, NFL football, edgy comedy, fast-food, and even faster cars. The Muslim is the poor, illiterate, angry simpleton who hates freedom, treats his wife harshly, and longs for the day when the United States becomes a fully Muslim nation by way of Shari’ah Law. While the previous might be alarming, it captures prevailing stereotypes. According to C.A.I.R. (the Council on American Islamic Relations), American Muslims face daunting stereotypes in the country of their citizenship.[2]

Think about it. When is the last time you read a book, watched a movie, or enjoyed a T.V. program in which a Muslim character was portrayed as honest, virtuous, and heroic? As I crafting this blog for Scot, I was reminded  of a tweet from a well-known musician (you can’t make this stuff up)[3]:

No wonder middle-east countries are hard to get along with
No Football
No alcohol
No country music
And they don’t eat pork chops

Fear and stereotype are big business. Don’t believe me? Just watch Fox News or CNN or the television drama, 24. Negative images of Muslims in the media are 16 times more pervasive than positive images. About 1 in 4 Americans believe in anti-Muslim canards (Muslims teach their children to hate; value life less than other people). Those with the most negative attitudes toward Muslims tend to be the following: male, white, less educated, politically conservative. When asked what comes to mind when they hear Muslim, 32 percent of people surveyed made negative comments; only 2 percent had a positive response. A Washington Post-ABC news poll uncovered that 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam. This same study also found that 25 percent of Americans admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims.

Robert Wuthnow, American sociologist and ethnographer, confirms C.A.I.R.’s findings. In his landmark book, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, he captures some of the troubling attitudes of conservative Christians towards Muslims in America.

55% of conservative Christians believe that Muslims are fanatical.

52% believe that Muslims are violent.

66% believe that Muslims are closed-minded.

58% believe that Muslims are strange.

Only 26% believe that Muslims are peace-loving.

55% indicated that they do not want the Muslim population to increase (whatsoever) in the United States.

79% stated they would object to one of their children marrying a Muslim with a good education from a good home.

62% noted they would not support a mosque built in their community. [4]

I interpret all of the following statistics through one lens. The chief issue of Muslim-Christian tension in the United States is lack of relationship. Because many white middle/upper-middle class Christian citizens do not have meaningful relationships with a single Muslim, we are left to fill in the gaps of experience with stereo-types, caricature, and exaggeration.

In a post-modern, post-Christian society like the U.S. the coming test of Christianity is in what we (in the local church) have to offer those who do not consider themselves Christian. Our good news can’t just be good news for us. It’s supposed to be good news for the whole world; the entire cosmos.

That project starts with exposing cheap caricatures.

Dr. Joshua Graves is author of The Feast, and Heaven on Earth (with Chris Seidman). His next book–How Not to Kill a Muslim–comes out in March, 2015 (Cascade Books). You can check out his blog ( or follow him on twitter (@joshgraves).

[2] American Muslims: A Journalist’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslim, 46.

[3] May 18, 2014: Also, I have no idea why football is capitalized.

[4] Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, 56ff. In this section I’m quoting stats from Wuthnow’s heading Christian exclusivists—conservative Christianity.


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