Stereotypes – The Barriers Blocking Intercultural Connections

By Mary Dantzler
Long before 9/11 there has been the existence of negative Muslim stereotypes that have made their way to and now resonate through the United States. Stereotypes that dehumanize and vilify Muslims can be traced back to medieval times, and unfortunately rather than perishing with the passing of time, they developed through religious and cultural differences, intensified through the Crusades, endured through the centuries, crossed the oceans, and found residence in the home we refer to as the “land of the free”.

These stereotypes which include but are not limited to the Muslim association with terrorism, holy war, hatred, violence, oppression of women, and fanaticism, influence communication between Muslims and the people who stereotype them.

Stereotypes do not develop overnight – it is a process that is often subtle and unchallenged that manifests gradually with the passing of time, ignited and nurtured by ignorance, misconceptions, fears and tolerance and inherited by future generations. Because of this it is not always an easy task to unveil the origins of stereotypes, but necessary and critical to trace its beginnings in order to expunge its existence.

In the early seventh century Arabia, the prophet Circa Muhammad founded the religion of Islam. Following Muhammad’s death, there was dispute over succession that caused disunity and civil war between the Shi’ites and Sunnis that still exists today and violence prevailed. As time moved on, conquests and conflict between Muslims, Jews and Christians for control of Jerusalem during the Crusades ignited centuries of hostility (Winks & Ruiz, 2005). Such hostility led to early stereotyping and discrimination. “One of the most disturbing responses to the plague (of the 1300’s) was to blame those on the margins of society for the calamity. Lepers, Jews and Muslims were accused of poisoning wells” (Winks & Ruiz, 2005). By the 15th century the Muslims and others outside of “Christian Europe” were perceived as “monstrous races” and European dominance began to spread across the globe. Ties between Europeans and the “outside world” were established “although often these ties were those of colonization and oppression” (Winks & Ruiz, 2005). Many misperceptions and stereotypes developed during the time when Europeans first visited the Middle East and noted the “exotic” rather than similarities. “The concept of ‘Orient’ that was invented by Europeans was based on these fanciful perceptions rather than on facts. The insistence on creating and upholding negative stereotypes worked to justify wars, colonial expansion, and the exploitation of native peoples and resources” (Connections, 2009). In the late 18th century Muslim piracy off the Barbary Coast which prompted rage and conflict between the early American military and the Muslims who then became labeled “Islamic barbarians”, contributed to negative Muslim stereotyping that would carryover decades later when Arabs and Muslims would immigrate to the United States (Salaita, 2006).

Negative stereotypes of Muslims are perpetuated by media images in motion pictures, television, newspapers and cartoons. Through media, Muslims have been dehumanized and vilified. “Unsightly Arab Muslims and prejudicial dialogue about them appear in more than 200 movies that otherwise have nothing at all to do with Arabs or the Middle East” (Shaheen, 2000). Shaheen also states that such “rigid and repetitive portraits narrow our vision and blur reality” and are “sometimes perceived as real portrayals of Muslim culture, which come back to afflict Americans of Arab heritage as well as non-Arab Muslims in their dealings with law enforcement or judicial officials.” Religion Newswriters Association President Yonat Shimron also acknowledged that following 9/11, “a lot of newspapers didn’t really weigh their words carefully” and there was “some irresponsible coverage” (Kaufman, 2006).

Because Muslim is often erroneously perceived to be synonymous with Arab, Arab stereotypes are frequently attached to Muslims due to the lack of differentiation between the two. Although most Arabs are Muslim, less than 15 percent of Muslims are Arabs (Connections, 2009). To state that Arabs and Muslims are interchangeable is comparable to stating that all Catholics are Irish. Islamophobia is not just directed toward Muslims, but also “toward those perceived to be Muslim,” (Salaita, 2006). Stereotypes that are an aspect of Islamophobia associate Muslims with terrorism, holy war, hatred, violence, oppression of women, fanaticism, and a hatred toward all non-believers (Shaheen, 2000). Many of these negative stereotypes have been given root as a result of the actions of small groups of radicals exaggerated in the media or cultural values and beliefs rather than religious beliefs.

Islam gives Muslim women many privileges and rights such as the right to obtain an education, work outside of the home, select a spouse, but as in many cultures and societies, rights may be violated, resulting in the “. . . intersection of Islam with existing cultural norms, which may reflect male-dominated societies (Frontline, 2009). In fact, Islam has also provided women the right to “. . . guaranteed share of family inheritance” (Connections, 2009). It is not the religious beliefs of Islam, or often times even law, that oppresses Muslim women, but the “custom and practice” of the Muslim society in which they live. Islamic feminism is being advocated today by scholars who are “. . . using the basic texts of Islam as justification,” and demanding “. . . rights that are given to women in the Quran replace the restrictive customs of society” (Connections, 2009).

Stereotypical views see Muslims as pro-violent terrorists filled with hatred and yearning for declaration of a holy war, known as jihad, but the meaning and significance of the term jihad is often misunderstood. Two types of jihad exist; one which refers to the fighting of “enemies of Islam” or “infidels” and the other which is considered the greater one is the struggle “against the evil within oneself” (Gottschalk & Greenburg, 2008). “Public opinion surveys in the United States and Europe show that nearly half of Westerners associate Islam with violence and Muslims with terrorists” (Ballen, 2007). In December 2006, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Public Attitudes conducted a survey that showed that “only 46 percent of Americans think that ‘bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians’ are ‘never justified,’” (Ballen, 2007). Polling results from “the world’s most-populous Muslim countries – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria” found much higher percentages with the “never justified” response; 74 percent, Indonesia; 86 percent, Pakistan; and 81 percent, Bangladesh (Ballen, 2007).

Muslims are often thought to be fanatics, but because of the great diversity in the Muslim world as is in other societies, how religion is practiced varies (Connections, 2009). Culture, social norms and tradition impact how one practices religion. One practice may appear fanatical to a member of a different cultural group. Celibacy and mortification of the flesh are practices of members of Opus Dei, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church. These practices may also be viewed as fanatical by both inside and outside members of the Catholic Church, but it is not associated with every individual who practices Catholicism, and it is a rare occasion when these practices are perpetuated by media.

These stereotypes negatively influence communication between Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab and Americans who stereotype them. With the impression that women are always oppressed in Islam, Americans may look at Muslim males as anti-feminist, egotistical and cruel with an implication of repressive views. Muslim women may be viewed as uneducated, weak and obedient because of this stereotype, which could prompt fear and avoidance of communication on behalf of the non-Muslim group member. Fear also becomes a great factor in giving validity to negative stereotypes such as Muslim affiliation with terrorism, jihad, violence and fanaticism. These stereotypes build a misrepresentation of Muslims to be the “enemy” or someone to be feared, which would likely be met with avoidance or aggression by non-Muslim members.

Stereotypes block truths and replace reality with fallacy, categorizing individuals and leading to prejudicial behavior and discrimination. Whether positive or negative, stereotypes create a barrier to effective intercultural communication by creating and assigning an inaccurate ascribed identity to a member of a cultural group different than our own, while blocking the opportunity to gather accurate information about the individual identity that is critical to successful intercultural communication.

Mary Dantzler is a writer, editor, communication specialist, and founder of Expressed Write Communications, LLC.