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The World Across the Room: Identifying and Conquering the Barriers Between Muslims and Non-Muslims in the United States

Truth be told, they were getting on my nerves. Always together, always sharing inside jokes in a language no one else in the room could understand, they were about as intimidating as a middle school clique. Of course, I probably did not look too friendly either. Lurking behind a computer screen on the opposite end of the library, I only risked an occasional wary glance at the group of chattering Muslim students clustered near the door. Everything about them mystified me. For instance, why did the girls wrap those scarves around their heads? How come the guys all seemed to wear an exorbitant amount of cologne? Most importantly, what was everybody laughing about? Not me, I hoped. Eavesdropping on their lively Arabic conversations naturally gave me no answers. In fact, the sound of the Middle Eastern language in my ears had a rather disquieting effect on my spirits, leaving me with more questions than anything. I realized as I listened that my thoughts had turned to incidents of years ago and miles away… roadside bombs in Iraq; burning buildings in New York City. Suddenly I wondered what the people across the room would think about these things. Chances were, I’d never find out. After all, there was no possible way I could work up the courage to approach them, and I knew none of them would ever come to me.

1.7 billion. That is the estimated number of people around the globe who practice Islam, the second largest religion in the world. Out of that figure, over 6 million currently reside in the United States – accounting for barely one percent of the nation’s total population. Despite comprising such a small fraction of Americans, the Muslim presence in America can hardly be considered marginal. In fact, Islam is said to be the fastest-growing religion in the country. Citizens hailing from other religious and philosophical backgrounds are increasingly being faced with evidence of Islamic culture around them. One would hope that this intensifying cross-cultural exposure would generate a deeper level of engagement between the Muslims and non-Muslims that reside within this nation’s borders. Unfortunately, however, America’s experience with adherents of Islam on the whole bears a dishearteningly close resemblance to the scene in my university library. Cowering behind my unsociable computer screen, I perfectly epitomize the typical U.S. citizen, whose default response to Muslims tends to be suspicious observation at best – and at worst, outright aggression. Huddled safely in their own little world, my Muslim classmates effectively demonstrate the behavior of many of their coreligionists in this country: apprehensive about the society around them, Muslims often choose to band together for comfort’s sake, which only further convinces outsiders that there is no hope of penetrating such an apparently exclusive subculture. What lies at the root of the tensions that are at play here? Why are strong, working relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims so difficult to achieve? Obviously, the issue is multi-faceted; and since the two cultures only seem destined for closer encounters in years to come, an important task of present and future generations will be to identify and overcome the barriers that separate Muslims and non-Muslims, thereby promoting the rich cross-cultural interaction that has historically been America’s strong point.

An obvious place to start in this quest to identify barriers is the arena of culture. Universally, cultural differences are a common stumbling block on the road to positive relationships between people groups. The problem is especially intense in this case since traditional Islamic culture tends to stand out strongly against the backdrop of secular western society. Due to certain distinctive hallmarks, Muslims become a natural target for all varieties of misunderstanding and prejudice, which understandably has a tendency to drive them further back into their cultural shell. A conspicuous example: conservative Muslim women easily distinguish themselves from the crowd by following the dress code laid out by their faith. According to Islamic tradition, women are required to dress modestly in the presence of men who are not relatives, showing nothing but their faces and hands. This requirement is fulfilled in the wearing of the hijab, a headscarf that covers the hair, paired with any form of long, loose-fitting clothing that fully covers the body. Some take the ruling a step further by donning the niqab, a piece of material that covers all of the face except the eyes. While not all choose to observe these injunctions, even the merely occasional sighting of a Muslim woman covered from head to toe in fabric is enough to stick in the mind of a westerner, and naturally, by virtue of its strangeness, the image can come across as intimidating. Sadly, some take their unease a step further. Traditionally-dressed Muslim women in America have occasionally suffered disrespectful comments and even acts of violence in response to their clothing. One American-born Muslim woman who chooses to wear the niqab in public has been verbally harassed and denied entry to stores because of her apparel. She relates:

Sometimes we have rough times when we go out. And I’ve told someone in a store, you know… “Please stop telling me, ‘We don’t do that [wear the niqab] here,’ because I’m from here, and I am here. My family was raised here. I live here. So don’t tell me, ‘We don’t do this here.’ You might not do it here, but I do it here.’” (Salam)

The sentiment expressed by her harassers, namely that the conventional Islamic mode of dress is something totally foreign that ought not to be seen in a modern western setting, is a common theme of the bullying remarks endured by Muslim women. The natural response to such abuse, unsurprisingly, is a more complete withdrawal from society. Of course, it should be observed that Muslims have their own wardrobe-related reasons to be leery of their neighbors. The manner in which many non-Muslim American women dress has equal potential to seriously faze a conservative Muslim. “One of the things Muslims find most shameful about our culture is the way women dress,” one expert notes. Due to this stark cultural contrast, something as simple as clothing can become a barrier that renders approach and engagement difficult.

Muslims also often follow a plethora of other rules recorded in the same Islamic traditions, known as the hadith – sayings and practices of the founder of their religion, Muhammad. Muhammad’s habits are described in detail, and since he is considered to be the prototype for all Muslims, many of these actions have become standard practice for those who adhere to his teachings. For example, if Muhammad used his right hand when greeting people and his left hand to attend to personal hygiene, then his example should be – and is – followed meticulously. If Muhammad was fond of cologne, Muslim men would do well to make a habit of wearing it themselves. There are many other injunctions in the hadith related to such seemingly arbitrary details of everyday life. Specific dietary restrictions must be observed: Muslims are not allowed to eat lard, shell-fish, or pork products of any kind, nor are they supposed to drink alcohol. Contrast this to the typical American diet, and anyone can see the beginnings of another possible barrier. After all, food and drink are a natural part of socialization in almost all cultures, but when one person is not sure what the other is allowed to eat or what they might try to serve, extending or accepting hospitality can be tricky. In short, the social codes that form the basis for many Muslims’ daily lives are a common source of intimidation and sometimes even revulsion for uninformed outsiders, just as the less stringent but still very real American social codes can lead to misunderstanding and offense among Muslims.

At the root of cultural differences lies something deeper. Influencing social practices and expectations in any culture is a particular outlook on life. Again, a devout Muslim will differ flagrantly from the average westerner in matters of ideology. A fundamental problem for Muslims and non-Muslims is this deep disparity between their philosophies, combined with a lack of understanding and respect for one another’s differing stances. A closer look at the worldviews lurking behind the Islamic faith and modern American society quickly clarifies the contrast and, ideally at least, sets the stage for more perceptive communication.

To begin with, there is a vast discrepancy between the Islamic and the western secular viewpoints on the proper role of religion. While the western tendency is to isolate religion from the rest of society’s dealings, ostensibly in the interest of preserving such things as its moral purity and its political neutrality, Muslims consider faith an inseparable part of any and all areas of life. The core Islamic creed may consist of a short sentence announcing that “There is no God but Allah [the Arabic term equivalent to “God” in English] and Muhammad is his messenger,” but religion for Muslims is far more comprehensive than mere intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. In contrast to the western preference to keep religion in a neat little box by itself so it won’t upset anyone, Muslims believe Islam is a complete system that addresses every issue in life.

Ultimately, the starting point for all of Islamic philosophy is the concept of a single Supreme Being, Allah, who is absolutely sovereign over everything that exists. The next concern of the Muslim faith is to guide human beings into total submission to the will of Allah, as revealed to a succession of prophets throughout the ages. The roster of divinely guided messengers is believed to have culminated in the ministry of the seventh-century Arab visionary Muhammad. Surrender to God’s intentions through a careful following of the teachings of Muhammad is considered to be the goal of every human life. Compare these beliefs with the worldview held by many Americans today, which tends to be very secular and humanistic, focused on the fulfillment of the individual person and often times dismissive of the idea that a Supreme Being exists at all. Such apparent egocentric faithlessness is difficult for many Muslims to comprehend, let alone respect.

Another prominent feature of the Muslim worldview is an emphasis on the community rather than the individual. For most Muslims, the fundamental cornerstone of any community is the family. Family values are extremely important to the Muslim. All members are expected to do their part to maintain the family’s honor by behaving responsibly, upholding important ethical standards, and contributing to the group’s well-being in whatever way possible. These same guidelines apply to the greater community of which the individual is a part. As one writer puts it:

Muslims tend to see people… not as separate individuals but as members of a larger group. As a rule, societal rights of the larger group are not voluntarily sacrificed in favor of a single member. Additionally, one of the most important commodities in this culture is honor. Anything that adds honor to a family (wealth, education, generosity) is highly valued. (Hoskins 73)

To conservative Muslims, these principles are a source of comfort and stability in the face of a changing world. Once again, however, consider how deeply this outlook conflicts with the classic American emphasis on individual rights and privileges. For this reason many Americans, perceiving Muslims as inherently at odds with their most intrinsic values, find it difficult not to resent the growing Muslim presence in their midst.

Extend common Islamic perspectives beyond the local or regional community and into the national realm, and it will soon become clear why many Muslim-majority countries around the world today operate as they do. While only a few nations on the planet are currently run by a purely Islamic state, there is a definite sentiment among many Muslims that the ideal society is one that operates according to the dictates of Islamic jurisprudence. After all, Islam serves as a way of life for individuals and communities, so why not for nations as well? This helps to explain why religion and politics are often mixed more closely in Muslim-majority nations than many Americans would find appropriate. In the eyes of the typical U.S. citizen, Islamic society seems to commit the ultimate crime against humanity by enforcing religious sanctions that limit individual freedom. From a Muslim viewpoint, however, the western attempt to run society apart from an objective, clearly-defined moral standard is reckless and, in the end, gravely hurtful to humanity as well. This absence of respect for one another’s societal values is no doubt a key factor in the reluctance of neighbors to form relationships.

Plainly, there is plenty of room for conflict in the area of ideology. Unaddressed, the issues at work beneath the surface of Muslim and non-Muslim behaviors have an effect similar to an odorless yet poisonous gas: they affect people unsuspectingly, and until they can be identified and dealt with, they will cause damage that seems unexplainable. The last easily discernible category of difficulty between these two groups of people in America, by contrast, could hardly be less vague. In fact, some might even argue that this is the crucial issue causing such strained interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims. The final problem confronting Muslim relations is political tension. Around the world, violence is exchanged between Muslims and non-Muslims on an almost daily basis. Is it any surprise that this kind of turmoil spills back into American society, determining the outcome of numerous encounters between acquaintances who might otherwise have been friends?

Few in today’s world will be able to forget September 11, 2001. Of course, there were the hijacked planes that struck the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and an open field in Pennsylvania. There were the numerous lives that were lost in the deadliest terrorist attack in United States history. Then there came repercussions for the entire nation that far outlasted the horrors of that day. One of the awful results of the catastrophe: American trust of Muslims, particularly those of Middle Eastern descent, declined sharply. Subjugated to suspicion, interrogation, surveillance, and harassment, Muslims who had been living peacefully in the country for years developed a similar mistrust of their fellow Americans. An atmosphere of fear pervaded any dealings with Muslims, and since fear is lethal to the formation of sound relationships, it can be easily concluded that the terrorist attacks of September 11 have been among the most disastrous blows to positive interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in America today.

It should be noted that some degree of paranoia was only to be expected in American minds regarding anyone who resembled in any small way the attackers. The sheer unexpectedness of the attack and the total devastation wreaked by it was enough to provoke unusual sensitivity and anxiety in Americans. Additional security measures were a natural thing as well, and a healthy course of action to take in light of the new threat. However, some took their nervous energy a step further and went out of their way to make life even more frightening than it was already for American Muslims. Varying degrees of harassment, from disrespectful remarks and vandalism to threats and actual violence, plagued America’s Muslim and Arab communities shortly after the tragedy. Today, a negative stigma remains attached to Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of many Americans. The actions of a few people brought condemnation to an entire group.

What is all too often forgotten is that American Muslims are just that – Americans, and Muslims – and therefore, the threat of terrorism on American soil is just as real and personal for them as for any other American group. To be suspected of association with the enemy only means that Muslims are now faced with threats from both sides. This situation is very unfortunate. The fact is that the majority of Muslims, not just in the United States but around the globe, condemned the acts of terrorism that took place on September 11. The average Muslim feels no connection to the terrorists that committed the violence. Actually, there has been a conscientious effort made by Muslims in many different parts of the world to inform non-Muslims about the real teachings of Islam in response to the terrorism. Over and over, Muslims have done their utmost to emphasize that anyone who commits such an act of violence against the innocent could not be a true Muslim, since the faith teaches against the taking of innocent life. Some feel blessed to be able to share the true essence of their faith with the world, believing that the response has in many ways been quite positive. Others, however, view the undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States with discouragement. Stereotypes, especially those formed in the wake of a highly personal catastrophe, die hard, and as long as they thrive in hearts and minds, they keenly affect not only international relations, but interactions between neighbors as well.

In the years following September 11, there has been plenty of cause for a pessimistic outlook. America has since gone to war with various nations in the Middle East, promoting further strife between the two peoples and creating diverging opinions that foster deeper divisions between Muslim and non-Muslim on the home front. Many Muslims, particularly those with ties to the Middle East, feel that American treatment of the Muslim world has on the whole been unjust. Multiple sore spots exist, prominently including the intervention of the U.S. government and military in conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Palestine. Plausible justification for American involvement can certainly be presented in most cases, but Middle Easterners can with equal ease provide evidence of injustice suffered at the hands of our nation’s armed forces. In the end, no one can deny that American dealings with the Muslim world abroad have been fraught with complication, misunderstanding, and turmoil. Not surprisingly, the issue is powerful enough to affect the way those with strong religious and cultural ties to the Middle East respond to the average American today.

In the final analysis, no simple diagnosis can be offered to explain the difficulty Muslims and non-Muslims in America face when trying to build strong, positive relationships with one another. The issue is complex, involving numerous layers of conflict at all different levels. However, one can, with some confidence, identify a selection of major contributors to the barrier. Cultural clashes intrude into comfort zones, provoking defensive responses that range in intensity from mere unfriendliness to genuine hostility. Serious variance in ideology creates deep divides as well by the sheer power of misunderstanding and lack of respect. Lastly, political tensions emanating from conflicts around the globe also affect the way civilians view one another on the home front. At the end of the day, if these two highly divergent people groups are to form a solid friendship here on America’s shores, each will have to take strides to understand the other’s practices, beliefs, and political viewpoints. Admittedly, the task is daunting; but it is crucial that Americans, regardless of religious persuasion, live up to the ideals of intercultural integration that have been the special legacy of this country. Each individual must seize the opportunities placed before him to welcome outsiders… even if they don’t appear very welcoming themselves.

I will not lie. It took more courage than I knew I had, but one day, I did it. I crossed the room. When I got there, I found myself shaking hands with a girl in a headscarf; and to my astonishment and delight, she greeted me with a warmth that instantly dispelled the feelings of intimidation I had cultivated for so long. That was only the beginning. Since then I have met member after member of the Muslim “clique” that used to menace me from the opposite end of the library, including a whole lineup of girls garbed in baffling headscarves and guys smelling powerfully of cologne. Sitting in their midst while they translate for me the essence of their lively Arabic discussions, I have discovered that the only thing worth laughing about in this situation is the utter needlessness of my previous concerns. Where everything about them used to mystify me, now everything about them fascinates me. Whereas I used to wonder what they thought about issues of importance to me or even judge them for opinions I wasn’t sure they had, now I know what they believe because I ask them. May this story of barriers overcome in my own life provide the pattern for our nation’s tomorrow. May the Muslims and non-Muslims of America learn to conquer their fears and animosities, emerge from behind their protective blockades, and enter into a world of exciting possibilities right across the room.

Works Cited

Hoskins, Edward J. A Muslim’s Mind: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Islamic
Traditions. Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011. Print.

Salam, Soraya. “Muslim women who wear the hijab and niqab explain their choice.” Religion
Blogs. CNN, 23 August 2010. Web. 20 March 2012.